Friday, August 31, 2012

Scouting Report

"Never show children and fools things half done." - Proverb

Melrose completed a pair of scrimmages against Andover and North Andover on Thursday and Friday. Both teams are perennially strong within the North.

Scrimmages encourage competition and improve teams' coordination, communication, positioning, and timing. The Veterans Memorial Middle School Gym looked in pristine condition on tape.

Within that context and reviewing the game tapes in depth, certain preliminary observations emerge. Comments will be generic rather than directed at individuals.

We can divide skills among offensive (serving, attacking, setting) and defensive (passing, digging, and blocking). Serve-receive is a 'transition' skill from defense to offense. Teams excelling at platform skills (serve-receive, digging, passing) are on their way to success.

Melrose appeared improved in every facet of the game, but especially so at serving and the platform skills. Serves had more pace and deception and accuracy was good considering the point in the preseason. Defensively, the front line blocking remains a strength despite Melrose's undersized squad. It is very premature to evaluate the attacking which requires more timing for development.

With the graduation of Jill Slabacheski and Alyssa DiRaffaele, there's plenty of competition for the open rotation in the back row and at the second outside hitter spot. The forthcoming scrimmage at the Medway play date tomorrow should help sort that out. Six games against quality teams from around the Commonwealth will provide the coaches with a lot of information. Coach Scott Celli has both the time and the luxury of a number of skilled players to fill those spots.

Wicked Local gives a preseason report on a primary Middlesex League competitor, Reading.

Scrimmage time.

Photograph courtesy of Jeff Mate'.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Click photograph to enlarge. Courtesy of Jeff Mate'

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Serving Up...Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes was a 16th century Spanish author, poet, and playwright, best known for his "Don Quixote". What did Cervantes know about volleyball?

As the season nears, let's consider some of Cervantes' quotes:

"The journey is better than the inn."  An athletic season is a stop on a longer travel. The players do not spring full-grown like Venus, but have been molded by years of preparation. Celebrate the journey.

"Diligence is the mother of good fortune." Nowadays, we say, "you make your own luck."  Pasteur said it another way, "chance favors the prepared mind." Diligence by itself is not enough, but talent without diligence is wasted energy.

"Those who will play with cats must expect to be scratched." Athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models. Travel the high road and embrace the distinction. Have no regrets about doing right over doing 'easy'.

"One who loses wealth loses much. One who loses a friend loses more. But one who loses courage loses all." The four most important words in the English language come to mind. "I believe in you."

"By the Street of By and By you arrive at the House of Never." You are familiar with the Latin proverb, "Carpe diem."

"I know who I am, and who I may be, if I choose." Near the apex of the Pyramid of Success are the twin amplifiers of the qualities of competitors, faith and patience.

UNC Soccer Values

The University of North Carolina women have won twenty NCAA championships in thirty years. They meet and review their core values with an overwhelming culture of commitment and success. We can always learn something from successful models.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pass for Points Drill

As volleyball fans, we don't really know what goes into 'making the sausage'. We've shown some of the tough drills that going into building a libero, and here's a drill that incorporates serve-receive scoring into scrimmaging. The goal is to improve passing.

"Platform skills" of serve-receive, passing, and digging make the difference between good and excellent.

And a platform angling drill.

Monday, August 27, 2012

MHS Volleyball JV and Freshman Teams

 MHS Freshman Volleyball 2012

MHS Junior Varsity Volleyball 2012

Click photographs to enlarge.

Melrose Varsity Volleyball 2012

Melrose High School Varsity Volleyball 2012

Back row: Brooke Bell, Jill MacInnes, Sarah McGowan, Kayla Wyland, Rachel Johnson, Jen Cain, Stephanie Crovo, Sydney Doherty

Front row: Annalisa DeBari, Alyssa Abbott, Maeve Moriarty, Amanda Commito,   Cassidy Barbaro, Allie Nolan

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Immutable Vision

Core Elements

Melrose has experienced success for a variety of reasons, terrific coaching, continuity, community involvement, commitment, and core values.

Here is a cross-post from Most of the information is as relevant to volleyball as basketball. When your team is built around great values and great process, you don't worry about whom you play or whether your team will play hard.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Updated Rosters

Here are updated rosters for Melrose Volleyball.

Note that Stephanie Crovo has been added to the varsity roster as the second member from the class of 2015.

Goal Setting

Individuals and teams progress the most when they challenge themselves with goals.  To be worthwhile, goals must challenge teams and yet also be manageable.

