What if you received after winning a rally instead of serving?

In an article on Volleyballmag.com, Russ Rose of Penn State responds to a question about changes he would make to the sport. The very first thing the legendary coach said was he would return to sideout scoring. That’s the old system where you can only score when you serve.

Rose is realistic, though. He doesn’t see a change from the current system happening. Even still, it brings up something to think about.

Under sideout scoring a team was rewarded for winning a rally with an opportunity to score a point on the next rally. Losing a rally meant you had no chance to win the next point because you didn’t serve.

In other words, a team gained an advantage by winning a rally. That’s above and beyond the point they scored if they served to start the rally in the first place.

These days, once you reach a certain level it is no longer an advantage to win a rally. Obviously, I mean aside from the point earned. You gain the serve. That’s actually a liability once sideout rates go above 50%.

I can think of two ways this changes things.

Longer runs of points

The first way is you get more strings of points by teams. Think of it in terms of flipping around the idea of being stuck in a rotation. That’s when you give up points in a row because you can’t pass and execute your offense well enough. Under this variation, though, the runs happen because your serve receive offense is effective.

It’s simple odds. Consider two teams who sideout at a rate of 60%. Under the current system, the odds of the team winning a second rally after winning a first one is only 40% (100% – 60% chance the other team sides out). If, however, winning a rally earns you the right to receive, your odds of winning that second rally go up to 60%.

That means you’ll increase the frequency of teams winning multiple points in a row. That means less times when teams just alternate scoring by repeatedly siding out. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Bigger premium on serving

Under the current system, the worst a poor server can do is lose you one point. If they miss their serve or serve so ineffectively that the other team can easily sideout, they just lose that rally. If you flip things around, though, poor serving would be a killer. Instead of earning strings of points when a very good server is back at the line, they would lose points in a row when a poor server is back there.

I’m not sure this would have much impact on serving strategy or aggressiveness. Teams would still try to put the receiving side under as much passing pressure as possible. I think it would more be a question of making sure less effective servers develop better skills.

Anything else?

I’m not sure how much the rest of the game would change, to be honest. I’d be interested to hear what others think would happen, especially in terms of coaching focus. My feeling, though, is that coaches would probably have a similar balance between offensive and defensive work as they do now.

What is zero tempo?

If you followed my coaching log entries for the 2016 Midwestern State season, you know at one point in the season we spent time on middle attack tempo. Our hitters were much too slow. They were still in their approach on setter contact.

This brought up some questions about the tempo we wanted to run. Specifically, should it be first tempo or zero tempo?

Honestly, I didn’t hear of zero tempo until a couple years ago. I don’t know when it started to be used. It seems to be very much an American thing, though. Basically, it’s when the hitter is off the ground at setter contact.

At least that’s what it is supposed to be. That’s how it’s described in this video.

If you watch the video, though, the hitters are not actually in the air on setter contact. They have both feet down, and are just about to jump. This is considered first tempo, rather than zero tempo. At least some people think of it that way.

Differing opinions

I spoke with Mark from At Home on the Court about this. He and I are on the same page that by our reckoning in the air on setter contact is 1st tempo. We both admit, though, that you almost never actually see that. I had a male player at Exeter who did it, and one of our MBs at MSU did it once in a match. Those are the exceptions, though.

Even still, I have long pushed my quick attackers to beat the ball. I know they probably won’t get all the way there, but at least they’ll get closer to ideal.

The idea of the zero tempo ball is that it forces the block to make a choice. In order to stop a quick attack running that fast, the block must commit on the hitter. That then makes it very hard – maybe impossible – to get up if the ball is set elsewhere.

In practice, a properly run first tempo ball is very hard to stop without commit blocking. If the ball is set high enough to let the hitter make contact on full extension, the block will struggle to get up high enough, fast enough to stop it.

Looking back on my job search thinking

Volleyball Coach

I recently found myself reading the post I wrote at the start of my 2014-15 job search. It was interesting to revisit my thinking at that time.

This was December 2014. It was my third year at Exeter. I had in mind the completion of my PhD and likely the end of my time in England. There wasn’t much chance I’d be able to stay there in a primarily coaching capacity. The timing was such that my main focus was on US college coaching jobs. They were the ones opening up at the time, though I also had professional jobs in Europe in mind. I had to wait until later to go after them.

I definitely expected to end up back in college volleyball at that time. While I knew it would be a challenge given my long time away, I felt like I had a decent set of credentials. I could go back as an assistant coach, but I figured at that point I was better suited for a head coach position. When it came to looking at a professional job, I thought it would be the other way around. I figured I’d probably need to be an assistant somewhere first to learn the ropes in that structure.

