Archive for July, 2012

Individual awards

July 14, 2012

Disclaimer: All players that make an all-star team are those who have stood out in the week. For those who get in, there’s always another 4-5 players who are close to the mark that just missed out. Although I may not like participating in selecting an all-star team, I think every player that is awarded such an honour has done something to deserve it.

The least enjoyable part of a tournament for me is the “all-star” selection process where the coaches meet to determine which players have been outstanding and deserve recognition in the form of personal awards. It can often get ugly [1] with heated debate and coaches ganging up on each other (don’t get me wrong, the players that get picked have distinguished themselves and deserve some kind of recognition). Sometimes the meetings aren’t so bad. But even then, there are other things I would prefer to spend time on that will have a direct impact on my team’s performance.

My real issue with participating in picking the all-stars is the part where I have to single out why particular players on my team should be recognised over others. If I’ve done my job properly and my team is successful, it’s because I have players that are committed to fulfilling their roles in every moment of the game. I might have players that aren’t impressive but are following our game plan to a tee and creating opportunities for us to win points and matches. These are players who might not impress the other coaches, but are essential components of a successful team. Then there are players who by virtue of the team’s system, are put in a position where they can look good. Rewarding these players with an individual award (especially when they’re selfish) doesn’t always make sense to me.

In one case, I had a great team that played an unselfish game—everyone scoring points when the opportunity was there and creating opportunities to score in every other instance—and a “selfish” player who saw a lot of the ball and didn’t stick to the discipline. He was our most prominent scorer but made the poorest choices when in bad attacking situations. By virtue of the team’s success, and because he stood out as the “biggest” hitter, he was unanimously voted by the other coaches to be an all-star. I thought the award reaffirmed his bad behaviours and I probably would have preferred to have left the tournament without an all-star. However, when a team makes the gold medal match, it’s “unusual” not to get an all-star selection, people ask why, and if they find out that a player was unanimously picked but the player’s own coach vetoed it, its just a messy situation that by that time in the week I just want to avoid. After all, I get into enough trouble for doing things that make straightforward sense as it is.

At a Technical Seminar on setting I attended recently, I was surprised to learn that the reason a particular spiker on a national team had an unusually high attack percentage that won him “Best Spiker” awards at tournaments was because he was only set a couple of high balls in any game. The other spikers got set all the high balls when the reception was bad.

So does the spiker who gets the easy attacking opportunities deserve an individual award, while the other spikers get the difficult ones and have to control it into the block to create more attacking opportunities? Does the guy who runs the last yard to score a Try or Touchdown deserve all the glory when it takes his whole team (in both defence and attack) to move the ball the other 99 yards?

Individual awards can be distorting. The “Best Spiker” succeeds because he’s part of an effective offence that puts him in a position to score easy points; the offence works because the team receives and defends effectively; the team receives, attacks and defends effectively because they are better at playing volleyball than their opponents; the team is better at playing volleyball than their opponents because there are 12 guys who work their butts off in practice to make each other better and play an unselfish style of game. The team works towards the medal each member will wear around their necks, not the mounted plaque that will sit on one individual’s mantle piece. Giving out an individual award for the sake of giving out an individual award doesn’t help us achieve this goal. Worst is the player whose strongest motivation is to win an individual award. I have once had strips torn off me by a disappointed parent who felt the role I gave their child in the team prevented them from making the all-star team.

One individual award I like is the Best and Fairest award that is awarded by AFL clubs. At some point in the last 10 years, the award stopped going to the biggest individual contributor on the team, and instead went to the individual who is best at carrying out the specific assignments his club gives him. The winners of these awards are not often the leading possession getter or the highest goal scorer. Often it’s a tagger, and their rhetoric when being interviewed after winning these awards is always the same: “This award means a lot to me because it’s the award given to you for doing the job your club asks you to do”. The Brownlow goes to the player who most impresses the umpires. The Best and Fairest Award goes to the player who does the things each individual must do for their team to be successful.

At some volleyball clubs I’ve been to, this kind of award is usually a “Coach’s award” – but given a lower status than the award (often Best and Fairest) that goes to the player who is the biggest individual contributor. I’m impressed that AFL clubs have made their most important award the one that rewards the right behaviours and not the biggest individual contribution.

At one AJVC, the most impressive player in our competition was a player who was a great receiver and got set a lot of the ball. In our scouting we found that she had the habit of cutting in front of her teammate’s midline to receive serves going into the centre of the court, leaving her in a poor position to start her spiking approach. In fact, part of our gameplan was to serve her in the seam and limit her attacking potency. To the casual observer, she was a great passer who hit the ball a lot and dominated the games. She was unanimously voted into the all-star team, and I have no doubt that winning such an award will only reaffirm to her that it’s a good idea to cut in front of her teammates at the expense of her ability to spike. On the other hand our team had a great player who played unselfishly in our system, didn’t score a large volume of points, but always scored 2 or 3 crucial points in the last rallies of each set and was the one we set to in those situations to close things out. An all-star-selection committee would not have put her in as she simply didn’t stand out for large parts of the matches.

