Napoleon, the Wehrmacht, and Coaching…

I bet the title got you thinking, “What the crap???,” right? 

Good.  I’ve been thinking a lot about taking things that don’t normally fit together and see how they can remain useful or applicable across subjects–you may be surprised by what you find.  (I’ll also confess this is because of other research I’ve been doing–and that my mind rarely strays far from volleyball–for example, this blog on coaching/military theory.

Napoleon was a short French dude from a couple hundred years ago.  Any more, he’s most famous for being in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and as the subject of the ABBA song, ‘Waterloo.’  He’s usually known in history for lending his name to the wars and battles that raged across Europe from 1800-1815 or so, but really, his most lasting influence came via his legal system, the Code Napoleon….but we’re going to worry about the military side of things–so we can get to the coaching.

Napoleon, for most of his career as a commander, believed that there were certain principles which would lead to victory.  The most important of these was that his army should seize critical positions, then stand fast and force the enemy to attack the French and his prepared artillery units/defensive positions.  Napoleon saw this as maintaining the strategic/operational offensive by dominating the tactical (lowest) level through defense, waiting for the enemy to make a mistake he could capitalize on for a guaranteed victory.

INTERRUPTION!!!  I don’t expect you to be a history-geek.  What do *you* like that you can use?  Do you watch TV shows like Iron Chef (watch the communication!) or Cutthroat Kitchen (adapting to circumstances)?  Heck, watch British murder mysteries to watch a detective follow a path of questions to an ultimate ‘eureka!’ moment.  Or heck–just watch other sports.  How are coaches using time outs?  Can you figure out their substitution patterns?  Can you take what you know from hockey and apply it to volleyball?   …and now, back to the originally scheduled program:

The Reichswehr/Wehrmacht was the non-Nazi (sort of…it’s complicated beyond a blog post) military of Germany from 1919-45.   Analyzing the end of World War One and the success of Brusilov’s initial offensive, ‘tanks,’ and Stosstruppen in trying to break through trenches (sorry, history geeking-out there), the Wehrmacht (helped by the Soviets…another detail beyond our current scope) developed the concept of the blitzkrieg.  The blitz permitted Nazi Germany to quickly overrun Poland and France, then the Balkans and through the summer of 1942, massive swaths of European Russia from Leningrad to Maikop…before the economic might of the US weighed in, the USSR industrialized, and Nazi Germany was defeated.

The key to the blitzkrieg though was unappreciated.  It’s always assumed it is about tanks driving forward and going crazy.  That’s some of it, but a larger part is breaking through, establishing positions on key terrain, and forcing the enemy to have to fight with communications disrupted on terrain they haven’t chosen.  Hmmm…strategic/operational offensive, tactical defensive…sounds familiar, right?

For the Germans, this was intentional.  Even low ranking soldiers understood the plan.  The machine-gun was their deadliest weapon, therefore  they put it in the best position and everything else was put in place to let it do its work–soldiers moved forward, got MGs on hills with clear sight, and then everyone worked to channel everything into the MG’s kill-zone.  This technique permitted Germans on the Eastern Front to hold on even when outnumbered 10:1.

So with that in mind, what does that have to do with coaching?

Consider the tactical defensive aspect.  Get the lead (hold the key terrain), then force your opponent to take risky actions to get it back–if your opponent has to take risks, they are more likely to lose points from errors, reinforcing your position and bringing you closer to victory (or surrender/withdrawal on a battlefield).

Consider the blog where I noted the importance to grab a lead early–that that HUGELY increases your chances of victory…this is the strategic offensive.  Holding the lead is the equivalent of strategic terrain.  Seize it fast, then hold on.   BUT!!!….  (NOTE: The one good announcer this year from NJCAA Nationals observed that in every set played (up to the Final Four), the team that reached 17 first won.  17-16 or 17-5, it did not matter.  Coaches–you’re not playing a game to 25.  You are playing a game to 17

This does not mean you go into time-killing mode like basketball teams do or football teams.  Do not start serving easier or only tipping, etc.  It means you’re in good shape if you just keep doing what you’re doing.  Don’t get cute.

How do we apply this to coaching?  Consider some things?

