Coaching Log – Sep 7, 2015

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

I returned to Sweden on August 30th. The weekend was primarily spent in a combination of meeting with the three American players in the squad and getting my new housing situation sorted out. The latter remains a work in progress.

Here’s how things went over the first week as far as the volleyball is concerned:

Monday
This training session, which was in our alternative gym, was all about starting the players getting to know each other and shaking off the off-season rust. As a result, I focused a lot on getting them all lots of touches and including a lot of game play. You can see the training plan I used here. I had the 10 players committed to the squad, plus one from last year who is expected to train periodically with the team and maybe help out with the coaching.

Tuesday
I had a team meeting immediately prior to practice. The focus was on the sorts of things I expect to see in training and what the players can expect from me.

The actual session, which was in our main gym, still had as a primary focus the “getting to know each other” and “shaking off the rust” elements. We had all the players from Monday, plus a young setter in the mix as well to make 12 (3 setters, 3 middles, 1 true right side, 2 true outsides, 1 libero, and 2 OH/Ls). That gave me the opportunity to do some 6 v 6 play for about the last hour of training. I used the 22 v. 22 game, and rotated the players around quite a bit.

The lead up to the 6 v 6 started with serving, and then serving and passing in groups of 6 on 2 courts. I included the middles and setters in the passing. Along the way, though, I learned that I should plan anything serving-focused for when we’re using the main court because when we’re using a multiple court set-up there isn’t enough approach room for the jump/jump float servers.

After serving and passing we moved to 6-person diagonal over-the-net team pepper.  I kept the players in the same 2-court split from before. They started with both sides attacking through 4, but they also worked 4 and 2, 2 and 2, and 2 and 4 to get all the angles. At then end I had them return to 4 and 4 and shift from cooperative to competitive. One of the groups was struggling during the first phase, so at a point I had them get together and talk through finding a solution.

From there we shifted to Speedball winners with 4 teams of 3 that I assigned. That started with backrow attacks only. About halfway through I opened it up.

Up to this point we hadn’t really talked about offensive play-calling, seam responsibility, switching, and other team related stuff. I wanted to force maximum communication and interaction as part of the team-building process by having them work that stuff out among themselves.

Wednesday
This day started with the players together in the fitness club doing their weights work. I haven’t given them a specific plan yet, so just had them carry on with the program they’ve been using. After a 30 minute break we were together in the main hall for training. I’m not overly thrilled by by that scheduling, but it does give the team a chance to workout together (they mostly do weights on their own in small groups because of individual schedule considerations), and I will probably use it to check on technique from time to time. It does mean, though, that Wednesday trainings likely won’t be ones where I’d want to do much technical work because they will already be somewhat fatigued.

The other aspect to Wednesday’s trainings is that we have about a 45 minute overlap with the 2nd team at the start of our session. Since physically they were already warmed-up, I had them start off with what I guess is called Brazilian 2-ball volley tennis (teams of 2, 2 balls in play, the team that wins both balls gets the point, else it’s a wash). It was something they could do on the side court that would get them mentally engaged and competitive. I had the 10 core players and they opted to split on the basis of age. The younger group go out to a lead, but eventually the older ones caught up and ended up winning 10-9.

After that fun, I shifted them to a less fun exercise – the Hard Drill with the count holds as long as the ball remains in play variation in force and with rotation (no fixed setter). They did it fairly easily initially, then I told them to do it again and only count “good reps” on legit swings and balls set with hands. That took them a while, and at one point I had them stop and meet to talk things over. Eventually they got it, though only because I didn’t halt rallies on 3m line violations. I told them next time we do the exercise those will be rally-enders, which they seemed to readily accept.

I then had them do some target serving on the main court, which was now free. They were required to complete 5 sets of serving first to Zone 1 and then to Zone 2, and 5 sets serving first to Zone 5 and then to Zone 4. They had to get both in that order to count. I did timed. Some of them were able to finish one pair of zones, but no one did both.

After that we played Bingo-Bango-Bongo. Since we only had teams of 5, I had to make some rules. The two defined libero’s were fixed in the back row and everyone else rotated around them. When the middles were front row the teams played 3 front, 2 back, but when the middles were back row they played 2 front, 3 back.

I meant to do another round of target serving after that, but forgot and instead went straight into another 5 v 5 game. It was one where the teams alternated 2 serves (from players in the same back row position – e.g. the setters). They then played to 7 points in this fashion. I think we played 4 total games with me flipping OHs and S/OPPs each game and having the setters switch sides after two games. I’d planned on going a bit longer, but they were looking a bit weary, so I called it quits a bit early.

