Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Volleyball Coaching Concept – Build-up drills

I previously discussed the idea of planning your volleyball training sessions from the end back to the start. The thought there is to be able to build toward a desired training focus or outcome, and also to create a progression of lower intensity and more technical work toward higher intensity, more tactical action. The same can be done for drills by progressively adding complexity.

For example, let’s start with a simple hitter vs blocker type drill – one RS blocker, a setter, and perhaps a few hitters attacking through 4. The starting focus can be on the blocker properly positioning themselves and executing technically sound blocks.

The next step would be to add in a middle blocker. We’ve now just raised the complexity by introducing the need for the pin blocker to sync up with the MB.

The next step could be to add a quick middle attack on the hitting side. This will keep the MB from cheating toward the outside attack and make for a more game-like situation.

Next we can add in one or more defenders working on playing around the block. There are also various options for adding in passers and different types of ball initiations to further extend both the game-like quality and the complexity.

This sort of build up is something you can do if you want to move toward working on something specific. In this instance it might be a defensive system in which you’re integrating the blocking scheme with the floor defense. You can do the same sorts of progressions to work on offensive systems and plays.

Progression drills do not have to be for working on complex play, though. You can use them just as well for working on more fundamental aspects of play. For example, turning a standard hitting line from something where a toss goes into the setter to one where a pass is required is a progression. You could then step up the complexity by taking it from a free ball pass to a down ball pass to a serve receive pass or maybe to a dig. By doing so you are increasingly linking game actions together so players are not working just on skills in isolation.

Volleyball Coaching Tip: Build practice from the finish

As might be expected from a coaching course focused on team development, practice planning was a subject of discussion when I did the Volleyball England Level 3 program. One of the bits of advice offered was to plan training sessions from the end backward toward the beginning. The idea is to lay out the progress first with what you want to do last. Then set up the preceding activities such that they build toward that last game or drill.

For example, say you want to have the team working 6 v 6 on transition as your last block for a training session. You may finish with a game like Bingo-Bango-Bongo. The question is then what tactic or skill is a step below that. It might be something like running a hitters vs. blockers drill with free ball initiation. Backing down from there could be work on quick combination plays off a free ball pass. You could use quick attack work as a prelude to that. Since accurate free ball passing is critical, it could be you start with some kind of passing drill to lay the overall foundation.

So what you have is progression that looks something like this:

  1. Free ball passing drill
  2. Quick attack hitting off free ball pass
  3. Combination attacking off free ball pass
  4. Hitters vs. Blockers
  5. Bingo-Bango-Bongo

I’m not saying this is exactly how you just work on transition attacking, of course. How you do it will depend on the specifics of your team’s developmental needs, how much time you’ve got for the session, number of players, etc. Rather, the idea is to show the progression from simple, technical, lower intensity toward complex, tactical, and high intensity and how you can build backwards from the latter toward the former.

Basically, it’s like navigating to a location. You start with where you want to go, then build your way back from there by asking “What do I need to do to prepare the team/players to do this step?” at each point as you progress back toward the start of training.

Adapting games and drills for lower level players

There are loads of volleyball drills and volleyball games we coaches can use in our training sessions. Some of them, however, will only be of use to certain levels of players. After all, you’re not really going to use complex, multi-skill drills with a group of beginners. It would be a disaster. That said, there are ways to adapt many drills and games which in their base case are designed for players more advanced than yours so you can use them yourself.

Lower the standard

Many games and drills have targets associated with them. For example, serve receive drills may have an objective of X number of good passes. At higher levels what counts as a good pass could be a 3-pass. At a beginner level, though, you may count any pass that’s playable for a second contact. In a hitting drill with kills as an objective for newer player you could simply count balls hit in. Alternatively, in a digging drill you might remove the penalty for the ball going over the net, if there is one.

Replace serves

Many games and drills start with a player serving. This can introduce a massive amount of variability into the situation. It makes certain types of training exercises unworkable. If you replace the serve, though, you can make things much more workable. For example, a passing drill which normally uses player serves can have those replaced with tosses. You may need to train players how to toss well. That is usually easier than getting them to be able to consistently provide accurate serves, though. In the case of running game play, you could replace serves with free balls.

