Originally published in VolleyballUSA, Summer 2016
TV cameras at the Rio Olympics often zoomed in on our timeout huddles so viewers could clearly see and hear what the U.S. coaches and players were saying. Since then, I’ve been asked to explain how we structure our timeouts and what it is that we want to accomplish in those very short periods of time. So let’s make that our topic.
First, I can tell you that my timeout philosophy was influenced by two of my former coaches: Al Scates, who retired from UCLA with a record 19 national championships; and former USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal, coach of our gold-medal winning U.S. men’s team at the 1984 Olympics. One big thing I learned from both of them is to look forward, not backward.
In that spirit, our timeouts on the U.S. team don’t linger on points that have already been played, good or bad. The only thing we can control is the next play, so we concentrate on what we can do to get a side out and then create a point-scoring opportunity when we’re serving. Our collective goal is to be forward-thinking, poised and cautiously optimistic.
Part of our focus in timeouts is reinforcing one of our main themes: Being “USA good.” The idea is that we’re not striving for perfection. What we are striving for is good play across the board: a good pass, a good set, a good swing, a good block, good defense. We’re looking to wear teams down with good.
One thing you won’t hear in our timeouts is a lot of screaming and yelling. Players usually know when they’ve missed an opportunity or missed a play. They don’t need their coaches to state the obvious.
Instead, we hone in on a specific piece of information that’s relevant in that moment. Maybe it’s that we want to pass five feet off the net to the setter. Or it could be reminding everybody to run hard on their routes. Or maybe it’s reinforcing the importance of being really vocal while running those routes; for instance, if they’re running a “Go,” we want them to scream “GO, GO, GO” so the setter knows the hitter is ready.
As we cover these points in the group timeouts, our setters often huddle separately among themselves with an assistant coach. The purpose here is for them to make decisions on what they’re going to run next. They discuss more than one option so they’re prepared for what to do in different situations. For example, when the pass is perfect, options will obviously be different from when it’s 10 feet off the net.
I was reminded recently of what I said to the team in the timeout when we were down 13-12 in the fifth of our heartbreaking Olympic semifinal loss to Serbia. At that moment, I was very proud of the way our players had responded to adversity throughout that match, especially after we lost one of our starting middles, Foluke Akinradewo, to an injury.
As always, I wanted to relay a positive message. I smiled and said, “We’re making for a better story here,” alluding to the fact that coming back from one point down after we’d been up would be a sweet result.
On the next play, we got the side out we were looking for to tie the score. Unfortunately, Serbia went on to close out the match. As much as it hurt for the players and coaches, I look at the big picture. Who doesn’t want to be at 13-all in the fifth of an Olympic semifinal match?
I would like nothing more than to be in that very same place again in 2020. And maybe we’ll come out on top, and maybe we won’t. But the only way you win the gold is to keep putting yourself in that position.