Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

New assistant coach working with former teammates

The following emailer seeks some advice. I present the text of their note here, with my reply below, in hopes of generating some discussion. I know there are a number of current and/or former collegiate assistant coaches who read the blog. Hopefully, we can get something going based on different kinds of experience.

I recently graduated in December and was offered to be the assistant women’s volleyball coach. I am in an awkward transition from being a student athlete to now coaching my former teammates. I have coached club volleyball for the last 5 or 6 years, but I have never coached at the college level. I am a member of the AVCA and submitted an application to receive a mentor, but they are unable to match me just yet. Do you have any advice by chance? Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you!

It can definitely be a challenge to have to coach former teammates. I did a bit of it back when I was doing some coaching after high school. Mainly, though, I was a drill facilitator rather than someone providing real coaching. Though I did push to try to develop a quick attack. Unfortunately, the head coach wasn’t really interested in pursuing it (much to my frustration!)

If you’re working with a head coach who has a pretty strong presence with the team then things probably won’t be too difficult for you with respect to your former teammates. They will just see you as being Coach’s helper more than actually being someone who’s telling them what to do. That’s not a bad thing. It makes it really easy for you to take a learning approach.

Provide information

Either way, though, I think the key for you developing a good working relationship with them is taking a “providing information” angle on your interactions. By that I mean try to avoid coming off as telling them what to do. That could be tough for former teammates to take. Instead, try to think of the sorts of things you wanted to hear from your coaches – scouting information, stats on their play, video of what they’re doing, encouragement, a kick in the butt at the right time, etc.

Professional relationship

Potentially the biggest challenge will be developing a professional relationship with your former teammates. You can have a friendly relationship with them, but you can’t be their buddy anymore. You’re their coach now. Yes, assistant coaches tend to be closer to the players in that regard, but there are boundaries which you have to establish and maintain. You need to be able to view them objectively and work with them without personal entanglements which can create all kinds of problems.

Definitely talk with your head coach about this stuff. They should be able to help guide you.

Be loyal

And one last thing. A coaching staff is like a set of parents. It should always present a unified front to the team. That means you do not contradict the head coach or another assistant in front of the team or when speaking with any of the players. And you never do anything which might damage another coach’s standing with the team – or anyone else, for that matter.

Here’s some additional advice on being a good assistant.


Getting young players to communicate and move

A reader asked the following very common question:

I am assistant coach of Grade 8 girls and they need to come out of their shells. What drills do you suggest to help with their first pass?

Basically, this coach is after ways to get them to call the ball and move more aggressively to play it. I can tell you that this isn’t something confined to just to girls or just younger players. I’ve had to address it with older players and with members of both genders.

Calling the ball

Communication is all about habit. You need to develop in your players the habit of calling the ball before they play it. Really, the only way to do that is to have them do it repeatedly. Unfortunately, there’s no magic drill to make them suddenly start talking. As a coach you simply have to prioritize that focus. Then you need to continuously reinforce it in different ways throughout your trainings. Put them in situations where they have to cooperate. Have consequences for failure to call the ball, like not counting repetitions in passing drills, or even making it a minus. Maybe add a bonus point in a game for any time all three contacts for a team have someone calling the ball. Be creative, but most importantly make sure to consistently focus on it. If you only intermittently encourage them to talk, they will probably only communicate intermittently.

Moving to the ball

Standing around waiting for the ball to come to them is the hallmark of new players. This is something that needs to be very quickly addressed. Regular work on court footwork (shuffles, cross-overs, etc.) is a starting point. That gets players used to the idea of moving and how to do it properly. That’s just the starting point, though. The second step is to incorporate movement before playing the ball into your drills. Even if you work on the very basic stuff, you can still have them shuffle a step or two before they pass. The more they become used to the idea of moving prior to playing the ball, the more it will start to come naturally.

Confidence and connection

Let’s face it. A lot of what makes players quiet and tentative is a lack of confidence and not feeling connected with their teammates. To the extent we as coaches can help overcome that we speed up the process of getting them to talk to each other and come together as a team. Something I’ve found useful in that regard is the Amoeba serving game. I’ve seen quiet groups turn into a yelling, screaming bunch of players as they encourage each other in trying to beat the other team. Lots of exactly the sort of things we want to develop in our players. And I’m not just talking about youngsters here. I saw the same sort of thing with my university players in England, where I used the game to help integrate players from all different nationalities and backgrounds.

