Drill: 7-in-7 Hitting

Synopsis: This a good drill to get hitters focused on getting in good, consistent swings. It’s particularly useful to temper the aggression of some hitters (think male teams constantly hitting the top of the net rather than swinging high for deep shots), but also helps develop a “get it in” swing for those times when a hitting error should be avoided.

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

Requirements: At least half a court and one ball per player

Execution: The primary framework is a standard outside hitting line. The objective of the hitters is to reach 7 minutes of time elapsed before 7 hitting errors occur. If they fail they have to start over.


  • Balls hitting the top of the net can be counted as errors.
  • In case where a team is struggling to complete the drill, to avoid it going on forever you can put a fixed time limit (or number of attempts) and have punishment for failure to get done.
  • The hitting can be done from locations other than OH if you want to work on different types of attacks.
  • Rather than players tossing to the setter, balls can be initiated requiring them to pass or dig, then transition and attack. This will tend to slow things down, and lower the attack frequency, but will be more game-like and will force the players to deal with variability in the sets from a setter required to move around.
  • For advanced teams a target zone could be introduced.

Additional Comments:

  • Make sure the hitters are taking legitimate swings and not just hitting the equivalent of roll shots. The idea is to work on consistent swings, not giving away free balls.

Game: Newcomb

Synopsis: This is a great way to introduce the basics of volleyball play to new players and can be very useful in working with teams on positioning and movement.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for beginners and lower to intermediate level teams.

Requirements: Court, two teams of players. This game does not require a proper net, just a rope or something else strung at an appropriate height.

Execution: This is volleyball played with throwing and catching. There are (or have been) some rules specific to the official game of Newcomb, but the primary ones are balls must be caught (not hit, blocked, patted, etc.), no steps are permitted by the ball-holder, there is a 3-second holding limit, and throws must be made from the ground.


  • For more advanced groups things like throwing from in the air (alley-oop style) and blocking may be permitted.
  • For developing groups a mixture of Newcomb and proper volleyball contacts may be allowed.

Additional Comments:

  • The game can be used to work teams on movement and positioning for things like offensive and defensive transitions.
  • If played competitively, this game can also get players thinking about finding open areas on the court in advance of working on skills like setter dumps, tips, roll shots, etc.
  • Played at a sufficiently high level, this could be a good warm-up.

When the Serve Needs to Be In

In volleyball coaching circles the idea of a “Commandments of Serving” has long been around. Even back in the days of sideout scoring when it didn’t hurt quite so much to miss a serve there was a list of times to make sure to get the ball in. Here’s the list I’ve put together, arranged in no particular order.

Set point

It’s pretty obvious why you don’t want to miss a serve when it’s set point against you. No need to give the other team the win on a platter. If you have set point you want to make the other team fight it off, not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously, it’s different when your team is well up on points, but even still you’d like to avoid given the other team any hope of a comeback.

After a stoppage

There are four types of stoppage in volleyball:

  • Before sets start
  • Team Timeouts
  • Substitutions
  • Officials timeouts/delays

You don’t want to miss the first serve of a set for obvious reasons. No sense giving the other team the first point without a fight. Even more, you don’t want to blunt a team’s enthusiasm coming out of the break with an error right away.

In the case of timeouts and subs, this is especially about not letting the other team break your momentum. They are often both used to “ice” the server. You’d rather not make the other coach look good by missing then.

As to the officials timeouts, that’s mainly having to do with contested calls, scoring issues, and the like. The energy can flag during these breaks and the other team may be distracted (and/or angry that the call went against them). Missing the serve lets them off the hook.

Consecutive Misses

The following types of missed serves are the ones that give coaches grey hair and high blood pressure:

  • When you missed your last serve
  • After your teammate missed a serve
  • When the other team just missed a serve

The first entry here has more to do with the individual than the team. A player who misses straight serves, especially if the first miss did not follow a string of service points, risks putting them in a negative head space, which could not just negatively impact future serves, but their overall play. Even if there was a string of points scored before the first miss, there are reasons not to want to see consecutive errors which I will get into below.

