STOP Teaching Robots

June 09, 2015, 2:58 p.m. (ET)

John Kessel's Grow the Game Together blog
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Watching some 80-year-old volleyball players at the U.S. Open and seeing their joy for the sport has me wondering why any kid in the last few decades stops playing. Kids I teach keep playing the game after high school and college; but I keep seeing the dropout rate for kids playing after high school and college. I hear of “burnout” – but I learned by playing and never burned out. We played doubles until they kicked us out of the gym, or on the grass/sand for hours. In the end, losers bought the winners Slurpees and together we got painful cold headaches at the same moment. Nobody made me go to learn, I wanted to. I see this in young players, those under 13 with the love of playing and doing things for and with teammates. Then, for too many, this love of learning and the game is gone. It is beaten down by drill after drill, technical demands, coaches demeaning players and parents consumed with the outcome rather than the process of learning to be a player.

Technique is important, but not at the expense of kids not wanting to play our game. It’s not about being a perfect volleyball machine, it is about getting better at the game with the core techniques that are understood to be the goal. Show them and let them do it. Check for understanding, then guide their discovery AS THEY PLAY,  as they WANT to get better. They are going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time A LOT when young. This is why we play doubles on smaller courts; so the reading demands are limited and expanded as they learn to read better. If they can show you they can demonstrate the core technique WITHOUT the ball, they KNOW the technique. They just need to learn when and where to do it in an imperfect game.

One coaching friend shared this video with me recently about basketball “training;" where the kids reminded me of robots. I know many coaches and parents  can relate to the feeling of how “right” these drills seem to be. Indeed, another coaching colleague shared this discussion with a parent in his club that I found of value for other parents.

This weekend, I saw a parent watching a match on the court next to us. As our match ended and the girls had a break, I wandered over to see what he was watching. As we chatted he said, "I love how disciplined both teams are. I'm not complaining. I know you have your way and your theory on how to teach volleyball. But look at those teams – the way they warm up, listen to their coach and play. It is like watching a choreographed dance. Everything is controlled, directed and just seems 'right'." I watched for a moment and then started pointing out some things. That girl was just subbed out because she missed two spikes in a row. That libero was replaced because she missed a serve receive. Why is the only thing the coach ever says to them pointing out their mistakes? Then I asked him one question,"They look great, but do they know how to play? Or do they only know what their coach tells them to do, when, where and how he tells them to do it?" The next day, we beat one of those teams in the quarterfinals. And the other one in the semis. Both were shocked to have lost to this “ugly” little low-cost team from the boondocks. 

Consider this Phil Jackson quote:“If the players were going to learn the offense, they would have to have the confidence to make decisions on their own. That would never happen if they were constantly searching for direction from me. I wanted them to disconnect themselves from me, so they could connect with their teammates – and the game.”

Recently, U.S. Women's National Team Head Coach Karch Kiraly noted that the U.S. women play out of system 48 percent of the time. My 13s play out of system even more. The serve reception, no matter how perfectly done technically, does not fly to the intended in-system target often as human reaction time does not allow for final adjustment in the last .2 seconds of incoming ball flight. With less experienced athletes of ANY age, if you don’t know where to go before the ball crosses the net, your serve reception success will be low as you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can machine them by giving the ball right to the players in training, and they will robotically look good in practice. This same thing I see happen when we pepper, and failing to hit at your partner you say, “Sorry!” Then when the realities of the game happen, and no ball is directed AT you, you struggle to perform the skill, and “technically” have a two choices 1. Look good technically and miss the ball 2. Contact the ball some way even though your technique is “flawed.” 

I want players, not robots, who can read and get to the best possible place at the right time time to deliver the right next ball flight, even if technically they are out of form. When the ball does something in that last .2 seconds of flight, you get even five-time Olympians like my friend Natalie Cook receiving like this picture and get to simply say, “Way to keep your eye on the ball Nat.” and move on to reading the next serve. There is nothing more to say to her for, as you can see in the picture, her technique is flawless, showing a platform any coach or player would be joyful to see in competition.

Having watched the Premier Volleyball League at the U.S. Open recently, I would estimate half the time these talented men and women made contact with the ball in ways that simply is not learned in the traditional techniques drilled into the players. Playing balls out of the net or tipped over you as you land from a block, chasing down errant digs and serve receptions to deliver a perfect “set” with a one-arm swing, keeping the ball in play with their non-dominate hand and countless other saves and split-second adjustments – all forms of “bettering the ball,” which great team players do for each contact.

