Pyramids of Success

Aug. 13, 2010, 9:48 p.m. (ET)

Another girls’ high school season is soon upon us, and I have been thinking about pyramids, thanks to seeing them when doing the 38 nation clinic  in Egypt this past spring. How so much of our work we do at the grassroots level to grow the game, is done to help make the top of our own pyramid the best those can be. Indeed, unlike school itself where the intent is to get everyone to graduate,  scholastic sport is different, with elementary schools funnel up volleyball players into fewer junior highs and those middle school programs pyramid up into fewer high schools…on to college and beyond --- as things just keep getting narrower in playing rosters, while the talent level follows the Olympic Citius, Altius and Fortius path.  

In part my pyramid reflections are due to observing my daughter McKenzie as she coaches this at the elementary school camp, then the junior high camp – as that which you teach, you learn – and seeing the pyramid of interest and skill at the bottom level for my home town. I have also been talking to my son Cody each night as he decompresses from another full day of training with the Junior National Team group in Ohio this past week.  The first night he was quiet, reflecting on how much faster this next level serves the ball in, and how quicker the plays went, and the range of the attack, all making digging, passing and blocking that much more difficult.  The second night he was more animated, even though he is playing hurt from an Ultimate Frisbee foot tweak that is not getting any recovery as he trains 3-a-days,  and was starting to adapt to the higher speed and faster decision making that is needed as you climb the pyramid. That he is playing against older, college experienced players who are the best in the USA is a huge learning opportunity, and he is doing his best to take in all he can learn, while being coach Tino Reyes’ favorite target. 

The thing that coaches don’t know, nor can we come up with a test yet that can predict, is who will mature, as they become the best they can be, into the next level of talent – especially at the highest level of the pyramid climbed. We see  so many players from college give the national team level a go, and so few make it. Most are simply not able to compete at this fastest level, where time to respond gets less as the ball moves faster. This speed of ball flight, and ability to deal with it, is what separates the college player from the international level. We are limiting the top of our pyramid by saying from the bench “For gosh sakes just GET IT IN!” and never letting our youth develop the fastest arm they can as an individual. Remember from past blogs on the myths, that over 80 percent of your power to hit the hardest spike you can, comes from first, your arm speed (closely followed by your torque of shoulder rotation.  Most coaches tell me it is their core, which in reality is less than 20% of the power. Don’t get me started on the myth of “wrist snap,” other than to say, it is less than 2.5% of the power as it only is in contact with the ball for about .01 second. Recently I was exploring the fastest skill performers in anything, and was fascinated to see the YouTube clips on the quickest gun draw shooter in the world in slow motion. CLICK HERE to get started, but there are lots of other clips which will pop up which you can explore the amazing speed at which some people can perform their skill.     Cuba knew how players have to hit the ball with the fastest arm possible, and from all over their island nation, picked the fastest arms and highest jumps of the players they could find. Then what did they do? Trained several of them to become setters, and ran a 6-2 offense. The result? That small country 90 miles from the USA have won THREE Olympic Golds in womens indoor volleyball – and we are working harder than ever to win our first in 2012. 

How do you learn to read “sooner” or “faster”? The best way is by doing it against the faster level player. This is why I encourage more clubs to play against adults all they can, and why we did this for State Games at the start of this month.  One of the “downfalls” of the US Jr. Club system is that kids only learn to process and read age level opponents. When I played professionally in Italy, our club’s own pyramid of younger players was playing alongside and with the top adult team. My son’s club team played men’s volleyball all fall,  a giving back to our sport that the older guys were doing for these high school kids. We need to do more of this, and if I ran a club, I would be sponsoring and supporting USAV adult teams, to scrimmage against, and even train against, my older players. Same goes for playing up in age groups – the athletes develop faster in key skills like reading and anticipating, even if they will be losing on the scoreboard.  I watched my son’s team play #1 seed Outrigger Canoe Club from Hawaii. There not only do you see the “Ohana” factor, where nephews and nieces are peppering and playing against their aunts and uncles and extended family, you also see the role model learning from their doubles courts set up. Alongside the adult courts is a smaller kids court, including a lowered net. The youth learn and watch, and when the adults do not have enough players to fill their game, the kids get invited to play with the adults.  No wonder OCC has a disproportionate number of players making the Olympic team – just like Cuba.