Playing system for U14s, and how to get them to move!

I had an email come in from Jason, a volleyball coach working with a young team. He asked:

1) How do I teach the girls to read the placement and velocity of the ball on a serve and have them move to the ball quickly enough? I’m finding they tend to keep their feet planted to the floor as if there was lead in them shoes…..and when they do make an effort to get there they end up leaning forward instead of getting “under” or swinging their arm out sideways from their body instead of squaring themselves with the ball.

2)Whats the best system to play with grade 8 girls?

Here are my, thoughts. I encourage readers to share their own via comment below.

Anticipation and moving to the ball on serve receive

In terms of reading placement and velocity, unfortunately a lot of that is going to come straight from experience. The best you can do is to try to get them to look at the server instead of just the ball. They need to think about where she’s facing, how hard she hits the ball, etc. Beyond that, it’s really about each player going through lots and lots of reps. They need to see serves coming at them from different angles and at different tempos. That’s the only way to develop the anticipation and timing. It’s the same as a hitter needing to see lots of sets at different heights and angles to develop their approach and swing timing. Have them pass loads and loads of balls – and more specifically, loads and loads of balls coming over the net. And remember that feedback is important.

Feet seemingly pinned the floor is a problem for any coach dealing with beginning players. The mentality many of them have is “If the ball comes to me, I’ll play it, otherwise I won’t.” We coaches don’t tend to do ourselves any favors in that regard by having players work in relatively static drills. We tell them, “You stand there in this position and I’ll toss the ball right to you.” That’s why it’s important to introduce movement to the ball once the basics of passing mechanics are figured out. Put them in situations where they know the ball is theirs, but they can’t be sure exactly where it will be. Then put them in combinations to force communication and coordinated movement.

Best playing system

My answer would be different if competitive considerations were a big factor (whether they should be for U14s is an entirely different conversation). I am going to take a long-term development approach in answering this question, however. I think it is most appropriate. Volleyball England, as part of their Talent Pathway, outlined a system progression which is aimed at doing a couple of things (I bring up V.E. because I’ve actually seen the documents, though no doubt other countries have similar ideas). First, it tries to develop the most well-rounded players possible. Second, it seeks to identify and develop a large number of setters. With those two priorities in mind, the progression of playing systems Volleyball England favors is 6-6 for young players, 4-2/6-2 for the U16/U17 (Cadet) age group, and finally 5-1 when reaching the U18/U19 level.

As you ponder that system progression, think about the requirements on players. Think especially about FIVB rules which constrain substitutions more than is the case under some other rule systems. It’s fairly easy to think about a 6-6 basically meaning every player does all skills. You start to get partial specialization when shifting to a 2-setter system. The setters are only setting in 3 rotations, however, so they still have the other front/back row responsibilities. Not only does that keep the “well-rounded” aspect of things going, but it also means you develop several setters. You’d want 3-4 in a squad rather than the 2 you could get away with running a 1-setter system. Specialization doesn’t fully come in until the late-teen years when they are running a 5-1. I think that is where the libero is also introduced, though I might be wrong.

All of that said, there are always players you can tell early on will fit into a certain position. There’s the really tall future MB; the short, but quick future libero; and the future setter who can already anticipate play. There is room in system to start specialization in some ways a little early, but the overarching idea should still be to try to develop as much all-around ability as possible.

Dealing with a young player serving too long

I had a question come in from a reader the other day regarding a U14 volleyball player. It went like this:

“I have a player who keeps serving beyond the opponents court during a game. We have tried having her stand back further, slow down her swing, attempted top spins but nothing helps. At practice she can serve into the court and she typically tries to float serve.”

The thing I find interesting about this is that we’re talking about the opposite problem I usually see with young girls serving. Normally the problem is getting them to consistently serve over the net. Serving too long is generally not an issue!

If this player can consistently serve the ball into the court during training, but has problems during matches then it would seem there is a mental issue. This isn’t uncommon. I can think of a few ways it could potentially be addressed.

