I’m a big advocate of reflective writing, and I do it quite extensively now as I’ve gotten older. For those of you who don’t know what it is, reflective writing is a form of writing which involves critically analyzing an experience in the hopes of recognizing how it a) impacted you and b) what you learned from it. It helps you examine an experience on a deeper level.
About a year ago, I ran into a former player from the first team I had ever coached. She became a math teacher for a local high school in my area after college and was now the JV volleyball coach. The last time I had seen her was when she was on my 16u club team, it was a humbling moment to see her coaching now. As I watched the game, walking down memory lane, I realized it had been ten years since she was on my team. It has been ten years since I first began coaching, and the game of volleyball has taken me to several places over this decade, many of which I could have never imagined.
With the passing of my first decade in coaching, it only seemed appropriate to reflect on the lessons learned over the last ten years of volleyball-based adventures. Fair warning, I am by no means a master coach. I haven’t won any titles, I don’t coach for a top 10 DI program, and my career as a player was largely lackluster. These are merely the thoughts of a passionate volleyball professional who’s found a love for coaching, looking to identify the lessons learned along the way. I hope you enjoy them.
My First Team
When I graduated from New Paltz, my college coach (Radu Petrus) told me I should go be “Like a Coach” to stay in the game of volleyball, he thought I would be good at it. I reached out to a local club in my area asking if I could coach with them, and the next thing I knew I was a head coach for the club’s 16U team (girls).
We weren’t a power house club trying to compete on a national level, as the club was designed to be a feeder program for the local high school team. The majority of my players were either on the JV or Varsity team of said school. The goal of the club was to compete within our region, to get the girls ready to compete for a section championship in school. It was probably one of the most fun club seasons I’ve had in my career to date.
It’s a tad cliche, but I do reminisce about this team often. The girls had the right combination of talent and potential. We were competitive in some of our regional tournaments, we had some big club matches against local rivals with electric crowd energy, and the girls got much better throughout the year. By and large, I’d consider it a fairly decent season for that team.
Some of the things I think I did well that led to us having a fun year were few, and sadly rather simple. While I didn’t know anywhere near as much about volleyball then as I do now, I was discovering how passionate I was about coaching. I loved going to practice to train this team, and I think that was arguably my best strength back then (considering my volleyball knowledge was nonexistent).
Passion is infectious, and I think my passion for practice allowed me to have a fun gym environment. It’s a lot easier to train young athletes when they are having fun, simply because they’ll want to come to practice more. If I did anything right that season, I think it was creating a space where the girls wanted to keep coming to practice, where they would have fun making mistakes, and weren’t afraid to fail. The number one barrier to kids getting “better” is often a fear of failure, a fear of making a mistake. I think I was good at making sure that wasn’t an issue for this team.
Second, despite my lack of volleyball knowledge, I had us playing a lot, and I’m not just talking about 6-on-6. Whether it was small court games, split court games, or 4-on-4, the girls would be in situations where they were playing volleyball. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized more and more the importance of small games like this for younger players. Because in those situations, the athletes are forced to pass, set, hit, and play defense. They’re playing the game, and they’re getting tons of repetitions playing! We ran a simple offense, and we didn’t do anything crazy or advanced. But we competed every practice, we did a lot of serve and pass, and we played a lot; the girls got better because of it.
Sadly, when I think about that team I’m often left with a sense of remorse. I can’t exactly fault myself for this, but I wish I knew then what I know now as a coach. I’ve learned so much about volleyball and coaching over the last ten years. I could have taught them so much more, I could have made them X amount better. It’s an unfair self-criticism, but it is true. I think that’s what always made this team special in my mind, the fact I wish I could go back with all the knowledge I’ve gained over the years and coach them again.
Looking back, my experience with this team taught me a lot about myself and my coaching style. I made a lot of mistakes learning how to coach with them, and they’re mistakes that a lot of young coaches fall victim to.
- I was too much of a cheerleader coach, becoming so invested in the highs and lows of our matches that the team would feed off my energy. This is an INCREDIBLY bad habit for a lot of coaches.
- I wasn’t the best at having difficult conversations (who is at 22)
- I trained them the way I had been taught, not the way they needed to be trained (there is a major difference between men’s collegiate volleyball and 16u club volleyball).
- I never came to practice with an organized plan.
- I wasn’t very good at teaching volleyball skills.
- I didn’t call timeouts effectively.
- When I did call timeouts, I focused more on motivational speech to get the players out of a hole, instead of giving them clear instruction on “what” they could do to win the point.
- I didn’t know what my coaching philosophy or core values were.
