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Developing a positive team culture

This is an excerpt from Volleyball Coaching Bible, Volume II, The by American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) & Cecile Reynaud.

Think back to a time when you worked hard, had fun, learned a lot, and achieved at a high level. What characterized that environment? What characterized the relationships you had with your peers? Your leader? Seldom do people look back and recall these times as easy, but they also don't describe them as negative. A balance exists on teams that reach their potential - between challenge and skill, criticism and encouragement, trust and accountability, fun and focus, as well as between team and individual. How you, as a coach, facilitate the balance of these factors, both in your relationships with your athletes and in the way they relate to each other and the environment, is where the art of coaching is found.

The aspects of your program on which you have some influence are all based on relationships. The effectiveness of the drills you choose or the tactics you employ is based, in part, on the strength of your relationships with your players. The selflessness and team focus of your players are influenced, in part, by their relationships with each other. Their ability to be engaged in the moment and focus on the task at hand is facilitated, in part, by their relationships with their training and competitive environment. Although these relationships are sometimes difficult to control, they are certainly open to being influenced by the head coach.

Balance of Challenge and Skill

You may remember a time competing, as a player or as a coach, when you got lost in the moment. Time was transformed, your movement felt effortless, your focus was precise, and your performance was exemplary. In short, the experience was perfect, and somewhat elusive. We might remember these moments so clearly because they don't happen that often. Important research was conducted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the late 20th century to investigate why these "flow" experiences happen and how they can happen more often. An important factor in their occurrence is the balance between the challenge presented by the context of the game or training environment and the skill level of the athletes involved. If the opponent or drill is too challenging for the participant based on skill level, frustration is likely to prevent a good performance. Likewise, if the contest or drill is too easy or simple for a team, boredom will prevent the athletes from having motivation to achieve optimal performance. The key is to manipulate the competitive and training environments to keep the balance of challenge and skill appropriate to maintain maximal motivation.

Coach - Player

As the coach, you have control over the drills you build into practice, the level of performance you demand, the way you structure groups and teams, and the level of competition in the nonleague portion of your schedule. The first task in an effort to achieve balance between challenge and skill is to evaluate your talent. At what skills do the players on your team demonstrate proficiency, and where are they weak? At what point do the skills at which they are proficient begin to break down? Evaluating these factors will help you find the sweet spot in training where athletes will experience enough challenge to feel pushed but also enough success to remain confident.

Another factor contributing to the balance of challenge and skill is the way athletes and coaches interpret failure. After all, the negativity that comes with frustration is rooted in the perception that failure is a bad thing. One of the common characteristics of training programs that elicit the most success from their performers is that failure is not something to be feared. In fact, failure is appreciated because it means that participants are willing to risk and to push themselves outside of their comfort zones to improve. People who fear failure attempt only the things they can already do. The player who fears failure and can attack very well crosscourt will focus only on her crosscourt attack, limiting the opportunity to develop her line shot. If you, as a coach, focus on failure (by either calling attention to it or punishing it), then you will end up fostering a mind-set that prevents risk taking and limits growth. Table 3.1 provides examples of how to manipulate the training and competitive environments to create a balance of challenge and skill to encourage peak performance.

Player - Player

A positive team climate is not just dependent on the relationships between the players and coaches: it is one in which the players have a positive influence on each other. But how can players influence the balance between challenge and skill for each other? The answer comes in the way the team is grouped and how team members take responsibility for each other. At Hope College in Michigan, where I coach, I often structure scrimmage teams so that the top front-row players are attacking against the top back-row players. This makes it so that players who need more developmental work in the back row are digging balls against a front row that is also working on developing skills. Both groups are playing with and against teammates in ways that are developmentally appropriate.

On occasion, ignoring developmental level when grouping players can be incredibly positive. I worked with a volleyball club that would do position-specific practice with players from every age group on the same court by position. Experienced and talented 18-year-olds were grouped with 14-year-old novices. The challenge - skill balance was maintained because the experienced players were tasked with being good models of fundamental techniques for the younger players and with providing peer instruction. The younger players were encouraged to focus on the process (technique) rather than the result.

Player - Environment

Another way that we try to promote a balance of challenge and skill is to make sure that our players understand the big picture of our training. We use a whiteboard at practice to share our practice plan, the focus points and goals of each drill, and where our players are supposed to go. This helps players identify how the skills developed early in practice will prepare them for performance in the scrimmages later on. It identifies coaching cues and focus points that our staff will be verbalizing during the drills. The whiteboard also helps us track our performance in drills over time, which facilitates setting appropriate goals and standards. For instance, we do a crosscourt ball-control exchange drill in which players try to take a specific number of aggressive swings in five minutes. We keep the highest scores in that drill in the corner of our whiteboard as a reminder of the standard and players' past achievements.

Balance of Criticism and Encouragement

A positive team climate is one in which athletes improve their ability and learn more about their potential. The feedback they receive from their coaches, each other, and the environment contributes to both of these objectives. Telling players what they do well, although positive, does not help them maximize their skills. Focusing on the negative, for most athletes, results in frustration and decreased self-confidence. Again, the coach's task is to find a balance between the two as well as provide multiple sources of feedback.


In my experience, athletes desire two types of feedback from their coaches:

  • To be acknowledged when they do something well
  • To be told specifically how to improve when they fail

At Hope College we want our coaches working hard to provide both types of feedback. We want to acknowledge and celebrate when our athletes succeed, both in result and process. I went through a phase in my coaching when I felt as though telling players "great pass" after getting the ball to target was redundant. They could see that the pass was perfect and didn't need me to tell them. I found that my athletes appreciated my praising their passes (or any other obvious demonstrations of skill) because pleasing me was important to them. This is further demonstrated in how often my players ask, "Coach, did you see that?" when they achieve success at something they have been working on. The athlete knows that she was successful, but she wants to share that success with me.

In addition to praising successful execution, we also want to praise successful process. Specific feedback on techniques that improve athletes' chances of success or attempts that are outside their comfort zones are worthy of encouragement. It helps to know exactly what your players are working to improve, so that you can give appropriate feedback when you see them make progress. Write down their goals or objectives, as well as the areas in which you would like to see them improve, and carry it with you during practice. Sharing those goals with your assistant coaches will keep them engaged and help them know where they can make a contribution.

When I realized that praising both success and progress toward goals was valued by my players, I also realized that I could be much more specific than just saying, "Great pass." We don't have a lot of time to convey a lot of information, so we use specific cues to convey exactly what led to the success. During one afternoon of our preseason, we spend a couple of hours in volley-school (an idea taken from the U.S. national team program), in which we explain all of the coaching cues our staff uses and exactly what each word means. This cuts down on needing to use whole sentences to explain the specifics of what the athlete did well or poorly; we need only one or two words that are well understood. We use words such as balance, square, plant, and press to convey specific aspects of skills quickly. You can use instructional feedback with motivational feedback to let your athletes know specifically what led to their positive results. Have a manager track the type of feedback you provide to see whether you are as positive, specific, and motivational as you can be.

The Positive Coaching Alliance ( uses the phrase emotional gas tanks to convey athlete's emotional health. Praise, instruction, opportunity, and positive body language add to the emotional gas tank of an athlete. Criticism, punishment, and decreased opportunity result in emotional gas tank withdrawals. Keeping an eye on the emotional gas tank of each player on the team (how often you have made additions and how often you have made withdrawals) will help you predict how they will respond to the feedback. This is not to say that you should never make a withdrawal. Sometimes it is important to be critical, to uphold a standard, or to let athletes know that their behavior, attitude, or effort is unacceptable. However, in those situations, unless significant investments have been made, their motivation or self-confidence may diminish.

Player - Player

Players sometimes receive feedback from teammates more easily than from coaches. Such feedback can feel less threatening and also increase trust between teammates who are competing for the same position. We have developed a culture in which peer feedback is an important part of our program. The foundation is a lack of hierarchy within our team. For instance, we do not want our seniors to believe that they are any more important than our freshmen, or for sophomores to believe that they have any less value than juniors. We encourage our freshmen to give advice to seniors when they see an opportunity, and we ask our seniors to take the advice that they get from anyone with an outsider's perspective regardless of year.

In our program, the first 15 to 20 seconds of time-outs involve players getting into position groups so that the players on the bench can tell the players on the floor what they are seeing. This also gives the coaches a few seconds to meet and put together a cohesive, concise message for the entire team. For drill work in practice situations, we break up the team into smaller groups; while one group is performing the drill, another is positioned to give feedback. When we are working on blocking, one player says yes or no to communicate whether the middle closes the block, another player along the net says yes or no regarding the blocker's hands getting over the net, and another player identifies whether the block is timed correctly with the attack. The goal for the blockers, regardless of the result of the block, is to get three yeses from the players giving feedback. How can you strategically position your players who are not involved in drill so that they can provide valuable feedback to the players in the drill?

In a drill we call hot seat, which is a 6v6 scrimmage, one player is designated as the only one who can score a kill. One of our players did so well in that drill that a teammate bought a little red stool and wrote hot seat on it and put it in her teammate's locker to call attention to her great performance. When another teammate had a strong practice the next day, the first recipient of the hot seat passed it to her. Now, the little red stool moves from locker to locker as the previous recipient tries to identify the teammate who had the most impressive practice of the day. Such peer recognition goes a long way to build a team culture of encouragement, success, and positivity.

Player - Environment

Coaches can use video to provide important feedback in a way that builds motivation and confidence and increases effort. Many athletes are visual learners and benefit from seeing themselves perform. Technological advances have made access to video information very easy. We use an iPad app called BaM Video Delay to create a live delay on an iPad attached to a tripod. The delay is perfectly timed so that an athlete can perform a repetition in a drill, exit the drill, and watch her execution while a teammate performs the same drill on camera. The visual feedback allows players to see what they are doing correctly and incorrectly while also giving them the opportunity to experiment with a variety of techniques.

Videos of match play can also show players successful and problematic behaviors. Take advantage of available camera angles to focus on specific aspects of the game. For instance, if you can film only from the center line, focus on block penetration or the distance of the set off the net. When filming from behind the court, focus on blocking footwork and set distance. Be sure to focus on both positives and things to work on. Recently, as we were getting ready to watch a film of our serve-receive patterns from a match we had lost, I chose to show only the clips we had won. Seeing themselves succeed gave the players confidence in their ability to excel in their next match. Although this strategy worked in this situation, it shouldn't be the norm; it is important for teams to understand the reality of failure and to learn from those opportunities rather than disregard them.

Learn more about The Volleyball Coaching Bible, Volume II.

More Excerpts From Volleyball Coaching Bible