I like the acronym SMART.

S  stands for specific. For a developmental or rebuilding team, that might mean finishing in the top half of a league or making the playoffs.

M means measurable. Although process goals are critical, outcome goals like improving attack efficiency or increasing digs or blocks could apply in volleyball.

A equals attainable.  If you were working on your vertical jump and wanted to increase it, expecting twelve inches would not be attainable.

R encompasses realistic. Even a superior team has limits. On an poll, almost forty percent of Patriots fans thought the team could go 16-0. Not realistic.

T includes timely. If you wanted to lose weight or improve your fitness in some fashion, expecting overnight success means failure. A thoughtful plan that allows for execution matters.

Goals shouldn't be set by 'outsiders'. Coaches and teams have ownership for THEIR goals, not media, fans, or even families. A shopworn sports saying goes, "the star of the team is the team."  A boat goes fastest, straightest, and farthest when everyone has their oars in the water pulling together. has valuable information including schedules, statistics, and recent team history.

Friday, August 24, 2012

This Is Your Team

As you can see, this is a very experienced team. It has NEVER been harder to make the roster, as more players are playing volleyball and year-round volleyball.

Roster from

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Season Begins

Volleyball training camp began today, early. After a long offseason, the team looks for a return to championship form. 

Photo courtesy of J. Celli

Odds 'n Ends


Training camp begins. 

01/19/12 Effective with the 2012 Girls Volleyball MIAA Tournament, the official game volleyball will be the Baden multi-color, leather, Perfection 15-0.

Fall practice may begin as early as the second Thursday preceding Labor Day. No team may have more than 10 single practice sessions (i.e., "double sessions" count as two single practice sessions), through and including the Friday prior to Labor Day.

Artificial Noisemakers and Bands.  Rule  Added language to instruct the 
public address announcer to cease when the first referee prepares to authorize the service. 

Substitutions.  Rule 11.3.2.  Each team is entitled to 15 substitutions per set.  Each 
player is allowed unlimited entries within the team limit. Rationale:  The survey results 
showed a vast majority of coaches in favor of increasing the number of substitutions per 
set.  Many programs are being asked to carry more student-athletes on their team roster. 
This change allows for increased playing opportunities.  Associated Technique.  Rule The second referee notifies the appropriate coach(es) when the 12th through 
15th team substitutions are made, and the first referee when the 15th substitution is made. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"passing is going to predict your level of play"...

Earlier, the importance of platform skills (passing, digging, serve receive) was discussed.

The 2012 version of Melrose volleyball has the talent and potential to be the best passing team in school history. Of course, where production and potential meet is where the rubber meets the road.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Winner's Brain - Summary

Do you believe in doing everything possible to get fortune on your side?  The summary table from "The Winner's Brain" lays out a plan.

You won't have to think about the exercise component, so you're already off to a head start. Exercise improves both brain circulation and oxygen delivery.

Stimulating activity like learning a language or doing math problems enhances key neural pathways and can improve brain function AND structure.

Nutritionally, anti-oxidants have potential benefits. Who doesn't like berries (1/2 of a cup) and TWO apples a day? There is evidence about the value of LOW doses of caffeine, but NOT in the evening before sleep.

"Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care," was how Shakespeare put it. Teens often fail to get the 7-8 hour minimum of sleep that's advised. Sleep, especially REM sleep (dream sleep) has restorative functions and improves retention of recently learned information.

In addition to skill building and team building, double down on mental conditioning to bring out your best.
I'm no expert on volleyball, but I like the teaching. Setters will like this!

"Beat the ball..."

Monday, August 20, 2012

More from "The Winner's Brain"

"The Winner's Brain" is a well-referenced book giving concrete examples of techniques that can improve performance, taking advantage of neuroplasticity to improve brain structure and function.

Mental imagery can imprint neural changes. "This is because imagining the skill, and actually performing the skill, needs to be as closely executed as possible for effective transfer and reinforcement to neural structures (Currie & Ravenscroft, 1997). Thus, mental imagery competency requires a degree of attention and psychological effort to elicit the desired effect."  The advantages of effective mental imagery include time savings and avoidance of overtraining effects and fatigue. In other words, mental practice can create brain structure and function changes resulting in improved performance. 

Of course, at the end of the day, you have to use that brain power to get something done.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Winner's Brain - Part 1

There's a new book, The Winner's Brain that examines neural function, anatomy and physiology in successful people.  It begins with a review of some of the accidents of nature and progresses to modern exams like MRI, fMRI, and PET scanning.

