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Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

Picking your libero

A coach thinking about team selection asked the following question about deciding which player should be the libero.

How do you decipher who would be your libero and who would be the defensive specialist?

Serve receive

First and foremost, you need to rate and rank your libero candidates by serve reception ability. I don’t mean you have to prioritize that, necessarily. You do, however, have to know how they all stack up. Reception, after all, is a big part of the libero’s job.

By the way, it’s best to rate players based on game passes. The scores you get from passes made in a scrimmage are a better indication of match performance than scores from a passing drill. A lot of elements contribute to this.

Now for the defensive considerations.

As a starting point, you may want to consider how you want to play defense. Do you play your libero in Position 5 or Position 6? If you know where you’ll place your libero, the decision process if fairly straightforward. You are looking for the best person to play that spot. It’s that simple.

Broadly speaking, you want someone mobile with good reading skills to play in Position 6. They tend to have more side-to-side responsibility and may have to chase balls down off the back of the court. In Position 5 you’re usually looking for someone quick and aggressive moving into the court. They have responsibility for setter dumps and tips, and when they do defend hit balls their area of responsibility is usually more narrow.

The above is how things usually go for a standard perimeter defense. Your system might vary from that, though, so think about each position’s requirements.

If you are more flexible with how you use your players, then the thinking is a bit different. Here you want to find the best available player, and then put them in the position that works best.

What’s your priority?

You’ve rated and ranked your libero prospects by their passing skills. You’ve also looked at who plays best in your defensive system, or ranked your players on their defense. Now you need to combine the two factors.

If your best defender is also your best passer, life it good. Easy decision. On to the next one!

If, however, you have a different top passer than top defender, you have a decision to make. Do you prioritize passing or defense higher? This should probably be based on which side of the game you think your libero will have the biggest impact. How you use them likely will factor into your evaluation here. Also, the abilities of the other players around them factor in here.

Think of the decision like this. Are you more comfortable with your libero being strong in serve reception, but weaker in defense? Or are you more comfortable if your libero is a strong defender, but not so strong in passing? And at what point does the weakness in the secondary skill become too big?

My own thinking

Personally, I will probably favor serve receive over defense when making a libero choice. I say that because it’s usually harder to hide a poor passer than a poor defender. Getting stuck in a rotation because your libero can’t pass the ball is worse than missing a few digs.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m only going to decide based on passing. If Player A has an average pass rating of 2.20 and Player B has a rating of 2.10, but is a much better defender, I’ll probably go with Player B. The small difference in passing quality is outweighed by the large difference in defensive capacity.

Don’t forget personality

Keep in mind the libero is going to be on the court most of the time. You want them to have the type of personality that contributes to and/or supports the mentality you expect from your team overall. You might have a player who doesn’t come in tops in passing or defense, but who makes the team better on the court. If that’s the case, you probably need to make them the libero. Don’t leave this part out of your decision-making.

How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

volleyball serve

A reader asked the question, “How we can teach the over arm serve for beginners?”

I see a lot of difference in how coaches coach serving. Here’s a video that I think gets the basic elements in place, though.

Getting it all pointed in the right direction

Broadly speaking, the main thing I’m trying to get a beginning server to do is to have everything move in the same direction. By that I mean I want to see their body and their arm swing all pointed the same way. Preferably, that’s at their target. This is how to generate optimal power and accuracy.

The first part of having everything going in one direction is the step. The step is what generates weight transfer, which is the first phase of power generation. I’m sure you can see how you want the server’s weight moving in the direction of their intended serve to generate the strongest possible serve.

The second part of having everything in the same direction is the toss. In order to make contact, the server’s hand must go to the ball. If the ball is tossed to the left of the hitter’s shoulder it will tend to go left, and if it’s tossed to the right the serve will tend to go right. Neither of these is an optimal situation for either power or accuracy. Instead, we want to the toss directly in front of the hitting shoulder.

If you can get the new server doing these two things, you will have gone a long way toward making them a consistent server. A good way to work on this is to stand directly behind them and provide feedback. Even better is to let them see themselves on video from that angle. That will really help to highlight things for them.

Coaching the toss

The vast majority of serving errors have poor tosses as their root cause. It takes a lot of practice to get this part to be consistent. I personally teach the toss as a “place”, which I picked up from someone along the way.

