Planning an exciting volleyball team trip

If you’ve read my volleyball coaching log entries for this year you’ll know one of the things I’ve been working on at Midwestern State University (MSU) is a volleyball team trip to Argentina. Specifically, we are planning to go to Buenos Aires in August.

This is a trip I thought about almost from the start of my time here. MSU Volleyball has never done a foreign trip. It’s a big thing to propose, particularly because of the cost. For that reason, I put forward the idea to use my contacts rather than to do a traditional “tour”.

Not the usual foreign tour

Actually, there were a couple of reasons not to go the normal route of working with a company. Expected cost savings was one of them. Importantly, though, we also did not want to follow the standard structure of many tours. Most tours involve a lot of traveling around – moving from city to city. Volleyball sometimes only seems to be a minor consideration. This is because you mainly hear about NCAA Division I teams going on tour, and that means doing it in the off-season. For example, they go during Spring Break.

At MSU we’re in Division II where the rules are a bit different. In Division I they are not allowed to do a foreign tour within I believe 30 days prior to the start of preseason. This is not the case in Division II. As a result, we can do our trip in August. The timing, though, has to fit in with Summer school because some of our players will take classes. The second Summer term ends August 10th, so we’ve planned to leave on the trip August 12th. That actually means doing the trip during part of our preseason, which officially starts on about August 15th.

Trip timing

It may sound a bit strange to do a foreign trip during preseason, but stay with me.

The NCAA rules allow a team 10 days of training prior to going on a foreign trip. That means we can actually start our preseason preparations on about August 1st. Seeing the method to our madness here?

With another team – say one with a lot of experienced players – this might not be something we’d want to do. In our case, however, we have a bunch of new players coming in to the team for the Fall – 5 freshmen and a transfer. Some of them are candidates to make the starting team. We are also in the process of building a strong team culture. The extra time together this trip creates gives us a chance to really integrate all these players, both into the program and into playing together.

This scheduling of our trip overlapping preseason mandates another consideration. I mentioned that most tours seem to do a lot of traveling. We don’t want that for our own trip. We basically want a training camp – trip where volleyball will feature heavily. Obviously, we want to do lots of cultural stuff as well, but practice and competition needs to take a lead role.

Why Buenos Aires

All of this leads to a decision to make a trip where we can stay in one place – not travel all the time. There is also the question of time zone changes as well as there being opportunities to play decent competition. Buenos Aires ticks all the boxes. While the travel length is similar as a trip to Europe, it’s only three time zones. It’s a big city, with plenty to do. There’s lots of volleyball, and they will not be in Summer holiday while we’re there like many European clubs would be in August. It will be winter there, which while not particularly cold will be a nice break from the Texas heat. Plus, I have contacts from there.

Getting it done

So at this point we’re in the planning phase. That means a couple of things.

First of all, we’ve already made arrangements for group travel. That process was basically the commitment to doing the trip as we needed to put down a 10% deposit. Travel, as you might expect, is a big part of the cost of the trip. It will probably turn out to be about 60% when all is said and done.

Second, thanks to one of my coaching connects we have someone on the ground in Buenos Aires working on the details for us. He’s heavily connected in the volleyball world down there, but he’s also helping to arrange transportation and a place to stay. I’ve been having exchanges with him about our needs and expectations, which aren’t too major.

Fund raising

Third, and probably most important, is the fund raising. We figured on a total cost of $65,000 for the trip, which is a big chunk of money. Our final costs will probably come in a bit under that because we budgeted for a slightly larger travel party than we expect to take. Still, the price tag will be substantial.

We already have some money raised. We hosted a bunch of high school matches in our facility at the start of last season, which brought in a decent amount of money. That is something we already plan to repeat – potentially even bigger. Unfortunately, that happens right before our trip, making budgeting a little trickier. We’re also running a series of clinics for young kids in May which will bring in another chunk of money, and there are some other things in the works.

The trouble is while these fund raising events do bring in money, the amounts won’t be anywhere near enough to cover the trip. We need donations, or potentially sponsorships for the bulk of the funding. We’ve set up a page on the university’s Development site (look for MSU Volleyball – Buenos Aires Trip in the list).