It’s funny how things played out!

Expectations vs. Reality

Although I applied for a long list of both head and assistant positions, I barely got a sniff at any US coaching jobs at that time. There was one phone interview for a school in Texas (coincidentally). That’s as far as it went, though. It was such a poor response that I very seriously thought about non-coaching jobs.

As you probably know, I ended up getting a professional job as a head coach in Sweden. I didn’t really understand at the time I wrote that old post how few assistant coaching opportunities there were for non-locals (or at least non-EU). Outside of the very top leagues (and clubs) the only real opportunities were as head coach for foreigners, and I didn’t have the right passport. I also wasn’t very well connected to hear about potentials positions.

Of course things didn’t play out exactly as I planned in Sweden at Svedala. The team had one of the club’s best seasons, but I was cut loose early in the second half of the campaign. Fortunately, I already had some pokers in the fire, and was shortly thereafter hired at Midwestern State where I am now. I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d end up an assistant in Division II, but that’s where I am.

Interestingly, the Midwestern job wasn’t the only one for which I was offered an interview. I also got called about doing one for a Division III head coaching position. By that time, however, I had already started at MSU.

What did line up

In that old post I talked about the sort of position I wanted, given the opportunity. It was one where I could build something – or at least be part of doing so. That’s something which never changed. It remains true today. It’s a big reason why I am at MSU. The situation here is all about rebuilding a program. I may not be the head coach, but I still have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact.

You can follow my progress in that regard via my Coaching Log entries.

 

Game: Win 2 Out-of-System Rallies

Synopsis: This is a wash type of game which puts the focus on attacking in a setter-out or out-of-system situation. It can be very useful for getting pin hitters (or back row attackers) to make good decisions when not put in the best of attacking situations.

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

Requirements: 12+ players, full court

Execution: Initiate a setter-out ball (attack a ball at the setter, or otherwise require a non-setter to take the 2nd ball). Play out the rally. After the first ball, play is as normal. If the team receiving the initial ball wins the rally, they get a second ball in the same fashion. If they win both, they rotate. If they lose either the first or second ball, it’s a wash and the other team gets the setter-out ball. Play until one team rotates all the way around.

Variations:

  • You can keep a rally score tally going (each team gets a point for a rally won, regardless of who got the initial ball). If you set a score cap (like 25 points), then it will let you put a rough time limit on how long the game goes.
  • To encourage positive errors rather than negative ones, and hitter coverage, you can have a team rotate backwards if a pin hitter hits an out-of-system ball into the net or is stuff blocked.
  • Once a rotation is earned, you can either restart with a first ball to that team, or give the first ball to the other team.
  • As an alternative to initiating a setter-out ball, you could toss in a ball that is the first contact, and require a certain player (or position) to play the second contact off of it.

Additional Comments:

  • Be aware the players can be stuck in a rotation for a while in this game. In most cases it requires a team to win three straight rallies (stop the other team, then win two setter-out initations). This can be further exacerbated by having to reverse back on bad errors. You may want to consider doing rotation flips (1,4,2,5,3,6) rather than going sequentially as a result. Either that or have system to rotate players around to keep some (like MBs) from being in or out longer than desired.
  • This could be used in a small-sided game situation.

Coaching Log – November 21, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

The regular season is done. Here’s the final Lone Star Conference standings.

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It’s interesting to look back at how that compares to the preseason poll

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There were definitely some surprises in there. On the positive side, Eastern NM has to top that list. Can’t imagine anyone had them ending up as high as fourth. Commerce is in there as well. And of course MSU surprised some folks. Clearly, based on the vote tally, we were not expected to do much of anything.

The biggest negative surprise must be Woman’s, though an August coaching change and pre-season medical issues for a big part of the team always suggested some struggles. Cameron is the other one in that category. I’ll be honest that they surprised me. They were a much smaller team than I remember from when we played them in the Spring.

So here’s what the conference tournament bracket looked like.

lsc-tournbracketNotice that while Commerce was listed ahead of Eastern NM in the above standings, with both teams tied for 4th, it was Eastern who was given the #4 seed. The teams split their two matches, which is the first tiebreak. The second one looks at the best win for each team. Eastern just beat Angelo on the final Friday of the season, so they take the higher spot. Not that it really matters as they play each other either way.

Interestingly, if we were able to get by Angelo, our second round match would be against one of the two teams above us we beat this year.

