Can You Coach Bad Players?
6 min read

Can You Coach Bad Players?

"If you have to be good at just one, be good at teaching."
Can You Coach Bad Players?

If the Naval Academy or Wash U were to talk to us about coming to their volleyball programs, the interview process would start here: Teach, Connect, Recruit. Teach the game. Teach skills. Develop players. Connect with your players. Spend time with your athletes. Understand that we are all wired differently and work hard to connect with each individual. Recruit. Coaching college is all about being a master recruiter, whether you coach in the Big Ten or Division III. Out recruit everyone. Teach everyday. Connect everyday. And recruit every single day. That's the overview. For this post, I want to talk about teaching. Can you coach bad players? Can you teach kids how to play the game?

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 and coaches. I am not saying you need to teach in the school system. I am saying 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 the last few years. MLB ushered us into the Moneyball era, but now MLB has discovered the new moneyball. It's player development. The Houston Astros were talking about a growth mindset before they won their World Series and before a cheating scandal took away from some of the other good things the organization did. In my Coaches Book Club post, I talked about the book "The MVP Machine." The book is dedicated to player development and how organization are using PD 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." Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay 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 would cover Division III, Big Ten, elite club volleyball, and all levels of high school. At all levels, we see coaches with a fixed mindset. We have both had experiences where we coach an individual for one year before 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, for example. 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. Don't hide behind the excuse that she cannot hit now that the pitching got tougher. That's a fixed mindset.

That reminds me of the scene in Moneyball where Brad Pitt's character (Billy Beane) and a member of the Oakland A's coaching staff is meeting with Scott Hatteburg. They want to sign Hatteburg whose career as a catcher looks like it is over. Beane wants to sign Hatteburg and move him to first base. Beane talks with Hatteburg to gauge his openness to the idea. Meanwhile, the A's coach sits in on the home visit and just mutters that Hatteburg doesn't play first base. Billy's appeal is simply, "Teach him!" If you are a coach, teach your sport. Teach him to play first base. That's your job! Break down the skills. Take what your player 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 am not a bandwagon Nick Saban fan. I have followed Saban since he was a position coach for the Houston Oilers. I followed his career to Toledo, to the Cleveland Browns, to Michigan State and on from there. Saban is a master at teaching skills and developing talent. His main strength is teaching defense, specifically teaching defensive backs. 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.'”

Urban Meyer bluntly said, “If you are a teacher, you teach, and if you don’t teach your players properly, then it’s on you.” If Payton cannot pass in serve receive, that's on you. If Jen cannot hit varsity pitching, that's on the varsity coach. Teach your sport. Teach the skills your players need to succeed. Develop  players.

According to Gopher Volleyball Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon, you need to be able to teach. McCutheon is probably one of the top two coaches in the college game. He coached both the men's and women's national teams. 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." For years, I have watched my wife train a kid on her 15-2s team who thengoes on to make 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 volleyball court. I have watched her lead coach the entire 15-year-old age division for one of the top club program in the country. In this position, she teaches. She coaches the coaches and she teaches fundamentals and develops players. She teaches all the volleyball skills. She doesn't just roll the ball out and watch the kids play six-on-six.

A Minneapolis Star Tribune article about 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."

McCutcheon said, "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."

I watched a UCONN women's basketball practice and as the team went through a series of ballhandling drills, Geno came over and talked to a few coaches in attendance. He referenced a former player who did not come to UCONN as a highly rated player out of high school. But after four years at UCONN, she was drafted by the WNBA. The reason why, according to Geno, these drills. At UCONN they teach and train all fundamentals. They did the same ball-handling drill series every single day. Over four years, players grow and develop and get better.

Yes, Geno Auriemma gets the best talent in the country, but he also develops players. 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.

Teach, connect, recruit- every single day. We stole that from Chris Pedersen. Pedersen and his staff at Boise State took one and two star recruits, coached them up for four or five years, and turned them into NFL players. When Pedersen went to the University of Washington, the process was replicated. Regardless of a recruit's ranking in high school, Pedersen and his staff had a knack for taking undervalued players and developing them into NFL draft picks. That's what coaches at all levels should be doing. Teach the game. Teach Scott Hatteburg how to play first base. Embrace a growth mindset. Understand the laws of learning and teach skills. Develop your players. Teach them how to play.

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