Removing steps in the chain

More advanced drills tend to have multiple steps in the process. Reducing those steps will make a drill more useful with lower level players. A pass-set-hit drill could replace the pass with a toss, or alternatively could keep the pass, but put a toss in place of the set. It’s a question of what your coaching priority is for a given drill. If you want to work on hitting, then having a consistent set makes sense. If you’re focusing on the setting, though, then having consistent passing would be useful.

Use a ringer

Continuing along the lines of cutting down variability in some part of a drill or game, you could use a more advanced player at some point in the chain. This allows you to keep things very game-like while having more consistency. This could be done by having an advanced player (or coach) be the passer in a pass-set-hit drill or acting in the setter role in a 6 v 6 type of game.

Varying the initiation intensity

In coach-centric drills, you tend to have a lot of flexibility in how you put the ball into play. The Belly Drill is an example of this. For advanced teams you can make players have to play the ball while still on the floor, chase balls off the court, or dig hard driven balls. You can also challenge better players more and weaker players less, allowing you to help both develop equally at their own pace.

Change the dimensions

Beginning players tend not to move much, but many types of drills and games require lots of court movement. Winners 3s is a perfect example, as three players are expected to cover the full court. Using a smaller court can help create rallies where you would otherwise struggle to see them (see also small-sided volleyball games).

I’m sure there are other ideas out there. If there’s something you’ve done to adapt more advanced drills for use with less developed players, I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

Dynamic volleyball practice planning

In an ideal world, we volleyball coaches would always know exactly which players we’ll have in training every single time. And while we’re asking for wishes, we’d always have perfectly divisible numbers.

Alas, the reality is often quite different. We need to adapt on the fly because we don’t have everyone in practice for whatever reason. This can significantly impact the drills and games we’re able to employ.

Rigid vs. Adaptive Planning

I come from a school of coaching thought which very much involves planning out practices. The first coach I worked under was a planning manager in her day job. Not surprisingly, she very much liked to work from a defined training outline. We generally scripted practices down to the minute. The coaches I worked under at the NCAA Division I level were not that precise. They definitely wrote down a sequence of drills and games to be used for that training, though. Practice was done when all the drills were completed.

As a head coach I have generally been in a situation where my available practice time slot is constrained and well-defined: 90 minutes, 2 hours, etc. That makes it hard to think in open-ended terms. The result is that while I tend to not use a rigid plan, I do still develop a list of drills, etc. with an eye toward how long they will take. I need to make sure I can fit in everything I want to do that session.

I know, however, there are coaches out there who favor a much more dynamic approach. This style of coaching can develop when you very rarely know what you’ll have in the gym for any given session. They don’t walk into the gym with a defined plan. If they do it right, however, they have a set of priorities for the day’s training.

Being a dynamic pre-planner coach

Even those of us who like to plan things out, though, have to be ready to change course. We may not have the players on-hand to do what we originally wanted. Alternatively, sometimes things don’t play out quite as expected. That means we have to be adaptable and able to do things on the fly.

Being a good dynamic coach requires having a fairly broad working selection of drills and games you can plug in as needed. Perhaps more importantly, though, it requires mental flexibility. You have to be able to answer the question, “What can I do with the players on-hand to focus on my priority here?” That may mean using a different drill, such as shifting from a serving & passing drill which requires a dozen players to one which can be done with fewer. It can mean modifying a drill to accommodate the absence of certain player, such as taking the transition from back row out of a drill which normally would have a starting setter in it but now will have to feature your opposite doing the setting. Alternatively, it could mean re-purposing a game by changing the scoring system to prioritize what you want.

If you’re not the sort of coach who can easily shift gears on the fly – which can be something that comes with experience – you can still be dynamic with your training by having a contingency plan. All that requires is thinking about what you would need to do if you have fewer players, are missing a certain key player, or whatever other hurdles your plan may face. This takes more time, obviously, but it will let you make adjustments at the start of training so you can run things smoothly.

Training Plan: Toughness, Passing, Court Work

Priorities: Start to identify best passers, work on mental and physical toughness and conditioning, court positional work

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 14

Notes: This session followed a hard one two nights prior, and a slower one the prior evening where the team worked on rotations positioning, and coverage.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: Started with a dynamic warm-up because of lingering stiffness and fatigue from the sessions the prior two nights.

Light Positioning Work: Used the Newcomb game to have players run through rotations, coverage, and base/defense positioning work as a light on-court warm-up continuation featuring court movement.

