Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Oblique Strategies..."

Start with this TED talk from Tim Harford from a few years ago in London entitled, “How Messy Problems Can Inspire Creativity.”

And so the scavenger hunt began. At the 11:40 mark, Harford talks about a name that many fans of Rock n Roll have come across: Brian Eno. He has recorded such artists as David Bowie, Robert Fripp, DEVO, U2 and Coldplay in addition to his own musical offerings. But in this TED talk, Harford talks about something that has probably eluded most of us: “Oblique Strategies.”

Eno with the help of a friend and teacher Peter Schmidt who was working on something similar himself, combined their resources and created a box of cards designed to take an artist out of their funk and make them try something different.

In a 1980 radio interview, Eno said of their collaboration, “The first Oblique Strategy said ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention.’ And, in fact, Peter's first Oblique Strategy - done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that - was ...I think it was ‘Was it really a mistake?’ which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he'd kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know...there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they're now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.”

The deck of 135 cards had instructions like, “Back up a few steps, what else could you have done?” and “Just carry on.” These may seem like small ideas but when working with musicians who have been in a studio for days and weeks, sometimes small ideas can be the most disruptive and useful in the name of creativity.

In one of Rock’s greatest songs, Heroes by David Bowie, Eno was said to have used these cards to help created the sounds on the song that even today are hard to replicate. At one point, according to producer Tony Visconti, the suggestion was made to put a microphone in the middle of the studio and the end of the studio in addition to the one in front of Bowie. As the song culminates, you’ll hear Bowie screaming the last verse which was needed for the farthest mic to pick up. This was something that pulled the ensemble out of the norm and helps give the song the idea that, as was discussed before the song was recorded, the work would be around much longer than the people singing it.

To this day, the Oblique Strategies cards are for sale but the printings are rare and many of the older printings are considered collectors items. They are still used in recording studios today.

Ask a room full of coaches what offense they will run this season and most, without having even seen their teams play in meaningful competition yet, will tell you a 5-1 or a 6-2. Safe, traditional, non messy...

What if you have three amazing setters, all good servers? Are you willing to sit maybe the underclassman of the three, keeping a true weapon off the floor because of the 6-2 you have traditionally run? Could you run a 6-3 offense? Could you get all three of those good players on the floor in a set?

You have a very physical and strong middle but she’s slow. She doesn’t close a block very well and her transition is too slow to run a fast attack in the middle. Do you continue with your customary ineffective double block on the outside in those three rotations or is there an outside the box option?  Can you teach those wing blockers to single block and use your middle to cover the tip and be in transition before the ball gets to the setter, using her more advantageously?

We get stuck in traditional ideas and methods and when those don’t work, we usually only have one other trick up our sleeve despite the plentiful options afforded us by the rules of our sport. There are six rotations on your side of the net. What can you do, in each of those rotations, to score points and gain side outs? If you are really good in rotation 3 in serve receive, could you get away with just two passers? If your serve receive is not so good in ro 5, might you need 4 passers, or maybe even 5?

Oblique strategies, while used mostly for music and art, is a life preserver of how we as coaches can get out of our traditional oceans. Why do you have to run a 5-1 or a 6-2? If your team is young and inexperienced, why not a 6-6 where everybody plays every position? Why pigeon hole your players at an early age? Maybe your tallest girl which is most probably your middle has the best hands on the team, but if she never gets a chance to set, how will you ever know?

There is no “right way” to run your offense or your defense, it’s what works for YOU! Your strengths highlighted, your weaknesses limited, and let the ball fly.

If you have a job other than coaching that sometimes requires a catalyst, an awkward stranger or as Harford calls it, a mess, you can get Oblique Strategies on your phone. The app is available free for iPhone download and android.

In the Oblique Strategies world, the mess becomes a work of art. Rolling Stone voted “Heroes” one of the greatest songs in Rock n Roll history.  If you haven’t listened lately, listen to the mess…it's a classic.