From a mechanical perspective you could have the player work on flatter serves. Oftentimes long serves come about because the player puts more upward trajectory on their serve than they should, resulting in a ball that sails. This can come about from a fear of serving into the net. If this sort of thing is an issue, having the player focus on the height of her serve could help. For example, you could have her aim to have her serves go no higher than the height of the antennae.

A more distraction oriented approach would be to get the player thinking in terms of targets rather than in/out. If she’s capable of serving long at that age, then it’s perfectly reasonable to have her start working on accuracy. Even just something as simple as left or right half of the court could be useful.

Of course something we always want to be doing is trying to create similar “pressure” on serving in training as players will experience in matches. That is both mental and physical. Make them serve after they’ve had to do something physical to simulate serving after playing a rally. Make there be some kind of positive or negative consequence to player serves.

These are the things that immediately come to mind for me. Have you had to deal with this sort of situation? If so, let us know how you handled it by leaving a comment below.

Reader Question – Developing a 3-Middle Hitter Scheme

I had an email come in the other day from a reader.

How would you defend against a three middle offense?  Currently we are running a three middle offense, but are concentrating on being in the right position and running effective plays.  I think we need to change our thinking.  Switch to how someone defends against it, then exploit any expected weakness.

I asked for clarification on what was meant by 3-middle. How they would be employed? I got the following:

We have three players who would normally play middle. 

The starting rotation:

Middle, Outside, Middle

Outside, Middle, Setter

3 rotations have only one middle in the front … 3 rotations have 2 middles in front.  Depending on the pair of middles, one will switch to OH, while one plays Middle … or one will switch to Right Side, while one plays Middle.

Since one of our Middles is left handed, offensively we can run double slides.  We can also run a quick with one middle at the pin hitting a high outside.

I actually used a very similar type of system with a 16-and-under girls Juniors team a number of years back. I described it in the post Problem Solving: Three middle triangle. By posting this up here I hope to encourage some discussion. I’ll start it off with some thoughts of my own.

The right line-up?

I have an immediate question about a rotation where both outside hitters are in the front row together. It means you also have two middles in the back row with the setter in the same rotation. I don’t know how strong a right side attacker and/or blocker the team has with one of those OHs. I also don’t know the passing/defense talents of the MB not being replaced by the libero – or whether a DS is being subbed in on them in the back row. It strikes me that could be a sticky rotation if the personnel aren’t right.

With a lefty in the mix, I would very seriously consider playing with them at OPP. That said, a lefty hitting OH definitely causes issues for opposing blockers. Having them in the middle can be a bit trickier because the setter needs to change the placement of quick sets. It’s not impossible, just will take time to develop.

Opposition Defense

Let’s switching back to the question of about how the other teams might defend against a 3-middle team. I think quite a bit is depends on the opposition. Some teams will play the same defensive structure regardless of what the other team is doing. Either they feel they have their best possible configuration in place, or they just don’t know any different.

If I were an opposing coach able to scout your team (and with the players able to use such information), I would look at the tendencies of your team in certain types of situations and of your players in terms of where they like to hit. I would then try to make you work away from your strengths. There really isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent me trying to do that beyond not letting me see you play. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can stop you, though. If your team executes, there may not be much I can do to stop it even if I have my team optimally positioned to do so.

Of course you do similar scouting of the opposition defense. Your goal should be to maximize the frequency with which your team can match it’s strength up against the other team’s weakness. For example, you could decide to have one of your nominal middles (is a middle who plays outside really a middle?) hit OH in one match to go up against a short setter. They could hit OPP in another match to attack a short outside hitter. Another example is to spread the offense out against teams that tend to pinch/bunch their block. Alternatively, you can run a narrow offense against teams who tend to put their wing blockers near the pins.

Playing to your strengths

It’s always hard to provide advice in a situation like this. You don’t know the level of competition. You don’t know the type of players involved, team priorities, coaching philosophy, etc. There is a compelling line of reasoning, not just in coaching but generally in life, that you should play to your strengths. Really work on developing them to a superior level and applying them as much as possible. That topic is better left for a separate discussion in its own right. It has some value in this context as a point of consideration, though.