Serving warm-up: I had them partner up across the net. They started at about half-court just serving the ball back and forth with a focus on good mechanics. As they felt warm they backed up until they got to the point of doing full court serving.

Serving Game: Ran the Amoeba serving game two times through to work on directional serving.

Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill.

Serving and passing: Ran the Get-2 passing drill and recorded passing stats. Kept the drill going until there were 30 total 3-passes. About 6 balls hit the floor with no or insufficient player effort, resulting in 6 punishment runs (rather than going back to 0 as I wasn’t doing an out-loud count).

Hitting: Had the whole team run quick attacks to help reinforce the need for good passing.

Passing: Put the team through the Run Serve Receive drill with each player having to get 7 good passes to get out.

Serving: Ran the Run & Serve drill to put the players under physical and mental pressure (especially after all the running they’d had to do prior).

Game-play: To get them playing and to continue the process of mixing players up and giving them a chance to get to know each other on the court, I had them play Winners 3s.

Team play: I finished up with 6 v 6 play to reinforce the positional work from the prior day and the beginning of training, and to start evaluating players by position.

– – – Observations – – –

I actually tried doing a winners variation drill after the second bit of passing, but the players were missing too many serves so I had to drop it quickly and move on. The serving bit which followed was scheduled, but just moved up.

Practice Plan: Initial Mental and Physical Challenge

Priorities: Physically and mentally demanding session to quickly get players back into serious training mode after the try-out and selection process, start establishing team mentality

Training time: 1.5 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 16

– – – The Plan – – –

Initial Warm-up: I had the team do a dynamic warm-up to start, knowing it was going to be a physical practice.

Ball-handling warm-up: I then had the players pair up and do a bit of passing and light pepper.

Serving warm-up: I had them partner up across the net. They started at about half-court just serving the ball back and forth with a focus on good mechanics. As they felt warm they backed up until they got to the point of doing full court serving.

Target serving: I had them do around-the-world serving where they had to get a good serve into each zone 1-6.

Serving and passing: I used the Get-2 passing drill as a fast-moving serve/pass exercise with a goal of 32 good passes. Overpasses were -1 and balls hitting the floor with no effort on them sent the count back to 0.

Position Hitting: In groups of 3 on both sides of the court, I had the players pass a free ball then hit, with the rest on ball collection and feeding duty. I then had the middles spend time running quicks. Using the small groups kept the tempo high for those in the drill, forcing them to do a lot of movement, transition, and jumping in a relatively short window of time.

Defense: To really push the players mentally and physically, I had them go through the Continuous Cross-Court Digging drill.

Team play: I finished up with Winners 4s

– – – Observations – – –

Although the group had already gone through the selection and try-out process, there was still the question of player commitment in some cases. Along with wanting to quickly get training at a high, demanding tempo and intensity to facilitate some needed conditioning work, I was looking to expose any potential commitment cracks. In other words, I wanted to encourage any who might be inclined to quit to do it now rather than in a couple of weeks.

Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas

Running volleyball try-outs is obviously about assessing players. Oftentimes, however, it’s also a question of managing a large number of players. If you don’t have to manage a lot of players, you can run virtually a regular training session. You just have to incorporate drills and games covering all of the key things you want to look at in rating the available players. As such, I’m will focus here on doing assessments as efficiently as possible. I’ll do that by providing volleyball try-out drill ideas that could be used to look at all the major skills.

As I discussed in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?, warm-ups tend to be quite badly handled. This can be especially true in a try-out situation where you want to get into assessment as quickly as possible. Warm-ups should be considered part of that process, not something which simply prepares players for it. I favor going right into basic ball-handling drills, especially ones with a movement element. Even simple pepper drills are quite useful here.

Chances are this is something you don’t want to spend all that much time addressing. Generally, we can fairly quickly judge the caliber of a player’s serving just by watching them do a couple of reps. To that end, just lining them up on either end of the court and having them serve back and forth like a pre-game warm-up may suffice. Doing this for a couple of minutes should allow you to give each player a watch.

If you want to narrow things down, you can take it a step further by introducing a goal. For example, depending on the level of play, you could set an objective of 10 serves in a row, or some number of serves to a given zone. I’d suggest a time limit to keep a drill from running on too long. If you have the players who reach that objective step out of the drill, you’ll get a good idea of the stronger vs. weaker servers.

