The Power of Story & Serving

Jan. 15, 2010, 11:39 a.m. (ET)

This is a special weekend for me, as I am working with the best, Carl McGown, as part of his staff at the first Gold Medal Squared Coaching Clinic here at Arizona State University. If you get a chance to attend one of their multi-day sessions - you will come away a better coach, and since the best coaches have a growth mindset, I urge you to find the time to take a clinic from Carl and his GM2 coach/teachers.

What I keep smiling about, is how great a teacher and story teller Carl is. He is working hard to guide the 80 some odd coaches here, some attending for their SIXTH time, from places as far away as Brazil, Michigan and Washington.  The self depreciation and successes, the simplification, and the great stories are why these coaches keep coming back. It is an eclectic group of passionate coaches here seeking to learn. At breakfast with the staff I was pleased to hear that Carl will be attending later this month, the FIVB Coaches Commission meetings for USAV in Switzerland, and then will join me next month in the Dominican Republic for our Technical and Coaches Commission meetings. His contributions to making coaches and players around the world are unsurpassed.

Carl's ability to teach and to simplify coaching -  to get these coaches to understand principles, allow the coaches to follow those principles, and not feel it important to follow fads, is wonderful. Biomechanically efficient movement, following the laws of motor learning, motivating through quality training and competition, and understanding the cumulative effect - that there are no little things and everything adds up and matters - he does a superb job of getting coaches to change, and stop teaching the way they were taught - and to understand WHY they should change....

His story telling brings to mind how important the power of storytelling is.  I can't emphasize to those reading this how much better of a teacher, coach and parent you will be if you improve your storytelling skills. It is how we are wired to better remember.  Rather than spend lots of writing giving you reasons and tips, I am simply going to ask you to get Jim Loeher's  The Power of Story - it is a great read on how to be a better story teller. There you can better improve the most important story - your story - as so many things compete with you and your athletes for the most valuable real estate in the world - the neurological space between your ears. Remember, the body only does what the mind says to do, so we need to be better teachers of the mental game, and storytelling is a core part of that teaching.

While I was learning by teaching, I also had the chance to hear stories and dialogue with the rest of the coaching staff at meals - Jason Watson took our staff to a great lunch at the ASU Golf Course, and Mike Wall had us over to his home for a wonderful fajita dinner. Each of the coaches had their own stories to tell, and of course Ron Larsen and Rob Browning's weavings of tales from the Beijing gold medal run to collegiate coaching were insightful as always. My "kids" of around 20 coaches especially wanted to focus on the principles as they applied to 14 and unders, and we shared a lot of grubroot stories and best practices, especially when Tom Melton came over to help us out.

I also learned and confirmed - and will share one of those with you on serving. If you have picked up and read the new USAV Minivolley book released on Christmas day as a present to our volleyball family, you should have seen the chapter on "Winning the Serve/Pass War" - and how to employ maxiscoring to speed up the teaching of the game to younger players. What was fun to see is how this same fact is no less important at the highest level. For the men, serving is most important and passing second, while for women it is simply flipped, so that passing is most important and serving second.

Having coached a few hundred summer camps over the years, I spoke about how I used my twin bed sheets to create the very important FLAT targets that too many coaches do not use. Instead coaches reward hitting a vertical target like a chair, and thus are teaching their players to serve right at the passer. Carl recommends gym mats over the sheets, as the players get a reward from hearing the "Thump!" as the mat is hit. Tis true, but gym mats are not nearly as easy to transport from camp to camp in a car or airplane, but if you train one main place get mats for the higher "thump" factor. Another reason I have used sheets, is so the players can write on them, thoughts on serving tough, successfully and in - and record their top serving speed. I have been sent the "team serving sheets" from past programs with special thanks for helping them be far better servers, an interesting wall hanging to be sure.

The best "thump factor" that when presented as a flat target that will increase the focus and mindful serving we seek?  You.  Yep, YOU laying face down (or be a real head coach and delegate it to an assistant or even a parent who wants to get in shape) - and still coaching as you talk to the servers or players on your side - for we always need to be teaching. They hit you, and you get to turn over and do sit ups, or stay face down and do pushups - 2-5 per whump - as you do need to get into shape too right? 