In terms of missing after the player before missed (teammate or opposition), this is about not giving the other team a chance to build momentum. If they miss a serve and then you miss one, not only don’t you punish them for doing so, you give the initiative right back. And if you miss after your teammate misses you kill any chance you might have to develop momentum and probably give it to the other team.

A really painful example of this came when I was coaching the EUVC Men in the 2013 BUCS Super 8s. We were playing Cambridge in the last match of pool play. We’d won the first set without too much strain and were ahead in the second. Then we missed a string of I think four serves in a row (maybe 4 out of 5). It was the turning point of the match. It let Cambridge catch us and we never got the momentum back, going on to lose that set and then the decider. Even worse, the team wasn’t able to recover from the reversal and played poorly in the crossover match which followed.

Emotional turning points

There are a few emotionally sensitive points in a match where one should avoid service errors:

  • After a long rally
  • Following a great play
  • When the other team has just scored a string of points

The first two are situations similar to when someone makes a great up on defense or chases a ball down off the court. The last thing you want to see in those cases is someone then putting the ball into the net. It wipes out all the good feelings the prior play generated. A missed serve after a hard-fought rally does the same thing.

In the case of when the other team has scored a string of points, the situation is a bit reversed. There is usually some sense of relief to breaking their serve (particularly if it was a long string). A missed serve at that point tends to create a “Here we go again” sort of feeling. At least try to give your team a chance to shake off the recent struggles.

Unfavorable match-ups

From a tactical perspective it makes sense to try to delay as long as possible situations where the other team can bring their strongest players to bear. You thus would want to avoid missed serves when:

  • The next server for the opposition is a strong one
  • The other team’s best front row player will rotate out of the back row

Obviously, if you’re playing a balanced team this sort of consideration won’t come to mind. However, if they have an absolute stud hitter, for example, you probably don’t want to accelerate their return to the front row by missing serves.

When you’re much better

In the instance where your team is the markedly better of the two, missed serves are hard to justify. You don’t need to be aggressive to win (see this post). The one excuse is that perhaps you want some players to work on their more challenging serves. Even still, you have to be cautious because several missed serves can suddenly make a match uncomfortable.

This happened with the Devon Ladies during the 2013 South West Championships. During the round-robin part of the event we were playing a team of lower quality, but one good enough to put up a fight. At one point four of our serves were missed in a row, allowing the other team to claw back into a potentially threatening position. As soon as we got back to making our serves we pulled away, but for a while we gave the other team some hope, which can be a dangerous thing.

It’s mainly about the momentum

You may have observed in my comments above that a lot of the reason for not missing serves at certain times comes down to grabbing or maintaining momentum. We all know how important momentum and psychology are in volleyball. It needs to be encouraged and cultivated in any way we can. Make this your focal point when looking at serving, and other parts of the game as well.

Now train it!

It’s not enough to think about when a serve needs to go in during matches. The mentality needs to be integrated into player’s minds during training. Make sure there are consequences during drills and games for missing serves at bad times. That will reduce (though I very much doubt totally eliminate) bad misses during matches and make your life on game day just a little less stressful.

Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?

This post will no doubt ruffle some feathers, but so be it! πŸ™‚

There is little I hate more as a volleyball coach than watching a team do a jog-and-stretch warm-up before practice or a match. I have to think there are only three potential reasons for teams to do that.

  1. The coach (or captain) is ignorant of the better options.
  2. The coach (or captain) is being lazy.
  3. The players are intransigent (perhaps due to ignorance).

All of these reasons (excuses?) can be addressed, and should be for the benefit of the team. When I agreed to take on coaching for Exeter University VC in 2012 one of my requirements was that jog-and-stretch be thrown out.

