Archive for Volleyball Coaching Articles

Move your feet or move your platform?

A topic of fairly frequent discussion in coaching conversations I’ve had in the last six months or so has been serve reception technique. A lot of us were taught some variation on the idea of getting yourself to the ball – perhaps center line, perhaps pass left. Call that the “move your feet” school of passing.

This is a school with deep roots. It basically goes back to the beginnings of forearm passing (no, people didn’t always pass with their forearms, but don’t ask me when that changed). In those days serves were comparatively weak. They were almost exclusively done from standing, so they had an arc and often had little in the way of velocity. In other words, there was time for passers to move – as witnessed by the USA men employing a 2-person serve reception when they won their Olympic gold medals in the 1980s.

Then came the Brazilians. In the 1980s they started doing topspin jump serving. It wasn’t quite to the point you see it today – especially in the men’s game – but it was fast enough to force a change in serve reception to generally having a minimum of three passers, which is what you see today.

Then came the jump float serve. Granted, it’s not as pacy as the topspin version, but the lack of an arc on the ball (because you’re serving from above the level of the net) combined with higher velocities than normally seen from the standing version made for less reaction time. One can often find coaches targeting 40mph+ for jump float serves. At that tempo the ball goes about 59 feet per second – so just under the length of the court. Not a lot of time to react and move.

Now imagine how quickly a strong jump serve gets to a passer – especially considering the broad jump taking them further into the court on contact. How much time do you think a passer has to move their feet.

So, basically we have a fundamental question:

At what point do serves move too fast for passers to use that perfect reception technique that we’ve all been taught?

One coach I spoke with recently joked, “14s.” Obviously, the answer comes down to the quality of the serving.

You can tie in here the idea of using arms vs. legs to add impetus to the passed ball. I’m not going to get into an argument here over which is better. Rather, I will ask a similar question as the one above:

At what point are serves hard enough that you don’t need to add anything to them to get the ball to target?

The answer is probably very similar to the answer to the first question. And at a certain point you’re trying to take something off the ball.

The bottom line in serve reception is the platform angle. It, and only it, will determine where the ball goes. This was a point made by Tom Tait when I interviewed him for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Along with being the original coach for both the men and women at Penn State, Tom is a long-time professor of kinesiology, so he knows a thing or two about this stuff. Though in this case he speaks in terms of physics and Issac Newton. 🙂

When I was at the HP Coaches Clinic last year, French coach Laurent Tillie caused a ruckus when he suggested a cross-over step and end passing with bent arms. After hearing about this, Mark Lebedew did a review of the French passing in recent international competitions and found that the main focus was on setting and holding a proper platform angle (the cross-over step only happened after the pass).

So while training passers, are we better off giving feedback on the platform rather than the feet?

Being a sponge

In a recent email exchange with a coaching contact in Germany, I made the comment that I’m ready for my vacation to end. He laughed that he couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind would want a holiday in Southern California to come to an end (it’s basically middle 70F/24C and sunny every day, some days warmer). He’s probably right, but I’m ready to get on to whatever comes next. It’s now been a month of relative inactivity, which is long enough.

Of course, I haven’t exactly been doing nothing. I’ve been active in the job market. I’m working on developing an online course. I’ve also conducted several interviews for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. In fact, just last night I interviewed Terry Pettit, legendary Nebraska coach. The Wizards work has kept me in developmental mode.

I’ve written before about the value of watching other coaches in action in terms of helping to affirm what you’re doing. Obviously, that’s great for learning new stuff and gaining a different perspective on things. It’s highly recommended.

For me – and I suspect my project partner Mark Lebedew would agree – conducting these interviews has served a similar role. Some of them get me thinking about things in a different way. Some of them give me ideas for ways of dealing with different situations. Some of them help to affirm my coaching philosophy.

A common recommendation from the Wizards to developing coaches is to be a sponge. During this time away from coaching that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

What if you’re not coaching “the game”?