The idea of the “place” is that you really don’t want players tossing the ball very high. The higher they put the ball up in the air, the greater the chance for error. Instead, I teach the player to hold the ball out in front of their hitting shoulder, at about shoulder height. They then lift the ball a short way into the air – just high enough for them to swing their arm and contact at good reach – at the same time they take their step.

So basically you have a step-toss joint movement. This is instead of what many new players do, which is to toss, then step. You can see the step-toss demonstrated by the girls in the video above.

Coaching ball contact

When it comes to ball contact, you must ensure new servers keep their wrist and hand firm through ball contact. If they allow the wrist to get floppy and/or the hand to be soft, the result is usually a ball served into the net.

The other thing to make sure they do is to hit through the ball for the sake of power. I do not coach players to “pop” the ball. That’s when they pull their hand back immediately on ball contact. The theory is that it helps to create better float. First, for beginners I’m not worried about whether the ball spins or not. There are other priorities. Second, the ball has already left contact with your hand by the time you start to retract it, so the popping thing really doesn’t accomplish anything. Finally, popping puts unnecessary strain on the shoulder. Just let the player follow-through on their serves naturally.

Generating power

Even if they get all the other stuff (step, toss, hand contact), some players still struggle to generate enough power to get the ball over the net. This is especially true of younger girls. In my experience, this is mostly a function of swinging too slowly at the ball.

The power of the serve is a direct function of the speed of the hand at the time of contact. To serve harder the hand must move faster. Increasing arm (hand) speed in serving is very much like doing it in hitting. You have to look at the power being generated through torso turn and how that is extended up through the shoulder. Mechanical issues there will have to be addressed.

In many cases, though, it’s not a mechanical issue that is the problem. It’s a mental one. The player just doesn’t understand the need for a fast arm swing, or potentially how to generate it. One way I’ve found to get them moving in the right direction is by having them work with a towel against a wall.

Tie a knot in the end of a bath towel. Have the player hold the other end in their hitting hand. Have them face the wall, then do their arm swing. They should make the knot in the towel snap against the wall with as much speed as they can. Make sure their mechanics are right. You want them generating a whip through their arm, not trying to power with the shoulder.

A few reps of these towel swings should be enough to set the idea in the player’s head. Then get them back to hitting the ball. I’ve seen little girls unable to even get the ball to the net have no problem serving over after a little bit of time with the towel.

Multiple steps

I personally am not a fan of servers taking multiple steps in a kind of walking approach. It just tends to introduce more room for error. That said, though, I’ve had a few players who served that way pretty effectively. If a player needs a little extra power and can control their toss, then so be it.

Final thoughts

The stuff I’ve outlined above is mainly what I think about and look at when working with new servers. I like to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated you get, the more likely you are to introduce error into the process. Aside from the mechanical stuff, I encourage servers to reset themselves after each serve. There’s no rush. Relax. Take a breath. Then serve. If you can get them to just focus on these basic things I think you’ll be pretty successful coaching your new servers.

 

Practice Planning Question – Single skill focus sessions

Volleyball Coach

A question came in from an avid listener of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. It was on the subject of practice planning. Here’s the initial inquiry:

I was wondering how you plan mesocycle and microcycles for youth volleyball with 2-3 practices per week?  Would there be any reason to go an entire practice without serving, for example?  I know it’s important not to train athletic abilities back to back but is it true for volleyball specific skills too?  I just think because we only practice 3 times a week there is enough rest between practices that I could work on every skill every practice if I wanted to.  The U17 coach I am assisting this season has “serve receive days” and “defense days” where almost every drill that practice will be centered on whatever skill we are working on that day.  I’m not sure which method is better.

I do agree that fatigue should not be a problem for players when only practicing 2-3 times a week. There might be outside circumstances which challenge that, but generally speaking players won’t have any issues performing all skills each session. I asked for a bit of clarification about what a typical week of practices looks like in terms of skill focus. Here’s the response.

For example on Sunday would be conditioning day where the players spend 30 minutes doing non volleyball specific conditioning – box jumps, squats, etc. and the rest of the practice would be gameplay. Tuesdays would be defense day where the players will play kajima and wash type drills where all drills are initiated from a free ball, no serves.  Thursdays would be serve receive day where players will spend more than half the practice either serving or serve receiving, never playing the rally out.

