“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
-George Patton, U.S. General
One summer day I was day dreaming about my team. As the beginning of the season approached, I considered these questions.
- Which players have leadership ability and do they want to be leaders
- How will the team respond to stress
- Which players will react positively to challenges and which players will withdraw
- Which players need/expect external motivation and which ones are intrinsically driven
- Can I help the externally motivated players become more intrinsically driven
- What will our team dynamics look like
- How can I best “influence” my players
- What do the players need from me to be successful
- How do I inspire my players to become more personally accountable
This list of questions seemed daunting, but I was motivated to find a way to unearth the answers. I was convinced that getting answers to even half of these questions would put us ahead of the curve as the season started. I also had an ace in the hole. I had convinced legendary coach, Mary Jo Pepper, to come to Minnesota as my one of my assistant coaches! Between the two of us, I was sure we could figure this out. We initially discussed how ropes courses and Outward Bound-type activities were commonly used to challenge people. But we wanted something that involved volleyball activity in a gym. After a full day of discussion, we designed a single drill and planned to use it in the first practice of the season. We named it the, “The Challenge Drill.”
The Goal of the Drill
We designed a practice situation where small groups of players would work as a team to complete a fairly simple sequence of volleyball skills without errors. We thought this process would prove to be difficult but it would also provide numerous opportunities for personal introspection and growth. Coaches would observe and shape behavior.
- The night before the first practice the captains came in for a meeting. They were asked to choose teams of 4-5 players. They were only told that we would be doing a drill requiring careful execution of basic volleyball skills. They then alternately selected players until we had 3 teams. Their selection of players was interesting.
- The team met the next day and participated in a short warm-up before the Challenge Drill was explained.
- The team was given the choice of doing the Challenge Drill (yet to be explained) to completion, or participating in a normal practice. The players were told they could leave practice as soon as they successfully completed the Challenge Drill.
- There had to be a consensus decision by the team. Unless they are a very unusual group, they will jump at the chance to do one drill and be done with the first day of practice.
The Challenge Drill
- 20 forearms passes across the net and follow your pass
- 20 overhead sets across the net and follow your set
- 20 jump sets across the net and follow your set
- 20 forearm pass to yourself, then overhand drive over the net – follow the overhand drive to the other side of the net
- 20 setting sequences where A sets over the net to B, and ducks under the net to the setting position, B sets to A (who is now on B’s side), A sets back to B who sets it over the net to C while B ducks under the net to the setting position, B sets back to C. C then sets to D and then ducks under the net. Each time the ball passes over the net, it counts as one sequence
- 20 overhead drive and dig sequences where A drives the ball over the net to B then A ducks under the net while B digs the ball to A (now on B’s side). A sets the dig back to B, and B drives the ball over the net to C, while B ducks under the net and B digs the ball back to C.
- 20 underhand passes back and forth over the net. A underhand passes to B, A runs around the net to the opposite side as B underhand passes the ball over the net to C, etc.
- If the ball hits the floor, go back to the first skill and start over (underhand passes)
- If the ball is kept in play, but the sequence is disrupted, go back to the skill immediately preceding. For example if you are on the 4th sequence and the pattern is disrupted but the ball remains in play, you just go back to the 3rd
- Your team (4-5 players) can take a break any time to rest or get water.
- Your team can leave as soon as you finish the entire sequence of the Challenge Drill.
Coaching Staff Preparation
The coaching staff discussed the goals and objectives of the drill and agreed to the following principles:
- Be critical observers focusing primarily on one team (group) for observation and intervention. Each team had their own court and net.
- Make notes about individual player behavior exhibited during success, failure and interpersonal interaction.
- Make notes about how these behaviors seemed to affect performance.
- Make notes about how individual players responded after interaction with teammates and coaches.
- Refrain from making “coaching comments” like if you do this it will work better.
- Encourage teams to use problem solving techniques to reframe their thoughts (beliefs) and behaviors.
- Stop the drill or intervene when players are not using problem solving to accomplish their goal.
- Use confrontation with groups or individuals when you see non-productive repetitive behavior. Point out that it is possible to change behavior in their group (team).
- Allow groups to take breaks when they feel it is necessary. This helps them feel in control of their situation. (There were times when one group would lay on the floor and shortly after all three teams would be laying on the floor.)
- Allow teams to stop at any time to discuss strategies.
- Encourage players to express their positive and negative feelings as they are feeling them.
- Meet with each group as they finish the drill to process their experience. A more formal processing will be done later with all the teams.
The Process for Coaches Interactions
- Stage one – the coaches sit and observe players behavior. Take notes on player reactions to success and failure, interaction and socialization, leadership, who takes the initiative to make changes, chemistry of the group (positive or negative), focus or lack of focus on the goal; internally and externally motivated players.
- Stage two – the coaches encourage players to be more aware of feelings and emotions. When the ball is dead question players about how they are feeling, encourage players to express their emotions.
- Stage three – the most important stage where the coach helps players use problem solving techniques, decision making and ultimately increasing self-awareness. Armed with better self-awareness, players should find the ability to make choices about behavior—selecting behaviors which have a positive influence on performance. Confront players/groups about repetitive errors, use positive reinforcement as groups struggle (external motivation). Encourage discussion of group strategy. Intervene with individuals who are withdrawing from the group by challenging them or by reinforcing their importance to the group. Call the entire group together to refocus and remind them they must finish the drill. (As coaches, we became convinced they did not think we would make them successfully finish.)
