I haven’t coached basketball for over 15 years, but I still remember something Geno Auriemma said back in 2007. I wasn’t at his practice. I was watching an All-Access DVD Series from Championship Productions. I just wanted to see how a legendary coach teaches skills, how he runs his practice. With these DVDs, I had an all-access pass to the first few days of practice. They were Maya Moore’s first practices ever at UCONN.
Miked up, Geno Auriemma explains that they start every day with 15 minutes of ball handling or passing. Whether guards or forwards, they are all handling the ball. You can’t play this game if you can’t handle the ball, he explained. Geno said it feels like they do more individual work than team work. From the first day of practice until the last day of the season, they spend 30 minutes every day working on individual skills. Geno said , “I just don’t think that we can ever be a good team unless the individuals on the team keep improving every single day. It doesn’t do any good for us to set up this play, that play, or this other play and then have the players not be able to execute a simple fundamental drill.”
Geno Auriemma could revolutionize the volleyball world. The start of his practice could be used to coach middle school basketball, but it’s the best women’s basketball program in the nation. They work on individual work. They do fundamental work. I sit and watch too many club volleyball programs, with the best 10-12 kids in a large metropolitan area, and they don’t do individual work. They rarely practice fundamentals. Hockey skills coach Darryl Belfry admits he initially thought coaching and teaching were the same thing. He went and watched a well-known hockey coach in his area run a practice. This man was trained in the teaching profession. Teaching in the school system was his full-time profession. His profession required him to understand progression and the laws of learning. While he had a good presence, his practices pretty much looked like everyone else. Belfry said he really didn't see him teach anything. Belfry realized, this man isn't teaching; he's coaching. There is either a disconnect, or teaching and coaching are different in some way. Geno Auriemma teaches his sport.
Kari Raymond seems to be an outlier. In watching my wife coach volleyball, her practices include individual work. She trains the fundamentals. Regardless of position, players learn all the volleyball skills. But I sit at the mezzanine level and look over eight courts in a volleyball facility, and no one else trains fundamentals. Everyone scrimmages. The coach enters in a ball and it’s two hours of six-on-six. And before you claim differences between the sport of volleyball and basketball, ask yourself how well your combination plays will work if your players can’t execute a fundamental skill like passing. You go to large tournaments and you can’t run your fancy plays because you can’t handle the opponent’s serve. Why don't teams work on individual skills? Why isn't anyone teaching?
In many ways, it seems like the higher the level, the more likely it is that practice is just loads of six-on-six. Kari trains the fundamentals for her junior varsity team, and the varsity just runs through two hours of six-on-six. Her 14-1s team works on individual work and fundamental volleyball skills, but at 15-1, 16-1, and 17-1 it feels like the whole two hours is spent with six-on-six. You watch Geno’s practice and you might think it’s a summer camp or an 8th grade basketball practice. He’s developing players. They do individual work. They train the fundamentals of the game. His players get better every single day.
So I ask, can you coach bad players? Do you develop players? It’s hard to develop players when all you do is roll out the ball and play six-on-six. In the all-access videos, Geno shared a story that I still remember 13 years later. Whether it’s the first day of practice or practice before the start of the NCAA Tournament, Connecticut spends 30 minutes every day on individual work. And Geno said that’s how you get a player like Ketia Swanier.
According to Geno, Ketia Swainer wasn’t recruited by any of the top 100 schools in America. She comes to UCONN as a freshman and by the time she ended her career as a senior, she was the 12th overall pick in the WNBA draft. Why? Because every day, every day, every day UCONN worked on individual work for 30 minutes- every single day of practice for five-plus months for four years.
