Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Coaching Log – May 14, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

This was wind down month for the year. The players finished classes the first week of the month, then moved on to final exams the second week. Then it was on to Summer break!

Team Meeting

I had a team meeting on May 1st to wrap up the Spring training cycle. Mainly, it was to provide details for the Summer – when our strength coach would give them their Summer program, start of preseason, camp dates, etc. We talked about how Spring went, both from their perspective and ours as coaches. The team’s mentality on the court was excellent, and I encouraged them to use the Summer to share it with the incoming freshmen as part of connecting with them.

The Athletic Director also took some time to speak with them. I can guess about what, but I wasn’t actually in the room for it.

Little details

There’s always little bits and pieces that come up near the end of the year. An example of this is the Summer Voluntary Workout Request Form. This is for those student-athletes who will be around during the break and intend to take part in the voluntary workouts run by the strength coaches. Some of the players actually found it a bit invasive.

There was also paperwork and online training for players who were going to work our camps and/or clinics. Background check and child safety type stuff.

Our strength coach gave the players their Summer workout program on the 4th. It comprises three 4-week training cycles. I passed it along to our signed incoming freshmen.

Fundraising Clinics

Starting the second week of May we ran 90-minute evening clinics Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. These are targeted at 3rd through 7th graders, so it means a fairly wide range of skill and experience, not to mention stature. This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve been running these clinics as a way to raise a bit of money for the program. They don’t bring in a ton of money, but it all helps.

The one annoying thing about the clinics this year is that they’ve now been folded into the institutional structure used for camps. Because it was a fundraiser, we didn’t need to do that before. Putting it under the camp structure means a bit more administrative load and some costs we didn’t have before.

New head coach

The team was informed of the new head coach late in the day on the 11th. The press release went up on the 12th.

So ends the 2017-18 school year and season for MSU Volleyball and my log for the year.

To block, or not to block

Hai-Binh Ly at thevolleyballanalyst asks the question, Is it Worth Blocking in Non-Elite Volleyball? In it he questions whether or not it’s even worth have players go up to block when they could pull back and play defense. In particular, he’s talking about smaller players effectively incapable of putting up a good block.

I’ve written previously on the question of how important is blocking? Once you reach a high enough level of attacker power and ability to hit the ball down into the court, blocking becomes important. If you can’t at least slow the attack down, or limit the space into which they can attack, you’re in trouble. Having an extra defender may not actually help all that much.

In this particular article a couple of ideas come up. I think they are worth addressing.

Blocking metrics

As his moniker suggests, Hai-Binh Ly (HBL) is analytically inclined. So naturally he developed a metric to attempt to capture individual blocker effectiveness. I have a couple problems with it, though.

First, HBL doesn’t include block touches which lead to dug balls on the defending side of the net. To my mind this is a major issue, as it speaks to preventing the opposing hitter from attacking the ball unopposed into our court. As noted above, that’s part of the purpose of blocking. It’s not just about blocking for points.

Second, HBL doesn’t use total player block attempts. Instead he uses block touches (except as just mentioned) to work out an efficiency. I think this leaves considerable information out, especially with regards to diagnostics.

Also, looking at blocking errors as the only negative blocking outcomes fails to capture the reality that poor blocking technique, timing, etc. often is the reason for an attacker being able to score off the block out of bounds (block out). That also speaks to diagnostics.

Why?

Using his blocking efficiency measure, HBL looks at the players on his team. He then makes a judgement as to which ones are worth having block and which aren’t. Putting aside my issues with the metric, I think we cannot just leave it as a simple block/don’t block judgement for each player.

One of the main purposes of statistics is to see what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. They help us develop our training priorities. HBL’s numbers bring a couple of questions immediately to mind.

1) Have the smaller players been trained to soft block effectively?. That means intentionally trying to deflect the attack upward and into their own court so it can be dug. Unfortunately, even if they are, this would not be captured in the blocking efficiency metric.

2) Are some blockers’ efficiencies low due to poor timing and/or poor location? In my experience, less experienced female players especially are often late on their blocks. Both genders have problems setting their blocks in the right location. As a result, the low efficiency levels may not be about lack of size and or jump. If so, we can improve them.

Maybe, maybe not

I should note I’m not against HBL’s thinking that in some cases it might be best not to block. When I coached at Brown one match we ran out of subs and a defensive specialist ended up in the front row on the right side. Needless to say, she did not block. Instead,  she pulled back and played the tip. Conveniently, that’s exactly what the opposing hitter did! So sometimes that’s exactly the best approach.

