Friday, February 24, 2012

Getting it Right! - Part V

This is the fifth and final part of volleyball coaching legend Mike Hebert's blog series on his pet peeves.  Thanks for reading and feel free to go back to our main blog page ( to read the previous four parts!

by Mike Hebert

And finally, I have to say something about the quality of the ever-increasing volume of volleyball broadcasts (radio, TV, and internet streaming) that have become available. I find myself conflicted.  As an old timer who never thought our game would be on TV or radio I can only offer praise to those who have   made it happen. But somewhere, somehow we have to add a quality control piece to the puzzle.

With few exceptions, our broadcasters know very little about the game. And the expert color analysts? Please!!! I don’t know who to blame. Is it the producers who don’t understand our game well enough to hire competent on-air talent? Is it lack of preparation by the broadcasters? I don’t know. But I do know that watching a volleyball broadcast can sometimes have the feel of fingernails scratching a blackboard.
Let me give you an example:
Team A’s middle hitter has just drilled a ball to the floor without a blocker going up against her on the play. “Oh boy!,” the color analyst blurts into her head set. “Coach Smith is not going to be happy that no one went up to block against that hitter. This is another example of Team B blowing a blocking assignment. You just can’t make that kind of mistake at this stage of the match.”

But if you have been watching the match you would have noticed that Team B has been double-teaming Team A’s Outside Hitter all night, leaving the Middle Hitter completely open. They wanted to stop the outside attack and were not concerned about the minimal damage the middle hitter could inflict. In other words, it was Team B’s intention to leave Team A’s middle hitter unblocked. It was not a blocking            mistake, as the expert analyst would have us believe.

Blocking strategies of this type are frequently used in the college game. How can the “expert commentator” not be aware of them and fail to add them to the match analysis? Yikes!

Other broadcasting atrocities that I have witnessed:

    Play by play person doesn’t know referee signals and tells us that there is a net violation when, in fact, it

was a back row blocking violation.
•    Expert commentator alleges that Team A is committing too many service errors, despite the fact that Team A can only win the match if they serve tough and take risks.
•    Commentators appeared puzzled when a team employed the short serve for tactical reasons. Instead, they question why a team would send over such an easy ball to pass.
•    Why did they take Carol out of the match? She is their best player! He was unaware that Carol was routinely subbed out in the back row in favor of a smaller defensive player.
•    This same commentator later pleaded for the block to “move in” because the hitters were getting good cross court swings. She seemed unaware that this particular team routinely took away line and gave angle, trusting their excellent libero, playing left back, to routinely dug that ball. Add to the equation that they also lacked good defensive play from their right back defenders and you will find an additional reason to take line and give angle.

This is not difficult stuff. It is at the same level as a basketball analyst wondering why the free throw shooter faces the hoop instead of lining up with his back to the basket.

We are breaking through the anti-volleyball firewall. People are beginning to watch and listen to our sport. These radio, TV and Internet images can accelerate volleyball’s popularity. Wouldn’t it be nice of our on-air talent could take it up a notch and get beyond, “The libero is the player with a different colored jersey!”
So there you have it. My brief list of volleyball pet peeves.

Let me leave you with a final word. Many of you will certainly think the reading of this piece as a frivolous use of time. And I can understand that. Nobody likes a complainer.  So to make it more palatable, think of it this way.

While recently watching Andy Rooney’s final appearance on CBS’ 60 Minutes television program I was reminded how easily he managed through the years to share with us his personal pet peeves. He did so in such a benevolent fashion that we were actually entertained by his curmudgeon-like style, never feeling like we were watching a serial whiner and complainer. This became his signature. Andy Rooney, skipping along in life, making sure to notice things that bugged him along the way, and reporting his findings to us every Sunday evening.

I’m no Andy Rooney. But it is in this spirit that I share with you some of the items that landed on my pet peeve list during my time in volleyball.  Or not.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Getting it Right! - Part IV

This is part IV of volleyball coaching legend Mike Hebert's blog series on his pet peeves.  Check back next Friday for his next entry!

by Mike Hebert

And how about this one? People are still using the term “Side Out!"  I hear coaches, players and media announcers saying, “We need a Side Out right now!” I understand what this means and why people use it. It means that our team needs to kill the ball while we are in the serve reception phase of the game.  People use the term because, in the volleyball world, people were accustomed to saying "Side Out." It’s just real hard to change our ways after something so central to our game, the Side Out, had enjoyed so much popularity for so many years.

But doggone it! We don’t have Side Outs any more. All we have are points. So instead of using the term “Side Out,” let’s go with something like Serving Points and Receiving Points (formerly known as a Side Out).