Yes, Geno Auriemma gets the best talent in the country, but it didn’t start that way. UCONN had only one winning season before he arrived. When he took over, the team had no locker rooms. The ceilings in the practice facility leaked so badly that rain made practice impossible. How do you build a national powerhouse from those humble beginnings? You develop players. You make the individuals on the team better every day, every day, every day. He was a high school coach who built the best women’s basketball program in the country at UCONN. He said, "One of the advantages that I think we have is that I coached high school. So I know how to coach bad players. Because when you are coaching high school, you are coaching bad players. You are coaching players that don't know how to play. You have to teach them how to play. So you have to come up with all these different ways to make that bad player a good player.”
Can you coach bad players? Coaches who teach the game and develop players know how to coach bad players. As Geno said, “I just don’t think that we can ever be a good team unless the individuals on the team keep improving every single day.” What do you give your players every single day to help them improve? Do you roll out the ball and scrimmage? Or do you teach skills? Are you committing 30 minutes of practice every day to individual skill development.
Teach, connect, recruit. Teach every day. Connect with your players every day. Recruit every single day. Chris Petersen shared that at a coaches clinic back in his Boise State days. Petersen and his staff at Boise State took one and two star recruits, coached them for four or five years, and turned them into NFL players. When Petersen went to the University of Washington, the process was replicated. UW did not always get the top recruits, but they developed NFL players. They had a knack for taking undervalued players and developing them into NFL draft picks. They were teachers first. They made their players better every single day.
John Wooden famously started out his career as a high school English teacher in a small town in Indiana. After his coaching career at UCLA he said, "When I was coaching, I always considered myself a teacher. Teachers tend to follow the laws of learning better than coaches who don't have any teaching background. A coach is nothing more than a teacher. I used to encourage anyone who wanted to coach to get a degree in teaching so they could apply those principles to athletics."
Wooden, Lombardi, Paul Brown, and many other legendary coaches started out as high school teachers. I don’t believe you need to teach in the school system to be an effective coach, but I do believe there is a huge difference between coaches who can teach their sport and maximize each player's ability and those who just roll out the ball and run drills or scrimmage. You must teach the game.
There is a revolution going on in Major League Baseball. Baseball brought us the Moneyball era, and now Major League Baseball has discovered the new moneyball. It's called player development. With 20 years in the public schools, Kari knows about Carol Dweck. Many educators have heard about the “growth mindset.” The volleyball world also references Dweck’s work. Women’s National team head coach Karch Kiraly has preached the growth mindset concept for years. The Houston Astros talked about a growth mindset before their 2017 World Series title. Ben Reiter writes, “They sought to identify players who were unsatisfied with their lot, who possessed an uncommon drive and ability to improve. A growth mindset, they called it.”
All coaches can benefit from a baseball book published in 2018 called "The MVP Machine." The book is dedicated to player development and how organizations are using player development to maximize talent and find an edge. The authors wrote, "Teams and players are adopting a growth mindset that rejects long-held beliefs about innate physical talent." The authors quote Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay who said, "Your number one tool as a coach is not playing experience, it is a growth mindset that allows you to be curious and take advantage of all of the information that is readily available...so while for years and years the first question asked in an interview was, 'Where did you play?', the question is becoming, 'How well do you learn?'"
Between Kari and I, we have over 40 years of coaching experience. That coaching experience would vary from Division III to the Big Ten to elite club volleyball to all levels of high school. Unfortunately, we see many coaches with a fixed mindset. We have both had experiences where we coach an individual for one year. The next year that player advances to the next age level or the next phase of her career. And we will sometimes hear that our former player cannot hit varsity pitching or she can’t pass in serve receive. Well, teach her to hit. That's all I did. I worked with her on her hitting and she became a very good hitter. Teach her to hit. Help her in serve receive. Make her a better passer. Don't hide behind the excuse that she cannot hit or can’t handle serve receive. That's a fixed mindset. Develop your players.
