Getting validation from an elite volleyball program

Back in 2013 I spent two days at the University of Southern California (USC) during preseason. Head coach Mick Haley was kind enough to let me hang out with him and his staff observing preseason two-a-days. In the first preseason poll that year, USC came in ranked #4. Preseason polls are always a bit iffy, but regardless, we’re still talking about one of the best teams in the country that year.

In other posts I shared some of the drills and whatnot I saw being used. There were some potentially very useful ones. You can find them here, here, here, here, and here.

For now, though, I want to talk a bit about the concept of validation. Many coaches see watching other coaches run training as an opportunity to pick up new drills or training methods. That certainly can be the case. What is probably even more important, though, is seeing that others – especially those with more experience – do things like you do and/or have a similar philosophy. That can provide a great deal of validation.

In my case this time around it came from watching the USC assistant coach, Tim Nollan, running setter training. It was a mechanical issue I won’t go into now, but I wrote about it here. Suffice it to say that Tim (obviously with Coach Haley’s backing) was encouraging something I have long made a focus with the setters I’ve trained. I is counter to the approach I’ve seen taken in a lot of gyms (if it’s even addressed at all), though. Having the opportunity to see the coaching staff of a top volleyball team train their players the same way I do goes a long way toward validating my own methods. It was both satisfying and encouraging.

Now, I should say you must be a bit cautious with this sort of validation. It’s very easy to just look for things that confirm your thinking and not pay attention to what challenges it. This is called confirmation bias. That is counter-productive.

So get out there and watch your peers, but with a fully open mind!

Drill: 3-Person Pepper (In-Line)

Synopsis: This is fairly simple multi-player pepper drill which can be used for warm-ups and general ball-handling practice. (Saw this one while watching the University of Rhode Island training)

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Three players, one ball

Execution: Begin with 2 players on one sideline and 1 player on the other. One of the two players hits the ball to the 1 player, who digs it. The hitter sets the dug ball back to the digger, then runs around behind them. The digger hits the set ball to the other player, and the cycle continues.

Variations:

  • More than 3 players can be used with little problem
  • Advanced players can be required to jump set and/or jump hit

Additional Comments:

  • Having the hitter wait and set the dug ball rather than run around behind the digger right away slows the movement down, which will help less skilled player keep from chasing all over the place.
  • One of the coaching points of this drill is for the digger to play the ball only part way back to the hitter rather than all the way as is normally done in pepper. This is a more realistic approach since the player does not want to dig a ball in match play all the way back to the hitter, but somewhat short of that for the sake running a transition attack.

Creating Game-Like Volleyball Drills

In her book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, Sally Kus shares how to make drills game-like. This is something which gets a lot of attention in coaching circles these days (see my post on random vs. blocked training). Here are those steps.

  1. Identify the skill.
  2. Go back one play.
  3. Start the drill there.
  4. Perform the skill.
  5. Perform the next in the sequence.

So, for example, if you want to work on OH attacks you could do something like this.

  1. A serve or free ball from the other side of the net is initiated to a player.
  2. That player then transitions and attacks a set ball.
  3. The player then moves to their defensive base at the net.
  4. The player executes a block (perhaps with some initial footwork).

The idea of using these more complex drills is for the player to execute the skill within the context of how they do it during a match situation. The player sees what they will see before the skill (ball coming across the net, coming from a teammate, etc.), executes the skill, then does something immediately afterwards.

Admittedly, these types of drills run slower than the simple ones (like hitting lines). Aside from training the players to play the ball as they do in real life, though, these drills allow you to train multiple skills. This is done either with one player or several of them. Clearly, when working with beginners you’ll use less complicated drills. Even with that group, though, there are plenty of ways to make things game-like by initiating the ball over the net, having them execute a follow-up skill, etc.

Maximize plus points, minimize minus ones

I once had a conversation with a former men’s club teammate who is now an NCAA Division I head coach. His name is Steve. We talked about what it takes to consistently win sets, and thus matches. It revolved around the idea of points scored vs. points given away.

Steve had done some off-season research reviewing a season’s worth of conference matches. He found that teams scoring 18-19 points of their own through kills, blocks, and aces frequently won. The rest of the points from there to 25 would come from opponent errors. That’s hits into the net or out of bounds, ball-handling errors, missed serves, etc.

Now, this was a very specific set of figures related to a certain level of play. These figures don’t apply to everyone. For example, at lower levels one would expect teams to commit more errors. That means it takes fewer positive points to win your average set. It is worth doing some research to figure out what the plus points/minus points ratio is like at your level for winning vs. losing teams.

The reason it’s worth having this kind of information is it lets you figure out what sorts of things you need to prioritize in your training and/or match preparation. If, for example, you aren’t getting enough plus points then you’re probably going to have to work on strengthening your offense somehow. That’s because kills are the biggest factor there. If scoring plus points isn’t an issue, then the focus might need to be on avoiding the minus points. That means reducing errors. You should also look at keeping the other team from generating plus points. This is done through better defense, or perhaps more aggressive serving.

These are the sorts of things which should go into the on-going assessment process for competitive teams. I always look at them for the teams I coach.

Game: Points for Passes

Synopsis: This game features 6-v-6 play, but with a major focus on serve receive passing, and by extension serving.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: two teams, full court, several balls

Execution: One team starts with 32 points, and the other with 0. The 32-point team severs every ball and scores a point on any rally win. The 0-point team also scores on any rally win, but also gets points based on the rating of each serve receive pass based on the 3-point scoring system (so a 3 pass earns them 3 points, a 2 pass earns them 2 points, etc.). The teams play to 40, meaning the 32-point team only needs to win 8 rallies. An ace counts as a rally win, but missed serves are washes. The receiving team rotates each time they win a rally. The serving team does a front-to-back switch on each of their rally wins, but ensuring that servers change up.

