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Looking at serving and blocking together

In the same edition of the AVCA Coaching Volleyball magazine as one of my own pieces there’s an article from former Nebraska head coach Terry Pettit. Did you know I interviewed Terry for Volleyball Coaching Wizards?

Anyway, Terry speaks to developing strategies and tactics. Definitely give it a read. In particular, the fourth point is one that I shared with my team:

Teams that block and serve create a third dimension. Tough serving allows a good blocking team to become a great blocking team. Volleyball is a game of runs, which are usually created by nudging the opponent toward unforced errors. While kills may be impressive, they do not demoralize an opponent nearly as much as aggressive serving and blocking.

Good serving was a major focus of mine when I coached at Exeter, and it continued to be a point of concentration at Svedala. There, though, I also had a pretty good blocking squad. We led the Swedish league in blocks per set by a large margin. That isn’t necessarily the best way to judge blocking effectiveness, but it’s a starting point.

The fun part was we were not even at our best from a technical, positioning, and timing perspective. 🙂

Some thoughts on practice planning

There was a post on the AVCA blog a while back with the title of “Practice Preparation”. An NCAA Division I assistant coach wrote it. The title was a bit misleading as there wasn’t much on actual planning. The article mostly discussed a few drills/games. Unfortunately, it looks like they removed it when they revamped the AVCA website.

In any case, I found the first two particularly interesting.

The first was a timed game where the teams only score points in certain ways. The basic idea is that you have a predefined length of time for the game while also being able to focus on key areas of developmental interest. Think of it along the same lines as a bonus point game. You focus the players on certain things you want prioritized.

I might favor the bonus point approach better. That’s only because I’ve found that sometimes only allowing certain ways a team can score points leads to forcing the ball and things like that you don’t want to encourage. If you have multiple different ways to score, though, the “forcing” is mitigated.

The second game is one call 20-20 because that’s where the scoring starts. Normal play then follows up to set point. At that point, if the team going for set point fails, they go back to 20. The other team keeps their points. So for example, it the score was 24-22 and the leading team failed to score the next rally, the new scored would be 20-23.

I used that one at Svedala. We used a variation at MSU.

This coaching action – fair or foul?

In the match I coached on Saturday the opposing coach did something. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

It was late in the 4th set. We were up 2-1 and leading. It might have even been match point (24-23). I can’t recall exactly and don’t have the score sheet at hand.

Anyway, they were out of timeouts. The coach called a sub to go in, but she went to the sideline holding a paddle with the number of no player currently on the court. Substitution errors like this are team delay faults, and thus earn a delay warning. During the ensuing pause as the score table recorded the warning, the other coach could be seen grinning in our direction, making it clear he had intentionally made the substitution error as a way to get a defacto timeout.

Brilliant move or unsportsmanlike?

It didn’t work, by the way.

Coaching Log – Nov 30, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

As expected, Örebro got the win against RIG over the weekend in the only Elitserie match scheduled. That moved them to the top of the table on 15 points. That’s tied with Hylte/Halmstad on points, but with one more match win. That saw Svedala start the week in 3rd on 13 points.

This week’s schedule featured three matches with Gran Prix implications. We had away matches against Hylte on Wedneday and Lindesberg (5th place on 10 points) on Saturday. On Sunday, Engelholm hosted Hylte. The two bottom teams – Sollentuna and RIG – also played on Saturday.

There was just one match for the Oresund Liga over the weekend as well. Gislaved got their first win in beating Amager 3-0. That was a good result for us as it kept Amager from catching us for 3rd in the standings. There were no matches happening this week.

Monday
We finally had a full squad in training fit and healthy once again, plus a guest player for a total of 10.We spent a bit of time at the start of training talking about Wednesday’s opposition before getting things rolling.

One of the long-term developmental needs at the individual level for this squad is being able to take a step toward the ball when digging a driven ball. I added an element to the end of warm-ups to get us more focused on that. For now it’s doing then step based on a partner thrown ball (and we need work on even doing that well), but the plan is to progress it rapidly to hit balls and to get it specifically incorporated into defensive work.

Our first primary drill was a 2-sided serve-pass-hit drill with 2 passer/hitters, a setter, and 2 servers on each half court. The passer had to hit a set they called. To give the setters some reps as well, toward the end I had our MBs setting so they could also get some setting reps.

