Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

What to do on half a court during warm-ups

I got the following question from a reader named Mike.

I have a question about useful activities that can be done sharing half court with the other team–you know–that 15 or so minutes before the refs call for captains.

Most of the teams I see just do pepper or hit down balls to 3 passers. But I’m wondering if there might be something that will get in more game-like reps even without the use of the net.

This is an interesting subject, and one I’ve had a lot of thoughts about over the years. In the Improving pre-match warm-ups post I sort of touched on it.  Mainly, though, I focused on what you can do when you have the court to yourself. So let’s look at what we can do before that time – or the shared hitting time if that’s the structure you have.

Pepper has a purpose

We all know the pepper isn’t very game-like. It does have a purpose during warm-ups, though. First, it replicates some of the physical movements the players will do in the match – especially arm-swing. As such, it does have a physiological use. Second, it has a mental element. The players use it to connect with each other on the court. This can actually be very important time for them, even though what they’re doing (like bouncing the ball off the floor) might not accomplish much in other respects.

A suggestion from John Kessel

My immediate reaction to Mike’s email when I saw the “game-like reps” was to think of something John Kessel often suggests. It’s something he likes for when you don’t have use of a net. He calls it something like “loser is the net”. Let me explain.

Imagine you’re playing Winners (Queen/King of the Court). Normally, you’d do it over a net. In this case, though, one or more players act as the net. For example, you could have three players. Two of them play 1 v 1 while the other is the “net” they have to play over. When the rally ends, the loser and the “net” change places.

You could do something similar with doubles. Two players are the net, perhaps by holding a rope between them. When the rally is over, they rotate out and the losers form the net.

You can probably fit at least three mini doubles courts on your side during pre-game warm-ups. Playing this game would certainly be a way to get game-like reps.

Stuff you want to work on

Something work thinking about as you ponder your pre-match time is what you might want to use the time to reinforce. You don’t want to be teaching new things before a game starts, but you can work on things you’ve already introduced. For example, lots of teams do blocking footwork during their warm-up. It can help reinforce those patterns, especially if you’re providing feedback. You don’t want them working on the wrong patterns, after all.

Mike brought up the idea of the coach hitting balls at three passers. There are lots of variations on this sort of thing. I’m not a huge fan, broadly speaking, but it can have its uses. One of them might be to reinforce team defensive movement and positioning.

While they won’t be particularly game-like, there are lots of little things like this you could potentially work on in the pre-game time. Maybe there’s some eye work for your setters, or transition footwork for your middles. Whatever it is, just make sure it doesn’t distract from match preparation. You don’t want your players thinking about something other than playing the game once the whistle blows.

Remember the purpose

Remember that what matters most during your warm-up is that the team is prepared to play – both collectively and individually. This is your primary objective. What they need to be there can vary from team to time. There is obviously a physical element. That’s pretty consistent across team, possibly with small variations for individual player considerations.

It’s the psychological aspect which varies more.

Some teams are ready to go mentally as soon as they walk into the gym. Others need some help to get themselves in the right mindset. It’s up to you as the coach to figure out what your team needs – realizing that it can change.

Be consistent

One thing players don’t like in their warm-ups is change. They can be easily rattled if you change things up unexpectedly. Should it be that way? No, but such is life. As such, it’s generally a good idea to introduce significant warm-up changes beforehand so they are prepared.

Thoughts on second contact when setter-out

A reader sent in a question about who should take the second ball when the setter makes first contact (setter-out).

I have a question about emergency setting. Up until this year, I’ve always used my right side player (in a 5-1) to take second ball whenever my setter (in right back) takes first ball. It has worked well enough since I’ve been lucky enough to have right sides with decent hands. The major downside, as far as I can tell, is that you take one potential hitter out of the equation, and the passing angle from RB to RF can be awkward at times. That said, it’s always worked well enough for me.

But now the trend seems to be to have the libero take second ball and to set to one of the pins, usually to the left. That also raises the question (for me anyway) as to whether it is more efficient to have the libero set out left back or middle back (not to mention worth worrying about the “finger action” rules that restrict the libero…)

It seems to me that a libero coming out of left back (especially in perimeter or even “middle middle” defense) is going to have a more favorable angle for a set to the right side pin, if the setter is passing high to the middle. It also seems like s/he will have an easier time getting to second ball.

