Newbie prep for high school volleyball


This one could be thought of as answering the question: How should I start working with someone brand new to volleyball?

The other day I got an email from my brother. His oldest daughter will be entering high school in the Fall and has apparently decided she’d like to go out for the school volleyball team come August. This isn’t necessarily a new thought for her, as I recall a volleyball being on her Christmas wish list a couple years back. Up to now, though, she’s concentrated on competitive swimming (and it sounds like that will probably continue). The timing of the decision is unfortunate. Had it come a few months earlier she could have played 14-and-unders club volleyball this year. Oh, well.

My brother asked the school coach for some advice on preparing Darling Daughter ahead of her taking a shot at jumping on the volleyball train as a high school freshman. Apparently, it was suggested that she take part in a U15 developmental program being run by the local Juniors club I co-founded back in 2001. Glad to know the club maintains it’s reputation, even if I haven’t been involved with it since 2007! :-)

I, of course, told my brother that sounds like a good idea. Naturally, summer camps are also an option, so long as they have a low level/beginner group and aren’t just experienced players.

Unfortunately, a camp or even a weekly series of training sessions will only go so far in preparing someone to try-out for a school team, never mind to get through August two-a-days! More time and more reps are really required to start to develop the foundational skills and the physical conditioning.

My brother played volleyball in high school himself, though baseball was his primary sport (in our state at the time, boys’ volleyball was a Fall sport while the girls played in the Spring). Naturally, I told him to get out in the backyard and pepper with his daughter to help work on her ball-handling skills and to get a net up so she could practice serving and passing and general game play.

On the physical side, my niece’s swimming background probably puts her in quite good stead in terms of shoulder and core strength. The issue for her will be the jumping and low posture movement and positioning in volleyball. My suggestion to my brother was to get his her doing a lot of good spike approach reps as a way to both develop the skill and to condition the legs. Of course, working on all the types of court movement footwork and patterns is a good idea, but we need to start somewhere.

What kind of advice would you give someone in this situation?

Common violations of defensive principles

volleyball defender

In his book, Thinking Volleyball, author and long-time experienced coach Mike Hebert includes a list of what he describes as common violations of defensive principles. I can tell you from my own coaching experience that it is a very good list, so I share it here. (The violations in bold are Hebert’s. The comments below them are mine.)

Creeping into the block shadow
Generally speaking, defensive systems are designed to have back court defenders positioned around the block. Often, however, players end up behind the block, and thus out of position.

Not being stopped and balanced at the moment of contact by the hitter
In order to be able to react in any possible direction, a player must be stopped before the ball is attacked. If a defender is still moving at hitter contact, her movement direction will limit her ability to make a play on the ball.

Watching the wrong things; eyes stuck on the ball
Defenders looking only at the ball will not be fully prepared for how t will come across the net. The flight of the ball does offer some information, but it will be the position and movement of the player attacking the ball which determines the most likely angles and areas of attack.

Poor first-step mechanics (false stepping)
This is when a player’s first move in reaction to the ball is a negative one – their weight shifts backwards rather than forwards, for example. Obviously, this means a delay in the actual move to play the ball.

Breaking posture throughout base-to-read movement (leaning, jumping, or any other unnecessary or inefficient movement prior to hitter contact)
This is closely related to not being stopped on hitter contact in that it means the body is not prepared to react in any necessary way or direction to play the ball.

Poor platform mechanics (swiveling, telescoping, hands together too early)
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory – bad digging technique.

Leaning back to dig or receive ball
Leaning back puts the weight on the heals, making it difficult to react to a change in ball flight.

Sluggish recovery after play on the ball (get up quickly!)
Hopefully, I don’t need to comment on this!

Creating unnecessarily dramatic dig by being out of position or utilizing poor timing
We’ve all seen it. It looks great, but we’d much rather see the player be properly positioned and the ball reacted to in a timely fashion.

Turning the head away from a hard driven ball
Kind of hard to dig a ball with any accuracy if you’re not looking at it and if you’re head movement is also resulting in platform movement.

