Volleyball tryouts for high school teams – some ideas

Are you thinking about high school volleyball tryouts? For a lot of coaches it’s their least favorite part of each season. I think all the high school coaches I’ve interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards have said that. Still, it’s not something you can probably avoid, so might as well make the most of it!

At the time of this writing, one of my former men’s players from Exeter University was just named head coach for a local high school team. Up to now he’s been a Juniors club coach, so this is his first time coaching high school. As you can imagine, he’s anxious about running his first volleyball tryouts as the boss. He actually sent me a long text describing his plan. Here’s what it looked like.

Tryouts over 3 days. ~2 hours each day.

I want them there at 8:40am to 3 person pepper, but tryouts won’t begin officially until 9. I can start to evaluate their personalities/hustle/passing/overhand sets at this time. I’m thinking around 24-26 girls will be trying out for varsity – All juniors and seniors. Some juniors are electing to try out for JV due to the competition and our sophomores aren’t very developed yet.

Day 1, I’ll split girls randomly into groups. Groups again on day 2 and 3, but these would be based on stats from day 1. Alternate setters between groups for them to set from great and not so great passes. Day 1 – 9am: Focus on physical fitness and basic skills. Capture speed, agility, stationary jump reach, jump approach reach etc. Then move on to the basic skills. Passing and hand sets from free balls, 10 serves, 10 hits off their own toss and then 10 hits each from a setter. Do you think I should evaluate and give jump floats and jump topspin serves a high value when ranking? If we have enough evaluators, we’ll have two courts for day 2 and 3. If only one court, I might increase the tryouts by an hour.

Day 2: Start with serve receive/passing evaluations, using your 3-2-1-0 scoring system. Serve receive. Free ball passes to target, focused on tempo. Down ball passing. Etc. Then transition to hitting evaluations. 10 hits from coach toss. 10 hits to target from setter (toss ball to setter), and then 10 hits from set, this time the pass is from the girls. I’d like to evaluate block somehow (footwork, reading sets etc). We can evaluate setters and hitters at the same time during this. Can also get a feeling for hitting IQ if sets are tight to the net or out of system. If time is left, transition to 4v4/6v6, alternating setters. Evaluate on everything including awareness and athleticism.

Day 3: Warm up drills. Hitting. Serve receive. No more than 30 minutes. 6v6 on two courts. Games to 12. Setters stay. Teams of 5 rotate. Evaluate the “whole package” during this period.

I asked the new coach a question. What is his priority? Is it to pick the best team, or is it to take a more long-term development focus? In this case it about picking the best team. He told me there’s a fair bit of talent in the group.

My immediate response was to suggest some big cuts. Since he’s trying to pick the best team there’s a lot of the plan that can be left out.

The physical assessments are really a waste of time. If you want them for planning weight training work or something like that, get it later when you have the team picked. They don’t help you pick the best team. You can see how high players jump and how fast they move in other activities. Better to free up the time for volleyball activities.

You can toss out a lot of the basic skill assessment as well. These are volleyball tryouts, not volleyball skill tryouts. You want the best players, which isn’t necessarily the same as saying the most skilled players.

My suggestion was to do a lot more game play. Start with small-sided games and progressively work up to full 6 v 6, if you want to see the players in that situation. If you do your ratings in game situations you get a much better quality evaluation than if you do them off very controlled reps. As one of the USA Volleyball technical staff said once, ratings like for serve receive taken from game play are more predictive of how someone will pass in a match then ones from drills.

This isn’t to say you should only play games. If you can, that’s great. But sometimes you have too many numbers or other considerations forcing you to do certain types of things. If so, then you have to do what makes sense for your situation. You do want to make it as close to game-like as possible, though.

If you want some ideas for games and drills you can include in your volleyball tryouts, have a look at these volleyball tryout drills. Also, definitely check out the guide I put together. It should give you some useful ideas.

