Game Scoring System – Bank Your Points

Want a way to encourage your team to fight to win long rallies? Or alternatively, want to encourage them to extend a rally rather than go for a kill when it’s not really a good opportunity? Here’s a scoring system that could do the trick. You can use it for normal 6 v 6 play, and also for small-sided games.

Here’s how it works. After the ball is served, you count how many times it crosses the net during the course of the rally. The team which wins the rally gets that many points added to their score.

Let’s walk through an example. The receiving team attacks the ball and the serving team digs it. That’s one time crossing the net (serve does not count). The defenders then attack back, making it two net crossings. The count goes up to three when the dig rebounds back over the net as a free ball. The serving team then gets a kill on the attack which follows. The attack is the 4th crossing, so four points to the serving team.

Or you could choose not to count the final attack. Your call. I think you get the idea.

Here’s something you can also consider. One thing we generally would rather not see is our servers missing after a we’ve just won a long rally. To bring that sort of thing into focus, you could add a little wrinkle to the scoring. If a player misses their serve, the other team is awarded the value of the last rally win. This is not very penal after a quick sideout, but very much so after a long exchange.

Depending on your level and/or particular focus for the game, you could start each rally with something other than a serve. Also, you could chose not to count free balls in the net-crossing tally. No doubt you can think of your own variations.

Player-to-coach feedback from a team exercise

At the beginning of 2017 the Midwestern State (MSU) head coach gave everyone on the program – players and coaches – a task. Based on the book One Word that will Change Your Life, we each had to come up with a word that represented something in our life that we wanted to improve or otherwise focus on. The was about both volleyball and life. I chose the word consistency. For me that was mainly a personal thing.

The year 2016 was a big transitional one for me. I started the year in Sweden coaching profession, but then rather abruptly left. After spending about a month in Long Beach, CA, I then moved to Texas to coach at MSU in a very new locale, with new people, and in a new situation. I never felt like I settled things down into a good routine for myself personally. That is what motivated my word choice.

I was not thinking about volleyball when I picked my word – at least not directly. I believe I do a good job of being consistent with my teams (see this Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast). It’s a focus point for me, and my prior teams gave me positive feedback about it. More consistency in my personal life, though, would no doubt have positive knock-on effects to my coaching work

Fast forward to the early part of the 2017 volleyball season. The head coach brought us all together one day for an exercise. We were all given a sheet of paper and told to put our name and our word at the top. We then passed everyone’s papers around the room. One by one we wrote positive comments on each person’s paper about how they were doing with respect to their word – and perhaps more broadly.

Below you can see the front and back of my sheet. You’ll also notice that someone decided to give me a new title, and several smiley faces were added. Not sure who did that, but “Papa” has now stuck. :-/

Naturally, the comments focus on consistency. After all, that’s my word. I was glad to see that they also appreciated other things I try to bring with me, though. Knowledge is obviously one of those, as you’d hope if you’re coaching! The other is a sense of humor. Volleyball is a game. Being part of a team should be fun. We shouldn’t take things – or ourselves – so seriously that we forget that.

I hesitate to call this proper feedback. After all, it was specifically intended to be positive. That makes it pretty one-sided. Still, it at least helps one to see if certain things are getting across.

Click for full-sized version

Coaching Log – September 25, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

There were some really interesting results in the conference over the weekend! Most notably, Angelo lost both times out – at Commerce and at Texas Woman’s. That was a stunner. This was the #6 team in the poll losing to two unranked ones, and making many more errors than we’re used to seeing them make. Commerce also beat #14 Tarleton, which means they have to be taken very seriously now. Tarleton managed to beat Texas Woman’s, but not easily.

The other interesting set of results happened in New Mexico. Recall I reported last week that Western NM swept Eastern NM on Tuesday night at Western. Well, on Friday Eastern hosted Kingsville and won easily. Kingsville then went to Western on Saturday and beat them without much problem.

Monday

We started out with a review of the stats from the weekend and a bit of video to look at places we want to improve. That’s mostly to do with block and defense. From there it was a relatively short session with a strong game orientation.

After warming up, we played a continuous out-of-system attacking game. That was largely aimed at working on closing up our block on higher sets. The rest of the time was a serve receive and transition game. The teams switched off serving five balls and we went through all the rotations.

