CHAPTER 1: Get The Right Players On The Ice
In Ken Dryden's book, "The Game," the former NHL goalie writes about a conversation he had with his Hall of Fame head coach Scotty Bowman. Dryden wrote the book documenting his last year in the NHL, his last year playing for Bowman. He wrote, "Not long ago, I asked him his most important job as coach. He sat quiet for a moment, his face unfurrowed and blank, thinking, then said simply, 'To get the right players on the ice.'" Dryden was surprised by the answer. The man who won nine Stanley Cups as a head coach said that his most important job was to get the right players on the ice. So, as I watch other sports, I wonder. Why can't some coaches get the right players on the floor?
I have two guesses. First, sports like volleyball are too specialized. Players don't get trained to be complete all-around players. Second, players get locked into rigid positions at a young age and never learn other skills or other facets of the game. If you want proof that volleyball is too specialized, look at an example from the women's national team. Believe it or not, Hugh McCutcheon famously had to teach players joining the national team how to serve. Volleyball, in my opinion, is the most specialized sport, and I don't think that's a good thing. You have the setter, front row players, defensive specialists, the libero, and sometimes a serving specialist. Rare is the player who plays all six rotations. Rare is the player who excels at all skills- passing, attacking, blocking, digging, and serving. The women's game traditionally allowed so many substitutions that certain, highly skilled, tall middle blockers did not serve before joining the U.S. Women's National Team. So, Hugh McCutcheon, head coach of the women's national team at the time, had to teach players how to serve. Which begs the question: With so many sports trending towards positionless or hybrid players, why does volleyball lag behind?
From high school to the NBA, basketball has gone positionless. Gone are the days of numbering players as a 1- point guard, 2- shooting guard, 3-small forward, 4-power forward, and 5- post player. Now, teams look for players who can spread the floor, shoot from long range, and attack with dribble penetration. The book "Sprawlball" tells the story of the new era of the NBA. Obviously, the 3-point shot is king. Gone are the days of big post players dominating the game. Think Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal . The mid-range jumper is nearly extinct. Even certain positions, like the power forward, are disappearing from the NBA.
Chapter 2: Why Can't Volleyball Just Teach All Skills
What do I know about volleyball? I'm a football guy. I played football in high school and at a small college. I spent my younger years dreaming of one thing- coaching college football. I only married into the volleyball world. My playing experience is limited to high school P.E. class. But with a wife who played Division I volleyball and who has coached the highest levels of club volleyball for two decades, I have watched my share of volleyball.
So, I see Ava, a 6'4" volleyball commit headed to play in the SEC, and I have a question. Why isn't she on the floor more? Why doesn't she serve? Why hasn't she been trained to play multiple positions. She plays for one of the top club programs in the country. For high school, she plays in the best conference in the state. I'm talking about large high schools in the suburbs, with growing enrollment and facilities better than some colleges. She's an excellent student. She comes from a great family. Why didn't her high school program or her club coaches train her in all volleyball skills.
My wife, Kari, and I spent two days of pre-season with the University of Washington volleyball program. The staff was kind enough to let us watch practice, pepper them with questions, and pretty much hang out for two days. We asked Head Coach Keegan Cook what skills incoming freshman are deficient at. In other words, what skills does he wish club coaches would train more. What skills should incoming freshmen be better at. The timing of the question was perfect as he had just spent the summer coaching college kids in international competition. He thought for a moment and mentioned three things: the lack of offensive creativity among U.S. players compared to international players, the need for kids to serve tougher, and he said the setting was tragic.
Which brings us back to Ava. It's hard to develop offensive creativity when you are locked into playing right-side the majority of your young career. It's hard to work on serving, when you don't serve in matches. And it seems no one in high school or club ever works on setting except for setters. Why don't we develop all skills?
The former Vice President of Player Personnel for the Milwaukee Bucks, Lee Rose, routinely brought his wife on scouting trips. Jonathan Abrams tells the story of Rose watching a high school player named Kevin Garnett. Rose turned to his wife and said, "Now, if you can't tell me who I'm looking at, then I'm not seeing a good player." His wife immediately pointed to Garnett. Shows you how important scouting is, he thought. When Ava entered high school as a 6'4" freshman who had just competed in the 14 Open Division, even I could see this was a legitimate, future Division I volleyball player. She was immediately plugged into the right side hitter spot on the varsity lineup. Fast forward to her senior year in high school and I wonder why, after playing 14 Open, 15 Open, 16 Open, 17 Open and four years of varsity volleyball, why has she almost exclusively played only one position- right side hitter?
