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Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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.

Help! My team is too quiet

Communication is an important part of playing volleyball, as it is with any team sport (and beyond as Mark Lebedew recently wrote). I’ve written before on the subject of getting players to talk (here and here). I’ve also had debates with fellow coaches on the subject. A reader recently emailed on the subject, looking for some help.

I coach senior girls high school volleyball. Each year, I have the quietest team in the league. They don’t talk a lot on the court, nor do they go to the center of the court and high five or whatever between points. I get them to do this at practices; I have a yelling drill; We have team activities outside of volleyball – I just can’t seem to build team spirit. I am a positive, loud, cheerful person, so it’s not quietness on my part that is causing this. What am I doing wrong…or more to the point…what can I do right?

This coach wants to address what I would view as general communication and interaction in her team. I know coaches who argue that a team should be able to play together without actually talking. The case for that is the players should all know their responsibilities. Thus, there isn’t any need for talking.

That’s all fine in theory, but have you ever actually seen a team that plays together with no talking? Even teams full of highly experienced players who played together a lot talk. It’s the low level, inexperienced teams that are usually the ones playing in silence. That should tell us something about the value of communication.

Gender differences in communication

Now, to be fair, the coaches who pushed back at me about talking are from the men’s side of the game where their does tend to be less noise in-rally. If you’ve ever been to an event where both genders are playing, you likely noticed the difference.

That was certainly the case when I coached at BUCS Final 8s during my time in England. The format there featured two rounds of men’s play followed by two rounds of women’s play. The gym was MUCH noisier when the women were on-court.

I think there’s a very specific reason for this. Female players connect with each other via communication. I don’t mean sharing information. Both genders do that. I mean they are unified by communication and interaction. If a female team stops talking you know there’s a problem somewhere. For more on that subject, I strongly recommend Kathy DeBoer’s book on gender differences.

So if you have a team that is quiet, as described above, how can you look to address the issue?

Shared purpose

It is way easier to get a group of players to do something if they can link that to a common objective. This objective has to be one they all buy in to, though. It can’t be something put on them from outside. For example, it’s all well and good to say your goal is to win your league, but if that’s not where the players are at with their own thinking then you using it as the driver won’t work. You need to figure out what they want out of it and work from there.

Gym culture

It’s much easier to get players to interact with each other if they feel relaxed. That means they aren’t caught up in their own concerns and fears about their individual performance and such. The players need to know it’s OK to make mistakes – encouraged even. See Climbing Mistake Mountain and the posts linked from there for a deeper discussion on this idea.

This is not something easily changed. You have to get probably well-entrenched attitudes turned around, and that takes time. It more specifically takes a consistent approach from the coach. You have to show every day, every practice, every game, every match that mistakes are simply part of the process of improving. If you are inconsistent and sometimes penalize errors, or get upset about them, or allow others to do so, then you won’t make any progress.

Encourage celebration

A lot of times getting teams to interact more and communicate at a higher level starts with getting them to celebrate good plays. It’s pretty easy to be happy when someone makes a good play. From that perspective, cheering tends to be easy to encourage. Players may not always be comfortable getting excited about their own plays, but if everyone else is cheering then it’s a lot easier.

So how do you get them celebrating?

You can start with simple things like having team cheers for aces and blocks. The players generally like to come up with something fun for that. You can extend that to other types of plays as well, depending on your level. These things may seem silly, but they can be a step in the right direction.

Coming together between points

If you can get the team doing things like ace and block cheers together, you’re on your way toward being able to get them to come together after each play. It’s something that may need to be coached in practice. As the emailer mentioned, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it transfers to match-time.

One way to address this is to have a designated player or two who bring the team together. The floor captain or some other leader on the court is the best candidate. Chances are they won’t have to do it for long as a habit will develop. Even after that, though, there may be times when a reminder is required.

What if someone resists?

Interaction with one’s fellow players should be considered part of the role of every player on the court. If someone isn’t going into the huddle between points then they aren’t fulfilling their role. Same if the designated huddle-caller isn’t bringing the team together. What do you normally do if a player isn’t fulfilling their role? My guess is you take them out and put on someone who you feel will do a better job of it. This really shouldn’t be seen any differently. Losing playing time can be a big motivator.

