It amazes me that this far into the 21st century, coaches still believe that doing physical punishment is a valuable use of their limited training time. I addressed this over a decade ago in “Coaching the Human Animal,” but as an administrator in the 25,000 plus strong closed group of Volleyball Coaches and Trainers group, it keeps coming back in various forms – most recently in an anonymous coach post asking in essence, how many suicide runs in a practice would be considered excessive. This falls into the parent trap of “being too soft on the players.” So parents this is for you too, if you care to process and are working also to be the best parent you can be.

The very fact that these forms of running are called suicides is the first sign that we have failed to change our sport to a more effective and efficient ways of learning and training. The second is that someone has to even ask the question. The majority of coaches noted in their response that they used this physical punishment for things like “not paying attention” or not being focused, or even for “tired/pressure serving.” In IMPACT training, I would note the importance of creating and naming drills properly, for if a player got injured and sued – would you want to be on the witness stand telling the prosecution that the athlete got hurt in your “Suicide” or “Puke” drill, let alone the lack of awareness to the huge problem of real youth suicide.

Make coaching adjustments

For those who say, I punish them for not paying attention or for interrupting my coaching, have you looked at your coaching skills to see why that might be happening? Have you listened to what they are concerned about in “your” timeout? Have you considered letting them better learn leadership skills by leading the time out, leading a game or drill, or leading the warm up? Are you standing in a place that other more interesting things, like the other team practicing, not being talked to on the other court, where moving objects are flying around, might distract the players you are talking with? Maybe kneel down while they stand up in a circle and look down at the floor/your clipboard/your wisdom? Have you rewarded their rapt attention in your time out, or do you just punish them if they are making yet another mistake?

Our athletes of any age are countless times smarter than any animal. Look at how trainers get animals to perform amazing physical skills without talking (the amazing Mr. Ed aside) or punishment. We may respond in a Pavlovian way, but having kids who only work hard to fear being punished physically OR mentally, is not the best learning environment and is not effective for giving players a love of the game.

Create game-like situations.

The most important skill in our sport, despite all the technical aspects of our skill actions, is simply prediction/reading/anticipation. Learning to be in the right place and time. Simple, but not easy. Why is it you can walk from the team bench onto the court and save a tipped ball, and your players on the court fail? Is it your walking technique? Nope you have seen so many tips over time you read/anticipate them well, even from your spot on the bench. However, you can’t play a single contact in the match, so we need to train in reality, over the net, and let them read those tips, not (as I used to 50 years ago) stand at the net and throw balls to the corners to teach them “defense” A tipped ball goes over the net and down, not shoots out from the net to the court’s edges. I failed those kids years ago, as I was practicing for practice and not to perform.

No kid wants to err on purpose in front of teammates, friends and family. If they do, that is a totally different situation we don’t need to address here. Essentially every player wants to do well, do better in this challenging rebound game. I would argue that 99% of the “technical errors” I used to freak out about, even physically punish 50 years ago (as I was teaching the way I was taught), are technical. They, and I knew, how to properly perform the skill without a ball. What they need years to do is to know when and where to be at the sweet spot in time to do the skill technically “perfect.” That perfection is a hustle, to quote Brene Brown, is yet another area I don’t have time to get into….

Learn to play fresh and random, not tired.

To those who have forgotten how fatigue is detrimental to learning, the concept of learning to play tired is simply bogus. Learning is best done when random, so the brain has to better re-remember. It is better when whole, not part, as we always have to perform the whole skill in reality, and it is better when fresh – in case you forgot how much you no longer remember staying up all night for those tests you crammed for.

