Saturday, July 28, 2012

Volleyball Randomness and the Process of Playing

Well, I'm home from the 2011 Mizuno Winterfest Tournament and finally recovered from four straight 19 hour days of coaching and studying volleyball.  Here are some thoughts on the tournament and the game itself gleaned from competing in well more than 3,000 volleyball games over the last 22 years.

Volleyball is a random game.

Officials make bad calls.  Balls pop perfectly out of the net and other times drop straight to the floor.  Attackers hit blockers' hands, fingers, palms, wrists, forearms, elbows and heads and the ricochets sometimes are convenient and sometimes are very inconvenient. Great hitters attack balls one half inch out of bounds and lesser hitters miss-hit balls that fall impossibly to the floor.  Tough serves brush a 3/8" diameter antennae and are ruled out of bounds and weak serves slam the net tape and dribble over for points.  Poorly controlled digs bounce off ceiling lights right to teammates and perfect digs hit low gym ceilings and bounce away.  I've seen an attacker get stuff blocked off his own forehead only to have the ball ricochet back over the net and fall on the floor for a point.  I've even lost a match in overtime beating the block with an attack that bounced off the defender's chest and rebounded back over the net and on to endline.  These things happen in the game of volleyball.  They are weird, unpredictable and random and you know what?  No matter how hard or consistently we practice - they will always happen.  Their will always be randomness in the game.

If you're not convinced, go play (or watch) 100 volleyball games and you'll see.  If you don't have that much time, at least give Leonard Mlodinow's wonderful book, The Drunkard's Walk, a good read.  In it the author (a brilliant physicist and mathematician) describes in a very entertaining way the reality of how randomness affects our daily lives.  It is equally applicable to volleyball.

So volleyball is random.  Great.  Where does that leave us.  Should we stop practicing because no sane person trains to get better at a random game?  I mean can you imagine watching someone practicing to get good at throwing a seven in dice?  Of course not.  But that doesn't mean we hang up our volleyball training sneakers either, for there's a difference between dice and volleyball.  The former is entirely a game of chance requiring no skill whatsoever the latter is an intensely skill-driven game, the results of which are driven by execution with some randomness sprinkled in.  The goal in practicing for volleyball is to develop our skills sufficiently to control what we can control in the game - our execution - and thereby try to limit the effects of that other little thing in the game called randomness.

How do we do that you ask?  It's a two-part process.  First, we must practice deliberately to improve our performance.   More on deliberate practice in a future post.

Second, as players and coaches we need to discipline ourselves to focus more on the process of playing than on the result of the game.  When we focus on the process, we learn to judge our performance by the things we can control, i.e., our movement, techniques, communication, readiness, effort, attitude, positioning, judgments and thought processes.  These are the bedrocks for future improvement; they are the how of our play and they cannot be ignored in our (over-) reactions to the (sometimes random) results of the games we play.

Far too often teams win and everything is fine; lose and everything stinks.  The same team that loses back to back five set matches by 2 points and "can't finish" or "seal the deal" is a couple of random lucky plays away from being the team possessed of "mental toughness" with players who "just wanted it more."  Should we really persist in believing that a couple of random points in a five set match should produce such disparate "analyses" or is it that we have failed to see randomness in the game and mistakenly drew conclusions from results rather than process?

The team needs either to improve its mental toughness or not.  A win or a loss produced by two points has absolutely nothing to do with correctly identifying that as an improvement goal.  Think about it, am I really to conclude that a team is mentally tough because a ball ricocheted off the opponent's block and flew right and out of bounds instead of flying left and into the defense (a random example)?  No matter how deliberately we train, random events will always occur in the game - and sometimes will decide the results.  As players, coaches or even parents, our analysis has to be better than this.  Win or lose, a team's performance - its process of playing - should govern our analysis.

I have a habit of note-taking during matches to help me plan upcoming practices.  Seldom if ever does my practice plan depend on the result of the match.  Why?  Because we could play poorly and win and play great and lose.  The process of our play, not the result of the match, dictates the design of our practice.
So if you see me coaching at a tournament and want to talk about my team, ask me how the team is playing; ask how the players are performing; ask if they are competing and working on change; ask me if they're working hard, loving the game and committed to improving.  Ask me any of these questions and we can talk for hours because I love talking volleyball and even more I love talking about the amazing players that I am coaching.

[Originally published January 22, 2011]

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