The Myth of Proper Technique

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I try not to get to “controversial” in my postings, but this one may cause some people to get heated.  I want to start off by stating that we (as coaches) all have our own style and philosophies.  I am not trying to push my coaching philosophy on anyone or to try and hold myself on a higher pedestal than other coaches.  Lord knows I have a ton of flaws and issues as a coach that I am constantly working on.  So please take this post for what it is worth…Just my thoughts and opinions.

I had a discussion not too long ago with “Legendary Coach” (I don’t like to name drop, so I will keep this as bland as possible) at a CAP class that eased my mind a bit.  It was about developing players and programs and some of the pitfalls that happen to coaches.  The main topic quickly became teaching the “proper technique”.  How many times have you seen a high-level player (well, high for the level they are at) and notice something was not the “norm”.  Most of the time we can see it with footwork.  You have a stud pin hitter who is leading the team in kills and efficiency, but you notice they are “goofy footed”.  Enter the dilemma.  Almost any traditional thinking coach will tell you that you need to fix the footwork.  This is where I begin to question “why”?  Don’t get me wrong, I am all about teaching what I believe is the proper technique and skill set, but if the end result is putting up the numbers and winning matches, why change it?

There is this myth that if a player is getting 10 kills per match with incorrect technique, that they would get 20 kills with “proper” technique.  While it is not a scientific study, I do have a personal experience that may disprove the entire thought process.  I had a high school player who led the conference and was one of the top-rated players in kills and hitting efficiency.   We did not really have a database to show where the player was at in the entire state, but from what I saw and what we compared with other coaches, the player was very close to the top.  A college coach was very interested but they first words out of their mouth was “Yeah, but we have to fix that whole goofy-foot thing”.  I just shrugged it off.  The player went on to that same college and was a starter right away.  The very first match I noticed that they did in fact “fix” the footwork.  The approach, swings, and contact were picture perfect.  The downside?  The players’ kills and efficiency went down by almost 50%.  Obviously my first thought was not “oh look, they changed the footwork and not the stats are down”.  My actual first thought was that it is now the college level and the game is a lot different than the high school level.  The player went through that season and another with mediocre results.  They were productive, but not what the player (or I) expected.  The end of the second season brought a change in coaches.  After watching the player work constantly on the correct footwork, the new coach ask they player why they practice that aspect so much.  The player told the new coach the story.  In a CRAZY bold move, the coach told the player to do what they felt was comfortable and natural.  The coach said they did not care if it was “correct” or “goofy”.  They just wanted the player to be comfortable and productive.  The player actually thought about it longer than I thought they would.  I am sure you know where this story is going.  The player switch and had a pretty amazing next two years.

I shared that story with the “Legendary Coach” and I was amazed at his response.  He basically said (total paraphrase here) “Toward the end of my coaching career, I realized I was doing it all wrong.  I would spend time correcting things I didn’t need to correct and way too much time trying to get players to fit my system.  I wish I would have started fitting my system to my players long before I did.”

I guess my point of this entire post is what makes anything “proper”?  Is the three-step approach proper?  Is the four-step approach proper? Right, Left, Righ-Left?  I know the purist will fire back and tell me that the biomechanics support one method over another (the shoulders open up to the court, giving more options, etc.).  The question is, if you are getting the results you need or want with your method, then why is there a need to change it?  Maybe it is time we stop thinking about techniques being incorrect and think of them as being unique.  I think I will start putting a “u” into the spelling of technique, so I can say “Let’s put the unique in techunique!”

4 comments for “The Myth of Proper Technique

  1. Tim Seiger
    April 3, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Makes perfect sense to me. I would simply add that when teaching younger players I have found that it is best to start with the proper technique and allow it to evolve from there. I have one player currently who has found a comfortable groove for her serve and it is fairly aggressive for a middle school player. She, however, is the only one finding success with an unorthodox approach to the serve; the others are making progress by conforming more and more closely to the “proper” technique we have been teaching. Seems that “proper” technique is the place to start not necessarily to finish. Thanks Dan.

  2. Dan Mickle
    April 4, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Tim – I agree 100%. I should have started with the premise that the players foundation was built on trying proper technique. You have a perfect example with your hitter. The old school mentality would be to force her to mirrr the other hitters. I will try and stop by to see some of your matches. I like to watch how the kids develop.

  3. April 6, 2014 at 1:50 am

    This is also a question of separating essential techniques from ridiculously small details. I mean, I’ve seen a demonstration https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8kjNSgRrmU&list=PL0168FCC852EBE543#t=109 that calls for a certain hand angle in the arm backswing in preparing to jump. That’s inane, IMO. Who cares if he played for UCLA in 1998? Did that win them the championship in any way?

    So many techniques, however, are non-negotiable. I won’t be satisfied with a player with a round-house arm swing that starts at her hip. Oppositely, a player who prepares the hitting arm by lifting the hand and elbow from in front of the body is wasting motion and reducing potential power/hand speed. Any thoughts on non-negotiables or coaching preferences?

    I can think of some other gray areas: Obviously goofy-footedness is a big controversy. What about the setter’s step-close? Blocking footwork?

    At the developmental level things are not so easy as “Teach it right. They’re young and have time to learn.” You can’t focus on everything at once. I can’t stand to see a young player form a fist and then re-open it before contacting a serve or hit, but does this NEED correction if the player is also working on arm extension? Should beginning players learn to toss the float/jump-float with one or two hands? I wouldn’t demand one or the other, but I do think a young team might improve if everyone was working on the same technique, regardless of whether one is better than another. The reality is I have to tailor techniques like tossing to individual players even in 7th grade. Some are bad at drawing back their hand/elbow and need to toss one-handed. Some can’t toss consistently or accidentally pump-fake with their hand when trying to hold a pre-drawn hitting hand to serve.

    Yes. Coaching athletically undeveloped 7th-graders is overtaking my life right now. I can’t wait until Fall when I’ll instead be worrying about running offense with a balanced set of hitters. Rant finished.

  4. December 2, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Dan – just stumble across this and read it not knowing you were the author. Always a pleasure hearing your ideas. Always an intellectual challenge deciding who and what to change and who and what to leave as is. Great share.

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