I love the movie Money Ball. I love it, not because of my enjoyment of baseball because I actually don’t really enjoy watching the sport. I love it because it has volumes to speak about coaching and predicting performance. There is a scene where the GM Billy Beane is sitting around the table with all his scouts and team staff, talking about which players they would like to pick up for next season. It’s my favourite scene. I love it because Beane highlights the reality of the financial situation of the Oakland A’s in comparison to the rest of the MLB, and this situation does not allow them to buy the perceived talent that is needed to win the championship.
But that was the old way of thinking about the game. Beane completely shifts the way the game is played because rather than relying on the perceived prediction of how successful a player is going to be, he relies on the performance indicators of how a player actually plays. Money Ball is a movie that all coaches should watch.
What frustrated me to no end as a coach is when I hear other coaches talk about how “this crop just isn’t talented”. It seems like so many coaches are just waiting around until they have an overly “talented” group of athletes, and then they will be able to be successful and really start coaching. I hate to break it to you coaches, but those kids only come around once in a life time, maybe twice if you coach for a really long time. And there is usually only one kid who is that talented.
So what do we do?
We create talent. We coach talent. We teach kids to work towards a goal with determination and grit, with specific and defined direction. The vast majority of young athletes we come across are an opportunity: an opportunity to open their eyes to their own potential. For every one talented athlete there are ninety-nine others who work their tails off to achieve anything. The 1% don’t really need you to coach them. They will always end up where they need to be, whether they receive the best coaching in the world, or whether they get the efforts of the rest of us. To go back to the Money Ball reference, we need to coach the performance indicators of our athletes.
A place to begin for us coaches is identifying what the performance indicators are for your sport. I’ve been involved with volleyball for a couple of decades now, so I tend to always think in volleyball terms. I would look at what are some performance indicators for volleyball and those will surely be a skill you can quantify with statistics. What is the player’s passing average? What is their kill percentage? Likely the most important is, what is their plus/minus ratio? If a player gets 10 kills, but has 4 serving errors, has been aced three times, and has 2 blocking errors; is that better than the player who has 8 kills, no services errors, passes 2.0, and has three block continues? I think that’s up to you as a coach to decide.
If you identify your performance indicators for your age group and your team, then you can start effectively coaching towards those indicators. You can clearly communicate to your players what it is they are working towards, and you can give them feedback along the way as to how they are doing. When it comes time to choose a starting line up, you can look at those performance indicators with each player and give at least some reasoning as to why the 7 players you have chosen to put on the court are on the court. Of course there are many other factors that go in to choosing who can be on the court, but at least you will have some hard data to share with the player, and likely the parents, as to your decisions.
If the player has a clearly defined goal towards which to work, if you know what you want your players to achieve, than you will become a better coach and your players will improve. I would rather have a team of “less talented” athletes that are willing to show up to practice and work hard, and more importantly, work smart, to achieve these indicators. If the players are more talented, but you have given them no reference in which to ground their focus, I’m willing to bet that the smarter working athletes will surpass those talented athletes.
We focus too much on winning and losing. Whether you win or lose is not necessarily a measure of how successful the team and the individuals on that team are. Remember that we are coaching young athletes, athletes who are beginning their careers. If your goal is to win, the athletes are less likely to understand the process and how enjoyable that process can be. If we coach kids to train, to practice smart, to practice and train with intension towards a goal, that will translate to their entire athletic career, and more importantly, beyond their athletic careers. The reality is that we spend a limited amount of time as a competitive athlete: and then we have the rest of our lives. But the young athletes who learn the enjoy the process, who are willing to work to achieve these specific goals we as coaches are setting out for them, the more likely they will form habits that will continue well beyond their playing years. I would also be willing to bet that if your team has committed to training hard, and you are coaching them to train smart, they will likely end up winning games as well: it’s a happy outcome that all athletes want, but isn’t necessarily the most important part.