I am telling you…this would not fly in other sports. A baseball manager would not be heard promoting next weekend’s game of “rounders”, which is what baseball was called in its early history. No basketball coach would implore his players to toss the ball into a peach basket, which was common prior to the appearance of the backboard and rim. And football coaches would not line up a team to go for extra points. Instead, he would design a play to go for a two-point conversion. All of these terms were used at certain times in each of these sports’ respective histories. But when the terms were officially changed, people started using the newly ordained term.
Nowhere in today’s volleyball rules (since 1998) does the term Side Out appear. So let’s find a new way to reference serve-receive offense. Some suggestions:

                        Re-introduce the term Side Out to the rule book
                        Receiving Point
                        First Ball Attack Point

Let’s pick one and move forward with it. It’s time!

Check back next week for part V of Mike Hebert's "Getting it Right" blog series!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Getting it Right! - Part III

     This is part III of volleyball coaching legend Mike Hebert's blog series on his pet peeves.  Check back every Friday for his next entry!
      by Mike Hebert
      I am a huge Monty Python fan. My next pet peeve is illustrated in a scene from one of their movies, THE LIFE OF BRIAN. I realize how dated and obscure this reference will be for most of you, but stay with me.

The movie is a spoof on the Christian belief that three wise men visited the baby Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, in their home in Bethlehem. The wise men delivered gifts to the family in honor of the newborn infant. But in the movie the wise men got it wrong and walked in on a different family whose mother was single and whose infant child happened to be named Brian. The wise men soon realized their mistake, snatched the gifts back from Brian and delivered the gifts to the rightful address where Jesus, Mary and Joseph were living.

But somehow the word got out that Brian, as a result of the earlier visit by the wise men, was in fact the Messiah. The movie is a chronology of events that Brian, reluctantly, is forced to confront as the local population continues to pursue him as their sacred leader.

In one of the scenes Brian, now in his 20’s, is running from his spiritual flock as they chase him through town in an attempt to worship their Master. As the chase ensues, one of his sandals accidently slips off. But Brian keeps running.  The throng of disciples stop momentarily as one of their leaders declares, “Look! It’s a sign. He has given us the shoe. Follow the shoe!” And, with the shoe in hand, the multitude resumes its pursuit, presumably to enshrine the shoe and learn its secrets from the Messiah himself.

So here is my pet peeve. I have participated in—either as a presenter or a participant--hundreds of volleyball coaching clinics throughout my 35 year career. And in each case I can guarantee that most of the attendees were taking notes or participating in topical discussions related to volleyball.  However, my distinct impression has been that these coaches talked about volleyball concepts with the same misguided passion that Brian’s followers had attributed to the shoe.  They assumed the presenter’s legitimacy, captured the clinic material with the efficiency of a Rhodes Scholar, and praised clinic concepts as if they were self-evident truths.

During one such clinic in Chicago many years ago a presenter stood before a large audience to declare that he had just returned from an international coach’s clinic and was prepared to reveal some of the “secrets” he had picked up from the world’s best coaches. The first of these secrets was what he called the Pakistani Chop Serve. This new technique, he said with a touch of  drama, will revolutionize the game. Pencils were poised and brains were locked on the “on” position as he began his demo. He described in great detail the toss, moving from there to the high overhead position of both hands, palms facing and touching each other, cocked backwards at the wrist hinge with fingers pointing skyward. Then came the actual chopping motion as he swung both hands straight forward, contacting the ball with the narrow edge of the palms-together grip, creating a topspin effect. 

Predictably, the Pakistani Chop Serve produced no insightful result. It looked the same as a pepper partner spiking the ball into the floor to her partner…only done with two arms instead of one. But to my surprise as I  scanned the audience of at least 250 people, most were furiously drawing diagrams and taking notes. They wanted to go home from the clinic with the secret. And the Pakistani Chop Serve was right there for the taking.

The presenter—I wish I could remember his name—quickly changed gears. “What are you doing?,” he asked. He then admonished everyone for embracing what he called a ridiculous concept (the chop serve) without critical examination. He then went on to conduct a very interesting discussion of serving technique that did indeed include the level of critical thinking that he was after.

Dive and roll technique
Through the years I have witnessed this phenomenon in action. In the 1970’s we were led to believe that we must spend hours and hours of our training time on learning how to dive and roll. This was because the gold medal winning Japanese teams of the 60’s and 70’s were doing it. Forget that they did it because their lack of height required that they emphasize defensive technique. And forget that these techniques were deployed to receive only 5% of all the balls sent into the defensive court. We did it because it looked really cool and it gave us something new to do in the gym that was different from any other sport. Volleyball could now claim a set skills and drills that brought attention to our sport. We were tough and we were athletic. We had a new shoe to follow.

Toshi Yoshida
Years later the “tanden” fascination captured the American coaching  community, along with related terms such as “down-up” and “up-down”.  These concepts came from our then USA Olympic Coach, Toshi Yoshida. Toshi is a good friend of mine and I can tell you that he was baffled by the way these concepts swept the nation. Tanden was just a sophisticated term for center line passing. The other two terms (above) were concepts he created for one or two specific players on the National Team who needed isolated training and were never intended to become national catch-phrases. But to this day there are coaches who believe that Toshi intentionally had created a brand new set of universal techniques for teaching the game. They had found their own shoe to follow.

