Archive for Volleyball Coaching Articles

How do I get a college assistant coach position?

A reader emailed me the following:

I have been applying for assistant coaching positions for college volleyball but haven’t had any luck. What step will you advise so I can get my feet wet. I was considering on becoming an volunteer coach for a local college.How would you suggest asking for a position as a volunteer coach?

In response to a follow-up email, she told me her background is as follows:

  • Played first at a Junior College, then at an NCAA Division I program.
  • Was a student assistant at her Division I school
  • Assisted at a junior college for a season
  • Coaches juniors volleyball

In terms of cracking into Division I or II coaching, which is where more full-time positions are available, one of the first things to consider is trying to find a Graduate Assistant position. This offers the advantage of earning a Masters degree. This is very desirable when it comes to getting a head coach job down the line. Obviously, you also gain coaching experience.

An alternative path into coaching is to become a Director of Volleyball Operations (DOVO). This is technically a non-coaching role. It is, however, an opportunity to learn a lot about running a volleyball program that could be handy later. It also lets you learn by observing and having regular interaction with the coaching staff. Such positions can be direct stepping stones into a coaching job with that program.

Volunteer coaching is certainly an option. I would suggest if someone were to go this route, though, that you have a very specific focus in mind. Volunteer coaching can be a path into a full-time coaching position, but only if you put yourself in a good position. That’s probably something worth it’s own article. The main idea is that if you’re going to provide your coaching services for no pay, you should have a pretty good idea of the path forward from there – either with that team or elsewhere.

It’s worth having a look at the annual jobs thread which runs at Volley Talk.

Regardless of which way you look to go, one thing worth doing is getting out and working a bunch of college camps. That will get your exposure to potential employers and help you develop your network, which is a very good thing.

Trying to please television

The FIVB is at it again. They are once more experimenting with changing the set structure to try to get a volleyball match to more predictably fit in to the 2 hour time slot television supposedly favors. Those of us who’ve been around the game for a while will recall something similar attempted early in the rally score era. Obviously, it didn’t go very far as we’re still doing best of 5 matches these days.

A question I have is whether it’s really worth trying to fit into that 2-hour time slot. Will volleyball suddenly be that much more attractive to broadcasters if the matches were of a consistent length?

I don’t know the answer to that, but evidence from other sports suggest it doesn’t matter as much as some might think. Tennis is essentially the same type of scoring structure as volleyball. Baseball certainly can be all over the place in terms of game lengths.

I think if you’re going to confine volleyball to a certain preferred time length for matches you probably need to put it on the clock in some fashion. That said, I don’t think timed games is the way to go. The nice thing about the point goal set-up of the sport is that lopsided games get cut-off fairly quickly. When you’re on the clock things can get out of hand, and as a result become quite boring. I experienced this while in England. A team I coached won a 20-minute timed set by something like 55-10.

Actually, in order to keep underdog teams in those sorts of match-ups fighting to the end they gave credit for not getting totally blown out. A team got 3 points for a win (maybe it was only 2). If the losing team was within 25% of the winning team’s score, they would earn a point. That made for much more interesting play when it came down toward the end of those games as the losing teams were fighting to get/stay above that threshold.

But that’s a side note.

The thought that occurred to me is if we don’t want those kinds of very one-sided situations, but want to retain a time clock we need to think in different terms. I had the idea of teams playing a series of mini sets – say to something like 8 points. The team winning the most sets within the allotted time wins the match.

The reason I say mini sets is because there is more opportunity for upsets, which keeps things interesting. There are a lot of things in terms of line-ups and subs that would have to be worked out, though.

Assistant coach meetings?

While I was interviewing for my current job at Midwestern State I was told that there are regular Assistant Coach meetings. These generally follow the regular Head Coach meetings run by the Athletic Department. Basically, the idea is to ensure that assistants get the information they are supposed to get. Apparently there were some issues with head coaches not passing things along from their meetings.

Imagine that! Head coaches hording information – or simply forgetting to disseminate it to their staff. 🙂

This is the first time I’ve been somewhere that had these sorts of meetings just for assistants. At Brown and Rhode Island there were regular general coaching staff meetings where we went over administrative stuff and developments in the area of NCAA rules and compliance. Maybe that served to ensure information was getting out to everyone.

I’m trying to recall whether there were regular head coach meetings at those schools. For sure they happened periodically. And of course even very senior assistants tend not to be overly welcome at such meetings – no matter if the head coach can’t make it.

That aspect of things aside, I can see the value of having regular meetings for assistant coaches. It’s very easy in college sports for each team to operate in its own little bubble. Even when that doesn’t happen, we tend to operate in different facilities and on conflicting schedules, so our paths don’t necessarily cross readily. Yes, sports that share a facility will naturally tend to interact (like volleyball and basketball), but aside from that, not so much. Meetings like this give the staff a chance to meet and get to know each other a bit.

They can also provide a forum for assistants to talk about things at their own level. I can see the value.

