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Always be learning

By Matt Cunningham, Manager, USA Hockey Coaching Education Program, 02/28/17, 3:45PM MST


If you've seen or read "Glengarry Glen Ross," you know the classic line with which Alec Baldwin's character scolds his band of weary salesman.

"Always be closing."

In sports and youth development (and life in general), we can adapt this to "always be learning."

Living in Colorado Springs presents some unique opportunities for sharing ideas and best practices with other national governing bodies. During a recent three-day experience with USA Volleyball, I was fortunate to learn about our many similarities, some obvious differences, and also how some coaching best practices are universal. Here are my key takeaways for coaching development:

Find your ‘why’

A common theme during the three days was developing your philosophy and the importance of staying true to your values. Why are you coaching? Is it to win or to teach young people valuable sport and life skills that will benefit them in both the short- and long-term?

Along these lines, a common theme was planning in a variety of areas. For example, how do you define your goals as a coach and teacher of the game, especially as it relates to both your team as a whole and each individual, unique athlete? To take this to another level, how do these components fit into the overall development of your guiding principles, which include team rules, choosing captains, designing playing systems and overall skill development?

Different skills, common themes

One afternoon, a group of coaches were presented a challenge that measured much more than the ability to teach a specific volleyball skill. Coaches were divided into small groups with each group assigned a skill, such as serving, blocking or back-row defense.

With my limited knowledge of volleyball, I was nonetheless overwhelmed by the parallels to be found in coaching hockey. 

Blocked vs. Random

While each group was leading the class, two instructors led an ongoing dialogue that transitioned from individual skill development to team systems and communicating with your athletes.

One emerging theme was finding the balance between blocked and random practice. As a hockey coach, one of my initial thoughts was that volleyball players must spend significant time in blocked scenarios, considering the agility, coordination and strength required to perform a serve for example. One of the instructors made a valid point that, while players need plenty of time to develop fundamentals, they ultimately need to be placed in game-like scenarios to develop their game sense.

Furthermore, a coach presented a challenge to his peers; one that's valid for any coach in any sport. How can you add an additional component, skill element or progression to an individual exercise? 


We all have our favored words or terms for common parts of the game. The key is finding common language with your team or club. During my time with USA Volleyball, succinct is a word that came to my mind often. Coaches were encouraged to use direct words that convey the exact desired outcome. For example, instead of instructing “I'd like you to …” or “I want you to …” use simple language such as “Do this.” This should be followed by the "Why."

Consistent coaching cues – feet to the ball, jump, load, open, close – gave me a better understanding of skills and concepts in a fairly limited amount of time. Beyond coaching cues, the group discussed striking the delicate balance between providing valuable feedback and giving players the latitude to figure some things out on their own through trial and error.

If you can’t pass, why are you working on an offensive system?

Are we talking volleyball? Basketball? Hockey? All of the above and more?

Another consistent theme that resonated is the need to focus on individual skill development and the progression from blocked to random, and challenges with finding the balance. What you're coaching is chaos and young athletes who can think, anticipate and adapt will have better chances for success regardless of the sport. Discussions centered on age-appropriate equipment (the Volley Lite), separating starters and substitutes at too early of an age and the need for athletes to play all positions.

Perhaps my favorite takeaway comes from the life skills and intangibles that young people gain through youth sports. While they'll remember some wins and losses, the team-building and fun activities that we, as coaches, can design will stick with them for years to come. 

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