So the recording of the top error free streaks and fastest server per player on the serve mat/sheet, is another form of "Hollywood Star" (see the Minivolley book for more on that). The skill of serving is a closed motor program - all in your control - and you can be a tough server and still serve IN a ton. Some stats from as far back as 1984 to prove my point - Craig Buck and Karch Kiraly combined for 14 of the USA Men's Team's service aces - of a team total of 26. They each served about 140 serves for the entire Olympic game run to winning the gold medal. How many errors did they each make?  One. Uno.  You have to have a ROUTINE, that includes a relaxing deep breath, survey of flat space target (but not giving it away by looking at it), ready position with the hitting hand already back (for standing float serves), and PLACE (not toss) the ball to the same sweet spot in time (low, with no real falling from the apex, which is the most consistent and why we say "place" the ball. Then a rigid and consistent contact point and follow through to your defensive area. Most players stand and watch in serving often do you do get to do that in a match?...You should serve and sprint to base, then get another ball and serve again.

Why record speed? You want to teach your players how to hit with maximum velocity and still keep it in. You can get a second generation Bushnell Radar gun right now online for right at $100. Chris McGown (Carl's son) said he got his for $75, and it was within 1 mph of the $1,000 expensive models that other sports like softball use. The recording of increasing speed on the serve chart/mat/sheet is an important Citius, Altius, Fortius ceremony - and you need to know the facts by measuring. Remember, that which is valued, measured, and recorded...improves.

I will close with one of the things I learned. I have never bothered to make sure every practice ball in the cart is at the same and proper pressure. Sure I felt them and set aside ones that are too low or not holding air. I did not however put a pressure gauge into each one and make them be the 3.15 kg/cm3 (4.5 psi for non-metric coaches) that a ball officially should be. So my servers have been learning to serve with a widely varying regulatory stimuli (the ball) they should not have been learning from - balls which will react differently to an identical arm speed/contact. If you have taken IMPACT, CAP or Gold Medal Squared training, you know the importance of random vs. blocked learning - but having a bucket of random pressured volleyballs is not going to best teach your players this vital skill of being a consistent, tough, accurate server. The ball should not be random. Indeed, at the Olympics the balls are precisely inflated and measured and checked for each game to be the same.

So now I have a ball pressure gauge in my briefcase and will start checking and making my servers - and other skills, just a bit better. Thanks Carl and company for teaching me new things. It was a great way to spend three days in a gym in Arizona in 70 degree weather, while my home state was basking in highs of 15 and lows of -10.

To find out more about Gold Medal Squared clinics and training, CLICK HERE. To see where the next USAV CAP course is, or online IMPACT Webinar CLICK HERE and look at the left side options.

And here is a shout out to Richelle Heacock - one of Bill Neville's Dawgs (aka staff coach), and a new member of the all-world lefthanded volleyball team. Her story of life is coming online daily with new unexpected chapters as she just had a big bump in the road of life that involved a car and her back. To quote Nev "She is a terrific kid who has trained with us and now works with us as a staff coach, while preparing for her last two years of college ball.  She is a tough unit and comes from hard stock:  Her mom grew up on a two-by-twice, hard scrabble Montana ranch and her dad is a sheriff out in the hinterlands around Mount Rainier.  Fabulous people. She was one of the demonstrators at last year's CAP course held here. She also was with us when we filmed for the Dartfish Project."  For details of her situation you can look at  - Go get 'em lefty.

And for all of us, count our blessings that we have Carl McGown still teaching coaches how to be better teachers.


The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On January 16, 2010 Jon Bennett wrote

Hello John, What great article. I directing an IMPACT clinic this weekend. After reading I can't wait to share this. I like to say direct because I like to help direct the coaches into discovery of the concepts we teach. One example, I a recent IMPACT clinic. We were in the middle of motor learning and I coach raised his hand and asked the following. I have athletes that always forget to come into the court after serving. He said after listening to the motor learning section why do we train this? I probed him further please explain. He said when we teach serving we just have them stand there and serve with no movement. Would it be better to have them serve 2-3 balls and then run into base and perform another skill? I just smiled and said what do you think?

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