Why can't volleyball go more positionless? Regardless of what she may play in the SEC, I would have trained Ava as an outside hitter, middle blocker, and right-side hitter. I would have brought my wife in, who I naturally think is one of the best coaches in the country at training middles, and Ava would have learned to play middle. For high school, give her reps at outside hitter, from her sophomore year on. She had the potential to be the most dominant player on the squad for three years. She should never leave the floor. Why not make her into a six-rotation outside hitter for the high school season? It's high school volleyball after all, not 17 Open. Let her club team play her wherever, but why not move her around in high school to get her the maximum number of attacking opportunities?
Do you remember Tori Dixon? Tori played middle at the University of Minnesota. She was an All-American middle blocker who played for Mike Hebert and then Hugh McCutcheon. She later played on our women's national team. Tori played for my wife as a 15-year-old. She played middle. Though much older than Ava, Tori played in the same powerful conference of large suburban high schools. When she got a new high school coach for her senior year, guess where he moved her- outside hitter. Though she was a future Division I middle blocker, he moved her to outside hitter. Why? To get her more touches. The result. Her high school team made it to state that year.
Ava is not Tori Dixon, but great players should learn multiple positions. They should excel at all skills. We need to teach kids how to play the game. For kids like Ava, teach her to play outside hitter, right side, and middle. Develop her into a six-rotation outside hitter for the high school season. What would that do for her development if she spent the whole high school season working on serve receive, attacking from the pins, and mastering a tough serve. No serving specialist should enter for her. No one should play back row for her. She should never leave the floor. Instead, we are quick to lock a player into one position at a young age for the sake of winning right now. And they go on to their college careers lacking certain skills.
Chapter 3: Create Space, Attack Space
The game of football has evolved thanks to the spread offense. Football, basketball, and volleyball are all spatial sports. They could all learn from each other. When asked about the direction college football is going, Oklahoma State Head Football Coach Mike Gundy said, "The majority of schools are trying to use the width of the field and the pace of the game as an equalizer." Guys like Hugh Freeze, Art Briles, and Mike Leach also worked to stretch the field vertically. In some ways, football has steered away from locking guys into certain skill positions. Instead, they get the best playmakers on the field and let them use their athleticism and speed to spread the field and attack space.
For volleyball, teams now look to attack from four areas on the floor: both pin positions, the middle, and a back row attack. The women's game now resembles the men's game in that aspect. You're tougher to defend if you can attack from four areas on the court. Back to football, University of Miami Head Coach Manny Diaz said offense is either the ability to create space by formation and attack that space. Or it is the ability to use your one guy to beat their one guy. Create space and attack space. Because the sport of volleyball depends so much on length and height, it probably can't go positionless. Most teams will have a clear divide between back row players and front row players. But how about hybrid players? Attackers who can play outside, middle, or right side. Players who can play both libero, defensive specialist, and outside hitter as needed. Developing hybrid players and moving them around, gives you the opportunity to use your one player to beat their one player. Football uses formations to create space and attack space. Volleyball can use line-ups and rotations. Create match-ups where your Ava can beat their Ava. These options don't exist if you are stuck in the old, rigid world of positions.
Chapter 4: Hybrid Players
On defense, football is looking for hybrid players. NFL teams, for example, look for players with the characteristics of a cornerback who they can draft and move to safety. In fact, 48% of safeties in the NFL were former college cornerbacks. The game is demanding hybrids- the defensive back with corner skills, the linebacker who can cover a slot receiver, the running back or tight end who can run routes like a receiver. Gone are the days of a base defensive scheme with two corners and two safeties. Long gone are the days of two running backs, two receivers, and one tight end. Regardless of position, football looks to get the most dynamic skill players on the field and attack space. And for defense to stop these attacking offenses, they need more and more hybrid players.