We then shifted to a 3 v 6 drill. I had a variation on the starting team run through a couple of key rotations. First they received a serve and attacked against 3 blockers. They the 3 side ran an attack off a tossed ball to the setter on their side.

To finish with something competitive and up-tempo, we did some 22 v 22 to finish, with teams of 5. One side had defenders in 1 and 5 and the other in 5 and 6 (front row setter).

The starting setter at the beginning of training had asked to do some 6-person play to work on receive and transition offense. She was happy with being able to work on that stuff. Early on in the 3 v 6, though, I did have to get the players focused. They were a little scattered and I reminded them that after basically 3 weeks of not having the full team training together full speed hardly at all (I think just one practice), we needed to get synced back up quickly given the schedule ahead.

Tuesday
With two guest players on-hand we had 11 in training. After warm-ups and pre-hab I had the team split out so the setters could get some reps while the rest did some ball-handling. I had them do a cooperative 2 v 2 game of 2-touch with the objective of reached 21 consecutive. From there I had the MBs go with one setter and the rest with the other. The latter worked on serve-pass-hit while the former worked on quick and slide connections. About halfway through I swapped setters.

To take advantage of the numbers, and to prep for Wednesday’s match, we did 6 v 5, going through the rotations on the 6 side. We did alternating serves, with a team needing to win two rallies in a row to get a point. After one side got 3 points, we rotated.

After that, the players wanted to go more up-tempo, so we did something similar to the 3 v 6 from the night before. This time it was 5 v 6, but I ran it the same way. The 5 served to the 6 and then got a free ball play to run. Again, we ran through the rotations.

Wednesday
On the road to Halmstad Arena for the match against Hylte/Halmstad.

Halmstad

Nice facility. Wish they had a bigger crowd.

Anyway, the match started pretty ugly. We got thrashed in the first set, 25-13. Given the rough training situation of the last three weeks, I couldn’t say I was surprised. Too many hitting errors. We literally only scored points in one rotation.

I changed the rotation for the second set to have our M1 go across the front straight away (she started in 2 in the first set) because our M2 just wasn’t looking like she was going to be effective. Also, the other team clearly had a strategy of serving my O1. Turning things back put us in a position where she could focus on passing from the start without having to think as much about hitting (though she actually passed fine). We ended up winning that set 25-22, and won the third set by the same score.

Things were cruising along in the fourth set. We were up 19-13, but let them back in. They caught and passed us to win 25-23.

The fifth set saw us fall behind 5-1, but after a timeout we got things turned around. We ran off 8 straight points to go up 9-5. They fought back to 9-8. We were up 12-10, but the stayed in it. We had a serve for match point at 15-14, but our young setter who went in as a serving/defense sub, put the ball in the net. We ended up loosing 17-15.

That match point miss wasn’t the only bad error. We had a few of them in the 5th set, plus a few more in the 4th set as well. On top of that, our M1 who is our big point scorer, stopped attacking the ball aggressively. I think in the last set she only hit the ball hard once – a narrow miss on a good set. Everything else was roll shots. All together, she only had 4 kills (plus 3 errors) when she had 9 kills combined (only 1 error) in sets 2 and 3. She even had 5 kills in our horrible first set!

Basically, as was the case when we played Engelholm a month ago, we choked and got tight when we were in position to win. That said, I suppose if you asked me if I’d take a 3-2 loss – and the point that comes with it – after the way we lost the first set, I probably would have said “Yes”.

Thursday
Not so much Thanksgiving action for me this year. In the morning I went to Lund to pick up a printed copy of my PhD thesis from one of our part-time players who goes to school there. I then spent the rest of the day in the library getting work done. Did have a turkey sandwich for lunch, though!

Friday
After the tough match on Wednesday and with an eye toward our long day up coming on Saturday, I kept training fairly low intensity. We started off talking about the match. Mostly, I did the talking about needing the courage to stay aggressive and continue to play the way we got ahead in the first place when in those sorts of situations again. The team also brought up the thought that part of the issue with our “choking” has been that communication faded when we were up – meaning we were getting complacent. We also went over the scouting for the next match. After that, basically it was the same 1-hour structure we use for our home match day serve and pass sessions.