Thursday
No training. This is our regular day off.

Friday
This is a 3 hour time slot, though we got going a little late because of train issues. I just had the core 10 players. After they warmed up, I put the team through a pair of agility tests (‘T’ and a cone touch exercise) and did a pair of sets of measurements. One was broad jump and then 3 consecutive broad jumps. The other was medicine ball throws from lying on the back, from one knee, and then from two knees. The main objective was to evaluate plyometric fitness. I wanted to also measure jumping from a loaded position (already squatted) vs. jumping from with the full counter motion, but there was a technology fail, so I’ll have to try that another time.

Once we got to the volleyball, the main focus was on getting the offensive terminology and signal calling sorted out. We did that initially between the setters and middles while the others were doing a team pepper exercise on the other court. We then brought that into a team context by doing some 5 v 5 game play, which always started with a serve. To say the serve reception passing wasn’t good might be an understatement.

Saturday
This was just a 2 hour slot, again with only the core group of 10. My main focus was on reinforcing the offensive stuff developed on Friday, so after warming-up with some serving and some half-court 2 v 2 with fixed setters, I had them play Speedball winners. In this case, the setters were fixed, so there were 4 teams of 2 which I designated. Additionally, I had the requirement that the non-passer/digger was to run a quick attack while the other hit either a 2nd tempo or high ball.

We then did some Second Chance game play 5 v 5 with the setters and liberos back row. Initially I had the libero’s in 6, so we constrained the attacking to 5/6. In this case the MBs took the second ball on a setter dig. After a while, I moved the liberos to 5 and had them take the 2nd ball (and said no hitting to 6). It turned out that the second chance proved quite beneficial for one of the right side players who started to go block-out after getting stuffed a few times.

From there I flipped the rotations so the setter and libero were both front row and all the hitters were back row and did Scramble. A couple of balls dropped unchallenged in the first round, but after I told them they’d get an extra 30 seconds for that happening there weren’t any in the two remaining rounds. The intensity level and communication definitely rose nicely.

Thoughts and observations
Most of the time when we’ve been playing games I’ve allowed the players a second serve if they miss the first. This is something I do to allow them to be more aggressive in their serving, while also reinforcing the desirability of not missing two serves in a row, which is something I talked with them about in Tuesday’s meeting.

I intentionally avoided doing much in the way of specific “coaching” during the first three training session. I wanted to help stimulate the integration and communication development process by putting them in situations where they needed to sort things out together rather than relying on me giving them instructions. That inevitably led to some confusion (especially between middles and setters on quick set play calling), but that forced them to talk with each other about it. On Friday I began to do more concentrated coaching, and increased on that on Saturday. It will be a feature from now on. By that I mostly mean quick comments/corrections to the players, though sometimes quick broader points to the whole team.

From here I need to start really working on the offensive tempo and the incorporation of the back row attack (pipe/bic) in to the scheme. At least one of my OHs looks likely to be quite effective. This, in turn, likely means defensively we play with the libero in 5. It seems likely that we have a pretty solid offense, and I think the defense will be pretty good. I need to take a closer look at our blocking in the week ahead, and serve reception definitely needs to improve.

Other stuff
I found out that I have to attend an all-day event on the 29th for coaches, managers, and team captains as part of the Elitserie kickoff. I think it will be partly promotional and partly a technical seminar of sorts. That’s a Tuesday, which means no training. Not ideal the week before our first league match, but decent timing for a break when considering we have a pre-season tournament in Copenhagen that runs Friday through Sunday. We’ll probably get in a make-up training on Thursday that week, though.

Being ready is often a function of trust

A while back, Mark from At Home on the Court wrote a post on the subject of technical vs. non-technical reasons for errors in volleyball. In it he blamed lack of readiness for many of the mistakes we see in play. He recently specifically highlighted that with regards to players playing the ball with their feet.

Now, we’re not talking about a player sliding toward the sign boards or the score table. We’re talking about a player who has their weight on their heels and basically has no option but to perform a “kick save” type action. Their lack of defensive readiness prevents them doing anything else.

I’ll add a layer of readiness to the mix by including trust in the discussion. Specifically, I’m talking about the trust between players that someone is going to make a play.

This is something that was very much on my mind following Monday’s first training session with Svedala. I saw players making really outstanding plays on the ball. They were recovering balls from out of the net, chasing balls down all over the place, and keeping what looked like sure-thing kill balls from hitting the floor. Too often, though, I saw teammates not anticipating and being ready to make a good next contact.