Let go of tradition and give “Oblique Strategies” a test. Your athletes and perhaps your team’s performance might be playing a different tune right before your ears….

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Failure is required!"

A lot of coaching clinics ask the question of coaches, "What percent of volleyball is mental?" and follow that up with, "So how much do you teach on the mental side?" 

Traci Statler has made a career out of answering that question and making this statement: "Mental health impacts everything. If your mental health isn't functioning where it needs to be, then your performance isn't going to be where it needs to be."

She is a professor at Cal State Fullerton and has worked with USA Volleyball's athletes in the past few years. Her resume' which you can see here is impressive and her talk with us highlights how connected she is to today's athlete and her willingness to help today's coaches. 

In this hour long interview, Traci shares with us her knowledge on working with "this generation," how to handle certain issues like kids that don't work hard, lack confidence or are in slumps and other issues that might affect their performance.

Sometimes she will surprise you! 
She tells us that we can't inspire our athletes.
She tells us that being an athlete at an elite level isn't very mentally healthy.
And she tells us that if we want to get better at sports psyche...start "digging deep."

Enjoy this hour with Sports Psychologist Traci Statler as she answers your questions, confirms what you may already be thinking and takes us into a world we all should know more about

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"We have this paradox..."

Dr A. Mark Williams is the Professor and Chair of Health, Kinesiology and Recreation at the University of Utah and is one of the preeminent Sports science minds in the world.

He is currently the editor in chief of the Journal of Sports Sciences and the executive editor for Human Movement Science. He is a frequent guest on podcasts and the sport science lecture circuit and is often cited in books and articles spanning all levels of sports science.

Williams' path of knowledge and science of sport has travelled through the University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University, Florida State University, the University of Sydney and the Brunel University London before coming to rest in Utah. 

Dr. Williams was kind enough to give the Arizona Region a few minutes of his valuable time to offer up his research on practice management, blocked v. random training and along the way answer several questions from coaches across the country.While predominantly a soccer and rugby researcher, his knowledge of all sports science makes this a value for any coach wanting to get better.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"One focus at a time..."

It's been a few years in the making. An interview with someone too humble to call attention to her incredible career as both an exceptional indoor player and now AVP and FIVB Champion on the sand.

Betsi Metter Flint, (Just Flint these days) came up through the Arizona club and sand system, starting with the YMCA and progressed to an indoor and outdoor career at Loyola Marymount University in California. Along the way, she has been a role model to many of Arizona's younger players: her talent, work ethic and humility and now shares that as a Coach with the sand team of LMU Sand team.

With her partner Kelley Larsen, Betsi was the youngest winner of an AVP event in history in 2015, won two FIVB tournaments this season and medaled in another and is on course to give a run at being one of the two women's teams to represent the USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But as you'll hear, the odds are long and just the discussion of their daily grind would stop most people at the description. Both Betsi and Kelley are committed to each other and more importantly, the process which has taken them around the world and just a few days after this interview, to Australia.

Enjoy this interview with Betsi as she talks about her career, her partner, the struggle of qualifying and the transition from player to coach to player and coach.

Friday, September 15, 2017

"Let 'em go..."

If you don't follow Men's volleyball very closely, you haven't heard of Pete Hanson.

And while you are missing out on one of our profession's best resources, he's probably just fine with that.

Humility defined, Hanson is heading into his 34th season as coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. He is coming off two National Championships, both sweeps over talented BYU teams. 

As his trophy case continues to overflow, he side steps questions about himself and deflects credit and praise to his athletes. Hanson is beloved by his guys and in the Coaching world for his candor and his ability to change his sails depending upon the wind of his current team. At the moment, as his opponent's will tell you, it is a hurricane.

Hanson, has taken the guesswork out of serving. "Let 'em go!" is his mantra and his team has responded. OSU's opponents find themselves out of system much of their matches a direct result of the Buckeye's onslaught from the service line, a factor Hanson correlates with his team's recent Championship success.

