What do you say to the last kid cut?


Here’s something I thought was worth tossing out to my fellow coaches to see what kind of advice they would offer up in this situation. The other night I got the following message from my brother:

So, what do you do when your daughter, who is younger than everyone else at tryouts is the last cut as a freshman? What can she do? Where can she play to get better? She’s upset and feels like its pointless to tryout next year.

So what would you tell the parent of a young player who just missed out on making your school team?

Drill: 6+ Player Diagonal Over-the-Net Pepper

Volleyball Drills Banner

Synopsis: This team pepper variation is good for working on both defense and controlled attack across the net.

Age/Skill Level: This is suitable for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 6+ players, balls, court

Execution: Place a setter on both sides of the net in target, along with players in positions 1 and 5 on both sides. Initiate a ball to one of the back row players to dig/pass to the setter, who then sets either one of the players on their side. That player hits a cross court standing attack (down ball) to the player in their same position (i.e. 1 to 1, 5 to 5). Play continues from there.


  • If you have more than 6 players, the hitter/defenders can rotate by having the player who “attacks” the ball goes to the back of the court on the other side to eventually re-enter the drill there, with someone taking their vacated place.
  • Instead of hitting cross-court, players can hit line.
  • With more advanced players you can make it actual attacked balls, front or back row.
  • An additional defender could be added in 6, especially for less advanced teams to get more digs. If so, you can continue to have the players in 1 and 5 be the attackers, and have the player from 6 rotate in for the player who just hit the ball.

Additional Comments:

  • In order for this drill to work well, players must be relaxed executing a standing down ball. If they are not, there will be many, many errors.
  • Have balls on-hand to initiate them fresh quickly when a rally ends.
  • I saw this drill used in SC Potsdam training.

Being reminded of the coaching similarities


Just a quick observation while I have time between training sessions.

It is amazing how much of coaching volleyball is similar no matter what level you’re working at. I have very similar observations about the professional players I’ve been watching the last week or so as I have with the university players I’ve been coaching the last two years. In some cases it’s a technical issue. In other cases it’s about the decision-making process or what could be called game management. This isn’t a new observation as I can remember thinking similar thoughts years back while watching Penn State play. It’s nice to have the reminder, though.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying coaching the pros is just like coaching a university team in England. There are a lot of different considerations involved. Actually, in some ways it’s easier to work with the pros because the margin for error in their play is much larger than with less experienced, less talented, and generally smaller players. That, though, just means other things play a bigger part in the coaching process.

The bottom line is that we all have our challenges as coaches. They may shade differently in one direction or another depending on the level of play, and in some cases by gender, but it still boils down to something fairly simple. We have to identify and prioritize the things that need to be worked on to make our team and individual players the best they can be while we have them.

Wednesday I transition from TV Bühl and men’s volleyball to SC Potsdam and the women’s side of the professional game. I don’t know what my schedule will be like, but I will try to keep the blog posts coming when I can squeeze in the time to get them written.

On the question of punishment in volleyball training


I had the following email come to me the other day on the subject of punishment. I thought it worth sharing as I think it’s something that has the potential to stimulate a conversation:

While perusing the site I came across one of your practice plans with serving:

“Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.”

I have to admit, while growing up, I am one who hated being punished for when I did something wrong. Obvious it was a benefit to my upbringing. As a coach I deplore punishing athletes. I’m on a crusade to have the word removed from our vocabulary. Do we as coaches really want to punish our athletes for failures? Let’s first clarify the word punish: Inflict a penalty or sanction as ‘retribution’ for an offense. At what time do our athletes fit this description? Maybe with behaviors this might apply, but not in execution of skills/drills/garills (Game Drills). I understand that coaches use conditioning for incentives to accomplish the skills/drills/garills. Using the word punishment or conditioning because it is a retribution for not being successful is not cool in my opinion. The main reason is because we are trying to teach our athletes the sport. Punishing them is not a good incentive to achieve this effort.

You may be thinking is this dude nuts? Conditioning has been a part of learning for a long time. Yes I agree and I myself use conditioning in my training programs. I never use the WORD punishment or punish my athletes due to non achievements. That is my point. In a classroom, what ‘punishment’ does a student receives for not learning the material, completing a task/homework, or passing a test? There is a ‘consequence’ for achievement and that a grade. It’s not physical consequence. Maybe because volleyball is a physical activity it should have a physical consequence? Yet, do we return to the gym after a tournament or match and punish our athletes because they lost? If so, I feel those coaches are in the wrong profession because they are using retribution as a learning tool. Retribution insights fear and in my personal opinion, I want my athletes to play without fear.

