Fall 2014 Blog – Post # 11
Nov 7 Championship Play – Who owns the Comfort Zone?
Many final matches have now been played and a diminishing number of teams continue to battle on the court in HS State Tourney and College Conference matches. In all cases this season is coming to a screeching halt, and most coaches in the past week or two sat on the sideline guiding their troops through some critical match-ups. As your teams met those challenges, I have one simple question for you to consider when the time comes for you to evaluate this past season – who owned the comfort zone?
Which team had committed in their season long training to run a faster tempo on offense, and what was the effect on the blockers on the other side of the net? Which coach had invested time in developing a few jump servers, and did that impact the opponent’s passers? On which side of the net, were players comfortable changing defensive systems, sometimes from rotation to rotation, and did this help control a particularly strong attacker on the opposing team who faced a block and defense that carefully guarded against their strongest tendency?
There is something to be said for increasing the comfort zone for your own players, and at the same time becoming a team that makes life very uncomfortable for those you face. One of the more classic examples is the post-season high school match where Team A runs a “2” ball (second tempo) in the middle, while facing first tempo quick hitters on Team B. The Team A blockers do not practice against first tempo on a daily basis, and this puts them at a distinct disadvantage when facing this during competition – clearly Team A blockers are not in their comfort zone. Disclaimer – this is of course only true, if the coach of Team B has made a 100% commitment to investing the necessary time to technically train their setters and middles effectively.
Regardless of what level your program competes at – if you take evaluation seriously, it is very important to credit your opponents for what they do well. Even further, perhaps upon reflection this will lead you into some tactical goal setting for your program for the following season. I must say though – proceed with caution.
Let me share an example of how “trying” this transformation can be. For some unexplainable reason it is one of my favorite stories. Despite the frustration experienced at the time, it was worth it. By the way I have witnesses and could name my former players and assistant coaches who were there for this, but I won’t. I also won’t name the opposing team but that coach would be quite entertained to know they were part of this.
So…..let’s just say we were in a season where we were building towards another championship run, but it was highly unlikely to occur that year. One of the developing visions I had for that group was that based on how we were put together, and the strengths of a few of our “less experienced” players, it was clear (crystal clear) to me, that our offensive success in the future would be from relying heavily on the slide attack. Now, let’s just say that I was way more committed to that idea than even the players involved at that point. In this story, we are on the road against a strong opponent, one of several conference opponents that always produced highly competitive matches. We were essentially getting thumped. Now, being a little pragmatic, I wanted to get something out of every competition, so between sets two and three, I told the whole team, “we are going to run the slide this set – every single time”. This of course was followed by the traditional and customary “hands in – 1, 2, 3, SC” and off they go well prepared by yours truly, and all on the same page. Yeah, right! So, about three attacks into the set with none being a slide, I call a time-out (probably to the amusement of my friend, the opposing coach) and state with a certain level of emphasis something like “what was it about running the slide every time that we did not understand?” Off they go again, and I feel a little better, knowing that now we will at least get to see against some strong opposition and a very effective blocking team, just where we are in the development of this vision of mine. Soon enough, like three more attacks later….TIME-OUT! The one choice to set a slide out of those three attacks resulted in my young middle tipping the ball out of bounds, followed by two very high outside sets. The score was probably 7-8, and my colleague on the other bench was likely wondering what – as my mother used to say to me – “ailed my head”. I am sure the content of that time-out is just one of the many alumni game “Coach D” folklore stories, that some of those involved like to tell when they compare notes on how red my face could get. Did it get better? No, not that night, but you should have seen the next couple of practices. You better believe the players got a really, really good feel for what it means to literally run the slide every time.
Fast forward a few years and our slide was by far the highest percentage swing for that now experienced setter/middle tandem as they fought to get that championship. Our emphasis on running the slide by then was clearly in our comfort zone. In fact, we forced the ball behind the setter by that time even more than I would have preferred. That transformation in style was not easy at all. It took a lot of trial by error, learning from mistakes, and it probably cost us a set or a match along the way. Progress can be painful, and I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to achieve change, that we as coaches need to be equipped to teach technically and continuously put players in game-like competitive scenarios in practice. Plan practices based on guiding principles like those, and your teams will improve.
So, a few examples you might be considering: swing blocking, setters jump setting 100% of the time, developing back-row swings that are a natural part of your transition offense, or helping each server be able to disguise a short serve. Whatever those tactical changes or shifts you choose, you need to be committed long before you can expect your team to be.
This topic would make a nice day long agenda for a coach’s clinic. Speaking of which, the choices we make related to seeking out professional development opportunities is critical. We are fortunate in our sport, that coaches do share, and sometimes we don’t make changes because if we are being honest, we don’t feel competent to teach each and every skill or tactic. Invest in your development. I can still remember clinic speakers from decades ago, where I picked up a little nugget that challenged the way I thought, and how I was teaching. Even to this day, I continue to search for effective resources. I saw a great video just a week ago, where the demonstration was so effective, that it gave me an idea of how I might instruct the next time I am working with someone on that particular skill.
I chose late in the season to write about this “comfort zone” topic as these late season matches that mean so much, tend to stick with us. Listen to that “what if” question rolling around in your mind. You might not favor a particular tactic used by your arch rival, but if they are experiencing success against your team with it, then strongly consider adding it to your arsenal as quickly as possible, so that at least your players see it often. Evaluate the strengths of your toughest opponents, and look for differences in their approach that may have had your team on their heels recently. Now is the time to map out your plans for bringing your team to the next level – after all your next season really starts the minute the final point of this season is contested. That is a great segue looking ahead to ….
….Next week > Good Endings