I am an information fanatic on many fronts. I especially relish diving into a statistical match analysis, picking up on player or team tendencies, determining strengths and weaknesses, developing game plans, etc. Many software programs provide detailed analysis of a team’s performance. As much as I enjoy detailed information, the most valuable statistic(s) is the information most pertinent to the needs of your team or the statistic that correlates to winning a match. For a statistic to have value, the players, and coaches for that matter, must be able to comprehend the information and apply it to performance. You can often forego the statistical software and gather a great deal of relevant information with a legal pad and a pencil.
With the high school season beginning soon, I would like to present options for using statistical information to help with high school or middle school programs.
Use Data For Coach Feedback
Coaches tend to focus statistical information on evaluating player performance. However, statistics can also be used for coach development. Bluntly put, “Is what you do in practice actually work?” Do the numbers indicate player and team improvement? If so, great, keep it going! The coach can challenge the team to pursue a new concept or skill.
However, if we aren’t improving in critical areas, does my practice format or teaching methods merit scrutiny? It is not always the fault of the player. It takes courage to critically assess your actions and plot an alternate course. However, if what you are doing isn’t working, blow it up and do it differently. One of my mentors, Hall of Fame coach Mick Haley, once told me, “If things aren’t working, do something!” Unbeknownst to Mick, I’ve filed that away for my entire career and have often used the advice.
What’s Important Isn’t the Same at All Levels
The game is not the same at all levels; why should the statistics be the same? If I’m coaching 7th or 8th graders, the most critical statistics would be the percentage of serves landing inbounds vs. those that go out of bounds. In addition, I prioritize the number of reception errors vs. the number of passes that stay in play. If those two items are the most important to winning, my statistical focus would be in those areas. Not every statistic has equal importance. At the 7th-grade level, you can often win matches without spiking the ball. We don’t ignore the game’s other aspects but prioritize the important ones.
If I’m coaching high school, the criteria for success will be different. Serves are expected to go in bounds, a high percentage of passes should go to the setter, hitters should hit in bounds, etc. So, performance evaluation will reflect higher expectations. I may desire the serve to go to a specific court area or the pass be directed to a specific target area. My statistics should reflect those values.
I encourage coaches to give thought to the current skill level of their team and what is needed for team success. Then focus the statistical information on the areas of most importance.
“You can often forego the statistical software and gather a great deal of relevant information with a legal pad and a pencil.”
Process vs. Performance Statistics
Most coaches use statistics to evaluate player performance and attach a number to the performance. A player might pass a 2.21 or hit at a 25% efficiency. Although performance statistics are essential, there are additional uses for statistical information that are not “result” oriented. An especially valuable tool for younger players is to use statistics to evaluate the process. When you evaluate a process, you focus on how a skill is executed, not the result. For example, does my left-side attacker get off the net and make a good attack approach after blocking? You monitor that skill component and come up with a percentage of times this happens (or doesn’t happen) in a match. So, the evaluation focuses on the technique or team play, not the result. When first learning a skill, consider taking the focus off the result; focus on the player executing correctly, and a positive result will follow.
Record Percentages Rather Than Numbers
Most of the stat programs use the Coleman Method of tracking performance. Values are assigned for each skill, and a final performance number is calculated. A passer may pass a 2.24 or serve at a 1.91, etc.
With younger age players, I prefer to use percentages instead of a number (Coleman). For example, I can tell a player she passed 50% of the serves into the target area, or I can tell her she passed a 2.27. The 50% accuracy is easier for the athlete to understand. It is also easier to set an achievable goal for next time (60% good pass) vs. a goal of raising the passing to 2.35. Percentages can be established for most skills based on the coach’s values or what is needed for winning.
Points Won vs. Points Lost
It is not unusual for players to readily recall the good plays during a match but develop amnesia recalling errors made. One of the statistics that I value is points won (kill, block, ace) vs. points lost (net error, ball control error, hitting error, etc.). My focus is ending up on the positive side of the ledger. If a player makes more errors than points scored, some investigation as to the nature of the errors and developing a plan of action to address this aspect of their play. So often, players don’t necessarily need to make more good plays; they need fewer bad plays.
Errors are part of the game, and we don’t want to go crazy emphasizing mistakes. But, errors need to be recognized, and make an effort to reduce the number during practice and games. If a coach feels the errors are from a lack of skill, there is an urgency for additional focus on skill improvement in training sessions. If the errors are a lack of mental focus, the coach can design “in a row” drills that encourage repetitive successful contacts.
Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damnable lies, and worse of all, there are statistics.” At least Twain said something similar to that! I am hesitant to buy into that theory; however, a coach should be thoughtful about what statistics are valued and, more importantly, what to do with the information. The successful coach is versed in obtaining objective information on relevant aspects of the game, then using the information to pattern successful practice sessions that facilitate learning and skill development.