  • What is your ‘terrain’?  What do you want to defend at all costs–is it the middle of the court? down the line?
  • How can you ‘seize’ that first?  What do you have available to you, serving, hitting, blocking, etc?
  • The Germans built everything around their MG position.  Do you have that sort of weapon?  Volleyball is built around serve-receive…can you create an unbreakable passer?  It’s built around sideouts.  Do you have a go-to hitter capable of scoring under any/all circumstances?
  • Napoleon and the Germans (sounds like a bad 60s band…) both sought to maintain the initiative, to keep the opponent on their heels.  How can you do that? (This sort of rephrases the second point above)

With all this, we’ve got one other problem though.  If you’re a history-geek, you may realize it.  You see, in the end, for all this brilliance, Napoleon’s Grande Armee and the Wehrmacht, they get crushed utterly.   There’s a coaching lesson in this though as well, best put in the words of Han Solo: “Great, now don’t get cocky, kid!”  You must remember that there is no perfect system.  On any given day, players will have something that is ‘off’ or not working for them.  Adapt–see the changes happening–because if you are successful, your opponent will take your tactics and strategies and begin to use them against you.  Be ready for that.  Don’t look for the perfect drill, the perfect strategy–it’s a fool’s errand.

Whew–if you made it this far, thanks.  I hope your brain hurts with the possibilities!




















They Call it a Streak, Part II

(Reporter):  Hello, everyone, this is your action news reporter with all the news that is news across the nation, on the scene at the volleyball court. There seems to have been some disturbance here. Pardon me, sir, did you see what happened?

(Witness):  Yeah, I did. I’s standin’ over there by the club parents, and here he come, writin’ ups a storm with Excel sheets and everthin’, prolly wrote it nekkid as a jay bird. And I hollered over t’John Kessel an’ I said, “Don’t look, John!” but it’s too late, he’d already read it.

Okay–for those of you too young to get the reference up above…that’s ripping off a Ray Stevens song called (shockingly) “The Streak“.

So last week I wrote up something VB related on the importance of scoring 4 points consecutively.  Don’t want to leave me here?  That’s cool.  Click here and you’ll open up that first article.  I’ll wait here for you.

Stop (hammer time)–four disclaimers…

*If you are looking for absolutes, you need to go somewhere else.  There is an exception to everything, whether it is volleyball, nutrition, or automobiles (yes, there are well-made English automobiles, believe it or not).

*Commentary can’t apply to every level as provided here.  Of course international men’s professional volleyball will have different results than Jr. High School ball.  I’m not aiming for a single level–the aim is for (no guarantees) useful concepts or at least things that get YOU to think outside the box.

*If you want answers, I don’t even have those.  What I have are questions, suggestions, and nothing more.

*I try and use simple math.  Ideally all coaches can work with ‘normal’ numbers.  Do teams all score 25/50/75% of the time?  No, not at all.  But unless you’re going to cough up money to me to do the actual number crunching, you’re going to get normal math (because the concept is what is important–the specifics you need are within your own team’s data).  

Okay, so that’s out of the way.

I was thinking about streaking again yesterday, and as, per usual, because of baseball.  It started on my drive back from a club staff dinner.  Pat Hughes, the Cubs’ announcer, was talking about unconventional batting orders.  That’s something that has come up a lot in the past 3 or 4 years.  Tradition holds that you put a fast guy first, followed by a contact hitter, and then three power hitters.  The weakest hitter goes 8th and the pitcher MUST go 9th.

Volleyball has similar rules when it comes to a lineup.  How many coaches have been told that they MUST start with their best server serving first OR the setter at right back?  Coaches do this because it is the way it has always been done.

You may not know me well–but understand, I will ask the question “Why?” until it bugs the living crap out of you. I despise ‘because I said so’ or ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’  Those are lazy answers.

To be fair, tradition does come with reasoning–fast guy can steal, the next guy can hit or move him over to scoring position (fast guy’s hard to double up), and then the bashers drive him in.  The pitcher’s worst, so he goes last.  We can see the logic.  With volleyball, three hitters gives more options than two, making it harder for the other team to block (and your setter is usually a weaker blocker anyways) while at younger levels, it is more difficult to pass a serve, so a great server will score a bunch of points.

The thing is–those may be the right strategies, but without an understanding of why, they may also be wrong strategies.  Knowing why always helps you as a coach.

Baseball has moved away from that style of lineup.  Finally, managers and front offices have realized that it doesn’t matter how you get on base–you just need to get there, so that being fast doesn’t matter if you aren’t on-base often (see: Billy Hamilton).  That’s because they’ve also realized that if the mashers are jackin’ home runs, speed is irrelevant because runners are actually joggers–plenty of time to circle bases after a blast into the upper deck.  Thus, the first reason for change in lineups.