To those who say you must be physically stronger if you are not tactically or technically strong, they have never seen a team of masters 40s defeat a physically strong group of 20 year olds. Or they have not seen an older coach who used to play, compete one vs six and easily defeat a group of high school players who could out run or beat that coach in any physical exercise chosen. I do understand pushing yourself through physical limits to show you where what you might thought impossible is possible. Such awareness physically should be done in team building exercises that do not take away from skill learning time. I worked for a mountaineering firm, Holubar, and taught outdoor education, rope courses and the like and even spent time with Outward Bound. So did our men’s team in en route to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, a winter course even – at a time when the team trained together year round in San Diego. Team and culture building is VERY important.

We do it for warm up – again, given the large amount of time it takes to learn to read and be in the right place and time (so coaches can’t punish me for my lack of “technique”), there simply is not enough time in learning volleyball to waste on physical punishment.

Let the errors happen. Learn in competition.

When you create a team culture that emphasizes learning, and challenging athletes to extend their limits and do things they are not good at…they err. What they need is a coach who understands how much mistakes are part of learning, and lets them err in learning. Be the coach who lets them learn in competition. Why do athletes love monarch of the court or speedball? Because the “punishment” is to sit and watch, not play, THAT is the “consequence” that some coaches rename punishment to. That is what all tournaments are also about. It helps develop a winners stay on mentality. A huge advantage in competition.

I work with Special Olympians over the years, as they remind me of the purity of participation, of learning, and how hard our rebound sport is to learn and play for those with less than years of experience. While other sports let a new learner hold the ball and figure out a solution (eg basketball, soccer, lacrosse, softball, baseball) the object in our sport is that we volley…a ball….which has to be rebounded. Sure we can let it bounce like newcomb or smashball, to hook them into our high level. Sure we can even catch and throw the ball, but if you must play the rebound game, you must train in that reality before competing, including – playing OVER the net, not in front of it.

These bounce/catch options however are not volleyball and somewhere we need to start rebounding the ball off our genetically given body surfaces (no implements allowed) – and that ball falls due to gravity at the same speed for a novice as it does for an Olympian. Indeed, I would argue strongly that the thing that separates successful players as they move up the pipeline to higher levels of play, is simply their ability to read/anticipate the increasing speed of the ball. When you get to the pro/Olympic level, even the great players get aced and miss lots of digs, simply because the ball travels too fast in the short space we call the court, for humans to react.

If I may, I want to add a quote on this topic from Dan Mickle, a mentor of mine and mental training coach –

He states wisely “The other aspect about this that is almost NEVER talked about is the mental health of our athletes BEFORE we get them.  One of the recent figures I read was 1 in 10 kids ages 4-17 are DIAGNOSED (that is key) with ADHD or ADD.  So you can almost figure that at least 1 player on your team is dealing with ADHD, and you most likely have no idea.  Until I had a child with ADHD, I never really thought about it.  She has had some really tough times as an athlete, but now at 15 she manages it pretty well.  Getting her diagnosed and a treatment plan was a nightmare alone, as parents. Luckily she has had some amazing coaches in recent years that understood her challenges and how to work with her.    Not everyone is that lucky to have her support system.  When I get to visit and work with clubs, I try to watch their practices to see how they are incorporating the mental aspects of the game and that is where it has  become clear as day that there are mental health issues but the coaches don’t know about them; or they have no idea how to adapt for it.  Coaches are literally punishing players for mental illness.”

If you want to get extra scientific about it, we want to encourage synaptogenesis, not angiogenesis. So in the culture and process of never being a child’s last coach, get into the 21st century and make your gym an Exploratorium not a Dungeon, with no fear of mistakes and seeing them simply as opportunities to improve.

Read this article on regression to the mean

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About the Author

John is a Coach and Member of the Leadership Team at Beach Nation. He is known for his coaching innovation through positivity, motivation, incorporating motor learning with cognitive development and keeping learning fun. John served as USA Volleyball’s director of sport development, and in 2019 he became the 50th recipient in history of USAV’s highest award for a lifetime of service, the “Frier Award.” Kessel has “strived to help all coaches become more efficient, positive and creative, no matter what level – from the elementary school level to USA National Team programs”.