This was a great article that I co-authored with my friend, Brad Roberson of Texas Pistols Volleyball Club. His 12s team beat my team in the finals of Lone Star Classic. I spoke with him a week later to recap the match and learn from him in how he trains younger players. I found our success stems from a balance of risk and reward and teaching players to be smart at a young age.

In my years coaching the little ones, I have never made it to the finals of the Lone Star Classic qualifier. It is a brutally tough qualifier with a lot of top teams from Texas. The 11s teams from North Texas region are just as strong as just about any 12s team across the country. I have been in the hunt on the last day for the Lone bid the last few seasons, but this year was different. We had a rough second day and won every match, but all those games went to three. We found ourselves down 16-1 against a team we beat in the first set 25-7. Ha! Life of a 12s coach. But on the last day, we clicked. All cylinders were firing and we found ourselves in the finals against a scrappy little team from North Texas.

Up to the point of playing in the finals, we had some tough competition against teams who had us beat in size and strength. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great little team with some dynamic hitters, but across the board many people would have said we were outmatched. Going into the final day, I told my girls to get out of the valleys quick and keep pressure on our opponents. Stay steady. See if the other teams would give us a few points here and there, and we could earn some of our own when the timing was right. The strategy worked and we ended up beating the top-seeded team in the semifinals. We were down in both sets, but kept it steady and I kept impressing upon them that if we gave them just a little pressure, they might break. It worked.

Come to the finals and we are facing a team that most would say we held the advantage over in size and strength. I watched the tail end of their semi-final match and knew they were a scrappy well-disciplined team. As we progressed into the match, I got a sense that they were using the same strategy of pressure on us that we were using on everyone else. They just didn’t mess up. Now we did … more than we had in the previous matches. They beat us in two sets and we were in shock at how our day had ended. Successful overall – a silver medal at Lone Star is no easy task, but we were once again just short of our goal to win a major tournament.

I had a long ride in my car going back from Dallas to Houston. It’s a long drive most of the time … longer when you have to sit and think about every coaching decision you made and how you could have tweaked things to improve the outcome. I was baffled at how the other team seemed to use the same strategy I had used, and it worked against us. I could get into the ego of a coach, but how many of you would call or write someone who you lost to just to find out what it is that makes them great? I love finding better ways, so I took a couple weeks to gather myself and called up Brad Roberson, director of Texas Pistols in Decatur, Texas. Out of that phone call has come a great exchange of ideas and philosophies. Neither of us claim to know it all, but we both are looking for a better way. One point that we really connected on is Risk Management. I was right that they basically used the same strategy that I was using to minimize errors and put pressure on my opponent. He has a distinct system he uses, and together we would like to share some ideas on Risk Management.

Brad: Game Error Management (GEM): The objective of GEM is to have effective communication between coaches and players, thus raising the IQ of a volleyball team in any given game situation. The triggers are Green, Yellow and Red. Green should trigger playing to win, or take your best shot. Yellow should trigger caution. Take some risks, but play with caution, understanding your limitations as a team and/or player. Red should trigger the situation is critical. No unforced errors. Play smart and use high percentage techniques and practices to keep the ball in play. No negative errors.

Leon: Brad told me early in our first conversation about GEM that as soon as they saw us warming up, he huddled his team together and told them that they were going to be in Red the entire game. And they were. They made no errors. They scrambled to pick up the balls they could and just gave it back over to us. I often use a drill where I stack six players vs. three or four on the other side. The only instruction to the team on the side with four is that they must freeball back over the net. No spiking, no tips … only freeball. You would be amazed at how many games the side of four wins. It’s well over half. They know their job is to not make errors, and if they become good at giving a variety of locations and tempos on the freeball, they are almost sure to win the drill.

Brad: There is nothing more frustrating as a coach than to watch a player make an unforced error at a critical time in a game because they didn’t have the right mindset for the situation they were in. The GEM concept calls for a coach to communicate a strategy and a tactic for your team using less verbiage. By using just one word (red, yellow, green) a coach will be able to communicate the exact mindset and strategy for any given situation a team is facing. Effective communication begins with all players hearing and comprehending the same thing. Using GEM is a way to eliminate any chance of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Less complex coaching from the sideline and more understanding from all players is the goal.

Leon: I share in the frustration of creating tough game-like situations. You can spend five minutes explaining the importance of being down 20-23. You can include imagery, enlist parents to do what parents do from the sideline, close their eyes and picture it or put 20-23 on the scoreboard, tell side A they are Red and Go! I’m always looking for ways to talk less and get the kids to experience play and competition. The GEM system does just that.

I mentioned in an earlier article about players having to cash their points in with a serve, and how that can create pressure. I also developed a drill called “Beat the Switch.” It’s just a modified scoring drill working on third sets. Both teams are at 12-12. Play game to 15, win by 2. The team that wins then starts the second round down one point so score is 11-12. Each time you win, you start with one less point on the board. The goal is to win a game to 15 with your side starting at 8 points. The intensity builds as one team sees the other one getting closer and closer to 8 points.

Another system I developed to explain Risk vs. Reward is a system using 1s and 0s. Each contact can be rated a 1 or 0. There are eight possibilities for this system: 111, 110, 100, 101, 011, 010, 000 and 001. The concept for it is simple: 1 is good, 0 is bad. If the passer gets aced, a dash after the first zero indicates no further play was possible. Players learn what the good and bad ones are. A 001 means the pass wasn’t great, the set didn’t help the situation, but the hitter pulled off a great play and kept it alive. In general, any time a 0 is followed by a 1, you celebrate that because it means someone made the situation better. A 111 is just good volleyball, but we rarely play that kind of ball over the long term at 12s. Lots of 0s happen. How do we cope with that? The worst one in my mind is the 010. It means bad pass, but the setter made a great save and the hitter made a bad play on that ball.

The ultimate goal in this is not to say you must develop our systems of talking to players about Risk vs. Reward. The goal is that you have that conversation and come up with strategies for your team to employ during game play. Teach them how to play smart ball vs. aggressive ball. Give some of these systems a try and see how your team responds. I’m glad I had the chance to connect with Coach Roberson. He shares my desire to challenge how we think about training and working with our younger players.

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