Friday, November 14, 2014

College | A good loss? Volleyball coaches beg to differ

Top volleyball minds see no special lessons in losing
#22 Colorado def. #2 Washington 3-2 (27-25, 26-24, 17-25, 23-25, 15-11)
  • #2 Washington @ Utah | Sat, Nov 15 | 6PM

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin, with setter Bailey Tanner
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
For the first time this season, Washington lost a volleyball match. Just like last season, that first loss was in Boulder, at the hands of Colorado.

Over the years, I’ve been part of plenty of post-match press conferences (we were not in Colorado last night.) On countless occasions, coaches of teams who’ve just suffered an upset loss have been asked (sometimes by me), “Could this be a good loss?”

The question presumes that players can learn more from a loss than a win. That an unexpected defeat forces a favored team to focus more clearly and relentlessly on fixing its weaknesses. That a loss isn’t a failure, it’s a great learning opportunity.

Poppycock. That, in a nutshell, is what successful volleyball coaches usually say to suggestions that losses offer special learning magic. When reporters pose the “good loss” question to coaches like Karch Kiraly, Hugh McCutcheon, John Dunning and Jim McLaughlin, all inevitably brush it aside. In their world, losses are bad. That’s because, in their programs, wins offer as many or more learning opportunities as losses.

From day one, elite coaches teach their athletes that every training session, every contest, provides lessons for improvement. At the highest level, teams do not look for silver linings when they lose. They hate to lose. As far as they’re concerned, they can and should learn just as much if they win.

Last season, one of the storylines was a conversation McLaughlin had with his star player, Krista Vansant. In last year’s Colorado loss, Vansant’s performance had been well below her standards (14 kills, 8 errors on 38 attempts, .158). But it wasn’t that defeat that McLaughlin and Vansant remembered, it was a victory the next night against Utah. In that match, Vansant had another subpar night (10 kills, 6 errors) in a 3-0 win. As McLaughlin told Terry Wood in the Seattle Times last December:
“We had a little heart-to-heart at Utah, Kris and I,” McLaughlin said. “I called her out in front of her teammates, because we’re a family, and they all love her. We won the match, but we really didn’t win it. They kind of gave it to us, and Kris was way below her standard. 
“I said, ‘You can’t always play great but you never fall below a minimum standard. The worst thing you can do in life is not be who you are, for whatever reason — no guy, no situation, no emotion. Don’t let conditions or anxiety change you. For whatever reason, you weren’t there. I’m holding you to a higher standard.’ 
“Tears came,” McLaughlin recalled. “But then she came to practice even harder the next week.” 
Said Vansant: “It was hard at the moment. Once I left the gym and went through my thoughts, I remembered that he just really cares and wants me to become the best. I played terrible in that match. That was kind of the turning point in my season, and I’ve played better after that.”

Last night against Colorado, Vansant had another match below her standards: 20 kills, 10 errors on 65 swings (.154). Like many of her teammates, she seemed to play conservatively. Across the lineup, serves were safer than they’ve been most of the season, and passing was not stellar. Huskies hitters seemed too concerned about Colorado’s block, and often chose ineffective tips instead of trying to tool (hit off the blockers’ hands.) Even so, Washington had set point in each of the first four sets, but lost the first two sets and, eventually, the match.

And so, the Colorado match should be a learning opportunity … but the same opportunity Washington would have had whether or not it had won.

  • Colorado reported an attendance of 1,029 at last night’s match. From several vantage points provided by Pac-12 Network cameras, that seems awfully generous. The Coors Events Center looked as if there were only a scattering of fans, and they were quiet at that. The Boulder area was hit by a snowstorm yesterday; at game time the temperature was just 7 degrees.
  • The best UW stat line last night belonged to freshman Crissy Jones. She had 8 kills and 2 errors on 21 swings (.286), and added 8 block assists and 5 digs. Junior libero Cassie Strickland had another solid match, contributing 17 digs, many exceptionally athletic.
  • #1 Stanford beat UCLA in three, although the sets (in Westwood) were all fairly close. The Cardinal are now the nation’s only unbeaten D1 team, as previously-unbeaten #3 Florida State also lost last night, 3-1 at Duke.


  1. I was at the game, I think I was the only UW fan there, (UW grad from Washington, living in Colorado now.) I didn't see anybody else wearing purple. Tough loss, they did seem too conservative. Strickland was conservative with her serving, first time I have seen that. I have been watching on the Pac 12 Network, as they are more fun to watch then the struggling football team. Maybe the altitude makes the ball fly a little. Colorado is good, they took Stanford to 5 at home. Go Huskies!

  2. They didn't play their best. However, the Colorado block and defense was superb. Taylor Simpson had an amazing offensive night as well. There was a free ball that was allowed to drop in the middle of 6 Husky players. That fatal error was, I believe, at the near end of the first match. That rare and dismaying event foretold the disappointing outcome. These girls are all amazing athletes, I still have a lot of love and respect for this team! Go Huskies!

  3. A great feather in the Buffs' cap. I'm sure the Simpsons' family and friends were thrilled to see Taylor and her sisters rise to the occasion on their home court. Congratulations to them.

    Completely agree with the premise that the best coaches and players know how to continue to focus on the next game, no matter what the outcome of their last game. The Huskies are a first-class organization. They are true champions of spirit as well as team smarts. So rather than being seen as a "lesson," such losses can be chalked up to yet another potential character-building experience for teams, as the best teams will continue to show a motivation to fight hard (or even harder) and maintain their focus and poise after a loss, rather than crumble under pressure.

    Point of note: After their loss to Penn State in the Final Four last year, the Huskies, led by their senior leaders Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson, have found a way to "dig deep" and play even better this season, setting the record for the best start to a season in school history. That, more than anything, speaks volumes as to the true character and high potential of this team.

    Things are looking very good for our Huskies this season, indeed! Go, Huskies!!

  4. Interesting how the AVCA poll changed. Washington was moved to #5, below Wisconsin (who the Huskies beat earlier this season) and Penn State (with more losses and fewer wins). Not surprised about Texas, though. I am so looking forward to the next 3 matches. We have something to prove!

    1. This is the Big 10 slant and storied teams like Penn State that always garner more respect regardless of record. Win out the remaining 4 and we should be a top seed.

    2. It's not that far fetched. Losses by Penn State and Wisconsin were to teams in the top 15, in Wisconsin's case only in the top 5. I see Penn State at 26-3 and the Huskies at 25-2 so PSU has more wins. Washington's losses were both bad losses to teams outside the top 20 including an unranked team. So I just don't see the slant.


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