- Allow 2 – 5 hours for completion of the drill. This drill took our team at the University of Minnesota 4 hours and 10 minutes for all 3 teams to complete the drill. It was really interesting that as soon as one group finished (to a very loud celebration), the other two groups completed the drill within 10 minutes.
- A wealth of information can be gained from this drill. However, it is important that the player interactions be handled by mature coaches who are used to dealing with the complex circumstances created throughout the drill.
- Players must be carefully monitored and behavior shaped in order for this exercise to produce positive results.
- For younger or less experienced teams the sequences and the number of repetitions should be adapted.
Processing the Experiences
Immediately as each group completed the drill, they met with coaches in the gym to process the experiences. Other groups were still be working to complete the drill. We gave each player a journal and they were asked to respond in writing to these questions.
- What type of behaviors did you need to win/finish?
- List the winning behaviors you used in the drill.
- How did you respond to problems while you were in the drill?
- How did you finish the drill?
The next day the entire team met to talk about their experiences. They were asked to share their team and individual responses from processing the experience the night before. They also were asked to share any new insights or perspectives they had gained since the night before. It was not surprising to learn that the drill was their primary topic of discussion that evening and then again at breakfast. We learned that the team had not so affectionately renamed the experience, “The Drill from Hell.”
Highlights of Player Responses
What type of behavior did you personally need to win?
- Don’t dwell; move on; work hard, have a desire to win; think positively; winning attitude
- Communicate with teammates; have a plan; be aggressive ‘cuz being careful hurts performance
- Don’t let others affect your attitude; have faith; determination
- Block everything out except the task at hand; don’t be afraid; push past your limits
- I can’t control winning but I can control the challenge
What winning behaviors did your team use in the drill?
- Accept failure and move on; don’t give up; attitude is important
- Watch the ball and my teammate contact the ball—even when running to the other side
- Communication was important while the ball was in play and it helped us figure out what we needed to do next—we had to count the repetitions out load
- Supporting each other was important as some players were “up” and some were “down” from time to time
- We had more confidence when we were talking during the drill
- When we all tried to solve a problem, it worked better
- When the first team finished, we knew we could too
- We wanted to finish; we made a decision to finish; we committed to finish
- Asked how we could help each other—what do you need
- Don’t walk out of the gym (one player did)
- We had new hope when we negotiated a change in the order of the sequences (one coach allowed the group to negotiate doing the most difficult sequence first rather than 6th)
How did you respond to problems?
- Angry at coaches; thought they tricked us and this was unfair; we thought they would let us stop after 3 hours; thought this was impossible (Note—we had ordered pizza to be delivered to the gym after 3 hours because we thought they would be done, we made them keep going.)
- Emotionally drained and that made me physically drained; loss of self-confidence
- Emotional rollercoaster; frustrated and felt helpless
- Wasn’t mad but wanted to get even with the coaches
- Had a sense of duty to finish; played to win—refused to loose
- I thought this was stupid…until we finished
How did you finish the drill?
- Increased my intensity; worked harder; didn’t hold back
- I made a decision to finish; I fought for it and had increased desire to finish
- Determined; told myself I could do this—they were easy skills I just had to focus
- Internally motivated (pride) to finish; shared confidence with team
- Increased my communication and talked us through the drill
How did you feel when you finished the drill?
- We felt like we had won the Olympics
- Personally, I gained a lot of self-confidence—now I could do anything
- I was still ticked at the coaches, but so pumped we finished
- I was kind of disappointed in myself for getting so discouraged during the drill
Highlights of Coaches Observations
- It was hard for them to stay in the present; simple tasks became hard when they lost focus—communication was key
- One person (catalyst) was needed to make change
- Did not express emotions individually, but did it as a group after encouragement for coaches (one team showed their frustration by everyone kicking a ball to the ceiling)
- They are generally externally motivated—wanted coaches to guide them to completion
- Some strong bonding and group think were demonstrated
- Generally lacking mental toughness
- Aggressive errors were generally less accepted by the team than less aggressive (careful)
- Inhibited—they looked to see who was watching their errors
- No confrontational behavior toward teammates
- General lack of accountability
- Even though they were asked to perform very basic skills, mistakes were rampant
- Encouraged each other but reluctant to correct each other
- The better communication brought general improvements in performance
- Once one group finished, the other 2 groups finished within 10 minutes—they thought it was possible then and they did it
- They were really happy for each other—everyone went to cheer for the last group to finish.
Overall Evaluation of the Experience
As coaches, we believed that the drill allowed us to experience a season full of emotions in one evening. We learned a lot about each player and what we needed to do to help them individually. Despite their roller coaster of emotions during drill, the team was elated with their success in completing the drill. They all said they gained valuable information about themselves and the process of working as a team. As a team (without the coaches) they set these goals for the season.
- Stay in the present. Don’t replay your mistakes.
- Be aware of your surroundings on the court but stay focused on my own actions.
- Stay relaxed on the court. Be aware of my composure and if necessary use our relaxation techniques.
- When a mistake is made, we might still be able to save the play by good, smart team effort (i.e. just because I am not playing the ball doesn’t mean I might not have to help)
- Pay attention to details on the court and communicate.
- Be aware of my behavior and be able to use cue words to interrupt bad behavior.
- Figure out how to win
The team agreed to make these goals a priority in practice and competition. We often asked the captains to review the goals and the behaviors which allowed them to successfully finish the drill. They also agreed on a mid-season date to evaluate their progress, maybe reset some goals and possibly perform the ‘drill from hell” again. But that is another whole story…