Podcast Episode 1: Developing the Team Concept featuring Sue Gozansky

One of the more interesting parts of Sue Gozansky’s interview from Volleyball Coaching Wizards comes when she discusses her view on team-building. In this episode of the podcast we share that excerpt from the interview and talk about it and the general idea of developing squad cohesion.

Sue Gozansky is an FIVB coaching instructor and a member of American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2006. In 39 years coach at the University of California at Riverside she won over 700 matches, made the NCAA tournament a record 20 consecutive years, and won 3 national championships. She is also author of the books Championship Volleyball Techniques and Drills and Volleyball Coach`s Survival Guide.

In the interview excerpt from Sue she mentions the book Ice Bound with respect to team-building concepts.

Feedback, questions, comments, etc. are always welcome!

Here’s the transcript of the episode.

Mark: How do you go about developing a team over the course of the season, or 2 or 3 seasons?

Sue:  I think the success of the program is based on your practices, and that’s when you see the players the most. That’s when you have the most influence on them. Success is built around good practices, and in that practice you are building that team concept with everything that you do. Really hard to be specific on that, but coaches think a lot of times that building a team is doing some of those team building activities where players go out socially, and they do fun things together, which for some teams is really important. For other teams it’s really not that important, but I think that building a team, you are doing that in practice buy how you’re running your practices.

I read the book Ice Bound and I found it fascinating because they talked about team concept, and what they needed to do to have a team because they were going to be together for those 6 months in a very small quarters. They said that they had to work as a team for their own survival. I wrote an article about it and the comparison is, in a way it’s for our survival also on a team, that people can work together. Whether it’s having fun and learning how to enjoy each other, or working together, each person doing their own task.

On the South Pole there was one of everyone, and if anyone broke that chain and didn’t do their job, the organization completely fell apart. I think that is the comparison of a team, that you have your roles, somewhat first as setters, and hitters, and middle blockers, but you also have your roles as people that are going to help bring the group together socially with different personalities. It is critical that everyone does their job. The most important thing is some teams don’t necessarily like each other. I’ve had those teams. They don’t do a lot of those team activities, but they all respect each other and they all have the same goal of winning.

Mark: That was a funny moment in the interview for me because you can hear, I think, in my response to the question at the end a little bit of a stunned silence. The reason for the stunned silence, the reason for my hesitation after that was because she just absolutely nailed it in two sentences. It’s a topic where people get very convoluted. People talk about all sorts of different things. Slogans, and mottos, and team building, and all sorts of stuff, but really, ultimately, as I said, she just absolutely nailed it. The way you build a team, and the idea of a team, is how you work everyday. I really thought that was an absolutely perfect answer that had no way of being improved.

John: Yeah. There’s a lot of over-effort that seems to get done by coaches, not just in volleyball, but any sport, of feeling like they have to do certain types of things, above and beyond what’s happening in the gym on a day to day basis, to develop team chemistry, camaraderie, whatever you want to call it. I know when I was coaching, at one point we did an Outward Bound experience which actually I think probably hurt the team more than it helped. I always found that just the team being together, away from the distractions of the rest of their lives, was perhaps the single biggest… That’s not right, but it was certainly a big element in bringing the teams together.

Mark: I agree completely. I’ve done not Outward Bound activities, but one that I’ve actually done a few times is a ropes course. It’s a high ropes course. Traditional team building theory says that you work together in a slightly dangerous situation, you have to overcome fears, etc. I’ve actually had good experience with that in terms of people enjoyed it, people felt like they got something out of it, but I remember the last time, sitting at the end of the season saying, “We had a pretty good season. A better than expected season. The team did really well, but really how can you link the season that we did with climbing up 10 meters above the ground and hanging from a piece of rope?” While that was fun and brought the team together for a short period of time, I couldn’t honestly say that it had an effect on the season.

When I thought about it more I said, I thought that the idea is to develop trust between people, and teamwork between people, but the trust of a life and death situation, although it’s not really life and death ultimately, but say for a moment that it is, and the trust of listening to somebody’s call, or the trust that the cover will be there, or the trust that the setter will try to save your bad reception is a completely different kind of trust. That’s what you need to win a volleyball game. The trust between the phases of the game, between the technical elements, between the people, and really the only way that you can develop that is in the gym, is through competition, mostly through successful competition. It’s the volleyball work, the work on the court everyday. I think that was Sue’s point. Like I said, I think that she absolutely nailed it.

