A Year To Learn From College Coaching Royalty: Stop 4 – University of Michigan
Full bias disclosure here – this place is special to me. Having grown up 30 minutes from Ann Arbor and being a lifelong Michigan fan who almost went to school here, coming back to spend some time with my friend, Mark Rosen, and the Wolverine volleyball program held something extra. There’s nothing quite like a fall Saturday tailgating on the golf course before another Michigan win…or heartbreak…I was here when Kordell Stewart threw the crazy Hail Mary to beat Michigan. I was here when Appalachian State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history. I was here again when my alma mater, the University of Toledo, beat U of M in a gridiron matchup that tested my loyalties. I was also here to watch the Fab Five in their initial fall scrimmage before many knew who they were. I was even here coaching summer camps at the start of my college coaching career. Now, I got to spend 3 days in Ann Arbor, including a practice day, a scouting/game plan day, and a match day against Colorado State. Getting to see not only their practice but how they prepped for a match was such a treat and I can’t thank the coaching staff and players enough for allowing me access to observe and learn.
I arrived at venerable Cliff Keen arena, the normal home of Michigan Volleyball, for practice on Wednesday to find that practice had been moved at the last minute over to the Crisler Center. While Cliff Keen has its charms, I was excited to get an inside look at all of the updates that have been made over the years to the place where I used to come watch Michigan basketball as a kid. Upon arriving, Coach Rosen welcomed me and gave me a walkthrough of the beautiful facility, including their locker room which they were redecorating that day to surprise the players after practice. We discussed the facility history and the plans to play more matches at Crisler this season. We also talked about possible future additions and renovations for the volleyball program. I can say, without doubt, that the future looks very bright at Michigan!
While Mark was spending time with me, the players were filtering in for individual skill time before the start of practice. I was beginning to feel guilty that I was taking him away from the team when he explained to me an interesting concept that they instituted this season. While Mark has been the longtime head coach, he has been joined on his journey at Michigan by his wife, Leisa, and anyone who knows them knows that coaching the Wolverines is a Rosen team effort. This year, Leisa took on a new title of “director of player development” as they decided that she would be the lead voice in training. The reasoning for this as explained to me was twofold: First, it takes advantage of Leisa’s strength as a trainer. Her intensity and business-like demeanor on the court is something they want the team to mirror a bit more. It also allows Mark to step back a bit to analyze things from a big picture perspective and run the program as a visionary CEO. He certainly is still very hands on in practice, but after his initial talk before practice, it was Leisa taking the lead of the session. This division of labor seems very effective and really matches the strengths of the Rosen coaching duo! The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It’s not a new concept; football and basketball staffs have been operating more and more like this over the years and several volleyball programs kind of work like this in practicality if not name. Michigan is just being very defined and intentional about it.
Season Context: This is season number 20 for Head Coach Mark Rosen at the University of Michigan. In 19 seasons at U of M, the Wolverines have made the NCAA tourney 16 times including 4 Sweet Sixteens, an Elite 8, and a Final Four. Coach Rosen recently surpassed the 600-win MARK (see what I did there!?) for his career and is by far the winningest coach in Michigan volleyball history.
Last year they lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney and with a quality mix of experience and youth, they are seeking to improve on that finish. When I visited, Michigan sat at 6-0, having not even dropped a set yet on the season. They were entering a weekend in which they would host four matches in 2 days, including a showdown with the Colorado State team that had ended their 2017 season in the NCAA tourney.
Practice Set Up: Practice at Crisler was set up for the single main court, which left lots of space around the periphery. Michigan currently has 19 players in the program and a staff with 2 fulltime assistants, a volunteer assistant, an ops director, and a video coordinator. They also had a couple of student managers who were very active shagging, feeding balls to players and keeping things running efficiently. Music during the individual skill time prior to practice and through warm up was top forty/hip hop and played at significant volume. Once practice began it was lowered a bit but still present once discussion was over and reps started up. There wasn’t a major focus on real time video feedback, but assistant coach Sean Byron did use an Ipad periodically for this purpose. As was the case in most of my other visits, the practice plan was written out on a white board for everyone to see.
Opening Huddle: Practice began with a team huddle in which they went over some housekeeping issues for the weekend. I was very appreciative that Coach Mark took a second to introduce me to the group so that I wasn’t just the random guy in the gym watching practice! Following the housekeeping items, Coach Byron gave a short scouting quiz on their next opponent. It was clear that the expectation was that everyone had already done some video study and was prepared to answer questions on it. The last part of the pre-practice huddle was something that I thought was a fantastic culture builder. One of the players was called upon to share a philosophical idea with the team. I’m assuming this is something they do all the time with the responsibility to present rotated through the team. So often the performance philosophy stuff is only delivered by the coaching staff. Hearing it from a player was very impactful and you could see her teammates locked into her when she shared her thoughts!