- I was out coached constantly by better coaches at larger tournaments.
- I was trying to prove that I knew enough to coach this team (arrogance is a young coach sin I’ll talk more about later).
The list goes on, but the above are the first that come to mind. “Young Coach Ramius” made a lot of mistakes sadly, but in the process, I began to recognize some of my inherent strengths as a coach. Despite knowing very little about the game, I was an incredibly passionate coach, and the passion was crucial to getting buy-in from the team. Further, I began to understand how empathy was my superpower. Anyone who’s ever trained on one of my teams probably recognizes I’m incredibly empathic. I may not have known what it was at first ten years ago, but I was beginning to see early on I had an ability to connect with athletes in a way that made them a) love volleyball b) love coming to practice and c) unafraid to make mistakes in practice.
I’ll always remember the first team I coached way back when. They set the foundation for the type of coach I’ve become. I’ll forever wish I could go back with my current knowledge and coach them again. But I’m beyond proud of all the work they did that year as a team, I’m proud of who they became as players, and I know I gave them everything I had as a coach to make them better. I hope they know that.
Learning to Read
I kept coaching for different local clubs for a few more years, relying mostly on my training in college as the basis for my volleyball knowledge. As I got into my late twenties, I started to feel like I was hitting a plateau. My athletes might have been getting better incrementally, but every year I would always notice the difference between local clubs and the power clubs you always see at big tournaments. Comparatively, their players weren’t that much taller than mine, they weren’t more athletic than we were… they were just MUCH better at volleyball.
I eventually came to the conclusion I didn’t know enough to take my players to the next level, a sobering feeling for any coach. So, I enrolled in the (now defunct) USAV Coaches Accreditation Program, which was USA Volleyball’s comprehensive, multi-level education program designed to teach coaches how to coach volleyball. The next available program was held in Pittsburgh, during the annual AVCA Coaches Convention and the NCAA Final Four.
The most significant moment in my coaching career occurred on the first day of the CAP program. There were probably about 30-50 coaches in the course, and John Kessel was the lead instructor of the program. After a few course introductions and outlines, he asked the class “What is the most important skill in Volleyball ?”.
I thought to myself, “It has to be passing, you can’t do anything if you can’t pass”, I and about a dozen people in the room raised our hands to answer the question. John Kessell pointed at one of the coaches with their hand raised, and the coach tentatively said, “Is it passing?”.
Kessell chuckled to himself, as it was almost like he was expecting this answer. “Not quite,” he said. “The most important skill in Volleyball is reading”. He then went on to explain what “reading” in the volleyball context was and why it’s the most important skill for X, Y, and Z reasons. I was blown away… a) because I was wrong and b) because it was an intrinsically simple answer that made complete and utter sense in the grand scheme of our sport. It felt like a lightbulb had clicked in my head, and at that moment I convinced myself I needed to wash away my prior assumptions about volleyball and be open to everything I could see and learn while in Pittsburgh. More importantly, I accepted that if I wanted to become a better volleyball coach, I needed to be able to learn from others.
This was probably the most important trip I’ve ever taken on my coaching journey to date. The book of Volleyball finally started to open up for me, and I saw how little I actually knew about the game. I was exposed to so much volleyball knowledge between the Convention, the Program, and the Final Four I could barely sleep most nights due to excitement. The CAP program was sadly discontinued during the COVID 19 Pandemic, but without that experience in Pittsburgh I don’t know where I would be as a coach.
The FrogJump Journey
The AVCA convention had refueled my passion for coaching just in time for the COVID 19 pandemic to shut down the world. Social distancing, masking up, no volleyball practices, it was a tough time for everyone. This was the period of my life when I took up reflective writing, and I often would write about how much I missed volleyball and coaching.
After the first two months of Covid, I was fed up with my volleyball passion being on pause. I couldn’t control when the Pandemic would end, I couldn’t control when social distancing would end, but I COULD control my efforts to be a better Volleyball coach during this time. So I took ownership of my own education and dove into all the online resources that were available to learn more about coaching. Whether it was watching old NCAA matches, random youtube videos, or presentations from theartofcoachingvolleyball.com, I consumed volleyball content with the intent of becoming a better coach. This led to me writing more focused pieces regarding volleyball, based on the works done by smarter coaches than I throughout the years; this was the spark for FrogJump.