Much of the innovation in modern day football came from the lower levels. Rich Rodriguez at Glenville State. High school coaches in Arkansas and Texas. And two creative offensive minds in a small NAIA school in Iowa. Defensive coaches simply had to find ways to adjust to what offenses were doing. In many ways, what Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M did to Nick Saban's Alabama defense forced him to change. Then Hugh Freeze came to Oxford, Mississippi and mighty Alabama struggled. Freeze did the seemingly impossible. He beat Saban twice. Alabama's defense had to evolve. They had to get faster.
Look at game film of Alabama's defense ten years ago. The bodies have changed. Just like power forwards don't exist in the NBA anymore, certain positions in football have become obsolete. You no longer see 365 pound nose tackles who can stuff the run. You don't see a Dont'a Hightower playing linebacker for Alabama anymore. The game has spread. Read the book "4th and Goal Every Day" by Phil Savage if you want to dive into this deeper. Hightower was 6'3" and 250 pounds, but in today's game a linebacker must stop the run, cover a tight end, and walk out over a slot. As Savage said, "That's where the game is, so that is what must be defended." They now recruit high school safeties and turn them into linebackers. They recruit corners and turn them into safeties. They develop hybrid players at almost every position.
In 2004, Bill Belichick's defense was described as being "made up mostly of interchangeable parts." That doesn't mean if QB1 goes down, you just plug in QB2. It referred to a defense that valued work ethic, intelligence, physical skills, playing style, and versatility. Hybrid players. Linebackers who could cover a slot receiver. Safeties who could cover guys man-to-man. Since 2004, I have been begging my volleyball-coaching wife to change her sport from being overly specialized to a sport full of hybrid players and interchangeable parts.
Chapter 5: What Hybrid Players In Volleyball Could Look Like
Let's talk about the 2018 Oregon Ducks volleyball team. They had versatile players. They had a roster full of players with physical skills. I think they were the most dynamic, explosive group of athletes since the days of Megan Hodge or Destinee Hooker. In 2018, Oregon's starting libero, Brooke Nuneviller, was a freshman who was a highly-recruited outside hitter. She earned AVCA All-American honors at libero her freshman year. She then moved to outside hitter as a sophomore. At 5'9", Brooke Van Sickle had a nasty serve, she played in the back row, she played outside hitter, and she could play libero. The Ducks had three legitimate middles who could start on any team in the country. One of those middles, Lauren Page, saw time at outside hitter as needed. And when injuries and other issues left the team short, their All-American middle blocker, Ronika Stone, started a match at right-side and finished the match as a six-rotation middle blocker. If you want to see what the game could be like, watch the 2018 Oregon Ducks. They had players who could attack you from a number of different spots on the court. If you have world-class athletes, teach them multiple positions. And when you don't have world-class athletes, you can still train all the players in all the skills. In other words, focus on player development.
Train Ava to be a hybrid player for her high school team- someone who can easily move between both pin hitter positions and play middle as needed. What happens if Ava goes to the SEC and with one turned ankle of a teammate in pre-season, she is asked to play middle? What a disservice that she did not have a high school or club that trained her at both pin positions and middle. And there are two angles at play here. One, it helps develop the player. Two, hybrid players give teams a strategic advantage. They are difficult to defend. Take your Ava and move her around. Teach her multiple positions. Teach the whole game. Don't just teach pieces of the game.
Chapter 6: Irrelevant Training
Volleyball's John Kessel wrote an article where he talked about "false fundamentals" and "irrelevant training." He said that clubs that promote the pieces of the game will be successful, as long as they can recruit the talent in an area. Usually, they take players from smaller clubs who have actually developed the players’ skills. When one program can recruit the best talent in an area, coaches can afford to train less efficiently. And that's part of the problem. The top club volleyball programs will attract the best players in the area. They can fill their practice time with six-on-six, not develop players, not train all skills, and still look good. Unfortunately, coaches can train less efficiently and still win when they have the most talent. Sometimes, the clubs with constraints and limitations can teach us more than the clubs who always have the top talent. Which is why coaches of all sports should keep an eye on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Chapter 7: The Most Innovative Team in Major League Baseball
Even the most traditional of all sports, baseball, is changing. Outside of pitching, baseball looks more positionless than it ever has. Teams rely so much on pitching that they often fill their roster spots with as many bullpen arms as possible. With so many pitching arms, the bench for position players gets thin. Outside of the starting players on defense, teams are left with just one or two position players on the bench. Those players better be able to hit and play nearly every position on the field, even catcher.
