The Player Who Knows WHY Beats the Player Who Knows How

June 21, 2010, 4:31 p.m. (ET)

Last week I found myself with my kids, headed over Wolf Creek Pass, the ski area still patchworked with deep snow, as my son drives over the Continental Divide - and I get to work on the laptop.  We are returning from several days working the Native American Volleyball Academy, run by the great Nana Allison Brewer, might be the first Navajo head coach at the DI level. I first had the  pleasure to teach her back in the 1990s when she joined a YMCA Coaching clinic at the Olympic Training Center when she was a player at New Mexico. She is now head coach at SDSU, and a mom of four kids – including a one month old son who was in attendance at camp, getting an early start to coaching. My kids joined me at the academy again, as this is a pretty special camp to be a part of on lots of levels. Navajo Prep was the site again, and has a new student center and dining hall. We even had a visit from the legendary Nancy Mike, who won several NM State VB championships at Santa Fe High School and who now lives in the Four Corners area. She was playing last month in the US Open in the over 50s or so, another lifetime leader in our sport.

As I worked with these young athletes and their coaches, a dinner with Olympian Jackie Joyner Kersee a few summers ago kept coming to mind. She was a multi sport player, including volleyball when she was in middle school. She gravitated to track and field, as she enjoyed tracking her small improvements – I need to jump ¼ inch more in long jump, win or lose….I need to go .1 second faster in this next race, win or lose. A classic case of Citius, Altius, Fortius understanding and focus on mastery/performance over outcome at a young age. She said the most important thing she learned from her husband/coach was that the track athlete that knew why, beat the track athlete who just knew how. What a true and powerful statement that is for all in sport.

Thus the title of this blog really says it all….we need to be better at teaching the WHY, not just the how. During the camp here, just about every one on one talk with players and coaches, I ask…Why? I will be gone in couple of days, and these kids need to be better able to problem solve/understand without the help of a coach.  It is equally true that the coach who knows why, beats the coach who knows how.

While questioning and guiding players to understand the why, not just the how, can take longer at the start, once the player knows why, they can problem solve related situations without your being there. In the end you have created a team of players who are also your assistant coaches, able to teach themselves so that the team gets better far faster than if you are the only source of wisdom. As the late John Wooden wrote – “You haven’t taught them if they haven’t learned…”  It is not about what you know, it’s about what they know.

Working with these Navajo athletes is always one of the highlights of my year. Chon, the head coach at Neah Bay, WA, drove the 22 hours to New Mexico to coach the camp. I have also been lucky enough to have coached in Chon’s gym, part of the Makah nation that is also the most Northwest land in the continental US.  Chon explains a lot more of the challenges of coaching on the reservation in his article that I have posted to the History section of the Grassroots. “Coaching on the reservation” notes that 50 percent of those living there are unemployed. So as part of USA Volleyball’s diversity work, we come here to help hands on.  The Navajo Times carried two good stories on this year’s camp at

Culture of Play

We wanted to help promote beyond this camp, a culture of play (now there is a virus I wish would spread worldwide, a culture of play virus…), so we went to the Wal-Mart next to the Navajo Prep campus, and bought over 20 market play balls so the players could take one home to play with their family back on the reservation. Nana spoke to the athletes about when she was a 7th grader and would play volleyball with her older sister, on their knees at their home, so they would not hit the ceiling as much. We strung my yellow rope up down the center of the court (just like seen in the minivolleyball book being done all over the world) and let each player pick out a ball in their desired color. Then we played one vs. one and one vs. one plus one. Three hits a side. Using their non-dominate hand for part of the time so they learned that important skill set. Then every player at the end of camp today took their ball with them, so they can play inside at home too.  We also spoke about the value of being early into the gym to play, even if the nets are not up, getting more deliberate practice and never waiting for a coach to blow the whistle to start learning.

I Need a Wood Court….

