Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

And then it all went sideways!

The other day I mentioned a challenge I had in running a pair of tryouts for the university teams I coach. Specifically, I had to plan something despite not knowing how many players I would have, or how many helpers. I had only an hour allocated for each gender, inclusive of introduction and warm-up (and any lingering registration stuff). So basically, I had to come up with a flexible warm-up activity that could account for players trickling in from getting registered, and then about 40 minutes worth of primary drills/games.

A real coach’s dream situation, eh?

I basically took a end-to-beginning approach in my planning. I wanted to end with some kind of play. Given my expectation of large numbers and the small amount of time, 6 v 6 was out. I needed something that could reasonably accommodate player counts in the 20s on a single court. I decided to go with two half-court Speedball games going side-by-side. Depending on the numbers, I could have both mini courts be doubles, both be triples, or one for each.

The other main thing I wanted to be able to see was serving and passing – especially while I had access to the bigger sports hall. For that I picked the 2-sided serving & passing drill. It’s one that allows for some flexibility in numbers involved. That said, however, you probably don’t want to use more than about 14 players in the drill (6 passers, 2 targets, 6 servers), so I needed to have something on the side for excess players and to thereby have a rotation through the drill. That would have to be something like a pepper or defensive drill which could be done without the net in a fairly confined area. I decided that if I had helpers of a reasonable caliber I would have a defense station, but otherwise go with group pepper.

Now, if I’m going to have players serve – and then later hit – I need to make sure their shoulders are sufficiently warmed-up. To accomplish that, I decided to split the group in half. One would do a partner serving warm-up on the net, the other would do partner pepper off the court. After a certain amount of time (probably 5 minutes max) I would have them flip.

That leaves the initial warm-up. My plan was to have the returners lead the group in dynamic warm-up after the introduction. By that point we should have most people, if not all, through the registration process and ready to go. Plus, it would give me a chance to see who takes it seriously and who just goes through the motions.

That was the basic plan going in. Here’s the reality.

The women
I ended up with what must have been close to 50 women’s trialists!

That mandated a rapid change of approach. We had to make on-the-fly cuts, which I wouldn’t otherwise do. Fortunately, we had more gym space than we’d though, so rather than saying to a player “Sorry, you’re out” we could simply move them over to the other side of the curtain where they could continue working with some of the helpers who were on-hand. Yes, those players probably figured out pretty quickly what the situation was, but it was a bit more gentle than having to just ask them to leave the gym outright.

Four-person pepper was run after doing a dynamic warm-up. That was when we started culling the more obvious No’s. I then had them doing some serving – kind of like a pre-match warm-up thing. Definitely not idea given the numbers we still had, but it was an easy way to identify more players just not up to the required standard.

Luckily, having the extra gym space availed us of a second court. Because of a curtain situation it wasn’t full-sized, but we managed. I split the group in half and sent one set of players over there to hit, keeping the other to do serving and passing, swapping the groups at a certain point. We were able to get down to 27 players left in the mix for the last 20 minutes, during which I had them play Speedball, more or less as outlined above.

The men
Things were much more reasonable for the men. We only had 20 of them to manage, which was just a little more than we had last season.

Because they had largely been peppering and stuff on the other side of the curtain before getting going, after doing a dynamic warm-up I had them go straight into doing some serving. As with the women, I also had them doing serving and passing, and finished with Speedball. Because I had a bit of extra time, though, I also had them run through hitting lines going through 4 and 2.

I met with the leadership after the men’s try-out to discuss who would be invited back for this week’s try-out continuation. On the women’s side we cut the list from that 27 still involved at the end down to 17. On the men’s side we ended up with 15.

Moving forward
This week we have sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They are a combination of a continuation of the try-outs and the start of training for this year’s teams. The anticipation is that we might see a handful of additional players turn up who either didn’t know about last week’s trial, weren’t on campus yet (school starts today), had a conflict, or whatever. As a result, we may yet end up cutting some of the players who survived Friday’s culling.

I am personally looking forward to being able to really take a close look at the new players this week. Especially with the women, it was almost impossible to do on Friday. As I told someone that evening, I was so focused on who we should cut that I didn’t have the opportunity to really look at the Yes and Maybe players to see what they had to offer. Now I can do that and start to think in terms of team composition.

Volleyball Coaching Concept – Second Chance

A while back I shared something called the Second Chance Game. The basic idea is that a player who makes an error is immediately given an opportunity to correct their mistake. For example, a hitter spikes a ball into the net. The coach immediately makes them hit another ball, and potentially another, and another until they have a good swing. It is worth noting that doing this sort of error correction need not be confined to one certain type of game. It can happen at any time, in any game or drill.