The same can be said to apply to hitters with respect to sets. While I was at Exeter I had a setter one year who loved to do counter-flow back sets to the Zone 2 pin. This sometimes caught our hitters flat-footed because they weren’t expecting it, even though it was exactly the right set to make in the situation.

Trust in one’s teammates to do their job and to make plays goes a long way toward being ready.

Parkinson’s Law definitely applies to practice planning!

Once, as I developed the training plans for the Svedala team, I recalled Parkinson’s Law. It goes something like this.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

I’ve written before about the amount of time you should allocate to practice planning. Part of that discussion was how easily the task could consume crazy amounts of time if not properly constrained. I experienced that while coaching at Exeter. I could find find myself spending all afternoon making up that evenings practice plan. Then, I had to remind myself of that a couple of times the first week of training in Sweden.

It was so tempting for me as I got started with a new team in a new environment to let the practice planning suck me in and not let me go.

You may be thinking, “But you were a professional volleyball coach. That was your job!”

That’s true, but that doesn’t mean I should let one task eat of a major part of my day. Efficiency in planning is just as important as developing an efficient training plan. There are a lot of other things for a coach to do. Watching video comes immediately to mind!

Need more coach fitness!

Wow! It’s been a rough week or so on the old body.

Last week while working with the TV Bühl guys I stepped backward onto an unseen ball on the ground. The resulting fall involved a mildly sprained ankle and some wrist damage. The ankle was mostly back to normal within 24 hours despite not going the RICE route (just worked it around a bit). The wrist was quite painful the first 24 hours. That did quickly abate, but there remain some persistent issues. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve had wrist problems. Hopefully, it clears up soon.

Getting to Svedala shifted the focus from injury to fitness. The place the club has secured for me, while more than adequate to my needs (or at least it will be once a few things get sorted out) is a bit outside of town – about a 20 minute walk to the main commercial area. Over the course of Sunday and Monday I spent about 2.5 hours in total walking for one reason or another. I walked everywhere while living in Exeter, but I was pretty centrally located then. The trips were frequent, and often involved hills, but they weren’t log. Even when I walked for exercise it was only in the 35 minute duration range.

So when I did a 1 hour round trip to go grocery shopping on Sunday, and then later had to walk to meet up with the three American players in the team for some pre-start discussions, I felt it.

The club has since provided me with a bike, which will definitely be handy for things like shopping and going to the train station (which is on opposite side of tow n from me). For the time being, though, I’m planning on sticking mainly to walking for the extra exercise. I could do with a major improvement to my overall fitness!

Pretty soon the exercise will also include trips to the fitness club the team has access to in town. I’m looking forward to that. All the computer time the last few years has me rather softer than I’d like.

Training Plan: 11 players, just games

Priorities: Shake off the rust with lots of touches, start the process of the players getting to know each other at the beginning of a new season, get some initial impressions

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 2 courts

Players: 11 (2 setters)

Notes: Because set-up and take down were included in the allocated time, and some amount of time was necessarily allocated to introductions and initial discussion, the actual training period was somewhat less than 2 hours.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: No isolated warm-up.

Cooperative 1 vs 1 and 1 vs 1 w/fixed setter: Set up 4 games on 1 v. 1 and one game of 1 v 1 with a fixed setter. The idea is to get to 6 good pass-set-downball sequences. As soon as one group gets there, they all rotate in a clockwise fashion. If no one gets there in the time limit, rotate anyway.
11-player singles rotation3-person and 4-person pepper w/fixed setter: On one court is two groups of 3-person rotating over-the-net pepper. On the other court is a 2 v. 2 pepper with a fixed setter. The team’s two setters are market A and B. Again, play to six good pass-set-hit sequences (this time with jumping), or a the time limit. Rotation for the non-setters is clockwise. The setters switch positions each rotation.

11-player peppers

5-person and 6-person player winners: Each court has a game of Player Winners on it, one with 5 players and one with 6 players. Play for 5 minutes, then move the top 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person, and the bottom 3 from the 6-person court the other way (now making the 5 a 6 and the 6 a 5). Play 5 more minutes, then send the top 3 from the 6-person court to the 5-person court, and the bottom 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person court. Play another 5 minutes, then repeat the process from after the first round. Play one last round of 5 minutes.

Winners 3: Finish with standard Winners (3s in this case) Start with back court attacks only, then shift to allowing front court attacks as well.