Monday

We had a team talk before practice to go over some logistic stuff for the week ahead. We also talked mentality for the tournament – namely “It’s a new season.” We had all the players share their view on something each was proud of for the team this season.

Practice started with a ball-handling warm-up. That progressed to a serve and pass exercise that focused on seams for both servers and passers. We played back row and front row 4s before finishing with a 6 v 6 game. Because we wanted on defending an in-system offense out of serve receive we did a new exercise. The teams alternated receiving an easy serve (ball chipped in by a coach). To get a point a team had to win two rallies in a row. They could then earn a bonus point by serving and winning that rally as well.

Tuesday

Our probably final full practice of the season was a good one. We started with team pepper. After that, we did hitters vs defense to put on the court stuff we talked about before practice with respect to defending Thursday’s opponent.

Next up was a 6 v 6 game. Every rally started with a ball to the setter, creating a setter-out situation. A team had to win two of those in a row to earn a rotation. If they failed to win a rally, the other side started the sequence. The idea was that it would be a race to complete all six rotations, though we also kept a regular score (rallies won). If a player hit the ball into the net or was stuff blocked out-of-system, their team had to back up a rotation.

Basically, that was a near continuous play game. The only brief breaks were went a team rotated.

We finished with a regular game featuring bonus points. Teams got a bonus for aggressive serves into the seam, for perfect passes, and for getting kills on shoots (31s) when the ball was passed off the net. That made things go relatively quickly.

Wednesday

We traveled to San Angelo ahead of the start of the conference tournament on Thursday. In the afternoon we did a 55 minute practice. In the evening we attended the awards banquet. We had three players voted for all-conference – two honorable mention and one 2nd team. Last year’s team only had one honorable mention. We also had one selected for academic all-conference.

Thursday

As the 8th place team we faced 1st place Angelo in the final match of the first round – the 7:30pm start time. The result was basically as expected. We lost 3-0, with each set 25-16. Personally, I felt like we played them closer than that. Our commitment to defense was perhaps the highest of the season, which was great to see. We just lacked a bit in our execution in places. That’s not something you can afford when you’re the #8 playing the #1.

And thus did our season end.

Angelo went on to beat Tarleton in the tournament final, to no one’s surprise.

Moving forward

With regular practice and play over, I’ll shift away from the normal weekly updates. We will start back up with the players in limited hours (8 hours, only 2 on-court) next semester. In March we will begin our Spring (non-traditional) season when we get to practice regularly for a few weeks and play in some tournaments. Between now and then I’ll provide updates as I feel there are interesting things to report.

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Recently, during a serving and passing drill, our setters took turns setting off of the pass. One setter asked me why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My point to her was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Coaching Log – November 14, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

It’s down to the last week of the regular season. Angelo clinched the title with their win over us last week. Every other place remained up for grabs, as you can see from the standings.

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Our participation in the conference tournament was in the balance as we were tied with Texas Woman’s. Although the standings show Midwestern above Woman’s, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head. We lost both times we played them, so they actually started the week in pole position. We, therefore, needed to win at least one more match than they did to qualify for the tournament.

So what were the prospects? Not super. Our schedule featured a home match against the bottom team and an away match at the current #3 team. Woman’s was on the road at West Texas and UT Permian Basin. Their odds of winning at WT were small. UTPB maybe not as much. The lost to them in 5 the last time, but Woman’s was down one of their best hitters at the time.

Monday

Defense was a big focus for this session. We watched video of our play from the weekend. We highlighted some good stuff offensively, but also some shortcomings on defense. Positioning was part of that. We also talked about our blocking. That stuff was carried over into practice.

We started with a 6 v 6 team pepper with a specific focus on defensive movement for back row attacks. After that we played a target serving game. From there it was a progression to an out of system game. That allowed us to work on some positioning elements, while also continuing to develop that area of play. We finished with 6 v 6 play.

Tuesday

This was our last home match of the season, and Cameron was the visitor. This is a match we viewed ourselves as strongly favored for based both on Cameron’s record and our earlier performance against them.

That ended up playing out. The Cameron players really didn’t have a lot of fight in them, especially as the match went along. We weren’t as efficient on offense as we could have been, which ended up leading to several long rallies. That resulted in our digging 70 balls, which was second most for a 3-set match in the conference this year.

After our match we hosted a playoff match between two of the local area high schools. One of the teams actually featured one of our committed incoming freshmen. Her team won in five in front of a good, enthusiastic crowd. Part of the revenue match is supposed to go to our program.

