Controlling the Uncontrollable

Usually, when discussing the factors that might impact winning, the focus becomes a selected metric of importance, such as the number of kills per set or errors per set. These statistical items are undoubtedly significant and do impact winning. However, neither coaches nor players are in total control of on-court success. Here are a few factors that are outside the reach of the coach.

  1. The most obvious is how your team plays. Despite the best efforts of all involved, the performance sometimes does not match the effort.
  2. The second most obvious is how the other team performs. You may play at your highest level, but the opponent plays better. Your team might be helping your opponent sometimes, but there are also times that you must give the opponent kudos.
  3. At times, the outcome of a game can hinge on a single, contentious decision by the referee at a crucial moment.
  4. Hand in hand with the above point, the player calling the lines who is not paying attention (what are the odds?) makes a poor call at a crucial time.
  5. Consider the scenario where your opponent has a home-court advantage, and the familiar environment boosts their performance.
  6. Instead of getting a good night’s rest at the hotel the night before a competition, there is a wedding reception on the floor directly above your team (yes, this happened to us with the USA U-18 team).
  7. Your best player is injured in the practice leading up to a competition and cannot play.
  8. There are many, many more circumstances that will be encountered that will impact match results.

These factors that impact winning are outside the coach’s jurisdiction. These uncontrollables are inherent in competition and underscore the possibility that a coach or team with the singular goal of winning a match or tournament might be disappointed through no fault of their own.

I prefer goals that allow players and coaches to exhibit control. In that regard, I focus more on the weekly practice sessions than weekend competitive opportunities.

  • Develop a skill competency that is superior to the opponent’s skills.
  • Develop a fitness level that allows us to play our best at the end of a tournament and improve our chances of staying injury-free.
  • Develop a level of mental toughness to allow us to remain composed in times of stress.
  • Develop the ability of our staff and players to communicate effectively in stressful situations.
  • Develop a consistent level of performance regardless of the situation.
  • Develop a high degree of game intelligence to exploit our opponent’s weaknesses and tendencies.
  • Many more

To become skilled in these areas takes time, teaching, patience, and repetition. I do not believe you acquire these items solely through competition in tournaments. Too many coaches prioritize the competitive aspect of the sport and remain somewhat cavalier in their approach to practice.

Coaches must prioritize skill development in practice rather than just showcasing them in competition. Competing is simply a way to measure your progress. The real improvement happens during practice sessions. Throughout a season, the time you dedicate to practicing should be at least double the time you spend competing. Unfortunately, it’s common for teams to spend more hours competing on the court than they do practicing in a given week.

Develop a skill competency that is superior to the opponent’s skills

Develop your practice plan with skill development as a priority. Focus on movement, visual keys, posture, and execution. Use video as a feedback tool. Focused repetition is the key. Make every effort to make your repetitions game-like; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to play a game.

Develop a fitness level that allows us to play our best at the end of a tournament and improve our chances of staying injury-free

Most clubs lack access to strength training equipment. You can still address your team’s fitness by incorporating fitness into volleyball activities. If you plan your practice activities well, conditioning is a component of all activities. For example, have players set the ball back and forth; after each set, players will do a 90-degree squat or a pushup.

Develop a level of mental toughness to allow us to remain composed in times of stress

I plan practice activities based on the number of successful contacts rather than time increments. I remember a drill former USA coach, Toshi Yoshida, ran with the national team. It was a 6v6 with the “B” team doing all the serving. The “A” team had to sideout two consecutive times to rotate. To complete the drill, they had to rotate six times consecutively, with two sideouts in each rotation. So, it was twelve consecutive sideouts. If at any point they didn’t sideout, they went back to zero. Challenging? No question. You need to adjust the scoring to fit the abilities of your team. But think of the mental pressure on the team when you got to eleven sideouts, and they had to execute successfully on the last point. Having a mental toughness component to some, not all, of your activities will pay dividends when competing against a top team in a hard-fought match.

Develop the ability of our staff and players to communicate effectively in stressful situations

One of the overlooked components of communication is listening. In my practice sessions, I emphasize eye contact between the speaker and listener and ask players to repeat what they’ve heard to ensure that it matches what was said. Listening is a skill that must be practiced. During competitions, players must have good listening habits so the adjustments the coach is making are put into action immediately. In addition, I ask players for their thoughts so they can practice articulating their thoughts.

Develop a consistent level of performance

I do a lot of “in-a-rows” along with “plus/minus” activities to emphasize performance consistency. For example, instead of having a goal of ten good passes, I will use a goal of two sets of five good passes in a row. This scoring challenges the passer to focus on consecutive successful contacts and incorporates skill and mental toughness.

Develop a high degree of game intelligence to exploit our opponent’s weaknesses and tendencies.

Have players develop and incorporate their scouting report in practice and challenge them to execute the plan successfully (e.g., serving targets, setting over the small blocker, defending a specific court area).

What is done or not done in practice sessions will be reflected in tournament performance. Although aspects of the competitive environment are not controllable, increasing the number and quality of practice sessions will assist in conquering the uncontrollable situations that are guaranteed to arise.