Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Recruits don’t worry too much about coaches, apparently

Here’s something that might deflate the egos of some college coaches. 🙂

We recently had a 2018 recruit on campus for a visit. This is actually a girl who we brought to campus in Spring 2017. We made her an offer then, but she was at the beginning of her process. As a result, she wasn’t ready to make a commitment then. We then kind of fell out of touch with her over the Summer. Approaching the first Juniors tournament of the year we were going to for recruiting, we looked to see if she had committed somewhere else, but didn’t see any indication she had. That being the case, I stopped by her court to watch her play. She did well. Better than what I remembered.

We were all set to reach out to her again, but she beat us to it. She texted the head coach to express her interest, and that led to her coming back to campus again. This was mainly about giving her mom a chance to have a look as she wasn’t on the trip the first time. It also, though, gave her a chance to meet all our new players. We only have three left from when she visited the first time.

Now, in the middle of all this the head coach was getting ready to leave following her resignation. She made her announcement to the team two days before the visit and spoke this this recruit that same night to let her know as well in case it mattered.

Nope! Didn’t matter at all.

We got the girl’s commitment the night after her visit.

Further, of the four girls who committed to us earlier, only one decided to rethink things. She did ask to be let out of her commitment, making it sound like she wanted to stay closer to home. At the same time, though, we continued to talk with 2018 prospects and getting them on campus.

Guess the head coach doesn’t matter. 😀

Honestly, I think this is the way it should be for at least the majority of recruits. It should be mainly about the school.

Coaching Log – February 1, 2018

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

The new semester is underway. Time to get back to work!

Recruiting

They don’t wait too long to get Juniors tournaments going, so we were off and running with recruiting before school even started. This is the time of year when we get seriously focused on the next recruiting class. In this case, that means 2019. We did, however, still have to look at 2018 middles to finish that class.

Our first event of the year was the Tour of Texas qualifier in San Antonio. Annoyingly, it was spread over I think four different sites for just the 17s age group alone. Saturday was all about looking at 17s. We had a number of 2019 prospects who have reached out to us to look through. While doing that, though, we also tagged a number of other potential recruit prospects we saw along the way. On Sunday I continued looking at 17s, but the 18s began playing that day, so I watched some uncommitted 2018 middles as well.

Following the Tour, a middle we actually brought to campus last Spring, and offered, reached out to us. We hadn’t heard from her since I believe July. I made it a point to watch her play in the Tour qualifier, as she still came up as uncommitted. She saw me, and ended up texting the head coach a couple days later. That turned into plans for a second visit (unofficial this time, as she’d already done her official) so she could meet new members of the team (8 since her visit) and show her mom around campus. She ended up committing to us that evening.

Academics

The Lone Star Conference does a Commissioner’s Honor Roll for each academic term. A student-athlete must have a semester total GPA of 3.3 or better to earn selection. For Fall 2017 we put 8 players on that list.

Overall, the team did pretty well last semester. The team had a collective GPA of 3.0. Unfortunately, a few individuals dragged the average down with failing grades. For one of them it’s going to cost her eligibility in the Spring. She didn’t pass enough credits, so she won’t be able to compete for us this term. She can still train with the team, but she can’t play in any Spring competition.

Scheduling

Now is the time of year Fall schedules are made. This year it’s been a bit trickier than usual. You see 2018 is a Festival year for NCAA Division II. That means they have all the sports for a given season do their championships at the same time, in the same location. Unfortunately, the other Fall sports finish earlier than volleyball. That means they cut a week off our season. A proposal was made, however, to make up for that cut by adding a week back at the beginning of the season. That was voted on and passed in mid-January. As a result, we’ll start our season August 24th rather than August 31st.

We committed to tournaments for our first two weekends. We’ll go to Tarleton again the first week, as we did in 2017. It’s an easy trip with some good competition. We played two ranked teams there this year and look forward to something similar for 2018. One of the top teams in the country is on the list of attendees.

The second weekend we’ll be going to Nebraska-Kearney. We played them at West Texas early in the 2017 season. They are traditionally quite a strong team – as in top 10 in the poll. The other teams in the tournament, however, were ranked below us this year. Two of them, though, will be regional competition.