Over at the Arizona Sidelines Coaching Blog there was a recent post which addressed the subject of doing non-game-like drills. It included a lot of references to videos of activities which would appear to have very little to do with actual volleyball. The leading example was one where a coach was rolling balls and requiring a player to moved to them and roll them back. I’ve actually seen a variation of this drill run. The author said the following:

“Motor learning science is adamant about Game-Like Reps in practice; better skill acquisition, better transfer and better retention. Chasing rolling balls across the floor while 10 girls stand and watch doesn’t come up a whole lot in the game. So why?”

Now, I am very much in line with the philosophy of making things as game-like as we possibly can in training. Just the other day I had a go at men’s volleyball players at a recent match for some of what they were doing. Here’s a question, though.

What if we’re not actually training the game at the moment, though?

Let me clarify. In volleyball, as in anything, there are technical skills and there are game skills. Motor learning, as noted above, strongly suggests that skills are best developed in a game-like environment. And I doubt anyone will argue that learning things like reading and decision-making are also best accomplished in a similar fashion.

What about things that are not specific to the sport, though?

I’m not talking about physical stuff here. First off, you can make the case that any strength and conditioning work you do should be directly related to the sport you’re playing. Further, you can also make the case that much of that type of development is best accomplished on the court.

Instead, I’m talking about mental development. I have in mind what might broadly be classified as mental toughness. More specifically, it could include things like dealing with adversity, focusing on the next play and letting mistakes go, and those sorts of things. I know personally these are things I specifically work on with my teams. I’ve talked about ways of doing so in my Training beyond techniques and tactics post.

If mental training is the primary focus of a specific exercise, can we accept deviations from “the game teaches the game”?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

This coaching action – fair or foul?

In the match I coached on Saturday the opposing coach did something. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

It was late in the 4th set. We were up 2-1 and leading. It might have even been match point (24-23). I can’t recall exactly and don’t have the score sheet at hand.

Anyway, they were out of timeouts. The coach called a sub to go in, but she went to the sideline holding a paddle with the number of no player currently on the court. Substitution errors like this are team delay faults, and thus earn a delay warning. During the ensuing pause as the score table recorded the warning, the other coach could be seen grinning in our direction, making it clear he had intentionally made the substitution error as a way to get a defacto timeout.

Brilliant move or unsportsmanlike?

It didn’t work, by the way.

Philosophy on 2-person serve receive

I had a question come in from a reader recently on the subject of serve receive. Here it is:

Do you have any thoughts, articles, philosophies about 2 person serve receive?  I am coaching a good 16s juniors team and would like to think outside the box some.

I have actually used a 2-man reception with a team myself. It was a boy’s team back in 1998 for a state tournament. I had two clearly strong passers – one an OH and one a RS. It worked out pretty well. We won the gold. 🙂

At that point, though, the serving in the boys’ game wasn’t as tough as it’s become. We didn’t face any jump servers that I can recall. As a result, it was much easier for two players to cover the court than it likely would be today. It would be a challenge to go with only 2 passers in the women’s game because they physically don’t cover as much space as men and the flatter trajectory of the serves already makes them very challenging to pass.

I can still see value in a 2-person reception focus, though. By that I mean having two players take most of the court with one or more others having smaller, defined areas of coverage. You can actually see this sort of thing at work when a team wants to limit how much passing a front row attacker has to do. They push them toward the side line and let the libero and back row attacker take like 80% of the court.

Personally, I think there are always opportunities to put your best passers in position to take the most balls. You need to consider what sort of serves you’ll be facing and look at your rotations. There may be ways you can position non-primary passers to take certain balls. For example, a MB taking short serves in their zone. It’s all about maximizing what you have.

Some things to make volleyball better

There’s an article on Volleyball Country in which a contributor talks about three things he thinks would make volleyball better. This is from a spectator’s perspective They are:

  • Emotions
  • Live statistics
  • Better video challenge

The other two are fairly straightforward. In terms of emotion, the author’s idea is to allow players to basically taunt the opposition. For example, a blocker would be able to scream in the face of a hitter they just roofed.

