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Coach's Playbook

Turning a Team Around

Posted on 3/24/2020 by Sinan Tanik, Shawn Patchell

Volleyball team huddling

Although the average collegiate coaches' work-life at a single school in the US is well over a few seasons, I would like to share my ideas about turning a team around from poor mid-season form, with the hope that it may help those in need of a different approach.

As coaches, we always need to evaluate our teams, athletes, staff, and, most importantly, ourselves. Continually doing this will give us a good hold of the reasoning behind our performance or results. But what happens if we find our teams, before we realize, in a performance downswing? Or even worse, at the bottom (which may not necessarily be a losing streak), and we need to get out and get our rhythm back. Legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells, who coached at the highest level for 19 years, mentioned: "the toughest challenge I've faced as a coach is taking a team that's performing poorly and turning it around."

I believe there are a few basic but powerful principles that we should keep in mind and may also remind our athletes for their consideration.

The first and most important goal of the present or newcomer coach will be to gain the trust of the team and to try and build trust amongst players as quickly as possible. This is very important because as a poorly performing group, they may be lacking cohesiveness and security as an individual and in the group. The players have to understand and believe that, as coaches, we are there for them to improve, help them perform better, win, and enjoy the game at a higher level. Especially with the exposure and appeal of USA collegiate athletics, any improvement that they can achieve in their game in college will help them jumpstart their professional careers overseas or in the US. This, in turn, may mean signing professional contracts in the future if they choose to, and earn money, sign for longer terms, and more significant amounts.

During a bad period of a season, when a new coach arrives to pull a team out of the dark, clear thinking and proper assessment of the situation might be quite tricky. For this, giving the team a clear idea about how you expect the team to work going forward is crucial. Change is difficult, especially in competitive and non-solitary environments. Breaking bad habits and moving together towards a new direction is not an objective that can be easily started, let alone be achieved. Therefore, you have to make them sure that you will guide them and care for them personally throughout the entire process.

Once this is achieved, the second objective will be to make them understand how each one of them is personally accountable for the team's performance or lack thereof. This is a serious process that must be done with humor and fun, but with honesty and graceful truthtelling as well. The team needs to understand and admit to the problems that exist. However, what typically holds teams back is to hold on to creative rationalizations and excuses. One of the hardest objectives can be to change the mindset that the team has that has led them to this point. It is imperative to make sure your players understand that the end goal is essential, but transforming a team culture is more about having the right values and aligning players and group behavior with those values.

At this point, the process switches from assessment and talking about principles into taking real action. In this period, I always tried to be the best role model in the gym. I always believe in leading by example, working very hard in every detail imaginable off the court as well to take care of my team. Aside from coaching being a 24/7 job, your players should sense that you care deeply about them and are doing everything in your power to help them. This will create a domino effect and will initiate positive change in the behavior of your team on and off the court.

If you have noticed, we haven't mentioned anything volleyball specific as of yet. Now is the time for that.

Keeping your practices short, intense, and fun, I've found, is the best way to start a transformation in a team. Players do not like slow and long practices in which they stand around a lot. In this type of environment, the concentration is lost, and the motivation to push harder is gone. This hinders improvement. More importantly, precious time, which is needed for fixing problems that you do not have a lot during mid-season, is lost. To avoid this, playing short games with achievable goals will keep the mood up, keep competition high, and engage the team in improving teamwork and technical proficiency.

The next thing I do as a coach is to identify the elements that hinder the team the most and pick the three that are the simplest to fix. By doing this, you not only boost the team confidence but that of the individual players as well by allowing them to accomplish small but impactful goals.

This may be the spark that you need that jumpstarts more positive results.

One more vital point to note is maintaining a positive atmosphere. Although we will be trying to fix a lot of elements in a short amount of time, the dialogue must remain constructive. The last thing any coach wants in a time of high stress is to needlessly waste physical, mental, or emotional energy on drama and frustration. In practices, an excellent way to accomplish this is to address any mistakes with another repetition, in which the player can succeed and lead him/her and the team out of the action with a positive feeling of success.

Another way to accomplish this would be to run faster than match paced drills that force the player to focus on the next action solely and to disregard any mistakes. This shift in mindset will allow the team to start to discard past results and focus forward and on objectives ahead, such as playing better, winning again, or even winning a championship. This will begin to create the momentum you need to move through problems you will inevitably face in the future. With these skills in place, it will be easier to keep the team together as a cohesive unit, collectively running toward a common goal.

This may or may not be a situation you find yourself in as a coach. But wherever you may be in your season, I believe it is always a rule of thumb to stay positive, to lead by example, and to create forward momentum. By doing so, the betterment of technical skills, improvement of your players, and excellent results will inevitably follow!!

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