There is also scheduling Spring competition. Because we can’t play any of our MBs due to their academic eligibility, we are keeping things limited. We will host a tournament in April, but that’s it. We did the same thing last year when we had only one MB available. We’ve had five area teams commit for the date.

Team Meeting

We held our first team get together of the term the afternoon of the first day of classes (Jan 16). That basically involved going over the the training schedule for the first part of the semester (up to Spring Break). We also had to discuss our community service hours, study hall, and other stuff like that.

Training

The team started strength and conditioning work with our Strength Coach the first week of school. The first day he started off by having them do some simple agility work in the gym, and then some foundational exercises in the weight room to start getting them back into the swing of things. That sort of work continued in the second week.

We held off on starting the volleyball until the second week to let them settle in with classes and such. At least some of them, though, did take part in an open gym session on Thursday of the first week. The combination of injuries and class schedules looks like it will force to into having two 2-hour full team sessions per week rather than the smaller group work we originally had in mind for this part of the year. Spring can be really tricky like that.

Volunteer work

All athletes at MSU are expected to do a certain amount of volunteer work each year. Even if there was no requirement, though, most of us likely would make it part of our program anyway. It’s a difficult thing to get in during the season in the Fall, for obvious reasons. The team did, though, work a fair one day for a couple hours.

This Spring we will once more be involved with the Cafe con Leche program. It’s one which aims to help mainly minority kids become the first in their family to go to college. We helped out with one of their tutoring sessions last year. We’re doing the same again this year on a monthly basis.

And the big news

When she returned from the semester break, the head coach announced her intention to resign. This was not a major surprise as it was totally based on family considerations. It was a question of when, not if it would happen. She informed the team in a meeting on the 23rd, with a press release going up on the website the next day. She also reached out to all the incoming players to let them know. Fortunately, there wasn’t any drama.

Well, at least we thought so. Then we heard on the 29th from the setter we signed that she’s decommitting. Ugh! Scramble time to find someone else after we’ve been telling kids we’re done in that position for 2018.

The outgoing head coach’s final thing with the team was on the 30th. She showed them a short video on the team concept and we played a series of team oriented non-volleyball games.

Communicating playing time prospects to non-starters

A question recently came up on the subject of talking with non-starters.

So many times when the discussion of playing time comes up, either the player or parent is asking what they need to improve on, or the coach uses improvement in particular skills as a prerequisite for more playing time. Now the paradox: As a coach, don’t you expect improvement from Everyone on your roster? If everyone improves, including the non-starter, is your starting team going to change? (probably not!). So by tying more playing time to improvement, aren’t you setting this player up for more disappointment?

This definitely represents an interesting conundrum for us coaches. In order for a non-starter to become a starter they need to get better. Either that or a starter needs to have a dip in form. You certainly hope and expect that the starters will continue to improve, though. If that’s the case, then the non-starter should never get into the starting lineup. So how do we handle this?

Control what we can control

First and foremost, it is important to get the non-starter focused on what they can control. They cannot control what others do. They can only control their own effort and attitude. It’s about putting in the work with intention. A potentially big part of this is making sure you give them at least as much attention as you give your starters. That way they don’t feel left behind or left out.

Different rates of improvement

A major consideration in this whole scenario is a kind of assumption that players improve at the same rate. This really isn’t the case, though. Player’s progress at different rates. That means non-starters can definitely overtake starters over time. This is especially true when you’ve got players at different points in their development. Younger players tend to make gains more quickly than older ones.

Don’t tie playing time to improvement

Here’s the mistake coaches can make. We obviously want to see our non-starters improve. Even if they never make the starting team, their better play in practice will at least create a higher level of play in that context (see A-team vs. B-team), challenging the other players more. We cannot, though, tie playing time to improvement – at least not in a nominal sense.

By that I mean we can’t tell players they just need to get better because the reality is that they need to be better than the starter(s) ahead of them. Thus, it’s a relative thing, not an absolute. You thus have to frame it more along the lines of, “You need to be better than (or at least as good as) Jane in …” That gives you room to base things on the relative levels of the player rather than absolute changes by the non-starter.

