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Building Culture

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At a recent 3C clinic with Oregon Acers in the Badger Region, we discussed ways to get more from your athletes, without stereotypical coaching tactics of yelling, threats, rewards, pushups or other punishments. These shifts in culture are difficult at first; to help you get started, here are a few ideas we came up with.

“Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon”

-Culture Club

Ask them for it. It really can be that simple. “Can you do this?” At our clinic, the first drill was toss, jump and hit over the net to a partner. The requirements are clear; jump and hit. After a few reps, we could all see that Kendall wasn’t jumping. A coach remarked, “Kendall never jumps.” So I said, “Kendall, can you jump next time?” We got about a 4-inch jump. “Great, can you jump higher next time?” Maybe a 10 inch jump. There is no magic; just ask, and follow up.

Catch them doing it right. If you’ve been asking, and asking, and not getting it, make sure you run across the gym and heap on the praise when you finally see what you’re after. In the case of Kendall, I caught her a few drills later, and told her I was glad to see she was still jumping to attack. Big smile. Remember to be specific, so they know exactly what they did right. “Way to swing all the way though.” “That’s the spacing we talked about.“ “Thanks for calling it out.” “Your hands finished strong.”

Help them see how they affect the team. “Your team needs this from you.” “We only have each other to improve ourselves.” From Loren Anderson at Rise Volleyball Academy; To earn a single block at the pin for our outside hitter, the middles have to work hard, and the passers need to do their job, and the servers need to challenge our passers in practice so they are better during matches. Volleyball is full of connections, and you can show it to them to get their buy-in.

Stat what you are working on. Keegan Cook is the head coach at Washington. (Remember his name…you’re going to see him around our sport.) At the High Performance clinic this year, he shared a simple serve and pass drill that they do every day, and this idea can be applied to any skill you need to work on. Serving at two passers, alternating servers are tracked by another player on the white board. The goal is a no-spin, seam serve (between the two passers.) On the white board, a resting player writes B (both no spin and seam), F (float only, not the seam), S (seam only, spinning), I (in, spinning, not in seam) or E (error) for each serve, under the serving player’s name. After about 3 minutes, you will see BFBBFSEBFFEFIBF for one player. Then it’s a bit of math… 15 serves gives;


33% Both (5/15 Bs)
73% Float (11/15, Bs and Fs)
40% Seam (6/15, Bs and Ss)
93% In (14/15, Bs, Fs, Ss, Is)


Conclusion? Player is a high percentage server that floats it pretty well, could maybe take a little more risk and serve harder to hit the seam. These numbers can be tracked over time and compared to her teammates, to see whom to use in what situations. You can run this particular drill in two directions on one net, putting 8 players into the drill. With enough players, you could also track the passing.

Incentivize with points. If you want your players to hit harder, put the points on hard swings (not the rally win.) If you want them to hit line, maybe it’s 2 points for a line kill, or one point for swinging line, one point for getting the kill. Maybe you can only earn a point in rallies where you serve zone 1. Or rallies that start with a floater.

Make it fun. Games are fun. Scoring alternatives like using a tic-tac-toe board, or Battleship, or any other card game. Hangman is a fun way to score. Intense can also be fun; learning to concentrate and working toward a goal can be fun. Punishments and yelling are not fun.

Cauldron. Running a cauldron can be simple, or complex. You might run a cauldron for your setters on one drill, or through one practice. Or you might run season-long passing cauldron. There are dozens of ways to do it, and after running them for a drill, practice and season, I can say they do provide competitiveness and effort. Be careful how you use them, and if you decide to, please do your research (or wait a few weeks to read some more in-depth thoughts on cauldrons right here.)

Let THEM choose the expectations and goals. This might be the most effective of all. You can circle back with these demanding words, when things need improvement; “Is this what you told us you would do?” “Is this the way to get where you want to go?” Developing your own goals creates ownership. Ask each day; what are you working on today? What will be your 1% improvement area?

Show them how. Use video to factually show them what they are doing. Be a model, or find a model that can show how to play at the effort level you’d like to see. Show them other teams for inspiration. Model good behavior as well; can you ask the players to go all out of you aren’t going all out? If you are at practice early with a good plan and a meaningful strategy, it sets the tone for your players.

Build trust. This should probably be at the top of the list. Trust makes people work harder. Negative comments, sarcasm, belittling or bullying behavior erode trust in seconds. Can your players trust that you have their safety in mind? Not just their physical safety…are they free to explore and experiment with a skill or strategy, or will they be criticized for being creative? Are they allowed (or even encouraged) to make mistakes as they stretch to the next level of talent?

In the end, players that trust your culture and know they can take some risks, make some mistakes, and still be supported while they learn, will often give more than you expect.

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