Things I learned from the USA part I: “Get the locker room right”

I’m usually pretty good with sticking to at least a post a month, but I’ve been somewhat slack and distracted. So I thought I’d write about some additional insights I gained from the AVF Coaching Study Tour (I thought it appropriate to just keep an accurate account of our travels on the AVF blog and save all the opinionated stuff for here). 

I thought I asked a pretty straightforward question to this one women’s college coach we met :  “How do you use the 15 sub rule to your advantage?” He mentioned stuff like it made the game faster, but said that more than anything, it allows him to give meaningful amounts of playing time to about 9 of his 12 players, which helps “getting the locker room right”.

That was too much of an intriguing statement to not ask a follow up question about what be meant by “getting the locker room right”

The coach, who had coached both men’s and women’s teams at the collegiate and international levels replied: “Men can have a punch-up in the locker room before the game starts and still go out there and win. But with women, you need to get the locker room right.” Whether getting the chemistry right is more applicable in men’s and women’s I really don’t know (However I have seen more men’s teams with social dysfunctions win than women’s teams with social dysfunctions), but certainly, it’s a concept I’ve heard expressed in many forms with regards to all sorts of teams. And a concept that sadly took me a long time to understand.

A couple of years ago, I quizzed a friend of mine who coached a premiership winning State League Men’s team as to why he didn’t start one of his two best passer-hitters in the Grand Final. He answered by saying “You don’t pick your best 7 players to start, you pick your best team.”

It would be 2 years before I truly understood what he meant.

It was perhaps something that coaches who came from teaching backgrounds seemed to have a better grasp of. There were many times when i coached in school environments that I came to disagreements with teachers over selections (I rarely selected the team). I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t just pick the best players in the team and why some truly inferior players would just get in the team. Sometimes i dismissed this as an indulgence for cliquiness, but at other times they got it right.

This all became obvious to me when I selected a school-based team. Naturally, I tried to pick the best 10 players. There were two talented players i picked nearly first that the teachers on the selection committee had reservations about having coached/managed them before. Having not heeded their advice, the team certainly suffered from chemistry problems that I’m now sure translated into on-court performance issues. Interestingly, in the policy for its annual selections, this school based team makes it clear that the 10 best players on the day get selected. However, looking back, I’m sure the same selectors didn’t always stick with these guidelines and would have picked a couple of players to “get the locker room right”. The teachers of course knew their students and had some knowledge of the implications selecting certain players would have on team chemistry – something i was ignorant and dismissive towards to my own detriment.

Interestingly, I learned a few months ago at a Technical Seminar on setting that many international teams don’t pick the second best setter available to be the backup setter. They choose a player who understands their role is primarily in scrimmages and that there is low chance their efforts will translate into playing time. Picking a player that has different expectations can endanger the chemistry. As a mentor of mine put succinctly, “It’s about picking the best 12 players FOR the team, not picking the 12 best players IN the team.”

* * *

So it didn’t seem to matter to this coach we spoke to in the US that the 15 sub rule let him put bigger players on the front court for smaller players and use more defensive and receiving specialists. It mattered that he could give about 9 players in his team a defined role and meaningful court time (he defined that giving a player 50%+ court time gave them a sense of personal control and meaning). And it was doing all of these things that helped get the locker room right.


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