Wednesday

This was a pretty low energy session. It picked up toward the end, but generally the focus level was below expectations. We once more began with a 6 v 6 team pepper, though slightly modified from the one we did on Monday. With a review of the stats from our last match against Friday’s opposition in mind (we served very poorly), we repeated Monday’s serving competition next.

After that, we move into hitters vs. blockers. Mainly that meant the OHs. This was all done off serve, and things went badly. The servers really took the passers apart. There were very few in-system balls for the setters to set as a result.

Our last planned exercise was 22 vs. 22. The bonus element was saying if a team got a first ball kill on a tip or shot they automatically won the big point. The play was somewhat sluggish, so after a couple of rounds we just finished with some 4s play.

Thursday

This was primarily a travel day, as we had an 8-hour trip ahead of Friday’s match. We did stop along the way to do a short practice at the high school of one of our players, however, to take a break from the bus. That was followed by dinner at her home before getting back on the road and finishing the trip.

Friday

The final match of the regular season saw us playing at Kingsville. They handled us relatively easily the first time around as we struggled considerably in serve receive and served poorly.

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Serving was much better this time around, though we still has some issues in serve receive. We got aced 9 times in the first two sets, which obvious puts a team under pressure. The funny thing is we hit .481 and .290 in those sets. Part of that was that we passed well when not getting aced. Another part was our hitters keeping their errors down. Unfortunately, we struggled to stop their offense as they hit .458 and .351 respectively. Both sets ended 25-19 against.

The third set was very evenly matched. Both teams struggled a bit on offense, hitting in the .100s. We just couldn’t take advantage of a few key opportunities to score, and ended up losing 25-22.

Saturday

On Friday evening, Texas Woman’s lost to West Texas. That left it to their match at UTPB on Saturday to determine the 8th spot for the conference tournament. If they won, we’d end up tied in the standings, but they would take the final place by way of the tiebreak.

I followed the match online via the live stats. Woman’s won the first two sets. I figured we were probably toast at that point. UTPB came back and won two tight sets to send it to a fifth, though. The final was a nail-biter. Woman’s had a couple of match points, but ended up going down 22-20.

Observations

Time to prepare the team to take on Angelo at their place for the second time in two weeks!

As an aside, the other MSU Fall sports have had pretty successful season. Cross Country and Women’s Soccer both won their conference championships. Men’s Soccer was regular season champion, but lost in the tournament final. Both soccer teams have made the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Nationally ranked Football lost their last game of the year to only managed a 2nd place finish in conference.

Technical vs Mental Training

Once upon a time I considered myself a highly technically oriented coach. I focused a lot on how players executed skills. I came up from a highly block oriented training background (meaning skill repetition), and I think the two kind of went together. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to shift to a more mental view of training.

I don’t recall a specific moment when the light bulb went off. I think it was more of a gradual realization that the teams I was involved in coaching were just not playing the game as well as required. They could execute the skills, but that simply wasn’t enough.

What do I mean by a more mental focus?

Basically, I mean focusing more on the structure of play and the decision-making process. The latter relates to choices individual players make while they play. For example, should I attack the ball aggressively here? Do I need to make sure I keep my serve in this time? Who’s my best set choice at this moment? And so on down to the level the specific skill the player elects to use. This is the solution side of the solution-execution combo Julio Velsaco talked about when I was at the 2014 HP Coaches Clinic.

The structure of play aspect relates to how players work together. It’s an element of what Mark Lebedew wrote about in his The Key to Volleyball post. Mark has also previously talked about how as soon as you have more than one player on the court it becomes an organizational situation much more so than a technical one.

I should note that when I talk about structure of play I’m not talking about systems. Yes, systems are part of it. For me, though, structure begins with mentality and expectations. How do we train and play as a group? That then feeds into how each individual plays within the scope of their role in the squad.

Is technique important? Of course. But technique is at the end of a chain on things, most of which are not physical. The vast majority of a player’s time is spent not in skill execution, but in preparing for that execution (see Going beyond maximizing player contacts). That is largely mental, and it’s where truly great players and teams excel.

Striking the balance

Clearly, we cannot just coach the mental side of the game. If a player can’t execute the skills, the rest won’t matter much. The question is finding the balance based on where your players are in their development. In my case, I have mostly dealt with players who have at least some base level of skill. Gains from improvements in technical ability at that level are generally less than those from improvements in the mental parts of the game – at least up to a certain point.

As always, it comes down to you as the coach evaluating your situation, setting priorities, and remaining focused on them.

