When this idea to travel around the country observing and learning from other coaches began to coalesce, I sat down to brainstorm a list of programs and coaches I could reach out to. As anyone who has met him knows, Ray Gooden at Northern Illinois is one of the gems of our sport. Always friendly and willing to spare a minute for a conversation, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this “good guy” is also a “great coach”. Just a couple weeks after my visit to NIU, Coach Gooden surpassed the 300-win mark for his career and with my connections to MAC conference volleyball, I’ve experienced first hand how good some of his teams have been. It worked out perfectly to stop by Dekalb, Illinois on my trek from Lincoln, Nebraska to Ann Arbor, Michigan to watch DJ Ray step back from the turn tables (Coach Gooden is also talented DJ who can often be heard playing at Team USA matches) to run a training session.

Program Context: Northern Illinois is a traditional power in the Mid-American conference under Coach Gooden. After a conference championship and NCAA tourney birth in 2016, the Huskies graduated 6 seniors. The 2017 season saw some early struggles but as the team developed, they came in just under .500 at 7-9 in conference. Not bad for most programs, but at NIU, the staff expects more and is excited to continue the rebuild back to championship caliber. When I visited, their 2018 season was off to frustrating 1-6 start with numerous close losses. Coach Gooden has always scheduled very strong opponents in the non-conference portion of the season and after a tough start results wise, that level of early season competition is clearly paying off; as of this writing they stand at 4-2 in conference play and are only getting better as their host of new players gain experience and take to the training.

Practice Set Up: NIU has a staff of 2 full time assistants along with a volunteer assistant and a director of operations. For practice, they also have a few managers and practice players that help out. Today, they only set up one court as most of the work they were doing was system based and team type work. The practice plan was drawn up on a white board and a video cart with TV and video delay system was ready on the sideline. Music was clearly a part of the culture with Top 40 type songs being played at significant volume throughout much of practice but, as like most other gyms, it was controlled by remote and shut down during teaching moments.

Warm up consisted of some dynamic movements led by the training staff along with some stretching using bands and some tennis ball throwing to get the arms loose. They then started up some simple “queen of the court” that was informal but fun and got the energy and heart rates going. This is the third gym in a row that started immediately after warm up with a game to get going before going into reps and teaching.

As the players took ownership of their own warm up, I had the chance to chat with Ray about the make up of his team. He explained just how many young and new players they had and how much they are working on the little nuances to get them over the top. He was also very interested in picking my brain about what I had observed at my previous stops at Creighton and Ohio State.

Personal Note: One of the coolest things about these trips has been just how interested EVERY single coach has been about what I’ve picked up in other gyms. I certainly don’t divulge any game plan or system info that I see from one gym to another, but the opportunity to “talk shop” with these great coaches is a dream come true. Their desire to learn from each other even though they are some of the best in the game speaks to how they got to that level in the first place!

I found it interesting that immediately after warm up and queens, they went into a short video session gathered around the TV cart in the gym. Most of the time, teams do video before practice starts or after practice has ended. Doing it after warm up seemed quite effective as the players had clearly had a chance to kind of get into volleyball mode before having video thrown at them. It was also effective to do it after warm up because it was rather short thus not losing the effects of warm up before getting back at it. The type of video they looked at was also interesting in that it wasn’t scouting a future opponent. Instead, the staff had cut some clips of two top 25 ranked teams and showed how they transitioned, read, and anticipated, especially in out of system scenarios. They then showed some clips of their team in similar situations to illustrate where they were currently and where they needed to go. It was a really effective way for the players to SEE the little nuances that make HUGE differences at this level of volleyball.

Cue Notes: During the video Coach Gooden kept making reference to “direct” and “indirect” play. I had never really heard these terms used in a volleyball sense and it took me a minute to process what he meant but once I did, I really liked it! “Direct” meant physically playing the ball. “Indirect” meant the little actions that get you ready to play the ball and/or help the person that is “directly” playing the ball. These indirect actions can include calling the ball, giving hitting locations, calling out the set, opening up to your passer, getting in coverage position, transitioning deeper as an attacker on an out of system pass, etc. This “direct” and “indirect” cue is a great way to make everything a player does on a volleyball court an intentional action, not just the times they touch the ball.