I think there are a couple things to address here.

Conditioning during practice time

First, if I only have three practice sessions a week, I use them for volleyball. I don’t use them for strength and conditioning work, especially if I’m time constrained. If I’m doing my job they will get plenty of conditioning in practice. If I want to do additional work (like jump training), I do it outside of practice time – preferably on an off-day, if possible. That lets me maximize the time I have on-court.

Also, you need to do more than one strength and conditioning session per week to have any real impact. One very likely isn’t enough.

That said, game play after strength and conditioning is not a bad idea. It’s harder to work on technical skills when already fatigued.

Single skill focus practices

As for the main thrust of the question, I definitely can think of better ways to structure the week’s training. Now, this is not to say you can’t have a single focus for a given practice. You certainly can. That is probably best achieved, however, by concentrating your attention and feedback on that focal point across a variety of activities rather than in just one narrow set.

Let’s use serve reception as an example. Any game or drill that starts with a serve is an opportunity to train passing. That can be something as simple as serving & passing triplets. It could be more of a team serve receive like 8-person serve & pass, or a servers vs. passers game. Moving up the complexity, it can be a team serve receive drill where the ball is dead after the receiving team attacks. And of course there are many games that start with a serve. In the 22 v 22 game one team receives every serve in a single rotation until someone wins.

The fact that every one of those exercise includes serve reception means you have opportunities in all of them to focus on that skill. Your concentration of feedback and coaching is what determines focus more than drill choice. Obviously, the drills must include the desired skill. Beyond that, though, everything is possible.

Structuring skill training over the week

I personally want to have serving and passing in every practice in some fashion. It might not be the focus of that practice, but at least the players are still practicing the skill. This is particularly important when you only have a couple practices each week. I would not want my players going 3-4 days without serving and passing if I can avoid it.

One other point I would make is this.

While serving is the one skill in volleyball that you can train quite well in block fashion because it is closed-chain (completely player initiated), too much of it in one block tends to have diminishing returns. First of all, it can get really boring. Second, fatigue becomes a factor, especially for jump servers. The result of both is a drop off in concentration and effectiveness as time goes on. Better to mix it in throughout when the players are more fresh and can produce higher quality reps. Plus, game-like serving situations are always better than rote serving in terms of preparation for match conditions.

Where do attacks go?

A reader asked the following question related to where they should place their libero for defense.

Are there any statistical studies of the number of touches by position among defenders, particularly at the high school level? In other words, if the libero is the best defender and ball handler, then it makes sense that the coach would want to put her in position to handle as many balls as possible. I have my own opinion from watching games, but has anyone actually studied the number of balls handled by the left back vs. middle back position?

I don’t personally know of any broad statistical studies of where attacks go for high school players. Most of that sort of stuff I’ve seen was done for a particular team. Think scouting report type stuff. I think this heat map probably is a good indication, though.

I think generally speaking the lower the level the more balls end up in the middle of the court. As attackers become more capable, you see the frequency of balls going away from the middle increase. I don’t have any figures to back that up, though. Maybe a reader does and will share them in the comments below.

General patterns aside, you have to consider your own defensive strategy here. If you tell your blockers to take line – thus funneling balls cross-court – then chances are more balls will go cross. If you block cross, then you expect more balls to go line. That factors into your positioning decision. The general information takes you only so far.

And there are other factors involved as well.

Player rotation and substitution limits

A reader asked the following:

If a team wants to use ten players in its regular rotation that means substitutions for three positions. Would this cause a problem bumping into the substitution limit for a set?

I asked for clarification and this is what I received:

What I am thinking about is six hitters, one setter, one libero, two DS’s and one of the hitters setting when she is on the back row. That is ten total players with only one playing all the way around.

We’re talking about a modified 6-2 system here. One of the two setters plays all the way around while the other is replaced by a hitter in the front row. Presumably, the libero replaces the middles in the back row and defensive specialists replace the outside hitters. Of course it could be the other way around. It’s doesn’t really matter, though.

Quick note: This type of approach is not possible under FIVB rules because of the substitution limits (6 total, one in/out per player).

This adds up to a total of 6 substitutions per trip through the rotation. The emailer coaches high school volleyball. His state follows NFHS rules, which allow 12 subs per set (some states use NCAA rules, which currently allow 15). That means he will be out of subs after two times around.