 

volleyball tryouts guide

Thinking more broadly about feedback

Volleyball Coach

Alexis at Coaches Corner has a post where he talks about feedback. In it he says sometimes not providing feedback is the best choice. I certainly agree that coaches probably should not provide a constant stream of verbal feedback (see The more you talk, the less they train).

This is not a contradiction to what I said in It’s more about the feedback than the drill, however. Feedback is massively important in skill acquisition. It is a key component of deliberate practice.

But feedback is not just what we as coaches tell our players. We have to think MUCH more broadly than that.

There are two primary sources of feedback. One is outcomes. The other is external input. I’ll start with the latter.

External input

Feedback from some external source is what we tend to think of most often when we talk about feedback. It is an outside view of things the player doesn’t have for themselves and is thus provided by someone or something else. From this perspective, we usually think of what we say to our players to help them get better as our feedback. Certainly, that is an important type. There are other sources of external input, though.

Let’s think, for example, of who else provides verbal feedback to a player. Their teammates, right? The block didn’t get closed or wasn’t in the right position. The set was too low or the pass was too tight. Or, to flip things around, the set was perfect, or that was a great pass.

Sometimes players get a bit more technical with each other in terms of mechanics. That’s not always a great thing, but in the right situations is can be very valuable. Think player-to-player mentorship as an example of that.

Another source of external input is video. When players watch themselves they can see what things look like from outside to match it up with their kinesthetic sense. Basically, video is a kind of substitute for a coach’s verbal feedback. It isn’t exactly the same, but it goes in the same direction. Players just need some guidance for its proper use.

Outcome based feedback

Every time a player performs a skill there is an outcome. The pass went where they wanted or didn’t. Their serve went to their target or not. The attack was a kill, or it was a blocked ball, an error, or a dig. I think you probably get the idea.

We coaches cannot possible comment on every time each one of our players touches the ball. That means this outcome source of feedback is far bigger than anything we can provide ourselves. And yet, it probably doesn’t get the focus it requires.

This is a tricky part of the feedback system. One the one hand, it’s outcomes we are after. The player needs to know whether they accomplished what they intended. The challenging part is when the desired outcome happens despite the player making a bad choice or executing the skill poorly. In other words, they were lucky rather than good.

More experienced players generally know when they’ve done something correctly. They know when they got lucky. Outcome-based feedback is more problematic for those with less experience. They don’t know yet if they are doing things correctly. Even with experienced players you sometimes have to look at the decision-making element separate from the outcome so they can think in terms of whether there was a better choice. This means we have to consider outcome feedback when looking at our practice activities.

Using the different sources of feedback

So the bottom line is that you have multiple forms of feedback to consider how you do things. How you combine them should have a lot to do with the level of your players. In the case of inexperienced ones, you probably want to rely much less (if at all) on outcomes. Instead, you should focus on the external feedback – coach talk and video – related to the particular thing you are aiming to develop. The concentration is on the process rather than the outcome.

As players become more experienced – at least in terms of their training focus for that particular exercise – you can shift more to an outcome type of feedback, with less of the external sort. Here your external feedback likely shifts away from technical elements to more decision-making.

And through it all players should be encouraged to view feedback in a non-judgement fashion (see The Inner Game of Tennis).

Coaching Log – July 7, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

Anyone who thinks college volleyball coaches have Summers off has no idea! This is a particularly intense off-season for me. I’m the lead on all the stuff for the Argentina trip. On top of that, the head coach has mostly been out of pocket the last few weeks. First she was off getting married. Then last week she was running our camps. Now she is away for her honeymoon.

Let’s just say it’s been an intense period.

Here’s what’s been going on.

Recruiting

Not a lot going on here in terms of active recruiting. We are, of course, getting a steady stream of prospect emails to evaluate. We’re just not doing anything off-campus at this stage. We have offers out to four 2018 prospects. One was recently accepted, so the Class of 2022 is already starting to form! Hopefully, we’ll get more commitments in the weeks ahead.

