Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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.

Creating pressure in practice

How do you create pressure situations in your practice?

That’s a question coaches ponder a lot. Especially when they see their team crumble in intense match situations.

The fact of the matter, though, is that there are different types of pressure. Some are mainly individual, while others are more team.

Individual pressure

In the case of individual pressure, we’re talking about a situation where one player must execute. That could be at the service line. It could be in serve reception. Or it could be as a hitter. These are situations where the individual player feels the pressure to perform well. Actually, it’s probably more a “not screwing up” type of pressure in terms of their self-talk, but that’s a different subject.

Creating individual pressure requires putting a player in a position where they have to execute. There’s an example of this in John Cook’s book, Dream Like a Champion. In it he describes a hitter vs. defense game where one attacker must win a game against a full defense. If they lose, they play again. They repeat the game until the player wins.

Now, that’s an example of individual pressure in a very individualized situation. There are also ways to create individual pressure in a more team situation. The run-and-serve drill is an example of this from a serving perspective. If we think of serve reception, though, we can create a situation where one player receives every ball. Their team cannot execute the offense if they cannot provide a good pass. Alternatively, flip things around and say that only a specific hitter can score.

Team pressure

While individual pressure is about putting the spotlight on a specific player (or position), team pressure is about the collective. This is about the team needing to come back from behind, or perhaps to close out a set when ahead. It’s about them staying focused and connected when the pressure is on, and not falling victim to fear and doubt.

One interesting game you can play from this perspective is 25 or reset. I’ve also seen it referred to as “slip and slide”. Basically, if a team gets to 24 and does not score they have to reset back to wherever you started the score (e.g. 19). This combines the pressure to close a team out with the drive to keep fighting if you’re the losing team.

On a smaller scale, wash games are little pressure situations. The team must, for example, win two rallies in a row. That increases the pressure on the second ball – for both sides.

Consequences

A lot of coaches use some kind of punishment for losing to create pressure, like sprints. I’m not a fan of this, as I’ve discussed. Further, research suggests it actually may not improve motivation. If the desire to win is intrinsic, then losing should be enough of a punishment. You don’t need anything else. If your players aren’t naturally competitive, then you need to tie something they care about in terms of playing the game to winning. That, though, is a different topic of discussion.

Similarly, if a player cares at all about the quality of their play, then failing to execute at an individual level will leave them feeling disappointed. Why, then, is anything extra required? If your players are not worried about their quality of play, then you may have some other problems to address before worrying about how they do under pressure.

 

How to add conditioning to your volleyball practice

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

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

Speed vs Stamina

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

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

Developing Stamina

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

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

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

Even pepper can be a form of conditioning.

No need to lose practice time to conditioning

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

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

Using competition in training, even for skill development

Mark Lebedew wrote a pair of posts on the use of competition in volleyball practice, both from a positive and negative perspective. Basically, his view is that adding competition makes for better practices. At the same time, though, competition can also distract from your training focus. I want to speak here on the latter point.

Mark makes the following observation.

When players compete in practice they tend to play more conservatively. They don’t use the techniques and solutions that they have most recently learnt because they are not yet confident in those techniques and solutions. The imperative is to win.

To facilitate learning, sometimes it is necessary to program unscored drills and scrimmages in your practice.

I definitely agree with Mark. When players are judged on outcomes (winning) it is hard for them to be experimental. They will want to use what they feel is more proven and fall back on established habits.

What if the scoring, though, relates to what you want them working on?

I’m thinking along the lines of the bonus point scoring idea. Players earn points for executing a skill the way you are teaching them, or for attempting something they are trying to learn.

For example, let’s say you’re working on serve reception and you want the players focused on platform angle. Maybe they earn a point each time they hold their platform when they pass.

What about a situation where you’re encouraging more experimentation? Let’s think about hitters working on attacking the block rather than simply trying to avoid it. They could earn a point each time they clearly attempted to use the block, regardless of the final result.

At a team level we could think about certain types of plays. Say you have an inexperienced group and you want to develop the quick attack. They could earn a point each time they try it in a game play situation – no matter the final outcome

You can mix and match the things you score for such that different players each have their own ways to score. And maybe there are team opportunities as well. This way you can continue having competitive games – with or without the normal point-per-rally scoring included – while continuing to have players focused on learning.

There’s a game the USA women’s team uses called Bonus Point Bingo which incorporates these kinds of ideas.

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.

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! 🙂

Favorite drills/games to practice serve receive?

What are your favorite drills/games to practice serve receive?