– – – Observations – – –

The first two exercises went quicker than expected. As a result it was desirable to add a 5th exercise. The initial thought was to play Winners 4s, but instead Neville Pepper was used. The 9 non-setters were split up into three roughly equal teams. They were the teams to play through the games. The setters were used in a fixed fashion, switching sides when the challenge side won a rally.

Avoiding player feedback dependence

The other day I can across the following question from a fellow volleyball coach:

What do you do to make sure your players don’t become dependent on you for feedback in matches?

This sort of thing is a significant touch point for me. I hate to see athletes turning to their coach(es) after each play during competition. The captain of my women’s team at Exeter had this habit that she once specifically talked with me about. It was presumably something that developed as a young athlete. By the time she played for me she wasn’t actually looking over expecting feedback. It was just an automatic, likely mostly unconscious thing.

Gives you an idea of the sort of long-term impact a coach can have, doesn’t it?

I have written before about how I strongly favor an approach which encourages the players to be responsible for their own decisions, adjustments, etc. (see Calling plays from the bench). I’ve also written about the value of helping players reach the point where they can self-coach. Both of these are areas where we can focus on making our athletes more self-reliant.

At it’s core, encouraging players to make their own decisions and become their own coaches is the need for us to be able to stand back and let the players learn lessons for themselves. I know as teachers we all want to “fix” the mistakes we’re seeing being made. Keeping players from being reliant upon us, though, means resisting the urge to provide feedback on each and every rep. My own personal approach is to not say anything until I see a string off the same error being made. Even then, I want to take a more Socratic approach – asking the athlete to tell me what the problem is rather than just telling them – to get them thinking about it in their own way.

I think you can probably get away with praising a good execution more quickly, especially when it’s a newly developed thing. That tends to reinforce what you’re after. Just don’t go overboard and praise every single repetition.

You should probably also avoid a pattern I apparently fell into. Back when I was coaching at Brown I apparently had the players convinced I was only ever watching them when they made a mistake! While the players were joking about it, and not really taking it seriously, it made me realize I probably wasn’t mixing in enough praise. Lesson learned.

The other thing which can factor in to the “look at the coach after the play” response is if they think they will get yanked for making a mistake. That’s an athlete playing in fear, which you definitely don’t want.

Coaching Log – Aug 28, 2015

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

The first training session is on Monday!

I’ll return to Svedala this weekend. Aside from getting my domestic affairs sorted out, my first priority before Monday evening’s initial practice is meeting with the three American players. I will have a first full team meeting before Tuesday’s training session, but I want to talk about a few things with Camryn, Chelsey, and Mo that relate specifically to them and their status as the foreign players in the squad.

Right now I’m planning to do a playing-only session on Monday, which is a 2 hour slot at our secondary facility. Tuesday we’ll have a team meeting before we do the first proper training session in the main hall. I’ve asked that any “just training” or “want to try it out before making a decision” players be at the Tuesday session at a minimum, and Monday too if at all possible. My main meeting focus on Tuesday will be what I expect to see in training (behavior, attitude, etc.) and what the players can expect from me. I want “guest” players to know what my expectations are going in because they will be held to the same standards as everyone else.

Wednesday we have our first session of weight training as a team before practice. I’ll probably focus that on assessment with regards to a couple key exercises. I need to find out what the exercise club we’ll be using has for equipment, etc. Thursday is an off day. Friday night and Saturday morning will be regular training sessions of 3 hours and 2 hours respectively, though I doubt I’ll go the full time on Friday.

My main point of emphasis for the whole first week will be on seeing where the team and individuals are at in terms of both play and fitness so I can then start plotting our developmental path forward.

Schedule:
I found out this week that the revised schedule has been set following the late withdrawal of a team I mentioned previously. The plan is similar to the previous schedule where we were to play most teams home and away, but two teams close to us geographically another home and away round. Only in this case it will be three teams we play 4 times each rather than two, with Hylte/Halmstad added to Engelholm and Gislaved. The playoff structure was still being decided at last check.

The schedule for the pre-season tournament we’re playing in Denmark the last weekend of September has been released. It’s an 8-team tournament featuring a pair of 4-team pools. Pool A is Holte, Brøndby, Hylte/Halmstad, and Fortuna. Pool B is Engelholm, Svedala, Team Køge, Amager. So we’ll get to see the three Danish teams we have as competition in the Öresundsligan I mentioned before. Engelholm is also part of that league. Fortuna and Team Køge are both also from the Danish top division.

