Assisting the Inexperienced Club Coach

The phrase “heavy is the head that wears the crown” was used by Shakespeare in the play King Henry IV. The gist of the phrase was the King acknowledging the hardships of implementing his never-ending responsibilities.

The inexperienced club coach feels a similar weight of being responsible for teaching, planning, and organizing all the activities to ensure the athletes have a positive experience while under their charge. How might a plan be implemented to assist the inexperienced coach in having the best possible chance at having a rewarding season and positively impacting the athletes?

I’ve seen several formats for clubs to implement their practice sessions. The most prevalent is the “every man for themselves” approach. A coach is given a team, a whistle, a practice schedule, and a pat on the back. For the experienced coach, this approach is acceptable. Veteran coaches generally are confident in their coaching abilities. Often, this confidence is not merited, but that is a subject for another time.

Sword of Damocles

For the inexperienced but conscientious coach, each practice has the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over them. There is a self-imposed stress of planning practice content and organization, how to modify a drill that is not going well and providing the learning environment to facilitate team development. Then add game management skills, developing a starting line-up, managing time outs, etc. For the inexperienced coach, the duties of a head coach can become overwhelming. Generally, when coaches are trying to figure out what to do, they revert to what they are most comfortable doing. Can you say “Queen of the Court”?

The challenge for club directors is to facilitate quality instruction for all the athletes in a club, not just the players on the #1 team, where experienced coaches tend to be found. The second, third, or fourth-level players also desire good coaches. These athletes merit the best effort by the director to provide them with coaches that are adequately prepared to supply quality instruction. So, what is the best way to get the inexperienced coach to the knowledge level that allows for player improvement and a positive experience?

Implementing a developmental program for coaches

Some club directors provide a pre-season clinic where an expert coach will lecture about the keys to quality instruction. The instructor sometimes gets players to demonstrate a drill or technique. A clinic in this format has value, but the lasting impact on the club coaches is debatable. Continuous repetition and feedback are vital to developing a positive habit when an athlete learns a technique or skill. Why would it be different for a coach? Like the athletes on their team, coaches tend to revert to comfortable habits unless there is a conscious effort to change. Any developmental program for coaches must be consistent throughout the season. A single clinic at the start of the season will not achieve the desired result of coach development.

There are two general learning methods. The first is observational learning; the second is direct learning. Both methods have value and should be used when working with an inexperienced volleyball coach.

Observational Learning

Observational Learning describes learning by watching others, retaining the information, and replicating the observed behaviors later. 

Examples of observational learning

  • Listening to a coach lecture about aspects of the game
  • Observing an expert coach work with a player or a team to demonstrate a specific technique or a team system or administer a training session.
  • Watching a video of an expert coach working with a team
  • Observing a match with two quality opponents
  • Reading articles about various aspects of coaching.

Can the inexperienced coach learn by observation? Yes, if a couple of factors are in place. 

  1. The motivation to learn must be high. 
  2. The focus must be on the correct items. It is common for inexperienced coaches to focus on things that are of secondary importance. 
  3. There must be a retention of what was observed. The coach will revert to the previous behavior if critical items are forgotten.
  4. The coach must be willing to put newly learned material into their practices.

Direct Learning

Direct learning involves a hands-on approach to instruction. For coaches, this entails a coach being on the court working directly with the athletes. To learn in this environment, coaches must work with a mentor who can offer quality feedback.

Ideas for Direct Learning 

  1. Have an expert coach initiate an activity, then hand it off to the inexperienced coach to replicate it while focusing on the critical aspects of the activity and offering quality feedback.
  2. Video a training session and review it with an expert coach. Pay specific attention to how time is allotted (are you practicing the right things?), the opportunities for repetition, and the quality of feedback.
  3. Have an expert coach sit on the bench during competition. Then, offering feedback on the coaching performance.
  4. Evaluate the quality of instruction by monitoring the statistical improvement of the players.
  5. Develop practice plans and present them to an expert coach for review and feedback.

The takeaway is that there are tools available that allow inexperienced coaches to improve their skills. There are two essential ingredients to foster the continuous development of the coach. First, the motivation to improve begins with the coach. The willingness to learn and approach all learning opportunities with a growth mindset is essential. Second, the club director must be equally motivated to provide learning opportunities throughout the club season. In addition, providing opportunities outside the club season should be a priority item.

Where does the expert coach come from? Is there a coach on the staff that can supply the necessary expertise? In most cases, the best coach is busy coaching their team. The club director needs to pursue an expert coach with the time and ability to mentor club coaches, even if that coach comes from outside the club. The expert coach can observe practices in person or, if that is not possible, review practice footage via video and provide feedback via a Zoom call with the court coach.

There is a desperate need for more good coaches at the club level. We expect the athletes to work hard to improve continuously. There should be the same expectation for the coaches and club directors.