In-Rally Communication

Most people probably think of calling the ball and calling for the ball as the talking that gets done in rallies. For sure, those are two major sources of player communication in-rally. There’s a lot of other stuff, though.

Base!
Cover!
Watch the dump!
Deep line!
Outside, outside!
Tip, tip!

I think you get the idea.

This sort of communication is a level beyond calling the ball when passing or calling for the ball as an attacker. These calls are about reading the play, anticipating, and preparing for what comes next. As such, they need to be incorporated into training players to recognize what’s happening. If you want players to be talking in this way then you have to incorporate that talk into the technical/tactical work from the beginning.

Reinforcing the requirement to talk

I mentioned potentially using playing time consequences as a way to encourage players to connect with each other between plays. Certainly that sort of thing could be applied to in-play talking as well. It depends on the player and situation, though.

As to what you can do in practice to make sure players talk as required, there are a couple of ways you can go. In the case of drills where there’s a count objective you can not count good reps when there isn’t the desired talking, or you can make it a negative if you want to be more forceful.Alternatively, in game play you can give points or bonus points if the players communicate as desired. Or you can blow the whistle to end a rally (and thus cost the team a point) if the players don’t communicate as you wish. It’s been my experience this gets them focused rather quickly!

I haven’t use it myself, but there’s a game called “ruckus” some coaches use to encourage more player communication. I’m not entirely sure of the rules. I think basically any type of communication earns a point. Don’t hold me to that, though.

Dealing with individuals

While encouraging the team toward being more interactive, you have to be conscious of individual personalities. Some players will quite readily be engaged, but others will be more shy. Trying to force the latter to be more talkative has a good chance of backfiring. You’re probably going to have to take things slowly, and gradually develop their comfort. This will require some patience on your part.

A personal example

At the start of the 2013-14 season my Exeter women’s team was about half returning players and half new players. Most didn’t speak English as their first language (it was about 10 different nationalities). All were fluent, but that isn’t the same as comfortable, especially in a new environment. Our training was pretty quiet to begin. By the end of the year, though, people regularly poked their heads into the gym to see what all the noise was about.

How did we get there?

First, they were totally committed to reaching Final 8s (played in Edinburgh that season). As such, it was easy for me to frame things in the context of how they contributed to reaching that goal. The prior year’s team lacked the same mindset, so using Final 8s as a motivator wouldn’t have worked.

Gym culture was a huge part as well. The process was slow, but eventually we got everyone bought in to the idea that mistakes were OK (though lack of effort and focus was not!). That helped build overall confidence and allowed some of the stronger personalities to bubble up positively (with encouragement) to take charge of bringing the team together between rallies.

Getting the players more focused on reading the play (not just ball-watching) definitely was a big factor. If you’re not anticipating what’s coming, you really don’t have a lot to talk about during a rally.

To the point about personalities above, we definitely had our challenges. Some of the players were just naturally quiet. It was a source of frustration for some of those who were more vocal. That’s something I had to manage. Over time, though, we got them at least a bit out of their shell and contributing their voices.

One other idea

The emailer talked about being loud and cheerful on the sidelines. One thing which could help a team “get it” in terms of communication is if the coach actually stopped and was a bit more quiet. This is especially true if the coach has a strong presence. I’m not suggesting that cheering as a coach is bad. I’m just suggesting that in some cases the players might be encouraged to fill the void that less cheering from the coach leaves. Once the team is in the habit of making their own noise, the coach can then resume being vocal without the risk of the players going quiet again.

The contrast to this is a team that is quiet when the coach is quiet. In that case the coach may need to be more vocal for a while to encourage the players in that direction. Volleyball Coaching Wizard interviewee Peggy Martin told me about doing exactly that sort of thing at times in her career, though she is normally a quiet coach on the bench. It’s a question of getting a read on the team and helping in whatever way suits the situation.

Your thoughts?