Men’s volleyball in America is a sport which has grown exponentially over my career. The opportunities for boys to play volleyball are vastly different now (2023) to when I first picked up the sport (2006). There were no opportunities to play club or high school ball in my area, so when I eventually joined a club I was driving two hours to practice there and back twice a week. When I began college in 2008, the Northeast Collegiate Volleyball Association (NECVA) was the home of the majority of D3 men’s programs, comprising 43 D3 men’s team across the Northeast. The Molten Invitational Championship was the defacto D3VB national championship, and only 4 teams every year would compete in it (the host, two at large recipients which were dominated by UCSC, Springfield, and Juniata, and the NECVA winner). Fast forward to 2023, and we have well over 100 D3VB men’s programs across the country and more being created every year.
This exponential growth was driven by many factors, but one that can’t be understated is the work done at the grass roots level by passionate volleyball professionals looking to expand opportunities for the next generation of male athletes in our sport.
FrogJump has been my attempt to give back to our sport, to help grow the game at the DIII level for the next generation of male athletes. As a creative outlet, it allowed me to create content for the volleyball community while pursuing my passion. But the experience has been instrumental to my growth as a Coach, because I truly believe if you want to become a better volleyball coach, you need to watch a TON of volleyball with a growth mindset.
I can confidently say I watch more D3 men’s volleyball matches than 99.99% of America, as every D3VB season I have matches queued up on several screens to stay current to the trends of the season. It wasn’t long before I began to notice the different play styles and coaching strategies between programs across the country. Each team is different, each coach is different, and the synergies of different personnel can lead to some inspiring moments if you let them. It reinforces the mantra of being open to learning from others and being flexible on your path to scoring 25 points in a set.
I’ve been incredibly grateful for the experience of running FrogJump, for its benefits to our community and its role in improving me as a coach. I’ve visited some of the best gyms in the country to watch teams train, I’ve found a group of lifelong friends who have helped make FrogJump what it is today (Harvey, Bradley, Lauren, Dr. Mark, and Lindsay), and we have a passionate following. I’m excited for what we’re capable of doing in our 4th year of operations.
Club Season 2023
The last few years I’ve been coaching for Academy Volleyball in Long Island, this past year I was the assistant for my close friend Christian Smith, coaching the clubs 17U boys team. This was easily my favorite year coaching club, and easily my favorite team to coach throughout my career. They are likely the best team I have ever trained, and it’s not remotely close. In the seven tournaments we’ve participated in this year, we’ve placed in the top 4 in six of them, 2nd in three of them, and won the Boston Mizuno Classic 18 Open division as a 17u team.
A lot of people would look at this team and say “of course this team is good, you have x,y, and z players on it”. To that narrative, I’ll gladly counter showing you a practice video of every player on our team being unable to tip a volleyball to a hula hoop on an open net for thirty straight minutes at the beginning of the season. Being talented and being good are not the same thing.
This group of young men has gotten infinitely better from where they started this year for several reasons. They worked incredibly hard each practice, they bought into our team culture, they were open to the process of winning, and recognized the privilege of playing in big matches. I’m beyond proud of their growth as players, and I’m proud of the work Coach Christian and I did in training them. Because what we identified as coaches was a method of training which produced good players, a core set of values we believed in, and a culture the entire team could buy into. We found a way to win and created good players (and good humans) along the way.
This team was important for me as a coach, because it solidified things I’ve learned over the last ten years on this coaching journey. Some are more obvious than others, but I’m a slow learner. While this reflection article is for my own learning, I hope it helps any reader who’s thinking about coaching after they’ve played their last match. There’s about ten years of mistakes (and lessons) I think some might find beneficial.
What is your Coaching Philosophy?
If you had asked me what kind of Coach I was ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you had asked me what some of my guiding principles as a coach were, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Because when I first started coaching, I had never thought about what my coaching philosophy was, or even would have known what having one meant.
Your Coaching Philosophy is the set of values, beliefs, and principles that guide you as a coach. It covers everything from a) what kind of coach you are b) how you will coach c) how you will treat your players and d) how you will make decisions. It identifies your priorities, your non-negotiables, your beliefs and principles which guide your decisions as you coach your team.
I think this is likely the most important thing any coach should do when they begin coaching, and arguably the hardest thing for any new coach to do when they begin their career. Young coaches often aren’t challenged to think about these things, and they likely don’t recognize its importance until they’ve been able to identify their core values after a couple years of coaching.
Your core values are going to be the guiding pillars of your coaching philosophy, and the beliefs you’ll shape your team culture around. They are the things that make you who you are, the beliefs you will never compromise on. These are what your athletes will remember about you long after you’ve coached them and will hopefully be features of them as players throughout their lives. As an example, I’ve listed mine below.
