Ignition v Quick Wins

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I’ve previously written about the choices coaches can make in how they teach players and the implications for short term and long term success.

In some of the programs I have been involved with, many of the decisions on how kids are coached, and at what level of competitions they will compete have been made by what chances they will have of winning. As a sport that is constantly the poorer cousin of more established sports, the coaches of these programs have been pre-occupied with ensuring the players win a medal in order to get an enjoyable experience. This often results in short-sighted coaching and teams being entered in competitions that are of a lower standard. The fear is, if kids don’t win a medal, they won’t keep playing. Kids need quick wins to stay motivated.

Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code offers an interesting insight into how people become experts in various fields. Becoming an expert requires an individual to invest 10,000 hours of uncomfortable practice. What makes them choose to do this is described as “ignition” – a moment where they receive a vision of what they wish to become, or an event that pushes them that way. The book describes how Anna Kournikova’s appearance in the semi finals of Wimbledom ignited several young girls at her Spartak Tennis School to follow the path and become world class tennis players. Interestingly, the book doesn’t mention anything about quick wins. There’s no part in the book where a successful person gained a love for something to invest 10000 hours of practice into because they won something easily young.

So the question is, can ignition be a stronger motivator than generating a quick win? This became the thematic question when I coached my most recent team of U15 girls at the national championship. At an age where winning comes from playing a low risk/moderate reward game that doesn’t translate to a higher level, our team’s philosophy was to play a higher risk game. The rules were simple: 1) Max Jump on every spike; 2) Take on the block; 3) Lead with the platform in reception and lateral pass when possible; 4) Pass the ball high and in front of the attack line; 5) The setter’s rules (if you watch the video, we’re still working on it!).

This team philosophy exposed the team to losing more points. Although we did win in our practice games and tournaments, we lost sets and games to beatable opponents and often only barely beat teams we were much “better” than. In many games we’d score most of our opponent’s points as we kept swinging high and hard at the ball while the other team served in with a fist and played most of their balls over the net with digs, sets or standing spikes.

To get players to buy into this, I used a lot of “ignition” – I showed a lot of video examples from the Olympics and deliberately chose clips with big crowds and the Olympic rings prominently in view. In my newsletters I would feature profiles on players the kids could identify with (players who went to the same schools, lived in the same neighbourhoods, played for the same clubs). It also helped that my assistant coach was a current member of the women’s national indoor team, who the team all idolised. We also didn’t talk about reducing errors. We just talked about improving.

The kids really did buy in and committed to the playing principles. They didn’t seem to mind the high expectations – if anything, they seemed to enjoy the pursuit of excellence and that we didn’t “dumb down” anything for them. By the time we reached the tournament, we were still making a lot of errors against conservative teams. Irrespective we managed to win enough games to make the Gold Medal match playing the most attractive and impressive style of volleyball. Ultimately we didn’t win the Gold Medal. We made too many serving errors and didn’t receive serve well enough to dominate with our superior spiking and rallying skills. The kids didn’t seem too shattered and keen to keep improving. Thankfully, their parents who came to watch bought into it too and were proud that their children were setting high expectations for themselves and finding some success.

I was also lucky that the club historically stood for teaching and playing a style of game that was a logical progression to a game at the highest level. The greatest compliment a coach could receive at my club was that they were someone who “didn’t put limits on players”.

Do quick wins motivate? I think they do in the short term. But it takes ignition for someone to invest 10,000 hours of uncomfortable practice into becoming an expert.

All in all it was a good week. The kids all got plenty of meaningful court time, won a medal, got better, had fun and will keep playing. It was also made all the more special because my parents on a whim decided to come watch (the unintended consequence of my aunt selling her spare car was that they had to drop me off at trainings when I flew to Adelaide to coach the team and they would wander in to take a look and took an interest in the team).  They helped with taking stats during games which allowed us to quickly put together videos like the one below that we would watch as a team each day.


10 Responses to “Ignition v Quick Wins”

  1. markleb Says:

    Great post, Hugh. Love it! And the video of the girls getting up and smacking it!! My favourite hit was the one by the little blonde girl at the 4:30 mark. An unusual play, that she wouldn’t have been expecting and without hesitation she just jumps and hits!! That’s the volleyball game that’s playing in my head.

  2. volleytaxi Says:

    I agree that ignition plays a role in this attitude of learning and progression amongst your players. Equally important is the ongoing feedback the kids receive. Praise for following team rules must be rated higher than the “positive” of winning a point by taking the easy option.

    I think the role of the ignition devices you employed are to underline the advantages of following the team rules in the longer term for each individual and that is why they are important.

  3. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    Thanks guys. The hit at 4:30 was definitely an example of committing to the team principles and practicing a lot of wash drill stuff (Mark, I’ve taken your wash drill concept to an interesting tangent, which I’ll write about soon!).

    Yes, ongoing feedback is important. The talent code addresses this in its section on “Expert Coaching”. I often had links to the good things they did in training in the newsletter and used every opportunity I could to give them feedback. We also set up video delay stuff. Most importantly was we didn’t punish players who made errors but were following the playing principles. This meant that kids that made spiking errors max jumping and taking on the block often stayed on. However, players who still managed to win points in violation of the principles were often taken off, given feedback then put back on within the set or at the start of the next set with the emphasis to correct it.

    • volleytaxi Says:

      Wow, that takes some serious buy in from parents. When you take off a player who has “got a kill” and keep on a player who “made an error”. The kids may get it, but often the parents don’t. I guess winning helps. I’m thinking of movies like “Hoosiers” where this approach was employed by the coach, but the”community” struggled with it.

      I’m so impressed that you could establish this culture in such a short period.

      • Hugh Nguyen Says:

        It definitely helped that we won, and it was clear to the parents when they watched how much “better” playing this way was and that there kids were improving faster by doing it. We also made this philosophy clear at trials and in a lot of our documentation. In our info pack to parents before the tournament, one item read:

        “As a club, Norwood is committed to playing and teaching a style of volleyball that is a logical progression to the game at the highest level. The advantages of this style of play are not immediately obvious. Quite simply put, be prepared to see other teams find success by playing “bad volleyball”. There will be times we barely beat a team we are much stronger than by only 2 points. There will be times we lose to beatable teams by 2 points as we make attacking errors and the other team just digs the ball back over the net. While it may seem obvious that we should just “dig the ball over the net” instead of attacking it, or just “serve into the middle of the court with an underarm serve” to win points like everybody else does, these are not things that are good for the long term development of players and teams, and at all times the coaching staff emphasises teams and players to win by committing to our club’s playing principles.”

        having said that. I’m not sure how much harder this buy-in would have been if we weren’t winning!

      • Hugh Nguyen Says:

        …and hoosiers is a great movie. Apparently the guy who played Jimmy Chitwood sunk the basket in the final in one take… he was also not a basketball player and actually a golfer. The movie definitely reminds me of what it was like coaching in a country community and trying to sell them on doing things differently!

  4. bushireKrakow Says:

    In my volleyball club it was similar – no quick wins. In fact for first two years girls’ team did not win even a single set! But then they qualified from the 4th division into the 2nd one which is an enormous success in Poland.

  5. markleb Says:


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