Saturday
We left home shortly after 7:00 and stopped for lunch about 45 minutes out from our destination – Lindesberg. Got there just about 2:00 for the 4:00 match. Following on from Friday’s conversation, we focused a lot on keeping the communication going from start to finish.

The first set was fairly back and forth. We made more errors than we should have, but eventually we got on top to win 25-21. In the second set were were in control just about throughout, resulting in a 25-17 win.

The break was 15 minutes, which really didn’t do us any favors. Our starting setter was already feeling the long van trip in her back, and our O1 developed some kind of muscle strain or something near her knee early on. The break only served to cause them to tighten up. No doubt helped by that, we had some struggles in the third set and were down 21-14. We narrowed the gap dramatically, though, and only ended up losing 25-22. We might have been able to do even better were it not for a missed serve.

The four set saw us get back on top of them. I think it was 19-13, before they started their own late rally. A couple of consecutive passing errors by our O1 helped them get uncomfortably close, but we finished it off 25-23.

I was quite happy with our defense overall. We quickly adapted to their play and were able to dig a lot of balls. Our block was a bit inconsistent, though we still had 11 total on the match officially (on the bench we counted 13). There were just times when we allowed the opposing hitter to absolutely bomb the ball because our positioning wasn’t right. By the numbers, we’re the best blocking team in the league by a healthy margin, but we can get better.

Our serving can still get better as well (we also lead the league in a aces/set). We had 14 errors in the match. Two players accounted for 8 of them, though. One is my M1 who has struggled all season. She can go on strings of points, but then miss her next three serves. The other is our OPP who is working to develop her jump serve. I encouraged her to try it early in the match, which didn’t work out. Oh, well. She’ll get better.

It was a long trip back after that. I didn’t get home until nearly 2:00.

Thoughts and observations
Hopefully, being able to hold Lindesberg off when they rallied back on Saturday is a step in the right direction in terms of tackling the tentativeness that has crept in to our play in those situations. I didn’t see the same sort of hesitancy, though I did see a bit of hyperactive stuff creep back in. We made a few foolish decisions. Need to find the middle zone.

Our libero has been noticeably more active in directing things in serve reception. Noticing that, for Saturday’s match I gave her some additional authority. Lindesberg has a strong jump server (though inconsistent). I told the libero that she should feel free to bring the OPP and/or MB in to cover parts of the court if she thought it was the right thing to do. It was something I reinforced during a timeout when that server had had a couple of good serves. She did pull the OPP to take the line ball. We ended up winning that rally because the server didn’t giver herself a great toss.

What type of defense do you run?

I was asked by a reader what type of defense I use with my team and my thoughts on the subject.

Generally speaking, my starting point is the perimeter defense. This is a structure where the back row defenders play toward the edges of the court. That’s where most of the hard attacked balls go when there’s a decent block. Some also call this a middle-back defense. I start there because it’s something most players have played and understand well.

From there, though, I think about things in two ways.

Personnel

There are certain player requirements to play a perimeter defense (or any other, for that matter). For example, the defender in 6 needs to be a good reader and able to move well laterally. Not every player is suited to that role. For example, I had an Exeter player who was very aggressive in attacking the ball played in front of her. She did not, however, move laterally well. That mandated she play defense in 5 rather than 6.

You’re also thinking about things like your block and potential back row attack. When I coached at Brown in the libero’s early days, we didn’t do much by way of back row attacking. We generally played our OHs in 5 and our Libero in 6. The idea there was that the OHs were basically specialists in digging cross-court balls. We made a change, though, because our block channeled balls cross-court and we wanted our best digger – our libero – in position to play them.

Opposition

Sometimes you want to change things up to better defend against certain teams or types of attacks. The rotation defense in which the defender in 1 one covers tips, and the defender in 6 rotates toward the line, can be used to defend against teams that play a lot of shots. We did this at Exeter against weaker teams at times. At Brown we actually used a type of rotation defense against teams that liked to attack line to have a better digger in that position. At Svedala we looked to use a rotation defense when we had our smaller second string setter playing to have more line defense when she was front row.