- Work Hard Every Day
- Respect Your Teammates
- Be Honest
- Have a Growth Mindset
- Never Give Up
It’s one thing to write them down, it’s another thing to say them to your team, but LIVING your values as a Coach with your athletes is the key. You have to be consistent, otherwise you’re just a hypocrite, and your players will notice before you do. Never be afraid to enforce your core values.
My advice to anyone looking to start coaching, take a couple minutes and write down your coaching philosophy. It doesn’t have to be in a long narrative, it doesn’t have to be well written, it just has to be clear enough for you to understand. After you’ve written it down, put it away for a few days and then look it over again. I wrote mine several years ago, and I revisit it at the end of every season. It is a living document, meant to evolve as you grow as Coach, revise as needed.
Humility and Mentorship
I mentioned it earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Arrogance is one of the most dangerous sins in coaching, and most young coaches will fall victim to it early during their coaching journey. Whether it’s judging the value of certain volleyball concepts, or overvaluing their own knowledge, arrogance can blind a coach to the detriment of themselves and their players. I speak from experience when I say humility is an incredibly hard lesson to learn.
If you want to become a better volleyball coach, accepting that you don’t know everything there’s to know about the sport should be one of the first things you do. Even more so if you were a talented player. The only thing individual accolades and accomplishments as a player will ever get you as a coach is easier buy-in from the athletes you are coaching. While this is helpful, it is important to remember that being a great player does not mean you are automatically a good coach. “Coaching” is not “playing”, it requires a vastly different skill set. Some of the greatest coaches across athletics never played their sport at a high level. Likewise, some of the greatest athletes turned out to be terrible coaches.
In this regard, mentors are incredibly helpful for those looking to start coaching. While arrogance can make you think you know everything, mentors with experience can point you down the right path. They are an incredible defense to arrogance because of how open we are to learning from them. Be active in seeking feedback from those who have walked the path ahead of you. You’ll learn a lot and make fewer mistakes along the way.
Coach, and Coach Often!
If you want to be good at something, you need to put the time into it. While I’m not advocating for the “10’000 hour” rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, I will advocate that you will not become a better coach without actually coaching an athlete/team. I don’t think there’s much controversy in this statement.
Whether you’re volunteering to coach a local team, doing private lessons with individuals, or getting paid by an organization, go coach. Get experience in the field, make mistakes and learn from them. Don’t just sit at home thinking you know enough. Because you won’t learn how to develop a team culture from your couch. You won’t learn how to have difficult conversations with players without having players. You won’t learn the right/wrong ways to teach a skill without attempting to teach the skill to someone. You won’t learn how to win a game without being in a game. Go, and coach.
Don’t have a Drill Collection
To any new coach who is reading, there are only so many skills in volleyball. They are serving, passing, hitting, blocking, defense, and setting. Find drills that improve your players abilities in these areas and make them as game-like as possible. Otherwise, your drill is just wasting time and precious repetitions.
However, on your path to finding these drills you might be tempted to keep and try every drill you see online or at practice. There are a lot of volleyball resources out there, and there are A LOT of different volleyball drills in the world. I’m going to tell you right now, don’t get distracted by quantity, because being a good coach is not about how many drills you know.
I have probably seen at least a thousand volleyball drills over the last ten years. Some of them were great, some of them were garbage. I’ve created a few great ones, and I’ve created A LOT of garbage. But I’ve been able to experiment and notice which drills were effective and which weren’t. Over time, my vast “drill collection” has narrowed down to a group of 5 or 6 drills I believe work for the purposes I use them for. If I ever vary these drills in complexity, I do so based on my athlete’s level of play.
Identify Your Level of Play
Russ Rose is probably one of the greatest volleyball coaches of all time, so when he says “identify your level of play” a lot when he’s talking to coaches looking to learn, it’s probably worth listening to.
What is the skill level of the athletes you are training? What is the skill level of athletes you are competing against? Are they professionals? High level collegiate players? Or are they the local 8-year-olds coming to your Volleytots program who have never touched a volleyball before?
Your level of play will dictate the types of concepts you’ll teach your athletes, the skills you work on with them, the drills you use to teach them, and the strategies you use to coach them in a game. The 8-year-old Volleytot kids are not going to be training the same way the Texas University Women’s volleyball team will be training. Identify where your players are, not where you want them to be, and coach accordingly.
Always Remember the Pygmalion Effect
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon in which high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area and low expectations lead to worse. Our athletes respond to our expectations, and their growth is very much affected by their coaches’ perceptions of them.
