Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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 competed in the Elitserie as we did (their second team played 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.

Parkinson’s Law definitely applies to practice planning!

Once, as I developed the training plans for the Svedala team, I recalled Parkinson’s Law. It goes something like this.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

I’ve written before about the amount of time you should allocate to practice planning. Part of that discussion was how easily the task could consume crazy amounts of time if not properly constrained. I experienced that while coaching at Exeter. I could find find myself spending all afternoon making up that evenings practice plan. Then, I had to remind myself of that a couple of times the first week of training in Sweden.

It was so tempting for me as I got started with a new team in a new environment to let the practice planning suck me in and not let me go.

You may be thinking, “But you were a professional volleyball coach. That was your job!”

That’s true, but that doesn’t mean I should let one task eat of a major part of my day. Efficiency in planning is just as important as developing an efficient training plan. There are a lot of other things for a coach to do. Watching video comes immediately to mind!

Training Plan: 11 players, just games

Priorities: Shake off the rust with lots of touches, start the process of the players getting to know each other at the beginning of a new season, get some initial impressions

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 2 courts

Players: 11 (2 setters)

Notes: Because set-up and take down were included in the allocated time, and some amount of time was necessarily allocated to introductions and initial discussion, the actual training period was somewhat less than 2 hours.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: No isolated warm-up.

Cooperative 1 vs 1 and 1 vs 1 w/fixed setter: Set up 4 games on 1 v. 1 and one game of 1 v 1 with a fixed setter. The idea is to get to 6 good pass-set-downball sequences. As soon as one group gets there, they all rotate in a clockwise fashion. If no one gets there in the time limit, rotate anyway.
11-player singles rotation3-person and 4-person pepper w/fixed setter: On one court is two groups of 3-person rotating over-the-net pepper. On the other court is a 2 v. 2 pepper with a fixed setter. The team’s two setters are market A and B. Again, play to six good pass-set-hit sequences (this time with jumping), or a the time limit. Rotation for the non-setters is clockwise. The setters switch positions each rotation.

11-player peppers

5-person and 6-person player winners: Each court has a game of Player Winners on it, one with 5 players and one with 6 players. Play for 5 minutes, then move the top 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person, and the bottom 3 from the 6-person court the other way (now making the 5 a 6 and the 6 a 5). Play 5 more minutes, then send the top 3 from the 6-person court to the 5-person court, and the bottom 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person court. Play another 5 minutes, then repeat the process from after the first round. Play one last round of 5 minutes.

Winners 3: Finish with standard Winners (3s in this case) Start with back court attacks only, then shift to allowing front court attacks as well.

– – – Observations – – –

The first two exercises went quicker than expected. As a result it was desirable to add a 5th exercise. The initial thought was to play Winners 4s, but instead Neville Pepper was used. The 9 non-setters were split up into three roughly equal teams. They were the teams to play through the games. The setters were used in a fixed fashion, switching sides when the challenge side won a rally.

Small squad volleyball training

I saw the following question posed by a volleyball coach. Most of us at some point in our coaching careers have to deal either with having a small squad or having limited numbers in training, so I thought it worth addressing.

I have 6-7 players, how can i create game like situation without enough to scrimmage each other? Our first game is coming soon so I’m really needing this week to get them set up in their positions, learn where they need to go….etc. But hard without having another team to play the ball back over….

I can relate. Once, in my first year coaching U16 girls it was just me and 6 players in training. I decided to play a little game with them at the end of the session. It was me against them. I served every ball and if I could dig their attack with control, or they could not return the ball, I got the point. If they could get a kill, they got the point.

Funnily, after I developed a solid lead mainly by digging their attacks (experience in reading an attacker has its advantages!), one of the girls said in exasperation, “Can we please stop hitting the ball right to John!?” 🙂

I liked hearing that. At least one of them was looking for the team to try to problem solve so they could beat me! I’m pretty sure I still won the game relatively comfortably, but they did get more competitive.

I tell this story as an example of how a little thought and creativity can lead to useful solutions. I’ve seen plenty of examples of a smaller number of players taking on a full squad. It’s just a question of finding rules and/or a scoring system. You want a system that makes things appropriately competitive. And it should see the players focused on whatever the keys are for that particular exercise.

It’s also worth looking at ways you can train game situations with elements of the team. A 3-v-3 game back row game is useful to work on defense against back row attacks and down balls. A game where you have an OH attacking into Zones 1 or 6 going against an OPP attacking into Zones 6 or 5 can be a highly game-like activity using a limited number of players. The same for having OHs going against each other with cross court attacks.