Here is a guesstimate I am making after coaching in over 40 nations around the world – over 90 percent of the world’s volleyball players, compete and train on dirt or concrete courts. So many of the small nations would have one or two indoor courts IN THE ENTIRE NATION, everything else is outside, and the lucky players get the asphalt or concrete level courts. In Italy and the Dominican Republic, entire minivolley tournaments are held on closed down streets – just like the great North American Chinese 9-man tournaments are run. Recently doing the CAVB (African Volleyball Confederation) clinic, again you saw dozens of outdoor courts, and only rare indoor court options. I remember talking with Lang Ping decades ago about one of the times she was too excited to sleep. It was before her first national championships, when she was around 14. It was not the nationals that was keeping her awake, it was because she was going to play on a wood court for the first time in her life. One of the great advantages of our sport is that it can be played on so many surfaces – including sand, grass, snow, mud, water and dirt. Most the world play on dirt, which hard packs down, and if they are lucky, they get to move up to a concrete or asphalt court. Karch Kiraly’s East High School in Santa Barbara, like so many playgrounds in California, has only an asphalt court were boys and girls by the dozens play daily during school breaks. Sure a wood court is nice, but when we play on Sport Court with padding, we are still getting an elite playing surfaces. If you do not have a court, get a rope up and play on whatever flat surface you can find. The key thing is…to play.

Aim for Heaven, not Hell

One other concept came back today, that of when you are lost, hitting the ball into heaven, not hell. The idea is to help young kids understand that when they are lost on the court, and having to hit the third ball over, they should never hit it into the net as and error, but should hit it way over the net, even if it goes out. “Hell” starts at the top of the net at 7’4 1/4” for the women, and ends at the floor. Heaven starts at the top of the net and goes the remaining 15-40 feet above the net, to the ceiling. I even have put up a red sheet on the net to the floor – to better show on of the hells of volleyball – or have used a black sheet (Hell then becomes a black hole) to help them see how they are to hit into the space above the net, never into the net. This concept has a cousin, that being “there is no such thing as too high a dig.” Now, watching the USA women’s team online winning the silver medal this last week over in Switzerland, there were some digs that hit the ceiling and were declared dead. In the US, the ceiling is in play, and I have given $5 gift certificates to Wendys anytime a player digging a ball below their waist, had a ball hit the ceiling. Most players make an effort and touch a ball, but the ball goes horizontal in flight, and not up. These are ways to help players learn that they may even have to add power and “UP!” to a saving dig, making it go “too high,” rather than the normal lighter contact which goes “too low.”.

There is a Reason the Ball Cart Has Wheels

 One of the things the NAVA coaches did really well was moving the ball cart around the court. Far more often than not, the coach parks the ball cart either off the court by zone four, or on the court at the zone 5-6 seam line. These coaches did an excellent job of moving around to introduce and play balls from zones 1, 2 and 3, and from behind the endline of the court too, and thus were developing much more well rounded players in the camp. Just make sure to free your ball cart from the tyranny of the perpetual ball cart tossing spot traditionally done by coaches that park the cart at the zone 5-6 seam area, and randomize the angles and play to ALL the game like angles. 

Bring Back Your Favorite Kids Games as Scoring

This last idea to share has been part of IMPACT training as well recently. One of the reasons to have a whiteboard in the gym, it not only to make your practice objectives no longer a secret, but to have a great place to score some of the children’s games you can use for a scoring option. Put up a tic-tac-toe grid, or two nooses and 4-6 blank spots for Hangman. You can bring out Connect Four game as your scoreboard, or a deck of cards, with each point won giving that team a chance to play their dot drop, or a hand in the card game of choice.  The chance to play favorite kids games AND volleyball at the same time, and actually have a chance to win it in the case of tic-tac-toe with enough points scored in a row, is a great trip back down memory lane for all players.

Thanks to all the coaches and players at NAVA for the chance to again share the new ideas we have come up with at USA Volleyball. Let us know how else you are growing the game in diverse populations around our nation, and make sure to share the best ideas that are working, so we all benefit. 


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

On June 24, 2010 Michelle Goodall wrote

John, I know I've mentioned this before, but want to thank you again for sharing the recap and stories from all of your travels. I know we all can't always get out to have these same experiences, so I appreciate the stories in your blog and certainly use them as a way to somewhat stay in the loop with volleyball happenings elsewhere. I love the connections this sport can bridge! Great reminders in this blog too...knowing why not just the how is great advice for us all to follow--whether we're players or coaches. You do great work...thanks for keeping us all connected.

On June 29, 2010 D McCage wrote

Great article!

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