My point in all this is that I would first be sure we’re measuring things appropriately and that the players are doing a good job trying to execute useful blocks before completely abandoning it. Even smaller blockers can prevent hitters from just teeing off on the ball. As such they at least take some pressure off the defense. As such, I might try to look at broader metrics like Kill % or Hitting Efficiency with and without the block before making a final judgement.

Should you start with your strongest servers?

volleyball serve

You’re getting ready to write your starting line-up on the slip for submission to the scorekeepers. You have a decision to make. Do you set the rotation to start with your strongest server(s)? Or instead, do you have a different priority?

For me the answer is, “It depends.”

Level of play is a big part of the consideration here. If you are coaching a younger team, or at a lower experience level, where lots of points get scored directly from serve, then it definitely makes sense to lead with your best server(s). Think about a 12-and-under team. One strong server can run off bunches of aces, right?

At higher levels, though, you may want to go in a different direction. There are still strong servers, but it tends to be less about aces and more about putting the other team out-of-system. In that case, we’re talking more about scoring in transition. As a result, there might be some other considerations to think about.

Thinking about match-ups might be part of that equation. Or perhaps you’re running a 6-2 system and want to delay the first sub as long as possible. As a result, you start your setter in Position 1. Similarly, you might want to keep a small blocker out of the front row as much as possible, so you start them in Position 1. Or flipping that around, have your dominant attacker in the front row as much as possible. That probably means you want to start them in Position 4.

As you move up the experience and skill levels, line-up decisions tend to become more multidimensional, and nuanced. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is trying to be in your best scoring rotation(s) as much as possible. That means starting there – or at least close to there.

Quick drills that keep players moving

What are some suggestions for drills that are quick and can be run through in a few minutes consistently to keep them moving and pumped during practices?

Coaches wonder about this quite often from a couple of different perspectives. One is in terms of warming up. Another is in terms of keeping the training tempo high and players engaged. Let me address things from both perspectives.

Warm-up

For me, the main thought process behind picking a warm-up activity is getting the players’ heart rates up and muscles warm, and also executing some lower intensity volleyball skills. An example of this is what I call Brazilian volleytennis. I like this one because it involves so many elements. There’s lots of movement and relatively quick rotations, keeping players switching in and out of the play. On top of that, it requires good player communication and coordination along with a lot of reading. Oh, and it’s competitive.

A different type of warm-up activity which is more ball-handling oriented is over-the-net pepper. The version that has the most player movement and highest touch frequency is probably the 3-player version. There are lots of different pepper variations, so you have loads of options in this regard.

Depending on your age group, you might even want to jump straight in to more full game play, like doubles. Younger players, after all, don’t need the same warm-up as older ones.

High Tempo/Maximum Engagement

Once you get into the meat of a practice, keeping players moving tends to be more focused on player engagement, though it could also have a conditioning element. Basically, what we’re talking about here is activities where things happen quickly and changes are frequent. A popular example of this is Winners, also known as Queen or King of the Court, and variations on it like Speedball or the Belly Drill.

The main feature of Winners and games like it is the way players wave on and off the court. It keeps them moving, and possibly facing different challenges.

Another way to think about keeping players moving is to increase the tempo of your games and drills. Generally, this means finding ways to shorten the length of time between one repetition and the next. That tends to be a feature of wash type games and drills.

Make sure it’s not just about movement

It’s easy to come up with ways to make players move around a lot. That’s not really what we should be thinking about here. Most of us have limited time with our teams, and we can’t afford to waste any of that on activities that don’t involve volleyball. If you’re thinking that this movement could be part of player conditioning, I’d argue there are better ways to actually get in proper volleyball conditioning through the structure of your practice.

Those are my thoughts on the subject. I’d love to hear your own ideas. Feel free to share them via a comment below.

Coaching Log – April 30, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

This was the final week of our Spring training period, and the final week we were allowed to work with the players for the 2017-18 school year.

Monday

We had a 2019 recruit on campus – the third in as many weeks, and also an OH. Unfortunately, since Monday is small group day for the team because of class schedules, she couldn’t play in anything like full-sided play. Instead, she took part in the two sessions we ran. The first was with our setter and one of the middles. In it she did some attacking vs. a double block, blocking as part of a double block, and passing and hitting.