A serve reception example of this could be to put two passers in to cover 2/3rds of the court (say Zones 1 and 6) and having a setter and hitting element incorporated. If you set it up so it matches a serve receive rotational situation (such a setter penetrating from 1 with the MB in 3), then you can work quite nicely on key aspects of that phase of play without needing 6 players on one side.

With activities like that, it’s about taking what’s going on in a certain part of the court. You basically exclude the positions which wouldn’t be involved the the game scenario you’re training. That frees players up for something else to facilitate the exercise.

Opportunities in training on a lowered net

I mentioned before how you can use the game of Newcomb to work with inexperienced players. You can use it to teach court movement, positioning, and things like that in a volleyball-like, but slower speed situation. At the HP Coaches Clinic they did something similar, but for a more advanced purpose.

The coaches lowered the net down to just about head height for the average player. The demo athletes then played a co-operative 6 v 6 game with no jumping. The third contact was set over. Basically, it was all the movements you normally see in volleyball. The players just did not jump.

In this particular case the focus was blocker movement. The coaches watched the middle blockers for proper focus on their reads and their footwork. It was a way to give those middles lots of reps without burn out.

Thinking more broadly, this is an exercise that can serve a number of purposes. It could very easily be a warm-up. It includes lots of volleyball motion, just done at a lower intensity level. You can tick up the intensity if you make the 3rd contact be a down-ball.

Of course, you can also get rid of the cooperative aspect and make it a competitive game. That speeds things up, demands more movement, and introduces more problem-solving elements. It makes reading more game-like, and gives you increased opportunities to focus players on specific aspects of their play while still is a lower intensity situation.

Team Try-Outs Part Deux

In yesterday’s post I told the harrowing tale of expecting 20-something women to try-out for the university women’s team I coach and ending up with 40-something. After making many, many cuts, we got down to 17 players to invite back, along with 15 on the men’s side.

These were not expected to be the final rosters, however. It was anticipated that additional players would turn up this week – players who hadn’t arrived to campus yet (classes started on Monday), didn’t hear about Friday’s trial, had a conflict, etc. That meant I had to plan Monday’s sessions in much the same manner I did for Friday’s in terms of being flexible enough to account for an uncertain number of players – potentially something into the 20s.

One big constraint for Monday was court space. These sessions were in our primary training facility, which has just one court and very little room around it. Basically, everything happens in the space of the court itself. Fortunately, we were up to 90 minutes for each group.

For the women especially, Friday’s try-out was mainly about seeing who wasn’t up to the standard because of the massive numbers. Having been able to cull that list, Monday was now about getting a good look at what we really have and starting to think in terms of team composition. Yes, some more new faces might have needed to be evaluated, but it would be a minority part of the group, and as such it wouldn’t force a different approach.

Key areas of focus

It will come as no surprise that the two biggest areas I wanted to focus on to have a serious evaluation were setter and middle hitter. I haven’t seen too many situations where identifying OHs and OPPs, along with a libero, is a major challenge.

In the men’s case we have two guys back who set last year. In an ideal world we’d probably want a new setter coming in, but we could get along without one. Only one of our primary MBs from last year returns, maybe with one other, so that is really an area in need of new bodies. In the women’s case we lost all of our setters and primary middle players from last year. We have one returner who could set and one who could play MB, but we’re probably best if they didn’t have to.

The Plan

So with those priorities in mind – and given the requirement to be flexible in terms of the number of players to be accommodated – here’s what I came up with. Start with dynamic warm-up, then move on to pepper. If the numbers allow, do rotating partner pepper to get the players mixed up working together. Then do serving & passing, with setters in setting the ball to 4. From there, on to hitting by position. Finish up with some version of winners, depending on numbers.

The Reality

Shock of shocks, I didn’t have to deal with an excess of players. In fact, both teams were missing a couple of bodies from those called back, though there was 1 new male player. That let me basically run things to plan. With the men’s team I didn’t include setters in the passing drill because I pretty much know who they are, but instead shifted to a targeted good pass number (30), with a -1 for an overpass and back to 0 on a no-effort ball (they had to restart once). For winners I had the women play 4s because of the higher numbers (15), and the men play 3s on a narrow court.

Another session tonight and tomorrow for the women, tomorrow and Thursday for the men. I will need to make further cuts, at least on the women’s side.