Note that all of this can tie in with your decisions on substitutions as well.

Where should you focus your coaching attention during matches?

It’s match time. As coach, what should you do with yourself? That’s what the following coach wants to know.

What have you found to be the most effective area to focus your attention during a match as a coach? I’ve found that it’s easy to get distracted watching the “game” like a spectator. I was just wondering what you smart people focus on or how you are practically spending your time (charting, calling plays, whatever).

For example, as a head coach, do you spend most of your time watching the other team’s defense so you can lead the offense? Or do you spend your time watching your team to see who is doing well or losing points at X, Y, or Z?

I think a lot of us, especially early in our careers, probably found ourselves watching the game like a spectator. As you get more experienced, though, your vision changes and evolves. You learn to take things in even while watching the game as a whole.

That said, there are a couple of ways to get more out of watching from the sidelines.

Focus on your priority

What is the most important information you can provide your team during the match? This should dictate where you focus your attention. Is your team still learning its defensive responsibilities? Then you should focus more on their movement and positioning and not focus much on the other team. Do you need to help your setter with their decision making or your hitters with finding ways to score? Then you likely need to focus more attention on how the opposition is setting up their block and defense.

You may even have situations where you need to focus on just one player. Maybe there is an injury question. Maybe you are worried about their mentality. This usually isn’t something you do for long periods, but it can be very important for the team’s performance overall.

This isn’t to say you can only watch one thing. I’m merely suggesting that you should give more of your attention to that area of the court which will give you the information you need to provide your players.

Taking stats

If you don’t have another source of statistics, then taking at least some of them during a match can be quite helpful. The trick is being able to do so while also giving enough attention to what’s happening on the court. I personally have always struggled when a head coach to also take stats – even end of rally type stuff. I always feel like I’m missing something when I have to turn my attention away from the court, however briefly. You may find it easier.

Regardless, you must decide what information would be helpful during the match and not worry about stuff you could later pull from the video. You also want to make taking those stats as simple as possible, and that you are able to reference and interpret them at a glance.

Delegating

If you are a head coach then maybe you can delegate part of what needs to be watched to someone else – assistant coach, parent, etc. Statistics especially can be delegated quite easily. You just have to provide very specific and clear instructions on what you want collected and in what format you want to see it. For example, if you have someone take serve reception stats, make sure they know exactly how to score each pass.

At some levels assistant coaches are responsible for certain parts of the game. One may watch the block and defense. One may focus on the offense. This allows the head coach to focus wherever they think is most important at the time, while still collecting other information.

Avoiding Overload

One thing to make sure to avoid is overloading your players. This can happen when multiple people are telling them different things. This can also happen when you give the team too many different things to focus on. Players – individually and collectively – can only keep so many things in mind. And the less experienced the players the lower than threshold is. Keep this in mind both as you prioritize your focus, or what you delegate, and in information transmission.

Overload applies to you as coach also. If you try to look at too many things you’ll probably not actually take in anything meaningful. In that case you’re back to being a spectator.

Coaching Log – January 3, 2018

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

It’s been nearly a month since my last update. Obviously, we haven’t been in the gym, but that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening.

Roster changes

Recall that we did a tryout last month for prospective transfer middles and liberos. As it turns out, one of the liberos was someone already committed to transfer to MSU – as a freshman. Literally that same day she met with a counselor about her schedule for the Spring semester. She’d played a fair amount as a defensive specialist for her prior school – a Division II program in our Region – but opted to transfer for non-volleyball reasons. She was club teammates with of one of our current freshmen, and did well at the tryout, so we felt she’d make a good addition to the team. Even better, she can be with us through second semester to get integrated with the team.

Recruiting

We’ve still been looking to add one or two additional players to our 2018 freshman class. A middle we offered, and thought we’d get, opted for another school. So it was back to work trying to find someone in that position. We plotted out the tournaments we’ll look to attend during this year’s juniors seasons to come and submitted the requisite travel authorization requests.

The first of those tournaments is actually this weekend. Nothing like jumping right into it in the new year!