Variations:

  • You can change the starting point for the serving team to widen or narrow the gap the receiving team needs to overcome.
  • You can change the winning score up or down to require the serving team to win more or fewer rallies.
  • There can be negative consequences for multiple missed serves – especially in a row – from the same server.
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • I saw this game at University of Rhode Island training when I was there.
  • Of the six times I saw this played (three different sets of match-ups played with each side being the receiving team and serving team once), only once did the receiving team win. That came when they averaged a 2.0+ pass rating. Thus, good serve receive passing is a major focus point.
  • There’s a way to make this a 2-sided game (both teams serve rather than just one) outlined in the post Points for Passes Variation

Drill: 4-person Diagonal Pepper

Synopsis: This is a good warm-up drill which includes all ball-handling skills and lots of movement, plus encourages player communication. (Saw this one while watching the University of Rhode Island training)

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate and advanced players.

Requirements: Four players, half a court, 1 ball

Execution: Begin with 1 player in a corner of the court and 3 players in the opposite corner. The one player standing hits a ball to the group of three. The player who digs the ball immediately runs across to where the hitter is. One of the other two players sets the ball to the other of the duo, then runs to join the other two. Finally, the third player hits the ball at the three now in the opposite corner, starting the cycle again.

Variations:

  • In order to give the setter more time to get across the court, the hitter can take the set ball and do a self-set before hitting the ball to create a little delay.
  • Higher level players could be required to jump hit and/or jump set
  • This could be done for time or for some number of successful dig-set-hit executions (consecutive or otherwise).

Additional Comments:

  • The variability of who takes the first ball and the requirement of the other two players to have to decide which takes the second ball.
  • The defenders should also be encouraged to call for the ball when the hitter is getting ready to send the ball their way to provide an auditory target.

First day of the US volleyball adventure

As I mentioned a little while back, I’m in the US for the rest of August and the early part of September. That started at the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday, where the team is in the early part of their preseason. I think they got things going with 2-a-days on Friday. If you’ve read my bio, you may recall that I mentioned coaching at URI. That was back during 2000-01. The head coach from then is still running the program and one of my former men’s volleyball club teammates from my URI undergraduate days is the Associate Head Coach these days.

It was a really enjoyable day being at the old haunts, watching the team go through its two training sessions and getting to talk lots of volleyball stuff with my fellow coaches. I got plenty of ideas for drills and game scoring systems which I’ll share in future posts. I’ve got a couple more days hereabouts before heading off to L.A. for the next part of the adventure.

Game: Second Chance

Synopsis: This game variation allows players to work on their short-comings by repeating skills after making an error.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for beginner and intermediate players.

Requirements: two teams, full court, several balls

Execution: Think of this as a game which allows players a redo on their mistakes. Play proceeds as a standard scrimmage up to the point where a player makes an error. At that point the coach initiates a ball which requires that player to repeat the skill. If the do so successfully the play carries on. If not, they get another chance. This continues until the successful execution happens.

Variations:

  • The play can continue for a certain amount of time or a certain number of points.
  • If you use points you can have them count only on the initial play when the error was made, or on each play inclusive of the errors.
  • You can rotate or wave players through.

Additional Comments:

  • If you have the space, the players, and an available coach, you could sub a player out when they make a mistake and have them go off to another court (or area) where they are required to do X number of reps of the skill successfully before being allowed back in the game.
  • You may want to narrow the focus to specific types of errors, like hitting the ball into the net or out of bounds or not passing the ball to target – depending on your area of focus of that session.
  • If you don’t have some kind of play-ender (like a clean kill), this game will end up being continuous. That’s good for conditioning, but you’ll need to have plays end at some point to change things up and keep your front row players (especially) from becoming overtaxed.

Accidentally finding a useful new scoring system

Near the start of my second year in England I ran a small training session. It ended up being a trio of players from the Devon team that won South West Championships that year and a quartet of junior aged girls. The skill levels are obviously quite widely separated in a situation like that. As a result, there are limits to what you can do in terms of drills.

We did some fundamental work on ball-handing and serving and passing. Then I moved it to game play. I had the Devon players go against the four girls, playing on half a court to encourage rallies.

Obviously, we’re talking about teams which were quite imbalanced. In order to make things more competitive, I introduced a scoring twist. The young team used standard rally scoring, but the Devon team could only score on kills. Aside from keeping the game more competitive, there were some interesting side effects to using this system.

  1. Devon quickly started serving easily because they could only score if the ball came back over the net. That allowed them to run a transition attack.
  2. Devon started hitting the ball harder. They also attacked the ball from positions they perhaps would not have done so otherwise.
  3. The girls realized quickly that they needed to adapt their defense to deal with more aggressive play. That got them putting up a much more effective block to slow the Devon attack down.
  4. The girls were also freed up to play more aggressively than they otherwise would. After all, they couldn’t lose points for making errors.

The girls ended up winning 25-23. One of the Devon players and I were commenting afterward that the 23 kills they got in that game were more than many teams get in multiple games (even matches at certain levels).

I didn’t have all the side effects in mind when I decided to do that split scoring game. I was just looking for a way to even things out a bit. As I watched the play, though, I could see what was developing and it definitely gave me ideas for how I could use it in other training session.

In particular, one of the issues we had with the Exeter University women’s team in the prior season was putting the ball away. We played very good defense. That let us compete with even the top teams, but we just didn’t get enough kills. I saw that using this kind of scoring system for scrimmage play in practice could be effective in working on more aggressive attacking since there are no consequences for making hitting errors.