Side note, I condition my athletes as part of overall conditioning. When behaviors are not what I am expecting, I use exercises to get the attention of the athletes. When I do use exercises to get their attention it is very brief exercise with the max of 5 reps. That’s me and I’m not advocating that others do the same.

Sorry for bending your ear/eyes with this, but I am pretty much on this crusade to have coaches really look at the issue of having athletes punished and even using the word in regard to instructing athletes. At least in the volleyball world, that is, but all sports should take a look at using the word and activity of punishment.

For the record, I very rarely use the term “punishment” with my teams when it comes to volleyball stuff in the gym. I instead try to put things in the context of “consequences” in the manner of “doing or failing to do X will result in Y consequence”. The above referenced 5 push-ups is an example of that. The use of “punishment” in the noted posted was simply a function of using an easily understood term.

After getting this email I had a conversation with Ruben Wolochin, head coach of the German professional team TV Bühl. We talked about not liking the idea of making exercise, strength & conditioning, etc. a penal thing to avoid having players view that stuff in a negative light rather than positively as we’d expect. We then talked about how consequences can come in different forms. In a match, it usually comes in the form of a lost point – perhaps a lost set or match – which is pretty obvious and straight-forward feedback.

In training there tends to be a handful of ways players face consequences for actions. During game play, obviously we’re back in the points gained/lost situations. In some cases, like the game Winners, the consequence for bad play is having to leave the court, and getting to keep playing the consequence of good play (it does work both ways). This needs to be handled a bit carefully, though, as having players go out on an error can be counter-productive, as I talk about in relation to the Amoeba drill. During counting drills one can gain or lose points/repetitions as a result of good/bad performance (which is also a factor in bonus point scoring).

Then there’s the consequence of failure as noted by the emailer above in regards to my 5 push-ups for those who couldn’t complete the required number of good reps in the allotted time. The inclusion of the “punishment” in these sorts of cases is because otherwise there is no consequence of note – good or bad. As such, the 5 push-ups, or whatever (Ruben used a dive one session as a consequence for players over-passing in a free ball drill), serve to reinforce the importance of the point the coach is trying to make. The consequence isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any sort of conditioning element – just an attention getter.

For example, I often have players who miss two serves in a row in certain types of drills/games do something like five crunches. This isn’t the sort of thing anyone is going to ever consider particularly straining or stressful physical activity. That isn’t the point at all. It is simply reinforcement that the player needs to focus better on making sure that second serve is a good one.

The only place I push things some is in the area of balls dropping, which is an absolute no-no for my teams that is established from the outset. In counting drills it results in a back-to-0. In games it obviously means a point to the other team or exiting the court in something like Winners, but if it becomes a repeating pattern it gets addressed additionally. The standard consequence is a set of four sprints from side line to side line. Again, not a super hard thing, but players would obviously rather not have to do it.

As my players will tell you, I want trainings to be a positive place. I do not punish errors and I use positive reinforcement as much as possible. There are times, though, when negative reinforcement is required to get their attention because just as too much screaming and yelling will make them numb to it, too much patting on the back also loses it’s value. I don’t like “punishing” my players, but I also know I’m not doing my job properly as coach if I don’t do so from time to time.

By the way, when I was in the Army they didn’t use the term punishment for all the push-ups and stuff they made us do when we goofed up. They instead called it motivation. :-)

Drill: 5-player Pass and Set

Volleyball Drills Banner

Synopsis: This is a combination passing and setting drill, which can also incorporate controlled serving, and perhaps even hitting.

Age/Skill Level: This is suitable for all levels

Requirements: 5+ players, 4 balls, court, 2 cones

Execution: Place one player in each half of the back row, a setter near the net in the passing target zone, and one player each near the antennae as setting targets, with a coach on the other side of the net opposite the passers. The coaches alternate sending free balls to their passer. After a player passes the ball, they move to a cone set somewhere on the perimeter of the court and then back into position. The setter alternates setting forward and back. After 10 balls to each passer, they switch with one of the targets.


