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.

Parent decisions on volleyball coaches

An interesting SWVA post derives from a Sports Coach UK piece (no longer available). The subject was how parents decide about the coaches their volleykids play for, and by extension the clubs they join. The information comes from a parent survey. Unfortunately, they only asked a few people, or they got few replies. I don’t really think 11 responses is enough to draw good conclusions, but let’s go with it.

The article says parents use personal experience and word-of-mouth to judge coaches. This is seen as problematic in that it fails to take into account qualifications.

Now, I can understand why there would be concerns about parents not taking certifications and such into account. This is especially so when governing bodies certify coaches. I would make the following point, though. Having a qualification only means you went through the program to earn it, That may indicate a certain level of knowledge about the sport and about coaching. It doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a good coach, however.

I think it’s totally fair for parents to use word of mouth to learn about a prospective coach for their child. You’d do the same sort of thing for other services, so why not coaching?

The problem comes with parents who don’t know the sport. This is obviously a significant consideration for volleyball in the UK. It’s not a cultural institution. That’s not the only place, though. Even in the US there are lots of parents with little knowledge of the sport. As a result, most parents don’t know enough about the game to understand whether a given coach’s team is playing in a manner which indicates good coaching. This tends to mean choice of club and coach ends up driven by other considerations (cost, location, etc.).

Personally, as much as word-of-mouth can be a very good resource – assuming the data sources are reliable – I think probably the best thing for a parent to do is watch a coach in training as well as in a match situation. This will provide an indication of their temperament, teaching style, and other things not necessarily related to volleyball which parents can assess better than sport-specific stuff.

What are your thoughts?

Proposed FIVB rules changes ahead

There’s a lot of talk going around the volleyball community globally about the rules changes FIVB is looking at potentially institute in the future. Here’s one bit of analysis (and opinion) from The Art of Coaching Volleyball, and another from former US national team coach Hugh McCutcheon.. Volleywood has a post which tracks the recent changes regarding new rules for the current cycle, which includes the rule against taking serves overhead that was going to go in, but got postponed.

Here are some of what is being talked about by the powers that be:

  • Require servers to land behind the end line
  • Back row attackers must land behind the 3-meter or 10-foot line
  • Eliminate open-hand tip
  • Eliminate overhead serve receive serve
  • Penalties for a missed serve
  • Free substitution – any player can sub for any player at any time
  • Any contact with the center line is a violation
  • Any net touch by an athlete is a violation
  • Decrease the number of points per set

Personally, I’ve long been opposed to the rules changes allowing center line touch/penetration and net contact. Aside from it being a question of player safety, I also think body control is a key skill in volleyball and letting players swim in the net and such detracts from that.

The requirement that players land behind the end line on a jump serve probably wouldn’t have much impact (except in gyms where there isn’t all that much area behind the line to start with). Not allowing back row attackers to broad jump to hit things like BICs would be meaningful, though.

I’m not sure about dropping the open-hand tip. Sounds like it’s mainly intended to eliminate setter dumps with the idea being they are rally killers. I may be OK with it on that basis (though my immediate question is why not just play better defense?), but I’m mixed in terms of taking the tip away from hitters. Some suggest a roll shot can be used instead, which is fair enough, I suppose.

On the penalties for missed serves, I understand that they want to cut down on what is a pretty dull play and reduce the amount of time players just go back and bomb away. Missed serves are already penal, though, and not just in terms of giving the other team a point (see my post about when not to miss your serve).

In terms of free subs, you can see something moving in that direction in play in the US women’s collegiate game – which always seems to play just a bit differently than everyone else. There they use the libero (who can serve in one rotation) plus have 12-15 subs (it seems to change periodically). That obviously creates a lot of specialization opportunity. There is something to be said for having the best possible line-up on the court at all times for the highest level of play. I’d want to see exactly how this would be instituted, though. I personally would like to see the core rotational nature of the game being maintained.

And of course there’s the no overhead passes on serve receive rule which was to go in this year but his been pulled back for further review. I personally like cleaning up serve receive passing to get rid of the doubles, though completely ruling out the overhead pass seems unnecessarily restrictive. The hard bit will be having a whole generation of players who’ve come up playing with their hands suddenly having to change.

What about you? What are your thoughts?