So here is the big question. How many times around do teams go in typical high school matches? If it’s more than two then it’s a problem.

There is one way to stretch things out a little. You can start the back-row-only setter in Position 2. Alternatively, you can start the hitter who plays front row for the back-row-only setter in Position 5 and have the other setter set from the front row for that rotation. This is especially useful when you are in receive to start the set. Either one saves you one sub at the outset.

That only gets you a little further. If you only need an extra couple rotations, though, it could work.

Anyone in this kind of position must look hard at their options. If running out of subs is a real risk, maybe you have to allow one or more of your hitters to go all the way around for part of the set. An option to consider is to rotate the DS’s. One of them plays across the back row the first time, while the second does so the second time.

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

What’s the optimal player-coach ratio?

The following question came in from a reader:

Is there a recommended coach to player ratio? aka: 1:8 or 1:10 or 1:15?

In an ideal world there would be one coach for each player. That way the player gets lots of focused, consistent feedback. The coach also gets to concentrate on just one thing.

Alas, real life is less than idea.

My personal feeling is you want something below 1:6. A lot of club teams have 9-10 players and they have a head and assistant coach. That gets them to a ratio of about 1:5, or just under.

At the college level teams can have up to 4 coaches. That includes a head coach, two paid assistants, and a volunteer. Some also have a few other staffers, but let’s leave it as just coaches for the moment. Four coaches spread out over 20 players is 1:5. Most teams don’t carry that many players, though, so the ratio is lower.

Of course in many places teams don’t have four coaches. They might just have two. Unfortunately, oftentimes those programs also have lots of players. That moves the ratio into the 1:10 range. That isn’t ideal, but they manage it. Not like they have much choice!

Addressing player effort and quality differences

An email came in from a coach working with a group of players. It deals with the question of how to handle a situation where effort and playing caliber don’t match.

I have two young and two older experienced hitters. The older players don’t give their all. They do what they must, but without the involvement. When we have a match, they play very well, with very good effect, and they can win a point under pressure.

The young players don’t understand why they are a reserve players if they play the as well as the older ones in training (a lot of times better). Unfortunately, in matches the young players make more mistakes and don’t have stable form (sometimes they can play amazing volleyball, but sometimes they can do simple mistakes). They were the most important players in the youth club and they don’t understand that in the senior league it is different.

Have you ever had similar problem in your career? What would you do, if you were me?

I’ll summarize the situation this way. We have two experienced players who go through the motions in practice, but are clearly the best come match time. We then have two young players who work very hard in practice, but are not yet consistent performers in matches.

To my mind there is a question of priorities here. The reference at the end about “senior league” makes me think competition is the priority for this particular team. That means putting the best team on the court for each match is what it’s about.

To my mind there are two ways to try to handle this sort of situation.

The younger players

The first thing we have to do is to make sure the younger players who aren’t playing understand the team’s priority – winning. They further need to understand why the more experienced players are the starters – fewer errors, more consistent performance, etc. The younger players may not like the situation, but at least they will understand the logic.

Explaining things is not enough, though. You also need to provide those players with a path toward increased playing time. Where do they need to improve to push the experienced players? What do they need to do to make those improvements? Give them hope and steps they can take to move toward their goal.

The experienced players

It obviously isn’t any fun when some of those best players realize they will start no matter what and don’t bother to give full effort in training. The challenge is to find ways to motivate them to change that behavior. What is it they can target as a reason to push themselves in training?

Ideally, their motivation is simply to make the team the best it possibly can be. If the players are motivated by the collective good, then the coach’s job is to show them how better training by those players will help achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, some players have more selfish motivates. Maybe they want to earn some honors or recognition. Maybe they want a better contract or to move to a bigger club. You have to find out where their motivation is and try to appeal to that.

Short-term/long-term

Linked in with all of this is the time frame you are working in. Are you just concerned with this season? If so, then you are probably going to have keep picking the more experienced players for the starting lineup. If, however, you have the ability to think longer term, maybe you can find some opportunities to bench the experienced players from time to time. That would give the younger players valuable experience and show the experienced ones there are others looking to take their positions.

Those are some thoughts I had on the situation. I’d love to hear what others have done in a similar circumstance, or would do. Leave comment below and share your thoughts and/or experience.

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.