More recently we have seen the growing popularity of the Gold Medal Squared menu of coaching concepts. Some coaches are buying into these concepts as though they hold a superior position in the universe of coaching philosophies. The Cauldron, the White Board, Swing Blocking, Pancake Digging, among others, are concepts upon which the GM2 methodology rests.  These concepts have been packaged in a way that makes me think about the TV pitch men who sell Shamwow, the Veg-O-Matic, and the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. There are many great concepts embedded in the GM2 approach.
Anson Dorrance
But they deserve to be scrutinized.  For example, I spoke with Anson Dorrance, the originator of the Cauldron concept with his North Carolina NCAA Champion women’s soccer teams, with props to Dean Smith who was the original originator. I asked him if he actually used daily cauldron results to determine his starting line up (this is a popular practice among GM2 advocates). “No,” was his answer. “The cauldron is for a few players who find it motivational; but mostly, it’s for the parents.” 

I have spoken to three of his ex-players who confirmed what he had told me. This doesn’t pull the rug completely out from under the cauldron concept. But it does suggest that further investigation of its usefulness should be undertaken. I would argue that the same interrogation process be applied to all of the GM2 concepts before they are accepted as the “truth”.

We are a profession of coaches who are chasing the shoe or, more accurately, chasing the person who is thought to have direct knowledge of the shoe and its powers. I welcome the day when we morph into a community of critical thinkers, devoting the time and effort to the search for coaching concepts that make sense to us.  I will rejoice when I see people lay down their pencils as soon as the speaker starts talking about the Pakistani Chop Serve. I will go all Zorba the Greek when I see coaches ask why the principles of GM2, or any other collection of concepts, should be implemented in their gym. I want coaches to pull themselves out of the pack as they chase after the shoe and  ask themselves why? What does this particular shoe have to offer?

Check back next week for part IV of Mike Hebert's "Getting it Right" blog series!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Getting it Right! - Part II

     This is part II of volleyball coaching legend Mike Hebert's blog series on his pet peeves.  Check back every Friday for his next entry!    

            by Mike Hebert

     OK. On to my next pet peeve. It has to do with a term that I hear in virtually every practice gym I have ever visited. The term is “ten foot line.” Most coaches, when running a drill, will refer to the attack line as the ten foot line. “Make sure that you plant for a back row attack with both feet behind the 10’ line!,” they will say.

Well, I have done the necessary research and I have determined that in the year 1976 our USA rule book was changed to reflect the international use of the metric system to describe the official measurements of our playing surface (Unless you count the 1947 agreement between the NGB’s of Europe and the US to adopt the metric system).  The attack line is located three meters from the midline of the court. THREE METERS, not 10 feet. We have known about this for 36 YEARS! One would think that this would be enough time to internalize such a fundamental concept.

The same mistake applied to other sports would be intolerable. You don’t hear baseball people talk about the 91’1.5” distance from home to first base. Everybody knows that it’s 90’! A first down in football requires a team to move the ball a distance of TEN yards, not 10.1 yards. Sprinters compete in the 100m dash, not the 328’1” dash. 

Come on people. Get on board. Let’s join the rest of the world by calling it the 3m line.

Next pet peeve:
  I can recall with vivid detail the first time I heard a club coach use the phrase, “She can touch 10’5” (or something in that vicinity)!” I  had been watching this player practice for two hours.  She had a poor arm swing, couldn’t pass or defend, could barely serve the ball over the net, and had a poor volleyball IQ. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But as I said good-bye to the coach I was met with his reference to her exceptional jumping ability.

I was confused. Had our game changed? Would we now be awarded points based on our players’ ability to jump? My mind raced through the possibilities. “Coach,” the referee would say to me at the beginning of the match,“Your jumper is up first.” Then after slapping high fives with everyone in sight, Jenny the Jumper would walk to the center of the court to begin her jumping routine. Touching 10’5” would result in three points for the team and would give us an early lead in the match. Come on, Jenny. Then, later on, I would implore her with, “We need you to go 10’6” on this next jump! We’re down 12-11 in the fifth set and we need the points!”

The drama would be captivating.

Mary Eggers -
But I held my tongue and thanked the coach for her hospitality. On the drive home I thought about one of my former players at Illinois, Mary Eggers. Mary stood 5’10.5” and could touch all of 9’8”. But she could play volleyball with the best and was named All-America First Team middle blocker for three consecutive years. Mary wouldn’t have fared well in the jump reach contest.  But she sure knew how to win volleyball matches.

When I hear the familiar refrain, “She can touch (fill in your own height),” I have to go into silent giggle mode. Can she do anything when she gets up there? Can she do any of the important things (serve, pass, dig, set) that happen while she is on the ground? Frankly, the jump-reach measurement of a player is one of the last things about her that I would need to know to evaluate her worth as a volleyball player. Yet it remains as an item of significant currency when discussing a player’s volleyball potential.

Check back next week for part III of Mike Hebert's "Getting it Right" blog series!