I see that question, or a variation of it, regularly.

Drills

Here are a couple of different drills I’ve used, or seen over the years. The names are either what I heard them called, or ones I came up with myself that described them. Feel free to change them if you like.

1-2 Serve & Pass is one that lets at least one of your servers be aggressive, but without the problem of having lots of missed serves or one passer not getting many balls.

If you have a large number and want everyone involved, 2-sided Serve & Pass is an option. I actually prefer the Get-2 variation, though, as it gives weaker passers more reps.

A drill that focuses on individual rather than group passing is 8-Person Serve & Pass. This is something that is good if you have a bunch of players to involve. It is also well suited for a more controlled serving and passing set up as it features one server going to one passer. It’s an extension on the idea of Passing Triplets.

Games

I personally like to make things competitive as much as possible. To that end, I often look to do servers vs. passers games. They do not provided the highly focused individual repetitions of the two drills noted in the paragraph immediately above, but they do offer lots of more game-like ones.

In this post and this other one I wrote about a couple of different ways to think about scoring such games. The trick is to find a scoring approach that is fair for both sides. This is especially true when you do something like pitting your primary passers against non-passers. If you play a more mixed game (passers equally distributed on both teams), then you can use aggregate scoring. Each team has a turn passing and serving. Their final score is the combination of the points they earned in each role. That way, even if there is an imbalance in how points accrue (for example, the scoring tends to favor the passers), both teams will get it when it’s their turn.

Just about anything will work

Here’s something to think about, though. Literally, any drill or game that includes serve reception can be a good way to practice it. You don’t need a new drill for that purpose. You simply need to make sure serve receive is a key focus and gets specific feedback. And realize that the quality of the pass is one big form of that feedback.

To that end, small sided games like Winners, Speedball, and Player WInners offer the opportunity for lots of serve reception practice. Thinking more 6 v 6, there are games like 22 v 22 and 2 in 2 which include lots of team serve reception repetitions – especially if you allow for re-serves on misses.

Game-like reps will always be better than ones that don’t replicate game situations. Even still, to get the most out of them they require focused feedback on the skill. It’s not enough just to let them play.

Should JV and Varsity practice together?

Should JV and Varsity practice together? That’s a question a visitor here recently wondered.

For clarification to non-US readers, in school volleyball the varsity team is the 1st team. The junior varsity (JV) team is the 2nd team. Usually, the JV team comprises younger players. For example, at the high school level, the varsity team is usually mostly juniors and seniors (3rd and 4th year students), while the JV team is mainly freshmen and sophomores (1st and 2nd years). That is not a hard and fast rule, though. Talented younger players often play up on varsity. Also, In some places there is a team just for freshmen.

Back to the question.

There are two ways of thinking about whether the JV and varsity teams should practice together.

Should JV and Varsity practice together, but separate?

In some places there is enough gym space to allow both the varsity and JV to practice at the same time on their own courts. By that I mean the varsity is one one court and the JV is on another.

On the plus side, practicing side-by-side conserves time. There is also the possibility of working with all the players at the same time on some specific thing. For example, you might want to work on the same technique for serve receive passing. The two teams would practice separately, for the most part, but you could bring them together for collective instruction as needed.

The problem with the two teams practicing in parallel is the added demand for coaching attention. If it is a situation where the head coach overseas both teams, they have to split their attention between the different courts. And in the case where the JV team has their own coach, it means that person won’t be able to spend much time with the varsity team as an assistant.

Should JV and Varsity practice together on the same court(s)?

This is something I did after a fashion while coaching at Exeter. You can read about it in my coaching log entries for that period. I suspect this is something more likely to be thought about by coaches at smaller schools, or with fewer athletes. I was only dealing with about 14 players total rather than say 24.

In any case, one big advantage to varsity and JV practicing together is the modeling the older players do for the younger ones. The JV athletes get to see first-hand the sorts of technical and mental approaches being taught and what will be expected of them as they progress. This can also be said to be a plus for the side-by-side situation discussed above. Similarly, the ability to work on one thing across both groups all together is a potential benefit as well.

The major drawback to working both sets of players together is the difference in skill levels. If there is a significant gap, it can be a major challenge to run worthwhile practices. You won’t have much trouble challenging the JV players. It’s pushing the varsity athletes that is the bigger difficulty – especially in a situation where the JV players are “drill killers”. Not only does the varsity not get the quality of reps it needs, but they can quickly come to resent having the JV there. That’s never a good situation.

A possible solution

Individual skill training is the area where it’s easiest to merge groups of differing skill levels. The trick is making the exercises you use not reliant on collective performance.