But what if it is overall more sound defensively to have your libero in middle back? In that case, is it even worth having your libero as your emergency setter? Wouldn’t it be harder to get to second ball from middle back (or even middle middle)? Wouldn’t the angles be a little more awkward for setting to the pins?

Does anyone use their outside hitters (in left back) to take second ball? (It seems to me that that would mean you would have to train both of them which wouldn’t be as efficient as training just one person)

Just wondering what people do. And whether or not there is a consensus on what works best, with respect to emergency setting.

I previously addressed this topic from a different perspective. In that case a reader asked about moving the libero from left back to middle back. As such, I’ll leave out that element in my response here.

It is now definitely the preferred approach by most coaches to use the libero, playing in left back, to take the second ball in these situations. You see it at the national team level on down. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best solution for your particular team, though. Let me address it form a couple different angles.

Front row player

As the emailer suggests, one option for taking the second ball is the right front player. Usually, this is the Opposite. This was the favored approach for many years. I used it to good effect coaching the Exeter University women as my OPP had excellent hands and we didn’t run a fast offense.

The biggest question for me using the OPP is the middle attack. Can they actually set it? If not, then it really narrows the offensive options down considerably. For a lot of teams it means the ball can only be set to the Outside Hitter. Maybe you have a back row option as well. You don’t have a quick attack option, however, nor do you have a right side hitter, making the block’s job much easier.

If the OPP can set the middle, then it opens things up considerably. That only holds, though, if the ball is dug close enough to the net. If not, you’re in the same situation as if the OPP couldn’t set the middle attack. This is a real issue when teams are often coached to dig the ball to the 3m line.

An alternative to the OPP taking the second ball is the Middle Blocker doing so. This is actually the cornerstone of the standard 4-2 offensive system where the setter plays middle front. If you have an MB with good hands who can set both front and back, it can work. Since they can set both pins, the opposing blockers can’t stack up on just one.

The challenge for the MB, though, is that they usually are coming down from a block. They are programmed to get ready to attack, so setting is an adjustment. And if the dig is well off the net there just might not be time for them to get to it.

Back row player

As the reader notes, the player in middle back probably has the furthest to go to take a second ball. Also, their direction of approach can make the angles difficult, unless they have really good footwork.

That basically leaves left back as probably the best choice back row player to take the second ball in a setter-out situation. Whether that is the libero (or MB) or the OH is it’s own consideration.

Obviously, the libero has limitations when it comes to using their hands. That may not be as big a deal as you might think, though. First, if the OH isn’t a confident setter, they’ll probably bump set the ball anyway, just as the libero would. Second, libero’s can develop pretty good jump sets for use on balls just beyond the 3m line – in some cases, even quick sets. Finally, so many digs end up at the 3m line that situations where you really want a hand set (e.g. to set quick) are probably going to be limited.

All things considered

When you consider all the factors, you’ll see why so many teams have the left back person – mostly the libero – take the second ball. If the dig is close to the net, it might make more sense for a front row player to set the ball. If it’s not, though, then using the back row player allows for a larger number of attacking options.

So it really comes down to where your setter digs the ball.

One final thought

The emailer uses the term “emergency” to describe these situations where the setter takes the first ball. I don’t think that term applies, though. In the modern game, teams are out-of-system a large percentage of the time. That makes it a quite normal situation which should be trained in line with how often it happens.

The other thing I would add is that the situation where the setter has to play the first ball is not the only time a team is out-of-system. Sometimes the first contact is poor and the setter can’t get there. Or someone else is in a better position to put up a good set. For that reason, every player on the court should be able to step in and put up a hittable ball.

How to add conditioning to your volleyball practice

I came across the following question from a volleyball coach having to do with conditioning in practice.

Anyone have any conditioning drills? I don’t want to just condition my girls without adding some volleyball into it, as they have a whole other practice specifically for conditioning. But we are slow and need to build up speed and stamina. Drills that require constant movement, reps, etc.

Speed vs Stamina

Speed and stamina are two separate issues. Raw speed is a function of power production. That comes mainly from specific speed/power training. That’s not something you will develop while playing/practicing volleyball. It’s more about things like weight training and plyometric work.

That said, there are elements of a player’s overall speed and quickness which are a function of game training. They are technique and readiness. The more efficient and automatic one’s technique (see The Talent Code), the faster or quicker they will be able to execute that skill. Similar, if a player is able to anticipate something happening – thanks to good reading skills – they will be quicker to play the ball.