The second with baseball–every game starts at the top of the lineup (duh, right?).  The thing is, over the course of nine innings, a variable number of batters come to the plate–but any overage ALWAYS goes to the guys at the top of the batting order.  You don’t notice this over the course of a game or even a week–but over the course of a full season, that can be a difference of up to 60-80 plate appearances (depending on the team’s offense, etc) between a hitter at the top of the order and the ones at the bottom.  Would you rather Billy Hamilton get those 100 attempts or Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant?  (Again, duh.)   So teams have begun stacking the front end of their lineups more and more with their best hitters to insure they get those extra at-bats in later innings.  More at bats for your better players–the change makes sense.

So now (yeah, yeah, finally, I know) we get to volleyball.  Why don’t coaches consider things this way as well?

Look–I run a program with me part-time and a part-time assistant.  That means a lot of stat-stuff doesn’t exist or I don’t take the time to log it.  In the long run, match stats aren’t ‘important’ enough for me to keep play-by-play results for more than a week (if that).  Sorry.

…so that means, I looked at matches I’ve ground through for other reasons.  I stuck to the ones where the teams were balanced.  Once again, blowouts aren’t useful–none of us worry about those.  The difference between winning 25-8 and 25-12 is nada.  But that same 4-pt swing between 23-25 and 25-23…now we’re cooking with gas!  So I skipped out on anything where both teams didn’t reach 20 (or 10 for a deciding set)

The first step I took was going back and counting how many rotations we played per set.  Against evenly matched teams, we tend to  go 14-15 rotations/set.  The deciding set matches went 8-9 rotations.  (I’m going with 15 and 9 since those work well with ‘6’ rotations–we’re considering the principle, the mileage for your team will vary)

That means in a regular set, we’re going around 2.5 times and a deciding set, 1.5.  Essentially, it means that the players you start at left front and left back are most likely to be your hitters at the end of a set–and the one at middle front is next in line for importance.   

That all is a long-winded secondary point–if you’re playing a team equal/close to yours, you’re going to want to lead with your best lineup (which means you should lead with it all the time so you don’t get cute/screw up your players with unexpected adjustments).

Now back to today’s program.  From the previous article, the critical factor in winning a set are runs of 4-pts. We win (or our opponents defeat us) whenever they put together a set’s longest streak and those are 99% likely to be at least 4 consecutive points.  What I didn’t consider was the question of “Does it matter when that streak takes place?  The start of a set?  The end of it?”

It’s a big question.  Mathematically, a point is a point, each no more significant in value than any another (though there is math out there that can show that not every point is equally valuable once you take into account another concept that baseball calls ‘leverage’).

Remember–this is absolutely a small sample size–but if we are able to put together a 4-pt run in the first 10 points of a set, we win the set roughly 95% of the time (presuming we do not permit an equal-sized streak during that time).  Also of note, I’ve found that the team that gets to ‘5’ first wins 70-75% of matches regardless of streaks.   Since matches start as 50-50 propositions, those are two important factoids that drastically alter the potential outcome of a match in your favor.


So–that means if you can crank out that 4-pt run straight out of the gate, you’re increasing your chance of winning at least 50% before you’ve gone 2-3 rotations, regardless of anything else (like your opponent getting a run later on), or if you are LLCC, you put your chances up at 95%..  

I also found that these runs tend to happen early in most sets.  There are two points which provide context/an explanation:

  • They ‘can’t’ happen at the end of a close match because of the point-limit that ends games.  My girls may be ready to go on a 5-pt roll, but if we’re already up 23-21, that ends after just 2 points.
  • When up 2-0 in the match, long runs seem to happen equally at the end as at the start.  The only guess I have for this is because the losing team is ready to pack it in rather than try and fight back for the rest of the set and two more after it…easier to just get ice, get food, go home.

There’s another thing going on (I think).  I don’t believe in momentum, but I do believe in pressure.  If we score 25pts in 15 rotations, that’s an average of 1.67/rotation.  So–if we start with a 4pt run and then are statistically average from that point on, our opponent has to be above average in every rotation played for the remainder of the set.  That means they’ll take more risks, potentially leading to opportunities for more runs of points.

A run of points out of the gate is essential.  But I think that the next place it becomes significant is the end of a close match–as previously mentioned, I know every point is equal in value, but I just can’t get past the baseball concept of leverage and the importance of points/streaks later on for a team’s success.  (For the record, we won 60% of matches where we had a streak after 20-20…3 of 5, way too small of a sample to draw conclusions)

The short lesson of all this:

Don’t get caught up in “I must put my setter at right-back” or “She’s my ‘best’ hitter, so she’ll start at left front”.  Look at the data for your team and figure out which are your best two rotations for scoring and putting together that 4+pt streak.  You may find the rotation most likely to pick up those points are with that setter in the front row (who knows–only you know your team!). Lead with your rotations that score!