Coaching Log – November 7, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Just two weeks left in the regular season and things are still working themselves out in the Lone Star Conference. Most of the results went as expected, but there were a couple of interesting ones. Top of the last was Cameron getting its first victory of the year against Western New Mexico. The other was Commerce winning at Kingsville. Angelo continues to roll along and started the new week #10 in the Division II poll.

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Unfortunately, our losses against Eastern NM and Western NM (especially the latter), probably reduced our chances of moving up from 8th place to near zero. Western doesn’t have any easy matches left, but play four of their last six at home. We probably need them to lost almost all of them to have a shot at jumping into 7th.

Monday

After the weekend’s exertions, and with the match upcoming on Tuesday, we had a light session. We did some serve & pass. Then we worked a little on a new option for one of our serve receive rotations, which has had some problems. Lastly, we had them play some 4s. All together it was about 75 minutes.

Before practice we did video on the upcoming match. We also talked about some stats I developed. One of our biggest focus areas of the last few weeks has been defense. One part of that was getting our block timing corrected as we were late very frequently. The other part was improving positioning and reading, as well as digging the ball and having a stronger mentality about keeping the ball off the floor.

The stats I did compared our performance in the first half of the conference season to how we have done through the second half to-date. I calculated block and dig percentages. By that I mean I calculated the number of non-error attacks (excluding blocked balls) by the other team. I then divided blocks and digs by that number to get a percentage.

Up to this point we played five matches in the second half of the conference schedule. In all but one, our block percentage was higher than when we played those same teams the first time around. The same was true for dig percentage (different team, though). I also added blocks and digs to come up with an overall defensive percentage. In only one instance was that number lower the second time around. In three cases it was 10 points higher.

Tuesday

We played Texas Woman’s at home. Like our Commerce match two weeks prior, this was a chance to reverse a tough 5-set loss the first time we played them. Things didn’t go to script.

This was a really disappointing performance. We lost 3-0 despite holding the other team to hitting below .100 as we only managed to hit .041. We only got kills on 23% of our swings, which is incredibly low. Our serving and passing wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad. The one issue we had with the serving was bad errors. At one point in the third set we missed three straight in the net. Hard to get much going when you do that.

After the match we ended up having a long meeting in which we collectively talked about the vibe on the court and how we can get things turned around to finish the season strong and positive.

Wednesday

We actually didn’t train for very long this day. Much of our practice time slot was dedicated to video review. We watched some of the prior night’s match to look at things both offensively and defensively. In the case of the latter, there wasn’t a lot of negative to point out. A little bit of positional stuff and some movement bits, but in line with what we’ve seen in the numbers, we’re definitely doing better. In terms of the offense, we talked quite a bit about the purpose of what we’re looking to do in attack. There were a number of questions, which isn’t a real surprise given how poorly we’ve generally been on offense of late.

Once it got to practice, we only really did one set of exercises. On one court the head coach worked with the passers on some technical elements. On the other court I initially had the Middles. A major focus was on spacing to allow them to be able to attack different angles. Later the OHs came over to work on the tempo of their sets as well. This has been a major breakdown of late.

Thursday

We watch video on our prior match against Friday’s opponent before practice. This was a shift from our prior scouting where we focused on recent matches. Partly, this reflected the fact that there wasn’t likely to be much change in opposing personnel or playing style from the last time we played. Mainly, though, we wanted to look at the things that worked on offensive and how we could be a bit better defensively.

Practice itself was something of a progression. We started with some 3 v 3 over-the-net pepper – first with down balls, then back row swings. After some target serving work, it was on to an out-of-system setting and hitting exercise, and then Side-v-Side, a competitive variation on Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting. We ran the latter to continue the prior day’s work on outside set rhythm. From there we shifted to 6 v 6 play.

This was one of the more positive and energetic recent sessions. It seemed like a good prep for the weekend’s matches.

Friday

We played at Tarleton. Our home match against them was one of our better performances.

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The return fixture was pretty good as well. We lost 3-0, and the scores didn’t really flatter us, but offensively we were much improved. Unfortunately, they really did a number on us with a couple of tough servers. They also played really good defense. I think the team came away feeling much better than in other recent performances, while also knowing where we need to be better.

Saturday

We were at conference leaders Angelo.

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When we played them the first time it was a poor match. This time it was much better. We still lost 3-0, but we continued to perform at a higher level. We made a defensive change for this match. All season we’ve played with our OHs defending in middle back (6). For this match we shifted one of them to left back (5). She ended up with 18 digs. This is something we may expand heading into the final week of the season.

Observations

Tuesday’s match could end up being a “what could have been” moment for the team. We’ll have to see when the dust settles at the end of the conference season.