Did I leave anything out? What do you do to encourage more communication and interaction? Leave a comment below and share with the world! 🙂

Working on out-of-system play

A coaching friend of mine back in England asked me for some ideas on how to work on out-of-system play. What that really comes down to is the first ball element. How do you start the play or rally? He was working with a group of U15 boys, though the concept applies across all ages and genders.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by out-of-system. Broadly speaking, that usually means there are few, if any, attacking options available. Certainly, the quick attack is out. You might only have one hitter you can get the ball to for a real swing – often the OH in 4. For some, out-of-system more narrowly defines a player where the setter can’t take the second ball.

This is something you need to define for yourself – or at least have in mind when planning a game or drill. In the latter case you can just make it so that someone other than the setter takes the second ball. That’s easy enough to do. You can have no setter on the court or make it a rule that someone else takes the second ball.

In the former case you have two options. One is to make the setter play the first ball. The other is to make sure there isn’t a quick attack option available. This can be done by not having any MBs (so just two pin hitters at the net). You can also make sure the first ball won’t be passed/dug well very often, by doing a virus type of thing where the coach throws in a ball that must be played as the 2nd contact (see Increasing player initiation), or by simply putting in a rule that the sets must be high to the pins and/or back row.

An example of the “can’t set quick” approach is the High Ball to Receive game. In that case the first set must be a high ball to the OH, with the rally playing out from there.

Once you have sorted out the first part the out-of-system training equation – how to force them to not be in-system – you can then turn the focus on whatever specific area you feel is most in need of work. In a lot of cases that would be attacking against a big, well-formed block. It’s pretty easy to set that up by adding an extra blocker. You can alternatively have the defensive team working on triple blocking, narrow the attacking zone, or things like that.

Skip the warm-ups?

What if you could go straight into training without first running a warm-up routine of some sort?

Give me a minute before you start in on me about proper physical (and mental) preparation for practice. I’m not talking about taking players from zero to full speed straight away. I am definitely in favor of being as efficient as possible – in all regards – when it comes to the warm-up process. I won’t go so far as to suggest there be none, however.

Consider this, though.

What if you walked into the gym and the players were already warm?

I’m not talking about a situation where practice starts at 5:00 and you arrive at 5:20 after the team has done their dynamic warm-up or whatever led by the strength coach or team trainer. I’m talking about practice starting at 5:00 with the players already ready to go. They’ve taken it upon themselves to get warm on their own.

On the face of it, you might not think there’s much difference there. I’ll grant that it’s a subtle thing.

The difference isn’t so much a time consideration. That could be an element, but perhaps not the most important. Instead, the main difference is in who’s directing the warm-up, and probably by extension how formal it is.

We coaches tend to want to control things. Warm-ups aren’t exempted from this. The result is that basically players all go through the same routine. This is true even though they may have considerably different physical and mental warm-up needs. The latter can actually end up adding an addition time requirement to ensure everyone is optimally prepared to begin the day’s work.

What if we left the warm-ups to the players? Do you think they’d do a better or worse job?

Chances are those warm-ups would look quite different. Players tend not to like the formulaic warm-ups we coaches design for them. They instead favor something a bit more free form. In fact, they might simply prefer to just play themselves warm. This is done by starting at a low intensity and building up from there.

This is what the players at Midwestern State seem to like to do. In the 15-20 minutes before the official start of practice during my first Spring they did a little bit of shoulder warm-up, but then quite quickly got into playing small-side games (like Winners/Queen of the Court). They obviously didn’t go 100% right away. By the time we started practice, though, they were pretty ready to go. As a bonus, they’d gotten a fair number of quality contacts.

Aside from the players warming-up how they best see fit (or enjoy), this sort of player-directed system offers some other benefits. For one, it allows them to enjoy themselves without being under Coach’s supervision. For another, depending on the group it can either be a good collaborative exercise and/or one which furthers the identification and development of leaders in the squad.

Something to think about perhaps?

A 1-hour practice plan

The other day we had the last of the off-season practice sessions with the team before they went on Spring Break, after which we’ll go into the non-traditional season (Spring Training). For those with an NCAA background, you’ll know that only 2 hours of on-court work is permitted during the off season. All the players had done an hour already earlier in the week – either individually or in small groups. This session, though, featured everyone. As I only recently found out, that is now allowed in Division II.

