The Coach As a Teacher

The game we are teaching is challenging. The action takes place in a confined space; the ball moves at high speed; players attempt to attack the moving ball with their feet are off the ground, and every play is unpredictable. The only aspect of the game that is not reactive is the serve. With volleyball being a complicated sport, there are a million components to every play. When teaching a complex activity, there needs to be a well-thought-out strategy of presenting the skills while addressing the inherent variables. Considering the randomness of our game, we tend to teach the skills in a very static way. We toss balls to a passer's forearms, start a hitter off the court before tossing a perfect set, etc. This teaching method equates to a guard in basketball learning to shoot a jump shot without making a move to free themselves from the defense before shooting. I am not opposed to isolating the skills when teaching young players; however, we need to be mindful of the game's movements as a skill development component. Teaching the game's skills in a fashion that transfers to the game's nature requires meticulous planning. To be kind, in many of the club practices that I've watched, the level of planning is lacking.

The principles of coaching and teaching are interchangeable. The administrative tasks will differ, but, at the core, the challenge for the coach and teacher is to impart content in a manner that will benefit the student and foster improvement. The measurement of the quality of instruction is two-fold. One, does the athlete improve their fundamental skills and knowledge of the sport? Second, does the student achieve a level of satisfaction and enjoyment in the activity? The development of skills is critical in coaching volleyball. An improving skillset allows not only contributes to better play but also the love of participation. Maximum enjoyment of the game is only possible when playing with advanced skills.

As I observe training sessions at the club and high school levels, a consistent teaching plan is lacking. Not every coach will be the same in their practice management, but there needs to be a commonality in approaching skill development. Equally concerning is no coordinated strategy or a long-term player development plan with coaches inside the same club. Coaches are randomly doing their own thing without any roadmap for guidance. Players matriculate to the next level with little communication between coaches relative to needed improvement areas and a written plan for future improvement.

Picture the eighth-grade math student that gets passed from grade to grade, with an average of 75% on the exams. Despite not comprehending 25% of the material, the student will advance to Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, etc. However, at some point, the material the student did not grasp at the previous levels will impact their ability to manage current challenges successfully. They become stymied and take on the mindset of "I'm not good at Math." The fact of the matter is they might possess the potential to be good at Math; they might need to work harder, be more determined, and have a teacher with the expertise and willingness to assist. The philosophy of 75% being sufficient to advance must be unacceptable, or at the very least, identified and addressed. A complete understanding of the material is required to achieve great things in the educational system.

It would seem that we are incorporating a similar structure in how we teach and coach volleyball. Players advance through the various age groups in high school and club volleyball with "Swiss cheese" holes in their abilities and understanding of the game. Like the math student with gaps in their knowledge set, the volleyball athlete with inefficient movements, skill deficiencies, and limited knowledge will negatively impact them as they matriculate through the club and collegiate system. Like the struggling Math student, the volleyball player develops the approach of "I'm not good at defense." Similar to the struggling math student, there might be the potential to be a good defender. Why is a talented front row player not able to forearm pass with accuracy when in the backrow? There are always exceptions, but many of these players can be proficient in the backrow; they need coaching to provide repetition, feedback, and knowledge. The player needs to supply the work ethic to improve their skills.

I was the Head Coach of the USA Youth National Team (ages 15-17) from 2008-2019. I always felt USA players were as athletic as any of the world's top players. The USA players are tall, strong, jumped high, and made of steel. These athletes gravitated to the top of the age group pyramid of players because of their physical talents. However, the technical flaws in their game were, at times, jaw-dropping. How did they get to this level with such an erratic skillset? These players were passed on by coaches who took advantage of what they could do on the court without addressing what they could not do. In particular, I recall one player that possessed phenomenal physical abilities and was very powerful as a front-row attacker and blocker. Imagine my disappointment when she said that she had never served nor played the backrow in a match in her entire volleyball career. She was sixteen years old, had played club and high school volleyball for many years, but had never been allowed to serve in a game. Her club and high school coaches did no favors by ignoring her skill deficiency in the backrow while focusing on how many kills she might ring up in the front row.

Set aside the player with considerable talent that has holes in her game. What system is in place to help the player with average talent but wants to improve? Do we even have a strategy to raise the level of play at all ages? Instead of examining our teaching methods that facilitate skill improvement, coaches rely on substitutions to camouflage a problem. For example, in some states, high school coaches have eighteen substitutions per set at their disposal. Why bother to teach an excellent attacker to pass or defend in the backrow when the coach can put someone else on the floor that might be marginally better? I watched a collegiate game recently, and a Division 1 program had only one player on the court for six rotations. Instead of developing the all-around highly skilled player, we take them off the floor. It is disappointing to see coaches putting their best athletes on the bench for half the game due to poor ball control skills in the backrow. That is somewhat the equivalent of bringing a substitute into math class to take the exam for somebody that isn't so good at math.

Players on the Youth National Team improved because there was an urgency to improve. That urgency was fostered by wanting to make the team and being competitive at the world championships. That urgency to improve shouldn't just be at the elite levels. All players need to be in an environment where improvement is monitored, encouraged, and rewarded.

We can teach the game better at every level, but it starts with the young player just beginning the journey. At this age, nobody knows who will grow tall and develop a love for the game. All coaches, especially those working with a young athlete, must embrace the importance of building all the skills. Unfortunately, coaches place more of a priority on the competitive aspect of our game while sacrificing skill development. When coaching a team consisting of young players, winning a weekend tournament should not be the primary focus. What should be the focus is developing a plan to build all the skills of the game.