The Smelly Sock lesson

Early in my career I attended the Coaches Accreditation Program Level II (CAP II) course run by USA Volleyball. The lead instructor was John Kessel, who has a big reputation in international volleyball circles. John used a teaching technique one session, and it sticks with me to this day. Turns out that was exactly the point.

It was a session on setting. We reached the point of talking about setter penetration from the back row. I don’t recall the motivation, but John talked about the importance of the setter getting to their target spot. That target is at the net. It isn’t five feet off the net, as opposed to what so many setters seem to think it is.

Before I tell you what happened next, I should preface it by saying this was winter. We were in a facility which was not exactly well heated and it was cold!

At a certain point, John stopped and removed one of his shoes. Then he pulled off his sock as well. Standing barefoot on that freezing floor, he tied his sock on the bottom of the net at the setter’s target zone. Then, he turned to the players demonstrating the back row penetration and said, “Go to the smelly sock.”

Making use of the pattern break

With this surprising move John did two things. First, he gave the players a very memorable cue they could reuse in the future, even when there was no sock tied to the net. Second, he showed us coaches the value of doing something out of the ordinary to fix a reference in the minds of our players.

Did I ever tie a sweaty sock to the net? Not so far. That lesson, though, stuck with me over the years and is a constant reminder that I should always work to find ways to connect with my players in unique and memorable ways.

How can you leave a lasting impression on your players and import a key lesson on them at the same time? You don’t necessarily need to remove bits of clothing. It doesn’t even have to be a visual thing. Really, it’s anything that breaks the normal pattern.

Find those pattern break and you have new ways to leave an impression. Leave an impression and you have made an impact.

Volleyball Stretches

In my post about not wasting valuable time in your volleyball warm-up I think I expressed pretty clearly my view on stretching before becoming active. To my mind, we should outlaw jog-and-stretch. I have seen players take crazy amounts of time to stretch before even picking up a ball. A player on my Exeter team one year came to the gym 30 minutes before training just to stretch.

As this article notes, there is no evidence that stretching has any benefit in terms of preventing injuries or improving performance. In fact, the WebMD article I cited in that earlier post suggests there could be some negative effects. This Men’s Health article notes the following.

Although it’s often prescribed as an injury-prevention measure, static stretching before a workout might be the worst of all strategies. Because it forces the target muscle to relax, it temporarily makes it weaker. As a result, a strength imbalance can occur between opposing muscle groups. For example, stretching your hamstrings causes them to become significantly weaker than your quadriceps. And that may make you more susceptible to muscle strains, pulls, and tears in the short term.

So basically, static stretching before training or matches isn’t just a waste of time which you could put to better use. There’s a chance it’s actually harmful!

But I am NOT saying stretching in general is useless.

All three of the articles mentioned do include suggestions that one stretch regularly to maintain range of motion, increase flexibility, etc. The Men’s Health article actually goes further. It says that one should stretch twice a day to work on generally flexibility. Just don’t do it right before exercise. Here’s the rub, though. You have to stretch twice a day or the gains you make won’t be retained.

So when should players do volleyball stretches?

Well, after training and/or match play is a good time to get one of those 2/day sessions in. The muscles are warm, which is when stretching should be done. As a coach it gives you the opportunity to monitor what they are doing. If needed, you can provide instruction and focus. Be aware, though, that the research indicates no real anti-soreness benefit to stretching after training according to this article. Soreness comes from overworking the muscles. A bit of stretching isn’t going to fix that.

But of course if you’re not doing two-a-day training with your team, the after practice volleyball stretches won’t cover the suggestion of getting them in twice/day. The players will have to be responsible for themselves getting it done.

I know. That’s a horrifying prospect for many of us. 🙂

What volleyball stretches should players do?

I think a better question might be, “On what areas should volleyball stretches be focused?” I think we can all come up with the main ones like shoulders, quads and calves – the major drivers of volleyball action. There are a couple of places which tend not to get enough attention, though:

  • Achilles tendons
  • Hip flexors
  • Hamstrings
  • Pectorals

The Achilles relates to jumping ability. The others, though, spend much of the time in a volleyball match in a flexed state and not often in an extended one.

For example, there is very little long-stride sprinting in volleyball. As a result, the hamstrings don’t get much extension – or exertion, for that matter. That means they can shorten up and be relatively weaker than the surrounding quads and calves. This imbalance can create issues. This is why not only is it good to stretch those muscles, but also to make sure they’re included in strength training.