The third Swedish team in the Öresundsligan is Gislaved. It looks like we’ll play them the weekend before the above tournament as a 1-off friendly. Unfortunately, the timing of that is a bit awkward, as two of my players have been called up to the Sweden U19 camp next month in preparation for the NEVZA U19 tournament in October. Both have played for Sweden at the U17 level. One of those players is a middle, of which I currently only have two in the squad. Could make things a bit tricky in terms of line-up decisions.

From this point on I expect to shift the timing of these log entries. I won’t do them daily the way I did with Exeter in 2013-14 and 2014-15. This is mainly a function of having training or matches 5 days a week for the most part. That would just be too many entries and wouldn’t leave much room to write about anything else. I might do some daily entries in the case of very specific items of broad interest, but beyond that I’ll probably stick to a weekly publishing calendar and maybe post on Sunday or Monday.

Setter considerations

Part of the USA Volleyball Coaches Accreditation Program Level II (CAP II) requirements is that coaches write an article for publication. One such article was posted on the USAV website titled Recipe for a Setter by Peggy Kane-Hopton. In it, Peggy presents what she considers the five key characteristics of a good setter.

  1. Athletic ability and touch
  2. Communication and leadership
  3. Mental toughness
  4. Game understanding
  5. Physical attributes

One might be inclined to merge #1 and #5, but I think pretty much they all capture the main elements. They basically match what I talked about in the post Picking a Setter.

In the first section Peggy says “The setter’s most important skill is the ability to get to the ball.” A quick touch is the next important thing. This reminds me of a question posed to me by a former teammate. He’s now a Division I head coach at our alma mater. A few years back he asked if I would rate good feet or good hands higher for a setter. I said feet, and thus agree with Peggy. He said hands.

In the last section there’s a line that I think is so key.

“The setter must be able to move quickly to beat the ball to the spot.”

Along with setters not actually getting to target, this an issue for many setters. Instead of beating the ball and getting in a good position to execute the set, they time it and arrive at the same time as the ball. This means a less stable setting platform and almost certainly lower set consistency.

The one comment I would have that might be to the contrary of Peggy’s article is that sometimes the mental side of things can offset physical short-comings. A setter’s leadership skills and/or ability to read the game my make up for being undersized, a bit slow, or something along those lines.

Small squad volleyball training

I saw the following question posed by a volleyball coach. Most of us at some point in our coaching careers have to deal either with having a small squad or having limited numbers in training, so I thought it worth addressing.

I have 6-7 players, how can i create game like situation without enough to scrimmage each other? Our first game is coming soon so I’m really needing this week to get them set up in their positions, learn where they need to go….etc. But hard without having another team to play the ball back over….

I can relate. Once, in my first year coaching U16 girls it was just me and 6 players in training. I decided to play a little game with them at the end of the session. It was me against them. I served every ball and if I could dig their attack with control, or they could not return the ball, I got the point. If they could get a kill, they got the point.

Funnily, after I developed a solid lead mainly by digging their attacks (experience in reading an attacker has its advantages!), one of the girls said in exasperation, “Can we please stop hitting the ball right to John!?” 🙂

I liked hearing that. At least one of them was looking for the team to try to problem solve so they could beat me! I’m pretty sure I still won the game relatively comfortably, but they did get more competitive.

I tell this story as an example of how a little thought and creativity can lead to useful solutions. I’ve seen plenty of examples of a smaller number of players taking on a full squad. It’s just a question of finding rules and/or a scoring system. You want a system that makes things appropriately competitive. And it should see the players focused on whatever the keys are for that particular exercise.

It’s also worth looking at ways you can train game situations with elements of the team. A 3-v-3 game back row game is useful to work on defense against back row attacks and down balls. A game where you have an OH attacking into Zones 1 or 6 going against an OPP attacking into Zones 6 or 5 can be a highly game-like activity using a limited number of players. The same for having OHs going against each other with cross court attacks.

A serve reception example of this could be to put two passers in to cover 2/3rds of the court (say Zones 1 and 6) and having a setter and hitting element incorporated. If you set it up so it matches a serve receive rotational situation (such a setter penetrating from 1 with the MB in 3), then you can work quite nicely on key aspects of that phase of play without needing 6 players on one side.

With activities like that, it’s about taking what’s going on in a certain part of the court. You basically exclude the positions which wouldn’t be involved the the game scenario you’re training. That frees players up for something else to facilitate the exercise.