Why? Because jog-and-stretch is an utter waste of time. I mean that both figuratively and literally.

On the figurative side…

The research is decidedly mixed on whether static stretching (the sort we most often think of when referring to stretching) is of any value as a warm-up. According to WebMD, research actually shows that it may be harmful in some cases.

Regardless of whether static stretching has any value, it should be done when muscles are warm. Jogging a few laps around the court is not sufficient. This is why it is often suggested that stretching be done after, not before, exercise.

Taking it a step further, a warm up should replicate the activities to be performed during the exercise at a lower intensity level. You may make the case that since sprinting is part of volleyball, jogging is a good warm up to that. Fair enough, but what about jumping, lunging, shuffling, serving, spiking, and blocking? Not much jogging is going to do for them.

All of this is why dynamic warm-ups have become so popular. Here are a couple of examples.

The first is the Stanford University men during pre-match warm-ups.

This second features a set of exercises demonstrated by teenage players.

There many, many variations and types of dynamic warm-up exercises out there. Search YouTube and I’m sure you’ll find dozens.

On the literal side…

Jog-and-stretch misses an opportunity for the players to work on volleyball-specific movements and skills. The dynamic warm-up at least can have some volleyball type movements integrated. Even there, though, most aren’t great for getting the shoulders warmed up for serving and hitting, which is why you often see teams go from there into some kind of throwing the ball back and forth.

I also think that throwing of the ball back and forth, in most cases, is a waste of time.

Why do I say that? Because in my experience, especially with male players, it becomes more about how hard they can throw the ball or how high they can bounce it and less about actually warming up. And it takes way too long with an opportunity for skill development lost.

A simple progression from light ball-handling to easy pepper (partner pass-set-hit) to full-speed pepper will warm-up a player’s shoulders at least as well and offers the added benefit of having them working on volleyball skills at the same time (this is something supported by coaches in professional volleyball).

When I was a volleyball camp counselor we used to play games during the break periods. Because we had a limited window of time, we generally went almost straight into playing without much in the way of warm-up. For the first several minutes it was fairly cooperative with no aggressive hitting or serving. It was only after a while that we upped the intensity to a proper competitive level. We basically played ourselves warm. Much more enjoyable than jogging around and stretching. πŸ™‚

Do the sums

To re-task the Tesco motto, every little counts.

How many training sessions will your team have this year? How many matches? Add those two together figures together and multiply by 5 (or more). That’s how much more effective training time your players can get by dropping jog-and-stretch or some other non-ball related warm-up.

Let me use the Exeter teams I coached as an example. We trained twice a week for something like 20 weeks and had at least 20 matches. If we replaced non-ball warm-ups with those that include the ball in some form we get 300 additional minutes of ball-handling work (60 x 5) over the year, which is like adding 2-3 training session.

It’s OK not to do what the elite programs do

Now obviously playing your team warm isn’t something that suits all situations. Still, one needs to give a lot thought to priorities when planning warm-ups. If you’ve got a developing group of players you should probably forget about the fancy warm-ups used by upper level teams with elite level athletes. For them it’s about preparation for high-intensity competition. They are beyond the point where a few more setting or passing reps are going to make any difference. For you, though, every rep counts – especially when you only see them a few hours a week.

And keep in mind there’s a negative relationship between warm-up requirements and age. Kids don’t need to do all that stuff. Just get them on the court playing!

Book Review: Volleyball Systems & Strategies

Volleyball Systems and Strategies is a book put together by USA Volleyball. It’s based on the work done in its Coaching Accreditation Program (CAP) – the US version of Volleyball England’s coaching certification sequence. It is a very comprehensive look at the next level of volleyball above that of individual skill. That’s how a team plays as a unit. To that end I think it has the potential to be very useful for new and developing coaches. It’s also useful for anyone thinking about how they can maximize the performance of their team given the types of players they have.

There are six primary sections to the book.