If you like this or it made you think, consider clicking that ‘Follow’ button.  Otherwise, you’ll have to remember to come back next week rather than get a notice!


If you’re interested in more stuff on volleyball that rambles a little less :),  check out Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player available on Amazon and other internet bookstores.  It’s a collection of 27 essays on all parts of the most exciting indoor (and outdoor) sport in the world.







The Importance of Streaking

First, if you read this, like this, etc–hit the follow button.  That’s helpful on my end of things…even lets me see who reads what and all that good stuff.  Besides, you know you need to know when I’m doing a blog, right?

Second, always remember that me and technology…well, we’re not always on good terms.  Writing this, I think I spent as much time trying to format the data below as I did writing the text.  Since you can see it below, it remains in unwieldy format.  If you don’t want to look at it, don’t–the writing will give you the conclusion.  The spreadsheet stuff is there to show where I got everything.  And now, off we go…

Actually, not quite.  For some out there, I should disappoint you.  The title is for amusement purposes–this isn’t about running down the street in your birthday suit.  This is about scoring consecutive points.

I like reading stuff about other sports.  With the way professional sports like baseball and basketball mine data in hopes of finding a 1% competitive edge (which is huge statistically speaking, by the way), I think it’s important to take those things and see if they can be applied to the sport I coach–volleyball.

One of those tidbits was from baseball and something called run-clumping.  MLB results show that a team who puts together a single big outburst of runs is more likely to win a game than a team who scores more often but fewer runs at a time.  Fair enough.  Given the sequential progression of volleyball (one point scored after another, always one point at a time…), something like this should be capable of being duplicated.

First, the ‘live’ test.  I went back and watched 45 sets of the team I coach over the past three years.  I picked specific matches where I felt the teams were reasonably competitively balanced–where the SO% for both programs would be close to equal.

In those 45 sets, the team putting together the longest streak won 44.  Yikes.  That looks like confirmation of the idea.  So the next step–I’m going to chart everything from a back-and-forth 5-set match we played at 2016 Nationals:

SET 1:  21-25.  Our largest run was 3-points, our opponent’s was 4.  Both teams scored multiple points with the ball seven times.

SET 2:  22-25.  Our best three runs: 4-3-3.  Their best three: 4-4-3. We scored multiple points six times, they did eight.

SET 3:  26-24 .  Our best runs 3-3-3, their best 3-2-2.  A lot of ugly volleyball.  A lot–unless you like net serves and ball-handling errors…in which case, THIS is the set for you!

SET 4:  25-20.  We have a 5-pt and 4-pt streak.  They manage two 3-pt streaks…things really start rolling for us the last quarter of the set.

SET 5: 15-10.  Our top runs go 5-3-2.  Theirs are 3-2-1.

But even then, a single match–it’s too small of a sample size to prove anything, so I spent some time trying to figure out how to do two perfectly balanced teams, both with a 50% chance of scoring on a given play.  It dawned on me–that was a coin-toss and the internet offers apps that will do tosses for you, so I went in and did coin toss after toss until either heads or tails reached 25 (or won by two).   Those are the results in the unwieldy spreadsheet below.  What happened with those random games?

Gm 1:  25-23, same point-streak for both, the winning team put together one extra streak

Gm 2: 25-23, the exact same thing

Gm 3: 25-20, winners with a 6-point streak.  The losers had a 4-pointer.

Gm 4: 25-23.  Winners had a 6-point streak, losers had two 4-pt ones.

Gm 5: 28-26.  Winners with a 8-point streak, losers with a streak of 5 and 4.

Gm 6: 25-22.  Both had 4-pt streaks, but the winner had two of them.

Gm 7: 23-25.  Winner had two 3-pt streaks, loser had a 4-pt streak.

Gm 8: 25-23.  Winner had one 8-pt streak. Loser had 5 streaks of 3+ points.

Gm 9: 25-22.  Winner with a streak of 6, loser with streak of 5.

Gm 10: 25-17.  Both with streaks of 4.  Losers only had two real streaks during the set, winner put together six 3+ point streaks.

Gm 11: 25-20, Winner streak of 5, loser streak of 3.

Gm 12: 25-19, winner with a streak of 6, loser with 6 2-pt runs.

Gm 13: 25-22.  Winner with two streaks of 4, loser with four streaks of 3.  Winner with 7 streaks of 3+, losers with 8 streaks of 3+.