If this team’s strength is its three player who can play MB, then it makes sense to identify the ways they are most effective. Then you set the team up to put them in those positions as frequently as possible. For example, if two of the MBs are excellent slide hitters, figure out how to configure the line-up to give them lots of opportunities to hit the slide. In this sort of situation you’re not really thinking a great deal about what the other team is doing. Instead you’re creating players able to take advantage of whatever the situation offers. Continuing with the slide example. work with the hitters on their ability to attack with a variety of shots – line and cross, tip and/or roll shot, block-out and high hands – and in different positions relative to the setter and at different tempos.

In other words, figure out what’s generally your strongest line-up and style of play. Then relentlessly work on getting better at it.

On the question of punishment in volleyball training

I received the following email on the subject of punishment. I think it’s worth sharing as it’s something that has the potential to stimulate a conversation:

While perusing the site I came across one of your practice plans with serving:

“Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.”

I have to admit, while growing up, I am one who hated being punished for when I did something wrong. Obvious it was a benefit to my upbringing. As a coach I deplore punishing athletes. I’m on a crusade to have the word removed from our vocabulary. Do we as coaches really want to punish our athletes for failures?

Let’s first clarify the word punish: Inflict a penalty or sanction as ‘retribution’ for an offense. At what time do our athletes fit this description? Maybe with behaviors this might apply, but not in execution of skills/drills/garills (Game Drills). I understand that coaches use conditioning for incentives to accomplish the skills/drills/garills. Using the word punishment or conditioning because it is a retribution for not being successful is not cool in my opinion. The main reason is because we are trying to teach our athletes the sport. Punishing them is not a good incentive to achieve this effort.

You may be thinking is this dude nuts? Conditioning has been a part of learning for a long time. Yes I agree and I myself use conditioning in my training programs. I never use the WORD punishment or punish my athletes due to non achievements. That is my point.

In a classroom, what ‘punishment’ does a student receives for not learning the material, completing a task/homework, or passing a test? There is a ‘consequence’ for achievement and that a grade. It’s not physical consequence. Maybe because volleyball is a physical activity it should have a physical consequence? Yet, do we return to the gym after a tournament or match and punish our athletes because they lost? If so, I feel those coaches are in the wrong profession because they are using retribution as a learning tool. Retribution insights fear and in my personal opinion, I want my athletes to play without fear.

Side note, I condition my athletes as part of overall conditioning. When behaviors are not what I am expecting, I use exercises to get the attention of the athletes. When I do use exercises to get their attention it is very brief exercise with the max of 5 reps. That’s me and I’m not advocating that others do the same.

Sorry for bending your ear/eyes with this, but I am pretty much on this crusade to have coaches really look at the issue of having athletes punished and even using the word in regard to instructing athletes. At least in the volleyball world, that is, but all sports should take a look at using the word and activity of punishment.

For the record, I very rarely use the term “punishment” with my teams when in the gym. I instead try to put things in the context of “consequences”. It is in the manner of “doing or failing to do X will result in Y consequence”. The above referenced 5 push-ups is an example of that. The use of “punishment” in the noted posted was simply a function of using an easily understood term.


After getting this email, I had a conversation with Ruben Wolochin, head coach of the German professional team TV Bühl. We talked about not liking the idea of making exercise, strength & conditioning, etc. a penal thing. Neither of us want players to view that stuff in a negative light. They should think of it as constructive and developmental, not something to avoid. We then talked about how consequences can come in different forms. In a match, it usually comes in the form of a lost point – perhaps a lost set or match. That is pretty obvious and straight-forward feedback.

In training there tends to be a handful of ways players face consequences for actions. During game play, obviously we’re back in the points gained/lost situations. In some cases, like the game Winners, the consequence for bad play is having to leave the court, and getting to keep playing the consequence of good play (it does work both ways). This needs to be handled a bit carefully, though, as having players go out on an error can be counter-productive, as I talk about in relation to the Amoeba drill. During counting drills one can gain or lose points/repetitions as a result of good/bad performance (which is also a factor in bonus point scoring).

