Specificity & Simplicity

Feb. 09, 2010, 4:53 p.m. (ET)

To grow the game, and importantly your skills as a teacher/coach of sport, it is best to seek the effective practices of those who have gone before, and those smarter than you, so that you can stand on their shoulders and see even farther. With the advent of the Internet, there is a lot of chaff to sort through to find the wheat we need to nourish our growth, but if you keep these two words in mind - simplicity and specificity, you will do well. Indeed, let them be the two wings which will help you fly, and soar to heights not reached by those who have gone before you.

These quotes come to mind as we seek to simplify our coaching. David Hockney said it well I think, stating that "anything simple always interests me." So I have gathered some quotes spanning a couple thousand years, from people far, far wiser than most - from Plato to Churchill -- to reflect on for growing your coaching skills.

"'Think simple' as my old master used to say - meaning reduce the whole of its parts into the simplest terms, getting back to first principles." -- Frank Lloyd Wright

"Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."  - Albert Einstein

"Simply the thing that I am shall make me live." - William Shakespeare

"Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity." - Plato

"Nothing is true, but that which is simple." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life." - Winston Churchill

So as we teach our sport skills to athletes, this same principle holds - to simplify. In IMPACT and CAP for 20 years we have quoted the research of Berlin who stated "words have little meaning to beginners in motor skill learning."  However, had you been at the last two HP Coaching Symposiums, or in the USA team gym over the years, you would see this same simplicity principle being applied - in no small part to increase the chances of repeatability, and to reduce risk.

There will always be those who seek to dazzle with verbosity and complexity. As our game evolves, the need for creating confusion and misreads by the opponents, and the growth of options from simple to a far more talented skill sets, will create an organized chaos with which we attack and defend. It should always be simply founded on principles, not blather, on solid technique, not one skill wonder, where our players are very good at ALL skills, and great at a couple, as Hugh McCutcheon has said so well.

Carl McGown, one of the world's best coaches of coaches, involved with our Olympic team success no less than eight Olympiads in a row, has written a wonderful article on this topic which is more than worth the read. You can read "Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication" by CLICKING HERE.

The other wing that will help us fly as coaches, is that of specificity in training. Recently I watched a couple of videos posted by well intentioned coaches, which gave me cause to pause. I wondered if it is that easy to say "this is gamelike" or "this is very volleyball specific" when in simple truth, the actions, learning and reading of the game being taught, are out by Pluto in the system of true specificity and learning things to help one play better volleyball in a match. Here are the actual words used as the coach teaches these two drills.

"This next drill is called bounce. It's a warm up game we like to play. It's a fun game that the kids really like. Basically it's volleyball specific, very volleyball specific...we're all focusing on a pass-set-hit, a pass-set-hit with each team, we're just making sure the ball is contacted underneath the net....so it's a pass, a set, uh, and a hit, making sure we're digging, making sure we're getting back to block...over the net, that's out....the coach just enters the ball and controls the pace...the two girls if you notice they' are blocking the ball with their backsides or their legs and it's just a fun game the kids like to play."

"This next drill is another fun warm up game that we like to use here at school. It's called "Bloody Knuckles"  um, it's a fun sounding name, basically it's volleyball specific again - it's three contacts - and we are trying to keep the ball underneath the net...we are trying to go ahead and terminate the ball, it's a fun drill. If the balls stops rolling, it's done. It's basic queen of the court threes. Once the team loses, they go to the queen side the winning side. If the winning side wins, they stay on. And a new team's on. If it bounces, if it doesn't hit the court before it goes out of bounds it doesn't count.  And if it, If the ball comes out of the sideline in front of the 10 foot line it is also out of bounds.  You gotta come behind the ten foot line, outbounds they're out.   You can block with your body, just make sure to hide your face so that you don't get hit."

So we have "attackers" learning to spike balls either bounced or rolled under the net, while the "blockers" either stand or lay on the ground, facing away from the net - and we are told this is "very volleyball specific."  I would agree that it is fun, but there is no learning going on that will help you play better volleyball. These examples are where I would apply the "Olympic Gold Medalist" concept, which is where you ask yourself, "if they become the best in the world at this drill...what happens in an actual match with their motor program they are so great at?" In drills like this, if your team became the world's best at "Bloody Knuckles", how good would you be at legally doing all the skills in an actual match?

Sidebar - remember to name your games something fun, clever, easy to remember, but "safe. You don't want to be on the witness stand, being cross examined by the opposition lawyer, in a suit filed from an injury that happened in your drill - and when it is asked "What is the name of the drill my client was permanently injured in? - you have to respond with something like "Bloody Knuckles."

Specificity in training is a phrase you will hear hundreds of times in the next two important gatherings upcoming at the US Olympic Training Center, once the Vancouver 2010 Games are done. From IMPACT thru CAP and Gold Medal Squared clinics and throughout these Grow the Game blogs, the importance and examples of specificity is shared. I invite you to join us at one of these next two gatherings to learn even more.

The Training and Design Symposium will take place in our hometown April 22-24, and features a keynote by Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, and even our own Hugh McCutcheon. 

By the way, Dan's blog is one of my favorites - and the last two recent posts on the "3 Rules of High Velocity Training" and "Being Smarter with the Ipad" are must reads - so CLICK HERE and check them out.

A week later, April 30-May 3rd, again here at the Olympic Training Center, the US Paralympic "Developing Amazing Leaders" symposium takes place. Bill Hamiter, our National Sitting Team coach will be there, and I get to deliver a session on "From Belief-based to Evidence-based Coaching." To access the US Paralympic website and view more on the event, or sign up, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Terry Pettit, former Nebraska head volleyball coach - an NCAA Champion no less - has been kind enough to allow me to speak at his Excellence in Coaching Symposium over the years. Terry's writings are important for all in our sport, from his book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams, to his articles in AVCA and on his own website. CLICK HERE to visit it.

This year in the USA Volleyball "Best Practices" section of the "Grassroots" button, I will share some of the other speaker's effective ideas, so that you who could not be there, can also be a part of those wonderful gatherings. In the meantime, go to www.BigThink.com  and sit in while these fascinating thinkers with a vast variety of expertise share their responses to questions we all might want to ask them.  

So lots of new ideas to learn from ahead, online and in person. Hopefully these will be the kernels of sustenance we all need to grow from.  I am leaving the kids to run the house and trust them to finish their school work as  South Carolina (Southern AAHPERD Convention), Dominican Republic (joining Carl McGown for our NORCECA Coaches and Technical Commission meetings and Coaches Clinic), and Michigan (Lakeshore USAV RVA Coaching training with Hugh McCutcheon and Gary Sato) are on this month's travel itinerary. Add in that my son's HS Volleyball team starts training Febuary 22nd, and there is lots going on in the gym!

As always, thanks for growing the game with USA Volleyball and let us know your thoughts by email to john.kessel@usav.org or in the comment section below.