Making Mentorship Part of the Process

In 2013 I attended a coaching conference run by Volleyball England. It wasn’t an educational event so much. It was more like as an opportunity to hear about where they were looking to take things. We also had the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas toward that end. For me the objective was to get a big picture view of what’s happening in the English volleyball community where coaching – and youth development, as it turns out – was concerned.

The overarching objective the V.E. folks told us they have is to create a world class volleyball coaching systems (their words, not mine). We were given handouts diagramming how coaches could progress through the various levels of certification. We talked about all that. Examples from other sports like cricket and rugby were provided. Then we broke up into little groups to generate discussion points for future consideration.

For me there was one glaring issue in the structure of volleyball coach developing in England. Namely the lack of mentorship. An educational structure is valuable, but there is nothing like learning at the side of an experienced individual. Outside of small pockets, that doesn’t seem to exist. Certainly I didn’t see much evidence of it in the South West.

Learning from those who’ve been there and done that

My own coaching career began as an assistant to the head coach of the girls’ team in my high school. Basically, I just helped out running a few drills in varsity team practices. That later extended, though, to helping out the team’s assistant coach with junior varsity training. After graduation I helped with the boys’ team as well.

Later, after a lengthy break during which I focused on playing and then my professional career, I became a part-time assistant coach at a 2-year Junior College. That was my first collegiate position. From there I moved on to assist on a full-time basis for a pair of Division I universities. I learned a massive amount from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I went through USA Volleyball‘s equivalent to VE’s coaching certification program (CAP). I also attended conferences and seminars, read coaching books, and watched videos by prominent collegiate coaches. Think of me as a big a sponge.

That’s not the same as seeing all those things (drills, systems, etc.) put into action by an experienced head coach, though. Even more so when you are involved in doing it yourself as an assistant coach. There’s a lot of nuance to running a team, especially when you add in an organizational structure on top of it.

And importantly, getting to work under multiple head coaches lets you see things from different perspectives. We all coach a bit differently and we all have different coaching situations. A female coach is likely to have a different approach to certain things than a male coach. Coaching for a major university is not the same as coaching for a small local school, which in turn is not the same as coaching a Juniors team.

Learning by coaching

Please be aware, though, that this is not me saying one must just be an assistant or apprentice coach. During my years coaching collegiately I was often also the head coach for a Juniors team. That allowed me to put what I was learning into practice and to start developing my own coaching style. At the same time I could bring that experience and perspective back to my work as an assistant.

And of course my own experience is not the only way one can develop as a coach. There are many examples of P.E. teachers who took on a high school team and became very good coaches with long careers teaching and coaching. Some of them eventually progress into the collegiate ranks and work their way up by demonstrating success.

There are also former players who moved into the coaching ranks at a lower level after their playing careers were over and started working up from there. I actually worked under two coaches who started their careers running high school teams, one of whom had previously been an All-Conference player in her own right.

There is no doubt, though, that it helps to head coach at a given level if you’ve spent some time assisting at that level. And having someone there along the way to help you navigate your way in developing your coaching knowledge and talent can only accelerate one’s development.

Putting it into practice here

All of what I said above was a major motivation for developing this website and its related social media outlets. I wanted to see a structure develop whereby coaches could learn from each other. Most especially I wanted to see a system unfold where mentoring of new coaches by experienced ones could take place.

Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo

Synopsis: Bingo-Bango-Bongo is a 6 vs. 6 transition oriented game which gets players focused on scoring points in a row using a little point/big point type of structure.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for intermediate to advanced players.

Requirements: Two teams of 6, two coaches/players, half a dozen balls.

Execution: Start with two teams of 6 on the court and one coach (or spare player) on the sideline on either side of the net with balls. One coach initiates a free ball across the net and the teams play through a rally. When that rally finishes, the other coach initiates a free ball in the opposite direction. The coaches then continue to alternate.

When a team wins a rally they get Bingo. If they win a second rally after that, it’s Bango. A third rally win in a row produces Bongo. At that point the team with Bongo serves for a point. If they win the service rally they get a point and the teams rotate. If not, the cycle begins again fresh with a free ball to the serving team.

Note, when one team wins a Bingo, the other team resets back to nothing.


