I’ve previously written about the choices coaches can make in how they teach players and the implications for short term and long term success.
In some of the programs I have been involved with, many of the decisions on how kids are coached, and at what level of competitions they will compete have been made by what chances they will have of winning. As a sport that is constantly the poorer cousin of more established sports, the coaches of these programs have been pre-occupied with ensuring the players win a medal in order to get an enjoyable experience. This often results in short-sighted coaching and teams being entered in competitions that are of a lower standard. The fear is, if kids don’t win a medal, they won’t keep playing. Kids need quick wins to stay motivated.
Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code offers an interesting insight into how people become experts in various fields. Becoming an expert requires an individual to invest 10,000 hours of uncomfortable practice. What makes them choose to do this is described as “ignition” – a moment where they receive a vision of what they wish to become, or an event that pushes them that way. The book describes how Anna Kournikova’s appearance in the semi finals of Wimbledom ignited several young girls at her Spartak Tennis School to follow the path and become world class tennis players. Interestingly, the book doesn’t mention anything about quick wins. There’s no part in the book where a successful person gained a love for something to invest 10000 hours of practice into because they won something easily young.
So the question is, can ignition be a stronger motivator than generating a quick win? This became the thematic question when I coached my most recent team of U15 girls at the national championship. At an age where winning comes from playing a low risk/moderate reward game that doesn’t translate to a higher level, our team’s philosophy was to play a higher risk game. The rules were simple: 1) Max Jump on every spike; 2) Take on the block; 3) Lead with the platform in reception and lateral pass when possible; 4) Pass the ball high and in front of the attack line; 5) The setter’s rules (if you watch the video, we’re still working on it!).
This team philosophy exposed the team to losing more points. Although we did win in our practice games and tournaments, we lost sets and games to beatable opponents and often only barely beat teams we were much “better” than. In many games we’d score most of our opponent’s points as we kept swinging high and hard at the ball while the other team served in with a fist and played most of their balls over the net with digs, sets or standing spikes.
To get players to buy into this, I used a lot of “ignition” – I showed a lot of video examples from the Olympics and deliberately chose clips with big crowds and the Olympic rings prominently in view. In my newsletters I would feature profiles on players the kids could identify with (players who went to the same schools, lived in the same neighbourhoods, played for the same clubs). It also helped that my assistant coach was a current member of the women’s national indoor team, who the team all idolised. We also didn’t talk about reducing errors. We just talked about improving.
The kids really did buy in and committed to the playing principles. They didn’t seem to mind the high expectations – if anything, they seemed to enjoy the pursuit of excellence and that we didn’t “dumb down” anything for them. By the time we reached the tournament, we were still making a lot of errors against conservative teams. Irrespective we managed to win enough games to make the Gold Medal match playing the most attractive and impressive style of volleyball. Ultimately we didn’t win the Gold Medal. We made too many serving errors and didn’t receive serve well enough to dominate with our superior spiking and rallying skills. The kids didn’t seem too shattered and keen to keep improving. Thankfully, their parents who came to watch bought into it too and were proud that their children were setting high expectations for themselves and finding some success.
I was also lucky that the club historically stood for teaching and playing a style of game that was a logical progression to a game at the highest level. The greatest compliment a coach could receive at my club was that they were someone who “didn’t put limits on players”.
Do quick wins motivate? I think they do in the short term. But it takes ignition for someone to invest 10,000 hours of uncomfortable practice into becoming an expert.
All in all it was a good week. The kids all got plenty of meaningful court time, won a medal, got better, had fun and will keep playing. It was also made all the more special because my parents on a whim decided to come watch (the unintended consequence of my aunt selling her spare car was that they had to drop me off at trainings when I flew to Adelaide to coach the team and they would wander in to take a look and took an interest in the team). They helped with taking stats during games which allowed us to quickly put together videos like the one below that we would watch as a team each day.