Since we only have two practices before our first Spring tournament, the head coach wanted to give the players a chance to go 6 v 6 for the first time in a long while. It was therefore decided that 30 minutes of time was going to be devoted to that. The first 30 minutes was build up to it.

Here’s one of the tricks of maximizing your time with the players in this kind of situation. Get them to warm-up on their own before you get into the gym. That way you can go right to work. By the time we got there, the players were already into playing back row Winners 3s.

Activity #1
We had 12 players with just one court set up. The first thing we did was to have them play 3 v 3 on a narrow court. In other words, we had two games going on next to each other. The players were grouped by position, then did a count-off to decide their teams. Two rounds of play were run, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers for the second one. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a back row attack only game. Games were played to 8.

Activity #2
The second activity is something I did at times with my Svedala team. I developed it as a kind of a Belly Drill or Speedball variation in teams of 4 (counted off as above). Two teams were on the court with one off waiting to come on. The teams on played out a 4 v 4 rally (all hitting options available). At its conclusion, the losers were replaced by the waiting team while a coach initiated a ball to the winners (down ball over the net).

This is a fast paced game with very little down time for players. We played for 15 minutes and had the teams keep track of rally wins. I think it was something like 27, 25, and 20. So we got in at least as many points as you’d get in 1.5 sets in less time than it generally takes to play a single one. This is more rallies than we’d have gotten in had we been going with Winners 4s with the inherent delay of teams waving through to the winners’ side.

Activity #3
The last half of the session was given over to simple game play. The players were divided up by position, which created some imbalances and caused some funky rotational requirements. One of the assistants jumped in to balance out the hitting, while a pair of defenders split time playing back row for one team. They got into a second set before the hour was up and decided to keep going after we left.

Skill coverage
Let’s think about the various skills and how much they were included in this short session.

  • Serving was included in the 3 v 3 game and the 6 v 6, though in the latter case not everyone ended up doing it because of the team compositions (some players front-row-only).
  • Serve reception was part of both the 3 v 3 and 6 v 6.
  • Setting was included in all of the games, though it was only in 6 v 6 where the setters specifically took all the second balls. In the other games sometimes they did, but often times it was other players.
  • Hitting was included in all three games from a variety of locations.
  • Blocking was included in all three games, though only in the 6 v 6 was their regular double blocking.
  • Defense was included in all three games, with the 4 v 4 essentially starting each rally with a defense ball (down ball from the other side of the net).

So you could say the balance was skewed toward the “open play” type of skills – setting, hitting, blocking, defense – with a bit less in serving and passing. We could have boosted the serve reception by having the assistants serve a ball to start the next rally in the 4 v 4 game.

Are you a 1000-different-drills coach?

A while back I jokingly coined the phrase Fancy new drill syndrome. It’s a condition which seems to afflict most of us early in our coaching careers. Basically, it’s where we always seem to be looking for a new, better drill. We think we need them to get our players to learn some aspect of the game. As a result, we constantly look for them. Call it our drill collection phase.

This is something discussed in an article posted on LinkedIn. In it, the author bemoans the 1000-different-drills coach who thinks they need to constantly mix things up for to keep players focused. He talks about how that kind of approach can actually be detrimental to development. His main argument it doesn’t allow players to really go through the pattern recognition acquisition process.

The author also talks about how players will play one game for hours, given the opportunity. They don’t feel the need to change things up. Why? Because they’re having fun!

I think that’s an important point right there. Players play volleyball because they enjoy playing volleyball. They don’t do it because – for the most part – they love training repetitions. It makes for a really simple solution. Make training as game-like as possible. The players will get more out of it developmentally and they’ll be less likely to get bored.

There’s a reason many top coaches only have a handful of drills and games they use. They just make little modifications to focus them on where they want work done.

That’s why you don’t need a new drill.

Can you use the same drills across levels?

The following question was once posted in a volleyball coaching group.

I have a question about how you guys coach your teams differently based on the level. As in if the team you have in any particular year is younger, less experienced, less motivated ect. Do you use the same drills but let them out of the drill early if they dont get it or do you explain the importance and stick with a drill even if it takes all practice?