  • Players can be used in place of the coaches to initiate balls to the passers.
  • Serves (from in the court or full) can be used in place of free balls.
  • Setter can either set the balls passed from position 5 to the target in 4, and the ones from zone 1 to the target in 2, or vice versa.
  • Rather than just catching the ball, the setter targets could hit.

Additional Comments:

  • Ensure your setter is always operating from your preferred target area to encourage passes directed there.
  • This drill can be run with just 4 balls by having each target start with a ball, which they then toss to the free baller (or server) after the latter sends a ball over the net to the passer.
  • I saw this being run by German men’s professional team TV Bühl.

Why English volleyball lags

Volleyball England

New volleyball blogger Luke decided to take on the subject of why UK volleyball lags behind in his first post. He expressed the view that the problem is coaches over-complicating things. Granted, I’ve only been in England for just under two years now, so my view on things is by no means comprehensive. That said, I wouldn’t have put overly complicated coaching at the top of the list of reasons why English volleyball lags. I can think of several other bigger concerns. Here is a few of them.

Participation vs. Competition
One of the issues I’ve seen with the operations of English volleyball clubs is that participation often times trumps competition. By that I mean the club priority clearly favors getting more people into the sport over training for competition. I’m not saying priority shouldn’t be given to participation, especially since a healthy part of Volleyball England’s funding from on high is contingent on helping national health and activity goals. The problem comes when a team that is supposed to be competitive has a participation element as the latter tends to end up as the bigger priority. It results in situations I’ve seen where players unlikely to be playing in matches are nevertheless in training sessions. Sometimes it’s to make up numbers for training (meaning there’s a commitment/attendance issue) or they are used to generate additional revenue. Either way, it’s a less than optimal situation.

Patchwork coaching
I’ve seen a lot of situations where teams either don’t have coaches (this is true of many of the BUCS teams and quite a few of the NVL and regional league teams as well). In other instances, teams don’t have a single consistent coach. I almost think the latter can be worse than the former – depending on the situation. I have personally witnessed situations where a coach ran a training session for a highly competitive NVL team that involved a lot of frankly useless stuff completely irrelevant to the team, the training reality, and the competitive situation. I’ve heard of something similar happening with the Exeter University team from before my time. At best, in such “guest coach” situations you get no consistency and no true coaching direction. At worst it’s a waste of the players’ time. And on top of this, some players are part of multiple teams in a year, getting all different levels of coaching and a lack of cohesive individual attention.

Low quality coaching
This isn’t a criticism of all English coaching, as there are a number of highly experienced quality coaches, but rather of the general state of things across the full spectrum. Volleyball coaches have not and are not getting educated and developed, as indicated in the survey I wrote about back in June. This is something I also addressed last year in terms of the mentorship side of things. Volleyball England is trying to address all this, but I think the system lacks a critical mass of upper level former players to form the basis of a strong coaching community at this point. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, though. The current generation of players isn’t getting consistently good coaching, which will tend to stunt their own development as future coaches.

Weak competition
In order for players to develop they need to be challenged. There is definitely volleyball talent in England, but it is probably a bit too disparate – especially at the youth level. I’ve seen too many examples of really dominant youth teams breezing to championships because there just weren’t enough good players on the other teams. Granted, many of these youth players are getting the opportunity to play with and against experienced adult players. I think, though, there’s a limiting factor in not being able to play really competitive volleyball at their age group. The only real way to fix that is to continue to develop the game among young people, which is a primary focus these days from what I see.

These are a few of the things I’ve seen. I could probably name others, as I’m sure others could too. Please note, this isn’t about picking on the folks involved in English volleyball. It’s more about looking at the reality of the current situation given the priorities and resources available.

Game: Speedball Winners

Volleyball Game

Synopsis: This variation on Winners looks to maximize contacts but cutting down transition time.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: Court, 8 players, 3 balls.

Execution: Divide the players into 4 teams of two, with two teams on each side of the net – one on the court, one behind the end line. The two “off” teams each have a ball, as does one of the “on” teams. The on team with the play starts play with a serve and the teams rally normally from there. The team that loses the rally immediately vacates the court and the off team on that side serves and enters the court to begin a new rally. The winner of each rally scores a point, with the game played to some predetermined point total.