Freshman stuff

There’s always a bunch of stuff for incoming freshmen – and transfers – to do. They have to make sure everything is submitted to the NCAA Eligibility Center. There is Orientation to attend and class registration to do. In our case, most of them will take Summer II classes as a jump start. Doing so gets them on campus early and allows them to work with our strength coach. That’s alongside the other players who are in the area over the Summer, helping them integrate.

Buenos Aires planning

This has been a huge source of stress and sleepless nights!

The biggest issue is that we’ve had to rapidly accelerate our fundraising efforts because of organizational bureaucratic requirements. We thought we had some time, but in order to get the official travel authorization we have to show sufficient funds in our account. That’s meant a scramble to get that lined up in a matter of days rather than weeks. It will happen, but not without some contortions.

We’ve also been trying to work through a contract thing with Boca Juniors, who will host us for our practice sessions. They sent us a contract to sign, which I did. The university, however, needs Boca to sign an addendum. Unfortunately, the people at the club with the authority to sign that addendum are not present, and won’t be until July 16th. Reaching the point of understanding the delay on their end was crazy. Our contact planning things for us is currently on vacation in Europe, so he’s been long-distance middle man. It took having a Spanish speaker here talk to someone at Boca to finally understand what is holding things up.

Of course the organization of things in Buenos Aires isn’t all that is going on. Travel preparations are underway. That means things like passports and immunizations and getting the ticketing done. Plenty of details to finalize on our end as well.

Speaking Event

I mentioned in my last entry that we arranged for 5-time Olympian Danielle Scott to come speak on campus. Here is the graphic we had developed.

That was meant to be a major part of our fundraising efforts, but now it’s looking less important from that perspective. Not that we don’t plan on raising money from it. We definitely do. It’s just that the accelerated fundraising need I mentioned before takes some of that pressure of this event. We can now angle it to be at least as much about community engagement.

As you can see, it’s only a few weeks until the event. That means on top of all the stuff for the Buenos Aires trip, I have organization of this to do as well. We’re doing the event in our coliseum, so I’ve had to arrange for that to be set up. We need food, which means catering. Of course we need bodies to fill all the seats. We’re aiming for 300+, so this is no small production.

Other stuff

We found out as we started our camp that the lines for the courts in our main gym were re-done a little off. The main central court is fine, but we have a 2-court configuration we use for practice and when we’re running tournaments. The court ended up about 2 inches too wide. The folks who redid the floor seem to have used the marker as the inside edge of the sideline rather than the outside edge. Ooops!

I’m not sure if that can be repaired straight away or if we’re just going to have to use tape until it can get fixed later.

Staff conversations before the season

Someone on Facebook asked the following two questions in a volleyball coaching group.

Head coaches: things you wish you discussed with your assistants prior to the season starting?

Assistant coaches: things you wish your head coach talked about prior to the season starting?

Obviously, these are after-season questions. They introduce, though, the subject of staff conversations before the season starts. What should we talk about in our coaching meetings?

Yes, you should have at least one meeting before you get started!

I think broadly speaking there are a few key conversation topics. How far do you think the team can reasonably go this season? Given that, what are our initial priorities to get us there? What is the staff’s division of responsibilities?

The main focus here is to get everyone on the same page. For sure as things develop through the season priorities will shift. At least at the initial stage everyone, though, the staff will all know the plan. After that, you can turn to details.

And these kinds of discussions should not just happen between the coaches. At a minimum, the head coach needs to also talk to their boss – athletic director, club president, etc. You probably also want to bring team leaders in on the conversations as well. Perhaps the whole team.

Too many setters! What do I do?

A high school coach emailed me with a roster issue.

My question is how to handle a situation where I have three setters who all played on varsity last year returning. To start the season last year we had planned on using our number one setter (upcoming junior) to run a 5-1, she got injured and missed all but the final two matches. Our number 2 and 3 setters (upcoming sophomore and freshman) had to be moved up to varsity and play the entire season there.

This season our number 1 is healthy and is currently much stronger than the other two. We plan on running a 5-1 at this point. My question is what to do or how to handle the other two possibly moving down to play on JV this year as they would likely (if there is no injury) never see playing time in any meaningful matches. Neither are truly varsity level players yet and cannot play another position. Any suggestions on how to make this as easy as possible?