Of course today I got an invite to my first assistants meeting and found out it conflicts with team practice.

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?

Having a pre-serve process

volleyball serve

Serving is the only closed-chain skill in volleyball. By that I mean it’s the only skill which is no reliant on someone else first doing something. Setters need a pass. Hitters need a set. Blockers and defenders need an attack. The server, though, is in full control of their own execution. That allows them to develop a routine before they put the ball in play.

Having a pre-execution routine is something we see in other sports. Baseball is probably the most obvious example for American sports fans because it has so many discreet plays. You can definitely put tennis in the same category.

In volleyball, some servers have very simple routines – hold the ball up, wait for the whistle, toss and hit. Others get more involved with a bunch of bouncing and/or hitting the ball. Perhaps the most over-the-top pre-serve routine I’ve ever seen involved a bunch of bouncing with weaving body/leg movement. Not something I personally would have encouraged.

And it doesn’t just apply to the player with the ball – the server or the pitcher. It also applies to the receiver, as Natalie Hagglund (US national team and former USC libero) pointed out in a recent post. In fact, some of the more ridiculous pre- routines can be found by hitters in baseball.

In particular, Natalie’s discussion of pre-serve routine focuses on keeping things simple. To quote:

“Your process should be short, sweet and should be able to trigger some sort of reaction.”

I’d say the same thing about serving.

And beyond the process, there’s also the focus. Here too Natalie recommends keeping this limited. If you’re focused on too many things you’ll probably find yourself overwhelmed. This applies to coaches just as much to players, by the way.

So give Natalie’s post a read. I would suggest, though, that the “simple” process described in one of comments left by another reader sounds anything but.

A 1-hour practice plan

The other day we had the last of the off-season practice sessions with the team before they went on Spring Break, after which we’ll go into the non-traditional season (Spring Training). For those with an NCAA background, you’ll know that only 2 hours of on-court work is permitted during the off season. All the players had done an hour already earlier in the week – either individually or in small groups. This session, though, featured everyone. As I only recently found out, that is now allowed in Division II.

Since we only have two practices before our first Spring tournament, the head coach wanted to give the players a chance to go 6 v 6 for the first time in a long while. It was therefore decided that 30 minutes of time was going to be devoted to that. The first 30 minutes was build up to it.

Here’s one of the tricks of maximizing your time with the players in this kind of situation. Get them to warm-up on their own before you get into the gym. That way you can go right to work. By the time we got there, the players were already into playing back row Winners 3s.

Activity #1
We had 12 players with just one court set up. The first thing we did was to have them play 3 v 3 on a narrow court. In other words, we had two games going on next to each other. The players were grouped by position, then did a count-off to decide their teams. Two rounds of play were run, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers for the second one. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a back row attack only game. Games were played to 8.

Activity #2
The second activity is something I did at times with my Svedala team. I developed it as a kind of a Belly Drill or Speedball variation in teams of 4 (counted off as above). Two teams were on the court with one off waiting to come on. The teams on played out a 4 v 4 rally (all hitting options available). At its conclusion, the losers were replaced by the waiting team while a coach initiated a ball to the winners (down ball over the net).

This is a fast paced game with very little down time for players. We played for 15 minutes and had the teams keep track of rally wins. I think it was something like 27, 25, and 20. So we got in at least as many points as you’d get in 1.5 sets in less time than it generally takes to play a single one. This is more rallies than we’d have gotten in had we been going with Winners 4s with the inherent delay of teams waving through to the winners’ side.

Activity #3
The last half of the session was given over to simple game play. The players were divided up by position, which created some imbalances and caused some funky rotational requirements. One of the assistants jumped in to balance out the hitting, while a pair of defenders split time playing back row for one team. They got into a second set before the hour was up and decided to keep going after we left.

Skill coverage
Let’s think about the various skills and how much they were included in this short session.

  • Serving was included in the 3 v 3 game and the 6 v 6, though in the latter case not everyone ended up doing it because of the team compositions (some players front-row-only).
  • Serve reception was part of both the 3 v 3 and 6 v 6.
  • Setting was included in all of the games, though it was only in 6 v 6 where the setters specifically took all the second balls. In the other games sometimes they did, but often times it was other players.
  • Hitting was included in all three games from a variety of locations.
  • Blocking was included in all three games, though only in the 6 v 6 was their regular double blocking.
  • Defense was included in all three games, with the 4 v 4 essentially starting each rally with a defense ball (down ball from the other side of the net).

So you could say the balance was skewed toward the “open play” type of skills – setting, hitting, blocking, defense – with a bit less in serving and passing. We could have boosted the serve reception by having the assistants serve a ball to start the next rally in the 4 v 4 game.

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I have liked to use cooperative drills like this one, this one, and this one with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality – meaning game-like – contacts because rallies are sustained and the ball goes over the net a lot. Another is that they can help train players to make good decisions in situations where less aggressive play is demanded to keep the play going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

The other day at MSU we ran a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they were looking to win each one. In this variation, points could only be scored actively, not on opponent error. Basically, that means you get a point for a kill or a block, but nothing for an opponent hitting error. At the end of a rally, a new ball was initiated by a coach (over the net) to the team that won (whether they earned a point or not).