Getting focus and attention

Then there’s the consequence of failure as noted by the emailer above in regards to my 5 push-ups for those who couldn’t complete the required number of good reps in the allotted time. The inclusion of the “punishment” in these sorts of cases is because otherwise there is no consequence of note – good or bad. As such, the 5 push-ups, or whatever (Ruben used a dive one session as a consequence for players over-passing in a free ball drill), serve to reinforce the importance of the point the coach is trying to make. The consequence isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any sort of conditioning element – just an attention-getter.

For example, I often have players who miss two serves in a row in certain types of drills/games do something like five crunches. This isn’t the sort of thing anyone is going to ever consider particularly straining or stressful physical activity. That isn’t the point at all. It is simply reinforcement that the player needs to focus better on making sure that second serve is a good one.

Attitude and effort

The only place I push things some is in the area of balls dropping, which is an absolute no-no for my teams that is established from the outset. In counting drills it results in a back-to-0. In games it obviously means a point to the other team or exiting the court in something like Winners, but if it becomes a repeating pattern it gets addressed additionally. The standard consequence is a set of four sprints from side line to side line. Again, not a super hard thing, but players would obviously rather not have to do it.

As my players will tell you, I want trainings to be a positive place. I do not punish errors and I use positive reinforcement as much as possible. There are times, though, when negative reinforcement is required to get their attention because just as too much screaming and yelling will make them numb to it, too much patting on the back also loses it’s value. I don’t like “punishing” my players, but I also know I’m not doing my job properly as coach if I don’t incorporate negative consequences from time to time.

By the way, when I was in the Army they didn’t use the term punishment for all the push-ups and stuff they made us do when we goofed up. They instead called it motivation. 🙂

Volleyball Academy: Indoor or Beach?

I once had an exchange with a volleyball dad. He was looking for some advice on his daughter. At 16 she was an England international at the U19 level and had aspirations to play in college in the States. One of the academies accepted her for the next school year. Shortly after, the England sand volleyball training program invited her to join them in a similar academy type of situation. A former beach pro ran the program. The father sought my advice on the decision with regards to the impact on recruitment prospects. Below are the thoughts I shared with this father, but I’d be interested to hear other views.

So the question is to attend the indoor academy and train with other members of the England youth national team mix or go the beach route to train under a former professional and with other England beach internationals. The player in question was an outside hitter, though capable of hitting anywhere on the net. She was about 5’10”, with a good jump and long reach (slender build). She both hit and blocked well and generally had good ball skills. In the most recent season she had some back issues, but otherwise I was not aware of any injuries. If she went the beach academy route, part of the deal would be that she’d continue playing indoor ball in the National Volleyball League.

Now generally speaking I almost always encourage my indoor players to get out and play beach or grass doubles. It’s a great way for them to improve their abilities and have a different kind of volleyball experience. That’s not the same as choosing between training full-time as a beach player vs. as an indoor player, though.

If this girl played another position, like middle blocker or perhaps setter, I may feel differently. In this case, though, I thought going the beach academy route made a lot of sense. As an OH prospective college coaches would expect her to have solid skills all around – not highly specialized ones as would be the case in other positions. Beach volleyball would help her continue developing those skills. I also thought sand training would reduce the pounding her body would take as a full-time indoor player. That could have long-term benefits.

From the recruiting perspective, the math was fairly simple. There are WAY more indoor programs and scholarship opportunities, and that wouldn’t change any time soon (if ever). As such, focusing on the indoor side in the recruitment process offers more opportunities, especially given the way the NCAA counts volleyball scholarships (an indoor scholarship athlete can play sand without issue, but a sand scholarship athlete cannot play indoors unless being counted toward the indoor scholarship limits). That said, being a dual-surface player would make one quite attractive to schools where players are part of both the indoor and sand teams (rather than the teams being run separately).

All things taken together – working on her all-around game, the opportunity to train under a former beach pro, still getting to play indoor competitively – I thought going the beach academy route in this case mades a lot of sense. That’s what I told the father.

Agree? Disagree?

Newbie prep for high school volleyball

This post basic seeks to answer the question: How should I start working with someone brand new to volleyball?