Allowing the eyes to bounce with the head (need eyes level while moving)
If the eyes are bouncing it means the ball is moving in the player’s vision, making an accurate read of ball trajectory harder.

I think this is a pretty comprehensive list. Anything you think is missing?

Book Review: Thinking Volleyball by Mike Hebert


If you’re looking for a book to make you think about your coaching rather than just something that presents you with a bunch of drills and systems, then look no further than Thinking Volleyball by Mike Hebert. A 50-year volleyball veteran, the recently retired Hebert offers his latest book as something he sees as at least attempting to fill the gap he perceives in the coaching literature when it comes to learning how to think about volleyball and coaching. I read both of his earlier books, The Fire Still Burns and Insights, and each had a big impact on me as a developing coach. I therefore much anticipated the release of the new title when I heard of it, and eagerly snatched up a copy when I was at the AVCA Convention in December. I’m glad I did!

The broad theme of the book is being ready, willing, and able to think beyond the conventional. That’s not as simple as being OK with taking risks in how you do things, though obviously that’s a requirement (Hebert considers himself something of a coaching maverick). It first and foremost requires actually understanding what that conventional wisdom is, why it’s conventional, and its strengths and weaknesses.

There are 10 chapters. One each is dedicated to offensive and defensive philosophy. These are the only two which could be classified as technical/tactical in nature, and even then it’s not the main point. The other eight, in various ways, look at different aspects of coaching – things like running a program, developing a style of play, gym culture, team trust, and match coaching.

Personal anecdotes are a common feature of Hebert’s writing, and he’s got loads of material from which to work. They come from his own playing days and all the major programs he’s coached. My one little criticism is that the stories are strongly biased toward the positive and maybe a few failures could have been mixed in for balance. Let’s face it. Not everything works as intended and we coaches often find ourselves having to figure out how to recover when that’s the case.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the author’s views toward the modern focus on statistics. This is both in terms of common stats and things like the competitive cauldron (I attended a seminar on that at the AVCA convention). Hebert is a self-described early-career stats evangelist, but he’s come to question their value relative to the amount of time spent gathering them. Not that he discounts stats completely, but he definitely asks the trade-off question, and suggests a potentially more useful way of looking at things.

Chances are, at least one chapter in Thinking Volleyball will cause you to think critically about what you’re doing as a volleyball coach. Hebert has applied his considerable experience and insight into a discussion of just about every aspect of coaching volleyball you could think of, and from all kinds of angles most of us will never have the opportunity to explore personally. From that perspective, I’d recommend it for coaches at all levels and careers stages.

Player-centric volleyball stat collecting


In the most recent issue of the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball magazine there’s an article discussing the collection and use of stats. It’s a pretty comprehensive discussion, but focuses on the more basic stats as opposed to the higher end stuff that some coaches use these days. The author takes the perspective of a coach in a small program where there isn’t much in the way of help for collecting stats during training, etc.

That article got me thinking about making the stat collection process more player-centric.

I’ve talked about player-centric drills, which in contrast to coach-centric ones puts players in charge of initiating the process. For example, a passing drill where players serve is player-centric, while one where the coach serves would be coach-centric.

So how can we take coaches out of the stat-taking process? Basically, that means having the players keep track of serves, passes, hits, or whatever rather than having a coach (or manager) do so. The article mentions doing something like having passers write down how they did in a serve receive drill. There obviously are other ways this could be done.

I’ve mentioned my own personal struggles keeping stats while my team is in action. I really don’t like having to take my eyes off the play to tick a box on a clipboard or tap a tablet. Working by myself, or with limited coaching help, these last couple of years, I’ve been forced to find ways to do what I’ve wanted or needed to do in terms of training. Now I’m going to have give some thought to how I can do the same thing with stat collection.

Ideas are certainly welcome!