Tuesday

A few players did extra work, but we didn’t have any official practice this day. Instead, the two groups that normally went did bystander training with one of our Associate Athletic Directors. All teams have to do it, and this was the best option we could see.

Some of the other teams in the conference played matches. In a match up of the two teams we just played, West Texas easily beat UTPB at home. The really interesting match, though, was Texas Woman’s hosting Commerce. The former won fairly comfortably, which keeps us all wondering how the league will fall out this year.

Wednesday

Practice was mixed. After splitting out to do serving and passing on one court and attacking with the MBs and RS on the other, we brought it back to 6 v 6. We did the same sort of offense vs. defense we used on Monday, with some bonus points on offer.

The other 6 v 6 work we did was the 22 v 22 game. We put the focus on first-ball kills by giving the receiving team the automatic point if they got an immediate kill. The serving team got an automatic point for an ace or a block on the initial attack. Honestly, we lacked a bit of focus. It probably showed most in fairly poor passing.

At the end of practice we did more pressure serving. This was were things got difficult. They struggled. Frustration was clear. We stopped after several rounds without the team completing the objective. It was the end of our practices slot. We talked about the poor energy and how we needed to learn to push through in these situations. It was like our West Texas match from the prior Friday. To their credit, the captains pushed to continue. That’s what we did, and the energy was much better. They still didn’t finish, as we had to clear the gym. The serves were much better all around, though.

In the sole match of the night featuring conference teams, Angelo faced off against Tarleton for the second time. Recall that Angelo won the first one in a sweep. This time it was Tarleton taking the win, and on Angelo’s home court at that. That gave Angelo three losses, which is more than they had in-conference all of last season.

Thursday

The day’s session started with a scouting report on Friday’s opponent. Then we had a fairly lively session. It wasn’t the cleanest, most focused though. Basically, that’s in keeping with the pattern of the week.

We started with Brazilian 2-ball to get their competitive juices flowing. From there we moved into a 7 v 7 out-of-system game. What that entailed was two blockers on each pin, no MB, and three back row defenders. When a team was on offense, the outside of the two pin blockers peeled off the court, so only the inside ones were attackers. We did this to try to ensure high ball swings against good blocks.

From there, two keep working on serve receive offense, we did a 6 v 6 wash game. Each team received three serves. To earn a big point, they had to win two of the three service rallies. If not, it was a wash. After both teams received, we rotated.

Because we had some players leave for class, we went into backrow 4s after the 6s. We finished up with more of the pressure serving.

Friday

Finally, we had our first home match of the season! We hosted Western New Mexico. They were 7th in the preseason poll. That’s one place below their 2016 final standing. They came in at 1-8 overall, but some of those losses were against good teams, including two in the Top 25. Their size gave us real problems last year, but we should handle that better this season. They came into our match at 1-1 in conference after beating Eastern NM and losing to Kingsville in the first week.

Our match started poorly. During warm-ups our freshman OH injured herself. One more thing in a difficult week (see below). I don’t think she was going to start, but she might have gotten some playing time. She’s played quite a bit up to this point and done reasonably well.

The match was very frustrating. Errors dominated – mainly ours. We lost 3-1. Our players earned 66 points from kills, aces, and blocks. They only managed 51. And yet the scores were 17-25, 25-15, 23-25, and 17-25. There were 15 errors of the service variety, and 27 in attack. Of the latter, 11 came in the final set. So even though we kept them to hitting only .132 – partly with the help of 12 blocks, we only managed .139 ourselves. We failed to keep sustained pressure on them from the service line when they were definitely struggling in reception.

Things could have been very different had we finished the comeback we began in the third set. We fell behind early, again thanks to errors. Things turned around, though, and we narrowed the gap Unfortunately, a hitting error on a 1 v 1 swing on the right ended the set.

All in all, just too many sub-par performances. Our sophomore OH and senior MB both, though, had good nights going, but together accounted for seven of the 11 hitting errors in the fourth set. Our senior libero had an all-together off night in both serving and passing, and while our senior setter had some very good patches, she was uneven in her decision-making.