A while back I got an email from my brother. His oldest daughter was entering high school in the Fall. Apparently, she’d decided to go out for the school volleyball team. This wasn’t necessarily a new thought for her. I recalled a volleyball being on her Christmas wish list a couple years prior. Up to then, though, she concentrated on competitive swimming, and it sounded like that would continue. The timing of the decision was unfortunate. Had it come a few months earlier she could have played 14-and-unders club volleyball that season. Oh, well.


My brother asked the school coach for some advice on preparing Darling Daughter. Apparently, they suggested she take part in a U15 developmental program run by the local Juniors club I co-founded back in 2001. I was glad to know the club maintained its reputation since I left in 2007. 🙂

I, of course, told my brother that sounded like a good idea. Naturally, summer camps were also an option. He just needed to be sure they had a low level/beginner group and weren’t just for experienced players.

Unfortunately, a camp or weekly series of training sessions only goes so far. They could prepare someone in terms of skill. They would fall short in terms of playing experience and getting ready for August two-a-days. More time and more game-like reps are really required to start to develop the foundational skills and the physical conditioning.

Back at home

My brother played volleyball in high school himself, though baseball was his primary sport (in our state at the time, boys’ volleyball was a Fall sport while the girls played in the Spring). Naturally, I told him to get out in the backyard and pepper with his daughter to help work on her ball-handling skills. I also said to get a net up so she could practice serving and passing and general game play.

On the physical side, my niece’s swimming background probably put her in quite good stead in terms of shoulder and core strength. The issue for her was the jumping and low posture movement and positioning in volleyball. I suggested to my brother that he get her doing a lot of good spike approach reps to both develop the skill and to condition the legs. Of course, working on all the types of court movement footwork and patterns was a good idea, but we need to start somewhere.

If it was your brother, what would you say? What kind of advice would you give someone in this situation?

Training 6 v 6 when your only setters are those running your 6-2 offense

The following question came in from a reader. It’s regarding what to do when personnel constrain your options in training. In this case it’s in terms of setters on a team running a 6-2 system:

Here is the problem: I have two setters that are the two of my better all around players so we play a 6-2. In practice when we do 6 v 6 drills and games I am left playing 5-1 due to only the two setters. How does one get around that situation when there are no other setters available?

We all face problems like this one at times. I have a few questions in this particular case:

  • Do you have other more developmental setters in the squad you can use in limited setting roles?
  • Do you have an assistant coach who can set the B side in 6 v 6?
  • Is there an external player you can have in training sometimes to set?

In other words, have you explored all the options for identifying or bringing in other possible setters to help out when you want to work your starters together? If not, then definitely see what you can do there. If so, then we have to be creative in terms of structuring things, setting priorities, etc.

In this case I would suggest that at times it is appropriate to focus on these better players being setters. At other times focus them on being hitters. That would allow you to have them work on more facets of their games in the 6 v 6 situations.

For example, sometimes you want your other players to get the best sets so they can work on attacking development. At other times, though, maybe you put the focus on more of a scramble type play. That’s mainly out-of-system play and quality setting is actually something you don’t want happening a great deal. Or maybe you just focus on working the top players as hitters and have them train their attacking with the lower quality sets necessarily coming from the other non-setters in the team.

Of course playing small-sided volleyball games is great for working on all-around skills for all your players.

To specifically work the starters playing together, set up games where the non-starters can be competitive. You have to do this without requiring quality setting. For example, you could do a wash drill/game where the B side could serve every ball and scores a point if they can get a good swing from the A side’s first ball over (as well as on an ace, block, or A team error). This puts the focus on getting a first-ball score for the A team. Another option would be to have the B side get an attack off a tossed ball to start each rally. The A side would then have to defend and transition.

The idea in both cases is to give the B team a motivation to play with intention and competitiveness even though they are clearly undermanned, while at the same time allowing you to focus on certain types of play with the A team.

It’s almost always best to use your 6 v 6 games in training to focus on something specific rather than just letting the players go like it’s a regular match. If you’re creative about setting up those priorities and finding ways to work with available strengths or on certain weaknesses you can often find ways to adapt things to the personnel you have at hand. It takes a bit of creative thinking, though.