The authors then develop themes in winners, suggest exercises that alter neural pathways via neuroplasticity, and provide tips for self help.

The initial themes include the ability to recognize opportunity, optimize risk, become goal centered, achieve persistence, and develop and recognize talent.

They review strategies to enhance characteristics like self-awareness and motivation and later provide more specifics on development.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Few of us achieve greatness. Perhaps some were born to be great, but most worked to achieve special status.

Geoff Colvin's book, "Talent Is Overrated" investigates the processes needed to achieve superior results. He writes in depth, for example, about the methods young Benjamin Franklin developed to improve his writing skills. He overcame both inadequate vocabulary and prose skills through deliberate practice and modeling superior writing using innovative techniques like rewriting in verse and in his language.

Later Colvin discusses approaches to develop superior performance, including the music model, case studies, and sports model. I won't become a spoiler for Colvin's work, but within the sports model we can extract John Wooden's conditioning and skill building approaches.

With volleyball season close at hand, has time evaporated? For individual players, inquire whether time is better spent on conditioning or position-specific skills?

If you don't serve and spend most of your time blocking and attacking, then 'deliberate practice' focused on power and plyometrics is more productive than hours spent serving and digging. If your serve needs more consistency and giddyup, then working on jumping isn't the ticket. If quickness and reaction training need work for defense, then both aerobic conditioning and quickness/balance exercises are for you.

Your time is short. Choose wisely.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Something to Shoot for

Less than two weeks until the preseason unfolds.

Monday, August 13, 2012

No Rolls But Some Pancakes

Inside of the two week mark. Are you ready for some pancakes?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Competitors Versus Rivals

Practice fosters competition not rivalry. Bill Russell, one of the greatest players ever to play basketball, preferred the term competitors to rivals. Ironically, a major book about him and Wilt Chamberlain is "The Rivalry."

This year's team features a wealth of experience and talent and players will compete vigorously for spots in the rotation. That's how it should be.

In this drill, two hitters and a setter compete with one point awarded for a kill, one point subtracted for an attack error, and nil for digs.

Warmup LBSU

More on coaching philosophy, but this time in coordinated drills from Long Beach State.

The skill, communication, and coordination speaks for itself.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Embedded Wisdom

As a player, do you ever aspire to become a coach? Do you want to share your knowledge and experience to mold players to improve and become successful?

If you're already a coach, do you regularly take inventory on your and your teams skills and weaknesses and develop a written plan to enhance their performance?

I've written before about Dr. Atul Gawande's terrific book "Checklist Manifesto" that examines the use of checklists in industry, aviation, medicine, construction, and other fields to optimize results. Dr. Gawande wrote another book, "Better" that looks at how some systems have specifically improved (but not perfected) results.

Within our basketball middle school program, the coaches develop rating systems for player skills and we regularly introduce new drills and methods working on specific weaknesses or needs for our teams. For example, we need to shoot better, and we need to be able to apply and withstand defensive pressure to become the best team we can be.

In the video below, the UCLA men's volleyball coach shares his coaching thoughts.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Six Shooter

Coaches work constantly to improve the "six skills" - serving, passing, setting, attacking, blocking, and digging.

Developing or finding drills to optimize each skill can be a challenge. This drill helps players work on tipping (over a blocker) and setting. Great attacks can come from front row passing and every team can benefit from improving the front row passing.

"Go West Young Man"

"My worst personal trait, by far, is that I expect everyone to care as much as I do, about everything, and it is both terrible and unfair." - Jerry West

You've all seen the NBA logo, but most of you haven't even heard of Jerry West, one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, and subsequently a successful NBA executive. 

So, he must have led an easy life? From Wikipedia, West was also regarded for his extreme mental toughness and his exemplary work ethic. The NBA described West as "obsessive perfectionism, unabashed confidence, and an uncompromising will to win… a level of intensity so high it could melt lead".

The principal point is that greatness in sport is not synonymous with balance. West's playing and executive career came at a cost, personal struggles. "Perennial rival Bill Russell appeared and said: "Jerry, you are, in every sense of the word, truly a champion… If I could have one wish granted, it would be that you would always be happy." Find balance in all you do. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

3 on 6

Players love volleyball because they love practice.  Coaches have great drills and are always looking for new ones.

Here's a drill from the Art of Volleyball Coaching. In this drill the opposite is left-handed (sound familiar?), allowing (in effect) strong side hitting from both sides.