Cue Note: Connected to the “direct” and “indirect” cues were two well worded questions he used that stuck out;

  1. How are you helping the person playing the ball be successful?
  2. How are you making yourself available and prepared for the next touch?

I love these questions as they really get you to think outside of the typical silo of how I am performing the technique on this touch of the ball. Thinking that way forces anticipation and connection to the team rather than just the individual and their skill.

After the short video session, he gathered the team around the white board for a quick talk about the results thus far. It was a very encouraging talk in which he had some poignant stats about how close their matches had been so far even though they only had one win. I thought he struck a great balance that offered hope and showed that he believed they were right there, but left room to make the point that taking care of the details had to happen to change those close losses into wins. The video and the talk were direct and filled with hard truth, but they also struck an encouraging tone and set the purpose for what they would be working on today in practice.

Getting back on the court, they started up by playing a cooperative team pepper they referred to as “two-person, two touch tennis”. Two balls were going at the same time. If the ball had come from over the net you played it to your partner, if it had come from your partner, you played it over. It worked well in getting everyone communicating and mentally multitasking.

After that, they immediately went into hitting lines with two setters on the same side, one setting outsides and the other setting opposites and slides. The DS’s were passing to setters, calling “line” and covering. With everyone participating and having a job, the energy was good and the pace was high. After a few minutes they progressed the same drill by adding a blocker who was giving line and had the hitters transition before their approach. During this portion of the progression, the outsides were really focused on tooling the outside hand of the blocker and showed some nice development with that idea. The next progression had some male helpers jump in to set up a double block. The hitters were working on “high hands” tooling and if they got blocked, their DS’s were working on coverage allowing a transition and reset. Adding the coverage and possibility of a reset helped keep the reps intense and the hitters had to stay on their toes and aware after contact on every ball.

Following the hitting reps, they took a quick drink break and then went into blocking work. To save some wear and tear on their hitters, they had their assistants and helpers do the attacking while the players worked on one on one blocking.

Cue/Philosophy Note: A couple of key focus areas included everyone calling out where the set was going and blocker’s eyes to hitter not the ball. Coach Gooden was really harping on the idea of “feeling it and going to get it” rather than being so systematic. This was such an interesting theme for a young team as they develop. We discussed a lot about how young players seem to want a system to memorize rather than learning how to read and feel the game. Books could be written about this philosophy as it speaks to how we train at the youth levels of sport and even calls into question ideas about education as a whole and the type of thinking we are producing.

Another key component of their blocking work was their focus on the blocker immediately transitioning upon landing from their block jump. Again, it was easy to see the teaching pattern of building towards the next touch and increasing the speed of transition and readiness for the next touch that they are trying to build into their players.

The blocking work progressed by adding a second blocker working on closing and culminated with full transition to offense. They worked on this for a good 45 minutes as it was a huge point of emphasis for them. While 45 minutes on the same thing is a long time, it did not feel monotonous at all as real progress and learning was taking place!

Following an encouraging talk and drink break, they finished up with some simple serve and pass with a goal of 40 perfects. The only real thing that stood out to me during this was that much like I saw in the Ohio State gym, holding the platform was clearly a cue they use often.

So, after my day in the gym at NIU, what do I think makes Coach Gooden great? First off, he’s a good guy that people like being around. Coming to practice or the office every day to be around good energy is a very real strength for a program. Second is his ability to teach the game at a more complete level. This practice was so much about understanding how things fit together and how you anticipate and ready yourself during the rally to play the ball and help your teammates succeed. I also admired his ability to challenge his players and deliver hard truth while also offering belief and encouragement. There wasn’t a hint of frustration or panic at the low early season win total. They didn’t ignore it, they simply addressed why it was happening, what they needed to do to turn the tide, and just how close they were if they put in the work.

I truly enjoyed my time in Dekalb hanging out with the Huskies, talking shop with Coach Gooden, and grabbing a bite at Fatty’s across from campus. As has been the pattern with every one of the coaches I’ve visited, Ray was so interested to hear about my observations from other gyms and wanted to hear my thoughts on what I saw in theirs. His desire to get better even after all his success speaks to kind of person and coach he is. He even invited me to speak a word of encouragement to the team and I was honored to do so! It’s no surprise to me that after a slow start in the win column, his team is clearly developing as they now stand at 4-2 in conference and are right in the race for the MAC West crown yet again.