The End of 2014 NCAA Volleyball and Mike Hebert’s Thinking Volleyball

by Glenn on December 24, 2014

The NCAA college volleyball season ended Saturday night when Penn State became the national champion. Again. With all the competition in the NCAA, I continue to be amazed that they are there at the end, year after year, not simply competing but dominating. They are tough. And it begins with Micha Hancock’s serve (well, actually it probably begins with the coach, Russ Rose, who has been the toughening factor for all these championship teams and who will undoubtedly have a competitive team next year even without Ms. Hancock who is graduating), which is what I think unsettled Stanford right out of the gate for the semi-final on Thursday night. Penn State went up 5-0 and while Stanford came back and scored the next five to tie, it seemed like they were always playing catch up or operating out of system.

Surprisingly, BYU handled Hancock’s serve pretty well Saturday night in the final. It was Penn State’s other weapons that finally overwhelmed them—so many great hitters scoring routinely and blockers slowing down the BYU attack. It seemed like Penn State ran the slide a lot and the much-praised BYU block, which had been quite effective on the season and helped get them into the finals, couldn’t deal with that or the many attackers that Penn State puts on the court during a match.

Not much to say about the match except that BYU handled themselves well for the first two sets. In fact, BYU could have won the second set, which would have helped morale going into the interval.

I watched the game because it was the last chance for volleyball until next fall, but it would have been more fun watching Stanford play for the national championship. I thought John Dunning, the Stanford coach, said it just right (quote from here) after Thursday night’s loss:

“I would like to congratulate Penn State. And I would like to say I’ve said that too many times. I’m actually tired of it. But no one should feel sorry for us.”

Yes, it’s a bummer Stanford lost. You think about the seniors, Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert, who won’t be able to claim having been on an NCAA volleyball championship team. On the other hand, they will be graduating from Stanford. In a way, the consolation prize of graduating from the elite of elite schools may actually be the more important thing in the long run. It’s certainly remarkable that these players are so bright and so gifted athletically.

The goal this fall has been to be a more informed partaker of the sport. In the same way I would say there is a difference between hearing and listening, there is a difference between watching and seeing. I want to see better when I watch volleyball.

To that end I read Mike Hebert’s Thinking Volleyball. I enjoyed the altitude from which this book was written. Most books about volleyball are of the how-to variety—how to play …, how to strength train …, how to run drills …, etc. Those books are in the trees and I wanted to be back aways, gaining a perspective on the forest. Thinking Volleyball was just right for this. As the title suggests, Hebert’s focus is on how to think about various aspects of volleyball rather than telling you how to do this or that. If I was to coach a volleyball team, I’d want to have a physical copy of this book that I could mark up and dog ear. (The highlight function in Kindle works great, but there’s no easy way to make a copy of a table for later study—I think the only way to do this on my iPad is to take screen shots. Feels cumbersome.)

Here’s what I learned:

Lesson One: Serving is critical.

Again, as the book is written at a certain height/distance,  Hebert doesn’t talk about the kinds of serves—jump, floaters, etc.— or recommend that a team use a certain serve, but he asks you as a coach to think about the spectrum of serving, from aggressive to conservative. Each player and each team needs to find its comfort zone. And each coach needs to track serve statistics for each player and each rotation—nothing can be viewed in isolation. It’s a balancing act: aggressive serves can wear down the opposition but come with the possibility of errors; conservative serves reduce errors but allows the other team to be “in system” with the likelihood of a side-out.

Karch Kiraly, one of the commentators for the semi-finals on Thursday and the final tonight, criticized a number of serves as too easy to handle, particularly from Stanford and BYU. For him, the worst serve is the one with backspin. He wants to see top spin or, better, no spin because the knuckle-ball behavior makes the ball harder to handle.

Lesson Two: Every team needs a style.

I spent some time this season trying to understand Stanford’s. Compared to other teams (Penn State for example) theirs is pretty straightforward. Stanford routinely uses seven and a half players. Four players (setter, opposite, and two outside hitters) are on the court at all times, the libero comes off the court only for one serve rotation (which accounts for the half as that player is only on the floor to serve—when the serve is lost the libero comes back in to receive), and two middle blockers more or less trade out for each other. I need a chart to follow the rotations, but I get it. In an earlier game (read: a game that they won), Kiraly was very complimentary of Stanford because theirs is an international style of play with few substitutions.

Penn State, at least at first glance, seems slightly more complicated. They don’t have more hitters than any other team—Stanford had its big five this season, Penn State the same thing—but on the defensive side, in addition to their libero, Dominique Gonzalez, Lacey Fuller comes in as a defensive specialist. So there’s a little more on and off the court going on. NCAA rules allow for more substitutions than in international play. I read some mild criticism somewhere that Russ Rose uses the rules to his advantage and he doesn’t have well-rounded players. I think the criticism was meant to suggest that if Penn State had to play the way Stanford chooses to play, Stanford might be better. Interesting subject to consider in terms of some kind of volleyball ideal, but really it’s a non-issue. And it’s odd to complain about a coach who is following the rules. Point is: you need a style. Both Stanford and Penn State have theirs and have found a way to win. A lot.

