Keep your priorities in mind


The other day the men’s team captain asked if he could run about 20 minutes worth of defensive work in training that night. I let him do it, in part because the guys could use the work, and in part to see what he was going to do. Alas, what came about was the sort of thing I tend to see among relatively new coaches. The drill he used was one in which a player in 5 dug a line attack and a cross hit, then switched to 1 to dig a cross ball, then a line attack. Two to three players rotated through the drill as a group, doing 20 total rotations. It’s not a bad drill, but in this context suffered from issues of intent and timing.

Conflict of focus
I did a bit of after-action discussion with the captain following the training session to give him feedback. The first thing I talked about cutting back on the number of times players went through the drill. With each player going through 20 times, that’s 80 dig attempts. That’s a lot of time in the drill, a lot of swings by the guys doing the hitting, and a lot of standing around time for those not directly involved (though they were collecting balls, attacking as target, and feeding the hitters). I told him I would have probably cut it back to maybe 5-7 times through, and if I wanted lots of reps to have guys do the drill a couple of times. His response was that he wanted a conditioning element.

Now, wanting to include a conditioning aspect to drills isn’t a bad thing. In this case, though, the captain also had an expressed intention of working on digging mechanics. Those are two very contradictory points of focus. Changing mechanics is something you’re going to struggle to do when a player is simply just trying to make it through the end of the drill.

Bad timing
My other issue with the drill was that it failed to account for the calendar. That training was sandwiched between two matches, and only 90 minutes in length. We needed to spend the bulk of the time looking at where we wanted to get better from the prior one to try to take a step forward in the next. It was neither the timing nor the length of session to have a conditioning oriented drill. At the same time, the drill went at least twice as long as intended. I was fine with a 20 minute defense drill as it could be an extension of warm-ups, leaving me with about an hour to work on team stuff. What I ended up with was about 30 minutes to get in game play.

As I said, these are kind of classic new coach mistakes. They decide they want to work on something, or get excited about a new drill they’ve come across, and jump right in without considering priorities and context.

You may be asking why I let it go on so long. The answer is long-term thinking. One training wasn’t really going to change a heck of a lot. On top of that, I probably won’t make it through the season with the team as it won’t be long now before I finish my major PhD work enter the job market. The team leadership needs to be able to run trainings without a coach, as the odds of finding a replacement to finish the season aren’t very good. By letting the captain see how the drill ran, how long it took, and providing feedback I hopefully helped to make things better in the long run.

Coaching Log – Oct 27 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

A combination of mid-term break and some other factors had the player count down to 10, with one of last year’s players visiting as a guest to make 11 in total. There’s an away match on Wednesday, which means I would have normally tried to do some 6 v 6 in preparation, but that wasn’t really an option for this training given who was on-hand. Instead, I went with a more high-contact volume session.

I had them go right into over the net pepper in two groups of four and one of three, periodically mixing players around. From there I shifted to serving, with some target work. After that, it was 2-sided serving and passing with a target of 30 good passes, -1 for overpasses. From them it was on to the Belly Drill, and finished with Winners 3s.

I was quite pleased with the power I saw from the servers. They definitely challenged the passers. The overall tempo of the serving & passing drill wasn’t great, but the players definitely got into the Belly Drill and enjoyed it.

Wednesday’s away match will be a tough one based on the scouting report I heard from another coach. It won’t be helped by the team missing two prospective starters and being left without a clear libero choice.

I have decided not to make the trip (which will involve about 6 hours of driving) as I’m feeling considerable pressure to focus on my PhD work right now. There’s a bit of guilt over that, but the team played their weekend regional club league matches without me and did well by all accounts. They got their first match win of the season despite not having any of the returning players from last year’s team.

Why use coach-initiated drills or games


Regular reader and frequent commenter Kelly recently emailed me in regards to my most recent coaching log entry. It related to coach-initiated volleyball drills/games.

“I have to ask…Why are you initiating the drills? My understanding as many of our American coaches are realizing for every ball we touch the less our athletes touch thus prevented from learning. I clearly understand the argument that the athletes do not have the control as the coach. That is sooo true, but will they ever if the coach is continuously contacting the ball. Your last segment 6 v 6 scrimmage you mention below really confused me in why you were serving. I would think the coach’s position would be to evaluate and instruct as needed. I mean no disrespect, one’s experience determines how one coaches their teams. I am not saying you are wrong. Just trying to understand why.”