Other stuff

There’s never a time when nothing’s going on, especially while school is still in session. The week after our tryout was the last week of classes – and the last time we were all going to be in the office at the same time for a while. We started putting together the Spring semester schedule, continued to do academic monitoring, and dealt with gear. Of course there was plenty of recruiting stuff to do, particularly with the juniors season starting to get rolling.

Increasing player intensity in practice

What are some ways you get your team to pick up the intensity more in practice?

This is a question that comes up among coaches on a regular basis. I think there are two primary ways to accomplish this.

Up the tempo

Perhaps the easiest way to increase training intensity is to raise the tempo of your activities. Generally speaking, you can do this by increasing the pace at which balls are entered in or shortening the time between rallies. The latter is something I wrote about in Washing to increase scrimmage intensity. When you add a new ball in as soon as a rally ends, it naturally increases the tempo. The players don’t have any time to drop their intensity back down, so it stays at a higher level.

Add competition

Adding competition to your practice can definitely make things more intense. And it doesn’t even have to be strictly a volleyball game. Sometimes you can use seemingly silly things to get the players competing and having fun. That ups the intensity, and oftentimes it carries through the session. Two games like this which immediately come to mind are Amoeba Serving and Brazilian 2-ball. They aren’t the most complicated games in the world, but players get into them.

Don’t let it drop

Having increased the tempo and/or added competition to you practice, make sure you don’t then put in something that will bring the intensity crashing back down. For sure there will be carry over from one intense activity into whatever comes next. If, however, that following exercise is something like a serving and passing drill, it’s all going to fade away.

You will have a hard time sustaining intensity when individual technique is the main focus. It just doesn’t work that way, so plan carefully. I favor putting the lower intensity stuff first, then building up as the session goes along.

Give them a purpose

Going beyond what you actually plan into your practice, you should also consider what the players are thinking. They are much more likely to be invested, and thereby intense, if they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It helps them focus, and focused players tend to be more intense players.

Looking back on the 2017 season

The NCAA women’s volleyball season is official over. Champions at all levels have been crowned. Seems like a good time to look back on the 2017 season with respect to MSU Volleyball to see how we did.

You can look back to my last in-season log entry to see how we ended the year in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). In this post I’ll take a look at things in more detailed fashion, and also look at the historical context of our performance.

The Rankings

We finished 16th in the NCAA Division II South Central Region’s RPI rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from 20th in 2016. On the Pablo ranking (available at Rick Kern), we ended the year at 115 out of 297 in Division II, a 12 spot improvement. In case you’re interested, we came in at 469 out of 1297 in the Pablo composite NCAA/NAIA all divisions ranking. We landed at 98 in the Massey Ratings, up from 143 in 2016.

2017 Team Statistical Performance

Let’s first look at how MSU compared to the rest of the LSC statistically. Here are the final team conference-only stats for 2017.

Our offensive performance lines up really well with where we finished in the league. We simply did not score enough in attack. We were a solid team on defense, and quite good when it came to serving and blocking. Unfortunately, that only gets you so far. At the end of the day, you have to put the ball away when you get the opportunity.

The biggest issue there was our low kill rate at just 31.5%. Could we have made fewer errors? Sure, but at 15.4% our error rate was not particularly high. It was within 1% of most of the teams above us, and better than some. By comparison, the Kill % for Tarleton was 39.4, Angelo and Kingsville were in the 37s, and everyone else other than Western NM was in the 34s. As you can see from our standing in terms of Opponent Digs and Opponent Blocks, we simply hit the ball at their defenders too often.

Year-over-Year Comparison

Offensively, we were basically at the same level in 2017 as we were in 2016 when our Hitting Efficiency was .163. Our 9th in that category this year is the same as it was last year, though we did move up one place in Kills/Set.

Looking at our offensive positions, it’s a mixed bag. We definitely got more production out of our middles – 3.7 k/s as compared to 2.9 k/s – and they hit for a little better efficiency. Our pins were less productive, however. The OHs might have had a slightly higher hitting percentage, but were a down a fraction in kills/set. The big drop was in the OPP position. We went from 2.35 kills and .174 efficiency to 1.03 and .069.