Not going with GoFundMe

We considered something like GoFundMe, but went this route for a couple of reasons. First, GoFundMe charges 5% plus the credit card processing fee. The university doesn’t charge us anything. Second, money donated through the Development website gets credited to our account directly without us having to do anything.

Third, and most meaningfully, there’s the potential for donation matching. We were told of a pot of money available to match contributions from people who are not prior donors. There isn’t a ton left, and it’s not just dedicated to us, but any amount we can get helps us move in the direction of our goal. Needless to say, as soon as our page was ready on the site we started encouraging donations to get that matching going in our favor.

Going after bigger fish

Alongside the individual donation side of things, we’re exploring bigger potential sources. This includes the likes of local businesses, and perhaps the university itself. We met with someone the other day who suggested we really pitch the trip from the perspective of spreading the university brand overseas. He saw that as a way to motivate some internal funding. I will also possibly meet with members of the local Lion’s club to talk about what we’re doing. Our Athletic Director indicated his willingness to set up a sponsorship arrangement with businesses who contribute to the trip, which could be useful.

Onward and upward!

Thoughts, suggestions, etc.?

If you have any recommendations for me, I’m happy to hear them. They could be to do with managing the trip, or about fund raising. If you have organized a trip, or managed a large fund raising campaign, your thoughts and experience are very welcome. Just leave a comment below or contact me directly.

Practice Planning Question – Single skill focus sessions

Volleyball Coach

A question came in from an avid listener of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. It was on the subject of practice planning. Here’s the initial inquiry:

I was wondering how you plan mesocycle and microcycles for youth volleyball with 2-3 practices per week?  Would there be any reason to go an entire practice without serving, for example?  I know it’s important not to train athletic abilities back to back but is it true for volleyball specific skills too?  I just think because we only practice 3 times a week there is enough rest between practices that I could work on every skill every practice if I wanted to.  The U17 coach I am assisting this season has “serve receive days” and “defense days” where almost every drill that practice will be centered on whatever skill we are working on that day.  I’m not sure which method is better.

I do agree that fatigue should not be a problem for players when only practicing 2-3 times a week. There might be outside circumstances which challenge that, but generally speaking players won’t have any issues performing all skills each session. I asked for a bit of clarification about what a typical week of practices looks like in terms of skill focus. Here’s the response.

For example on Sunday would be conditioning day where the players spend 30 minutes doing non volleyball specific conditioning – box jumps, squats, etc. and the rest of the practice would be gameplay. Tuesdays would be defense day where the players will play kajima and wash type drills where all drills are initiated from a free ball, no serves.  Thursdays would be serve receive day where players will spend more than half the practice either serving or serve receiving, never playing the rally out.

I think there are a couple things to address here.

Conditioning during practice time

First, if I only have three practice sessions a week, I use them for volleyball. I don’t use them for strength and conditioning work, especially if I’m time constrained. If I’m doing my job they will get plenty of conditioning in practice. If I want to do additional work (like jump training), I do it outside of practice time – preferably on an off-day, if possible. That lets me maximize the time I have on-court.

Also, you need to do more than one strength and conditioning session per week to have any real impact. One very likely isn’t enough.

That said, game play after strength and conditioning is not a bad idea. It’s harder to work on technical skills when already fatigued.

Single skill focus practices

As for the main thrust of the question, I definitely can think of better ways to structure the week’s training. Now, this is not to say you can’t have a single focus for a given practice. You certainly can. That is probably best achieved, however, by concentrating your attention and feedback on that focal point across a variety of activities rather than in just one narrow set.

Let’s use serve reception as an example. Any game or drill that starts with a serve is an opportunity to train passing. That can be something as simple as serving & passing triplets. It could be more of a team serve receive like 8-person serve & pass, or a servers vs. passers game. Moving up the complexity, it can be a team serve receive drill where the ball is dead after the receiving team attacks. And of course there are many games that start with a serve. In the 22 v 22 game one team receives every serve in a single rotation until someone wins.

The fact that every one of those exercise includes serve reception means you have opportunities in all of them to focus on that skill. Your concentration of feedback and coaching is what determines focus more than drill choice. Obviously, the drills must include the desired skill. Beyond that, though, everything is possible.