John: When I think one of the stories that came out of Doug Beal’s book Spike was their story, their Outward Bound experience about going up in the mountains, in the snow and all that. I can’t help but wonder if he looks back on that now and thinks that that was a significant contributing factor to that team coming together and doing as well as they did, especially considering Karch wasn’t even on the trip, arguably the most important player in the squad. It sounded, from the way he wrote about it in the book, that he thought it was an important experience but, like I said, I wonder if he would still agree with that now.

Mark: I read an interview with him actually, from last year, where he talks about it. He talks about it in a positive way. I suspect that he still thinks of it as being important. I’ve heard an interview within the last 2 or 3 years with one of the other players other than Karch in the team, and he was absolutely scathing about it and had no positive words to say about either its application time, or the effects, positive or negative, that it had. Yeah, I think we wander into the realms of confirmation bias and personal preference, or personal judgment. It’s one of those things, like so many other things. it’s really difficult to say one way or the other.

John: Yeah, you can’t measure what would have happened if they didn’t go.

Mark: Yes. In that particular instance, between the Outward Bound and the Olympics, wasn’t there a boycott announced? Maybe the boycott had more to do with the ultimate success than the Outward Bound.

John: Exactly. It’s a lot easier when your top competition isn’t even going to be there.

Mark: Well, yes. You could argue that. I’m just making a slightly facetious observation.

John: As you are wont to do.

My observation from the one we did, and there was a ropes element to it but not the high wire sort of thing that you did, but there were things like trust falls and things like that. Somebody ended up getting hurt on a trust fall because the person doing the falling didn’t have enough trust and ended up kicking her in the face or something along those lines. There’s certainly a downside, a potential downside to these sorts of things. To your point about it being a different kind of trust. I totally agree.

Mark: Yeah.

John: In order perform as a team on the court when it matters, the trust is in that everybody else is doing their job. You do yours.

Mark: Yes.

John: That can only be developed over time on the court, in training, in other matches, in the competitive environment. The other stuff is great, and it might help improve team chemistry in other ways, but there are definitely questions as to contributing. Like I said at the beginning, I think from my perspective and what I saw on teams, and again this may be a confirmation thing, but it seemed like teams tended to gel during the first away trip where you’re off campus, you’re in hotels, you’re on buses, you’re on planes, whatever the trip takes. The team is together, relatively isolated, where they’re forced to interact, and work with each other, and cooperate much more closely than they would have to do on a day to day basis back at home – on campus, or in a club environment, or whatever the case may be.

Mark: I think that observation is a fairly common one. It happens in pro teams, it happens in, I think in all groups. I don’t know. The first line is just the personal barriers come down a little bit. When people first come together everyone’s a little wary. Who’s this guy? What’s that guy? Who’s this new guy? If that’s the case, and being away for some period of time, 2, 3 days, then you start to learn a little bit about the other guy, and the personal relationships start to develop. Mostly positive, or at least the possibility of personal communication. From in terms of off the court, that makes a big difference straightaway, that first trip. I don’t know if what you see on the court is necessarily anything to do with that new person or communication, or that it’s just a matter that people are a little bit more comfortable with each other, so they’re probably more comfortable on the court just with everyday interactions. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a technical thing. What do you think?

John: I would tend to agree. I think probably, where you get the benefit for that sort of thing, will tend to be the off the court dynamics. The things that invariably come up over the course of a season, that potentially create interpersonal conflicts or friction, or whatever the case may be. Something that happens between a couple of players, or situations that develop where the players need to be able to communicate with each other. I think those sorts of off the court experiences can help in that, but, like you say, how much that necessarily translates onto the actual play and the training environment may vary a bit from team to team depending on the composition and the internal dynamics.

I was just thinking about another aspect of this, which goes back to something you kind of talked about with regards to especially the older generation of Eastern European players where it was a coach versus team, or team versus coach, or both, sort of environment, which hearkens me back to the Army days where a big part of team development was getting everybody to hate the Drill Sergeant. I know that’s a philosophy that has been used in coaching. You can certainly picture it in a sport like American football where the head coach is often times seen as the dictator general. Has been. I guess Pete Caroll would probably be a prime example of going against that sort of mold. It sounds like, even your comments about the Eastern European players with the younger generation, that that sort of team building aspect has kind of faded away.

Mark: The coach against the team part? I mean, this one in particular with the Eastern Europeans, I think as much as anything, it’s a cultural idea as much as any specific strategy on the part of the coach. I have heard a story, which I have no idea is true or not, of the Polish coach in the 1970’s actually doing that deliberately, just annoying the team so much that they united against him. They ended up winning the gold medal to prove that he was correct in doing that. It’s a strategy that some coaches will live at different times. I don’t know. I tend to think of those things as being negative. I don’t like to do them myself. It seems like it’s a negative way of creating something. I always want to create something in a positive way.