This skill is not learned in a drill. I find it remarkable that the Amish play volleyball and learn to play it simply by playing. They have no coaches throwing/hitting/tossing balls for them. They just play, anchoring the net/standards to buggies on each side. I wish I had a penny for every ball moving over the court from just two places - the robotic coaching spots of middle-deep-left-back-toss-to-the-setter and the left-front-off-the-court-hit-at-the-defenders, as I would be a millionaire. Ball after ball thrown on the same arc to the setter from the same spot. You could calibrate the GPS satellites of the world by how the balls come from the same spot on the court for decades, even though the ball cart has wheels. 

Coaches who train robots want us to ignore specificity of learning. We don’t play a game where there needs to be a “perfect golf swing.” We  play a game where we need to pass off our arms, set off our fingers, block with our arms and hands, serve off our palm and dig with our whole body. How important is “technique” over learning by playing? Well watch these teams battle covering the whole court and tell me about their “volleyball technique.” When I show this to coaches who demand technique over playing/reading skills, they usually are speechless. We play a game where we don’t EVER get to hold onto the ball, except to start our toss to ourselves for serving, which is the only closed-motor program we do amidst an infinite number of random open-motor programs. So as important as the core techniques are, it is more important to keep the ball off the floor.

Yes, there are programs who tell us the best way to start in volleyball is with drills. Station after station of doing pieces of a skill and “learning.” Tens of thousands of wall and partner straight-line drills. Sit in a chair. run around it and then pair pass a thrown ball. Stand on a box and spike, even using a double arm lift. Blocking on a net that is lowered, even though the child will not be able to block for years to come. These athletes, of any age, are not learning the game, they are learning the drills. The leaders training them are happy as the athletes look good in practice, yet are befuddled when their athletes cannot play the game. It is my experience that some programs win despite their drilling/robotic training for three reasons: 1. Their recruiting; 2. The sheer amount of training hours in the gym and 3. The tournaments where the players finally get to compete; where the game is played, and cannot be drilled; where the players can finally merge the technical demands into the game’s realities. We want players to have more and more options and solutions, while keeping things as simple as possible so we reduce the impact of variability.

Motor learning as done by the men’s side since before the 1984 Olympic gold medal is now being fully applied to the women’s game. Not just back-row attacks and jump serves, but training ugly. That is what Karch says about their training in the National Team gym. I think this increase in training is scaring some coaches who simply want to be in control and feel that perfectionism is a good thing. Brene Brown in the excellent book Daring Greatly notes wisely that “perfectionism is a hustle,” which is also selfish – something that goes against the special uniqueness of volleyball as a truly team game

Why do so many kids come out of the little state of Hawaii? Why do those kids keep playing after college? Why do they have thousands come watch them play? I address this in Ohana, as it is part of the reason but it is because they are instilled with a love of the game – one that will get them to keep loving it even when they might cross paths with a controlling coach. 

In the end, it is not what you know as a coach, but what your athlete thinks. Your job in not making robots. It is to guide their discovery of when and where to jump, and why. Do not tell the player, but get each athlete to better coach their unique self and understand what that feels like.  In motor learning, an athlete/coach four-square game of learning looks like this

YES/YES     YES/NO

NO/YES      NO/NO

The goal is YES/YES (Player did it right/coach saw that the player did it right). It is also OK to have NO/NO happen (Player felt it was done wrong/coach sees same wrong technique or option). The vast majority of coaches struggle with the Y/N and N/Y, where what YOU see, the player simply does not know kinesthetically. Bring out the BAM video delay options on computers and tablet apps, as the player hits live sets in grills or games. You can just look at the player from off the court and if their ‘thumbs up/down” matches yours, you smile and keep playing. When a Y/N or N/Y thumb response is seen, bring the player over to the replay option you have set up and guide their discovery together on what you know and the player does not.

I found this table in the first chapter of Cheryl Coker’s book Motor Learning & Control for Practitioners about Gentile’s multidimensional classification systems where a volleyball skill was compared to 15 other options in the motor program grid. As you can see, you can make robots in other simpler motor tasks. Volleyball however is the most complex, where body transport/object manipulation and moving/variability are at the highest challenge of a human’s motor skill activity. This goes not just for serve receive (shown), but for ALL volleyball skills but one – the closed motor program of serving. I might want my player to be more of a robot in serving, as a model of consistency with only subtle variations. But for every other skill, I need a player who can play the infinite time and place variations that will happen in our sport. 

What fun it is to experience all this chaos and random variations in just one game, the lifetime sport we call volleyball.