To read more about Hanson, click here. But please enjoy this 30 minute chat with one of the country's premiere Coaches in any sport.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


She stood off to the corner. At 5-9, this freshman looked strong and capable but she was standing away from the court, as if scared of the speed of the game and the off chance the ball might come to her. She was new, she was the tallest girl on the freshman court and no one knew anything about her. One of the girls on the court asked her to play. She sauntered uneasily to the service line, drew back and piloted the ball from an underhand fist toward the other side of the net. It landed in the bottom of the net. Some of the girls on the court rolled their eyes, others snickered. The tall freshman moseyed back off the court, defeated and embarrassed.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the finished product in a snapshot.

In 1946, a man by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski was commissioned by a Lakota Elder, Henry Standing Bear to build a monument in the side of a South Dakota mountain known as Thunderhead, sacred to the Oglata Lakota tribe. Standing Bear wasn’t comfortable having four American presidents staring down at his people. Just 17 miles from Thunderhead lies Mount Rushmore, and Ziolkowski worked on that project years before. 

He accepted Standing Bear’s offer and after two years of building a house, water lines and a way up to the mountain, Korczak officially began in 1948 to build a monument of epic proportion to the Lakota Chief Crazy Horse. 

He had learned a lot on the Rushmore site and wanted no government money or interference. (Korczak twice turned down multimillion dollar government offers to help fund the project) He started with $174 at the age of 40, buying used equipment and selling other sculptures he crafted during the winter and rainy months. His vision coming to fruition, he struggled with all the little things in a project you can’t see in a snapshot. He averaged only 5 working months a year of full time drilling, exploding and sculpting working around the weather. Sometimes the drills would break, equipment would go bad. At one point, he created his own cable car made of a box he nailed together strung precariously on cables he set into the monument.

Ziolkowski built a 741 staircase to the top of the mountain and bought a 24 year old generator and constructed 2,440 feet of piping to help him drill into the rock to set the dynamite and coring and chiseling he needed to do. The generator would often stall and Korczak would have to descend the staircase, start the generator back up and climb back up. One day, he was up and down 9 times. (13,338 steps in just one day!) As perhaps a joke or maybe documentation, for a while he had a sign on the mountain that simple said, “Slow. Man at Work.”

Undeterred, he continued on. He divorced and married on the project and found time to have 10 kids, one of which he delivered himself. The family continued work on the sculpture and built a tourist friendly museum to see the progress and learn more about Crazy Horse. When the face began to take its final shape, he had to blast a hole through the middle of the mountain and not disrupt what was above. That alone took three summers. 

Korczak’s vision was of the Chief riding his horse, hair and mane blowing behind them and Crazy Horse pointing forward. The Chief, who was never photographed and died in Nebraska at the hands of the US Cavalry in May of 1877, once said he had no home, that “My home lies where my dead are buried.” Ziolkowski’s vision was Crazy Horse’s remark; explaining why the Chief is pointing out into the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

Her name was Hannah and she was in the middle of a divorce and living with her Dad. She had played volleyball in the 7th and 8th grade but the teams were, by her admission, not very good and she didn’t learn much from the coaches. She didn’t know anyone at this new school and it showed in her lack of confidence and body language. Her underhand serve, as it is with many high school coaches, was as good a reason as any to cut her and be done. But this coach saw something in this project and worked with her. She resisted often, not wanting to come out of her comfort zone. She didn’t want to do approaches, she just wanted to hit. She wanted to hold her passing hands the way she did in 8th grade. Why couldn’t she underhand serve? When one skill was too tough, she asked to do another. Some of the girls became frustrated with her even more. In a competitive drill, she was the outcast no one wanted. Many water breaks, with the girls doing a cheer, Hannah would lag back, not wanting to be the girl everyone was whispering about.