  • In order to give middle blockers a break, you can flip the teams back to front rather than rotating when a big point is scored. I often do something like 1-4-2-5-3-6.
  • You can rotate/flip both sides on a big point, or just the winning side if you want to maximize time working on weaker rotations.
  • For lower skilled teams (or when you want to move things along more quickly) you can do Bingo-Bango and have Bongo be the big point. In other words, the serve for point would happen after just two rally wins in a row rather than three.
  • This could be done with smaller groups, like 4v4, in a smaller space.

Additional Comments:

  • The coaches should initiate balls as quickly as is safe to do so to keep the tempo high. This forces the players to maintain focus and adds a conditioning element.
  • Any players not involved in the game should be alert to keep balls out of the way so things can move quickly – and no one risks injury.
  • Since this is a free ball initiated game, it offers opportunity to wok on specific free ball plays for teams having advanced offenses.
  • Coach should make sure the team not receiving the free ball is quickly getting to defensive base as the ball is being initiated.
  • While playing the game with smaller groups like 4v4 would limit the ability to working on full-team free ball offense, there would still be the opportunity to work on elements of it. For example, the setter and middle hitter could work on first tempo balls.

Book Review: Volleyball Drills for Champions

Published in 1999, Volleyball Drills for Champions is a collection of chapters authored by some of the more prominent US collegiate coaches (current and past). Each author (or in two cases a pair of them) focuses on one particular subject area: Serving, Passing, Setting, Attacking, Blocking, Digging, and Drill Design.

Right at the beginning of the book is a handy guide listing all the drills included. The 2-page table includes the primary and secondary skill(s) covered by the drill. It also includes how many players it incorporates and how many balls it requires. This makes for a nice quick reference for a coach looking to develop a practice plan.

Each primary skill chapters averages 12 drills. The drill descriptions include a:

  • Purpose describing the intention of the drill
  • Procedure outlining the execution of the drill
  • Key Points to help both the coach and player focus on desired outcomes
  • Variations discussion to make the drill more or less challenging or focused
  • Equipment Needed section listing the requirements for running the drill.

At the beginning of each section is a couple of pages worth of preliminary material. This is where you find the variation from different contributors. Some of the sections are technical while others are more philosophical. One of the short-comings of this arrangement is that where things get technical there are no visuals.

There are a few dated references in some of the discussions. This is understandable. The book was published before the introduction of rally score in US collegiate volleyball for more than deciding games. None of these references, though, have any real impact on the content of the text.

The bottom line is this is a drill book intended to act as a reference source. You will no doubt be familiar with some or many of the drills. That doesn’t devalue the book, though. My experience is that coaches forget about drills not used in a while. It’s nice to have a refresher for those times when you need to change things up or are working with a different caliber of team or player.

Along the same lines, the intros to each of the drill sections are quite useful. They are brief (as is the last section on designing drills), but act as reminders of the key coaching points for each skill. Some even provide a bit to think about in terms of how you approach a given facet of the game with your team. For example, will your focus be on aggressive serving or minimizing errors?

Overall, I’d say Volleyball Drills for Champions is a pretty good reference to have on your bookshelf.

First Things First, Know Your Priorities

Everything you do as a volleyball coach starts with the priorities you have. Kind of hard to achieve goals you don’t know you have, after all, isn’t it?

Working from priorities is a top-down process. Unfortunately, many coaches take a bottom-up approach to their coaching – especially inexperienced coaches. Quite often newer coaches get caught up what I’ve heard described as the “drill collection” phase. They forget to think bigger picture. By that I mean a coach will learn a new drill and become excited to use it in training. They fail, however, to look at the context of that training to judge whether the drill is suitable at that time.

Every drill in every training session should have an objective. Every training session should have one or more objectives. There may be objectives for certain periods of time during a season. For example, pre-season objectives vs. early-season objectives, vs. late-season objectives. There certainly will be overall season objectives for the team. The club or school program of which the team is part will have objectives. The requirement is to start with the top level priorities and work down so it all lines up and every effort of yourself and your players is pulling in one direction.

This is not to say that each training session in a given period of time (like pre-season) should have the exact same objectives. It’s just that the objectives chosen for a given session should contribute toward the reaching of the next level of objectives.

