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.

The competition/participation conflict


I currently coach in a country where volleyball is a developing sport. I also coach in a country where there is a major governmental focus on creating a more physically active society. This creates a bit of a conflict. It’s something I’ve brought up before in different ways, but was highlighted (at least to my mind) by a recent post on the Volleyball England blog.

The short article highlights the gains being made in volleyball participation at the university level of the sport. It talks about the things the Higher Education Volleyball Officers (HEVOs) are doing to bring more people into the volleyball tent. This is all fine and good. A big part of Volleyball England’s funding comes from the government in the form of participation-linked moneys, so naturally they will encourage programs and efforts which will increase the number of people playing the sport.

As a coach on the competitive side of university volleyball, however, I can’t help but look at something like that and ask “What about the BUCS side of things?” Where are the discussions about ways to increase the competitiveness of BUCS teams, about how to develop beginners into competitive players, about ways university clubs can be as successful as possible in the face of usually being considered a lower priority sport, and about how to attract more English players (BUCS has a strong international participation rate). Generally speaking, those who push the sport forward will be those who come through the competitive ranks, not those who are just recreational players. Volleyball in England will only benefit from a stronger BUCS volleyball structure.

This competition vs. participation conflict is something we face constantly at Exeter. The club is about 130 members strong – only around 30 of which are BUCS players. The rest are Beginners or Intermediates (honestly, from a skills and playing level perspective there isn’t a great deal of difference, though our Intermediates do compete in the local area adult club league). The club only has a certain amount of gym time allocation available which must be split between BUCS trainings and Beginner and Intermediate sessions. It gets judged both on the success the BUCS teams have (3rd overall in BUCS points last year) and in the size of the club, but we’re up against a wall. We’re in a Catch-22 where we need to get bigger to be seen as a more important sport at the university, but we can’t do it without more gym time, which we’d only get by raising our profile further.

The position of volleyball at each university varies considerably, though. Some schools, such as Northumbria and Durham, have made it a performance sport and offer scholarships to attract good players (some schools offering more than others – see Volleyball England influencing university volleyball). Exeter is not in that group, which obviously puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Some schools have dedicated coaches while others don’t. Some schools get better support from their Athletic Union (or comparable organization) than others.

I would be really interested in hearing from different coaches, club captains, and the like about their own experiences. How do different clubs balance out the demands of competition and participation.

Back Row Attack: Not for every team, or even most


Matt at The College Volleyball Coach, my collaborator on the book Inside College Volleyball, recently blogged on the subject of back row attack. He makes the case that in the vast majority of cases a team is better off setting a front row hitter than a back row one. Only in the case of the truly top level teams are there the athletes capable of being effective from behind the 3m line. Basically, what’s happening is coaches and teams are trying to adapt higher level tactics without having the requisite capabilities.

A couple years ago I actually had this issue with the local NVL women’s team I coached. We had some consistent back row attackers in terms of not making many errors, but they didn’t score many points (I’d be hard-pressed to recall even one). I had to tell the setter a couple of times that unless she only had one choice, she was to send the ball to a front row attacker where we had a much better prospect for a kill. It was a case of the setter lacking in confidence and making the easy set, as Matt describes in his post.

Interestingly, I had a conversation with one of the team’s senior player a few months after that season. She had a much better impression of the team’s back row attacking prowess than I did. This actually resulted in her feeling like certain line-up decisions were justified on the basis of having more offense when I favored better ball-handling and defense.

I’m seeing a similar sort of thing develop with the university men’s team this year. So far our back row attacking has not been particularly strong, but I’m not sure they recognize it.

Coaching Log – Oct 13 2014

Volleyball Coaching Log

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

Sunday’s South West league match (a 3-1 defeat) finally saw the A team – or a reasonable semblance thereof – face some competition, in particular opposition that was able to produce some decent hitting. There were a number of takeaways. First, serving and passing were generally quite solid. We had better than twice as many aces as errors and didn’t make any poorly timed errors. There were a couple of little communication issues on serve reception, but for the most part we put up very settable balls all match long.

Predictably, setting was a problem. I used both of the prospective starters for Wednesday’s first BUCS match in alternating sets to give each a fair shot at making her case. In the end, however, there wasn’t a great deal between them. There was a notable difference in set selection, as one setter included more right side sets while the other went middle more – or at least to one of the MBs more. The broader difference in the setters was in the aggressiveness of the swings the hitters were able to get. One setter saw kills at 28% while the other was at 23%. If I exclude an OH sub I used for just the third set who hit well negative, the first setter would have had kills at around 30%. Granted, she also saw a higher error %, but to me that’s only to be expected. I actively encouraged the hitters to be aggressive when they got a good set and they largely were doing that.

A bigger concern, however, was the defense. Positioning was poor. Anticipation was lacking. Commitment was insufficient. It’s a serious developmental need. There’s not a lot I can do about the setting at the moment, but I can increase the defensive focus.

Unfortunately, setting the net up took longer than it should have, so by the time they were warmed-up and ready to go, and we’d talked a little about Sunday’s match, I only had about an hour worth of training time. After having them do a bit of serving, I had them hit through 4, which allowed me to focus on the setters, both to evaluate for Wednesday and to work on technical corrections.

After the hitting I had them play Baseball for the remainder of the session. I ran the prospective starters for Wednesday through the A side. That meant using both setters, as well as working in the OH and MB who weren’t available on Sunday. I had the non-A side setter running the offense on the B side along with Sunday’s starting O2. The third setter in the mix, who can’t play Wednesday and who played libero on Sunday, I had as libero for the B side. Since we were 14, I had the back row MB on the B side serve for that side and the remaining B-team player serving from the other side. It ended up being fairly competitive. Having a strong libero on the B side definitely helped.

As an additional element, I pulled out my whistle. I don’t normally use it in training, but I do sometimes bring it into play when doing 6 v 6 to get the players focused. On this occasion I whistled any time I saw players not covering properly, not in good defensive readiness, etc. If I whistle them for some failure in that regard they lose the rally. This is something I did at times last year. I find that it helps get the players locked in to their responsibilities.

One of the things which became clear in yesterday’s play – carrying over to a degree from Sunday as well – is that the team is noticeably better on defense when that 3rd setter who played libero is on the court. The question is how best to utilize her. Libero is potentially a waste as I will only sub out one of the MBs, though I could potentially have her do two rotations in on the OPP as well. If I don’t end up using her as setter (and part of me feels like we’d be better with her passing and playing defense), then I am considering the prospect of having her play OPP and moving my current OPP over to OH in the O1 position. We lose size in the block doing that, and downgrade a bit on RS hitting, but defense in 1 would be stronger and we’d have a more potent OH attack.

For Wednesday, though, I need to settle on a starting setter, O2, and M2. For the most part I think I know who that will be.