But a couple of the girls- perhaps realizing she could one day be a valuable asset to the team in the future- started to help her. Hannah came in early the second morning to work on her overhand serve and it got better. She came back early from lunch, stayed after camp. She started to do her approach and the timing started to click. On the third day, she came in again and launched a serve 30 feet, ½ inch and it crawled over the net for what would have been an ace. Hannah’s arm shot up in the air, as big a gesture as her smile was.

Korczak Zioklowski spent the next 34 years making his vision a reality. He died in 1982 at the age of 74 and his wife and children promptly picked up the vision and continued his work. To this day, the visage of Chief Crazy Horse can be seen heading north on state route 385. Of course tours and closer looks are available in the monument’s visitor’s center, run by the Zioklowski family.

Before he died, Korczak said in an interview, “When the legends die, the dreams end. And when the dreams end, there is no more greatness.” He always called himself a “storyteller in stone,” a title he relished. He is buried somewhere on the site of his life’s work; he wanted his remains to be unknown like those of the mountainous Chief he spent his life honoring. 

Korczak’s Crazy Horse is jarring in its scope. His head measures 87 feet high. For a dose of perspective, the president’s heads on Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet tall. When all finished, which one tour guide suggested was probably within the next 50 years, the Chief from flowing hair to the tip of his finger will measure 641 feet and a height of 563 feet. Zioklowski’s project never wavered in its possibility or its necessity and it continues today.

And tomorrow…

Hannah spent four days at camp. She went from unskilled and cautious to a player not just better but more confidant and one that enjoyed her teammates and the game more. Will she ever become an All-State player? At this point, no one can say. We do know that if the coach had seen this project based on her snapshot on day one, she’d been jettisoned: left to float into the sea of all the others we let go because as coaches we lack the vision, the patience or the work ethic to see what’s past that snapshot.

Drills and bits, dynamite and explosives, patience and a kind word, some extra time or just an idea of what they can be, projects are built and defined by more than just the first snapshot we take. We work, and look a little deeper…

“Beauty can be seen in all things. Seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” –Matt Hardy

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"If you can't say anything nice...."

Travel the coaching journey for many miles and you hear stories, from players, former and current.

(In total paraphraseology…)

“Holly, you are never going to be a setter. You aren’t fast enough and your hands are terrible.”

(She was 12)

“Chandler, if you are playing soccer for your high school during club season, you aren’t an athlete.”

(She was 15)

“Chandler, you only played one year of club and you can’t pass.”

(She was a college freshman)

“Landon, you will never be a setter or a hitter. Just go pass.”

(She was 14)

“Adrianna, you aren’t tall enough to be a hitter.”

(She was 15)

“Ashley, you will never play back row.”

(She was 15)

“Mac, you are too big boned to get to the ball. Love your hands but you aren’t fast enough to set.”

(She was 16)

These are examples of bloviating Coaches who put walls up on young athletes, in most cases before they are grown, out of puberty or have played the game very long.


Is it to show the level of internal expertise they think they may have? Is it to nudge a player into the direction that best fits their club team and program? Is it just a need for the coach to flex their ego?

Tough to say but there are enough walls in adolescence for young athletes, especially young women.

Holly went on to set for her college team.

Chandler is now the starting libero for her college team having set dig records her junior year.

Landon will start her college career this season after being named her state’s player of the year….as an outside hitter.

Adrianna will be starting her junior season with her high level high school team…as their OH1.

Ashley, at 6-1, played back row her final year of club.

Mac will be the starting setter on her high school team this season as a senior.

Too slow, bad hands, not tall enough, too ‘big’, can’t pass, can’t hit, can’t set, can’t block…..

We seem to forget one thing in this equation.

We are coaches. We should be helping them get faster, better hands, better passers, better attackers and better blockers. Why do we just look at an athlete and think this is the finished product and their entire career is based on how that club coach or high school coach or club director sees them at that moment?

Our mothers used to tell us the old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

Coaches need to take this to heart. Don’t tell your athletes what they can’t do, lead and coach them to what they can do.