Mar 23, 2018
The Right Response

No one likes difficult situations. But in all likelihood, as a coach, you will come face to face with an unforeseen problem at some point during the season. How you respond is critical.

When it comes to facing complaints, Jenny McDowell, Head Volleyball Coach at Emory University, follows the advice she learned years ago from former University of Georgia Head Volleyball Coach Jim Iams. “He responded to criticism by saying, ‘You might be right,'” she says. “That was a famous Jim Iams line, and it usually ends the conversation.”

Steve Florio, Head Volleyball Coach at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, is careful to follow the adage, “praise in public, criticize in private,” but it took a mistake to learn that strategy. During his first year as Head Coach of the Mastodons, he criticized a player in front of the team on the bus following a game. It ended up compromising his relationship with the rest of his players.

“Even though everything I said on the bus was accurate, it was unfair of me to say it in the forum I did,” Florio says. “As a result, I don’t know if I ever regained a whole lot of trust over the rest of that season. But I apologized to the player in front of the team, and nothing like that ever happened again.”

During tough game-time situations, Florio feels humor can sometimes help. He remembers a match in which Fort Wayne was down zero games to two in a tough nonconference contest prior to the league tournament. During the break between the second and third games, he gathered his players and commended them. “I really like what you’re doing out there — practicing coming from behind,” he told them. “We might have to do that in the conference tournament.”

That witty and unexpected comment helped the Mastodons relax, and the team went out and took the match to five games, losing the final one in extra points. “If you use humor sparingly,” Florio says, “it can go a long way.”

One last strategy involves putting communication on the back burner for a while. Last year, Stephanie Rivera, Head Volleyball Coach at Lutheran West High School in Rocky River, Ohio, announced plans to retire at the end of the season, and that led to some pressure to compile a third straight undefeated record in conference play. One win away from that milestone, the squad entered into hostile territory for a poorly officiated final regular-season game. Players on the opposing team dropped frequent f-bombs on the court and its fans were so inhospitable that the Longhorns needed to leave the gym via a back door after the game.

Lutheran West lost in five sets, as the team struggled with on-court communication and Rivera, in a rare display, lost her composure. The next day at practice, the coach opted to have her players “chill,” she says, hitting the weightroom and carving pumpkins. “We didn’t talk much about that game,” she says. “My players knew how I felt, and I didn’t want to belabor the point.”

That approach worked, as Lutheran West recovered and advanced farther in the playoffs than it had the previous five years. Sometimes, Rivera explains, communicating effectively means knowing when you don’t need to say anything at all.

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