Structuring skill training over the week

I personally want to have serving and passing in every practice in some fashion. It might not be the focus of that practice, but at least the players are still practicing the skill. This is particularly important when you only have a couple practices each week. I would not want my players going 3-4 days without serving and passing if I can avoid it.

One other point I would make is this.

While serving is the one skill in volleyball that you can train quite well in block fashion because it is closed-chain (completely player initiated), too much of it in one block tends to have diminishing returns. First of all, it can get really boring. Second, fatigue becomes a factor, especially for jump servers. The result of both is a drop off in concentration and effectiveness as time goes on. Better to mix it in throughout when the players are more fresh and can produce higher quality reps. Plus, game-like serving situations are always better than rote serving in terms of preparation for match conditions.

Coaching Log – April 10, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Three of our five “non-traditional season” weeks done. Two more to go from here.

Recruiting

We had 2018 recruits on campus for both our Monday and Wednesday practices. They were all hitters, which is nice since we have so few in the squad at the moment. No recruiting trips this week, but of course we continued to receive plenty of prospect emails.

In terms of 2017, we still want to add one more attacking player – an older MB or OPP. As it turns out, we may have found one in our own backyard. We’ve had some positive conversations and hope to get a commitment shortly.

Team Training

Monday and Wednesday were once more team indoor training sessions. Both followed a similar pattern to the ones I outlined in my last couple of updates. By that I mean some ball-handling, serving, and passing in the first phase, but then lots of game play after that. The primary focus remains on the defensive side of the game, as well as developing player communication and problem-solving. I once again rain Wednesday’s session.

Tuesday and Thursday continued our beach training. As in prior weeks, Tuesday’s training was in small groups and heavily focused on ball-handling, while Thursday was all doubles play.

We replaced Friday practice with a video session from last week’s tournament. First and foremost, we wanted to let the team see themselves in action. It gave us a chance to reinforce things we have been working on all Spring. Second, it gave some heavy legs a break.

Other Stuff

As always, there’s plenty of other stuff going on. We continue to work on the planning and fund raising for our prospective Argentina trip. The end of the school year is rapidly approaching, which means events like the annual sports banquet. We had to submit award nominees for that. There was some tedious online training we all had to do. The assistant coaches had their monthly meeting with the Athletic Director and the other senior administrators.

Volleyball England making a turn

When I coached in England I wrote an article about the competition/participation conflict. I wrote a follow-up when I got a reply to it from someone at Volleyball England. I also talked about it with U.K. coach Jefferson Williams, whose interview is one of those in the first Volleyball Coaching Wizards book. The focus of those pieces is on the challenge of developing competitive teams, clubs, and structures when increasing participation is also a priority – sometimes is the bigger priority.

At that time, Volleyball England was very focused on growing participation. It was part of the mandate of their funding from higher up. That apparently has changed.

A new focus has developed at V.E. They describe it as “core market”. A recent letter from the newly appointed Core Market Officer clarifies what that means:

For me, the simple answer is that the core market is made up of anyone involved in organised, competitive volleyball. These people could be players, officials, coaches or volunteers. They might be operating in a formal club environment but could just as easily sit outside a club structure – in a school or a youth organisation for example.

They could be participating within an officially sanctioned VE environment or even outside (more of that later). And they will represent the whole range of playing standards from novice to elite and from junior to senior.

What the core market will not include are those people who may only be playing occasional recreational volleyball; people over whom we have negligible influence.

That last part is the big shift. For years V.E. encouraged efforts to get more people into the sport, even if that was just on an “occasional recreational” basis. Clearly, that is no longer the case. The concentration now is on the competitive side of things.

I, for one, agree with this move. It’s the competitive side of the sport that in the long run drives participation. V.E. needs to raise the profile of volleyball in that country. The more visible it is, the more interest there will be in playing the game. The greatest visibility is always on the competitive side. People see the game played and become interested in playing. That’s how a sport grows.

Now to actually get that going. Have a look at the article to see how the plan to do that.

Coaching Log – April 3, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Spring Break has come and gone. We’re now into the “non-traditional season” where we are back to 20 hours per week.