What Kelly is primarily referring to is a 6 v 6 I ran where I served to the A side rather than having a player do it. I honestly can’t remember the last time I served at a team in that fashion. It’s not something I favor doing. In this particular situation, however, my decision to do so was motivated by two things. First, I had arranged the B side such that the only two really solid servers were in the front row to provide more of a challenge to the A side at the net, and those in the back row were both inconsistent in terms of putting the ball in play and not particularly challenging when they did. Second, it gave me the opportunity to apply pressure to the A side in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible (serving a given player in a certain way, putting the ball in a seam to test the communication, etc.).

In all honesty, the first reason was the primary motivator. The second was really just a nice byproduct.

Generally speaking, I am big on maximizing player ball contacts. I like to use over-the-net pepper variations and small-sided volleyball games to get players touching the ball frequently in so-called “random” situations. Something like a serving & passing drill is a bit more “block” oriented, but still features lots of player initiated ball contact.

There are three basic times when I’ll insert myself as ball initiator:

1. When I want more precision and/or power than players are currently capable of producing.

2. When I want to control the tempo, usually meaning increasing training intensity by initiating new balls at a faster pace than players would be able to do so themselves.

3. When I want to level out a competitive imbalance by making the first ball harder/easier for one side.

I should note, however, that if I have the available bodies I will have players initiate new balls rather than do it myself. For example, in bingo-bango-bongo, if I have 14 players I will use the two not currently in the play to send in the free balls. Granted, putting in free balls isn’t exactly working on high quality contacts, but it helps keep them involved and engaged.

Dealing with a young player serving too long

Volleyball serve guy

I had a question come in from a reader the other day regarding a U14 volleyball player. It went like this:

“I have a player who keeps serving beyond the opponents court during a game. We have tried having her stand back further, slow down her swing, attempted top spins but nothing helps. At practice she can serve into the court and she typically tries to float serve.”

The thing I find interesting about this is that we’re talking about the opposite problem I usually see with young girls serving. Normally the problem is getting them to consistently serve over the net. Serving too long is generally not an issue!

If this player can consistently serve the ball into the court during training, but has problems during matches then it would seem there is a mental issue. This isn’t uncommon. I can think of a few ways it could potentially be addressed.

From a mechanical perspective you could have the player work on flatter serves. Oftentimes long serves come about because the player puts more upward trajectory on their serve than they should, resulting in a ball that sails. This can come about from a fear of serving into the net. If this sort of thing is an issue, having the player focus on the height of her serve could help. For example, you could have her aim to have her serves go no higher than the height of the antennae.

A more distraction oriented approach would be to get the player thinking in terms of targets rather than in/out. If she’s capable of serving long at that age, then it’s perfectly reasonable to have her start working on accuracy. Even just something as simple as left or right half of the court could be useful.

Of course something we always want to be doing is trying to create similar “pressure” on serving in training as players will experience in matches. That is both mental and physical. Make them serve after they’ve had to do something physical to simulate serving after playing a rally. Make there be some kind of positive or negative consequence to player serves.

These are the things that immediately come to mind for me. Have you had to deal with this sort of situation? If so, let us know how you handled it by leaving a comment below.

Coaching Log – Oct 22 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

This was a two hour session. I flipped men’s and women’s trainings so I could be sure to get all of the key starting players together as planned absences will otherwise prevent that before next Wednesday’s match. My main focus was 2-fold. First, a high training intensity for the first team players. Second, a look at the starting line-up I’m thinking to use next week.

After dynamic warm-up I split the players into 4 groups. Two of them were all first team players while two were either all second team or a mix (it was a 7/5 split). I had three groups doing 3-person over the net pepper, while I hit balls at the 4th group to do some individual digging. I only hit at the two all-first-team groups, though, both for the purposes of time and to provide a higher intensity for those players.

From there we progressed into some serving, followed by a serving & passing drill. I had the first team players working amongst themselves with a fixed setter setting to me as target. Similarly, the second team worked amongst themselves with an injured player as fixed target. I just had each server do 10 good serves, then swap positions with one of the passers.

From there I moved them on to some small-sided action. The first team played 3 v 3 with a fixed setter, initially playing two games to 7, then one more wash game along the lines of 22 v 22 where the team that won the first rally received a second ball from me and had to win that rally as well to earn the point. The second team did a 5-person pepper similar in nature to the 3-person they’d done earlier (player making the 3rd contact went under to become the next setter). Both of these were done in a half court.

