Understanding Competence

Coaches often refer to athletes as being beginners or novices, as well as those who are “advanced” or “elite”. In racing sports like track and field, the metric for measuring advancement can be single dimensional and obvious – speed for crossing the finish line, or height of a jump. But in a complex team sport like volleyball, the means of evaluating any individual athlete is far more complicated. After all, the ultimate measure – outscoring the opposing team – depends on how the entire team acts, and not, to the frustration of many a player, the focused performance of any one athlete. To paraphrase Malcom Gladwell, the fate of a volleyball team is determined by the performance of its weakest link.

So during the course of training, how does one evaluate progress? Dividing volleyball into modular skills is a common approach – having paradigms of how to “properly” execute specific movements like passing, setting and attacking, and then seeing how closely athletes progress towards an ideal should correlate to a winning performance. Huge investments can be made to working on increasing vertical jumps, but it will not necessarily translate to the game. But it does provide a kind of small victory for the trainer.

Specificity is a key aspect of motor learning, and we should be measuring specific competence in volleyball rather than relying on proxy measures. And since the events are linked in game, trying to evaluate them in isolation – an optimal passing stance, or an idealized attack approach – can distract from the overall evaluation. In fact, if one thinks of the game as a very complex set of problems dealing with chaotic components, then the athletes need a wide range of movement solutions rather an an idealized set. Competency is thus evaluated by how much wider this range of movement solutions grows with time, and the map of that range can be unique for each person. Rather than trying to “fix” each athlete, we should seek to figure out how to make those aspects work for the game. Adapting to constraints is both the tool and the test for earning competency.

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