IMPACTing Learning

Sept. 10, 2010, 11:33 a.m. (ET)

Over 22 years ago, I sat down with Bill Neville and Mike Flemming, at Bill’s house in Colorado Springs, and began the writing of new book on the fundamental levels of coaching. This week, I helped out doing IMPACT Instructor refresher courses by webinar, from the comfort of our own homes, as we shared the newest research, best practices, and ideas in making the course Citius, Altius, Fortius, as it has been done each and every year since 1988.

After watching my son and daughter play in the 38th annual Motherlode over the Labor day holiday (they took 5th each time out of 40-80 teams in Coed, and men’s BB/women’s B, thanks in part to Grassroots Commission member Denise Sheldon partnering with them in two of the divisions), and a long staff retreat covering our strategic plans for 2011-16, it was nice to get back to teaching teachers. The webinar also made me realize how long we have been teaching coaches to be better at their role, just like they teach their athletes to be better, we do our part to help them be better.

When the fantastic New York Times article “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits” came out we were while up in Aspen, I marveled at how the principles we have been teaching for decades in IMPACT for athlete development, are equally appropriate to student development. I also could only laugh at how the same challenge of “We coach the way we were coached” impacts teacher education.

Here is an excerpt from the article…

The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.

“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”

So take time to read the article, as I am certain it will help you be a better teacher, parent and coach…

Principles and best practices are the core of the IMPACT course, yet many do not know the history of how USA Volleyball began to help all coaches teaching our youth. I had run the US Jr. Olympic Volleyball Championships in Albuquerque in 1987, and we had coaches buying their kids beer, other coaches buying and setting off fireworks down the dorm hallways, and several other actions which were not doing the right thing. The thing was though, USAV, while having had coaching education classes since the mid-1970s, only had a small percentage of coaches learning from the courses.  No one was telling the Jr. Olympic Volleyball coaches the code of conduct we expected to be followed, nor was there any sharing of the new ideas we were gathering from winning medals in the Olympics. Instead, as Nev put it, we were letting coaches use our kids as guinea pigs as they learned how to coach by trial and error.

So the leadership at USAV and the Junior Olympic Volleyball Advisory Committee realized we needed to create a low cost, core principles founded, mandatory (at some level) coaching education program to bring a coach up to speed. My wife then, Laurel, was training with the US National team a second time (after being a member of the 1980 Olympic team that did not go to Moscow due to the US government boycott), getting ready for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, so I had the time to research and write the first edition and even run the entire operation.

We wrestled with the title, bouncing around words that would capture the intent of the program, using a thing called a thesaurus, as the Internet was still a few years off. The word hit home was IMPACT…and then the three of us sat for over two hours, crafting the words to fit the term.  Mastery…. research… science based… professional…. theory…. effort…. motor learning… ethics…  not all the ideas or words could be found to fit, but they could be put into the chapters which would focus on three key areas:

  1. The opportunities and responsibilities of coaching

  2. The resources of the volleyball world and region.

  3. Motor learning theory and science of sport.

So it became:
                    Mastery and
                    Application of

With the help of Dr. Carl McGown, part three was finished first. Now, readers of this blog know the huge impact Carl has made on our sport, from the 1970s National teams to the most recent gold medal in Beijing.  So you must read this article he and Dr. Steven Bain just wrote called “Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball.” Read it, print it off and take it to work and read it again. Put a copy in your bathroom and read it again and again.

The double edge sword – opportunities yet responsibilities - of teaching principles and philosophy became the next chapters, and included the risk management materials from our insurance company at the time. With no Google or Internet, digging up the resources was the hardest task, including information on youth programming, beach volleyball, and parental support. Dr. Dave Epperson had already begun his great work in parent education and helped greatly in that one area.

In the end, the first IMPACT manual was 66 pages in all. A hard copy of a master was send to each RVA, so they could print as affordably as possible. Indeed, affordability was also a design of this program, with each region setting their own costs. Even today, some RVAs teach IMPACT for no cost and others for $20 including the 100 page book. It is the kind of value USA Volleyball provides for our sport, for boys, girls, beach and indoor programming as it is the right thing to do. 

The intent was and remains that at the base level, the course would not teach volleyball skill, but teaches how to teach better. So that if a coach wanted to teach serve reception with a forehead pass, as I oft saw my Italian players do when I was coaching while playing professionally in Italy, then fine, as long as they did it efficiently by motor learning principles and the kids continued to love the game. We wanted to be proactive in risk management too, so new coaches learned not to put clipboards on the floor, and the code of conduct they were expected to follow – which came much later as a standalone document for coaches and now even all club personnel. The regions were asked to identify their best teaching coaches, those who would represent USAV best, and who were good at public speaking. Dozens of leaders arrived at the Olympic Training Center to be taught how to be IMPACT instructors, spending three days in the process.