Culture Note: The idea of individual ownership kept coming up throughout my visit. Whether it was being prepared to answer questions about the next opponent, having to present your own ideas about performance and success to the team, or their scouting and match prep style (more on this later), it is clear that the Michigan program is focused on creating players who think for themselves and take ownership of their performance and experience. I can’t tell you how much I admire this approach in a world rife with schools and teams that train their students and athletes like robots meant to memorize and regurgitate!
Ball Control: The physical portion of the session began with a series of cooperative peppers. I chuckled to myself when the first of these was a group “figure 8” or “pass and follow” pepper that I use regularly in my gym that I have named “Michigan Pepper” after having seen it at camp there several years ago. Most every coach has done some variance of this basic straight-line pepper with two lines of players facing each other and you play the ball across to the next person up in the other line then follow across to the other side. The difference with the “Michigan” style of this drill is that they assign different touch patterns that the group must follow; i.e. (5 passes-2 sets or dig-set-swing) It really forces focus and communication in a drill that can sometimes get mindless if the players aren’t intentional about each touch. After several minutes of this, they ran standard 3 player pepper, rotating players every few minutes. I was surprised by how long (nearly 30 minutes) they spent on this, but clearly the ball control of every player is big point of emphasis and it’s paying dividends!
Personal Note: During this pepper time, I was introduced to and had the opportunity to talk shop with their strength and conditioning coach who was so welcoming and open with information about what they do in the weight room. After that, Coach Rosen introduced me to AVCA Hall of Fame coach Sandy Vong who was the original head coach when Michigan began its program back in the 70’s. What a treat to meet him and how neat is it that he’s in their gym all the time as a huge supporter of the program!
Position Work: After the ball control pepper time, they split out by position for some blocking and defensive work…
Defenders: Occupying some space off the back of the court, the passers began their reps with a between the legs drill. Coach Leisa and volunteer assistant Jerome Fraisse each had a line of players. They would enter a medium paced down ball at the player who had to line up her body so that the ball would pass between her feet. After that initial down ball, the coach then tipped one short so that the player had to explode forward to play the tip immediately after the down ball went between her feet. It was effective in getting the defenders to focus on getting their body in good position to play the ball rather than just reacting and reaching.
Their next dig drill focused more on multitasking and problem solving and looked really fun! The defender had a ball already in her hands while facing the coach. Coach would slap a ball and the defender would toss her ball high in the air. The coach then hit a hard, down ball at the defender who dug the down ball then had to find her self-tossed ball in the air and pass that before it hit the ground. Finding the rhythm took a minute but once they got it, they were able to do it regularly. Then they took it up a notch with the goal of not only passing the down ball and the self-tossed ball, but also passing the dug down ball again! This was quite a challenge as it involved having to control the dig close to them while putting it up high enough to get to their self-tossed ball and return to their dug ball. The players had a blast trying it and eventually each of them was able to do it a few times successfully.
Blockers: Meanwhile the blockers were working with Coach Byron and Coach Mark on blocking some offensive patterns they would see in their upcoming matches. The first was a “31” to the middle combined with a “go” to the outside. A “go” is fast paced set to the outside hitter near the pin. Their initial option was for the right-side blocker to stay in and help with the 31 and react quickly out to the “go.” After several reps and player combinations, they worked on blocking options against a “1” to the middle and “hut” to the outside.
Out of System Work: Following a drink break, everyone came back to the main court for some offensive work versus a full defense. A group of hitters and a setter were on one side with a full base defense on the other. A ball was entered to the hitter side off a bounce, meant to simulate a 1.5-2.0 grade pass. The group of hitters stayed on until they registered 6 kills. I liked this ball entry style as it presented game like randomness and quality of pass rather then just controlled free or down balls that get passed with too much precision to replicate game like situations. It was during this work that Coach Byron broke out the I-pad to deliver real time video feedback to players.
Competitive Wash: After the out of system work, they went into a competitive wash type game. One side of the court was their normal starting rotations and the other side was an opposition force in base. The “A” side would receive a serve to start the rally and after that rally, the “B” side got a free ball to start the next one. Either side had to win both rallies to win a point on the scoreboard. It was a pretty simple game which allowed for fast pace and competitive play!