Recruiting

I mentioned in my last update that we are looking to bring in one more transfer player for next season in MB/OPP role. That remains an on-going process, but we may have found someone for the position. Hopefully, more will follow on that shortly.

Looking at the 2018 class, we had another setter in to practice with the team on Friday. With only three more weeks left in our Spring season, we are trying to get in as many good prospects (in all positions) as we can so we can see then in the context of our team.

Team Training

We did not practice on Monday because of the 2-days-off rule given that we were playing on Saturday. Tuesday and Thursday we continued with the sand training – smaller groups doing drills one day, then doubles competition the other. Friday we had a recruit in practice with us, so we dedicated much of the session to working through line-ups and rotations ahead of the next day’s competition.

Wednesday I actually ran the session. The head coach is due to have her baby in the next week or so, and wanted to use the lack of having a recruit working in with us to get the team used to me directing things for when it’s likely to happen later.

My practice plan

I developed the primary structure of the practice plan for that session as well. The focus was to continue the work we’re doing in the beach training in terms of defensive tenacity, reading, and ball-handling.

We started with 3-person over-the-net pepper as a ball-control warm-up. In this version each group has to get 7 consecutive pass-set-X sequences, with only one “wash” allowed. A wash was a rep where they either just kept the ball in play or didn’t execute well enough on their X. They had to do down ball, push-tip, roll shot, and back row attack as their X. So, basically they had four sets of 7 sequences to complete. There was an 8 minute time limit.

After pepper we gave them five minutes of target serving, which we haven’t done in a while. The targets were deep 1 and deep 5. I told them their goal was 7 serves to their favored zone and 4 to the other.

We then played a Servers vs. Passers game. This is one we started using in the Fall. The servers earned points by hitting seams (between players or sideline), but lost them for serves in the net. The passers earn points by good passes. Each round the servers served 5 balls (misses did not count). When a round was complete, passers and servers changed places. They combined their serving and passing scores for an aggregate. We went through twice.

Next up was Player Winners. We did this half court, so had two games going on side-by-side. After each round, the players with the most points on Court B moved up to Court A, and those with the fewest on A moved down to B. Rounds were five minutes long. We played a total of four rounds. The last one ended when one person reached five points.

The last part of practice was 5-on-5 play. We played 5-point games, alternating between 3-up, 2-back and 2-up, 3-back. This was to give our middles a break and to let them play a bit of defense.

Tournament

We hosted a 6-team tournament on Saturday. It featured a trio of area junior colleges along with two other Division II teams along with ourselves. One of the latter was fellow Lone Star Conference member West Texas. We did not end up playing them, though. Instead, we played two of the JUCOs and the other Division II team. It was a schedule that saw us play progressively tougher matches, which was a good challenge. The format was 50-minute rounds. That generally worked out to two full 25-point games and part of a third.

As you do in Spring tournaments, we used multiple line-ups in our matches. There were three of them we rotated among. One was a straight up 5-1. Another was a modified 5-1 where our taller setter played front row and our shorter one played back row. The other was a 6-2 in which our taller setter played OPP when she was front row. This allowed us to mix things up with our three pin hitters, one of whom also played as libero. And of course our one MB had to play full time. We set up an on-off-on-off-on schedule to help keep from running her down.

Overall, it was a pretty good day. Naturally, there’s a list of stuff that we could have done better – some bigger, some smaller. Given our current active roster, there were always going to be some soft spots in our play. We were much better in defense than was the case back during season, though, and generally scrapier in all aspects. Those have been big focus points this term, so it was good to see that playing out against other teams.

It’s worth noting that one of the common themes in the player’s comments after the tournament was communication. They said it was really good on the court. I think this comes from all the non-structured situations we put them in over these last however many weeks. They haven’t had a lot of defined roles and positions. As a result, they were forced to work things out amongst themselves.

Where do attacks go?

A reader asked the following question related to where they should place their libero for defense.

Are there any statistical studies of the number of touches by position among defenders, particularly at the high school level? In other words, if the libero is the best defender and ball handler, then it makes sense that the coach would want to put her in position to handle as many balls as possible. I have my own opinion from watching games, but has anyone actually studied the number of balls handled by the left back vs. middle back position?

