Archive for January, 2012

Mass at the point of Attack

January 19, 2012

A few months ago, after coaching the bronze medal match at the U16 girls tournament, I watched the Gold Medal game between Victoria and Queensland. Going into the game Queensland were clear favourites having won all 10 previous games and dropping only 2 sets. Victoria were very good but had lost both times to Queensland and dropped sets throughout the tournament.

On the night before the game, as the coaches left the final all-star team selection meeting, Victoria’s coach Craig Smith, had the air confidence that his team would not just be going through the motions to pick up their silver medals. He had a plan and they would be contenders. Victoria’s girls team had the benefit of an extra coach, Bill McHoul travelling under his own steam doing performance analysis with video and statistics. They definitely had a plan.

The next day after more than 2 hours and 5 see-sawing sets, Victoria triumphed in a fantastic game. In at least 1 set, Queensland looked clearly stronger; in another Victoria looked stronger.

Victoria won, but they very nearly lost.

* * *

Listening to my management podcasts (The podcast itself was a fantastic discussion on whether you put your extra marginal time and resources into your best, worst or mediocre performer, and worthy of a post for another day), I came across a great quote from Napoleon: “Mass at the point of attack”. Principally, Napoleon won numerous battles by throwing all his forces at what he considered the decisive points of battle. What is significant to note, is that he did this by stealing resources from other parts of the battle, and in doing so came close to losing a lot of the battles he won.

In Superbowl XXV, then NY Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick devised a gameplan (that is now on display at the NFL Hall of Fame) to counter the Buffalo Bills formidable “K-Gun Offense” by focusing on their wide receivers. When presenting the plan, Belichick opened by saying they would win the game if they allowed Buffalo Running Back Thurman Thomas rush over 100 yards. The underdog Giants lead early but did nearly lose in the end. The Bills worked out the plan halfway through the match and made more rushing plays. Thomas rushed for 135 yards and scored a touchdown. The game was decided in the closing seconds when Buffalo missed a penalty kick, giving the Giants the game 20-19.

Volleyball matches aren’t so different. Focusing your strength on one or two things can allow your opponent to exploit the areas you’re neglecting and you can get close to losing before winning. On aggregate, teams that win might only score a handful of rallies more than their opponents. They might even win by scoring less rallies.

That’s not to say that a gameplan is worth only a handful of rallies. In Victoria’s case, it may have been the difference between losing in straight sets to winning narrowly in 5 sets. But winning despite nearly losing is not always easily digestible feedback that the plan was effective.

From scouting a team, you might be able to find dozens of weaknesses, but the art of coaching is in choosing one or two (which your team can execute) to direct the “mass at the point of attack”. Even at a high level, players are often not able to remember let alone execute more than 2 tactics. But how do you know if you picked the two correct things to attack when the difference between winning and nearly losing is miniscule? The plan might still have been a good one even if you nearly won but lost. That kind of feedback is even less digestible when you lose.

Maybe it doesn’t always matter. Over lunch, a wise coach who mentored me through coaching a state league women’s team advised me that a “bad plan” was better than no plan; that often he had introduced plans in pre-match meetings that either weren’t well thought of or he knew had no reason to work. But that having a plan gave the team the focus and purpose to perform. Hawthorn Effect in action.

But what’s clear is you do have to give something up in order to execute a game plan well, and have to be prepared for the eventuality that it might get uncomfortable watching your team get beaten in areas you have the means to address. You might even get close to losing or actually lose.