John: Right. Now, getting a bit more specific, what sort of things can we coaches do in training? This is kind of Sue’s point. It’s the stuff that we do in training that encourages the teamwork. What sort of things do we have to do in training to develop that cohesion?

Mark: The first thing that every coach needs in every coaching situation is a concept of the game, and concept of work. Maybe it’s a philosophy. Maybe it’s the vision, but it’s the basis of how to work. It’s the basis of how people work together and the most important part of that is maybe in some communication, how people communicate with each other in the training/match environment. The other part is the interaction between the players on the court. Having an organizational structure in different elements of the game, that’s the biggest way to develop teamwork. It’s the way to develop team because that’s exactly the teamwork that you want to develop. That’s the beginning thing that the coach needs because once you have the concept then everything you do is leading you in that direction.

John: Now, do you use the returning players, or leadership players, to encourage a certain type of team mentality or team philosophy, or do you try to do that mainly from yourself?

Mark: In the past I have had situations where I wanted the remaining players to lead the newcomers, or made mistakes in doing that. I wasn’t clear enough to the incoming players, sorry to the remaining players, that was what expected of them, or they weren’t the personality that did that sort of thing. When I left it in that way, it hasn’t worked out very well. I think every season, to some degree, the coach needs to start again, start from scratch and build these things up. At the very least it’s a reminder, and maybe it works out pretty fast because they do some remembering the things from before, but I think it’s pretty important the coach stays active in that area.

John: Okay, now this is something that we’ve talked about offline in a different context and I’ve talked with other people about this as well. Part of any team coming together is, and not just off the court as we discussed earlier, but just generally getting to know each other better is the social aspect of things. Doing things together at the professional level could just be going out for a beer after a match, or after training, or whatever. What’s your philosophy on how involved you as a head coach are in that social aspect of the team dynamic?

Mark: At this point in my career, perhaps better described as at this point in my life, I think that it’s better for the head coach to stay away from that. When I say at this point in my life, I’m nearly 50 and I don’t really have any more cultural life connections with players because at this point I grew up in a different world than the players that I’m coaching grew up with. When you’re a younger coach you have sort of a closer, possibility of closer personal relations than maybe it’s a little bit different, but Sue actually talked a lot about this as well. The coach has to stay separate from the team. Even if the relationship can be friendly, it can never be as friends.

This is a big difference between the relationship of the head coach to the team and the assistant coach to the team. The assistant coach can be much closer to the team. Often we talk about that. The assistant coach is much closer to the age of the team, deliberately in many cases. There is a lot more social interaction. That’s where things can get really difficult for the assistant coach. I have assistant coaches who are younger, closer to the team. I talk to them specifically about them, “You will hear things from the team that aren’t meant for me to hear. You have to maintain the level of trust with the team to keep your mouth shut and not say anything. I don’t need to know everything. Then other situations where there’s stuff that I need to know about, that you need to broach with me, or we need to work out how to address in a way that doesn’t affect the trust between you and the team.”

That can definitely be a delicate line for an assistant coach. The head coach needs to be a little bit sensitive to how to deal with those situations.

John: Yeah. It was one of the toughest things for me to deal with moving to England and coaching there. When you’re coaching at a university level in the states social interaction with your players is practically a no go. First and foremost, most of your players are not going to be drinking age. Any sort of alcoholic involvement is a fireable offense basically. Whether you’re a head coach or an assistant coach, there’s a pretty clear line of delineation, at least at that level. Like you said, there is the opportunity for an assistant coach to be friendlier with the squad than the head coach can be because the head coach does, and I agree with you in this, the head coach does need to have a certain bit of distance from the squad for a number of reasons.

When I got over to England where the drinking age is lower, so basically everybody on the team could drink and it wasn’t an issue. The overall environment is very different because it’s a student run club, not a university run team, like a varsity team as it would be in the States, so the dynamics are slightly different. The power dynamics are different. Essentially, if I wasn’t doing a good job or whatever, the players could fire me. That’s not a situation you’re ever in, not directly anyway, when you’re coaching at a university in the States. For me it was trying to balance out what was acceptable to be social.

I had to overcome a lot of barriers at first to allow myself to go out with the players or whatever, in kind of a broad social context like a club dinner, or awards thing, or whatever the case may be. It took a while for me to do that.

We’re running close on time. Any final thoughts?

Mark: Only just to bring it back to Sue’s original point that the way to build a team is the way we choose to work on a day to day basis. I firmly believe, as Sue absolutely nailed, I’ve said a few times now, that the best way to build a team is the way that we work from day to day, and that has to be the beginning. That has to be our step off point in any job, in any season that we have.

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