Let’s first address the question of whether you use the same drills and/or games across different skill and age levels. The answer to that is in some cases you can, and in some cases you can’t. The easiest example of this is a drill highly reliant on ball-handling ability. If you have a team which has not yet reached the point where they can pass or set well enough to make the drill work, then you have to go with something a bit less complex.

By that I mean this. There are games and drills which are simple in that they involve only one or two skills. A target serving drill, for example, only requires the players to perform one skill – serving. If you do serve reception, then the players perform two skills – serving and passing. As you add additional skills, you increase complexity. For example, if you add hitting to the serve reception you bring in the additional skills of setting and attacking.

Low complexity drills can be performed by just about any group. Your target level for completion may be lower, though, for the less-skilled ones (for example, a lower number of 3 passes required to finish a serve reception drill). It’s the higher complexity ones which require more skill and thus may not be suitable for lower level and/or younger groups.

As for whether you run a drill to completion, even if it takes all practice (or longer!), that depends. If you have three priority items for that training that you really want to hit, then put a time limit on any one activity. That way you are sure to have time for everything.

If that game or drill represents the single most important thing you want to focus on that session, then you may want to consider letting it run to completion. Be careful, though. You don’t want to lose the players. If they get too frustrated they might just shut down. Once that happens, nothing afterwards is worth anything in their development. If you see the focus starting to slip, I would suggest either altering the game/drill or cutting it short and going back to it later to finish.

Beyond what you do with your games and drills, I definitely think you coach teams differently. This isn’t just about their level of play, etc. Even teams of a similar level are different and require a slightly different approach.

Some thoughts on practice planning

There was a post on the AVCA blog a while back with the title of “Practice Preparation”. An NCAA Division I assistant coach wrote it. The title was a bit misleading as there wasn’t much on actual planning. The article mostly discussed a few drills/games. Unfortunately, it looks like they removed it when they revamped the AVCA website.

In any case, I found the first two particularly interesting.

The first was a timed game where the teams only score points in certain ways. The basic idea is that you have a predefined length of time for the game while also being able to focus on key areas of developmental interest. Think of it along the same lines as a bonus point game. You focus the players on certain things you want prioritized.

I might favor the bonus point approach better. That’s only because I’ve found that sometimes only allowing certain ways a team can score points leads to forcing the ball and things like that you don’t want to encourage. If you have multiple different ways to score, though, the “forcing” is mitigated.

The second game is one call 20-20 because that’s where the scoring starts. Normal play then follows up to set point. At that point, if the team going for set point fails, they go back to 20. The other team keeps their points. So for example, it the score was 24-22 and the leading team failed to score the next rally, the new scored would be 20-23.

I used that one at Svedala. We used a variation at MSU.

Handling guest players in training

If you followed my Svedala coaching log entries, you perhaps noticed that on occasion I had guest players in training. Sometimes they were players evaluating whether they were going to be part of the team (former players). Sometimes they were players looking to get in a training session when their schedule allowed. In other cases they were members of the second team.

Each type of guest player requires a different thought process.

For example, when bringing in players from the 2nd team to train with us I looked to keep their roles very well defined. They were focused in areas where they were likely to succeed. It wouldn’t do my training efforts or their confidence level any good if I asked them to do things they just couldn’t do at a level comparable to that of the rest of the group. I wouldn’t help them and I wouldn’t help my team.

One week offered one of the more interesting guest player situations.

I receive a request from the coach of the Swedish equivalent of the national volleyball academy (RIG). He wanted to know whether a couple of his players could train in with us, as they were out of school. These were players from our region. One player, in fact, was from Svedala and played in youth teams with players in my squad. From a forward looking perspective, these are players who would potentially be targets for the team when they finished at RIG. That adds a kind of recruiting aspect to the mix.

Here’s the rub, though. RIG’s first team competes in the Elitserie as we did (their second team plays in the 2nd division, as did our 2nd team). We played them the following weekend. How much did I want to talk about specific tactics and strategies when players from a rival club were in the gym with us?

Now, in the case of RIG it  was not a major competitive concern. They were a team we should have been able to handle. I did not worry about them reporting back to their coaches. The thing I was sensitive to, though, was talking about internal things with non-team members present. That goes for any kind of guest – player, coach, parent, club administrator, etc.