For any developmental plan to work, it is incumbent on all coaches to acquire the teaching expertise that will allow their players to flourish. I recognize the challenge the club directors face in filling out their coaching staff. There is a point where any warm body becomes qualified to coach the third level 13's team. The club director then should assist the coach by implementing a teaching framework that allows for productive learning. However, the inexperienced coach is often left to the challenge of developing these youngsters without the appropriate teaching tools. A checklist should provide the needed teaching framework to assist the inexperienced coach.

Coaches who do not possess the needed expertise to develop their players tend to spend excessive time in unfocused play. The fact that they spend time playing is not necessarily an issue. The issue is unfocused play, where players receive limited feedback on performance, possess low concentration levels, and play without clearly defined goals. By spending valuable time in unfocused activities, the teachers are handing off the responsibility of skill development to their students. The individual player has no natural genetic blueprint to be developed. There must be instruction, guidance, and targeted feedback.

The late Dr. Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at Florida State University, spent much of his academic life studying experts' training methods. Using golf as an example, he talked about gameplay as a primary teaching method.

"You don't improve because when you are only playing the game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don't get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. Professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament."

Taking Dr. Ericsson's point inside the world of volleyball, when a coach allows playing as the primary teaching tool, the player may not get the repetition or feedback needed for improvement. Coaches of goodwill can disagree on the best teaching methodology. However, speaking in broad terms, I'm unconvinced that most coaches, especially those working with the younger players, could detail the methods by which they teach their players the game's skills. Coaches that rely on unfocused playing as a primary teaching tool are implementing a student-centered approach where the responsibility of learning is in the student's hands. This approach has taken on the moniker of "letting the game teach the game." This teaching path ascribes to the philosophy that if the child plays enough volleyball, they will discover the essential aspects of skill development and play. The coach is not an active participant in the learning process. I'm unconvinced that the best method of student learning is from a foundation of ignorance. It would seem that I'm not alone with a concern about unguided instruction.

“Not only is unguided instruction less effective, but there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge. Teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves."1 -Paul Kirschner

The student-centered approach to instruction, also referred to as "constructivism," is not entirely the coach's fault. “Constructivism" encourages the individual child to "construct" their own education based on their instincts and powers.2 A significant number of school systems have also instituted a student-centered approach to public education. The teacher has taken on the primary role of facilitating a learning atmosphere. In this role, teachers are not "the sage on the stage, but a guide on the side."3 Unfortunately, as the graph below shows, the academic results using the student-centered model, implemented in many school systems in the1960's, are trending in the wrong direction.

SAT Scores

The alternative to constructivism is a knowledge-based learning environment. This system places a focus on the acquisition of specific knowledge that is deemed critical to student development. There is also a focus on an objective assessment of what the student is learning at every level. A knowledge-based curriculum is a model used in many charter schools with positive results. When coaching volleyball, a knowledge-based environment mandates a level of expertise on the coach's part. The coach must have an understanding of the principles they are imparting to the athlete. The coach must be involved in every aspect of the learning process and taking responsibility for the results. The student will be responsible for understanding the components of the skills and team systems.

Educational psychologist, Paul Kirschner talked about the duties of the instructor, "You don’t just do but think about and understand what you’re doing. It’s more important to know and understand why and when and in what situations things may work or not work than just being taught what to do. You want teachers and researchers to be reflective practitioners. Teachers should think about,

  1. What and why they’re going to do something?
  2. Why what they’ve done worked out in a certain way?
  3. How they can or should do it the next time to be more effective and/or efficient?

Learning is a result of processing that which you encounter. The goal of good learning and instruction is to optimize this information processing. This involves, among other things,

  1. Knowing how to prepare learners for learning (e.g., prior knowledge, feed-forward).
  2. Knowing how to facilitate that process (e.g., via dual coding, scaffolding, mathemagenic behaviors, cognitive load theory, employing study strategies such as spaced practice, retrieval practice, and/or variability of practice).
  3. Knowing how to follow-up the learning experience (e.g., feedback, feed-forward, assessment for learning).

Creating a proper context for learning (e.g., situated cognition, social learning, cognitive apprenticeship). A bonus third, related to the second is a quote from Ernst Rothkopf: ―You can lead a horse to water, but the only water that reaches his stomach is what he drinks. Create learning situations that get your students to drink!"4

I believe the knowledge-based system of instruction is the best way for players to learn about the game. Coaches are responsible for being experts in their field. The expertise will allow for presenting accurate and relevant information about skill development and team systems. The players will be responsible for understanding the essential aspects of the skills. Players possessing knowledge of skill development and team systems components will have an advantage over players with playing experience but lacking knowledge. There is no question that volleyball is a very "random" activity with many situations the player must process. The player with a foundation of knowledge and skill will deal with the sport's vagaries more successfully.

The checklist I have started will examine the different parts of the skills and team systems. The checklist teaching format, which is knowledge-based, will be a tool to organize the presentation of volleyball skills. My intent is for these checklists to be living documents designed to meet the coach's needs. Like the surgeon or the pilot who identifies the keys to a successful operation or flight, coaches need to identify the critical components of skill development and pattern instruction to address these components. We want to proceed in a step-by-step manner in each skill and build a foundation of movements, skills, and visual keys to assist the athlete and the coach. I hope that we use checklists to help coaches develop training plans to organize their practice sessions. The checklist can be communicated to players and parents and be a tool to evaluate skill development and monitor progress.