Culture Note: Overall the vibe in the Michigan gym was a bit different than a lot of the other gyms I’ve visited. I would describe it as an interesting mix of “chill” and “business like” yet “fun.” They don’t waste much energy on energy. What I mean by that is that while they certainly laugh and have fun (coaches included), and they get excited about good plays with high fives and fist pumps, they don’t do a lot of jumping around celebrating or yelling. It’s like good plays are the expectation, so we’re happy but let’s move on and do the next one well, too. It really fits their team and coaching staff personalities and is clearly working for them!
End of Practice: At the end of practice, their ops director surprised the players by unveiling to them their newly-decorated locker room at the Crisler Center which, of course, went over huge. Coach Rosen then spent several minutes walking me around the rest of the Crisler Center showing off the amazing features of the facility including the waterfall in the entrance foyer, the open media room, and the outdoor terrace where basketball and volleyball teams host recruits on football Saturdays. It truly is an athletics fantasy land…
Meeting with Mark: While the practice experience and Crisler tour on Wednesday was a fantastic experience, I think that being invited to sit in on their video scouting and match prep on Thursday was an even bigger learning experience for me. Especially when you couple it with Coach Rosen’s invite to come in a bit early and go over some of the new things they are doing. Without going into too much game plan or strategy detail, one highlight was their advanced use of the back row quick or “bic” out of more than just the middle back attack lane and in more than just free ball situations. Anyone who has watched Michigan this year understands how effective this has been for them and I think we are going to continue to see a lot more of it in the women’s game going forward.
Michigan Scouting and Game Plan System: The last thing I want to share with the volleyball community is how the Michigan program is doing their scouting and game planning. As Mark described it to me, they are trying some concepts that are related to the educational model of “flipping the classroom.” He argues, and I wholeheartedly agree that, too often, scouting sessions are just coaches spending hours reviewing their opponents and then trying to download a ton of info to their team. Anyone who has seen the glazed over look in their player’s eyes when going through scouting reports has wondered to themselves how effective it is and if the players are really retaining actionable information for the match. With this in mind, the Wolverines have come up with a model that puts the onus on the players to study their opponents and assist in the game planning process. Here’s how they run it:
- The staff cuts video clips of their opponents and categorizes them by position.
- The clips are distributed to the players who are divided into position groups.
- Each position group is tasked with reviewing and charting their position group of the opponent.
- When they come together for the game plan meeting, each position is called upon to give a report. For example, the middles are asked to get up in front of everyone to give a report on the opponent’s middles and draw up a shot chart showing tendencies.
- Their report is then compared to the coaching staff’s observations and any variances are discussed.
- The position group is then asked what strategy they think would be best to use in the match.
- Discussion is then opened to the rest of the team and debates ensue.
This was such an intriguing way to do scouting and game planning. Seeing the players give reports to their teammates, you could feel the ownership and responsibility. While very single report by the players matched what the coaches had seen and charted, the most intriguing part for me was observing the debate amongst the team members about how to strategize based on their reports. For example, the middles argued for one blocking scheme while the DS group pointed out how that would affect them. A comment that was made about how a different blocking scheme that trusted the DS’s to dig more balls could lead to more offensive opportunities for the middles in transition nearly had me applauding out loud! The players were learning and understanding game flow and how certain actions effected other positions. The joy of it all for a learning process nerd like me was that they were learning without being taught. The staff had just set up an environment and system that set the stage for learning and understanding to take place. The coaches had veto power, but they did a masterful job of guiding the discovery and nudging the debate rather than just drop a bunch of info on their players, hoping that some of it was retained. I was left thinking about how engaged the players would most likely be in terms of executing the game plan that THEY debated and fought over. If you argued for a certain blocking strategy or defensive scheme, you have a vested interest in busting your tail to make it work as you don’t want to be proven wrong!
What Makes Them Great? In the case of the Rosen’s at Michigan my answer is multifaceted. First off, the duo of Mark and Leisa play so well off each other. They work together to maximize their strengths and divide up the labor and roles to take advantage of their unique personality traits. Their relationship both personally and professionally feeds into a true family feel within the program and that is major strength of what they do! Another interesting facet about the Rosens is that even though they have been extremely successful for a long time, they are open to new ideas and have no ego about making changes. I have such admiration for successful coaches who still want to learn and experiment and who continue to evolve. The Rosens are great because their personality has been infused into the program. Fun is balanced with a business-like approach to their work. There is obvious love and care throughout the group – its evidence can be found in the direct nature of feedback in the gym and the high standards they have for every part of the lives of their players. Michigan volleyball is a family with great history, traditions, and values, but it also lives in the modern world, evolving to fit the times without compromising those values. I am proud to be able to call myself a friend, and I was honored to be allowed such an inside look at how they built what they have built and how they continue to build an even brighter future.