In the second group we had a little more time and more bodies. This group featured all our healthy pin hitters, plus one of our liberos. The middle from the earlier group came back as well, which gave us six. We sandwiched a back court 3s game and a narrow court regular play 3s game around a servers vs. passers exercise. That’s not quite the same as playing 6 v 6 or 5 v 5, but it covered all the major areas of play we needed to evaluate. Besides, we saw her play with her juniors team over the weekend.

Tuesday

While this wasn’t our last practice, it was the last one where we had all of our reasonably healthy bodies available all together the whole time. Our freshman who hurt her knee back during the season is finally cleared to play, though only up to about 75% effort. Our OPP who hurt her ankle a couple weeks ago was also back in limited capacity. Since that was the case, I let them decide what they wanted to do, which is always an interesting experience.

Their first choice was to do the progressive triples exercise we do sometimes as a competitive ball-handling oriented warm-up. It goes from down balls to easy jumps to full back row attacks. After that they played all four variations of the cross-court game and we finished up with a pair of 15-point 5 v 6 games.

Wednesday

We started this session with some light ball-handling work in the form of a 4-person serve-pass-target drill. In this instance the focus was on taking balls with their hands. We then progressed to a 4 v 4 back row game, with rotation so that everyone took turns setting and hitting (if they were able). From there it was on to narrow court (a bit wider than half) doubles Speedball.

The remainder of the session was 4 v 4 normal play on the same narrow court we used for the doubles. The first two games were basically RS vs OH in structure, with serve initiation. Only earned points counted (kills, blocks, aces). Both times the OH side won, so we played one more game as a tie break. Games were to 11 points.

I gave the players the option of picking which game to play for the tiebreaker. They went with the 4 v 4 game we played a few times earlier in the term where you can only score if a hitter gets a kill off a hand set. This time coaches initiated the ball to the winner of the previous rally. This game was also to 11. The faster pace, though, made it pretty tiring. I gave the players a 30 second timeout at one stage to rest a little.

Thursday

This was the final practice of the Spring, and it was all about game play. We started with Brazilian volley tennis to get warmed up, then jumped into Winners back row 4s. After that, it was a 6 v 5 game until our setter had to leave for class. Once she left we played 5 v 5, 2-up/3-back.

Strength & Conditioning

This was final testing week for the team. Monday they started with standing jump in the gym, then move on to the power clean in the weight room. On Wednesday they did approach jumps, then finished up with back squats. Friday – their last formal session – the strength coach had them play a variation on Ultimate Frisbee in the gym using a small football. It was his last time working with them as he’s a grad student and is finishing up his degree in May.

Other

The players’ involvement in the interview process for the next MSU head coach disrupted this week somewhat. It caused late starts to practice on Monday and Thursday. Further, because their meeting on Friday was in the middle of our normal practice time, I just cancelled that session. So what did we do with our time? Budgeting for August!

On Sunday we had a speaker on campus to talk to the athletes on the subject of drug and alcohol use and abuse. This was something arranged by the Athletic Director. The speaker did a very good job. The session was extremely interactive and engaging.

My three principles for how my teams play

A fellow coach presented a question in a Facebook group. It was couched in the context of a job interview question, but I think it’s something worth thinking about much more broadly. I see it as a component piece to our general coaching philosophy.

Please tell me up to 3 of the PRINCIPLES you believe in that best describes your approach to the game/ how your teams play.

Here’s what I came up with for myself. I interpret the above as focusing on what our team does on the court, so I am concentrating on that rather than on training methods.

Players are not robots

I don’t want my players to be volleyball robots. By that I mean I don’t want to tell them how to play and I don’t want them to play by rigid rules. Certainly, there are some foundational elements I seek to have in place (e.g. establishing seam responsibilities). Beyond that, though, I want the players to be free to read and respond to the game. That means not telling them exactly where to be on defense, for example. It also means not requiring them to execute a skill in one certain way.

Does this mean I just put them on the court, then stand back and watch? Of course not! I provide information and feedback. I guide them in the direction of possible solutions to the problems they face. This is something I do, though, in the knowledge that they may come up with an effective solution on their own that’s different from mine.

My belief is when you trust players to do things themselves and show them that faith they are more relaxed. The result is more joy in their play, which generally produces better performances. Also, lessons players learn for themselves tend to take hold quicker and more firmly than those provided to them.

Focus on the mental aspects

There are two parts to the mental side of the game. One is reading the play. That isn’t just about what’s happening on the other side of the net. It also comes into play on your own side as players need to make note of what their teammates are doing to be prepared for what may come next. If you aren’t constantly reading and anticipating you won’t be ready to make plays.

