September 21, 2009

Getting Defensive!

The First Question of The Return of the - Just so happens to be a situation that I am also dealing with in regards to my college team!

This is my 4th year of coaching high school volleyball but my first year coaching at the 5A (biggest classification of school) level in TX. I have some pretty talented kids but we are in basketball country and my kids are WAY behind on skills. At this level obviously you have to have both talented kids and a high degree of skill to be successful.

So here is my question. I tend to be more of an authoritarian style of coach, although I've loosend up quite a bit in the last couple of years. I'm trying to implement my system of play but feel like I'm struggling getting them to both learn new skills and develop confidence. Our program has never had tradition of winning in volleyball both because most of the talented kids gravitate towards basketball and to be honest with you judging from the skills of my kids, have never had a coach that's taught them the appropriate skills. I'm riding them very hard because I want them to develop a killer instinct, especially on defense. However, lately I feel that being so assertive (on my part) has contributed to their lack of confidence and motivation to "go for every ball". For example, how do I get my kids to "drive through the ball" on extension digs instead of being on their heels? I've given them the "coil" or "split step" footwork and done numerous drills to teach them correct body posture on defense. But I can't seem to get them to be aggressive. I'm asking this question because I feel that a team's defensive intensity shows a lot about their mentality and in our case...our program's mentality. I so desperately want to instill in them a killer instinct but feel as though I'm just spinning my wheels.

Do you have any suggestions?

A. S. in TX.

You have presented a situation that many college coaches struggle with every season and, as I noted above, we are currently trying to work through our own defensive intensity issues.

I absolutely agree with you that Defensive Intensity reveals much about a team's personality and desire to be successful. The willingness to hit the floor, to go after that ball which just seems out of reach, to not give up when your initial read was incorrect; these traits all reflect a player's and a team's willingness to do the tough things.

One program for which I have always had a jealous admiration of their defensive abilities is the University of Hawaii. Coach Shoji presents a rather calm demeanor on the court, yet the only time I have seen him forcefully express himself during a match was on the rare occasions in which his players were not going after balls defensively. I think this defensive mentality shows the team determination which has propelled a non-power conference program into NCAA championships, not too distant Final Fours and the Elite 8 last year (I think?).

Easy enough to observe, just watch a game on TV (ironically funny since we completely changed our sport for TV, but it is still hard to find college volleyball on TV) between a couple of top 10 programs and you will see the defense so many coaches are trying desperately to find. But, how to go about creating it?

It has been my experience that you have to create an expectation level which is straight forward and not reinforced by fear. As you observed within your own program, your assertiveness can actually work against your goals. With regards to my team, I found myself going down this same assertiveness path and noticed that my team is more hesitant, almost frozen because they are feeling my aggressive posture to perform at a high level on defense. I was reinforcing my defensive goals with fear - players were playing defense based on their fear of my reaction to their performance (or lack of). When I finally stepped out the box for a moment, I swiftly rebalanced myself knowing that this is not how I want to run my program in any area - Fear is a bad emotion and only negative things can come of its use.

My work in progress solution has been two fold, 1) To continue the defensive drills which reflect the defensive techniques that I feel are important to our success, 2) To highlight and praise those instances where our defensive abilities/intensity produced positive and game changing results.

A few notes on 1) and 2):

- Defense is not a mentality or physically easy thing to do, especially when you are learning these skills late in high school.

- Unless you can play on a Sport Court, learning correct sprawl and roll defensive movements is at the minimum physically uncomfortable and many times painful - Hips, shoulders, butt, wrists, palms all get bruised and scraped.

- I suggest using floor mats initially to make things less painful to practice defensive sprawling and rolling. Once they get the physical movements down on the floor mats, then when the same movements are done on the normal surface, the physical movements will be more comfortable than before.

- There is also the mental hurdle of looking silly, while rolling/flopping around on the floor. Nobody likes to look silly or awkward and I think this feeling is exponentially more for high school females. If you think about it, not too many sports are played on the ground so often as ours (most sports come to a screeching halt when anyone goes to the ground).

- Making the defensive expectations routine and accountable (without it being a fear situation) is important. One time I was watching Penn State practice a number of years ago, when they were in another championship run, and one of their All-American Outside Hitters did not dive and roll for a ball in a simple defensive drill. Even though she was an All-American OH, and it was a simple game day one hour light practice, and Penn State would easily beat the upcoming opponent in three games, the assistant coach without hesitation or malice, simply said "five rolls off" and the All-American OH immediately did five dive and rolls on the side of the court and returned into the drill. This Penn State example made an immediate and lasting impression upon me.

- This always accountable defensive mentality can be easily applied to the simplest drills. For instance, when your players are peppering in the early part of practice, just stand off to the side where you can observe the pairs and when you notice any time a player lets the ball hit the floor without going after it (no matter how bad the hit), just blow your whistle and say the penalty which the whole team must do - It can be sit-ups, or push-ups or a certain number of dive a rolls. Making the whole team do it is a quick way of adding player/team accountability to any drill.

- Since you cannot recruit like college coaches, reach down into the Junior High schools which feed your program to make sure they are at least learning the basic skill sets. I know this is not a fun thing to do, and your time is beyond limited, but I absolutely promise you that the dividends in 3 years will be huge. Needless to say, this developmental philosophy should extend to your freshman/JV teams, but taking time to teach some basic ball control and defensive techniques to the younger kids will make them much more comfortable with your expectations when they arrive to high school.

- By praising positive outcomes instead of harping on negative instances is much like the old saying that you will attract more flies with sugar than vinegar. My hope for my team is that the sugar of praise will attract more players into the defensive philosophy which I really, really, really (and one more, really) need my team to have for us to be successful this season and beyond.

- Another opportunity to demonstrate the importance of defense, is that those players who illustrate the intensity you are desiring get to play. Playing time is the most important currency a coach at any competitive level has. There is a John Wooden quote along the lines of "the bench is my best teacher"; doing things correctly and according to the program philosophy will result in the honor of playing the game, doing things incorrectly results in sitting on the bench. It can be a tough thing to do when you sit a talented hitter or setter and may well result in a loss, but the long term pay off in program success dwarfs any short term negative.

I would say the most important part of your e-mail is you have made the self-observation that your current way of going about achieving your defensive goals is not working and actually being counter productive. As new wave as it may sound, this is a huge coaching step by you.

Just keep working on it, keep positive (I have gotten very good at shouting out 100 curse words all in my head!) and stay consistent in your actions and reactions.

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