Emotional Intelligence

I became very interested in a blog post I read from Bundesliga winning coach Mark Lebedew about the hidden motivation of volleyball players.

For example the middle blocker who always jumps with the first tempo even if the likelihood of it being set is minimal, because to allow a first tempo to be attacked without a block make him look foolish. Or the setter who never sets first tempo in important moments even if the success rate is high because to not be successful reflects directly on him, whereas every other possibility deflects the responsibility somewhere else.

Essentially, Mark was describing self-defeating behaviours from players when faced with difficulties. These behaviours or choices exist at every level of volleyball. At a beginner’s level, it’s the player that bends his elbows in to play the ball of his fists instead of the platform (where it hurts), or the player who digs the ball over the net on the first touch to minimise an error from her teammates. Somewhere in the mid-development it can be the setter who slows down to bump-set the ball instead of making better position early to take the ball with the hands. Or a player calling/going for a ball that someone else should play because they don’t trust them. For players, they often don’t see what the big deal is. For me it’s more the logic behind the behaviour than the behaviour itself that bothers me.

It’s rare that these players don’t know what they’re supposed to do (and rare that these players are coached by people who don’t actively remind them about what they’re supposed to do). But knowing what to do and doing what you know are two different things. Obviously, to put what you know into action, even when it’s uncomfortable is the road to success.

So why are some people able to “do what they know”, while others resort to self-defeating behaviours?

The answer may lie in a heap of literature on the subject of Emotional Intelligence (the breakthrough book on this topic is Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence).

Which leads me to the writings of Drs Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, authorities on emotional intelligence in children’s development. Brooks and Goldstein make some illuminating points:

  • When faced with a difficult situation, people either see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, or an opportunity to be embarrassed and humiliated.
  • The “emotional intelligence” required to choose the right option when it’s challenging comes from one’s temperament. From possessing self-discipline, resilience and impulse control. Being able to delay gratification. It’s all related.
  • Tests have shown that kids who demonstrated a high degree of self-control at a preschool age were likelier to be more successful academically, in sports and have positive relationships in all aspects of their lives. self-control was twice as effective indicator of academic success than IQ.
  • Temperament is something that we’re born with, and like everything else we’re born with (ie height, athletic ability), Temperament has a ceiling. Our temperaments can change and improve, but there are limits.
  • Authoritarian styles of dealing with people doesn’t encourage self-discipline. It just encourages people to avoid punishment.
  • Permissive styles don’t work either.

How does this relate to volleyball? The difficulties, and the temptation to respond to them with self-defeating behaviours, exist at every level. In fact, much of volleyball’s “uniqueness” makes it self-defeating. In most other ball sports, the ball can at least bounce or hit the ground and the game goes on. Is there any other sport where you can give your opponenys more points by touching/not touching the ball? It’s not helped by many of the archetypal things we hear coaches say and do that are essentially self-defeating: “just get the ball in”; “don’t make any errors”; arguing with/appealing to referees.

Incidentally, if temperament is so crucial in realising one’s potential, isn’t choosing great athletes with poor attitudes equally as self-defeating as choosing weak athletes with great attitudes? (which of the 2 self-defeating choices is less embarrassing depends on the level you coach at).

As a coach of developing players, I’ve become painfully aware that I am in the business of asking kids to make significant changes to their technique in the interests of their long-term improvement and injury prevention, in an environment that punishes them every time they make an error. Some have the resilience to make the changes necessary, others do not.

I distinctly remember coaching one session at SASI where we were working on making the closing-step more explosive at the end of the spiking approach. This affected people’s timing and made it harder to make good contact on the ball. When we scrimmaged at the end, most players reverted back to the way they spiked before the session. One player stood out in his persistence in improving his closing step. It meant the ball sometimes hit the tape when he miss-timed it; he won less rallies and points and games; he opened himself up to more “fitness opportunities” for not winning. But still he had the resilience and self-discipline to put in practice what he knew he had to do. Not surprisingly, he made significant improvements during the scholarship period.

The challenge for coaches is how to create an environment where players choose growth and development over avoiding humiliation and embarrassment. I avoid using physical penalties in practices now. For starters it sends out a mixed message that conditioning is both something every athlete should want to do, but also a punishment that should be avoided. Even euphemisms like “Fitness Opportunities” and “Rewards” bely a sarcastic sentiment that isn’t particularly useful. Not every player in a team will possess excellent levels of emotional intelligence any more than they will all possess excellent athleticism. But there’s something to be gained in helping them reach their potential by creating the right environment that makes it likelier for them to bridge the gap between merely knowing what to do and doing what they know.


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