I recall one year that Collingwood made the AFL Grand Final but did not have a single All-Australian selection. There was outrage at the time as people blamed the selectors of anti-Magpie bias, but I think it’s a great compliment to the team. Even though I’m not in the room when all-star selections get made, I can’t help but cast aspersions on the dynamics of a team and coach based on how many all-stars they get and where they finished. A team that wins gold with no or only 1 all-star – great team, great coach. A team that loses the bronze playoff with 3 all stars – Can’t have been that much fun to play on a team with nearly half of the competition’s best players and not win as much as everyone expected you to [2].

As a mentor of mine often says in shitty situations, “it is what it is”. The all-star team can be determined by the quirks of the democratic process as much as by the talent and performance of the players. An outstanding performance from a player can be a function of their team’s system as much as their individual brilliance. In one instance, I got in trouble because I didn’t select a player for a team who had been their team’s MVP the year before. The truth was they performed well within a system that allowed them to dominate (a system that had severe limitations), but there were simply better players who could work within the system that was now needed for the team to be competitive. But like all other symbols, individual awards can be powerful and it didn’t end well.

I think all players that make an all-star-team have done something impressive that qualifies them for recognition. I just don’t enjoy being part of the process that makes these decisions. I spend a lot of time getting players to buy into playing their roles in a team game and I’ll admit to being a control freak in wanting to control the feedback they get towards these efforts. An individual award is what it is, but it’s a team game, and after all, the point of a team is to get a group of common people to achieve uncommon things by putting aside short-term personal interests.

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[1] Two All-star-selection stories that come to mind

  • The coaches of the 2 top teams wanted 10 of the 12 selections to come from their teams. Unfortunately for them, it was one vote per state (like the senate) and that idea wasn’t particularly attractive to the coaches of the other 4 states.
  • One coach who had an outstanding team wanted the All Star 7 to be expanded to an All Star 9 and have all 9 of his players included. Just classic.
[2] Too many stars, too few wins
  • I remember this team a few years ago that had high expectations but ended up losing the bronze medal playoff. They got 2 players into the all-star-7 and apparently got close to getting a THIRD player in too.

Tears flow down

July 13, 2012

About an hour before our first game at AJVC, I received news that my 90-year-old paternal grandmother had passed away peacefully in her sleep. She lived in Paris and we weren’t close, but some of her last words had a profound effect on me as I coached throughout the week. “Tears flow down, not up” – it was an old Vietnamese proverb, and it basically means that the full extent of a parent’s love for their children goes unreciprocated, but in turn their children pass on their unreciprocated love to their children. She related this to how she came to accept the distant relationship she had with my father over the 30 years we moved to Australia (To Dad’s credit, he spent the last 6 months turning this around by making an effort to regularly phone his parents each week). In any case, i could definitely draw similarities to what it’s like being a volunteer coach. You put in a lot of work, and inevitably lose touch as players grow up and move on. But there’s comfort knowing that they’re out there somewhere making positive contributions to other people’s lives.

Australian Junior Volleyball Championships 2012

July 13, 2012

The 2012 South Australian Under 17 Women’s Volleyball Team after collecting silver medals. Don’t worry, I’ve actually paid for the photo and waiting for the full res version to be made available for download.

The Australian Junior Volleyball Championships are over and I was happy with my team’s result – a silver medal. Coaching the team (SA U17W) was a challenging assignment. I lived in a different state 1200km away and flew back on 8 weekends to train the team. Even then, I received criticism from people that I wasn’t there enough. Before selection trials even started, my planning had to be immaculate, and my communication with players, parents, coaches and administrators had to be thorough. I spent a lot of time analysing and documenting the way we did things and the players we selected but still received criticisms about the squad I picked. Injuries to key players only added to the uncertainty of the final team we could pick and how to manage the injuries.

Aside from that, the preparation went well. The players were oblivious to the off-court dramas and just stuck to the business of getting better at playing volleyball. We trained twice on Sundays – each session 90 minutes long with a break in between to simulate tournament conditions (we played 2 games on 4 of the tournament days). Each session was geared to practice something specific in our playing system, which aimed at making us be more competitive against the taller teams. The players worked hard, improved, and were incredibly professional about the way they worked. It was the most enjoyable coaching I got to do each week.

Coaching a state team for SA requires more organisation than a lot of other teams. In SSSSA U16s there’s a tour manager looking after only 2 teams and each team has its own manager; Many school teams have well established AVSC programs which free the coach and manager from a lot of organising; even the clubs I coached had fantastic infrastructure. I decided to publish a weekly e-newsletter to the team with training times and what we would be working on with links to video examples etc. I probably spent more time on it than I should have and it cut into my working day.

So by the time I reached Melbourne for the tournament, making a gold medal game was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to get through the week. Because of the amount of teams at the younger age groups, the schedule is tough with 10 games in 6 days. The older age groups have less teams and some of the other SA teams enjoyed more days with only 1 match. Between our matches, duties, travelling time, preparation time, recovery, meals and laundry, there wasn’t a lot of spare time to relax. The team was incredibly good about this and didn’t treat the week like a holiday punctuated by the odd game. They woke up and went to sleep early; they ate properly; stuck to the strict recovery regime; did their stretches, proprioception and theraband exercises before games etc. They were in the business of playing better volleyball. I was impressed by the professionalism.