The Tampa Bay Rays have been the most innovative team in Major League Baseball since Billy Beane's Oakland A's of the Moneyball Era. This year the Rays became the first MLB team in over 100 years to play a game with a line-up that featured nine left-handed hitters. They were early adopters of the shift. They created the concept of the opener. The constraints of a low-budget, a bad stadium, and a conference featuring the Yankees and Red Sox, have forced the Rays to be the most innovative team in baseball
Chapter 8: 60 Different Line-ups In 60 Games
My favorite story of the Rays is how they used their lineup in 2020. The Rays used 60 different line-ups in 60 games in the 2020 MLB season. Different batting order, different players in the field. They are the definition of a positionless team, and they were constantly moving guys and tweaking things to get players in the best position to succeed. The Rays’ general manager talked about the team's ability to shift and play different players all over the diamond. He said, “Defense is something we’ve never taken for granted. Through our minor league system we’re always looking for ways to get guys opportunities in different spots on the field… Right now we’re fortunate to have a lot of athletic players that are good baseball players, strong hand-eye ability, just solid baseball skillsets that make it a lot easier to place them anywhere on the field.”
It was the same conference as Tori and Ava, but over ten years ago. Kari coached a team ranked in the top five in the state but they were still a longshot in sections to beat a loaded and well-coached Eden Prairie team. They had already lost to Eden Prairie earlier in the season. To prepare for this monumental task in sections, to give them the best shot to win and advance to state, Kari moved her outside hitter to middle. Or so it appeared.
Brooke Dieter was Kari's outside hitter and probably the best player in the state. She went on to play at the University of Minnesota and earned All-American honors starting in her freshman year. She was athletic, dynamic, and had the ability to score from anywhere on the volleyball court. Though Kari had often used a three middle hitter line-up to create a strategic advantage, this time she did something even more unconventional.
Kari placed Brooke at middle. She placed her true middle blocker, who would go on to play in the Big Ten, opposite of Brooke and made Brooke the other middle. If Brooke stayed at outside, the two most powerful players would be next to each other creating good attacking options out of the front row. But, more importantly, there would also be times when Naomi, her true middle, was out of the game and Brooke was in the back row. That would be a tough stretch. Without someone who could score points, they could potentially get stuck in this rotation. To eliminate this situation, Kari moved Brooke to what appeared to be middle blocker. She spread out her two star players, and it gave her team the best chance to line-up against Eden Prairie. They still ended up losing, but it was a battle and Eden Prairie took some time to adjust to the new look line-up. While football is using pace of the game and the width of the field to create a competitive advantage, volleyball can use match-ups and the ability to attack from four spots to gain an edge. These are not options if you lock players into one position and don't train all skills
Epilogue: Get The Right Players On The Ice
In another story of line-ups and positionless volleyball, Kari once selected five middles, two setters, a right-side hitter, and two defensive specialists for the ten players who would make up her club team. They won a national championship at the 15-year-old age division, without a true outside hitter. You might say selecting five middles and not one outside hitter is unconventional. Moving Brooke Dieter to middle might be odd. But Rays manager Kevin Cash disagreed with reporters who called their methods “odd” and “unconventional.” Cash said, "I don’t think that’s fair. I think the Rays do things to what we feel is the best way to help us win games. But the words you describe, we don’t think that way. We think what we’re doing is maximizing our roster and doing everything we can to make the best decisions to put the players in the right spots to succeed and ultimately win as many games as possible. There’s not much odd about that.”
Make your unit a versatile, intelligent group of interchangeable parts. Develop players. Train the whole game. If you're doing what's best for your players and for the program, resist the urge to win right now and have the courage to stay the course. Don't abandon everything with one loss. Let them fail. Give them thousands of reps. Get them in the right spots to succeed and ultimately win as many games as possible. And if it takes 30 different line-ups in 30 game, then don't be afraid to do it.