I am reminded of the scene in the movie Moneyball where Billy Beane, the character played by Brad Pitt, and coach Ron Washington meet with a player named Scott Hatteburg. The A’s want to sign Hatteburg whose career as a catcher looks like it’s over. Beane wants to sign Hatteburg and move him to first base. Hatteburg stumbles at the right response and explains that he doesn’t know how to play first base. “It’s not hard,” Billy Beane tries to explain. “Tell him. Wash,” says Beane, nodding to coach Ron Washington looking for help. “It’s incredibly hard!” Washington replies. “Anything worth doing is,” Beane says. “Wash is gonna teach you.” Later in the movie, Washington and Beane are talking with the manager who doesn’t want to play Hatteburg at first base. The nicest thing coach Ron Washington can say about Hetteburg is that he lacks confidence. Billy Beane’s, response, “Work with him Wash.”
If you are a coach in the Major Leagues, you should be able to teach a player how to play a position. Teach him. Work with him. That's your job! Break down the skills and teach him. Take what Scott Hatteburg brings to the table and find ways to make him better. Be curious. Have a growth mindset. Constantly ask how you can grow and develop this player?
I have followed Nick Saban’s career since he was a position coach for the Houston Oilers. I followed his career to Toledo, to the Cleveland Browns, to Michigan State, to LSU, and on from there. Saban is a master at teaching skills and developing talent. His main strength is teaching defense. As a former defensive back himself, he specifically enjoys coaching his old position. He is the most successful football coach in college football history, but he does not simply oversee the program. He coaches. First and foremost, he is a teacher. His long-time defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said, "If I take one thing from Coach Saban, it’s probably that coaches don’t coach enough how to do it. They focus on what to do all the time, and how to do it is a lot more technical. How do you press a guy man-to-man? How do you tackle a guy? So many kids today don’t know that and they don’t get taught that. They just get told: 'Tackle better, catch the ball, make the tackle.'”
The book, The MVP Machines, railed against the fixed mindset approach in minor league baseball. Too many old school coaches can’t teach a player how to do a skill. The only thing they offer is to yell, “Be better!” Urban Meyer said, “If you are a teacher, you teach, and if you don’t teach your players properly, then it’s on you.”
If Jen cannot hit varsity pitching, that's on the varsity coach. Teach your sport. Develop players. If Payton cannot pass in serve receive, that's on you. Train her and develop her as a passer or put her in a different spot where she can be more successful. Teach the skills your players need to be successful.
University of Minnesota Head Volleyball Coach Hugh McCutcheon talked about the importance of teaching. McCutcheon coached both the men's and women's national teams; he is probably one of the top two coaches in the sport. He said, "Coaching is tactics and game management. Teaching on the other hand is skill and system development, putting things in place that you can then execute in competition." In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune Hugh McCutcheon said, "While it can be very tempting to put a lot of emphasis on the coaching aspect, there essentially is only two days a week your team can focus on those x's and o's. There is much more time during the week that can- and should- be spent improving their skills as individuals and as a team. There's an important difference between the two. If you have to be good at just one, be good at teaching. You could be a great coach, but if your team can't execute the plan, then it doesn't really matter. If they are taught correct fundamentals, they will be good because they can play the whole game."
For years, I have watched my wife train a kid on her 15-2s team who then goes on to make the top team, the 16-1s team, the following year. I have watched her take an All-State high school track athlete and teach her to be a defensive specialist on the varsity volleyball team. I have watched her take a girl who had only played middle and move her to outside hitter and watch her develop into a Division I outside hitter. Kari has trained over 80 kids who have gone on to play at the college level. Her experience as a high school math teacher makes her a better volleyball coach, and her volleyball coaching experience makes her a better math teacher.
Your ability as a coach to teach the concepts leads to success. As a volleyball coach, my wife has a gift of taking complex movements and complex ideas and breaking them down into smaller parts that are easier to grasp. She can identify things to change in a player’s arm swing and knows how to simplify her cues. In her, I see one of the best coaches in the country at teaching her sport and training all skills. She doesn't just roll the ball out and watch them play six-on-six.