Making use of light training sessions


A forum question recently got asked at VolleyTalk about the use of no/low-impact training sessions. The poster wanted to know whether/to what extent do coaches put in light sessions during their seasons. Whether you do this sort of thing depends a great deal on the structure of your season and your training calendar. After all, if you only train once or twice a week then you’re probably going to be reluctant to “waste” a session by lowering the intensity.

When I was coaching in the States, light training sessions were definitely a feature. Our base schedule during the season was to train Monday through Thursday, with matches on Friday and Saturday and Sunday the off-day. Our pattern at Brown was to have Monday’s training be somewhat recovery oriented with a tendency to concentrate on defense and ball-handling skills. Similarly, Thursday wasn’t a full intensity session either, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it low-impact. It was more about match prep. That left Tuesday and Wednesday to be our two full-on sessions each week.

We did, from time to time, give players a day off. That was mainly based on seeing the need for it rather than specifically scheduling something in ahead of time. Often, this would happen toward the middle of the season when the grind was setting in and players might also be in the middle of exams.

Picking team captains


A while back I came across a blog post which discusses the subject of picking team captains. The blogger in question took something of a military view on leadership and the selection of leaders. Generally speaking, though, the major question asked was whether team captains should be selected by the team or by the coach. Each method has pluses and minuses.

Team votes on their captain
On the plus side, if we as coaches allow the team to pick their captain there’s a pretty good probability of team buy-in for the choice. The risk, of course is that you get it what essentially is a popularity contest which doesn’t reflect actual leadership. You could end up with a squad split based on which player ends up being leader and which one doesn’t.

Coach picks the team captain
Here, the benefit is that the coach can select a player who most demonstrates the characteristics they want in the team’s leader. The risk, however, is that the player is not one well accepted by the team.

The author of the blog post offers a split solution of having two captains – one voted and one coach-picked. I’ve definitely seen teams do this. I’ve also seen teams have multiple captains who were either strictly voted for or coach-selected. The advantage to the multiple-captain situation is you are able to balance strengths and weaknesses among the captains.

I personally tend strongly toward the coach-selection model. For me, I think the risks in the democratic model are high, while if I’m doing my job of observing team dynamics I should be able to avoid picking a captain the team won’t accept (not that it’s a guarantee, of course). Importantly, I also want to ensure that the team’s captain is someone with whom I can work and communicate, to whom I can delegate, and from whom I can get meaningful information and feedback.

What about you? What’s your team captain approach?

Game: Neville Pepper

Volleyball Game

Synopsis: This is a game similar to Winners but with a fixed team on one side for a set period of time, and with the ability to focus players on certain training points.

Age/Skill Level: This is suitable for all levels

Requirements: 9+ players, several balls, full court

Execution: Divide your squad up into at least 3 teams. Place one team on Side A of the court with the other teams set up in waves playing through Side B (like Winners). After ball initiation, the teams play out the rally. The team on Side A stays there for a set period of time (2-3 minutes) while the teams on Side B wave through after each rally.The team on Side A is the only one to score points. After their time is up, a different team takes over Side A. The team with the most points when all teams have gone through is the winner.

You can see an example of this drill in action here.


  • You can vary the amount of time a team spends on Side A.
  • You can use fixed setters if you don’t have enough for each team to have one.
  • Points can be as simple as rallies won, or you could count them based on specific areas of focus (digs, block touches, certain types of attacks, serve receive pass quality, etc.)
  • The ball can be initiated in various ways, either to Side A or Side B, depending on what you want to have the players working on – defending, free balls, serve receive, etc.

Additional Comments:

  • If you want longer rallies you can shrink the court, opt for back row attacks only, and/or add more players. Whether longer rallies is desirable may depend on your training objective.
  • Along with positive points earned, you can apply point deductions for things like overpasses, lack of communication, etc.