The other part is decision-making. Each time a ball is played the player is doing two things. They are deciding on a solution to the problem they face – the skill they must employ and how – then attempting to execute based on that decision. If the player makes bad choices with the ball, they might get lucky and succeed. Chances are, though, things won’t work out well.

Relentless pressure

Something I constantly preach to my teams is that we should always make life hard for the other team. We should make them earn every point they get. In the case of inferior teams, I want them to feel like we’ve got them pinned to the mat with no chance of getting up. Superior teams should come away with respect for the way we challenged them from start to finish.

All of this comes from a positive mentality combined with intelligent play. We look to get a psychological edge and keep it.

Can you outline your own top three principles?

Getting the most out of video

An interesting discussion was started in a Facebook group on the subject of sharing video with players. It began with the following statement.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that if we REALLY want kids to ‘forget the past’ then allowing them to view past performance with an eye to correcting all their mistakes seems kinda silly. I much prefer to focus on what they are doing right and let the bad stuff ‘go extinct’.

There are a few ways we can unpack this. I want to address this idea of “forget the past” before getting into how I think video is most useful.

When to forget and when to remember

To my mind the idea of letting go of errors is most specifically related to the performance phase. By that I mean a player will perform better if they can forget the error they just made and get on with playing the next ball. I wrote about this before in Ways to help players put errors behind them.

This, however, is quite different than the development phase. In the latter case players must absolutely acknowledge their errors. More than that, they need to look at them critically so they can go about trying to correct them. This is a hugely important part of the intentional practice process. See the post Climbing Mistake Mountain, and if you haven’t already, consider reading The Talent Code.

My point is you cannot shield players from their errors in the learning part of the process. They must see them. That said, they should also see when they do it correctly so they can see the contrast. This is extremely important when they don’t understand what’s leading to bad outcomes – and we can’t assume they do.

By the way, it’s important to know which phase you’re in. If you want players to have a performance mentality and let go of mistakes, you can’t then provide technical feedback when they make them.

Getting the most out of video

I use video a lot. If I have the capability where I’m coaching, I use delayed video during practice. This gives players instant visual feedback on what they just did. They can see it for themselves, and link what it felt like kinesthetically with what actually happened. I can also provide additional comment on what they’re watching. This is for both the errors and the good repetitions, so you get both error recognition and confirmation of successful performance.

Delayed video in practice is obviously a raw feed. There’s no chance to edit it, though as coach you can draw the player’s focus to something specific. It’s that latter element that I think needs to be a big feature of providing players with game footage after the fact.

While I agree that if just shown raw video players will tend to fixate on their mistakes – certainly female players tend to be that way – I don’t actually think that’s the biggest concern. To me the problem tends to be a lack of specific focus on what’s most important.

That’s where you have to provide the focus. The most direct way to do that is to edit the video so it only shows what you want the player(s) to concentrate on. That’s not always a reasonable option, however. In that case it becomes important for you to get them to look at what they need to see, and to ask them specific questions related to it. They’ll probably pick up on other stuff anyway, but at least you can keep the conversation moving in the direction you want. This goes for both watching themselves and watching other teams.

Notice that all of what I’ve described above is developmental phase usage of video. None of it takes place during the performance phase. If I were to share performance phase video with my team or players, it would focus on tactical adjustments. I would not show them technical elements.

One final piece of advice

I’ll leave you with one last recommendation. Keep it brief. One of the great aspects of the delayed video is that the player(s) can look at what the just did quickly and get right back to the action. When watching regular video, though, that’s not the case. Attention spans become a problem. As a result, it’s best to keep thing as tight and directed as you possibly can. You can go longer when you’re in a one-on-one with a player, but if you’re in a group session you’ll lose their attention quickly.

Coaching Log – April 23, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

This was a rather choppy week thanks to a variety of factors.

Monday

The team did their morning workout with the Strength Coach. Because of some availability issues, and me not feeling particularly well, I cancelled group sessions. This was roundly applauded by the team. 😀

Tuesday

We had another 2019 recruit on campus. Unfortunately, our practice session was a pretty poor one. Balls were dropping between players. There was a lack of readiness. Basically, the little things just didn’t get done. If we didn’t have the visitors (recruit’s mom was there too), there would have been some sharp words coming out of my mouth. As it was, though, the players recognized at the end that it wasn’t good enough. They said so in our final huddle before I even opened my mouth. So there was that bright spot.