I don’t personally know of any broad statistical studies of where attacks go for high school players. Most of that sort of stuff I’ve seen was done for a particular team. Think scouting report type stuff. I think this heat map probably is a good indication, though.

I think generally speaking the lower the level the more balls end up in the middle of the court. As attackers become more capable, you see the frequency of balls going away from the middle increase. I don’t have any figures to back that up, though. Maybe a reader does and will share them in the comments below.

General patterns aside, you have to consider your own defensive strategy here. If you tell your blockers to take line – thus funneling balls cross-court – then chances are more balls will go cross. If you block cross, then you expect more balls to go line. That factors into your positioning decision. The general information takes you only so far.

And there are other factors involved as well.

Coaching Log – March 27, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Spring Break has come and gone. We’re now into the “non-traditional season” where we are back to 20 hours per week.

Roster

We had a returning player quit at the beginning of the week, dropping our current active roster to 10. That’s not counting our grad student going only part-time this semester so she will be eligible in the Fall. The departure was unusual in that you don’t often see 2-year starters leave in the middle of Spring, but in the grand scheme of things we were not totally surprised. She said she basically doesn’t love it anymore.

We did get the commitment from the 2017 middle prospect I mentioned in my last update.That gets us up to five incoming freshmen, plus a transfer for the Fall. Obviously, that also helps pick up the slack from our latest departure. The head coach was thinking to bring in one more pin hitting transfer. Now that might be more of a MB/RS type player.

In other news, our top OH from last season finally got a diagnosis on her knee problems. The result is surgery, though not the sort expected to keep her from being ready for the Fall if everything works out.

Schedule

The player who quit was one of our two Middles, which put us in a bind. Our original plan was to play tournaments on March 25, April 1st, and April 22nd. We couldn’t see how that was going to work with just one MB and thin ranks on the pins as well. There aren’t really any rules about line-ups and stuff in the Spring, so our remaining middle can just stay permanently in, but that’s a lot to ask – especially when you add in travel. As a result, we decided to pull out of the first and third tournaments. We’re keeping the one for April 1st, though, as that’s the one we’re hosting. We’ll find a way to make it work – probably by spacing out when we play to give our one MB a break.

Our base plan for the five weeks of our Spring season is to practice Monday through Friday. If we have something on Saturday (like our home tournament) we take one day off to abide by the 2-days-off rule. The team also does strength and conditioning work three days per week.

Team Training

This week we did indoor team practices on Monday and Friday, with beach sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday was off. Originally that was because we planned to play in a tournament on Saturday. When we had to cancel that, we scheduled some morning community service hours. So we still needed to give the team the midweek day off.

The beach sessions were of two different sorts. On Tuesday we broke the team into two groups of 5. They did a lot of ball-handling oriented work in the sand for about 90 minutes. On Thursday we just had them play beach doubles. We set up a schedule where most teams played three games to 21, with one team playing four. It was extremely windy, so the players faced real weather challenges aside from having to adapt to the difference surface, the smaller court, etc.

Because we are bringing in so many new players (6-7) in the Fall, we aren’t doing any real team play type work at this point. The focus instead is on ball-handling, improved reading and reacting on defense, and generally becoming more tenacious. The beach sessions are aimed at working in those areas, and we’re taking the same sort of attitude with what we do indoors. That means doing a lot of things like team pepper, serving and passing, and small-sided games.

Weighted pool format for volleyball tournaments

When you are a college volleyball coach you spend a lot of time at Juniors tournaments. Most of them have a pretty standard format. They feature four teams and the progression is such that the top seeds play the bottom seeds in the early rounds. This can make for some pretty lopsided matches. I’d love to see more of a weighted pool format for volleyball tournaments.

What do I mean by that?

In a standard tournament you use a zig-zag or serpentine to fill the pools. It looks like this for a 16-team tournament with four pools.

standard pool format

In this method the top ranked team (1) is the top seed in Pool 1, with the #2 team top of Pool 2, and so on. If you add up the rankings of all the teams for each pool you’ll notice it adds up to 34. That tells you they are about equally competitive – in theory.