  1. Serve, Transition, and Serve Receive looks at the types of serves (float, jump topspin, etc.) and team serve receive patterns.
  2. Defensive Systems describes ways a team can set up in terms of both floor defense positioning and blocking.
  3. Defensive Strategies looks at different ways the systems above may be employed based on the strengths and weaknesses of your team and/or your opponent.
  4. Offensive Systems focuses on different offense configurations, such as the 5-1 or 6-2.
  5. Offensive Strategies discusses ways to employ an offensive system to put your team’s attackers at the advantage.
  6. Systems, Strategies, and the Team concentrates on developing good training plans and handling the team before, during, and after matches.

Each section of the book comprises chapters focused on one aspect of the bigger subject. These chapters generally feature five elements.

  • An initial description of the system or strategy
  • Personnel requirements
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Options for implementation
  • Coaching points

The final chapter of each section (except the last) lists drills to work on the system or strategy covered. There are as many as 20 drills listed. That’s plenty to work with.

There’s a companion DVD with the book. It covers the primary topics listed above, excepting #6. It also shows some of the drills included. Call it about an hour in length.

There’s a lot of material inΒ Volleyball Systems and Strategies. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if the reader can grasp it all they will be well on their way to being able to find the right systems and strategies for any team they coach, regardless of competitive level.

2013-14 BUCS Men’s and Women’s Western League Teams

The BUCS website has been updated with the the teams for the upcoming season. The Western league is the one in which teams from the South West compete. Here are teams for Division 1.

Men’s Division 1
Bournemouth 1st
Exeter 1st

Men’s Division 2A
Bournemouth 2nd
Exeter 2nd
UC Falmouth
UWE Winchester

Men’s Division 2B
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 1st
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 2nd
UW Newport

Women’s Division 1
Exeter 1st

Women’s Division 2A
Gloucestershire 1st
Exeter 2nd
UC Falmouth

Women’s Division 2B
Gloucestershire 2nd
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 1st
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 2nd
UW Newport

Bournemouth won both the men’s and women’s Division 1 last season. Aberystwyth was relegated out of both men’s and women’s Division 1, with Gloucestershire moving up on the men’s side and Swansea earning promotion on the women’s side.

It’s worth noting that last year there was no Division 2B for either men or women. There were 8 women’s sides last year in Division 2A, so we’ve seen a net addition of 2 teams there – Southampton Solent out; Exeter 2nd, UW Newport, and UC Falmouth in. On the men’s side there were only 6 teams in Division 2A, so it’s a net pick up of four teams – Southampton Solent out; Bournemouth 2nd, Exeter 2nd, UC Falmouth, UW Newport, and UWE Winchester in.

Adding 6 teams in one year strikes me as a pretty good indication of the direction of volleyball in the South West. That’s nearly a 25% jump in the amount of playing opportunities on offer in the region for a group of young people ideally situated to become future coaches. And of course the growth also means more coaching opportunities for those of us already in the field.

By the way, don’t go by the fixture list BUCS has posted on the site. They feel the need to fill that in and basically make stuff up. The recent history of the Western league is to due tournament style competitions as much as possible.

Game: Touch & Go

Synopsis: This is a good warm-up game which gets players thinking, communicating, and working on ball-handling precision across a variety of skills.

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

Requirements: Full court, 6+ players.

Execution: This is a short-court game played inside the 3 meter line (anything beyond 3m being out), so split the squad accordingly. Serves must be executed from behind the 3 meter. Play is otherwise as normal, with one exception. After each contact, including the serve, the player touching the ball must run to the back of the court and then return. If a player fails to do so, then subsequently touches the ball again it is a point of the opposing team.


  • Space is a consideration, but ideally for higher level athletes you should make the point at which the players have to run far enough back to force them to sprint to get back in to play and not leave large areas of court exposed.
  • Play the game to a number of points which fits in with the amount of time you want to allocate.
  • Bonus points can be designated for skills/plays you want to encourage (tips, roll shots, quick attacks, etc.).