For example, you wouldn’t want to have varsity and JV players together in a serve reception drill where they have a collective goal of reaching some number of good passes. Most likely that would lead to the varsity pulling most of the load and the JV tending to make it take longer. Better if each individual has their own objective. Not only does that avoid intra-group frustration, it can also stimulate a more encouraging environment. Even more so if you structure things in a way that sees the varsity “coaching” the JV.

Then there’s the more game-like activities. Here you have to be very careful. Make sure the JV players are only asked to do things they can do at a reasonable level. Don’t ask them to do something that they can’t do well enough to contribute meaningfully. If you do, it’s not going to be a very productive exercise for anyone. It’s very much the same sort of approach you need to take if you’re thinking to play any kind of A-team vs. B-team type of game.

The bottom line is that you can have varsity and JV practice together in some ways and if you set things up properly to be able to challenge both groups at their own levels.

Practice Planning Question – Single skill focus sessions

Volleyball Coach

A question came in from an avid listener of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. It was on the subject of practice planning. Here’s the initial inquiry:

I was wondering how you plan mesocycle and microcycles for youth volleyball with 2-3 practices per week?  Would there be any reason to go an entire practice without serving, for example?  I know it’s important not to train athletic abilities back to back but is it true for volleyball specific skills too?  I just think because we only practice 3 times a week there is enough rest between practices that I could work on every skill every practice if I wanted to.  The U17 coach I am assisting this season has “serve receive days” and “defense days” where almost every drill that practice will be centered on whatever skill we are working on that day.  I’m not sure which method is better.

I do agree that fatigue should not be a problem for players when only practicing 2-3 times a week. There might be outside circumstances which challenge that, but generally speaking players won’t have any issues performing all skills each session. I asked for a bit of clarification about what a typical week of practices looks like in terms of skill focus. Here’s the response.

For example on Sunday would be conditioning day where the players spend 30 minutes doing non volleyball specific conditioning – box jumps, squats, etc. and the rest of the practice would be gameplay. Tuesdays would be defense day where the players will play kajima and wash type drills where all drills are initiated from a free ball, no serves.  Thursdays would be serve receive day where players will spend more than half the practice either serving or serve receiving, never playing the rally out.

I think there are a couple things to address here.

Conditioning during practice time

First, if I only have three practice sessions a week, I use them for volleyball. I don’t use them for strength and conditioning work, especially if I’m time constrained. If I’m doing my job they will get plenty of conditioning in practice. If I want to do additional work (like jump training), I do it outside of practice time – preferably on an off-day, if possible. That lets me maximize the time I have on-court.

Also, you need to do more than one strength and conditioning session per week to have any real impact. One very likely isn’t enough.

That said, game play after strength and conditioning is not a bad idea. It’s harder to work on technical skills when already fatigued.

Single skill focus practices

As for the main thrust of the question, I definitely can think of better ways to structure the week’s training. Now, this is not to say you can’t have a single focus for a given practice. You certainly can. That is probably best achieved, however, by concentrating your attention and feedback on that focal point across a variety of activities rather than in just one narrow set.

Let’s use serve reception as an example. Any game or drill that starts with a serve is an opportunity to train passing. That can be something as simple as serving & passing triplets. It could be more of a team serve receive like 8-person serve & pass, or a servers vs. passers game. Moving up the complexity, it can be a team serve receive drill where the ball is dead after the receiving team attacks. And of course there are many games that start with a serve. In the 22 v 22 game one team receives every serve in a single rotation until someone wins.

The fact that every one of those exercise includes serve reception means you have opportunities in all of them to focus on that skill. Your concentration of feedback and coaching is what determines focus more than drill choice. Obviously, the drills must include the desired skill. Beyond that, though, everything is possible.

Structuring skill training over the week

I personally want to have serving and passing in every practice in some fashion. It might not be the focus of that practice, but at least the players are still practicing the skill. This is particularly important when you only have a couple practices each week. I would not want my players going 3-4 days without serving and passing if I can avoid it.

One other point I would make is this.

While serving is the one skill in volleyball that you can train quite well in block fashion because it is closed-chain (completely player initiated), too much of it in one block tends to have diminishing returns. First of all, it can get really boring. Second, fatigue becomes a factor, especially for jump servers. The result of both is a drop off in concentration and effectiveness as time goes on. Better to mix it in throughout when the players are more fresh and can produce higher quality reps. Plus, game-like serving situations are always better than rote serving in terms of preparation for match conditions.