USA Volleyball Features John Kessel: Getting...

John Kessel: Getting Your Players to Show You the Answers

By John Kessel | April 06, 2018, 11:11 a.m. (ET)

growing the game


The most important influence on a player’s development is feedback.

This should start with the player’s own feedback, called intrinsic feedback. The second-most important form is from you as the coach, which is extrinsic feedback. The true player-whisperer (confirmed by motor learning science) knows that the best remembered and creative options come from when the players figure things out themselves, and the worst remembered (retained) information comes from the coach telling them what to do.

The key feedback role/impact as a coach comes with guiding the players’ discovery, as this form of learning/teaching is almost as well retained, and it develops creative players as well as intrinsic learning.

We need to become the guide on the bench who in the end is not really needed, rather than the sage on the court in practice or games. Grant Wiggins (thanks Troy Sherman of VCT) wrote this excellent article on “What Feedback Is and Isn’t” that is worth the read.

The kids play every point, not the coach. The more you empower the players, the better they will be able to play. Our U.S. Olympic Men’s National Team won the 2008 gold medal, yet they did not have their head coach for their first three matches due to a family tragedy. Head coach Hugh McCutcheon had done his job over the quad, and they performed when it mattered.

Before I get any further, I want to remind all Growing the Game blog readers that this, like so much in sport and teaching, is not about being right or wrong…it is simply about being more effective and efficient. You can keep coaching the way you were taught, and as the game teaches the game, your players will still learn in the most game-like possible way: competing in tournaments. What these GTGT ideas are about is maximizing the transfer from practice to competition, and not just looking good in practice.

Intrinsic Learning and Guiding Discovery

As you blend intrinsic learning with being skilled at guiding their discovery – where your feedback, usually in the form of questions, gets them to figure things out - remember three key things:

  1. Extrinsic feedback (words from a coach) is the slower and worst remembered way of learning. External focus is best for learning skill, both new and old, letting the individual player's own mind and body figure out solutions. Putting the focus on things outside your body – like the ball, net, opponents (or sport tool like racquet or club) is the faster and deeper way to learn. For more on this please read here:

  2. It is not about their ability to answer your questions, it is about how quickly you get from the challenge/information/new skill to having them show you they can solve/understand the answers. Passionate player-whisperers focus on intent first in guiding and understanding, rather than the actual outcome.

  3. You must connect before you work to correct – or as I have often said, athletes don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Athletes don’t need you to be their best friend, but as their coach, you certainly should be their best supporter. When you break this bond/trust – then instead of it being 7 v 7 (coach and starters), it becomes 6 v 8. Never give the opponents your team’s power.


This is also crucial for a coach; not to tell them what you believe, but to show them by your behavior.


You believe trust is important? Then stop believing that your players are doing things wrong on purpose and then punishing them. Trust that they are exploring and discovering what you have taught them and never erring on purpose. You say your players should be on time – and then you are not? You want them to be prepared, yet your practice isn’t planned? You want your players to be moving to the ball and reading, yet you throw balls from the same side of the net right to them? You say you are training game-like, yet your players or you stand on boxes or hit from machines?

Principles That Matter

In this process, where culture is developed, there are some principles that guide us. 

  1. We want players who can stand without us as their leader – both on and off the court.

  2. To develop fast, strong players, we want to teach speed first and accuracy second – and not tell young players “for gosh sake just hit it in.”

  3. Players who are creative, skillful and make good decisions in the stress of competition come from a process where the game in its infinite number of variations is played, not drilled.

  4. Athletes who are resilient come from a program where a growth, not fixed, mindset is supported and modeled – starting with the coach!

  5. Motivated and self-organizing players come from an environment of fun and trust – with the best coaches committed to never being the player’s last coach.

  6. As reps matter, younger/first time players of any age should be learning technique and decision making in small-sided games, 1v1 or 2v2, while more experienced players can keep learning great things from the Olympic beach discipline, even done on grass or indoors on narrow/small courts; then over the year(s) you “progress” to 3v3 and 4v4. Reps/doing is how a motor skill is learned fastest, not in 12 v 12 (six subs for each team also watching from the bench) with one touching/doing and 23 “watching.”

  7. As the serve starts every point ever scored, and it must go over the net, and the third ball also must go over the net, we need to stop ignoring the net and use it all the time. Use a ribbon or rope to create four smaller courts on a single large court. 


Setup for kids gym

A gym set-up for kids volleyball small-sided games.

John Wooden, who while being “old school” demanding still never demeaned his players, said it best:

No written word, nor spoken plea
Can teach our youth what they should be.
Nor all the books on all the shelves
It’s what the teachers are themselves.

Thanks for your help in always learning and growing this great lifetime sport together.