Our defense was where we really got better. We massively improved in Opponent Hitting Efficiency, going from .221 to .183. Our block was a huge factor there, as we increased our Blocks/Set by nearly 1 whole block. We jumped from 10th to 4th in that category. We also were better in digs, improving to 16.17 from 13.76 and moved up to 7th from 9th.

At the individual level, the first thing that really jumps out is the production at our libero position. In 2016 we didn’t have anyone above 2.63 digs/set. This season our libero finished at 4.81. Not surprisingly, there are also some dramatic improvements in blocking. In the OPP position we went from 0.48 to 1.02. Our MBs in 2016 were at 0.61 and 0.54. This year it was 1.21 and 0.86.

Historical perspective

While the program still has a way to go in becoming what we all think it could be, and this season didn’t meet expectations in some ways, it still had some good things happen with respect to the history of MSU Volleyball.

  • First ever foreign trip.
  • First time beating West Texas after more than 30 failed attempts.
  • Most overall and conference wins since 2013.
  • The 4-match win streak we had early in the season was the longest since 2013, and the longest away from home since 2011.
  • This was the first season since at least 2008, when national rankings started to be noted on the schedule, that our only non-conference losses were to ranked teams.
  • The set we took off of Central Oklahoma was the first we’d taken from a ranked team since 2014 and the first against a non-conference ranked team since 2011.
  • Season Blocks/Set were 6th highest on record, Total Blocks the 8th highest, and our 2.20 Blocks/Set in the LSC were the most since 2010.
  • Our 2nd place position in the LSC in Aces/Set was our best position since 2007
  • The 4th place our top OH held in the LSC Kills/Set ranking was highest for an MSU attacker on record (2004 the first available).
  • Our setter’s 3rd place in conference Assists/Set was the best ranking for an MSU player since 2008.
  • Our freshman MB’s 1.21 Blocks/Set in the LSC was the most for an MSU player since 2005.

We can add in the fact that our combined total of 27 wins over the last two seasons is the most since the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. We need 14 wins in 2018 for the best 3-year total since 2008 to 2010.

Thoughts on the season – big picture

Generally speaking, I am satisfied with the season. Was it disappointing to miss out on the conference tournament? Of course.That fact that we did so is a good lesson in how things you have no control over can decide your fate. We had more wins this year than last, but finished one place lower in the standings.

At the same time, though, it’s also a lesson in how you need to perform every time out. Had we won a couple of those matches we lost early in the season due to really poor performances, our season could have ended very differently.

I think one of the issues we had early in the conference season is that we were too focused on outcome.In particular, I think there was too much pressure to win. That may sound a bit odd on the face of it, but stick with me.

The idea of reaching the NCAA tournament had taken hold in a lot of minds. It’s something the program hasn’t done since 2007, so obviously it’s a major goal. The problem, though, is only 3 or 4 teams from the conference make the NCAA tournament. We were a team that barely made it into the top 8 of the LSC in 2016. It’s not such an easy thing in a competitive conference to move up 4-5 spots from one year to the next.

So there was all this internal pressure to win at the start of the LSC season. This was in a group of players with no history of being in that kind of situation, and thus no real tools to handle it. It’s something we’re working on, but it takes time and experience. On top of that, the players are sick of losing – especially in conference. That can lead to playing not to lose rather than playing to win. I think we definitely had issues with that over the course of the season.

The combination of those two things made for some notable ups and downs in mentality. This wasn’t helped at all by the death of an MSU football player early in the season. That threw everyone for an emotional loop. These are young people who haven’t had to deal much with that sort of thing yet in their lives.

All in all, though, I think the season represented pretty good progress. We finished #16 in the NCAA South Central Region rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from #20 in 2016, and #25 in 2015. Importantly, we kept improving – and wanting to improve – right up to the end. That was definitely not the case in 2016 where we basically just survived the last couple of weeks of the season.

Thoughts on the season – the details

In any season there are areas which go well and those that don’t. The 2017 was no different in that regard.

