Archive for Volleyball Coaching

If you could ask just one question …

Imagine you get to talk with one of the world’s great volleyball coaches. For example, you bump into them in the hotel at the AVCA convention. You don’t have much time, though. You can ask them one question. In that scenario, what would that question be?

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

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

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

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

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

How to get a setter to go for the ball and use their hands

I came across a question in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It was about getting a setter to chase down the 2nd ball (not call help) and to use their hands. Here’s how the coach in question worded it:

Good drills to get a setter to stop being so lazy? She will call help on so many balls that I know she can get to, she just doesn’t bother trying. And she ALWAYS sets with her forearms instead of using her hands when she can take one more step and use her hands.

Before I share how I would look to address this, I need to comment on something I see all too often in forums and the like. People with no real knowledge of the situation start throwing out recommendations with no thought as to whether they are reasonable given the circumstances. Here are some examples from this particular thread:

  • She shouldn’t be setter
  • Maybe you should train someone else
  • Bench her. That will get the message across

Then there’s this one, which takes things in a different direction:

I rip my setter a new one when she calls for help.

As it turns out, in this particular case the poster later went on to say in the follow-up comments, “it’s just a lower level club/team, she was one out of 2 setters that tried out that were any good at all.

So the “train someone else” and “she shouldn’t be a setter” comments were probably very unrealistic options in this case. Benching may or may not have been an option, depending on a number of factors.

It’s also worth noting that despite how people answered the question, the coach didn’t ask, “How do I deal with a lazy setter?” Instead, she was basically asking, “How can I train my setter to be less lazy?” The difference may be subtle, but it’s important. I might even say “lazy” isn’t the right way to put it. Sounded like some confidence building was required. I seriously doubt ripping the kid was going to be the best way to go.

Regardless, the poster was asking for some suggestions on what she could do to train this player. Now, a lot of coaches think a new drill or game can fix a problem with their team. That’s rarely the case. They don’t realize the main issue is having the right focus and incentives (or disincentives). That’s why I didn’t suggest a specific drill or game, but rather a scoring approach.

I recommended only counting repetitions or points (or whatever) when the setter set the second ball with her hands. Not only does this serve the purpose of encouraging the setter to be aggressive in running balls down and not playing them with their forearms, it also serves to encourage the passers and/or defenders to play balls more accurately and/or higher.

Two drills I have used quite often over the years where this comes into play are the Hard Drill and the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. (or the rotating version). In each I only count good reps if the hitter legitimately attacks and the setter sets the resulting dig with their hands. Believe me! When it’s the difference between being able to finish a challenging drill or not, the players are right there to remind the setter to take the ball with their hands.

This principle can be applied anywhere you have a pass/dig-set-attack sequence. And it works for encouraging jump setting as well!

What if you’re not coaching “the game”?

Over at the Arizona Sidelines Coaching Blog there was a recent post which addressed the subject of doing non-game-like drills. It included a lot of references to videos of activities which would appear to have very little to do with actual volleyball. The leading example was one where a coach was rolling balls and requiring a player to moved to them and roll them back. I’ve actually seen a variation of this drill run. The author said the following:

“Motor learning science is adamant about Game-Like Reps in practice; better skill acquisition, better transfer and better retention. Chasing rolling balls across the floor while 10 girls stand and watch doesn’t come up a whole lot in the game. So why?”

Now, I am very much in line with the philosophy of making things as game-like as we possibly can in training. Just the other day I had a go at men’s volleyball players at a recent match for some of what they were doing. Here’s a question, though.

What if we’re not actually training the game at the moment, though?

Let me clarify. In volleyball, as in anything, there are technical skills and there are game skills. Motor learning, as noted above, strongly suggests that skills are best developed in a game-like environment. And I doubt anyone will argue that learning things like reading and decision-making are also best accomplished in a similar fashion.

What about things that are not specific to the sport, though?

I’m not talking about physical stuff here. First off, you can make the case that any strength and conditioning work you do should be directly related to the sport you’re playing. Further, you can also make the case that much of that type of development is best accomplished on the court.

Instead, I’m talking about mental development. I have in mind what might broadly be classified as mental toughness. More specifically, it could include things like dealing with adversity, focusing on the next play and letting mistakes go, and those sorts of things. I know personally these are things I specifically work on with my teams. I’ve talked about ways of doing so in my Training beyond techniques and tactics post.

If mental training is the primary focus of a specific exercise, can we accept deviations from “the game teaches the game”?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Train them together, or separately?

When interviewed noted Juniors coach Mike Lingenfelter (Munciana) for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, the conversation at one point turned in an interesting direction. We were talking about the difficulty of moving a player up or down over the course of a club season based on their performance (or lack thereof). It’s not something you see a lot of in my experience.

Mike and I both agreed that there’s a lot of value in being able to move players around. Inevitably, certain players placed on lower level teams end up advancing quite rapidly in their development. That brings them up to the level of a higher team. Similarly, it isn’t unusual for players on a higher team to fail to keep up with their teammates progress. Thus, realistically they deserve to drop down.

Yes. We can all hear the parental screaming and yelling should their dear child get a team demotion. Let’s turn our attention to another consideration, though.

Team Chemistry

With females teams in particular, the bond between teammates is important. Moving players around mid-season can have a very serious chemistry impact. Popping a new player into a team that has trained and played together for half the season already can lead to all kinds of problems. It does not matter how good that player may be.

The idea that Mike and I discussed to try to get around this sort of thing was to avoid fixed teams. Instead, a group of players all trains together. Then, when it comes time to compete, the players are divided up into teams based on where they are at that point in time. This allows for upward and downward mobility, but without the chemistry issues noted above. Or at least there is a reduced risk of them since the whole group practices together all the time. Everyone knows each other.