I see this effect a lot in great gyms across the country, and I saw it a lot in our gym this year during club season. Because in our gym, everybody passes, everybody sets, everybody swings, and everybody plays defense. There are no exceptions to this rule, the middles don’t get to skip passing drills because they “don’t pass in a game”. The libero’s don’t get to skip working on attacking and attack progression because they “don’t swing” in a game.
We train volleyball players, not positions. Because you have no idea what situation you’ll be in during a match and what your team will look like at that moment. There were several times this year where we had our middle pass out of the back row. I coached a match this year where, due to injury, I had to sub one of our DS/liberos in to play outside during the middle of a set.
Let it be known, those middles passed those tough serves, and that DS/Libero got a kill. Because Coach Christian and I truly believed every athlete we had this year came in with the potential to be better at passing, defending, and setting/help-setting. Every one of our players got better at those things this year, because we as coaches were committed to making great players.
Improvement is not Linear
The path to improving will be full of setbacks, regressions, and failures. Your athletes won’t always have a good day, your team won’t always have a good practice, they won’t always play well. Some days they will blow your mind at how much better they have gotten, and other days you’ll sit and wonder if they’ve ever touched a volleyball before in their life.
The path to improvement is not linear, and that’s ok! The important thing to remember is to not get frustrated during these setbacks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a young coach respond to their team’s adversity with some variation of frustration. Calling a timeout to just yell about the team playing badly, making the team do physical exercise during practice because they can’t perform a drill correctly, I’ve seen it all. This comes from lack of experience, because the Coach is intrinsically just as frustrated about the situation as the players are and doesn’t know a better way to fix it.
It doesn’t do you or your athletes any good to be frustrated in these moments. Instead, stay focused on the big picture, and provide instruction on how the team/athlete can get out of this moment of struggle. Your job as a coach is to constructively fix problems, not berate your athletes during their low points. Remember, your players have gotten better, they will learn more to get better, and your job is to show them the way.
Learn Why, Not How
The coach who knows how to do something will always lose to the coach who knows why they do something. This might sound confusing, so let’s run through an example.
You are talking to two other volleyball coaches, and you ask them both how to do the “Butterfly Drill”. Both coaches are able to answer you, both are able to draw a diagram of the drill and explain how it works.
You then ask both coaches why they do the “butterfly drill”. One coach says they do it because their former coach did it all the time. The other coach begins to explain the benefits of the drill as a warm-up, how it involves multiple athletes with minimal lines and waiting, and how it simulates game like movements by combining passing, setting, hitting. They then explain different variations and why they are helpful. This is the coach who knows “why”.
The coach who knows “why” very clearly has a deeper understanding of the game and how to teach it. The coach who knows “how” is a Parrott, copying what they’ve been exposed to. Don’t be a Parrott person, devote your time to learning “why” you do things, not simply how to do them. It’ll help you along the way when you start trying to compete against other teams and coaches.
Winning is a Process
I love winning, I really do. It is one of the best feelings in the world, and I think most coaches will agree with me on that. But as I’ve gotten older and coached a lot more, I’ve grown to respect the process of winning for what it truly is; an arduous journey full of challenges in the face of an opponent who’s trying to beat you too.
You never know what team you’re going to have on game day. You might know what players are there, but you don’t know how they’re going to perform at the moment; and to think you do is incredibly naive. Everyone has baggage, everyone has off days, and some people will underperform. In those moments, your job as a coach is to find a way to win regardless of the obstacles.
Your job is to maximize your chances of victory, even when the odds begin to favor your opponent. Don’t get stuck on “one way” of winning. Don’t handicap yourself, or your team, by being inflexible in your approach to victory. Give others a chance to overperform, see if someone on the bench can make magic on the floor, try something crazy if you need to. Find the best route to victory in the moment with what you have, and trust that you’ve trained your players well enough to be flexible in the moment too.
Ten years ago, “Young Ramius” used to think coaching was fun and easy. In the present, “Old Ramius” recognizes how hard being a good coach really is. But my passion for coaching volleyball is just as strong now as it was ten years ago when I had my first team. Because few things are better than watching an athlete you’ve trained improve. Few things are better than watching a team you’ve trained win a match. Few things are better than seeing the impact a good coach can have on an athlete over time.
Coaching isn’t for everyone, and being a good coach is hard. So I have nothing but respect for those trying to become a better coach for the next generation of volleyball players. I’ve been incredibly privileged to have been coaching for this long, and the more I learn about this sport the more I think I know barely anything at all. I’m excited for the new lessons over the next decade, and I look forward to coaching against some of you readers in the future too.