There are a couple of problems with this structure, though.

First, the degree of theoretical competition for finishing spots in each pool vary considerably. For example, a 1 v 8 match to decide who wins Pool 1 (assuming other results go to plan) is generally not likely to be as competitive as the 4 v 5 match to decide Pool 4. You can flip that around for the competition for 2nd/3rd place in those pools. An 8 v 9 match is probably a tighter one than 5 v 12. Obviously, how widely split the teams are in terms of caliber has a lot to do with it.

The second issue is progression after pool. A lot of tournaments cross over the top two from each pool for the playoffs. In some cases the others are done, while in other tournaments all the 3rd place teams play each others, and the same with the 4th place finishers. What I see happen is teams end up having a hard time moving in the rankings once they are initially set because they are stuck playing the same competition all the time.

Probably the worst issue with this format is the that top teams might only get one decent match during pool play. Flipping that around, the bottom teams may get beat up in two out of their three pool matches. What’s the point of that? Don’t we want everyone playing as many competitive matches as possible?

The solution: a weighted pool format.

What do I mean by a weighted pool format? I mean instead of setting up the pools equally, as shown above, we weight the pools by rankings. The better teams are in the upper pools and the weaker teams are in the lower pools. The Tour of Texas follows this path based on its qualification procedure.

Here’s an example of what a weighted pool format could look like:

weighted pool format

In terms of playoffs, you could so something like have the top two teams in Pools 1 and 2 go into the gold bracket, the bottom two teams from Pools 1 and 2 join the top two teams from Pools 3 and 4 in silver, and the bottom two teams from Pools 3 and 4 be bronze. Of course there are other ways to work that, and there are other ways to set up the pools. The main idea is to 1) create more in-pool competition for all teams, and 2) get more information for team rankings by seeing teams play more against similar competition.

A weighted pool format may not be the way you want to go for a qualification tournament or something like that. For other events, though, it’s a good alternative to give teams a higher quality experience.

The source of team culture

One of Luke Thomas’ blog posts got me thinking about the source of team culture. Luke’s perspective is that for his team(s) the culture comes from him. I certainly agree that the coach should reflect the team culture. I’m not sure whether they are necessarily the source of that culture, though.

Recruited team or built program

I think in the case of a recruited team, one can probably say more surely that the coach defines the culture. After all, the coach selects the players. Presumably, those players reflect the type of team that coach wants.

Even there, though, I’m not sure you can say only the coach dictates culture. Certainly the coach can (and probably should) influence it. This is even more strongly the case for something like a high school team where it is a coach working with youth. I think, though, that the collective personality of the team will have some influence. So too may elements of the broader organization or community in which the team operates. It may not be the dominant one, but it at least factors in to the equation.

The now retired John Dunning shared some thoughts on developing and maintaining team culture from this perspective. The clip below is from an interview I did with him.

Unrecruited or built team

The other situation is where you coach a team that you didn’t build yourself. That could be a team already formed when you take over. It could also be a team you selected through a tryout process. Yes, in the latter case you did pick the team. But you only did so from a given pool of players.

In this sort of situation – especially when we’re talking non-youth teams – I feel like a lot of the team culture must come from the players. They need to be part of defining how they train and play and otherwise operate. You may be able to enforce a culture from a top down perspective, but it takes a lot of respect and credibility. You won’t get a cohesive culture if you don’t have player buy-in.

Seen it both ways

I’ve been in both situations. I’ve worked in college programs where we recruited players. There the primary culture is mainly dictated by the coach, especially if they have been there for a while. Returning players help to enforce the existing culture as new players are added each year. Even in this situation, though, you sometime have to adapt. Players change. The local environment can play a big part. Sometimes that’s consistent. Sometimes it changes.

I’ve also been in a situation where I’ve had to adapt myself to a team culture. Yes, I influenced a lot of things on-court. We trained the way I decided we trained and I set the expectations – at least initially. Off the court, though, the players were the bigger determinant of culture. I wouldn’t go along with things that I objected too, but otherwise I adapted myself to the situation.

So what’s your view? Where does/should team culture come from?