And then it all went sideways!

Once upon a time I mentioned a challenge I had in running a pair of tryouts for the Exeter university teams I coached. Specifically, I had to plan something despite not knowing how many players I would have, or how many helpers. I had only an hour allocated for each gender. That’s inclusive of introduction and warm-up (and any lingering registration stuff). So basically, I had to come up with a flexible warm-up activity that could account for players trickling in from getting registered. Then I had to have about 40 minutes worth of primary drills/games.

A real coach’s dream situation, eh?

I basically took a end-to-beginning approach in my planning. I wanted to end with some kind of play. Given my expectation of large numbers and the small amount of time, 6 v 6 was out. I needed something that could reasonably accommodate player counts in the 20s on a single court. I decided to go with two half-court Speedball games going side-by-side. Depending on the numbers, I could have both mini courts be doubles, both be triples, or one for each.

Since I had access to the bigger sports hall, I really wanted to see serving and passing. For that I picked the 2-sided serving & passing drill. It’s one that allows for some flexibility in numbers involved. That said, however, you probably don’t want more than about 14 in the drill (6 passers, 2 targets, 6 servers). That meant I needed to have something on the side for excess players and to thereby have a rotation through the drill. That would have to be something like a pepper or defensive drill which could be done without the net in a fairly confined area. I decided that if I had helpers of a reasonable caliber I would have a defense station, but otherwise go with group pepper.

Now, if players were serving – and then later hitting – I needed to make sure their shoulders were sufficiently warm. To accomplish that, I decided to split the group in half. One would do a partner serving warm-up on the net, the other would do partner pepper off the court. After a certain amount of time (probably 5 minutes max) I would have them flip.

That leaves the initial warm-up. My plan was to have the returners lead the group in dynamic warm-up after the introduction. By that point we should have most people, if not all, through the registration process and ready to go. Plus, it would give me a chance to see who takes it seriously and who just goes through the motions.

That was the basic plan going in. Here’s the reality.

The women

I ended up with what must have been close to 50 women’s trialists!

That mandated a rapid change of approach. We had to make on-the-fly cuts, which I wouldn’t otherwise do. Fortunately, we had more gym space than we’d though, so rather than saying to a player “Sorry, you’re out” we could simply move them over to the other side of the curtain where they could continue working with some of the helpers who were on-hand. Yes, those players probably figured out pretty quickly what the situation was, but it was a bit more gentle than having to just ask them to leave the gym outright.

We ran four-person pepper after doing a dynamic warm-up. That was when we started culling the more obvious No’s. I then had them doing some serving – kind of like a pre-match warm-up thing. Definitely not ideal given the numbers we still had, but it was an easy way to identify more players just not up to the required standard.

Luckily, having the extra gym space availed us of a second court. Because of a curtain situation it wasn’t full-sized, but we managed. I split the group in half and sent one set of players over there to hit, keeping the other to do serving and passing, swapping the groups at a certain point. We were able to get down to 27 players left in the mix for the last 20 minutes, during which I had them play Speedball, more or less as outlined above.

The men

Things were much more reasonable for the men. We only had 20 of them to manage, which was just a little more than we had last season.

Because they had largely been peppering and stuff on the other side of the curtain before getting going, after doing a dynamic warm-up I had them go straight into doing some serving. As with the women, I also had them doing serving and passing, and finished with Speedball. Because I had a bit of extra time, though, I also had them run through hitting lines going through 4 and 2.


I met with the leadership after the men’s try-out to discuss who would be invited back for this week’s try-out continuation. On the women’s side we cut the list from that 27 still involved at the end down to 17. On the men’s side we ended up with 15.

Moving forward

The week after that initial tryout we had sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They were a combination of a continuation of the try-outs and the start of training for that year’s teams. The anticipation was we might see a handful of additional players turn up who either didn’t know about the trials, weren’t on campus yet, had a conflict, or whatever.

I was personally looking forward to being able to really take a close look at the new players that week after the initial view. Especially with the women, it was almost impossible to do that during the tryout. As I told someone that evening, I was so focused on who we should cut that I didn’t have the opportunity to really look at the Yes and Maybe players to see what they had to offer. Now I could do that and start to think in terms of team composition.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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