Individual awards

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.

* * *

[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.
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4 Responses to “Individual awards”

  1. markleb Says:

    You and Bernardinho are of the same mind. The Brazilian men’s team have a policy of sharing all individual prizemoney with the team for the exact same reasons you mention.

  2. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    It’s incredible that he is able to get them to all agree and buy into it. Great coach, great players. It’s no wonder they’ve dominated for the last 12 year!

  3. Alexis Lebedew Says:

    I remember my first National Champs as a 14 year old. NSW was VERY strong and the coach argued they should have 7 players in the All Australian 12. (this was WELL before liberos). He argued they were in the best 12 players in the tournament. The next day his team lost to ACT in the final.

    Thing is, in hindsight, he was probably right!

  4. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    Is it the 12 best players at the competition? or the 12 best performers at the competition. #7 can’t be one of the best performers if he wasn’t on much and there was someone on another team who was on the whole time and made significant contributions to his team’s success.

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