The countdown continues to August 27th.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Alternate Histories

Nassim Taleb has written several important books, the well-known bestseller "The Black Swan" and lesser-known "Fooled by Randomness."  He emphasizes the concept of "alternate histories" in the latter, that is, the multiple possible futures that exist in any situation. Player skill, illness, and injury and especially fluctuations in performance can produce alternate histories.

Players may think of how to approach a future opponent while coaches take a broader approach including multiple potential pitfalls that can impede the successful pathway.  Therefore, the best coaches work tireless to identify how to implement strengths and cover up weaknesses.

Coaches work to shift both individual and collective skills of their team but especially to prevent weaknesses from being critical. For example, in post-season contest almost a decade ago, the eventual state champion played a virtual five player defense with the libero covering extra territory to overcome a localized weakness.

During an Olympic volleyball match today, the commentator opined, "If you serve too many lollipops you're gonna get licked !"

Local fans can rest assured that the coaching staff will do everything possible to continue an excellent process to produce the greatest probability of success. 

Here is the link to this season's schedule

Monday, August 06, 2012


Wooden's Pyramid of Success says it all.

The center row shows CONDITIONING, SKILL, and TEAM SPIRIT.

Conditioning isn't easy. Conditioning exacts a price, whether "stadiums" (on the bleachers), 45s (side to side sprinting on the basketball court), weight training, or plyometrics.

Here the coach demonstrates some plyometric, strength, balance, and quickness exercises. I also like a "hexagon drill" using a hexagon with 18 inch lengths, where you jump in and out clockwise and counterclockwise.

Three weeks until "training camp."

Spirit of Improvement

Even while our athletes practice their craft this summer, I hope they work for self-improvement by reading.

John C. Maxwell wrote a little book entitled, "The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player."  You can imagine many of the chapters, but today I'll mention his chapter on improvement.

The best way to strengthen the team is through strengthening the qualities of the individuals, from industriousness and enthusiasm, to conditioning and skill, poise and loyalty.

But Maxwell writes about Nokia, a leading communications company, and their four themes - customer satisfaction, respect, achievement, and learning.

For an athletic program, one might extrapolate to community pride, relationships, achievement, and learning.

Our student-athletes are leaders and examples for younger students, too. Achieving in the classroom and on the court is an expectation. Certainly, the community respects and values improvement and learning, but classroom achievement lasts a lifetime. Fulfilling behavioral standards matters, too.

When you see a volleyball player, wish her well and ask if she's read any good books lately. Someday, she'll thank you for caring.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Finding Ways to Success

With Opening Night against Bedford a mere month away, Coach Scott Celli and Melrose volleyball contemplate how to succeed.

Melrose has had an abundance of both young and veteran players in the Pumas program and others playing for the Smash offseason teams.

Considering the major skills (serving, digging, passing, setting, attacking, and blocking), each team must identify pathways to success.

The best teams excel at all skills and concede nothing in any area. Defense anchors the Lady Raiders. Melrose has strong blockers in Rachel Johnson, Kayla Wyland, and Sarah McGowan.  It returns power hitters in Sarah McGowan and Jen Cain. Brooke Bell has the setting covered and is a superior defender along with Amanda Commito and Jill MacInnes in the back row.

The questions for the coming season who fills the shoes of outside hitter for the graduated Jill Slabacheski and who replaces Middlesex League MVP Alyssa DiRaffaele's back row/libero spot.

All-State middle hitter Sarah McGowan looks to play "all-around" including the back row and junior Jill MacInnes similarly competes for that strong side hitting spot along with senior Sydney Doherty who delivered in crunch time in last year's semifinal tilt with Longmeadow.

All players know, however, that every spot is potentially open and it seems that each season an unheralded player emerges to make major contributions in both play and leadership.

After the opener with Bedford, Reading comes to town in an attractive first week matchup.

Saturday, August 04, 2012


You hear the saying "everything runs in cycles." And indeed, we know of long-term climate patterns, seasons, investment and credit cycles, and others. Some cycles are caused by human behavior, therefore immutable. Others are less certain.

In athletics, the playing field isn't always level. The "big-market" teams in baseball have an advantage over small market teams, but in other sports, like football, coaching makes a difference, with the Belichicks and Cowhers of the world outperforming.

But what about high school sports? Surely population differences play a role, but that wouldn't explain why a Watertown dominates in field hockey or Melrose's volleyball success.

Coaching, infrastructure (youth development), community support, tradition, and other factors play roles. For example, promising athletes who would do well in another sport might choose (volleyball). Volleyball might become the "family" sport in an athletic family.

