Creating a Priority-Based Practice Plan

In the early days of this blog I authored the post First Things First, Know Your Priorities. It’s main point is if you don’t have a destination in mind it’s kind of hard to map your course.

You have high level objectives in mind for your team/program. Those should be in terms of the grand scheme of where you want things to go. They may come down to you from someone higher up, such as club leadership, an athletic director, school principal, etc.

You similarly should have priorities for the current season. They need to be founded in the higher level objectives. The must also be based on your assessment of the players, knowledge of the competition, and the like.

As you progress through the season you will identify different things to work on to move the team toward those season objectives (or new ones if the situation dictates a shift). They could be something like improving on a particular skill or preparing for a certain opponent. This third tier of priorities is what drives the plans you make for your training sessions.The creation of a practice plan based on those objectives is what I want to speak to in this article.

Starting with your top priority

Any practice plan you develop must start first and foremost with your top priority. Let’s say serve receive passing is something you’ve identified as the top priority for today’s training session. Probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that. 😉

You might like the theoretical idea of spending two hours doing nothing put serving and passing. Chances are, though, you won’t be able to keep the players focused and mental engaged for that long. It’s rather boring, and the intensity of those kinds of drills tends to be pretty low.

So how do you create a training plan prioritizing serve receive, but not just about serving & passing drills?

Your players’ level and the available time obviously play a major role in how you structure your training plan. You may want a drill which does do the boring fundamental work, at least for a little while. For beginners that could be a basic toss and pass drill. For other players and teams you could use drills like 8-Person Serve & Pass or Passing Triplets. They would serve as a foundational drill to get the players lots of reps in a relatively short period of time.

But you could have come up with that yourself, right? No new insights there.

Creating focal points in other drills

The real trick to developing a practice plan which highlights your top priority is to make that priority the focal point of drills which seemingly are concentrated on other things. For example, you can add a passing element to a hitting drill. It makes that drill one where serve receive quickly comes to the fore. The players won’t be able to attack the ball well if they don’t first pass well! At the same time, it also makes the drill much more game-like than your standard hitting lines.

You can also adapt any games you play in your practice to get the focus on serve reception. This can be done by replacing a freeball or attacked ball with a served ball as the ball initiation. It can also be in the way you keep score (see Volleyball Games: Scoring Alternatives). A great example of this is the Points for Passes game. It awards points based on the quality of the serve receive passes executed.

Operating at one level up

Along with drills and games focused specifically on whatever priority you have for that practice, you can also have ones with a higher level perspective that require the priority focus for proper execution. We can think about this by asking the question, “What play or strategy relies on good execution of my priority item to work?”

Sticking to the serve receive passing priority, that higher level perspective is the serve receive offense. Depending on your team’s level, you may be want to run the quick attack off serve receive, to have a certain first-ball kill %, or perhaps a target serve receive rally win %. Good serve receive passing is required to achieve your offensive objectives. That means any games or drills with serve receive offense as the focus must have passing as a focus.

Thus, you have another way of sneaking passing work into your training without your players moaning. 🙂

Concentrating your coaching on your priorities

It’s not enough to just include in your practice plan drills and games which feature the skill, play, or strategy you want to highlight in your training for that session, however. You need to also concentrate your coaching on that priority. In our serve receive example, that means you need to focus on how your player move, set their platform, communicate, etc. This means letting other stuff go.

In my experience, it’s the letting go of non-priority stuff that’s the hard part for many volleyball coaches. We have a tendency to want to address every little thing.

The hitting drill I mentioned above where you can add a passing element is a perfect example of how easy it is to lose your priority focus. There’s a setting element which can grab your attention. No doubt the players will want feedback on their hitting as well. If there’s a block, that too could grab your attention. You have to resist the distraction and keep both yourself and your players focused on the serve receive priority for that day.

Of course if you have multiple coaches in the gym you could split up the focal points between you. For example, you could provide feedback to the setter(s) while another coach concentrates on the players passing. This keeps the main priority to the fore, but allows for working with players who are not executing that skill at the time without detracting from the rest.

Having multiple priorities

Much of the time we go into planning a given training session with multiple things we’d like to work on that day. That’s perfectly fine, but the number needs to be kept down to make it manageable. Two or three is probably about it in terms of the general practice plan. You may be able to have sub-priorities within drills or games, though, especially if you have multiple coaches at-hand.

If you do have more than one key focal point for a given session you need to prioritize them. Something has to be the main one. If you have a situation where a conflict between them arises, there must be a clear understanding of what gets the attention.

An example of this would be the combination of serving and passing. If you have two coaches at work, one can be with each group during a drill like Serving-Passing-Setting Quads. If, however, you are the only coach then you have to spend the majority of your time working with whichever group represents the top priority for that day.

Communicate training priorities to your players

The best way to make sure your priorities for the session get the concentration required is to communicate them to the players at the outset. This serves two key purposes. One is to give you a chance to get the players on the same page with you in terms of the team’s developmental needs or strategic planning requirements. They are more likely to stay locked in and remain committed if they understand what’s going on and see the need for it.

The other reason to communicate priorities is to encourage players to not get caught up in other things. Going back to that pass-to-hit drill I brought up, it’s really easy for player to focus on their hitting rather than their passing since that’s the last part of each play. Telling them that you want to concentrate on the passing won’t keep them from reacting to their hitting performance, of course. It does offer you the secondary training effect of encouraging them to focus on one skill at a time, however. Over time, this can help them in game situations – especially when they may be struggling with one skill.

So in conclusion…

If you set the priorities for your practice, plan the drills and games you’ll use with those priorities in mind, and stay focused on them in your coaching during that session you are more likely to walk out of the gym satisfied at the end of the day. Do it consistently and you’re just about assured of being pleased with how things progress over the season. Of course this assumes you do a good job assigning priorities. But that’s a subject for another article. 🙂

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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