Another way to move up the pyramid faster is to not only to play as much as you can OVER the net, but to LOOK THROUGH the net. Too many players start “looking” when the ball appears above the “top” of the net. While this is still before it has crossed the net, given the short time we have to read and react, it is too late.  I have to again say that our Olympic liberos, including Erik Sullivan who I had the pleasure to work with last month while doing the Special Olympic National Games in Lincoln, NE, all say that 80-90% of their success in serve reception is happening BEFORE the ball crosses the net.  For spiking, that pretty much moves up to 100% - for digger, and to long before contact for the blockers. There just is not enough reaction/reading time in the short space between hitter and blockers, let alone the limited air time you have before your block starts to have to come down to earth. So start guiding your players to look through the natural “barrier” of the net, to get that between contact information they so importantly need.

This weekend my daughter played 2 days vs. other high school clubs in a play-the-game camp. The number of times the senior setters could dump on the underclassmen players they were facing was quite high – and yet I know it will not be nearly so high come November. Not from drills, but from the defenders getting better at anticipating when an opposing setter will dump the ball. Again, it is one of our most important jobs as a coach/teacher, to give clues and guide each player’s discovery of the game between contact, and to stop yammering so much about the technique seen at contact.

Can you break it down? Sure coaches do all the time, but I don’t believe you can with any value, and motor skill learning theory would say the same. It is all part of the flow and reading of the game. What we need to do, so our players can climb the pyramid faster, is to increase the number of contacts they are learning. Maxi scoring does this in youth volleyball (CLICK HERE to get the Minivolley book in English … it is in Spanish too), and doubles volleyball does it the best of all at any age. Couple that with playing against adults as a junior and your are really helping them climb the pyramid of success faster.  To again make my point about deliberate practice and the number of “contacts” – of doing, and not watching, I am going to share a couple of quotes from a July 1, 2010 USA Today article called “Online Play Preps Whiz Kids” – where it is noted that the World Series of Poker’s Texas Hold’em Main Event, is seeing champions who are as young as 21.  ESPN’s commentator Norman Chad said “It’s a combination of quantity and quality…You have to give them credit for doing their homework.  They use the technology of the Internet to learn the game more, play the game more, be more intelligent about it and take it to levels that it hasn’t been taken before.”  Joe Cada, 2009 Champion and just 22 years old says “Online is a huge learning tool.  That’s all I did over the last four years. You’re able to double or triple the amount of hands you see at a card table. The amount of hands you see and the experience you get translates to live poker. It’s the most vital thing there is.”

So think of what you know, and how you know it, and why you knew it, and work harder to guide your players to discover this same experience through the net. Not that the randomness of this game, where every point is not like any other point ever played in the history of volleyball, is not going to surprise you at times. It will. It will be interesting to see how the new “dimpled” balls limit the randomness of the ball flight. Take a look at this clip comparing the traditional ball to the new Molten Flistatec ball – CLICK HERE -   You can see in the clip the randomness of the ball flight with the balls almost every one of you reading this blog, will play with this year, compared to the “Flight Stability Technology” using a hexagon shaped dimpling surface. This change in ball flight happens on the other side of the net with time to react to, but also happens in the last 3 meters of ball flight, which you cannot react to. Thus I promise your best passer will shank a few this season. It is not the player’s technique, it is simply because our game is random, including the flight of the served ball. Relax coach, and just focus on the one you can control – the next point. Please do not waste everyone’s time and tell your player “WATCH THE BALL!” for I promise you, they are watching. Maybe not enough through the net, but even if they were, some serves will float big in that last few meters and good passers will shank. It is why so many are going to the float jump serve – it still is pretty random, while the higher and closer contact of the ball to the opponent’s side, makes for just a little bit less reaction and reading time.

So the pyramid of success has a lot of random stops along the way. Injuries which change your team plans. Weather when playing outdoors which makes coming back indoors that much easier to do compared to those challenges outside, and countless other variations of the game which will thrill and exasperate you. Chill coach. Be the calm in the middle of the game storm, no need to roil the waters more with your frustrations in dealing with the unpredictable nature of this wonderful game. Speaking of games,  I wanted to close with a game my kids have been playing which I think would be a great team builder for road trips or even local tournaments. It is called QUELF:  A VERY unpredictable board game for teams. Obey the rules….and gives random a new name – my kids get a lot of laughs out of playing, regardless of the winner, and that is a great thing to see happen while playing anything, on or off the court.

Off to Bolivia for a week of clinics with their national teams, Paralympic, Special Olympic, scholastic and club programs. Half the time we will be at 7,000 feet in Cochabamba, and it looks like there might be fly fishing streams nearby…oh I sure hope so… gives me time to reflect on ceasing of operations of the AVP and what the best next steps will be for the sport that really started me playing back in 1962 at Emerald Bay.  Jason Hodell and the staff did all they could in these challenging times, and now there are new challenges to focus on for the other Olympic discipline.  I’ll be back….