This was something we did, after a fashion, when I coached at Exeter. Going into my second year we decided the number of players in the club warranted adding second teams to play in university competitions. We didn’t have enough practice time to have these teams train separately, however. So what we did was to train the first and second teams together as one group. We then divide them as needed when it came time to play matches. Certain players were always in the first team and certain players were always in the second team. Some, though, swung back and forth based on performance and development.

This system definitely has it’s challenges. You can read about how I handled coaching them in my 2013-14 coaching log. In the end, we had a pretty good season – if you believe reaching the national semifinal for the first time in school history counts as good. 🙂

Coach Development

Potential player movement aside, the other aspect of this kind of set up that Mike and I talked about is from the coaching perspective. By training the group all together rather than as multiple separate squads, you can create a master coach/mentee coach situation. By that I mean one master coach is in charge of training. Multiple under-coaches help out. Those sub-coaches then take charge of individual teams come competition time. At Exeter my assistant coached the second team on days when both teams played. This sort of arrangement is very useful in the development of inexperienced coaches.

Ever tried or seen something like this?

My question to you is whether you’ve seen or tried this sort of structure out before. And if so, how’d it go?

Clearly, this is mainly something you’d be looking at in terms of a club program. It could also come into play for high schools, though. Or even colleges that run junior varsity teams. And obviously whatever roster locking rules there are need to be accounted for in all this.

Guys, I’m not impressed

One Friday during the 2016 season, I went to watch my first ever NCAA men’s volleyball match. I’ve watched them on TV, but I’ve never actually attended one before. That probably sounds a bit pathetic. In my defense, I’ve watched professional matches in Germany, have been to the CEV Champions League Final Four, and went to Poland to watch some of the 2014 World Championships. So it’s not like I’ve never seen high level men’s volleyball in person. And of course I coached the University of Exeter men.

Conveniently, I was hanging out in Long Beach, which was the home of the then #1 ranked Long Beach State (CSULB) team. They hosted a pair of matches that week, with the one on Friday being against #11 UC Irvine. I’d been to the Pyramid before for a Long Beach State women’s alumni match when I was visiting back in 2013. This was a better production in terms of the game day experience, which probably isn’t a surprise.

Long Beach State at the Pyramid

Take a look at the crazy number of guys on the Long Beach bench!

2016-02-19 19.18.23

Between set warm-ups

I was a bit late arriving to the match because of a late start to dinner beforehand. As a result, I missed warm-ups. Between sets, though, the non-starters came out on the court hitting (which I’ve never seen before). In a typical display of male whatever, the setters put the ball on – or even over – the net and the guys saw how high they could bounce the ball. There was no concern about hitting the net.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing. I’m sure it won’t be the last. I wanted to say to the players, “Guys, I’m not impressed.”

What’s the point of this? You will never do this sort of thing in match situation.

It reminded me of things I’ve written about before in terms of warm-ups with respect to throwing the ball and slamming the ball off the floor the way many players do. Needless to say, I’m not a fan.

Playing for each other

Anson Dorrance is the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. His program has won more than 20 national championships. I read his book Training Soccer Champions back in the very early days of my coaching career. Needless to say, I think he’s worth listening to any time you get a chance to hear him talk.

Here’s a video of Anson talking about getting players to play together by giving them a common focus. Warning: Anson shares a couple of touching stories, so you may need a hankie. 🙂

 

At what age should kids compete?

What is a good age for kids to start playing in legitimate competitions?

I’m not really asking here whether little ones should have scores kept. That’s a bit tricky in volleyball since it’s a point target sport. You have to switch to a timed model to be able to toss out the score, if you really wanted to go that route.

Rather, what I’m asking is at what point it really make sense to have kids playing in meaningful competition. I’m talking about big tournaments and things like that rather than simply playing in an in-house type of league. Is there really any benefit to these youngsters playing in regional or national level competition? Is the potential higher level play meaningful in their development?

This is something Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Turco talked about in his interview. He runs a Juniors club, but for the 12s age group they do not take part in even regional competition. They are strictly in-house. Tom doesn’t see any potential benefit worth the added time and expense involved for the families.

I go even further and wonder whether the kids would be better off not playing in these bigger tournaments from the perspective of early specialization. I challenged a 12s coach from Texas a while back on this basis. By all accounts it’s very hard to judge at that age what position a player is likely to be best suited for down the road. That being the case, it doesn’t make much sense to have them in fixed positions.

Unfortunately, the desire or pressure to win encourages coaches to field their best team, which often means positional specialization. If we take that aspect of things away for players in these younger age groups, would we end up producing better players in the long run?

And maybe reducing the competitive pressures early on helps keep more kids in the sport.

Thoughts?

Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing their watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. This isn’t done by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.

Possible paths for volleyball research

The subject of the influence of a coach’s decisions on match outcomes is now a talking point in coaching circles. That wasn’t always the case in the past. For many years the assumption was that coaching interventions (timeouts, subs, etc.) without doubt influence outcomes. This is the coaching mythology. The research challenges that mythology.

Examples of this come from Mark Lebedew. He did a basic study based on the question of whether timeouts in any way influence the likelihood of the server missing their serve. In other words, are servers more likely to miss after a timeout. This is believed by many coaches. Confirmation bias is likely a factor here, though.

A while back Mark also wrote about some research into whether timeouts impact the next point. That piece was was based on some findings from basketball which suggest they are actually counterproductive. Not content to stop there, Mark followed up with additional posts here, here, here, here, here, and here. A researcher in a presentation at the 2016 AVCA convention also took on the subject of timeout effectiveness.

This research is definitely a good start. That’s all it is for the moment, though. I’d like to go down some other research paths with respect to volleyball. What do you think? What question(s) do you have?