On the plus side, it was largely fixable stuff. Also, our senior OH, who we put in the O1 position because she’s been doing really well against bigger blocks and had a good week of practice, had a very good match. She tallied 18 kills, picked up 3 aces and 8 digs playing mainly front row.

Saturday

Our second home match was against Eastern New Mexico. They were picked in preseason as the 6th best team. That’s two places lower than where they ended last season. No doubt a part of that move is the loss to graduation of by far their best hitter. They came in at 3-7 overall, and as with Western they’ve played some good teams (three in the Top 25). We split with them last year, with each of us winning on the other team’s court. They defeated Cameron on Friday, 3-1.

We got on top of them quickly in the first set, with the help of good targeted serving. Eastern. It was an easy 25-17 win in the end, but Eastern got better. They took an early lead in the second set, but we kept it close and eventually pulled ahead to win 26-24. In the third set we were generally on the front foot. We won 25-21 to take the match 3-0.

Our passing wasn’t the best, at just 1.84, but we were about 64% siding out. Our serves produced 9 aces against only 5 errors, and we scored at 49%. Eastern is a very solid defensive team, so our kill % was lower than usual, but we kept our errors down to hit for a .233 efficiency on the match. At the same time, our defense was equally stout. We held them to just .142. Our senior OH continued her good attacking play led all hitters with 13 kills on the match.

By the way, we actually had a full squad of cheerleaders at the match. The head coach said it was he first time she can remember that happening. Last year a couple of them would show up and sit in the stands. This time they actually were in full action.

A difficult week off the court

We found out early on Wednesday that a football player injured in the team’s game on Saturday died as a result. It hit the campus hard, as you can imagine. The head coach gave the players a chance to talk through what they were feeling before we got practice started that day. There were a lot of tears. I’ve heard of football players dying on the field, but never from an injury sustained during play.

Coaching Log – September 18, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

It’s Lone Star Conference time!

The latest AVCA Coaches Poll for Division II saw two LSC teams in the Top 25 – Angelo at #5 and Tarleton at #14. Both of them moved up after playing in a very competitive tournament the prior weekend. Angelo’s only lost thus far was in four to the current #2 team in the country, defending champions Concordia-St. Paul. Tarleton to this point has had the toughest schedule in the conference. Entering this week, they had played all but two matches to-date against currently ranked teams. One of them was Angelo, who beat them rather convincingly in tournament play.

Conference teams also played a number of midweek matches. In most cases they were against teams from the Heartland Conference, which is part of our NCAA region. The LSC teams all but one of them, which is good for our teams’ regional rankings.

Monday

We spent about 30 minutes at the start of practice talking first about how we’re doing in our key statistical metrics related to serving, passing, and hitting, and then about our psychology at the start of sets. Naturally, that ate into our on-court time. This resulted in a shortened session.

Most of the time we were in in two groups. On one court the defensive players worked on digging harder attacks, while on the other the net players worked on blocking. In the case of the latter, a lot of attention was on eye focus (e.g. ball-setter-ball-hitter). Specifically, we need to do a much better job with hitter tracking and block timing.

The split group work took up about and hour of practicing. That left about 30 minutes for the remainder. Most of that was a repeat of the drill we did last week where we went high tempo and had them focused on quick positional movements and stopping before contact. We finished the session with more pressure serving.

Tuesday

Another day for the split groups. Continuing from Monday’s work, we focused a lot on blocking. Each session ran the same sequence of drills. We started with a serving warm-up, then some target work. From there we shifted to serving & passing. As as been the pattern of late, we began with 2-person reception covering the whole court. We use it to ensure the passers continue to work on good movement to the ball since they have to cover more ground.

The progression from there was to 3-person reception, with hitting and blocking added. Half the time it featured MB/OH attack vs MB/RS block, while the other half the time we reversed it. The two attacker options kept the block from cheating, and in some cases forced them to track moving hitters.

Next up was a variation on the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. In this case we only had one back row player, plus a blocker. The idea was to work on the defense playing around the block in their specific area of responsibility. We made it competitive as well, with teams scoring via earned points (kills and blocks).