During my time with the professional teams in Germany, I saw many examples of the coaches using this kind of second chance approach. They did it in passing drills. They did it in defense drills. They did it when working on movement. They did it for setting. The point was to not accept the bad repetition – especially if it was driven by poor technique, bad decision-making, etc. – and reinforce the desired execution.

In fact, second chance is often best used in drills because it’s easier to have a do-over in those situations than in game-play. Second chance when having your team play tends to create a continuous play situation. This can be useful at times, but if you’re looking to have something with a more discrete stop-start process (like with rallies begun by a serve), then second chance from an individual player perspective is probably not the best choice. You could, however, do it from a broader team perspective by repeating the play from the start or from some key juncture.

Warm-up philosophy affirmation

An early post I wrote was a rant against some “traditional” warm-up methods employed by coaches and players. That article – Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time? – is one of the most frequently visited on the site. One activity is throwing the ball back and forth and hitting into the floor to loosen up the shoulder. I don’t like it for reasons I mentioned in that prior post. In particular, it seems like a lost opportunity to get in additional ball contacts.

With that as a backdrop, you can imagine how much I enjoyed it when a professional coach I visited with immediately stopped his players from doing that stand-by warm-up routine. It happened during one of their initial training sessions. Players were instructed to warm-up their shoulders. As soon as he saw them start the throw/hit thing, though, he stopped it, forcefully. He told them in no uncertain terms that what they were doing was a waste of time and opportunity. Instead, they should do a hit and dig-to-self routine.

You have no idea how happy this made me. It proved I’m not some crazy lone voice on the subject. There are at least two of us!  Importantly, it also let me go back to my university players (the men in particular) and say “This is what the pros do.” 🙂

On a related subject, I saw a variation on this idea where one player hits and the other catches. I am not a fan of this. The coach encouraged the catching players to move and position themselves as if they were digging. The reality, though, is that catching and rebounding/redirecting are very different skills.

Volleyball Camp Drills and Games

Summer is, of course, prime season for volleyball camps. As anyone who has ever run one knows, camps present their own set of challenges for drill and game selection. When you’re designing a plan for a practice session you at least know the level of the players, the distribution of players in the various positions, and things like that. Camps are more akin to try-outs. You’re trying to employ activities which can accommodate for a number of variables.

Actually, in many camps there is a sort of try-out process at the beginning. That’s to assign players to courts or teams for the remainder of camp based on position, skill level, etc. It requires drills which can be used to handle large numbers of players efficiently. If you’re in a position like this, have a look at the Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas post.


It is very easy in a camp situation where you’re dealing with potentially a lot of players to get lazy and do something like jog & stretch. Please don’t do that! You can see my thoughts on warm-ups in general in the post Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time? Suffice it to say, I think you can do better, even if it’s just adopting some kind of dynamic warm-up. Depending on the age and skill level of the group, consider a ball-handling and/or footwork oriented warm-up.

Lots and lots of touches!

Part of running a camp is making sure the campers are happy and feel they got something out of it. Standing around for long periods doing nothing doesn’t help with that. You want to keep them active as much as possible. The more ball contacts you can get them the better. The best way to do this is to put them in small groups. That allows you to run ball-handing shuttles (like 21) and/or pepper variations such as 3/4-person in-line or over-the-net. You can also play small-sided games. Maybe do it in a tournament format to add a competitive element.

Inclusive rather than exclusive

Be careful about drills or games where players who make a mistake are bumped out for long periods of time. An example of this is the common serving drill where you have players on both sides serving back and forth and missed serves cause players to have to go sit on the other side until a teammate hits them with a serve. That sort tends to see the weaker players spend the most time sitting on the floor. A better option would be the Amoeba Drill, which flips that around (always a popular one, by the way).

Emphasize connecting with new people

Unless you’re running a team camp, you’re going to have a bunch of players who don’t know each other. That means as you design activities for the campers you need to incorporate a “getting to know your fellow campers” element. There are loads of different icebreaker exercises out there that can help. Many can be incorporated into volleyball work.

Talk as little as possible

The campers are there to work on their skills and play games – and be social. They are not there to attend a series of lectures. Spend as little time as you can get away with having them listen to coaches talk and as much time as possible on the court.

Be creative and make it fun!

Creativity can go a long way toward making for a positive camper experience. As much as we coaches might want to spend loads of time on fundamentals, the kids can only tolerate a limited amount of ball-handling work before they start to lose focus. By all means, do lots of fundamental work in your camp, but think about ways you can do it without the kids realizing you’re doing so. Using different types of games can help that, especially since the kids will be eager to play anyway.