Dovetailed with the question of who is going to be on the court is the question of how you will use the players who are on the court. Will your offense be quick or slow? In other words, does the setter get the ball to the attacker quickly (preventing the team from setting up a good block) or do they set high (and slow) sets and have the attacker hit over the block? Stanford can do both—Merete Lutz is 6’8” and hits over everyone, Inky Ajanakou is a leaper who can also run the slide, and and out on the pins you’ve got Jordan Burgess and Morgan Boukather who move very quickly.

And who will you use to attack? Stanford and Penn State are blessed with an abundance of attackers. It was a delight to watch Stanford this year because you never knew who was going to be the star of the match. They were so balanced. Penn State also has great attackers. Megan Courtney is a wisp who absolutely crushes the ball, Ali Frantti is a freshman star, Aiyana Whitney and Nia Grant are extraordinary athletes. Any of them can score. In contrast, many teams—like Washington with Krista Vansant, UCLA with Karsta Lowe, BYU with Jennifer Hamson—have a superstar through whom most of the offense goes match after match.

Lesson Three: You want your team to play “in system” and your opponent to play “out of system.”

Ideally, the ball comes over the net and someone on your team passes the ball to the setter who delivers the ball to an attacker for a score. That’s playing in system. If Micha Hancock serves one of her cannons and the pass instead of going to the setter flies off the court toward the stands and someone has to race over to send the second hit anywhere near the middle of the court to keep it in play, making the third hit a nice, safe bump across the net, then your team is out of system, almost guaranteeing that the other team will be able to run its offense the way they want.

What was so discouraging about Stanford’s loss to Penn State was that Stanford didn’t play like themselves. They were out of system much of the game, scrambling to make a point instead of running their plays. And it seemed like Penn State did a good job of creating those moments. They served certain players and attacked certain players, unsettling Stanford’s normally prodigious and efficient offense.

To be in system means your team must learn skills. Volleyball skills are incredibly varied and complex to teach and learn. For example, the quick spike is very different from the high spike. And the skills of volleyball don’t have many analogies in other sports. There is no throwing or kicking in volleyball and the jumping you do has to be very controlled, so that you avoid net violations or crossing the center line. The skill with the closest analogy to another sport is the spike, which has an element of the tennis serve in it.

As the coach you need to be able to teach these skills. Hebert relates an incident early in his career:

“’Coach, how can I hit the ball harder?’ This was the first technical question ever addressed to me by a player. ‘Well, you just need to hit the ball harder!’ That was my answer. An athlete was asking for help, and I told her to help herself. I had demonstrated to everyone my embarrassing lack of knowledge of motor learning.”

I appreciate the humility. Hebert takes time and care describing things he needed to learn as a coach, particularly body mechanics. But he also writes about how to teach, being aware of both your own teaching style as well as your players’ learning styles. One of the best lines in the book: “Knowing how to deliver specific information to an athlete is just as important as knowing the information to be delivered.” He discussed the tension between cognitive and motor learning. To understand the process better, Hebert once decided to attend a golf school with another coach to see what it was like to try and learn (and be taught) motor skills. Hebert also became a certified referee because he, in his words, “wanted to understand the game from the point of view of an official.”

This is one of the themes of the book: learn what you need to learn. Hebert’s philosophy can be summed up this way:

“As coaches, whether rookie or veteran, if we ever believe we know it all and cease our pursuit for good information, we are abandoning a key requirement of our role.”

One of the complicating factors for teaching skills is the fact that there isn’t necessarily one way to do things, spiking the ball for example. Here Hebert showed more humility or at least realism. Americans are independent people and this is a big enough country that regional styles come into play. Hebert recommends teaching skills in this order: a. Posture and footwork; b. Ball control; and c. Point-scoring skills.

Lesson Four: The victory happens before the team steps onto the court.

Hebert never comes out and says this. I think this is more Sun Tzu than Mike Hebert, but this is certainly the message he conveys throughout the book. Here are some of the things he puts on the coach’s plate:

1. The coach must create a positive gym culture:

The centerpiece of life in the gym is practice. Practice serves as a vehicle for change. It is a testing ground for developing a trusting heart. It is a training ground for honing competitive instincts and mental toughness. Most of all, it is where every aspect of the program intersects daily. It is where the seeds of success or failure are sown. It is where the team’s gym culture appears in full bloom.

2. The coach must prepare a championship manual. For Hebert this included “all of the necessary schedules, meeting topics, selected writings, program information, team policies, and guidelines.” (One of the curious things for me is that many of the elite teams, I think, have one of these championship manuals but, ultimately, it only works for one team.) I love the letter that Hebert included in his championship manual:

“Dear Team,

“Most of you will find that achieving our program goals will be difficult. You will be expected to manage a wide range of demands on your time and energy. While juggling all of these demands, you will be expected to keep everything in perspective. You will be asked to develop the skills of self-discipline in a way you have never experienced up to this point in your life. I want you to respect and appreciate your family, but I also want you to grow independently and become your own person. I want you to succeed academically, but your time will be limited, and the distractions will be many. I want you to push yourself to excel, but you must remain optimistic in the face of frustration.