The last primary exercise repeated the repetitive transition drill we used the prior week. That’s the one were the 6-player team needed five consecutive plays where they quickly returned to base after an attack, while also being disciplined in hitter coverage. Failure to do so saw the team revert back to zero in their count.

Each group ended with more pressure serving akin to Run & Serve.

Wednesday

We continued working on blocking this session, alongside some serve and pass and defense. Slides, though, were the big focal point. We want to get better running them, and at the same time we knew defensively we’d be facing them from upcoming opposition. Aside from just working on the timing and tempo, we created a game situation which encouraged them. This was in the form of a game where only the receiving could score. Specifically, they could only score if they first ran a slide out of serve reception. They didn’t need a first ball kill, though. They simply needed to win that rally. Whichever team won the rally earned the right to receive. Some good progress seemed to be made offensively. Defense could still use work, though.

Thursday

Back on the road once more. But first, we did a midday practice. We contemplated doing a practice at our destination. The MSU men’s soccer team had a match there that the team wanted to attend, though, so we opted for the earlier practice choice.

We used the opportunity to get some focused attacking done by the OHs and RS. They haven’t had the attention of late that the MBs got. To do so we did some pass-to-attack with targeted swings. The remainder of the session was given over to 6 v 6 play where we whistled on failures in defensive or coverage discipline.

The soccer team won their match, by the way. They left it VERY late, though. When they scored right near the end of the first overtime the whole team ran over to celebrate in front of where we sat in the bleachers. Great scene!

Friday

The first match of our 2017 LSC season was away to West Texas A&M. They finished 6th in the league in 2016 and were voted in at 5th in the pre-season conference poll. They went 4-0 in their opening weekend tournament at home, but were only 1-3 last weekend. That could have been influenced by having to change plans late. They were supposed to play in Florida, but had that event cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. That forced a scramble, which resulted in them playing in a tournament in Illinois.

Of note, WT is one of the two schools where video challenge is supposed to be available this year. It wasn’t ready for our match, though.

Definitely not our best match. Based on post-match comments, we just never had the right mindset. It showed. Too much feeling of the pressure to win and not enough fun. It showed up for sure in our serving, which simply did not put enough pressure on the opposition. Way too many ended up in 6. We also seemed to feel like we had to do more than just the simple things, resulting in too many errors – especially early on. Midway through the 2nd set we did get our noses in front, but could not hold it. That was our only real opportunity.

In the end we hit an anemic .153 (by our potential). We let them hit .243. Just let them run in-system too much. There weren’t a lot of bright spots, but our freshman OH did get 12 kills and hit for a reasonable percentage. Also, our libero grabbed 23 digs.

We also played Nebraska-Kearney the same day. They won the MIAA last year and came in at #6 in the latest poll. West Texas arranged for both of us to play them. Obviously, we did not expect to win this one. We agreed to play it to help our strength of schedule. As with playing the other ranked teams, it could factor in to our chances of making the NCAA tournament. Naturally, that only happens if we have a good season.

This match was much more free and fun. We weren’t shy about going after them. They’re obviously a good team, and they handled us in the first two sets, but we definitely put them under pressure in the third. They actually were up on us 18-13 in that set, but we came storming back. We had two serves for set point, but ended up going down 26-28.

Our senior MB had a very good match. She hit .538 and picked up a trio of blocks. We also got some other players court time. Our current second setter ran the offense in the final set. Our freshman RS was a serving sub. She was instrumental in our comeback. Our sophomore OH also got some time as she continues to ramp up after an early season injury. She performed well enough to earn the start on Saturday.

Saturday

UT Permian Basin was the second LSC match of the campaign. They finished 10th last year, and are expected by the voters to finish there again this year. It is worth remembering, though, that their 5-set comeback win at the end of last season allowed us to reach the conference tournament. We saw them at the St. Edward’s tournament when were were there. They went 1-2 overall, beating Southern Arkansas, but falling in 5 to Black Hills, and in 4 to the hosts. They also lost on Tuesday in 4 to Lubbock Christian among that day’s LSC-Heartland match-ups. On Friday, though, they beat Cameron in their conference opener, 4-1.