Gm 14: 25-23.  Winner with a streak of 6, loser with two streaks of 5.

Gm 15: 25-15.  Streak of 8 vs. streak of 4.

So–out of 15 runs of coin tosses, basically the team who put together the best run won 14 of 15 sets.  To me, that suggests the sampling I did that got 44/45 isn’t too far off (we could translate the 14/15 as 42/45 if you need to).

The thing is, statistics should be able to tell us something, whether it is to make in-game, immediate adjustments, to determine what to work on during training, or in shaping your team/coaching philosophy.  Thus, these numbers should hint at something to improve a team.

For me, the numbers tell me that it’s really okay to whiff on your first serve if you are being aggressive.  Going through a rotation without scoring isn’t going to hurt you tremendously, what you need to do is get a roll started–thus, the aggressiveness.

If there’s a point where the old saw of ‘just serve in’ may make a difference–it’s after you’ve scored three points in a row–scoring 4 points in a row certainly looks to be a big deal.  In 43 of the 45 LLCC sets I watched, the winning team had a run of 4+ points (not including the 5-set match described separately).   In that five-set match, 4 of 5 sets, the winner had a run of 4+points (and the other was just a comedy of serve errors and BHE).  In 14 of the 15 coin-toss sets, the winning team had a run of at least 4.

* * *

By the way, if you like this–and because authors need people reading their stuff, consider picking up one of the volleyball books I’ve written.  It’s a collection of 27 essays meant to make you think about coaching (even if it isn’t volleyball)!  Just as important–the Kindle version is like five bucks:

Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player



AWAY 2 2 1 2 2 1 1 3 3 2 1 1 1 1 23 2 streaks of 3 2x 3+
HOME 2 1 1 3 1 3 3 1 1 2 1 2 2 2 25 3 streaks of 3 3x 3+
AWAY 1 2 1 2 1 6 2 1 1 2 4 2 25 streak of 6 2x 3+
HOME 2 1 3 1 4 1 1 2 1 3 1   20 streak of 4 3x 3+
AWAY 0 1 3 1 3 3 2 2 4 4 23 2 streaks of 4 5x 3+
HOME 6 2 2 1 1 1 2 4 3 3 25 streak of 6 4x 3+
AWAY 2 5 2 1 4 3 1 1 4 1 1 1 26 streak of 5 4x 3+
HOME 1 1 1 5 8 1 1 1 2 3 1 3 28 streak of 8 4x 3+
AWAY 0 1 2 2 1 4 1 4 3 1 2 1 3 25 2 streaks of 4 4x 3+
HOME 1 1 1 2 2 2 3 4 1 2 1 2   22 streak of 4 2x 3+
AWAY 0 2 1 3 1 1 2 3 1 2 1 2 2 1 3 25 2 streaks of 3 3x 3+
HOME 2 1 1 2 1 1 4 2 3 2 1 2 1 1 23 streak of 4 2x 3+
AWAY 0 1 1 1 3 1 2 3 1 4 1 2 3 23 streak of 4 4x 3+
HOME 1 1 2 8 2 2 1 2 2 1 1 1 1 25 streak of 8 1x 3+
AWAY 0 2 1 1 1 1 1 2 5 2 3 3 22 streak of 5 3x 3+
HOME 4 1 2 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 6 3 25 streak of 6 4x 3+
AWAY 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 4 1 17 streak of 4 1x 3+
HOME 2 4 2 4 1 3 2 3 2 1 1 25 2 streaks of 4 4x 3+
AWAY 0 1 1 3 1 1 1 2 1 2 2 1 2 2 20 streak of 3 1x 3+
HOME 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 2 3 1 1 1 3 5 25 streak of 5 4x 3+
AWAY 1 2 1 1 1 1 7 3 2 2 1 1 1 1 25 streak of 7 2x 3+
HOME 1 2 2 1 2 1 2 1 1 1 2 2 1 19 6 streaks of 2 none
AWAY 0 2 4 3 2 3 1 4 3 1 1 1 25 2 streaks of 4 5x 3+
HOME 1 3 3 2 2 3 1 1 2 3 1 22 4 streaks of 3 4x 3+
AWAY 3 3 1 2 1 1 2 6 1 5 25 streak of 6 4x 3+
HOME 1 1 5 2 2 1 1 5 1 4 23 2 streaks of 5 3x 3+
AWAY 0 8 3 2 2 3 2 3 2 25 streak of 8 4x 3+
HOME 3 1 1 2 1 4 2 1 15 streak of 4 2x 3+