To my mind, this coach answered their own question at the end. They said neither of the two setters is really varsity level. That means they should play junior varsity. Pretty simple from a roster decision, really.

The difficult part of this situation is how to handle it with the two players in question. They were varsity starters last year. No doubt being JV this year will be a blow to their egos. Generally speaking, I feel being honest and straightforward is best. Right now they are well behind the #1 setter. The team runs a 5-1, so they probably won’t play much, if at all. Putting them on the JV team will let them play regularly. This will be better for their development. You have to make them think longer-term to get past the immediate disappointment.

That said, there is the question of having a second (and maybe third) varsity setter for practice. If you need someone to fill that role, then one or both of these setters will have to train with the varsity.

Beyond having enough players in the position to run drills and scrimmage, there are a couple other considerations. Should the #1 setter get hurt again, you’ll need a back-up. Preferably, that is someone who is already familiar to the team. At the same time, though, the setters need to practice with the JV team. They will, after all, play with them in matches. You can’t just throw them in to run the offense without practicing with the team.

Do you train those two setters with varsity and with JV? Do you rotate the two setters such that one of them practices with varsity and one with JV?

These are questions in need of answers before you address the players.

Book Review: Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy, by James Kerr, is a book that often comes up when discussing coaching book recommendations. I want to stress up front that this in not a coaching book. Amazon at this writing has it listed in Sports Psychology, but that doesn’t fit either, to my mind. I think the book description does a pretty good job of saying what it’s really about.

In Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr goes deep into the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, the legendary All Blacks of New Zealand, to reveal 15 powerful and practical lessons for leadership and business.

Focus on that last part about lessons for leadership and business. That is most definitely what the author provides.

As for the rest of it, I have my issues. The description makes it sound like the story of the All Blacks is the core material. In particular, the team’s transformation after a period of uncharacteristic under-performance is meant to be the main focus. While that story provides a framework, that’s about all. You can perhaps work out the time line of that transition, but it’s presented piecemeal. One of my problems with the book was that at points I didn’t know where the author was in the All Blacks history when he shared certain stories. It was rather annoying.

Also, the All Blacks are not the only references the author makes. He includes ideas from the likes of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh as well, in terms of sports. There are a number of non-sports references too.

Obviously, I have no problem with references to all-time great coaches. Sometimes the language of the text is a little too stereotypical of leadership books, and there is too much repetition of certain elements for my taste. Overall, though, the “lessons”, concepts, and explanations are quite worthwhile.

Overall, I’d say this is a book worth reading if you go into it with the right set of expectations.

Picking your libero

A coach thinking about team selection asked the following question about deciding which player should be the libero.

How do you decipher who would be your libero and who would be the defensive specialist?

Serve receive

First and foremost, you need to rate and rank your libero candidates by serve reception ability. I don’t mean you have to prioritize that, necessarily. You do, however, have to know how they all stack up. Reception, after all, is a big part of the libero’s job.

By the way, it’s best to rate players based on game passes. The scores you get from passes made in a scrimmage are a better indication of match performance than scores from a passing drill. A lot of elements contribute to this.

Now for the defensive considerations.

As a starting point, you may want to consider how you want to play defense. Do you play your libero in Position 5 or Position 6? If you know where you’ll place your libero, the decision process if fairly straightforward. You are looking for the best person to play that spot. It’s that simple.

Broadly speaking, you want someone mobile with good reading skills to play in Position 6. They tend to have more side-to-side responsibility and may have to chase balls down off the back of the court. In Position 5 you’re usually looking for someone quick and aggressive moving into the court. They have responsibility for setter dumps and tips, and when they do defend hit balls their area of responsibility is usually more narrow.

The above is how things usually go for a standard perimeter defense. Your system might vary from that, though, so think about each position’s requirements.

If you are more flexible with how you use your players, then the thinking is a bit different. Here you want to find the best available player, and then put them in the position that works best.

What’s your priority?