There are plenty of possible serve receive exercises that can serve as volleyball try-out drill ideas. What you’re probably looking to judge here is which players are aggressive vs. passive, loud vs. quiet calling the ball, movement to the ball, and passing mechanics.A simple pass-and-follow shuttle (pass the ball and go to the end of the line on the other side) will give you an idea of simple ball-handling skill.

You want to see what players look like when receiving serve, though, to get a full assessment. A big deciding factor in how you set that up is the likely quality of the servers. If the players aren’t able to serve consistently, then you need to either do coach-initiated serves or use tossed/thrown balls in place of serves. Perhaps use something like passing triplets. If the players can serve, then probably the best way to get as many players on the court as you can is to run a 2-sided serving-passing drill.

You can probably get at least a basic idea of someone’s setting ability by watching them pepper or go through a setting shuttle such as the one mentioned for passing above. To assess a player for a setting role, however, you need to see them actually set to hitters. You also want to see how they move on the court. Setting to a hitting line is a simple solution to the former. Adding the requirement that the set comes off a pass adds the element of seeing the setter move around. You’ll want to put the setter candidate(s) in a game-like situation to finish the assessment, though.

A look at players in pepper will give you an idea of where a player is at in terms of armswing mechanics and ability to control an attack. Simple hitting lines provide an assessment opportunity to look at hitters in terms of approach, timing, jump, swing mechanics, and the like. If you don’t have a consistent setter on-hand you may need to have the hitting done off a toss. To go beyond basics, though, you need to put hitters in game-like situations. That will let you see how they handle the variability and how they actually attack the defense.

In many cases a quick look at the relative heights of your players provides a good idea of blocking ability. Going beyond that, however, you want to look at a prospective blocker’s footwork, quickness along the net, and ability to properly position and time their block. The footwork and speed side of things can be seen through simple blocking movement work at the net. The rest of it requires facing a hitter, though. That can be accomplished by putting blockers against a hitting line, perhaps requiring some additional initial movement (like MB closing to the pin blocker). Things like recognition, anticipation, and the other mental parts of blocking will only come by watching players in game-play situations.

You can probably get a significant sense of a player’s defensive abilities and mentality by watching them in game-like situations. That shows you who is aggressive and who is passive. It may also give you an idea of who is a lateral type defender (good for middle backs in most systems) and who is good at moving forward (good for wing defenders in many systems), as well as which players are able to read situations and hitters. To specifically assess dig control, you can put players through a coach-on-X type of drill. That’s where the coach hits balls at a group of players. This tends to be better for smaller groups, however, or situations where there are multiple coaches with room to spread out into different groups. Having players dig against hitting lines tends not to be very useful because it’s usually not very realistic.

As noted, there are some things you’ll want to assess which are best done in game situations. A good way to do this in a situation which moves players quickly through is something like winners. For a large group, you could split the court down the middle and run two sets of winners-3s on the same court. That gets 12 players on the court in a situation where they are likely to get more contacts than if they were playing 6 v 6. If you have a smaller group, a winners variation where you use backrow attacks only lets you see players having to cover more area, but in a situation where the attacks are less potent, leading to generally longer rallies than if the hitters were attacking on the net.

If you want to run 6 v 6 and have a large group, you can do a something like Neville Pepper. In this case, one team of six stays on for a fixed period of time. The teams on the other side rotate after each rally. You can also do a wave variation in which you rotate 3-player lines through each few points either from one end or from both ends.

Setting Priorities
In the end, what you pick to run as volleyball try-out drill ideas must be based on your selection priorities. It’s just like training priorities to develop a practice plan. If you’re looking to pick 12 players from a group it is different than if you’ve already got 8 returners and just want to pick players who fill some needs. Similarly, it’s different picking varsity vs. junior varsity. So start your try-out planning process by thinking about the sorts of things you need to identify and assess. Then work from there.

More volleyball try-out drill ideas

Hopefully, these volleyball try-out drill ideas at least give you a starting point to develop a good plan. A single article like this can’t really go into a lot of depth, though. That’s why I put together a booklet that goes further.

Training Plan: First practice back

Priorities: Shake off the rust, evaluate the players for the season to come, getting new players mixed in, prepare the starters for the upcoming match

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 11

Notes: This was the first training session of the season. Because of a few different complications, it also happened to be the last training before the first match of the year. Not exactly an ideal scenario. The bulk of the prior season’s starters were returning, but the setter wasn’t one of them and we’re also integrating at least one other new player in the pool of prospective starters.

