Saturday, July 28, 2012

Five Random Tips on Effective Coaching Communication

As we move closer to a new season of club volleyball, it seems like a good time to review some ways we all can coach better.  So here's some observations based on my own mistakes and those of others in the high school, club and college game.

Ask Questions

Sometimes coaches think they always have to be giving instruction - because they're the coach.  The truth is sometimes the best way to teach is to ask a question.   No I'm not talking about asking "gotcha" questions like you're grilling a law student with the Socratic method.  I'm talking about putting aside the instruction sometimes and simply asking a player, "How did you see that play?"
The ensuing discussion can be a great way to teach because players learn better when they have a role in arriving at solutions.  So go ahead and ask questions, guide the players where you want them to go and allow them to discover the answers themselves.

Praise Effort Not Talent or Intelligence

A growing body of research is building that there is no such thing as innate talent; that expertise is acquired through exhaustive, purposeful and deliberate attempts to get better - a process called "deliberate practice."  (For two excellent books on the subject, I recommend Daniel Coyle's, The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated).

So, what does this have to do with giving some good 'ole fashioned praise in the gym?  Everything.
Apparently, what social scientists are learning is that when we constantly praise children (players) for their talent or intelligence, they begin to think that their success is due to innate ability and so underestimate the importance of effort.  According to ten years of research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, these children (players) also tend to give up quickly without sufficient effort to improve.  They think they're not naturally good at it, so why bother trying?  On the other hand, the correct kind of praise, which focuses on effort and performance can be a positive, motivating force that conditions children (players) to improve what they can control - their effort.  (The research is summarized in Po Bronson, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise).

Ok, great.  So what does this mean for coaching communication?  It means we have to watch our words more closely when we're communicating with our athletes.  We need to praise the process not the result.  Instead of saying, "you're such a great player," try saying, "great effort in moving your feet to the ball."  Instead of "you're naturally good at defense," say "you've obviously worked hard at this."

The key is to focus specifically on the work or effort involved in the performance rather than on concepts such as greatness, talent or intelligence.  You'll be a better coach for it and your players will reap the rewards.

Encourage Positive Errors
While we're on the subject of handing out praise, let's start encouraging the "positive errors" in the game over the negative kind.  What is a positive error?  Serving the ball too long is a positive error.  Sure, the outcome is a point for the opponent but in terms of mistakes it's a good one because by NOT serving the ball into the net (a negative error), we've created an opportunity for the opponent to play it and for the official to rule it in.  The negative mistake of serving into the net rules out those possibilities and requires no judgment or performance from the opponent at all.

There are many other examples of positive errors in the game.  Hitters attacking over the net and out of bounds are making a positive error while hitters attacking into the net are making a negative error.  By attacking over the net, you might get a touch call off the block; you cause defensive players to make judgments about "in or out;" and sometimes the ball just hits someone from the other team while it's flying toward the back wall.  From a spikers perspective, those are all good things that might happen just because she hit the ball over - rather than into (the negative error) - the net.

Control Your Emotions

Outward displays of disappointment or frustration during a match do not help your team learn or perform better.  It's simple, your role as a coach deprives you of the right to outwardly express your frustrations during a match.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you can't feel disappointed or frustrated.  When you work all week preparing for a match and then don't perform well in a losing effort - that's extremely disappointing and you have every right to feel that way (guess what - the players feel that way too). But what you can't do is yell and scream, throw your clipboard, toss your arms in the air, slap the bench, roll your eyes and pace the sideline venting your feelings at your team.  That's not being a coach.  That's being a jerk.

One of the best and most productive sacrifices you will make for your team is controlling your emotions and instilling confidence in your players at times when they most need it.

Say Nothing

Silence in coaching is waaaayyyy underrated.  Remember, you're not being paid by the word and many situations just don't call for your instruction and correction.  Of course, the art of coaching is to recognize when you're in one of those situations and when you're not.

Many times, I have managed to not figure that out.  One time we managed to get it right was unforgettable.
Our middle blocker had just served a bullet down the sideline, which the opposing player passed back over the net and about 3 feet out of bounds.  Well, it would have landed out of bounds except our server dutifully followed it to the sideline, pursued it out of bounds and then caught the ball, obviously figuring that would get her back to the service line quicker than waiting for it to fall.

The inevitable lift call was made amidst a jubilant celebration by our opponent (and I'll add a ridiculous display of call-begging by the opposing coach whom by this time had lost all sense of decorum).  As our player sheepishly walked back to the bench, clearly embarrassed, there was nothing for me to add.  This was not a "teachable moment" where I needed to step in and explain not to catch the ball.  She knew that.  The best course of action was to keep my mouth shut and give her a high five.

[Originally published November 2, 2011]

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