The last segment was a 6 v 6. I served to the first team. If the second team won the rally, they got a free ball from the injured player. If the first team won I would attack a ball at them (down ball from somewhere in the court). It ended up having a something of a second chance aspect to it as well. The one issue I had with this game/drill was it didn’t allow me to use a libero on the starting side. I had to use a couple of the first teamers (those on the fringes of starting) on the B side because of missing/injured players. That caused some defensive issues, both actually made for a more potent attack going at the starters.

Generally, I was pleased with the overall intensity and caliber of play.

Fun and not so fun – a volleyball player’s perspective


I’ve recently been working with one of my senior women’s players through some motivational issues. Through the process of talking with her on the subject, I asked if she could define what makes volleyball fun for her. After some consideration, she sent me the following list. While some of it definitely is specific to herself, most of the list I think will be common across most competitive players – and not just in volleyball.

What I like about volleyball:
– The combination between physical and smart play
– Ball handling and going for impossible balls which become possible.
– Long rallies and scrambling
– I like learning new stuff, playing a more interesting volleyball. It is boring to stick to basic serve/receive drills, hitting through four, middle, reverse, I want to learn inside balls, playing with the block, see quicks and slides, making the back court hit more of a weapon (but I know that can only come when everything else is great).
– I would like to be a libero in a very good team, where the block is actually blocking and there is more to the role than serve-receive and passing free balls. I am fine with OH 2 because it is more of ball handling role, with some offense in it but no massive expectations either, OH1 is fine too, but to be honest, if I am OH1 it is a pretty bad sign for the team and the shape of its offense…
– Winning but most importantly playing good volleyball, or to our full extent.
– Playing with better players than me
– Outplaying a team with our team spirit + smart play is quite enjoyable too
– Intense training in general

What I don’t like:
– Stagnating at the same play of volleyball
– Players not taking responsibility
– Getting stepped on, punched by flying arms because players don’t anticipate me covering their butts
– Quietness
– Twitchiness
– Bad players, I know it sounds volleyball snob
– Slow training
– Lack of effort

I think this list includes quite a few things for us coaches to remember – especially those of use who have to look back quite a ways to recall our own days as a player! :-)

By the way, this is a player who was primarily a libero for me my first year, and moved to O2 in the team last year. At our level of play she is a solid O2 from the perspective of good ball-handling and defense and not prone to many errors in attack, but she’s more properly got the mentality of a libero.

Coaching Log – Oct 20 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

On Friday I had a meeting with the club and team captains for both the men’s and women’s squads I coach. The subject was the disparity in training intensity between prospective first team players and the rest. Basically, we have a situation in both teams where the first teamers were being pulled down by the lack of technical ability and focus among the second teamers, particularly when it comes to anything game-play oriented. Too many balls dropping is one obvious symptom, but there are numerous others which aren’t so easy to spot.

For example, the men’s captain described their match last week as featuring sets where they just could not maintain focus. I’ve seen the same with the women. Training at a persistently higher intensity, which forces a player to stay full switched on better and longer, tends to address this sort of problem. Rallies ending prematurely because an inexperienced player was out of position or not ready for the ball tends to have the opposite effect.

Another example coming from both teams was struggles in defense. For the men the problem seemed to be one of being able to control hard-hit balls resulting in many overpasses (at least as reported). For the women it was a bit broader in terms of blocking and positioning. In both cases, more exposure to better hitting would help considerably.

The bottom line is the better players need to be training with and against each other much more in game-play situations. At the same time, the less skilled players need much more in the way of focused technical work. The meeting was about working to correct that situation.

For the women’s team the on-going need to identify a primary setter has steered me away from some of the more focused skill development oriented activities. I’ve wanted to see the prospective candidates in game-like situations to be able to evaluate their movement, set placement, and decision-making. Unfortunately, that has to continue a bit longer still. I have one player who could set, play OPP, or be libero.

The decision on what to do with this one player – who I want on the court all the time in one fashion or another – actually has a significant impact on what I do with the rest of the line-up. If she plays OPP, for example, I can move my current OPP to O1. The team needs more punch at OH, which she is capable of providing. If we cannot get a consistent RS set – which we haven’t thus far – she is wasted over there (though she is a sizable block and good second ball setter).