For example, your pre-season objectives may be to develop fitness, get rid of the off-season rust, and create a cohesive team. You can focus on any one or more of those objectives in your pre-season training sessions.

I go deeper into developing a training session plan based on your defined objectives in other posts. For now, make sure that what you do in training lines up with the team’s higher level objectives. You will be a much more effective and productive coach just taking that step.

Drill: The Belly Drill

Synopsis: The Belly Drill is a game-play based volleyball drill which develops scrappy play and commitment to keeping the ball off the floor. It also challenges players to problem solve in the manner of “How can we get out of this drill?”

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

Requirements: A full court, enough players to be divided into 3 groups, and a supply of balls

Execution: Start by dividing your squad into teams of 3. Two teams start on the court, one on each side of the net, with the remainder waiting on the side. One of the teams starts the drill on their stomachs. Slap the ball, which is the signal for the team on the floor to get up. Then initiate the ball to that team and let the two teams play through a rally. Whichever team loses the rally goes to the floor while the winners are replaced by a waiting group.


  • Use different ways of initiating the ball to adapt to the level of your team and what you want to work on. For example, you can initiate balls very quickly after the slap and/or use hard driven balls or tips and tosses to open court areas to challenge a more advanced group while you can go slower and use underhand lobbed balls for a less advanced or younger group.
  • The standard set-up is to use 3 players on a full court, but that can be adjusted. Additional players can be added for lower level groups. Working with a smaller court is also an option, either for lower level teams or to increase the length of rallies (and thereby touches).
  • You can set contact rules such as each player much touch the ball once to encourage communication and anticipation, or only allowing two contacts to work on scramble play.
  • You can run the drill for a fixed amount of time, until you think the players are too tired to carry on, or until some goal is reached (X number of kills, for example).

Additional Comments:

  • The question often comes up “Why not have the winners stay on rather than the losers?” The replay is generally quite obvious once someone has gone through the drill, especially when one team gets stuck on the court and has to fight hard to win a rally to get out.
  • If you have sweaty players, have them go into the down position of a push-up rather than all the way down on their stomachs to avoid leaving slippery patches on the floor.
  • The players not on the court should be alert to stray balls, making sure they stay clear of players on the court.

The 4 Key Skills for Volleyball Coaches

Volleyball coaching is primary a mental exercise. That said, however, there are a few physical skills which are quite handy. That’s aside form being able to be on one’s feet for lengthy periods of time! In fact, if you are looking to be an assistant or apprentice coach, these are virtual must-have skills. After all, you are most likely to be an active participant in initiating drills. Likewise if you coach a team by yourself.


Quite a few volleyball drills and exercises are initiated with a toss. If you cannot accurately toss a ball then you will struggle to get the sort of consistency needed for your players to work on specific skills. If you’re in any doubt, watch what happens when your players do the tossing. Think of things like balls initiated to the setter for hitting warm-ups.You can toss either under-hand or over-hand (like a setting motion). Either is fine so long as you can consistently put the ball where you want it.

Underhand serve/hit

It may seem like an easy thing, but a consistent and accurate underhand ball takes a bit of practice. Anyone can pop a high loopy ball over the net and into the middle part of the court. What a coach needs to be able to do, however, is hit balls to all parts of the court. And they need to do so at different tempos.

Topspin Hitting

Training defense, be it team or individual, requires accurately initiating an attacked ball. It could be from on the ground on the same side of the court. It could be across the net by way of a down ball. Or it could be over the net from on top of a box or chair. This might be strictly a defense drill. Maybe it’s part of transition exercise (dig – transition – attack, for example). Regardless, you need to put the ball where you want. That could be straight at the player, high/low, to one side or the other, or in front. And it requires a pace appropriate for the level of the player(s) in question.


Much of the time it makes sense to have players initiate balls in a drill with serve receive included. Sometimes, though, it behooves the coach to take that on themselves. To do so effectively, the ball needs to go where you want it to go much more often than not. Now obviously a float serve isn’t always going to end up exactly where you aimed it, but it should be pretty close.

