Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Minimum Input, Maximum Reward...

Lisa Stuck was fed up.

The head coach of the Glendale Community College Gauchos decided it was time. “About 6 years ago I made a decision to shift my focus to players with certain intangibles. I decided I didn't want to spend my time coaching kids without work ethic and who were only concerned with themselves. It was too frustrating and usually caused tension on my teams.”

Stuck was a top flight athlete at Apollo High School, Arizona State University and later in the pipeline at USA Volleyball. She struggled, as so many of us do, with how players today had to be coaxed and cajoled into working hard, into accepting and embracing a team first mentality like she was and like those she had played with.

So she shifted her recruiting focus.

“As a result, I began to look for specific qualities more-so than height, jump touch, and one dimensional ability. If we could find players with ball control, competitive spirit, work ethic and some athleticism, we could teach them what they would need to know and do to be successful.”

Make no mistake, Lisa wants to win. She is as competitive now, heading into her 19th season at GCC as she was her first day. The focus is still winning, but the landscape around her has changed.

“It was much more rewarding for me and my staff to be able to teach kids, who were eager to learn, improve, were team-minded and super hard workers. It’s about the satisfaction and reward involved in coaching kids who have a passion for the game and their teammates; who LOVE and know how to compete. Kids have the most success when they are having fun, learning, are challenged and successful.”

It’s hard to argue with her success the last few years. Lisa’s teams have a combined 90-30 record the last four years, 48-16 in conference play. Her worst season of the four was in 2014 when her squad limped into the ACCAC Regional tournament as the #4 seed of 4 and a sub .500 record and won out, winning a date at Nationals where her Gauchos finished the most improbable season with a National Championship. Her 32-3 season last year and 15-1 in conference sent her back to Nationals again.

She may be on to something.

Lisa is candid about the kind of athlete she is looking for these days. “We look for athleticism, speed, ball control, passion and competitiveness. We look for a positive attitude on the court, their reaction to mistakes and reaction to their teammate’s errors. We look for effort on every play. We want players who have a good attitude and are engaged when they are not in the game. A lot of the things we are looking at have nothing to do with passing, serving, hitting, etc. They are about personality.” 

She adds solemnly, “Those kids are hard to find.”

Stuck isn’t just a frustrated coach, she also teaches Psychology and Sports Psychology and has seen the tide turn over the last decade; these types of athletes who have become relics in a sea awash in Club politics and profits and overzealous Parents.

“The Club Machine has created a climate of individualism in the sport. By the time players reach 18, they are in my experience, tired and sick of the grind. They have endured up to 6 plus years of pressure to be on the ‘best team’, to be the ‘best player in their position’ and to get that college scholarship. They have lost their passion and love for the sport. They are not motivated and do not work hard.”

“Club has created a climate where parents are always searching for the best team, the best situation for their kid and guarantees. Learning to overcome adversity and working hard over time for what you want has been lost in the quest for instant success and guarantees without investment.”

“We want kids that are willing to be in the trenches and know how to persevere through rough times. A kid that has never had to do those things usually does not do well in our program. We sometimes look for kids that are young in the game and still have that passion, drive, and haven't been tainted by a climate that encourages a ‘minimum input, maximum reward’ mentality.”

So Stuck sidesteps the land mine players of entitlement and dysfunction and looks for the kids that may not fill the box score but can be a part of her culture. “I think it has to do with understanding the important characteristics your players must possess, really staying committed to recruiting those players and not getting caught up in the search for the 6'2 kid that only hits well, only blocks well, or only serves well. We want players who are ready and willing to work their butts off every day in the gym and 'live and breathe the game. That player may be 5'0 or 5'7" or 6'1". We aren't that concerned with the height factor.”

“The foundation of our program is a 'never quit' mentality and an inner strength that comes with overcoming adversity and being able to handle failure. In the search for the ‘easiest way’ to do things, kids are not very prepared or even know how to handle adversity or failure. We are looking for kids that do know those things. We have had numerous players who were not highly recruited, or were overlooked due to their size. They did however, have the qualities we wanted.”

Season 19 is upon her and Stuck is already looking toward the season. But she is now fully invested in this type of athlete and refuses to go back.

“Everyone has their own philosophy and I know there are many ways to coach this game. We just happen to have found a formula that works for us and has enabled us to have a huge amount of success. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The In Between...

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the U.S. Men’s team, on their way to the Gold Medal played 1,446 points in 33 sets in 8 matches. In John Kessel’s blog called No More Drills, Feedback or Technical Training he gives us this incredible statistic: “Most coaches do not know the average contact periods per skill - so I will share those now - .10 sec for setting; .05 for passing; .01 seconds for hitting and .03 for blocking. So using an average contact time of .05 seconds - the average total time of CONTACT by a player through the entire Olympic Games was - 27.4 seconds.”

So what the heck did those players do the rest of their time on the court?

As coaches, we should always be thinking about the “in between.” In matches, in training and in our seasons, those times get lost but are as or in some cases, MORE valuable than the actual time we count as productive training and playing time.

Often we pass through these “in between” times of our lives and don’t even realize it. In the book, “What are Comics” the author writes: “Each panel is separated by the others by a blank space called the gutter. The gutter is a very important element since it is the space containing all that happens between the panels. This means that the reader has to guess the missing elements in order to reconstruct the flow of the story.” In other words, the “in between” of a comic strip is nothing, but your mind is filling in the blanks.

When training our athletes we have to ask, how do THEY fill in the blanks? How can we as coaches help them?

In training, what is done before practice? What is done during drink breaks and how long do they take? Most importantly, what happens after a player executes a rep of a skill? At a May clinic at the Hopi Jr/Sr High school, they were given video feedback for the first time in their careers on every pass they executed. They got to watch themselves and learn from each rep. The passing began to improve just from this one added feedback loop.

As has become more evidence driven in recent years, too much feedback in between reps can be as stunting to an athlete’s growth as none at all, but those times “in between” reps can be used in other ways. How about peer to peer feedback, which many psychologists are telling us is more valued than feedback from a coach; players can receive it from another teammate or even better, give it? Is there another skill that can be “tagged along” with the skill just completed? Or maybe borrowing from Socrates, is this a good time or a question; asking the player what they saw, asking them about smaller details perhaps to help guide their next opportunity.

What about in between games or matches? The inevitable pre-game/ post-game chats which can cause more angst for players then losing their cell phones. Are your observations proactive? Are you positive and focused what they did well or do your chats become a tirade of things that were done wrong and efforts to go back in time to get them to do it right?

Now that the Club seasons are winding down or over, what about this big block of “in between” time? Are they filled with camps and clinics and private lessons that are the DNA of over training injuries and burnout?

How about your athletes try another sport or play sand volleyball. Better yet, how about they don’t play for a month and get rested and healthy and get their mind clear before the High School camps and clinics begin. This is a big “in between” but what’s best for the physical and mental training of your athletes should always be your paramount goal as a coach. 

The “in between” in often times overlooked as coaches and players and parents but it’s valuable and can be used effectively and proactively to help our athletes achieve their success.