Bill Neville taught the first IMPACT at the US Jr. Olympic Volleyball Championships in Fort Collins in 1988. ALL National Championship competing coaches, who did not already have USAV, FIVB, ASEP, or Canadian Coaching Education certificates, or a degree in coaching, were to attend. It was a fascinating group of coaches – with experience from one to over 30 years. The number of coaches who felt they did not need to learn of risk management, motor learning theory, and other IMPACT topics, was amazing. They felt their experience meant they did not need to be there. My favorite moment was when a long time coach asked Bill “What is the proper footwork to get outside on the block?”  The coach went apoplectic when Bill responded “Either get there, or get on the bench.” Even then, the number of coaches who only knew how, rather than the why, was substantial.

We got a USOC grant to add the skills and systems to the project a few years later.  This became the PLUS section where an RVA could do one to six hours of extra training in a gym, and teach those areas many new coaches would need. There again, we made sure not to just focus on the highest level of teams, but to help coaches be aware of the 6-3 and 6-6 offensive options, and the zero and one blocker defensive options you might be best with. Each skill is covered with the main cue words, images and best games or drill to teach the skill.

To date, tens of thousands of volleyball coaches have taken 240 minutes out of their lives to be given the latest core research ideas and thoughts. Researchers grant permission for USAV to excerpt and share key passages, and entire articles on core principles. The Coaches Code of Conduct was included starting in 1995 and background screening for all coaches began in 2006.  USA Volleyball has a Code of Conduct for all Junior Club personnel working with athletes 18 and under. This includes club directors and officials. I wonder if other volleyball organizations have or require such education, reflection and paperwork. Extra work and expense? Sure, but like IMPACT, these things are simply the right thing to do for quality Jr. Olympic Volleyball programming and athlete protection.

The latest 2010 background screening information shows 73 coaches were disqualified from coaching USAV Jr. Olympic Volleyball and USA Jr. Olympic Beach Volleyball, up from 53 in 2009. With club coaches being in contact with far more than the 9-12 players they are coaching, I would guesstimate last year over 7,000 of our athletes were protected from these background check failing coaches. I wonder how many “coaches” chose in advance, knowing what USAV policies are, to join another sport or volleyball organization where mandatory background checks are not performed, if 73 knew they were getting checked and still tried. It cannot be tracked, but I am sure it is far more than 73 – for each of those coaches not passing the screening, are free to go coach volleyball in non-USAV sanctioned events.  

I also have found it fascinating that the National Basketball Association and NCAA find it necessary to spend millions of dollars to form a program called “iHoops.” – To quote from a May 2010 NCAA press release - “Jointly established by the NCAA and NBA in 2009, iHoops is committed to providing a structure and creating programs to improve the quality of youth basketball in the United States to enhance the athletic, educational and social experience for millions of boys and girls, parents, coaches and officials. As the popularity of basketball continues to rise -- it is currently the number one U.S. participatory team sport with 23 million boys and girls playing the game -- iHoops provides a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of the game and safety and support of its participants.  iHoops’ extensive online community and network of events and programs will play a vital role in the game’s long-term growth.  Elmore (IHoops CEO) will oversee the expansion of original content and special offerings on, which currently provides supporting services and resources for players, parents, coaches, officials, teams and event organizers including skills training, educational programming, events registration, instructional videos, highlights, blogs, social media, and eventually online education courses for coaches and officials.”

Well, there is no need for the NCAA to worry about volleyball, men or women. USA Volleyball has been doing the right thing in all those areas. Indeed, sounds like they are ramping up at iHoops to do what USAV had been doing for decades. We win record setting numbers of Olympic and Paralympic medals, while growing the game on all levels. We work closely with our 40 Regional Volleyball Associations and over 30 Affiliated Organizations – like the National High School Federation and the NCAA, and also must partner with our National Olympic Committee (NOC) – the US Olympic Committee (USOC) and with our International Federation (IF) – the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB). That is what a National Governing Body does, by law we must do those important things. We can’t just pick out an area of our sport that makes money, and ignore the other areas like Paralympics or the disadvantaged areas of our sport. In every state of the USA, we train officials, players, and we teach coaches too. USA Volleyball has been around since 1928, and now is preparing for the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 and for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

From the past, present and future, there are always new things to learn, improve upon and dream, so if you have not taken IMPACT in the last few years, I would urge you to attend an RVA training, or sign up for the webinars and get all the latest information. In the meantime, thanks for all your help in growing the game, and let us know if you have any ideas on how to do it even better.


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

On September 14, 2010 Alan Chew wrote

I especially like the journal on motor learning. It is proven valid around me: a college junior of mine who has not undertaken ANY volleyball training just did brilliant job in a competition. Block kills a top hitter and received from hard hit of strong hitter. What he did is just play game everyday. John, your philosophy is very true: the game teaches the game. I have decided to change my coaching style now. Let's see what difference can I make. Hope to get more tips from you. Cheers.

On September 14, 2010 John Kessel wrote

Alan - Your ability to learn and apply such changes is to be commended. Everyone, over at Gold Medal Square, Steve has added a very detailed and important response on the topic of strength training effects and blocked vs. random training. MAKE SURE TO READ THE COMMENT SECTION ALSO - found at

On September 20, 2010 Tim Vande Schraaf wrote

John, a good read. We do believe the on court and in person is much more effective to our coaches, but as you said the goals are to "teach" some risk management, so we are at a minimum accomplishing that via the web. Tim

We very much welcome additional new comments, to be contributed below: