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Listen to the Match

This is an excerpt from Thinking Volleyball by Mike Hebert.

Most coaches I know personally or from watching them coach are guilty of the crime of overindulgence. What they have in common is that they are not listening to the match. Instead they are fascinated with their ability to attract attention to their respective coaching styles. Some are “pissed-off pacers” (POPs). You can spot them as they march up and down the sideline glaring at players, referees, and anyone else who can be suspected of contaminating the coach's night. Others are among a group of coaches who go by the sit-down-and-stare (SDS) moniker. Their vital signs should be monitored throughout the match to make sure they remain medically responsive. Then there are the “hateful hothead” (HHH) coaches who excel as loud and obnoxious irritants and who seem to be downright unhappy. And of course there are the “you're killing me” (YKM) coaches with their pathetic, sorrowful palms-up appeals for referees to stop ruining their lives.

These coaches are consumed with their own self-anointed routines. The match provides a stage for them to indulge their alleged fan base. Although these coaches seem content to stay within their scripted behavioral paradigms, they would be far more effective if they would arrive at the bench with a commitment to listen to the match. The match has a lot to say if only we would turn up the volume and listen.

Here is an example. Down two sets to none in a recent match, my players were leaving the court to attend the traditional midmatch meeting, which is allowed under U.S. women's collegiate rules. We needed to find a way to climb back into contention in the match. As my staff paused in the outer hall before going inside, they were steaming with anger. They wanted me to come down hard on the team for playing so poorly, but I asked them to hold off. I had been watching our players enter the meeting. There were no slumping shoulders, no staring at shoe tops. They had played with great effort over the last 20 minutes of the match, but they just could not score points with any regularity. I saw no quit in their eyes as they filed into the meeting room. Everyone seemed to be on task.

So I chose to create a calm, business-like approach for the meeting. I treated the situation as if it were an explanation of a practice drill. My message was calm and brief. There would be no wholesale tactical changes, no personnel changes. In fact, I told them that I was proud of the way they had held their mental ground in the match. I told them that the necessary ingredients to launch a comeback were within reach. I told them to be patient and to play with an inner calmness that had been missing up to that point.

I spoke for approximately one minute and withdrew to the bench area with my staff in tow. I felt a strong sense of confidence in how I handled the midmatch meeting. I had coached in almost 2,000 matches up to that point. I had learned how to listen to matches. I was hearing, loud and clear, that my team still had plenty of fuel in the tank.

Almost two hours later, the match—complete with live TV and a sell-out crowd of nearly 6,000 people—was over. Our players melted into a victory pile in the middle of the court. I had read the match correctly, choosing to trust them instead of pounding on them to give more.

  • This is a decision you will have to make. As you observe the match from your position in the bench area, you should decide whether you are going to hone your listening skills or your venting skills. By listening carefully, you can discover everything you need to know unless, of course, you let your old coaching habits get in the way. If you decide you wish to refine your listening skills, here are some of the things you might consider:
  • Particularly watch your setter's body language and presentation of self toward teammates. This is often the litmus test for how your team is adjusting to the match.
  • Scan the body language of each player immediately following an error. This will tell you who is fully engaged or not. This is often viewed as the time for venting. Don't do it yourself, and don't let any players do it.
  • Listen, literally, to your team while they are playing. Who is doing most of the talking? I sometimes close my eyes momentarily and listen. I want to know who is engaged in the match and who is dishing out mindless chatter.
  • Observe how the opposition coach behaves when his team has made uncharacteristic mistakes. Has player trust in their coach broken down?
  • Notice how your team greets substitutes as they enter the court. This can signal a reflection of the team's level of confidence in this player.

There is no limit to what can be discovered when one zooms in to hear what the match is saying. What you decide to do about what you discover is another matter requiring another set of decisions, but your starting point has to be developing an awareness that the match has a lot to say. Everything you hear has a bearing on the match. Either it produces a confirmation of what you had already observed, or it provides an opportunity or a decision. It is this constant tracking of the emotional ebb and flow of your team that will occupy most of your time.

I have heard from many observers who ask why I appear to be so detached from the action while I sit on the bench. I'm not detached. It just looks that way. I am actually very busy. I am listening to the match.

Learn more about Thinking Volleyball.

More Excerpts From Thinking Volleyball