Whether you are running a camp or just part of the coaching staff, keep in mind that as much as we might like it to be otherwise, camps are at least as much about entertainment as making players better. If you want players to come back again and/or tell their friends about it, they have to have a positive experience. This is something different than coaching a team or a training session where the focus tends to be more on challenging the players. Keep the fun element in mind and you’ll tend to end up with more satisfied campers.

Giving practice planning the right amount of time

One of the things you hear as a coach – probably regardless of the sport – is that you should spend about twice as much time planning a training session as that session is scheduled to run. That may seem like a lot of planning, and it is. That’s kind of the point. 🙂

I’m not going to say you need to specifically sit down for 4 hours of writing down drills and games if you’re planning a 2-hour practice, though. Those hours of planning will likely be spread out over the time between your last contact with the team and the forthcoming one as you consider recent developments, priorities moving forward, etc. Depending on your coaching experience, and where you’re at with your team, the actual process of putting together a realized training plan might not take very long at all. This past year I usually took about 30 minutes to plan 1.5 to 2 hour sessions.

Actually, that brings up something I figured out along the way.

It’s possible to give yourself too much time to develop the actual practice plan. I found myself actually taking way more time than necessary because I gave myself way more than necessary. In other words, I was using all the time I allowed. I got much more efficient with my planning when I constrained things. I began sitting at the kitchen table and deciding on that evening’s drills and games about 40 minutes before I had to leave for the gym. It didn’t change the sorts of things I did in training, but I certainly spend way less time developing my plans now than I did before. That lets me be productive in other areas.

That’s just the actual practice plan development, though. Nothing changed in terms of thinking a lot about recent developments and the things I wanted to focus on with the team, and individuals. I still think a great deal about all the background stuff that goes into my priority-based practice plans. That also feeds into my being able to adapt a training plan dynamically.

Making use of light training sessions

A forum question was asked at VolleyTalk about using no/low-impact training sessions. The poster wanted to know whether/to what extent do coaches put in light sessions during their seasons. Whether this happens depends on the season structure and training calendar. After all, if you only train once or twice a week then you’re probably reluctant to “waste” a session through lower intensity. The players presumably have lots of time off in that kind of schedule.

College volleyball

Coaching college volleyball in the States, light training sessions are definitely a feature. The base schedule during the season for many college teams is to train Monday through Thursday. There are matches on Friday and Saturday, with Sunday the off day. A common pattern is for Monday’s training to be recovery oriented. The tendency is to concentrate on defense and ball-handling skills. Similarly, Thursday isn’t a full intensity session either, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it low-impact. It was more about match prep. That leaves Tuesday and Wednesday as the two full-on sessions each week.

Some conferences have different schedules. For example, in some cases they play Thursday and Saturday, or Friday and Sunday. Naturally, that changes which days are lower intensity and which are higher.

We do, from time to time, give players a day off. That is mainly based on recognizing a need for it rather than specifically scheduling something in ahead of time. Often, this happens toward the middle of the season. That’s when the grind sets in and players are usually also in the middle of exams.

High school volleyball

The high school level is different. In many States teams play midweek, often times multiple days. For example, they play Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If they don’t practice over the weekend, that’s two days off. Actually, this is true of some lower levels of college volleyball too. When I coached in New England the 2-year colleges and much of Division III played mostly midweek.

In some places, weekend play features. That obviously changes things. I suspect a lot of high school coaches don’t really give too much thought to player fatigue. The athletes are young. The intensity of play isn’t always very high. Given the amount of overuse injury we see, though, maybe more rest should be incorporated.

Professional volleyball

When I coached in Sweden we trained four days per week and mostly played on Saturday. Sometimes we played midweek, but that was usually on what normally was a training day. So basically we had two days off scheduled. Still, at times I gave them an extra day off.

I recall at least one of them coming when we didn’t have a weekend match. I gave the team Monday off, making it a 3-day weekend. The professional season is a long one – especially in Europe. We started training at the beginning of September and started play in October. The regular season ended in March, with the playoffs running through April. That’s a long grind. A bit of a break from time to time is a good thing.

I think that’s an important point. When it comes to recovery, people tend to think mainly of the physical side of things. The mental side is just as important, though. Think about that when you look at your season’s progression.

Volleyball Coaching Challenge: A-team vs. B-team

Matt over at The College Volleyball Coach, who I worked with on the book Inside College Volleyball, had a question come in the other day. Most of the questions Matt gets are related to US college volleyball recruiting. This one came from a new Juniors club volleyball coach, though. This situation is this:

“The issue is our starting 7 have come from good high school and/or club programs and have very good attacks (and relatively good setting and passing) whereas the backups and 2nd team are newer to the game and are coming along, but really aren`t able to be competitive with our starting 7 in practice.”