“I want you to take great care in keeping your body and mind poised to perform at peak levels while avoiding injury, but I also want you to enjoy the full range of college experiences. I want you to be available to help in off-court team activities, but I want you to have time away from volleyball-related responsibilities. I want you to behave aggressively as a competitor, but I want you to show compassion toward your teammates. I want you to develop an unshakable confidence in yourself, but I don’t want you to become arrogant. I want you to learn to resolve issues with diplomacy and skill, but I don’t want you to cave in to others who are being insensitive to you.

“Underneath all of this lies the nucleus for success—the development of personal discipline. In my mind, the disciplined person is the one who does the right thing even when no one is watching. Discipline means doing what you are supposed to do even when you don’t want to do it.

“The pursuit of discipline—this will be a common theme throughout our interactions. The coaches want you to know that we understand how very demanding this experience can be. There will be ups and downs for each of us. But in spite of how difficult the challenge, we want you to work very hard to fashion your own sense of discipline on a daily basis. Each time you act in a disciplined way, two good things happen. First, as you exercise the discipline muscle, it gradually becomes stronger. Second, you invest in the same things your teammates are investing in. When you invest in a group, you achieve ownership. When you achieve ownership, you develop a passion for the group and its goals.

“Despite the heavy volume of information contained here, the reality remains that individual and team discipline ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time. Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.

“Said in yet another way, discipline is to an athlete what scales are to a musician. Mastering the scales is what allows the musician to perform music. Mastering the skills of self-discipline is what enables a person to become an accomplished elite athlete.

“My next message to you is an important one. It is always inconvenient to be on a team. In the challenging world of team sports, team goals must supersede individual agendas. Self-absorbed behavior must be replaced by selflessness. Individual agendas must be replaced by sacrifice. Taking the easy way out must be replaced by the acceptance of inconvenience. Throughout the championship manual, you will read about things that, on the surface, do not seem to be related to learning how to play volleyball. In fact, you may find yourself becoming bored and frustrated during meetings. You will feel overwhelmed at times by all that I will ask you to do. There will be times when all you want to do is just play volleyball, have fun. You are asked to think all day in school; why should you have to come to practice and meetings to think some more? Sometimes you just don’t want to think. I want you to know that I understand your frustration during these moments. There is a fine line between pushing you to process tons of information and pushing you so hard that you become fatigued and unable to think any more. I will try to do my best to be aware of this line. Meanwhile, I want you to leave your comfort zone behind and understand that the topics in this manual, if mastered, are absolutely the difference between winning and losing at an elite level. So while you are saying to yourself ‘I can’t handle any more of these meetings,’ I am asking you to interrupt yourself at that point and say, ‘I know that I’m tired, but I’m going to power through and try to get the most out of all those occasions when Mike is going to ask us to think.'”

3. The coach must build team chemistry, which is more important than the skill base of the team. Would you rather play highly skilled players that don’t function as a team or a team of lesser players who are competitive and work together? Hebert always preferred playing the former. He writes,

“When I am asked to reveal the secret to my past success, I could answer that I was an exceptional skill trainer, a tactical genius, a thorough game planner, and a great motivational speaker, but I don’t. Instead, I tell them the truth: I spent most of my time trying to get people to learn how to trust. All of the other elements are important, but trust is the one variable without which the entire program-building effort would collapse.”

The more successful the team, the harder it is for the coach to keep an edge on the team.

“How will you manage the two inevitable by-products of success—complacency and selfishness? Team leadership must cultivate an atmosphere of trust in order to stifle these two maladies. Maintain a vivid awareness that some team is on your heels planning to overtake you at the earliest opportunity. Success often leads to a feeling of selfish entitlement, followed by questionable effort. Fight against this probability.”

There is plenty in this book to dig into. While it is relatively jargon free, there were a couple of places in the book with some very specific information about setting and attacking. I may go back to it when volleyball picks up next year to see if I can understand it any better.

Final Thoughts on Thinking Volleyball

The lasting impression from the book is of a confident coach who had to learn a lot to become a confident coach. Hebert writes of conferences and technical journals and coaches who inspired him. He also includes references to authors and books that helped him as a leader:

George Leonard: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment
This is a book I’ve read and enjoyed very much. If I recall correctly, Leonard writes from the perspective of an Aikido student who earned his black belt. Leonard says,

“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it. … To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

The beauty of Leonard’s book is how it applies to any skill: volleyball, music, preaching, reading, you name it. Hebert takes the concept and stresses the importance of discipline.

Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Hebert quotes from Lencioni especially on the subject of trust. I’ve not read any of his books, but I’ve heard him speak at conferences. He is both entertaining and insightful. Lencioni writes, “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.”

Martin E. P. Seligman: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.
Haven’t read this one, but he does an excellent job selling its importance.


It’s a long nine months until the next volleyball season begins. Time to think about some other things.

One comment

[…] year the same way I did last year (except in the contest with Penn State which I’ve written about here)—that there was a certain inevitability of a victory every time. I knew last year’s semi-final […]

by 4-2 | Cardinal off to an “interesting” start « on 20 September 2015 at 10:04 am. #