The team played 4 games to eight points – 4 vs 4, 4 vs 2, 2 vs 2, 2 vs. 4.

On the face of it, this might be a nice way to work on cross-court defense and things like that. At one point, though, I was tempted to call a time out and see if I could get the hitters to think about the easiest way to score.

Have you figured out what that would be?

Consider this. You have one blocker in position 2. You have defenders in 4, 5, and 6 basically covering half the court. That leaves half the court wide open. Yes, it’s technically out of bounds. But if you can tick the ball off the block …

If the players were to get smart enough to realize this, then the drill/game kind of falls apart – at least from the perspective of wanting lots of touches from more sustained rallies. On the other hand, it could be an interesting exercise in getting hitters thinking outside the box and working the block.

My broad point in all this – like using other scoring systems and/or bonus points – is that you definitely need to make sure you think about the potential implications involved. Specifically, what might the scoring incentivize above and beyond the basic level?

Just something to consider in your planning.

What makes for a good coach?

Yesterday I wrote on the subject of whether great players make great coaches. Today I want to talk about what sort of talents or skills are required to be a great coach. This is a topic that no doubt will be at least part of what we do with Volleyball Coaching Wizards in the months ahead. For now, though, I just wanted share a few thoughts of my own mixed in with a few shared by the Wizards in the interviews we’ve done.

So where to start…?

Playing experience

Well, let me first address the playing experience question. I do think having played the sport is beneficial. In particular, playing at the level you’re coaching (or at least a reasonable facsimile) is useful. It provides you with a perspective that can sometimes help understanding what the players are going through and how to communicate with them. Having this experience isn’t necessary. The lack of it can be overcome. It just tends to make things easier – especially early in one’s career.

Playing position

Here’s something else that falls in the “useful, but not required” category. In baseball, you often see catchers become managers. It’s a position with a lot of leadership requirements as well as one which includes a broad perspective on the game. To my mind, setter is similar in volleyball. Because the setter is at the heart of most of what’s going on for a team, they inherently develop an understanding for tactics and strategy, plus have considerable work as leaders. Again, this doesn’t mean that non-setters can’t coach, or couldn’t be good coaches, just as not every manager in baseball used to be a catcher. It’s just that being a setter gives one a leg up in many ways.

Communication skills

This is where coaches can really get separated. If you want to be a great coach you need to be a good communicator. Technical knowledge is pretty easy to gain. Read a few books. Attend some clinics and seminars. Watch a bunch of matches. The key is being able to communicate that to your players. Doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t pass that on effectively. Think about the example of a professor who is a true expert in their field but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. You don’t want to be that type of coach.

Organizational skills

You may be wondering at this point, feeling like organizational skills aren’t really coaching. If you are then you need to adjust your thinking. They may not have much to do with what you’re doing on the court with your players, but they have a lot to do with how you structure things – including stuff as basic as practice sessions. Strong organizational skills help your develop good, effective practice plans. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many parts of coaching which take place off the court where your skills in administration and management are put to the test.

Put players first

At its core, coaching is an exercise in service to another. We are guiding and teaching and motivating others, but it’s those others that actually do all the real work. As such, we must be prepared to put the welfare of those we coach ahead of our own. This isn’t to say there isn’t some ego in coaching. It takes some just to believe that you can do the job. It’s a question of whether you’re coaching for you or for those on the team.

Coaching experience

This one seems pretty obvious, but let me provide a bit of detail. A couple of the Wizards have specifically talked about the need for developing coaches to get as much head coaching experience as they can because of the things you learn when you’re the one making the decisions. I would extend that by suggesting that you get as broad an experience base as you can because the more different types of situations you face the better you’ll be equipped to take on the variety of challenges you’ll face along the way.

I’m not sure I’d call this a comprehensive list of desirable skills or traits. I think it’s a reasonable starting point, though. Definitely feel free to share your own thoughts through the comment section below.

If you could ask just one question …

Imagine you get to talk with one of the world’s great volleyball coaches. You don’t have much time, though. You can ask them one question. What would that question be?

This is a question that popped into my mind yesterday. Of course in my work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project I get to ask a whole bunch of really successful coaches lots of different questions. In pondering that, though, I found myself wondering what one question would be the best one to ask if that was all I got.

For me the question I asked would vary based on the coach. They all have different backgrounds and experiences, different strengths and weaknesses, and differing perspectives on things. I’d try to ask something that would really let me drill down on a topic they might have some unique insight or perspective.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about you, dear reader. I want to hear what you’d ask. Use the comment area below let me know.

You can make it some thing general – a question you’d ask more or less any Wizard-type coach. Or, you can put in a specific question you’d ask a certain coach.

Either way, write your questions below – and who you’d ask them of, if you want – down below. It just might be that I can get them asked and answered!