The Checklist Manifesto for Volleyball

“A Checklist Manifesto” is a compelling book written by Dr. Atul Gawande that explores how doctors, pilots, and construction engineers use checklists to manage extremely complex challenges. In all these environments, there are a significant number of independent moving parts that need to coordinate their activities. This coordination is of life and death importance. The use of checklists is a powerful way to manage the myriad of components making up complex tasks.

“Clinicians now have at their disposal some six thousand drugs and four thousand medical and surgical procedures, each with different requirements, risks, and considerations. It is a lot to get right.” -Atul Gawande

Given the inherent complexities of medical procedures, hospitals have developed a comprehensive “to-do” checklists that range from admission paperwork through surgical procedures. Nothing is left to chance, and nothing is assumed.

How does one manage the complexities of building a 50 story high-rise? The contractors, sub-contractors, permits, budgeting, and equipment must all flow into a choreographed dance as the project moves forward. Juggling these moving parts is accomplished by using checklists.

We are familiar with checklists used by pilots, co-pilots, and ground personnel as a plane prepares for departure. Each component is verified by flight personnel who attest to the readiness of the aircraft.

In this video, we see how the checklist approach to a surgical procedure impacts the communication and the surgery is organized and evaluated.

I found it fascinating to see how the procedure is organized and evaluated. The level of communication required as the various components of the process is brought together in the type of teamwork any coach would love to see from their squad. It fostered some thought as to how this process might be instilled into the teaching/coaching process.

“Two professors who study the science of complexity—Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto—have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex. 

Simple problems, they note, are ones like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe.  Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. At times, they can be reduced into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe.  Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, the professors point out. Every child is unique.”

Given the above categories, I would consider any teaching or coaching activity a complex challenge. Every child is unique, and every team takes on a different face. The game is very complicated as we are attempting to control a moving object, often with our feet off the ground. How can we endeavor to teach a game with so many variables?

It would be a positive move to bring the checklist approach into the coaching of young athletes!!

In many club environments, coaches are on individual courts with little guidance offered. As you overlook the court activity, each coach is doing their own thing in their own way. We hope there is instruction going on, and nothing is overlooked, but who can be sure? Can you imagine the mistakes made and the lives lost if a doctor, pilot, or construction engineer operated similarly?

I look at the game of volleyball, and I see a considerable number of motor skills required to execute the various techniques. Mastery of these motor skills must be in place for the correct execution of the fundamentals. I will create a partial list of what I see as essential movements for the game.

  1. Running- for spike approach, blocking movements, moving to the ball on defense, setter moving to the ball in advance of setting. Players must be able to run with good form, using the arms and lifting the knees.
  2. Shuffle Step- is essential for the reception of serves and attacks. Also, used in blocking moves.
  3. Stopping- once you are running or shuffle stepping, you need to be able to stop. How is this accomplished, so the athlete remains in a balanced posture?
  4. Jumping- used in blocking, spiking, setting, and the jump serve. Players must coordinate the lower and upper body, using the arms to assist in the jumping action. 
  5. Movement in the air- once in the air to spike, players must manage their bodies and arms to make contact with the ball and direct the attack to a specific area of the opponent’s court. Equally, when blocking, there is a movement with the arms above the net to intercept the ball.
  6. Landing- often overlooked, but poor landing mechanics are the cause of many injuries.

I will stop at this point, recognizing that we could go more in-depth on all these items. The point being is the items listed are the foundation of skill execution. Are these skills being taught by the coaches, or do we assume that if athletes play enough, they will learn these movements instinctively? A worse scenario is the coach does not know the key aspects of these movement patterns. It is in the best interest of both players and coaches to develop a checklist that will focus on the key components of the correct execution of these movements. This is especially important to those working with younger players, to ensure these items are being both taught correctly and the information is put into action by the athlete. It is much easier to teach a skill correctly when the athlete is young than it is to re-teach a skill at an older age.

“If they aren’t doing it, you haven’t taught it.”

~John Wooden

For example, take the ability to run properly. I look at players and watch them run around the court, and I’m stunned at the bad technique implemented. Arms swing wildly, no knee lift, and the stride length is not correct, the foot plant varies randomly from heel to the mid-foot to the toe. Unfortunately, these athletes have never received instruction as to correct running skills. Yet, running is a base movement for many volleyball skills. One can go through all the movements listed above and you’ll find most young players are performing these skills incorrectly. Coaches would be doing their troops a favor by working with them on the basic movements of the game and make sure they are being performed correctly.

Another method of developing a checklist is using video/pictures for visual feedback to the student. In the example below, key aspects of the attack are demonstrated. This can be turned into a checklist for learning this skill. Take each key position of the attack and compare a player with the model and focus on what the athlete needs to do to replicate proper form.

By implementing a skill or movement checklist, we can provide a start point for practice content. A checklist would be especially beneficial to the inexperienced coach in developing the “coaches eye” to help in skill analysis. This type of feedback is specific and very relevant information that will be of significant value to young athletes and parents.

Developing a checklist is undoubtedly a complicated process. Skills must be analyzed and dissected into crucial parts. There are several critical aspects of a quality checklist:

  1. A useful checklist is brief and concise.
  2. There should be 5-9 items. More than that and there will be a tendency to create shortcuts.
  3. There are two basic types of checklist; one is “read and do,” the other is “read, do and confirm.” In a club environment, I like the latter. A club director or lead coach should confirm the successful completion of the task.
  4. Understand this completion is for the player’s information. Checklists are to monitor the progress of the players. So, the communication between coaches and players/parents is critical.

The coaching staff should endeavor to be more organized in how we want players to execute the movements of the game. Currently, I see a “shotgun” method of coaching that equates unfocused activity with instruction.

This leads to another John Wooden quote-

“Do not confuse activity with getting something accomplished” ~John Wooden

Creating a checklist focusing on the key aspects of the skills and the associated movements and would be a major step forward in teaching our game and monitoring player improvement. It would be a huge challenge, but the impact on the teaching process would be profound.

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