  • Teams of 3 or more can be used.
  • More than 4 teams can play if necessary.
  • You can use a full or reduced sized court.
  • For lower level teams where serving is inconsistent, the coach can initiate the ball to start each rally.
  • Attacking can be limited to certain types, such as back row only.

You can see a 4-player team version of speedball in the USA Volleyball video below.

Additional Comments:

  • By incorporating requirements into the play – must have 3 contact, all players much touch the ball, bonus points for quick set kills, etc. – you can adapt the game to work toward the training objectives you have for the session.
  • You can see a Newcomb style version of speedball used as a warm-up game in this video.
  • If you are playing 2s or 3s on a full court you likely want to use beach rules in terms not allowing open-hand tipping and requiring sets to be straight forward or back (no sideways dumps over the net). Alternatively, you could just not allow such attacks in front of the 3 meter line.

The right technical feedback


Last week a post went up on the At Home on the Court blog which talks about the necessity to be narrowly focused when working with players in a technical capacity. Mark’s point is that as much as coaches must have complete knowledge of the technical requirements of a skill, in order to be most effective developing those skills they must be able to concentrate on the one aspect of the skill which will have the greatest impact on performance for a given player at a specific point in time. I would take that one step further and say it’s also our job to be able to identify the single best way to communicate what we’re after from that player.

Finding just the right method to communicate our message to the players – either singularly or collectively – is that aspect of coaching which strikes me as being most in line with traditional teaching. A good teacher is able to pick out the right word or phrase or visual or technical demonstration to make things click in the mind of their student(s). We coaches have the same challenge.

Personally, I have always found that moment when you see something you’ve been working to explain click in a player’s mind one of the most rewarding in coaching. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding the right word. When I was coaching at Brown there was a time when we were doing individual work with our starting setter on her defense – specifically getting her to go to the floor effectively. She was struggling to grasp what we were after until we found the word which made it all click in her head. That word may not have matter to another player, but using it with her made everything come together and she immediately starting performing at a higher level.

The point of all this is that technical knowledge is useless without the ability to communicate it effectively. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve certainly all at least heard of university professors who are absolutely brilliant in their field, but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. We coaches cannot afford to be like that.

The challenges of communicating effectively have really been at the forefront of my coaching experience in England. I’ve coached players from something like 20 different nationalities, the vast majority of whom do not speak English as a first language. They also come from a wide variety of volleyball cultures and systems, so I have had to do a lot of work getting everyone on the same page in terms of having a common volleyball language. It’s forced me to constantly work to make sure I’m understood and that the message is getting across the right way – and I’m not just talking about avoiding the use of “shag” when I want them to collect the balls! ;-) I can’t help feel like I’m a better coach for it, and I suspect that Mark would say the same thing about his own experience working with players from many different nationalities.

So I guess the lesson is that you should constantly be working to make sure you’re technical feedback communication strategy is right for each situation and player.

Off to Germany to hang with the pros!

TV Bühl

Today’s the day another exciting volleyball adventure starts!

In a short while as this post goes live on the blog I will be leaving for London to catch a flight to Stuttgart. I’ll spend a couple of nights there before taking a train to Bühl where I’ll meet up with the head coach of the men’s Bundesliga team TV Ingersoll Bühl, Ruben Wolochin. They start their pre-season on Tuesday.

As I mentioned a week ago in my The new annual volleyball cycle begins post, I’m going to spend the rest of the month in Germany hanging out with the pros. For me this is about gaining a better understanding of that part of the sport in terms of operations, coaching, careers, etc. In the States there isn’t a lot of exposure to the professional game. It’s a rather insular environment beyond seeing what’s happening at the national team level.

What I’m really happy about is that Ruben has said he’ll put me to work in some fashion while I’m with him. I don’t know what that means yet. I’m sure he and I will hash that out once we get together based on what he has in mind for his early trainings and where he sees the opportunity for me to be of most use. If nothing else, I can at least be an extra set of eyes with a different perspective. No matter what, it will be nice to take some kind of active part rather than just hanging around on the sideline watching.

I will definitely try to post on what I’m seeing and doing in the days and weeks ahead. Forgive me if the updates are spotty, though. I don’t know what my schedule will be like and I’ll be trying to keep working on my PhD along the way as well.