The specific ways you teach the arm swing and passing matters. Any high school coach of any sport can tell you this. Some coaches have a gift for teaching teams how to break a full court press. Some coaches have a gift for teaching softball players to hit for power. What you teach matters. How you teach it, the drills, the principles, the cues you give, it all matters. And how you choose to spend your time teaching matters.
If there is a Godfather of college volleyball, it would be Carl McGown. Carl coached the BYU men's volleyball team for 13 years between 1989 and 2002 where he led the team to two national championships. He twice earned National Coach of the Year and coached in seven different Olympic games.
Carl's son, Chris, is very much involved in the world of volleyball today, primarily through Gold Medal Squared. In one of Chris' clinics, I heard him pass along a piece of wisdom from his father. His father had once said, he wished all coaches could experience a 2-27 season.
To unpack this idea, Chris talked about the concept of time. Time is one of the five major coaching decisions a coach must make. What do I do today? How are we going to spend our time? Time is the currency of coaches. Chris talked about the idea of opportunity cost. If we spend time here, then we cannot spend it there. When the margins between winning and losing are thin, how you spend your practice time becomes crucial.
Chris then shared a story from his father. Carl led BYU in the transition from a club team to NCAA competition. After the club team won three national club titles and finished second in 1986 and 1989 Carl McGown and BYU began NCAA competition in 1990. In 1990, the team was the best blocking team in NCAA men's volleyball, but they finished 5-22. So in 1991, they renewed their focus. We need to block more balls, the staff said. We need to be better at blocking this next year. So, in 1991, BYU again led the nation in blocking. They finished the season 2-27.
Finally, Carl realized that they can't emphasize blocking so much because there are other skills that are more important. They were the best blocking team in the nation and it led to a 2-27 finish. It took a 2-27 season to get Carl McGown to reevaluate how they spent their practice time. Carl would later speak at clinics and tell other volleyball coaches, "I wish upon all of you a 2-27 season." That always shocked the crowd, but then Carl would explain. "If you go 2-27," he said, "you will do anything to not go 2-27 again."
It took a 2-27 record for Carl to realize they were spending too much time on a skill that did not lead to more wins. Perhaps it takes a 2-27 record to realize you need to communicate better with your players. Maybe it takes a 2-27 record to realize that your system is now outdated because the game has changed rapidly. Whatever the case, Carl McGown- known throughout his sport for his ability to analyze the game- wishes upon you a 2-27 season. Maybe that's what it takes before you will finally reevaluate and consider changes.
I do see an advantage for coaches, like my wife. She teaches high school mathematics. Her profession is teaching. She spends her days breaking down complex concepts into bits that are easier for students to grasp. Coaches who spend time in the classroom also know how to connect with kids. They know how to use different methods to get kids to learn the material. My wife has taught every math class from intermediate algebra to AP Statistics. She taught honors classes. She taught regular math. She taught concepts kids. She taught at the Area Learning Center. When kids send thank you notes or honor her during Teacher Appreciation Events, you know she successfully connected with a kid. She helped a student grow. She made a positive impact in the classroom.
On the court, I see in her a curiosity. She asks great questions. What would happen if we move Brittany to outside hitter? What’s our best line-up when we really only have one middle blocker. I see a growth mindset that never gets fixed into one system or one way to do things. She has spent 20 years taking players who don't know how to play and teaching them how to play.
Years ago, back in Nick Saban’s Michigan State days, he realized that not every player could be coached the same way. Phil Savage writes, “For over twenty years now he has demanded that his assistants know their players and understand how they respond to different coaching. While the coaching staff can be animated, they are all teachers first, and yellers second. They have a clear view of what each individual needs and how to maximize his potential.”
Teachers first and yellers second should be the mantra for all coaches. You must be a teacher. Curiosity, a growth mindset, and your ability to learn are your greatest assets. Develop players, and recognize that your ability to teach is connected to your ability to know and understand your players. Give them something every single day.