Leading the coach to ask:

“…do you have any advice or drill on how to work on defense (blocking and covering balls of blocks) without really having strong players on the other side of the net to practice against?”

The question is similar to the one I addressed in my Training 6 v 6 when your only setters are those running your 6-2 offense post. As in that scenario, we have a situation where a coach needs to be able to train certain players at a higher level than the rest of the team is at presently. This is a challenge I definitely had in a major way at times. It’s one all coaches face when they want to train their starters with only the non-starters as competition.

In Matt’s reply to the question he brought up the idea of using small-sided games rather than 6 v 6 play. That is definitely one way to go in terms of developing more broad-based skills. Going that route lets you put your stronger players up against each other, and likewise with your weaker ones. You can also create mixed teams. This allows you to put your starters against each other in different ways, even in 6 v 6 situations. I did that in one of my training sessions.

Of course, at times you need to have your starters together to work on team-specific things. For example, offensive and defensive systems. In this case you have to find ways to make your B side competitive. This might include allowing them to serve every ball. You could require the A side to only score in certain ways. There are wash scoring variations. You can also initiate easier balls to the B side in the case of something like the Scramble game. Using bonus points is another possible option.

There are any number of ways you can achieve your training objectives. You just may need to think creatively about how to do it.

Get more serving into your training

Karch Kiraly once blogged on the subject of serving. Those of us of a certain generation know Karch as one of the best to have ever played the game. He won two indoor Olympic gold medals (1984 and 1988) and a beach gold (1996). These days, however, he’s known as the coach of the USA women’s national team. Karch’s gripe is that the quality of serving among Juniors and college players just isn’t good enough. His observation is that American players are well behind their peers internationally. Why? Because it doesn’t get trained enough, quite simply.

Serving is important. One need only look at what Wisconsin did to Texas in the NCAA semifinals in 2013 to understand that. A lot of coaches simply don’t give it the attention it deserves, though. Karch makes the point that coaches will sacrifice time working on serving for something else they consider a higher priority. In part this is because they waste time in areas like warm-ups. His comments are similar to those I made in Are your warm-up wasting valuable time?. He even encouraged players to work on serving themselves. After all, it’s a skill that requires no one else to help get reps.

Karch also talks in the blog post about the need to develop both speed and accuracy in serving to put opposing teams under pressure. He mentioned using a radar gun to measure serve velocity, which is something I saw in use in USC training in August 2013. Being able to serve where you want with pace is the key to creating problems for the other team’s serve receive offense.

The one thing I would insert in here is that if you don’t have a radar gun to get players specific feedback on the power of their serves it can be hard to encourage them in that direction. You likely will have to use drills and/or games which encourage aggressive serving to get them to push the envelope.

Oh, and the better your team serves the better your team will pass. It’s a simple fact. The harder the serves they get in training from each other, the better equipped they’ll be to handle them from other teams. The trick for the coach is to know when sub-par passing is the result of problems in skill or simply a reflection of tough serving. The two cases require different approaches.

So basically the bottom line is make sure you don’t neglect serving in your training plan.

Using Stations in Your Practices

The idea of stations is a pretty straight-forward one. Players are divided up into groups and assigned to separate areas at which they do something. We see these sorts of arrangement used most often to cycle players through a series of exercises. For example, there can be stations set up to do strength & conditioning exercises, or where players work on the different volleyball skills.

When I coached collegiately in the States we used stations regularly to break players into different groups – usually by positions – to work with them in a more focused fashion. I saw the same thing when I visited college training sessions back in August 2013. No doubt it is quite prevalent.

Of course the schools I’m talking about here had multiple courts on which to work. Not everyone has the sort of space available – including me with the university teams I coached in England!

Good for larger groups

Small space doesn’t rule out station work, though. In fact, sometimes stations is a good way to manage large numbers of players on a single court.

For example, one session I split the team into 4 groups. One group was the setters, who worked at the net on one side of the court. One group was a set of defenders digging coach attacked balls on the court behind the setters. The other two groups were in a free ball passing drill on the other half of the court with a coach sending the ball over the net from near the setting group. We rotated the 3 non-setter groups between the digging and passing stations. This allowed us to efficiently use the space and work on key skills.

Obviously, what you do with stations in your training facility depends on your space and resources. Be creative about how you put all that stuff to use, though, and keep in mind that you need not be as rigidly constrained as you’d think.