You’ve rated and ranked your libero prospects by their passing skills. You’ve also looked at who plays best in your defensive system, or ranked your players on their defense. Now you need to combine the two factors.

If your best defender is also your best passer, life it good. Easy decision. On to the next one!

If, however, you have a different top passer than top defender, you have a decision to make. Do you prioritize passing or defense higher? This should probably be based on which side of the game you think your libero will have the biggest impact. How you use them likely will factor into your evaluation here. Also, the abilities of the other players around them factor in here.

Think of the decision like this. Are you more comfortable with your libero being strong in serve reception, but weaker in defense? Or are you more comfortable if your libero is a strong defender, but not so strong in passing? And at what point does the weakness in the secondary skill become too big?

My own thinking

Personally, I will probably favor serve receive over defense when making a libero choice. I say that because it’s usually harder to hide a poor passer than a poor defender. Getting stuck in a rotation because your libero can’t pass the ball is worse than missing a few digs.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m only going to decide based on passing. If Player A has an average pass rating of 2.20 and Player B has a rating of 2.10, but is a much better defender, I’ll probably go with Player B. The small difference in passing quality is outweighed by the large difference in defensive capacity.

Don’t forget personality

Keep in mind the libero is going to be on the court most of the time. You want them to have the type of personality that contributes to and/or supports the mentality you expect from your team overall. You might have a player who doesn’t come in tops in passing or defense, but who makes the team better on the court. If that’s the case, you probably need to make them the libero. Don’t leave this part out of your decision-making.

How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

volleyball serve

A reader asked the question, “How can we teach the over arm serve for beginners?”

I see a lot of difference in how coaches coach serving. Here’s a video that I think gets the basic elements in place, though.

Getting it all pointed in the right direction

Broadly speaking, the main thing I’m trying to get a beginning server to do is to have everything move in the same direction. By that I mean I want to see their body and their arm swing all pointed the same way. Preferably, that’s at their target. This is how to generate optimal power and accuracy.

The first part of having everything going in one direction is the step. The step is what generates weight transfer, which is the first phase of power generation. I’m sure you can see how you want the server’s weight moving in the direction of their intended serve to generate the strongest possible serve.

The second part of having everything in the same direction is the toss. In order to make contact, the server’s hand must go to the ball. If the ball is tossed to the left of the hitter’s shoulder it will tend to go left, and if it’s tossed to the right the serve will tend to go right. Neither of these is an optimal situation for either power or accuracy. Instead, we want to toss directly in front of the hitting shoulder.

If you can get the new server doing these two things, you will have gone a long way toward making them a consistent server. A good way to work on this is to stand directly behind them and provide feedback. Even better is to let them see themselves on video from that angle. That will really help to highlight things.

Coaching the toss

The vast majority of serving errors have poor tosses as their root cause. It takes a lot of practice to get this part to be consistent. I personally teach the toss as a “place”, which I picked up from someone along the way.

The idea of the “place” is that you really don’t want players tossing the ball very high. The higher they put the ball up in the air, the greater the chance for error. Instead, I teach the player to hold the ball out in front of their hitting shoulder, at about shoulder height. They then lift the ball a short way into the air – just high enough for them to swing their arm and contact at good reach – at the same time they take their step.

So basically you have a step-toss joint movement. This is instead of what many new players do, which is to toss, then step. You can see the step-toss demonstrated by the girls in the video above.

Coaching ball contact

When it comes to ball contact, you must ensure new servers keep their wrist and hand firm through ball contact. If they allow the wrist to get floppy and/or the hand to be soft, the result is usually a ball served into the net.

The other thing to make sure they do is to hit through the ball for the sake of power. I do not coach players to “pop” the ball. That’s when they pull their hand back immediately on ball contact. The theory is that it helps to create better float. First, for beginners I’m not worried about whether the ball spins or not. There are other priorities. Second, the ball has already left contact with your hand by the time you start to retract it, so popping really doesn’t accomplish anything. Finally, popping puts unnecessary strain on the shoulder. Just let the player follow-through on their serves naturally.