Of course you have to consider all the implications. Using a rotation defense tends to get your front row OH out of having to play balls way into the court – which makes it hard for them to then attack. At the same time, though, it likely means your setter having to play more first balls.

The bottom line

At the end of the day you want to put your players in the positions they are best suited to play within the context of a general block-defensive philosophy related to what you expect to see from the teams you play. Consider how you view the objective of defense and position your players accordingly.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Turkey Day to all the readers in the States and to all my fellow ex-pats where ever you are in the world.

Thanksgiving

Philosophy on 2-person serve receive

I had a question come in from a reader recently on the subject of serve receive. Here it is:

Do you have any thoughts, articles, philosophies about 2 person serve receive?  I am coaching a good 16s juniors team and would like to think outside the box some.

I have actually used a 2-man reception with a team myself. It was a boy’s team back in 1998 for a state tournament. I had two clearly strong passers – one an OH and one a RS. It worked out pretty well. We won the gold. 🙂

At that point, though, the serving in the boys’ game wasn’t as tough as it’s become. We didn’t face any jump servers that I can recall. As a result, it was much easier for two players to cover the court than it likely would be today. It would be a challenge to go with only 2 passers in the women’s game because they physically don’t cover as much space as men and the flatter trajectory of the serves already makes them very challenging to pass.

I can still see value in a 2-person reception focus, though. By that I mean having two players take most of the court with one or more others having smaller, defined areas of coverage. You can actually see this sort of thing at work when a team wants to limit how much passing a front row attacker has to do. They push them toward the side line and let the libero and back row attacker take like 80% of the court.

Personally, I think there are always opportunities to put your best passers in position to take the most balls. You need to consider what sort of serves you’ll be facing and look at your rotations. There may be ways you can position non-primary passers to take certain balls. For example, a MB taking short serves in their zone. It’s all about maximizing what you have.

Snow in Svedala

So it turns out they get Winter here in Sweden. Who’d have thunk it!? 🙂

On Saturday I attended our 2nd team match in the afternoon. It had been raining a bit when I walked into the sports hall. When I walked out a couple hours later it was snowing big, fat, wet flakes. It’s the first of the white stuff we’ve seen in Svedala where I’m at, though they’ve had some up north already.

Fortunately, I had just made a very well-timed parka purchase – literally on my way to the gym. I didn’t know about the weather when I put it on after the match ended to start my walk home, but I quickly snuggled in when I saw the 15+ minute walk I was facing. It kept my upper half quite warm. Jeans don’t do much to keep out the wet, though, so my legs were freezing by the time I got home.

There wasn’t much in the way of accumulation on Saturday, but by the time I got up on Sunday morning things looked a bit different.

First Svedala Snow

I didn’t even bother going out on Sunday. Figured it was a good day to spend indoors.

When I did finally go out on Monday morning it was an experience I haven’t had in a few years. There was ice everywhere. It wasn’t overly cold – at least not with my new parka and years of living in New England – but I don’t recall it getting that cold during my three Winters in England. I definitely didn’t have to worry about slipping on all the ice while I was there.

And so begins coaching Sweden in earnest. We have our first northern away match coming up on Saturday.

I can only imagine how my player from Atlanta reacted to it all. 🙂

Coaching Log – Nov 23, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

This being week 8 of the regular season, it’s the end of the initial weight training cycle and the program I gave the team. As a result, I had the players re-test their bench and squat weights for comparison and we did another set of physical evaluations at the start of Friday’s training.

There was only one league match set for this week. Örebro hosted RIG on Saturday, with the home team strongly favored. That will leave Örebro with the bottom team, Sollentuna, and Gislaved, who haven’t beaten any but the bottom two thus far, as their remaining schedule before the break. The Gislaved match is away, which could be tricky, but they still have an excellent shot at getting 9 more points, pushing their total to 21. That would certainly qualify them for Gran Prix.

That means it is very likely down to Engelholm, Hylte, Lindesberg, and Svedala as to who gets the other three places. Lindesberg has an edge in that they have matches against RIG and Sollentuna to pad their point total. All of us play each other at least once (we play Hylte twice), though, so we’ll decide things head-to-head – as you’d like it to be.