This was also the first tournament I used video scouting. It meant getting earlier to the venue and leaving later but was well worth it. I used a great tool called VBStatsHD, developed by some Australian coaches, which helped me produce the edited clips I needed in a matter of minutes. Having the players watch the videos the night or morning before the games definitely helped them execute gameplans. However, the best execution of a gameplan came from a game I got them to scout during a duty. So a diagram on paper is better than a verbal description; video is better than a piece of paper; getting the players to watch and analyse is better than the video. I was probably the only coach in our competition who scouted. Many were of the opinion that at that level, there are more things to worry on their own side of the net than the opponents. While that is true, I think it’s important for the development of young players to be in the habit of learning and executing a gameplan.

After a slow start, our team and 2 others crossed over to the “Championship Pool” each carrying 1 loss. The teams in the other pool looked a lot stronger. We hit good form and took a set off the best team (QLD) and beat the Victorian team in straight sets. My Libero was injured before the Victoria game and the player who took up the role did a job that surpassed all expectations.

It was a plucky ACT team that presented our last obstacle to a medal match. Although they weren’t as intimidating as some of the other teams, every player on their team was acutely aware of their window to win matches and executed that game plan flawlessly: They served hard (best serving team), hit kills when the opportunity was there, and played wisely when they couldn’t win points. They made few errors and were able to trouble a lot of teams. They lost a heartbreaking game the night before our match 19-17 in the 5th set after having 2 match points, but regrouped to be 2:0 up against us in our second-to-last match before the medal playoffs. They needed to win to make a medal match; we needed to win to make the gold medal match.

After taking the next 2 sets we reached the 5th set and got an early lead. We were up 13-12 when the controversial point occurred. All I remember was one of our middle blockers serving, then she and my receiver both diving for a tip. While to many it looked like the ball hit the floor, the referee called it play on and we won the rally and the next. One of the player’s parents rang to tell me today that on closer inspection of a video they shot (they played it in slo-mo), the pancake made contact with the ball and the call was correct. Irrespective and understandably, ACT were inconsolable. They had played a great tournament and proven themselves worthy of winning, but had lost two 5-set games that could have clinched them a medal playoff. I knew many of the girls from friendly rivalries over the years with various teams I coached, and they were now kids that played in my new home state. It was a bittersweet victory.

The ACT game took a lot out of the team. Our last game against NZ turned out to be a dead rubber as convenient results from other teams had clinched us a spot in the Gold Medal game the next day. They were physically and emotionally exhausted. One of my setters indicated to me that she would just use her standing serve, as she could no longer jump. The lethargy carried on to our gold medal playoff as we struggled to play against QLD as well as we had in the crossover match. However, a silver medal was a great achievement from the team. I had always thought it would be hard enough to make a medal game, and we’d need to cause an upset to make it into the gold medal game, which is exactly what happened. There was joy, but mostly I felt relief. SA had a good year with all 6 of its teams winning a medal, including its first gold medal in 5 years (coincidentally, their coach had played in the last team that had won gold in exactly the same competition). One of the other SA coaches joked that whilst some of the other states made AJVC a priority, we nearly accidentally won the president’s cup, missing out by just one point. All in all, it was a great result from a state whose coaches had possibly the least impressive CVs (three head coaches were coaching teams for the first time, and none of the coaches had coached or assisted a senior or junior national team). We got very lucky and it was great to see every player come home with a medal. What are the chances of that happening again?

A nice touch by the AVF had our Olympics bound Volleyball Team Australia Men playing a green v gold game on the Friday night. The players stayed back for the closing ceremony and 50th anniversary dinner. At the medal ceremony, VTAM players presented medals to the winning teams from their home state. It was very cool.

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Some other subplots that were curious:

  • A player in the U17M competition was vilified for his sexual orientation. Definitely a low point.
  • The NSW U17M team had a great tournament and took out the gold. On Monday, the first opposing coach thought their medal chances had been quashed because of their team losing to a weaker opponent. The next day, two other coaches echoed the same sentiments. By Wednesday, it was no longer a coincidence. By Thursday, people were saying NSW was going to win it, which they did. The team had one “star”, some effective players and a team that understood how to play in their window to win points. It was a great effort.
  • The SA U19W were the other great story of the tournament. The team started the year without a setter after losing their best player to a representative beach duties. They chose a player to set who had only previously set in 2 school matches and was slow and injury prone. One of their starters was a relative newcomer who had never played in a tournament before. The team performed and broke SA’s 5-year gold medal drought. It was definitely THE performance from a team and coach that impressed me the most.

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So now it’s back to the dull 9-to-5. I’m looking forward to the weekend after going 14 days straight without a break. I have nothing planned other than finding somewhere warm to use my frequent flyer points.