You also need to be able to vary the speed of the serves, and it helps to have enough of a repertoire at your disposal to replicate any kind of serve your opposition may throw at your team. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to rip a powerful jump serve yourself, but you should be able to come up with a way to simulate something close (hit topspin balls from a box midway into the court, for example).

If you don’t have them…

If you are a volleyball coach without these four skills you are going to be very limited in what you can do with your team. As a head coach you can perhaps get around any limitations you may have by bringing in an assistant coach to make up for the short-coming. If you’re aiming to be an assistant coach, however, you are in a disadvantaged position by lacking these abilities when it comes to finding work.

There’s no magic way to get good at any of these volleyball coaching skills. Just as with your players, it’s all about reps.

Be sure to take care of your body, though. You are just as prone to overuse injuries as the athletes, if not more so in some ways. Learn how to take the strain off your shoulder when hitting and serving, and make sure to work on your core so all the twisting from those activities doesn’t do in your back.

Graphic Help Wanted!

I need a couple of graphic elements designed for the website and related social media, if anyone out there has the skills and creativity.

Website Banner
The banner you currently see on the site is just a stock one which came with the blog theme. Obviously, I’d like something much more appropriate to the coaching volleyball concept. That banner is 940×150 pixels in size.

Twitter Photo and Header
Ideally this would match up with the website banner for the sake of consistent branding. The header has a recommended size of 1252×626 pixels, while the photo is only 73×73.

Facebook Cover and Photo
Same idea as with Twitter – something that will have brand consistency with the website banner. The photo is 160×160. The cover looks to be something like 840×310, keeping in mind that the photo overlaps part of the lower left area.

Business Card/Stationary Logo
It would be nice to be able to hand out business cards or other print materials (or PDF versions) featuring a logo for the site.

If you would like to give one or more of the above a go, let me know. You can leave a comment below or use the contact form.

Welcome to Coaching Volleyball!

The primary motivation of this website is to bring together volleyball coaches from England to their mutual benefit. The hope is that along with providing information these pages – and the associated Facebook group, Twitter account and YouTube channel – can become a virtual meeting place where the country’s volleyball coaches can collaborate and cooperate toward building a stronger base of coaching talent. That should, in turn, contribute to a stronger, richer volleyball community.

One could think of it as a kind of fraternity. The idea behind Coaching Volleyball is that it acts as a platform for the free sharing of information, ideas, opinions, and opportunities. And not just in the virtual world, but in the real world as well.

In an ideal world there would be a top level organization providing a strong platform for those interested or involved in coaching volleyball. We all know, however, that Volleyball England has limited resources, and what it does have to invest in things like academies. There’s also no big volleyball coaches group in England, like the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) in the States. The hope here is that this website can at least partly help to fill the gap for local coaches.

To help that along, the expectation is that this site will offer …

  • Programme/Club Administration and Development insights and ideas
  • Practice and Training Plan development recommendations and considerations
  • Drills & Games to use in training and practice sessions
  • Coaching Education resources and suggestions
  • Volleyball Career information and advice
  • Reviews of volleyball coaching related products, services, and other offerings

Look for articles and feature content to start filling in over the next few weeks. I will author a lot of content myself based on my own varied experience coaching volleyball at various levels and operating in numerous administrative capacities (my bio). I’m expecting, though, that others will contribute based on their own experiences. And of course discussion will be encouraged at all times.

Most important than the content, though, is the opportunity for volleyball coaches to come together in a collegial fashion to exchange information and ideas. Part of that will naturally be online through discussions, but it is hoped that there will be some live events as well – either online or off – to further the connectivity and collaboration. I’m hoping for that to include things like:

  • Webinars on topics of interest
  • Social Meetings to develop personal relationships
  • Instructional Sessions to share knowledge and experience
  • Training Cross-Collaboration to help each other out and gain added experience
  • Mentorships to help new coaches develop

To facilitate the fraternal sense mentioned above, and to keep the group small and close-knit (at least for a while) the site will be run on a membership model. In the mean time, while the site is being fleshed out and shaped, it will be open for general access.

Suggestions are more than welcome! Feel free to use the contact form to offer them or to ask any questions you might have.

Best Regards,

John Forman
Head Coach – Exeter University Volleyball Club BUCS teams
Coach – Devon Women’s Volleyball Club (NVL1)