From a playing perspective, the major objective we had coming out of the 2016 season was better defense. Our block was poor and we didn’t dig nearly as many balls as we felt we should. We made defense the top priority for our off-season development. We definitely were much better in that arena this year. The one area we persistently struggled in, though, was defending against the right side attack.

The offense for me was a disappointment. We just never could get that going the way we wanted. Part of it was a decided lack of any real right side threat. We might have been able to get more there with a personnel change, but it would have meant significantly reducing our blocking presence. In any case, that’s a change we really couldn’t have made until later in the season given who was available and the progression of player development.

The other trouble area was the second OH position. The two players who took turns there struggled with their consistency and made far too many errors in attack. We were not helped by losing our freshman OH early on to a knee injury. She would have at least challenged for playing time.

One thing I like a lot is that our senior players went out on their best season at MSU. I mean that both in terms of team and personal performance. Our attacking players had their most kills and their best hitting percentages this year. Our defensive players had their most digs this year. And our setter had her most assists (and digs) this season. You expect that to be the case, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Looking forward

It will be an interesting situation for the program moving forward. Next season we will only have two players with more than a single season’s experience at MSU. Everyone else will either be 2017 or 2018 freshmen or transfers. One the one hand that means little in the way of experience at our level of competition. On the other hand, though, it also means none of the baggage left over from the teams that finished last in the LSC in 2014 and 2015. In a way, now is when the real future for MSU Volleyball is shaped. That’s pretty exciting.

Can players learn to read on defense, or is it an innate ability?

Is reading something you can teach players? That’s the basis of a question asked by a fellow coach.

So I’ve been thinking about this one for a while: can you teach a player how to read on defense or is it a natural ability? I feel like no one ever taught me to read; I was just naturally good at it. For those of you that say you can teach it, what drills/tools do you use?

My initial response is that there is no such thing as a natural ability to read the game of volleyball. Reading in a sport is entirely contextual in nature. There may be experience from other sports which help, and certainly visual acuity plays a part, but in order to translate what you see into some kind of understanding of what’s coming you need knowledge and experience.

So, to my mind, what someone sees at “natural” reading ability probably has more to do with visual ability than actual contextual understanding. I’m happy to hear evidence to the contrary. Lacking that, though, I’d definitely say players can learn to read better. And even if there is a natural element, you can still improve it.

That being the case, what can we do to help players read better?

Provide visual cues

Reading is all about picking up the visual cues. That starts, of course, with paying attention. I once had a conversation with a team about reading – specifically about what they were looking at on the other side of the court. One of them, in what was clearly a moment of revelation, confessed that she’d just been watching the ball. Obviously, that’s not nearly enough.

So what are the players looking at? What should they be looking at?

On a gross level, they need to understand the situational context. Is the setter front or back row? Where are the hitters located? What is the quality of the pass? These are the sorts of things that allow you to narrow the range of possible actions by the opponent.

At a more micro level, what is the hitter’s line of approach? Where is the ball relative to the attacker’s hitting shoulder? Is their approach fast or slow? Where’s your block? How fast is the set? Will your middle close in time? How far off the net is the set?

Players need to constantly watch and look for the cues that will tell them what’s coming next. Your job as coach is to teach them what those cues are.

Putting them in the situations

You can teach the players what to look for, but they will only really learn to do that if you put them in position to do so. As I noted in The two purposes of drills and games, that means putting them in the proper game context and having the right platform for getting them the feedback they require.

The first part of that is pretty easy. There are all kinds of games and drills that can create the context you need. The trick is to get the right feedback. To do so, you probable need to have a very similar view of the action as the player. For example, if you’re working with your defender playing in Position 6, you likely need to stand behind them so you can see what they see. It’s really hard to provide feedback to them if you don’t know what’s in front of them.

That said, an alternative to standing behind them is placing a camera there. This can be an excellent way to give the player feedback. If you use video delay or otherwise can rewind and let them see things again, they can actually have a second look.

Changing the dynamic

There’s an element to the first part of the section above that I think needs to be addressed. Sometimes you need to take players out of their normal pattern to get them to expand their reading capacity. Among young players especially there is a tendency to play their “spot”. They go to a position on the court and just stand there waiting for the ball to come. No real reading involved. Why? Because that’s where Coach told them to be.