Looking at the new BUCS volleyball premier leagues


On Wednesday the the final team for the 2014-15 BUCS premier league was determined when the Sussex women beat the ladies from Swansea in a 5-set play-off match. That gave Sussex two wins and first place in their 3-way round-robin, which also included Surrey (who Swansea had previously beaten). That means the women’s southern premier league for next season will comprise:

King’s College London

There was also a playoff on the men’s side. It was between Bath, Cambridge, and Warwick. There were two spots on offer because although 5 teams qualified by virtue of making Final 8s, UCL apparently declined the promotion (Imperial must have also declined as they should have been in the playoff as well by dint of their 3rd place finish in the South East conference). Bath lost both its matches, meaning the southern premier league for the guys next year will be:

East London

Interestingly, Warwick was originally considered as being a northern team according to what BUCS posted earlier. Don’t know why that changed.

Although only the 3 teams from the Northern conference made Final 8s, and thus automatically achieved promotion to the northern premier league for next year, there was no playoff for the remaining spots. On the men’s side, since all three of the top finishers in the Midlands conference were considered southern teams, the three best teams from the Scottish conference fill out the 6 places, making it:

Sheffield Hallam
St. Andrews

On the women’s side, Loughborough finished 3rd in Midlands, so they should have joined the three Scottish teams – Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Glasgow – in a 4-way playoff to determine who joined Northumbria, Durham, and Lancaster in the northern premier league. No such playoff happened, so one of those teams must have declined promotion. I don’t know which, though.

These new premier leagues pose some challenges. The map below shows the dispersion of the teams in the women’s southern league.

BUCS Volleyball Women's Southern Premier League 2014-15

I’m thinking right about now the planners aren’t too excited about having Exeter in the premier league given it’s location relative to the other schools. It’s over 4 hours drive between Exeter and Cambridge and more than 3 hours to most of the others. Even the trip to Bournemouth, which is Exeter’s closest opposition, runs about 2.5 hours. It’s not much different on the men’s side.

I talked with a couple of people at Final 8s about this stuff. It would make sense for the teams who have both men and women in the premier league to have both genders play on the same dates to simplify travel. We also talked about using triangulars or some other multiple match format to cut down on the travel. One coach suggested pairing schools for a Saturday/Sunday type of schedule.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what BUCS comes up with.

Thinking about my use of stats


I came across a thread on a forum recently which asked the members which statistics they find most useful in their coaching. It got me thinking about my own use of statistics recently.

I’ve talked in prior posts about what used to be available to me when I was coaching collegiately in the States and the sorts of things I’ve used at times since I’ve been coaching in England. When I was coaching at Brown we used stats all the time. During matches I got print-outs after each set of the standard stuff. We also kept serving and passing tallies and sometimes other things as well. I used to get way into the numbers, looking at things from all different angles and perspectives (see this Boston Globe article for a discussion of advanced stats in the NBA).

These days there are no official stats coming my way during matches, so anything that I do have access to necessarily means either myself or my assistant are recording them. I have found that I have a very hard time doing that because it splits my focus too much. I’ve done a bit of in-training stats, mainly in the area of serve receive. The bottom line ends up being I don’t use stats very much.

Actually, I don’t find myself missing them all that much. Granted, stats are very good for giving you an objective view of things – assuming you have enough reps to have a meaningful set of numbers. That bit tends to be a problem. There is a tendency among at least some coaches (and players) to jump to conclusions based on a limited sample, which is a really bad idea. Stats are good for seeing broad patterns, not for making quick analysis.

I actually think not having all the stats I used to have has helped me be a better coach. Because I don’t have the crutch of the numbers, I’m forced to pay much closer attention to patterns of play. Is my OH playing the way she does when she’s attacking successfully or is her body language telling me this is not going to be her best hitting match? Is my libero going with purpose to the ball the way she does when she passes serve best, or is she being more passive as she does when she passes poorly?

Basically, what’s happening now is that I’m not just looking at outcomes, but also seeing causality. If I’m just looking at the stats all I see is outcomes, and there are a lot of things which influence those that are out of a player’s control. It’s a process vs. result type of focus, which is something I’ve always had to a degree, but have really firmed up these last couple of years.

Having said all that, I do think it would be better for volleyball in England if there were consistent stats available from competitions like BUCS. They would provide the basis for telling better volleyball stories to expand the exposure of the sport.