In the case of the pectorals, they do get stretched a bit when serving and hitting. Otherwise, though, a player’s shoulders tend to be rolled a bit forward (think passing and blocking mechanics). This can result in a slouch, which is a muscle imbalance. Not only should the pecs be stretched, but players need to ensure the opposing back muscles are worked for balance. Or you can walk around poking your knuckle between players shoulder blades. A strength coach I knew did that to get them in proper posture. 🙂

So what I’m saying is make sure the muscles and whatnot opposing the primary ones are getting at least as much attention as the main ones. Think of things like the core muscles and how most players will do a lot of twist reps in one direction due to hitting and serving.

USA Volleyball posted a series of stretches used my the Men’s National Team you can use as a reference.

This goes for coaches too!

Keep in mind that as a coach you run the risk of creating imbalance situations as well because of the way you initiate balls. In any given training session you may actually do more torso twisting and shoulder work from hitting, serving and such than your players. One of the things I have done to try to counter that is to try to do lefty reps either hitting or throwing (I’m a righty) to work the twisting and such in the opposite direction for at least a bit of balance.

Use dynamic as well as static stretches

I mentioned in my other post (and provided some examples) how dynamic stretching has become popular in volleyball over the years. Static stretching is good for extending maximum range of motion, but dynamic stretching develops effective functional range of motion.

Book Review: Coaching Volleyball Successfully by Sally Kus

I feel an initial warning is in order here. If you are merely thinking about getting into coaching – especially at something like the high school level – you may not want to read Coaching Volleyball Successfully by Sally Kus. It could scare you right into not coaching, and nobody wants that! 🙂

Seriously, though, the author talks at good length about what makes for a good volleyball program (not just a good team). There are many facets to it. Thinking about it all as someone new to coaching can be a bit overwhelming.

If I remember correctly, Sally was one of the Cadre on the CAP II course I took. While I was at Brown, I also went against her on one occasion when she coached at the University of Buffalo. Her team won. Sally’s teams won a lot. The Sweet Home high school team she coached holds the record for most consecutive match wins with 292 (1978-1987).

Part I

The first section of the book is the Coaching Foundation. The two main focal points are coaching philosophy and communication. Coaching philosophy may be something assistant or apprentice volleyball coaches don’t need to worry too much about, as that will come down from the head coach. For anyone running a team themselves, however, it’s a major consideration. Since a large proportion of lower level coaches don’t have the benefit of starting as an assistant, that is likely to cover most readers. Not only does Kus talk about developing a philosophy, she shares some tips for implementing it as well.

The second focus is communication – in all its forms. We’re talking player-to-player, coach-to-player, coach-to-coach, coach-to-parents. Add in any other line of exchange you can think about – verbal, written, and otherwise. Kus leaves no doubt about how important it is for the health of your team, your program, and yourself to make sure there is good, positive communication with and among all parties involved. Player and team motivation is part of that equation.

Part II

The second section of the book is Coaching Plans. Again, we’re talking about a very comprehensive look at the planning aspect of being a successful head volleyball coach. A lot of it concentrates on developing effective training plans. No doubt that will interest most readers considerably. There are a number of drills, games, and warm-up ideas included here.

Part III

Part III tackles the instruction of individuals skills. This is quite detailed. It looks at player mechanics with lots of suggestions for ways to address common issues and bad habits. A number of drill ideas support this section.

After the skills section, in a natural progression, comes two sections dealing with systems, strategies, and tactics. These feature a comprehensive look at both offensive and defensive systems of play and how to development them, as well as a considerable discussion of how to manage teams in preparation for and during matches.

The book wraps up with a sixth section which goes over evaluations – both players and program. Kus, as with all the other parts of the book, is full of detail in terms of both what to evaluate and how you can do it.

Overall thoughts

As you may have realized by this point, this book is absolutely loaded. It’s not something you will breeze through in a few hours. That said, though, the writing is very direct and well paced. I seriously doubt you’ll find yourself bored anywhere along the way, as can sometimes be the case in coaching books.

The bottom line is Coaching Volleyball Successfully is a fantastic book. It does focus a great deal on high school volleyball, but there are a lot of references to collegiate, Juniors, and youth volleyball as well, and much of the material can be applied across the board. If I were offering suggestions as to what a new or developing coach should read, this one would be right on the top of that list.