Fact vs. Fiction

July 16, 2010, 12:10 p.m. (ET)

At the 2010 Sitting World Championships, doing all sorts of things, from court set up to photography. Starting today, I move to the role of coaching the coaches again – in this case in the Wounded Warrior project we will be “training the trainers.” Ten military leaders will watch the rest of these World Championships, and participate in classroom and on the court training, while we have also extended the training to some of the new teams from around the world in this event to share. I sit in the stands, in the dining hall, and just in the lobby, and find myself over and over again having coaches from the 26 nations come up to talk  about the facts of coaching as I know them, and am amazed at how many don’t know the science behind our sport.  

When I ask them how long a player’s hand is on the ball when it is spiked, I hear back .5 seconds (in reality as previously covered, it is .01) or that the wrist snap provides 25 percent of the power (in reality 2.5 percent). So I keep wondering…how do we get people to understand the base they need to build their coaching on – this stabilizing anchor point for us all found in facts, not beliefs. I have been lucky to work with some of the best thinkers of teaching and the science in sport over the decades – Carl McGown, Doug Beal, Jim Thompson, Dave Epperson, Bill Neville, who have helped mentor and brainstorm.  The art of coaching needs a touch of your own style, heart and passion, but it needs to be based on what is fact, not fiction.

I keep thinking of this section of the IMPACT, where the USOC determined the top 10 traits of highly successful coaches, those being:

  1. Committed to individual integrity, values and personal growth.

  2. Profound thinkers who see themselves as educators, not just coaches

  3. Well‑educated (formally and informally) in a liberal arts tradition.

  4. Long‑run commitment to their athletes and their institution.

  5. Willing to experiment with new ideas.

  6. Value the coach‑player relationship, winning aside.

  7. Understand and appreciate human nature

  8. Love their sport and work.

  9. Honest and strong in character.

  10. Human and therefore imperfect

The thing that comes to mind watching the coaches here and all over the world in the over 40 countries I have taught in (next stop…Bolivia in August),, is how so many coaches are stuck in what they think they know and not willing to use trait #5, or spend time working to be great at traits #1 and 2. These passionate coaches have learned mostly by trial and error – either learning it on their own, or from copying the coaching they received, or watching a program better than them and mimicking what they saw, without knowing the why.  What is so often lacking is the science behind the game, coupled with letting players become great by teaching the game between contacts, the reading and anticipation that comes in training over the net in reality. The science is clear about the core importance of specificity in training, yet drill after drill seen is teaching something far from the real actions needed in our sport. The other thing missing is the reality of scoring – every rally of every game ends in a point, but most drills lack that simple fact – and are missing the facts found in statistics and keeping score.  Coaches should build from core concepts which are based on the facts of the sport, found in science and scoring….but sadly most don’t…

I am a pretty voracious reader, and always have been, reading all genres I feel of interest, and my interests are quite varied as part of my continual education. I read history – where you get someone’s version of how life happened in the past - always interesting from the varied points of view. I read science fiction, marveling at the creativity and imagination of other thinkers – including the great Hugo Award winning author, John Kessel. His Pride and Prometheus won the Nebula Award in 2008 for best novelette and I think is well worth the read, even though I am quite biased.  To view my alter ego’s home page at North Carolina State where he teaches, and to download a free copy of his winning story (just go down his home page a bit) click this… http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/index2.html. I read horror - and marvel at the sheer volume of words that Stephen King can create and weave into stories – my favorite being The Stand, as it is about where I coached long ago in Boulder Colorado. I read science – psychology, physiology, biology, mathematics and more. There you can find some of the answers you might be seeking in core concepts which to anchor your teaching on. When a book like Fooled by Randomness gets a backcover quote from Fortune magazine, that it is one of the five smartest books of all time, you sorta feel like there is something in there worth chewing on and understanding, as there also is in Taleb’s newest book The Black Swan.  Rather than elaborate more on Taleb’s work, I will just let you peruse his home page by CLICKING HERE 

In closing, I want to share this clip of an owl too….a wise bird and a great predator that I have always admired, as biology was part of my college major. Please take three minutes more and CLICK HERE to watch an amazing transformation based on the opposing possible threat.  I think of how some teams here play against a smaller opponent, or a larger one, and admire the calm spirit of Bosnia, and Iran – the top two sitting men’s teams in the world, and the same demeanor on so many levels seen in China and our USA team, the top two women’s teams in our sport right now.  I will not be able to see the gold medal matches, having to leave on the last day of this great event (huge kudos again to UCO on all levels, over 1,000 volunteers helping this happen) at dawn for Lincoln, NE in time to get there for the Special Olympics Nationals opening ceremonies, joining Tom Hoff, the wise captain of our team in Beijing, in growing the game there. I will ask our coaches for a copy of the matches, for win or lose, they will be great studies in effort and the passion of our game.


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

On July 23, 2010 doriano rabotti wrote

Hi John Great post, I always find very astonishing the way you are able to explain your point of view with the right words, going straight to the point. It's a useful lesson not only about 'growing the game', but for me also in using the language in a always most appropriate way. doriano rabotti

On July 27, 2010 charles hrebenach wrote

So a players hand is on the ball during a spike for 1/100th of a second?? That seems hard to beleive. I can accept that 1/2 second is too long, but 1/100th of a second? Maybe you meant 1/10 (0.1) second? Thanks.

On July 29, 2010 Dan Higgins wrote

I always enjoy your blog John. Hoping to see you in Australia at some point soon.

On August 02, 2010 Alan Chew wrote

Dear John, My name is Alan and I have just taken over a volleyball association here in Malaysia. I realize we have a lot of potential players but are lack of organization and system. Therefore I have taken over the association and hope to professionalize the sports. I referred to system and organization developed by Australia Volleyball Federation and are working hard on grassroot and coaching. However, I realize that teens nowadays LOVE to play volleyball, but HATE to train. They can spend hours playing 3s, 4s and all forms of game. When you have designed drills for them to help them improving their skills and techniques, they run away. They can spend hours under scorching sun spiking and blocking, but when you asked them to perform side-out drills, they escaped. How can I solve this problem? How can I handle the psychology of teens? Regards, Alan.

On August 06, 2010 John Kessel wrote

Charles - the high speed camera work done at the US Olympic Training Center show .008 to .01, so yes, 1/100th. passing is about .05 and setters "cradle" the ball for .1 or so. The other part that most coaches do not realize in the world is the "lack" of hang time in hitting. The highest leaping USA National men's VB team is at .66 seconds. Same for the highest NBA hoopster. This is why it is so important to hit REAL balls, set balls, not thrown balls, and to teach the game between contacts, not worry so much about the moment of contact. Thanks for the comment/question.

On August 06, 2010 John Kessel wrote

Alan - Congrats on the work you are starting with Malaysia. Important work for our sport to be sure. I worked in Australia for the Federation for several stints of national clinics and about a year as their Technical Director about 20 years ago now...time flies... Regarding drills vs games - they are learning to play as they play - more than you might understand. Read this blog I did awhile back, then email me directly at john.kessel@usav.org for more. http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Features/2009/December/18/No-More-Drills-Feedback-or-Technical-Training.aspx 

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