We have our next BUCS match a week from Wednesday and after this Wednesday I won’t have all of the prospective starters for that match together in the same training session. If I want to training them as a group at least once, I basically need at least a short-term decision on this one player quickly.

Because we have a bit of time before that next match – and some clear developmental needs – I decided to spend a lot of time on technical work. I started them off with blocking footwork, moved on to Short-Long, then rolled that into a hit-and-dig-to-self partner drill. From there I rolled them into a serving & passing drill featuring a setter and an OH target that I had hit the ball. It ended up working out that many of the first team players were in the first group, and things looked quite solid. When players switched around, predictably things took a downward turn.

For the remainder of the session I split the court and had the six top players doing a 3 v 3 version of 22 v 22, while I had the other seven doing Player Winners. I spoke with the latter players both themselves and as part of the end-of-training team talk in terms of their needs and how we’re looking to get them more dedicated training opportunities.

Volleyball England influencing university volleyball


Volleyball England recently announced an extension of its Talent Pathway (that’s the progression of volleyball athletes through the youth ranks) into the university arena. They are calling it a senior academy program. The expressed idea is that it will provide English players a way to continue their progression and development beyond the Juniors level. England currently does not run senior national teams, but presumably this is a scheme with the objective of bringing them back in some fashion moving forward.

The announcement relates to what I wrote about on Thursday in regards to the conflict between the competitive needs of university clubs and the demands put on them in terms of growing volleyball participation. I am all for making university volleyball in the UK stronger, both to benefit the sport overall and to eventually develop a player pipeline for the national team (as it does in the US). From that perspective, I approve of the move.

Let’s be honest, though. University volleyball (BUCS) is simply not strong enough at the moment to provide a meaningful developmental platform for prospective international and/or professional caliber players. Barring a massive influx of talented athletes, it won’t be any time soon. The reality of the situation is that this will be all about playing top level NVL volleyball – specifically meaning Super 8s.

That’s all fine and good (if it works as intended). Let’s just not think this is something which will have a direct impact on university volleyball as all it will tend to do is create a very clear group teams far above the rest. If other schools are encouraged to better support volleyball to be more competitive, then great! I see just as much chance, though, of them looking at this and saying “Why bother?”.

Coaching Log – Oct 16 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

Wednesday was our first BUCS match of the year. To say things didn’t go optimally would be an understatement. We had to drive over 4 hours (players driving) leaving before 7am to get to the match, closer to 5 hours by the time we got parked and across campus, changed and into the gym. Then we found out we had basically zero time to warm up before the official pre-match routine started because our Athletic Union failed to inform us that said warm-up was set to begin about 25 minutes before the team was changed. Needless to say, we weren’t anywhere close to mentally or physically prepared to play the match.

The opposition was solid, but by no means overpowering. They reminded us a lot of the third place teams from our league last year in terms of style of play. I have no doubt we have the players capable of beating them. Not, however, if we play the way we did on Wednesday. Way too many mistakes driven by tentative, fearful play. And our blocking and defense weren’t nearly good enough (the latter definitely a function of the former). Lots of work needs doing – technically, tactically, and mentally.

It was an early training session on Thursday as we swapped spots with the men’s team since they played a late-day match Wednesday. Not surprisingly, there were some sluggish minds and bodies. We only had six balls, which put some serious limits on what I could do with them. It ended up being a session developed dynamically.

I had them start with rotating pepper after the dynamic warm-up, then moved to a variation of the hard drill. My decision to do that latter was to get the players doing more thinking on the court. After that, I did half court (narrow) winners 4s with fixed setters.

It was not a great session. Too little focus. Too little commitment. Balls dropped. Players made numerous bad decisions. I was sharper with them because of it than I’ve been so far this season. I actually ended training early after yet another ball hit the floor with two players standing there looking at each other (which got the team captain shouting at them).

I told them at the end of training that certain players need to get more focused (no names) and were at risk of being excluded from training because they were negatively influencing the ability of other players to practice at the necessary intensity. They were warned that Monday’s session had better be MUCH better in terms of intensity and focus.

On the plus side, after telling the two setters I would make them do a push-up (just 1) if I caught them leaving target early (which they both had been horribly guilty of up to that point in the session) they were much more disciplined about that.