What of 'tradition'? As a youngster, I remember Lexington boys' basketball dominating, having won three consecutive state championships (1970-1972). Coach Sonny Lane told us the only reason they beat us was "it said LEXINGTON on their uniforms."  He needed to convince us that we were better than they were.

Cycles don't last in perpetuity. But do all you can do to maximize a cycle working in your favor.

Process and Outcome

Legendary Coach John Wooden didn't discuss winning and losing, but success, reflected by "doing your best." This focus on process (and preparation) has the effect of diminishing negative 'self-talk' about failure and its concomitants - anger, negativity, tension, anxiety, sadness, and yearning.

F - frustration
A - anger
N - negativity
T - tension
A - anxiety
S - sadness
Y - yearning

Having a great process works through a process called "deliberate practice", about which Malcolm Gladwell has written in "10,000 hours" in "Outliers." It is no accident that concert pianist, chess grandmasters, and most professional disciplines have a 10,000 hour (or more) training program.

As coaches, we underrepresent the vital importance of the mental aspect of the game. In basketball Bobby Knight says "basketball is four to one mental to physical." Roger Kahn wrote "The Head Game" about the war between pitcher and batter. And great coaches leverage the four immutable qualities of personnel, relationships, vision, and leadership to develop a great process virtually guaranteeing success.

Anyone can improve their mental approach to athletics (or business) through effective self-talk and developing a knowledge of the psychology behind success. A few of the books I've found instructive include:

"10 Minute Toughness" - Jason Selk
"Mind Gym" - Gary Mack
"The Way of the Champion" -  Jerry Lynch
"Talent is Overrated"  - Geoff Colvin

All have value, but my favorite is Selk's "Toughness" because he lays out a simple program that student-athletes and anyone else can follow. Have a great process and get better outcomes.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Coaching Outcomes and Risk Management

The saying about Alabama's Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was "he can take his'n and beat your'n or your'n and beat his'n."  The point being that the impact of coaching/training prowess cannot be overstated.

All things being equal, how might we express that "mathematically" or "graphically"?

On the 'X' axis we label "risk" which reflects all potential inputs including recruiting, training or overtraining, or any possible negative input. Coaches can (believe it or not) make unpopular decisions regarding style of play, coaching style, and personnel that would go into this.

On the 'Y' axis we label "return" which could be expressed as record or performance or some other measure of success.

The slope of the line is somewhat arbitrary, but we would acknowledge that the BEST coaches would have the steepest line relative to competitors and relative to their peers, they would shift the slope upward by getting more results with less "risk". 

Obviously, we can't measure this directly (either the slope or the 'risk') but you get the idea.

As a coach (or in parallel, an "investor"), you want to improve your 'return' at the lowest possible 'risk'. A coach like Kentucky's John Calipari has maximized his return at the cost of having a predominantly "one and done" approach looking for great talent to play for a year and send to the NBA.  There is a 'cost' to this regarding academic credibility. Conversely, any coach with poor results with good talent or other 'underachievement' must examine the process "whys".

Clearly, this is a qualitative approach, but illustrates the ideal of getting more or better results with less risk. Melrose has clearly enjoyed this effect. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Part of the enjoyment of sports comes from looking at the relationships among sports and other endeavors. For example, I am reading a book currently called "The Most Important Thing" by Howard Marks.  Marks writes about investing.

His first three chapters deal with "second order thinking" (chess versus checkers), efficient and inefficient markets, and concepts of value.

These concepts translate well to athletics because more sophisticated approaches (most often) create relative advantages to 'conventional thinking'.  For example, in basketball, Red Auerbach was one of the early proponents of putting the five players who played best on the court together, not the five best player. This is neither subtle and totally rational. Under these circumstances, as a player, you might feel slighted if you were one of the five BEST players, but not part of the best UNIT.

Similarly, if you play a weaker schedule, you might overestimate how good you are.  The corollary is that "good times produce bad habits."  By playing tougher competition, you maintain higher states of preparation and readiness.

Concerning value, players or parents sometimes ask how can I get more playing time?  The reality for most is that offseason activities, not only playing but strength and conditioning play mightily into the 'finished product'. Fans or a community see game action or video, but they do not see the running, 'stadiums', weight and power training that enables players to play 'bigger, faster, and stronger' that may separate players.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden defined success not via outcome but through process. A great team might have a great outcome, but a lesser team with a great process that did everything in its ability to be as good as they could become was equally successful in his view.