Sunday, July 29, 2012

Science of Patience in Beach Volleyball Defense

Frank Partnoy's new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, is a good read for beach volleyball coaches - though it is not (necessarily) about coaching or volleyball.   

Exploring the role of delay in decision-making, Partnoy makes a case that despite our conventional thinking on the benefits of quick decisions, those who bide their time perform best. 
Drawing on research in neuroscience, behavioral economics, psychology, finance, law and sports, Partnoy suggests that the best performers wait the longest to make their decisions, using the additional time to gather as much information as possible before acting.  He even uses examples from baseball and tennis to show how athletes in those sports take extra time to process the flight of the ball before responding to it.  The insight is that even when very little time is available, delay before responding is worth the information gained and will ultimately produce a better result.

For a volleyball coach like me, Partnoy's emphasis on information gathering as a key to good decision-making makes me think a lot about how we teach (and play) defense on the beach. 

With only two players per team, the game of beach volleyball places tremendous pressure on athletes to defend a large portion of the court.  This pressure creates a perceived need to be overly quick.  The pressure felt is even greater in younger athletes who have yet to learn that their defense must "give something up."  Thus inexperienced players often make the mistake of being too active on defense, i.e., they move too early and guess what shot will be made, resulting in a very less than optimal defensive position.  

In Partnoy's terms, these athletes could benefit from delayed decision-making while they learn to gather information about how to respond.  In coaching terms, they need to be better taught how to "read" from a stopped, balanced and patient position.  The good news is that these appear to be two sides of the same coin.  Our mission is to continue to teach our young beach volleyball players what to look at, what to look for and how to interpret those cues to predict what is about to happen in the game.

For this coach too it is comforting to know that what we teach from experience has a scientific basis as well.