– – – The Plan – – –

Ball-handling warm-up Part 1: I had the players do a progression where sets of partners started at 3 meters apart and first passed 10 balls each back and forth, then did 10 sets each. They moved out to 6 meters and repeated, then did the same thing at full court width.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 2: I then had the players do the 2-Player Set & Touch drill to get them moving and work on footwork.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 3: To mix the players around and start integrating the new players in, I did rotating pepper by having one side of gym rotate every 90 seconds.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 4: I then moved things on the net to start getting the action more game-like and had them do 3/4-person over-the-net pepper.

The above took about 30 minutes all together

Serving warm-up: After a water break I had them partner up across the net. They started at about half-court just serving the ball back and forth with a focus on good mechanics. As they felt warm they backed up until they got to the point of doing full court serving.

Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.

Serving and passing: With shoulders warmed-up and serving consistency developed (at least a bit), I moved to having 3 passers on each side in serve receive, with an additional player as target. The remaining players were servers. I had the passers rotate out to target after 2 good passes (started with 3, but one side wasn’t rotating enough), with the target then going back to serve. I did this until I felt like the main passers got enough reps.

Hitting warm-up: In order to evaluate the setting options for the upcoming match and to get the hitters some swings, I ran short 1-position hitting lines. That comprised 3 people at a time hitting first through 4, then in the middle, and finally through 2. Setters were mixed around as the hitter groups changed.

Game-play: To get them playing and to continue the process of mixing players up and giving them a chance to get to know each other on the court, I had them play Winners 3s.

Team play: I finished up with the players who will be at the upcoming match (one starter missing) going against the rest in a 6 v 5 (zone 6 was declared out on the 5-player side). The team of 5 served every ball. The team of 6 needed to win two rallies in a row in order to rotate. Because we needed to cut things short a bit for admin talks, I just went through the rotations one time before wrapping things up.

– – – Observations – – –

You’ll notice I did no traditional warm-up. The players were quite happy not to have to do the dynamic version we did last season. 🙂  I actually had to stop them from doing the throw-the-ball-back-and-forth thing players tend to do in pre-game warm-ups and such. This decision was all about getting right into shaking the summer rust off, having a chance to get a close look at the new players who were in training, and mixing those players in as quickly as possible.

Sneaky volleyball conditioning through pepper

Want an easy way to work on player conditioning while also having players develop their ball-handling skills?

Have them pepper for a while.

Now I’m not just suggesting you just roll the balls out and tell them to pass-set-hit with each other for half an hour while you sit and have a coffee. No such luck. You’ll actually have to do some coaching.

There is a trick to getting the most out of however long you want to run things. That is mixing up exactly what you have the players doing. There are loads of pepper variations. There are also many ways to focus on certain elements while keeping the players working hard. You’ve got a hitting element, a digging element, and a setting element. You can work with each singularly or in combinations.

For example, you could start with one player hitting at their partner, who digs the ball back for the hitter to catch and then go again. That provides focused consecutive reps for both players. While they are doing that you would be going around working with individual players on technique (and perhaps reinforcing bigger ideas, like effort). You can then have the digger play the ball up to themselves rather than to the hitter. Then progress to digging the attack to themselves and setting the hitter as in the 1-way Pepper drill. This sort of progression can be used in all aspects of pepper to work on skills singularly or in small combinations. The idea is to build toward eventual full-on pepper.

Adding a jump requirement to the setting and/or hitting parts of pepper can go a long way too. From a skill development perspective, it forces the players to work on getting their feet to the ball. On the conditioning side you’ll definitely see the players get gassed more quickly. This isn’t something you’re likely to be able to do effectively with lower level players in standard pepper. You could do it with them in a partial pepper situation, though. As a simple example, have them jump set back and forth for a little while and see how tired their legs and shoulders get.

The two keys to making this pepper conditioning idea worthwhile, and to not let the players catch on to what you’re doing, is to mix things up periodically so they have different points of focus and to be sure you’re actively moving around the gym coaching them. You do that and they’ll never suspect you’re developing their conditioning along with their skills. 😉

And by the way, this is actual volleyball conditioning. Much better than running or anything like that.

Pepper note: Whenever possible you should have your players go over the net. I am not totally against standard partner pepper (no net). It can have its uses at times. For skill development, however, it is not the best choice.