Additional Comments:

  • This is a good game to encourage communication as the players will fall into a habit of reminding each other to run. They will also quickly learn to talk about where they are on the court, especially after having just done a run.
  • Because they are playing short-court, this game really forces players to work on fine ball-control skill, particularly when serving and attacking.
  • The one thing you hope to see (though you may have to motivate the players to think about it) is players intentionally attacking weak points in the opposing team’s defense.
  • You may need to encourage more aggressive play from your better players so it is not just a progression of easy tips and free balls over the net.

Drill: Run & Serve

Synopsis: Run & Serve is a drill which works on serving after a rally, when tired, and under pressure – with a strong conditioning element.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill which can be used with all age groups and skill levels.

Requirements: A full court, two coaches/managers, and one ball per player

Execution: Have each player get a ball, then split up and position themselves half spread out across each end line. Each player should place their ball on the floor at the end line in front of them. On the coach’s signal (“Go!”, whistle, etc.) the player sprint all the way around the court and back to their ball. They then each serve their ball. The coaches (one on each side) will yell out whether a serve is good or not. If anyone misses their serve, reset the drill and go again. Repeat until all players get their serve in at the same time.


  • Adapt to your team’s level of play or developmental goals by setting specific targets such as Zone 1, below the top of the antennae, into the last 2 meters of the court, etc.
  • If you don’t have room to run around the court you can do on-court sprints
  • Other exercises such as push-ups, crunches, block jumps, etc. can be used in lieu of running.
  • You can mix up running and other activities if the team is struggling to complete the drill.
  • If the team is REALLY struggling and/or you are running out of time you can allow one side to finish by getting all their serves in, leaving the other side to carry on until they can do so as well.

Additional Comments:

  • If running around the court, alternate the direction (clockwise, counter-clockwise) so as to balance out the strain on ankles, etc.
  • If doing sprints to the net – such as a sequence like to the net and back, to the 3 meter and back, have one side to the sequence in reverse so both side are not running at the net at the same time to avoid and potential for contact injuries (turned ankles, etc.).
  • Make sure players aren’t rushing their serves. Part of the focus here is to get them to settle, go through their preparation, and execute as they would in a match.
  • This can be a very variable length drill, so make sure you account for that when putting it into your training plan.

Book Review: Aggressive Volleyball

Aggressive Volleyball is an excellent book. Full stop.

Even as an experienced coach there was plenty to get me thinking. For an inexperienced coach, or even for a player, there is loads of very useful material.

It’s probably worth noting that the “aggressive” part of the title might better be thought of as being proactive rather than what the term perhaps is normally taken to mean. It isn’t about things like hitting or serving the ball hard so much as playing volleyball with purpose, as opposed to playing in a reactive fashion. To that end, there is at least as much philosophy as there is technical and tactical discussion in the text. This makes for some dense sections of the book, but ones which give the reader plenty to think about.

After the conceptual introduction, the book is broken into seven sections:

  • Assessment
  • Offense
  • Defense
  • Out-of-System/Transition Play
  • Player Competitiveness
  • Communication
  • Match Coaching

There are collections of drills at the end of most sections (and some mentioned in the text as well), They are of the “Here’s how you can train the stuff I’ve just been talking about” variety. Where technical discussions are taking place there are also photos to provide visual support, and interspersed through the book are little stories from other coaches speaking to the importance of the particular subject being explored.

I honestly think this book has something for just about everyone. OK, maybe not if you’re Russ Rose or John Dunning, but for us mere mortal volleyball coaches Aggressive Volleyball is a great source of information and advice – maybe even inspiration – and reminds us of all the different facets there are to coaching volleyball successfully. It’s easy to forget them sometimes in the heat of a season. I can honestly see myself referring back to it again from time to time.

In short, get your hands on a copy, read it, and keep it handy.