In order to change that mentality you have to put the players into a different situation – one where they can’t just play “their position”.

A great example of this is doubles (2 v 2) and other related small-sided games. You can also do it in a larger context by expanding players’ area of responsibility. For example, you can play a 5 v 5 game where it’s 3 front row and 2 back row players. That type of situations requires defenders to cover more area, encouraging them to get better at reading.

You can also flip that around for the block and play 2-up/3-back. Now it’s the blocker who need to cover more area.

In the Spring of 2017 one of our main priorities for the Midwestern State team was to upgrade our defensive capability, especially in the area of reading. We did a lot of sand doubles, small-sided games, and the type of 5 v 5 I mentioned above. As noted in the last section, though, it’s not just about putting them in situations that encourage reading. You also need to consistently get the players good feedback.

The two purposes of drills and games

An online debate in the volleyball coaching community got me a little bit fired up. I avoided getting involved, but came away from it needing to make an observation. It’s a very simple realization, if you think about it. The problem is I don’t think a lot of coaches really do that.

So here goes.

There are two purposes to any drill or game used in a training context. The first is to provide the players the opportunity to execute a given skill or tactic. The second is as a vehicle through which the players can receive feedback on said skill or tactic.

It’s really that simple.

These are the two considerations when deciding what drill or game to use in a practice. Does it give the players sufficient execution opportunities (reps), and does it allow you to give them the necessary feedback?

The reps

This tends to be where the debates about skill development in volleyball happen. There is a camp strongly advocating for game-like training – what’s called random training. The game teaches the game, as they say. Carl McGown was one of the very early advocates for this approach, based on the science of motor learning. USA Volleyball strongly carries that torch these days.

Despite the research, though, there are many coaches who still favor what is sometimes referred to as technical training. That is what is more formally called blocked training. It’s basically getting reps in a controlled environment. Think something like setting off a tossed ball.

I talk about blocked vs. random training in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post. You can see there some of what the motor learning research says and why it strongly favors random training. That said, McGown did acknowledge the value of doing a limited number of blocked reps before moving on to randomized ones.

Putting all that stuff aside, let’s think about what exactly we are trying to do as coaches. We are trying to maximize player performance in the context of a game situation. As such, doesn’t it just make sense to replicate in practice as much as we possibly can those types of situations?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where your players don’t do in games what they do well in practice – and I certainly experienced this early in my career! – then it’s probably because your training context is wrong.

Digging a ball hit by a coach on a box is not the same as digging a ball hit from a live hitter. Passing a served ball by yourself is not the same as receiving serve as part of a 3-person reception pattern, especially if you also have to think about transitioning to attack. They may look the same, but that misses the underlying mental processes which are so important to motor learning.

Does that mean sometimes the reps are going to be ugly? You bet. Get over it. It’s part of the process, as I noted in Climbing Mistake Mountain and in What percentage of reps should be good? They will get better with time.

Feedback

I’ve written about the importance of feedback in the post You don’t need a new drill, so I won’t go too far with it here. I just want to touch on the need for it, which is a place where coaches can fall short. Those who take the game teaches the game approach can sometimes fall victim to just letting them play and a “figure it out for themselves” mentality.

For sure, players get a lot of feedback from what happens during play. Their pass either goes to target or doesn’t. Their serve either goes where they want or not. The result of a swing provides a hitter with useful feedback. While that may be enough for an experienced player, though, it’s less so for younger, developing players. They can lack the knowledge to coach themselves, especially when trying to work on something new.

It is really important that you continue to provide players with feedback even during game type exercises. Obviously, you can’t do it the same way you can during more blocked type drills where you can stop after every rep. That means you can’t always give instant feedback. You still have to find a way to make it work, though, preferably without bringing the whole session to a halt.

The bottom line

So the bottom line in all this is that when you develop your practice plan you have to think about a couple of things. You should have a clear set of priorities to begin with, of course. From there it’s a question of figuring out how to get the players executing what you want them working on in the best possible context. Then you figure out the best way to give them the required feedback.

Simple! 🙂