Maybe he doesn’t remember, but that sort of thing used to be allowed – at least in men’s volleyball. On the women’s side the rules of conduct were more strict in my remembering. I recall always thinking it was stupid that a girl would get a yellow card, or at least a warning, for something that boys did all the time. These days male and female players basically operate by what I remember were the expectations for girls when I was involved in high school volleyball in the late 80s.

Personally, I’m fine with things the way they are. I think there’s plenty of emotion in the sport. The author specifically mentioned football as an example of a sport with a lot of emotion, but the NFL banned taunting years ago.

For me, there’s a real difference in watching men’s volleyball live vs. watching it on TV. I much prefer the former because you experience the emotion, the athleticism, the power and speed, etc. in a way which has yet to really translate through the broadcast medium. I think women’s volleyball, with it’s generally longer rallies and lesser reliance on physicality, is a better TV/streaming watching experience.

Of course, the quality of the broadcast is a central factor, which speaks to the live stats and video replay improvement desires.

Is blaming the hitters really the right call?

There was a post on the Volleywood website following the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup in which the author sought to explain why the US failed to finish in the top two. It’s something I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing the article, but PhD thesis work had me otherwise occupied.

Now I’ve got a chance, so here goes!

The author of the piece spends a lot of time talking about hitting errors and the team’s low hitting percentage in key matches. At the end, though, he also says the US had by far the best serve reception efficiency among the key contenders. While it’s easy to blame the hitters for poor hitting, I couldn’t help but think the problem was with poor decision-making and/or execution by the setters.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch any of the matches. However, when a team passes well and generally speaking has a pretty good collection of attackers, but hits poorly then my first question is whether the setter is getting the job done.

Being ready is often a function of trust

A while back, Mark from At Home on the Court wrote a post on the subject of technical vs. non-technical reasons for errors in volleyball. In it he blamed lack of readiness for many of the mistakes we see in play. He recently specifically highlighted that with regards to players playing the ball with their feet.

Now, we’re not talking about a player sliding toward the sign boards or the score table. We’re talking about a player who has their weight on their heels and basically has no option but to perform a “kick save” type action. Their lack of defensive readiness prevents them doing anything else.

I’ll add a layer of readiness to the mix by including trust in the discussion. Specifically, I’m talking about the trust between players that someone is going to make a play.

This is something that was very much on my mind following Monday’s first training session with Svedala. I saw players making really outstanding plays on the ball. They were recovering balls from out of the net, chasing balls down all over the place, and keeping what looked like sure-thing kill balls from hitting the floor. Too often, though, I saw teammates not anticipating and being ready to make a good next contact.

The same can be said to apply to hitters with respect to sets. While I was at Exeter I had a setter one year who loved to do counter-flow back sets to the Zone 2 pin. This sometimes caught our hitters flat-footed because they weren’t expecting it, even though it was exactly the right set to make in the situation.

Trust in one’s teammates to do their job and to make plays goes a long way toward being ready.

A sample weight training program

Here is a sample weight training program currently being used by a men’s professional volleyball team. I present it for your information and maybe to provide some ideas for your own purposes. I’m not suggesting it should be used as-is for your own team.

Each sessions starts with a warm-up of 5 minutes or so on a stationary bike

After that is a series of core and shoulder stability exercises, which vary from session to session. In the case of shoulders, they do three sets of 12 repetitions of a couple exercises with either dumbbells or bands. For the core exercises, is three exercises for 40 seconds each, twice through. Obviously, this is adjustable.

The preparatory phase ends with a leg circuit of leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises. These are meant as warm-up, so lighter weights – 3 sets of 8.

There are three rotating lifting routines.

A – Cleans, Squats, Bend Press, Low Row
B – 1-arm Rows, Lateral Raises, Chest Butterfly, Curls, Shoulder 8
C – Front Raises, Standing Rows, Triceps Extensions, Forearm Curls, Back Raise

The routines are alternated A-B-A-C-A. The team lifts 5 days per week. The sets and repetitions are adjusted over time.