November 2, 2012

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I was watching a recent television match between Arizona and Stanford - Thank you to the Pac 12 Network for existing because they have single handily quadrupled the number of volleyball matches on TV!

Being a former DI Head Coach, and having had good teams and not so good teams, having played against good teams and not so good teams, I may watch volleyball matches with a focus separate from "your average bear".  I tend to look for the differences.....what is the difference between one team and another.

Even saying 'the difference' is to generic - For instance, in the match of Arizona and Stanford, you could say Stanford was taller.  You see some teams and it easy to spot what is different; taller, faster, jump higher, etc.  The obvious difference is easy to spot. 

The subtle difference is to me what sets one team apart from another, when the teams are of comparable standing.  In the Arizona versus Stanford match, the difference I saw was the small efforts.  Everyone does the big effort; jump high, hit hard, run around quickly.  I saw the small difference, and it was going after the ball defensively.

After a game or so, I noticed that Arizona would watch balls hit the ground and either give the token dive and roll 5 minutes after the fact, or just freeze and then run quickly into the team huddle between plays to absolve their defensive sins.  Stanford was going after the ball, players were going to the ground in pursuit of the ball, not afterward or freezing.

Why the difference?  Was Stanford hitting the ball so fast/hard that Arizona could not physically react?  Arizona is an elite team which has made the NCAA tournament the last few years, so obviously they are not some hack group of recreational players.

The difference was Stanford had the expectation/requirement to go after each and every ball before it hit the ground.  This is not a physical skill; the Arizona players were arguably just as physically strong as the Stanford players; you don't have to be tall or super athletic to dive and roll going to the ground to make a dig.  

Arizona may have had this requirement, but there was not the expectation by the players to make this play, and that is a mental issue.  Time and time again, balls would bounce without Arizona pursuing it - It was almost a 'hit me' defense; line up in a spot and hope the ball hits the defender and pops up.

Having had my share of good teams (not anywhere close to the Pac 12 level, but still good relative to the region) and my share of bad teams; the good teams had the mental expectation to be good, while the bad teams were as physical, but had no mental expectations.  The consistently good programs, consistently do a good job of demanding and reinforcing this mental expectation of doing things correctly.

I had the honor and pain of my team playing the University of Hawaii on a number of occasions.  Dave Shoji has been at Hawaii forever and a day, and the program has been nationally ranked just as long.  In the 16+ matches played against Hawaii, and in those 16 plus matches I think my team almost reached game point in one game against the 3rd string, I only saw Dave reprimand his team for lack of defensive effort.  No matter how badly they were crushing us, no matter who was on the floor, if one of his players just let a ball drop defensively, he was off the bench letting that player know how displeased he was.  

The good teams do the small things well, and the coaches reinforce the demand that small things are done well.  Small things not being done bleed points in rally score - Rally score is often won or lost on a single play....25-23 is one play, and than one play could have come at 11-10.

Think back to the National Championship a few years ago, when it was Texas and Penn State.  The last play of the game, Destiny Hooker of Texas shanked a routine dig because she did not do the small thing of taking a small step to get behind the ball.  This is an extreme but significant example; no matter what the level, the small things are important.

Who am I writing this article for?  Club coaches to better prepare the PSA's for college, College, Club and High School Volleyball players to understand how they can win with out having to undertake dynamic explosive feats, young college coaches who are developing their abilities and program philosophy, and I guess, lastly for me.  If I return to college coaching one day, I need to remember I reinforce that the small things must be done, and that I am the gatekeeper of the ability to say I have a good team.

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