The practice itself started with 3-player over-the-net pepper, followed by some serving. Then we did rounds of 3s Neville Pepper. First it was back row only, then we allowed front row attacking. The rest of the session was given over to 5 v 5 play. We started with 3 up/2 back playing 22 v 22 for four games, allowing for the OHs to flip between front and back row. The last game was 2 up/3 back normal play.

Wednesday

No practice on this day. The team had morning strength training, but the annual sports banquet meant no volleyball.

Every team had honorees for Best Teammate (voted by the team) and top academic marks. Our sophomore setter garnered both awards. The Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) moved to introduce a new award the year, which they dubbed the Maverick of the Year. Think of it as the Newcomer of the Year. One female and one male were selected, and our sophomore transfer OPP was one of the winners.

There’s a big final award that is essentially the Student-Athlete of the Year. It takes into account academics and community service, along with athletic performance. Each team’s coaching staff nominated a member of the squad. Tuesday morning I had to record a video about our nominee, which was our senior setter. That makes two years in a row as our selection, but no joy.

Thursday

This session was abbreviated for a couple of reasons. Between that and the fact that we only had one other practice up to this point I wanted to make it a higher tempo session. We started off with something new to get them moving and to give them a new challenge. That was the 2 v 2 side switch game. It served it’s purpose well, as they were definitely sweating at the end and I saw some good thinking about how to win.

From there we moved on to doubles Speedball on about a 2/3rds width court. There were two teams to a side and we played a combined side scoring game to 25.

After a couple of minutes of serving, the next exercise was a 4 v 4 game played using dig-or-die scoring. We played two games to 8. In the first one we started each rally with coaches initiating balls across the net on an alternating basis. To up the challenge some in the second game, we changed the ball initiation. This time the winner of the prior rally received a bounced ball and had two contacts remaining.

We had time for one more game after the second dig-or-die, so we put in 5 v 5 game, 2-up/3-back. I opted for ladder scoring, so if a team reached 24 and failed to win their score reset to 19. Serves initiated play.

Friday

Back on the sand for this session. I had to change things up due to player injury and absence issues. As a result, we only ran a single group rather than the two group structure of the prior two sessions. I kept the same Neville Pepper base, but shifted to triples rather than doubles, with four players rotating on the challenge side.

Strength & Conditioning

This was the last really training week for the team in this regard. Next week they do their year-end jump and lifting tests.

Recruiting

It was the last big recruiting tournament for us on Saturday and Sunday – the Lone Star national qualifier in Dallas. The event started on Friday, but because we had team practice we didn’t leave until after that. That meant missing the first day.

Community service

Saturday was the last of our community service dates for the year. Since we coaches were off recruiting, the players were on their own.

Structure things to keep them coming back

When coaching beginners, youngsters, and anyone else where retention is an important consideration we want to design sessions that leave them happy and wanting to come back for more. Motivation is important for committed teams of more senior players too, though. We want them just as eager to come back. That’s something we should keep in mind when planning our practices and training sessions.

Start with the finish

I previously wrote about building practice from the finish. In that case I talked about thinking first about the last exercise you wanted in your session, then working backwards so you have a progression toward it. When thinking in terms of having players eager to come back for the next session, a similar mentality is appropriate.

There is what’s known as a serial-position effect which tells us we remember the last part of a sequence best. Psychologists call this the recency effect. What this means to us coaches is that if we want our players to think positively about our training sessions we should end them on something they will enjoy or otherwise find fulfilling.

Flipping back to the start

The other thing the serial-position effect tells us people remember best is the first part of a sequence. This is the primacy effect. This tell us that we should make sure the first thing we do in a practice session is engaging.

The muddle in the middle

So if the end and the beginning are best remembered after the fact by players, what should we do with the middle part? Obviously, you do what you need to do. If we follow the psychology, though, we realize this is the part of the session where you can put in the less intense, less exciting parts. Need to slow things down or lower the intensity to do more teaching? This is the section in which to do it.

Understanding their motivation

Before I leave you to go out and structure your next practice based on these principles, there’s one last important consideration. You need to have a good grasp of what your players find engaging and fulfilling. These thoughts from a former player of mine provide one player’s thoughts to that end. You need to think about your own group of players, though.

In my experience, competition tends to motivate male players (Kathy DeBoer backs this up). Many female athletes, however, like to feel they’ve had a good workout. This is a very general perspective, though. Level of play and type of team are influencing factors. It’s important that you, as the coach, understand what gets your players’ juices flowing most.