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
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]