As game-like as possible

In response to my post Going beyond maximizing player contacts, a reader made the following comment on LinkedIn.

“Reminds me of why I never even thought about teaching defense by standing on a box and hitting the ball at the defenders. How do you learn to read the block, the approach, the set location, and the hitter’s elbow position and arm swing by a coach standing still, tossing a ball a couple of feet, maybe, to himself to hit? Besides, who gets the most practice in that setup? The Coach, do you really need it? Same reason so many coaches are great servers, they get more practice than the players in lots of the drills. John Kessel has that saying about “The game teaches the game best!” I subscribe heartily to that sentiment and it would appear in the article that Mr. Forman agrees.”

I want to clarify something, since there has been a presumption about my volleyball coaching philosophy made here.

There’s a niggle I get when it comes to “the game teaches the game” ideal. It’s that taken to its logical conclusion we should just have our kids play all the time. That isn’t what Kessel means. There can be a tendency for a message like this to be diluted in transmission, though. The last word in the quote above – “best” – is often left out when volleyball coaches speak of this philosophy, or coaching style, or whatever you want to call it. That one little word is important, though.

Why do I say that? Because “… best” give us the flexibility we need to adjust things to our circumstances. We just simply can’t always have our players playing, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because of limitations. Sometimes it’s because of what we’re looking to accomplish. In those cases we perhaps cannot make things as game-like as would be ideal, but we have to try to make them as game-like as we possibly can.

Let me provide some examples.

Individual Training

Sometimes you only work with a single player. You obviously can’t play in this circumstance – unless you have a bunch of coaches or helpers available, which is rarely the case. You have to try to offset the tendency for this to result in very block-oriented training. By that I mean just isolated single skill repetitions.

The comment above about coaches hitting from boxes reminded me of some of the work I did while visiting with German professional men’s team TV Bühl in August 2014. We had one of the OPPs in for some individual work on his defense – his footwork in particular. The drill was a simple one. One coach was on a box hitting from 4 and I was on another box hitting from 2.

I think we all can agree this isn’t the ideal. As the commenter above notes, there’s no block or set or approach to read. I would argue the elbow and armswing elements remain, however. Plus, the attacks were at least coming from over the net and at an appropriate height. That’s more game-like than having a coach standing on the ground on the same side.

The fact that we mixed up where the attacks came from made for slightly less block-oriented training. I don’t remember whether we had him doing anything before or after digging. Adding in serving first, then attacking afterwards would have added game-like elements. We just wouldn’t have wanted to fatigue the athlete too quickly, though.

The idea in a case like this is to look at the situation and see what you can do to as closely replicate game type situations as possible within the limits you have. You aren’t going to be able to make the full sequence game-like. That being the case, focus on things around the key area of attention. In the defense footwork example here, we would ask the question what the player does immediately before having to react to the set positionally and immediately after digging the ball.

Harder reps

Sometimes in our training we want to put our players under more pressure than they are likely to get from their teammates in training. This might be to prepare for an upcoming opponent or simply to work on extending their abilities. Examples of this would be harder attacks or tougher serves. These are cases where having a coach hit/serve the ball rather than players offers a training advantage. It may offset the reduction in game-like elements and/or player reps – at least when used in a limited fashion.

Alternatively, you may want to put players or the team under a certain kind of pressure or a frequency of pressure they don’t get much of in simple training game play. Two examples of this are Scramble and 22 vs 22. In both games the coach is able to introduce balls which challenge the players in ways that perhaps they are not getting in game play, or that they need specific work on, and at a faster tempo.

Limiting player reps

Let’s face it. In some cases we simply can’t have our players doing all the reps we want in a given game or drill, either because of the fatigue factor or because of overuse concerns. The latter, in particular, was a big consideration when I was coaching at Brown. I know it was also a factor in some of what the SC Potsdam women’s German professional team did when I was with them during their preseason training (they didn’t do any jumping until my last day there). Using coaches to hit or serve is less game-like for sure, but you have to consider the trade-off. Better the coach gets a few extra reps than the players end up injured.

That said …

I do agree with the commenter about coaches getting more reps than their players. There are some situations where this can’t be avoided, but I personally try to set things up such that if I’m initiating a ball in to a game or drill there will be multiple contacts after my toss/hit/serve – preferably at least three. If you can do that you will generally be creating more random training elements and less block, which is the idea.

In Training beyond technique and tactics I extend on the discussion with respect to times when you’re not actually mainly training volleyball-specific skills.

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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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