Developing Stamina

Building player stamina in practice is a much easier thing to accomplish. In fact, it’s really simple. You either have to increase intensity or make things last longer. The latter is straightforward as you just have to increase the time between breaks. Nothing complicated about that!

As for increasing intensity, what I’m talking about is increasing the number of repetitions in a given period of time. For example, in normal game play where each rally begins with a serve it might be 20 seconds per rally. If you play 22 v 22 where you immediately put in a second ball after the initial rally, though, you could perhaps get two rallies in 30 seconds (15 seconds per rally, on average). And if you want to really ramp it up you could play something like Scramble where you might have four rallies in 30 seconds (averaging 7-8 seconds each).

The Second Chance idea is along those same lines. With it you could almost create what is a non-stop rally. It’s not exactly like that, but there’s very little time between the time when play breaks down and you get it going again. And if the same player makes repeated mistakes, they get lots of conditioning!

Even pepper can be a form of conditioning.

No need to lose practice time to conditioning

Because you can control intensity and/or duration in your practice, there’s no need to waste volleyball time on conditioning work (e.g. sprints). Why do something without the ball you can easily accomplish the same with it?

Now, if you only practice a couple times a week, that might not be enough total work. In that case, you’ll want the athletes doing something to keep/get their fitness level up. Cardio is not the answer here, though, especially during season. Volleyball has about a 1:3 work to rest ratio. That means a player is active for say 10 seconds, then rest for 30 – on average. This is very different from running or biking for 30 minutes straight. In fact, those sorts of longer duration exercises are counterproductive for volleyball as they train slow, repetitive movements rather than quick, explosive bursts.

Pin hitter in volleyball – what is it?

What is a pin hitter in volleyball? This is something wondered by a visitor to the blog. It’s a term readers may have seen me use in places like my coaching log. So what does it mean?

First, we need an equipment terminology explanation. In volleyball, people sometimes refer to the two antennae attached to the net as pins. For example, someone might say, “Set it to the pin.” By that they mean set out to the antenna.

See where this is going?

Pin hitters are thus the attackers who generally hit wide sets out toward the antenna. I don’t know when the term came into common use, but it’s been out there for a while now. Some people use the term specifically to refer to outside hitters – those who attack in Position 4. Really, though, the term applies to both left side and right side attackers.

Now, just because someone is a pin hitter it does not mean they only attack wide sets. There is absolutely no reason a pin hitter cannot hit balls out of the middle of the court. For example, they could come inside to hit a 2 ball. They can also attack the ball out of the back row. That is a regular feature of men’s volleyball, and is becoming more a part of women’s volleyball as well.

The term pin hitter in volleyball does not put an attacker in a box. Rather, it is mainly a reference to a player’s position on the court. The pin hitters are the players whose front row position is closer to the antenna. This is obviously in contrast to the middle hitter, who generally plays in the central part of the court. They sometimes hit balls near the pin (slide attack), but are still middle players.

I hope that helps clear things up for you. If you have any questions about it, definitely let me know.

What does out of system mean in volleyball?

What does out of system mean in volleyball? This is likely something most regular readers of this blog know, but not everyone else does. Someone came here with exactly that question in mind, so let me provide an explanation.

In volleyball, a team is fully in-system when the serve receive pass or dig is good enough that the setter has all of their attacking options available. From a statistical perspective, that means a 3-pass in the 0-3 scale (or a ++ in the ++/+/-/0 system described in this post). In other words, the setter can set left, right, or quick to the middle.

You could also say a team is in-system with a slightly lower quality pass or dig. It’s not as good as on a perfect pass, but the setter still has multiple options.

By contrast, a team is considered out-of-system when they pass or dig poorly. This generally leads to the setter having only one setting option. If the first ball is poor enough, someone other than the setter must take the second contact.

There is also the case where the setter plays the first ball. Regardless of how well they dig the ball, the fact that someone else then takes the second contact means the team is out-of-system.

So basically, out-of-system means either the setter cannot play the second ball or only has a single setting option.

Why is this important?

Because it is very likely that the team’s offense is less effective when out-of-system. The sets are not as accurate or consistent. They offense does not run as quickly, and as a result there is usually at least a double block facing the hitter. That is why one of the strategies you will see is to intentionally attack the other team’s setter. That automatically puts them out-of-system, making a good return attack less likely.

Hope that makes things clear. Let me know if you have any questions.

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 can we 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 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.

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 popping 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 right (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 (see Teach them how to throw).

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 as part of the pre-serve process. 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 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.