Generating power

Even if they get all the other stuff right (step, toss, hand contact), some players still struggle to generate enough power to get the ball over the net. This is especially true of younger girls. In my experience, this is mostly a function of swinging too slowly at the ball.

The power of the serve is a direct function of the speed of the hand at the time of contact. To serve harder the hand must move faster. Increasing arm (hand) speed in serving is very much like doing it in hitting. You have to look at the power being generated through torso turn and how that is extended up through the shoulder. Mechanical issues there will have to be addressed (see Teach them how to throw).

In many cases, though, it’s not a mechanical issue that is the problem. It’s a mental one. The player just doesn’t understand the need for a fast arm swing, or potentially how to generate it. One way I’ve found to get them moving in the right direction is by having them work with a towel against a wall.

Tie a knot in the end of a bath towel. Have the player hold the other end in their hitting hand. Have them face the wall, then do their arm swing. They should make the knot in the towel snap against the wall with as much speed as they can. Make sure their mechanics are right. You want them generating a whip through their arm, not trying to power with the shoulder.

A few reps of these towel swings should be enough to set the idea in the player’s head. Then get them back to hitting the ball. I’ve seen little girls unable to even get the ball to the net have no problem serving over after a little bit of time with the towel.

Multiple steps

I personally am not a fan of servers taking multiple steps in a kind of walking approach. It just tends to introduce more room for error. That said, though, I’ve had a few players who served that way pretty effectively. If a player needs a little extra power and can control their toss, then so be it.

Final thoughts

The stuff I’ve outlined above is mainly what I think about and look at when working with new servers. I like to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated you get, the more likely you are to introduce error into the process. Aside from the mechanical stuff, I encourage servers to reset themselves after each serve as part of the pre-serve process. There’s no rush. Relax. Take a breath. Then serve. If you can get them to just focus on these basic things I think you’ll be pretty successful coaching your new servers.

 

Are we trying to solve the wrong problems?

A member of the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook group posted something I think is worth a broad share. Here’s the snippet that really hits on the main point.

“…how far back do we coaches look for the fundamental and underlying errors in our coaching philosophies that make it difficult to find effective solutions? Are we, in fact, trying to solve the wrong problems.”

The volleyball angle

There are a couple of different angles on this. One of them relates to how we work with our teams and players. Are we trying to fix the last contact? Or are we trying to look at why there was a problem with the last contact?

For example, our libero in Position 5 shanks a ball attacked in their direction. Are we trying to fix what we perceive as the reason the libero shanked the ball (usually something mechanical)? Or are we looking to our block and realizing that it was badly placed or formed? Maybe we’re going back even further to see that our blocker’s footwork and/or initial positioning weren’t right.

You see where I’m going with this?

I’ve often told the story of my own development as a newer coach. I can remember an almost physical sensation of feeling my awareness of the court and the play expand. Like so many, I’d been fixated on each individual element. I wasn’t seeing the whole. As a result, I didn’t see root causality for the errors made on the last contact. At some point, though, my vision expanded.

I’m not saying that all at once I went from just seeing individual contacts to seeing the whole volleyball ballet. It was a progressive thing as I gained better understanding of how elements linked together. Watching a lot of volleyball with a critical eye helped a great deal too. I believe that was all part of my shift away from being very technically oriented as a coach to putting more emphasis on the mentality and structure of play.

The coaching angle

Let’s return to the piece that started this whole discussion. The bigger picture of our coaching is the other angle to consider. That’s the more direct focus of the quote above.

We see something “wrong” with our team or our coaching. Naturally, we want to fix it. As with the issue of only seeing the final outcome, though, are we only seeing the end result rather than the whole chain of causality getting there?

To once more quote the post, “If we were able to move back in the chain of events that have lead us to this point in our coaching and fix that one errant assumption, would coaching suddenly become much easier and more effective?”

So are you doing that? Do you try to work backwards from where you are at with a series of “Why?” or “How?” questions to figure out how you reached your current point? If not, it’s definitely something worth considering.