Monday
As usual, training started with a bit of talk about the prior match and our path forward. After warm-ups and a variation on volley tennis, we did a serving exercise. It focused on serving the seams, with the players have an objective getting to 10. To focus on making our mistakes long rather than in the net, serves that didn’t go over were a -1.

We transitioned from there to serving and passing. Because of our struggles with Rotation 1, we focused on that. Hitters and setters rotated through, with the sets going to the MB or the hitter/passer in 4. In line with a concern I’ve had the last couple weeks, our passing wasn’t great. We’re having technical issues when we have to move for the ball. Platforms are just not holding their angle to target. The tricky part of it all is that we’ve had issues with serves that tend to drop short, which encourages playing shorter. That then means having to move back.

Training wrapped up with Winners 3s. We only went maybe 75 minutes all in all.

Tuesday
One of the core group was out sick, but we had three additional bodies to bring it up to 11. That’s not as many as I was expecting, but the additional players definitely made a difference – both in terms of allowing me to do some different things and in the overall energy of the session. One of the things I wanted to do was to keep the number of jumps down for certain players while still being able to work on developmental issues, so I structured things with that in mind.

After warm-up and prehab activities, I split the group out. The setters and MBs went on a side court to work on their connections while the libero and pin hitters were on center court working on passing. In the case of the latter, I had them do a version of the serving and passing triples. I wanted them to work specifically on having to move back for the ball, so I had the passer start at the 3m line and the server (who was only at about mid court) serving deepish balls. I set up the video delay to focus on the passers so they could look to check their mechanics.

This was then carried over when I brought the whole group together and had everyone else serving to the primary passers. Since there were four in the rotation, they could look to the replay as they stepped off the court after a pass. I felt like passing on the whole was better and the players did feel like having the replay helped them focus on their technique more.

Next up was the continuous cross-court digging drill. After some relatively static stuff – especially for the passers – I wanted to up the intensity while obviously also working on digging the ball.

From there we moved on to a variation of Speedball Winners on a narrow court. I had fixed setters and MBs, with the winners part being the 2 players playing with them. Along with continuing the earlier setter/MB connection work from earlier, it also got in some blocking and additional defense in preparation for the full team play which followed.

The last part of training was some 22 v 22 play. I had the team of 6 in Rotation 4, which has consistently been our weakest rotation in both point scoring and serve reception. We played one game with the 6 receiving and one with them serving. I then had back-up setter switch in and played one more with the 6 receiving.

Wednesday
I had a trio of players out of training for various health reasons, leaving me with just six. In talking with the captain we decided to just have them do their normal weight training session. In the end, though, they decided they wanted to do a bit of serving and passing work, with a little hitting thrown in for a couple of them. It probably went about 90 minutes all together.

Friday
I had two players out – one still sick and the other with a family emergency that arose right before practice (or at least that’s when she told me about it). We had a guest player to give us 8. As planned, we started with re-doing the physical assessments we did back at the beginning. That included a star type agility drill, a T test at the net, singled and triple broad jumps, and a sequence of medicine ball throws. We added a vertical leap test using the My Jump app on my iPad. This was my first time using it. Basically, it measures jump height by calculating time from takeoff to landing.

The first part of training wasn’t really impacted too much by the late player drop. I had them do some serving and passing. Unfortunately, both of the missing players are OHs, and thus primary passers, so that didn’t work out quite the way I had planned, but generally served the purpose.

After that I’d planned on doing a back row only Winners 3s. I shifted that to Speedball with teams of 2 on a narrow court. I then had them play a game to 15 in 4 v 4 fashion. This was still back row attacking only, though each side had a front row setter.

The last 30 minutes or so of training was dedicated to a constrained 4 v 4 with rallies initiated by alternating down balls. At first I had MB-OH-L-S on one side (Setter in 1) against MB-RS-S-DS with the DS in 6. I flipped the setters, and MBs around, and had the RS flip between front and back row. I later moved the DS from the second side over into 5 so the opposing side could hit cross court (but not to 6).

Thoughts and observations
Such a massive difference between training with 11 as we did on Tuesday and only training with 8 the rest of the week. Not only does it give me more options for developing training, there’s better energy. I’m doing everything I can to get more players in practice, but it’s a struggle.