Honestly, although it was a comfortable 3-0 win in the end, this one was too see-saw. We were clearly the better team, but gave up runs that let UTPB close the gap a couple different times. For example, in the first we were up 12-5, then saw them fight back to 13-12. Then we were up 20-14, and let them get it to 22-20. In the third we led 23-18, but let them get it to 23-21. Only in the second set did we run away with the game.

Our first set hitting percentage was only .211, but we were much better after that to end the match at .298. We kept them to just .109. Our junior OH hit .535. Our freshman MB, who has struggled lately with her connections, went for a solid .429, and our senior MB grabbed 5 blocks.

Interestingly, UPTB employed a triple block against the latter when we were in-system in serve receive. Obviously, they did their scouting and saw that she is a leading attacker for us. The problem is we are not so one-dimensional as that. That strategy left big space for our pin hitters, which we exploited ruthlessly.

In other news

On Wednesday we reached the end of a drawn out saga related to one of our freshmen middles. Because she failed a class during the final high school term, she came up a half year short of meeting the NCAA’s core requirements for eligibility. That made her a “partial qualifier”. Basically, this means she is eligible to practice, but cannot compete and cannot travel (she missed the Buenos Aires trip and hasn’t been with us for our two tournament trips). This applies to her whole first year. It’s kind of like an academic red shirt situation. The NCAA basically forces student-athletes in this situation to focus on their school work. We hoped to get the NCAA to reverse the ruling, but in the end our efforts were for naught.

Considerations in serve reception ratings

In the article Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness I talk about the common usage of a 0-3 type of scale for rating serve reception. In this post, fellow volleyball blogger Hai-Binh Ly discusses how he progressed defining these ratings. Basically, he’s reached the point of using very defined zones to judge a pass’s rating. These are the zones defined within the commonly used DataVolley statistical program. Ly outlines them in his post.

I have my concerns with rigid definitions. Ly mentions some of them with respect to grey areas, but I would focus more on the fact that they fail to account for setter athleticism. Simply stated, a pass that might only be a 1 for a given setter might be a 2 for a quicker one. It could even be a 3. Think about a tight pass that a short setter cannot handle, but a taller one has no problem with.

The thing we have to keep in mind is the underlying idea behind these pass ratings.

The intention was to speak to the probability of earning the sideout. This is what Dr. Jim Coleman had in mind when he developed the rating system. The premise is that a 3-pass results in a sideout some percentage of the time. A 2-pass, on average, sees a team sideout at some other frequency – most likely lower. And so on down the line. From this perspective, a team’s average pass rating indicates its approximate sideout rate.

If pass ratings are going to approximate sideout success rates, then it makes sense to use a more discretionary rating approach. By that I mean rating passes based on the circumstances of the team in question. In other words, what can your setter do with the ball? Rigid definitions for each pass rating do not make sense in that context.

If, however, we want to compare serve reception across teams, or between players, then a more fixed system is more appropriate. In that case, we need a common system of measurement. That removes setter variability from the equation.

So which is best?

As a coach, it depends on your setters. Are they of similar quality? If so, you can use the more discretionary approach. If they are noticeably different, though, you probably have to go with a more rigid system. This is especially true if your passers do not work with each setter basically the same amount of time. It’s the only fair way to compare them.

Coaching Log – September 11, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

Time for the second week of pre-conference action. We got a glimpse of where teams in the league might be at from the first week’s results, but only to a limited degree. In particular, Tarleton looked quite strong taking down two higher ranked teams. On the other hand, the two New Mexico schools both went 0-4, perhaps unexpectedly. It was against decent competition, though, so maybe not a good indication just yet. This week’s round of matches would help clear the picture up a bit further.

Monday

It was a light, recovery oriented return to the court after the prior weekend’s action. We took advantage of the holiday to do a midday session rather than our normal afternoon one. For about the first 20 minutes we talked about our performance and where we need to go to reach our season objectives.

The session itself was only about 60 minutes long. We did some ball-handling to warm-up generally, then used around-the-world serving to warm-up that part of things. The bulk of the session saw us work on serve-to-reception-to-middle/RS attack. In particular, we wanted to work on slides. They just weren’t where we need them to be.

The last part of practice was back on serving. I introduced the team to the Run & Serve drill. We wanted to do some pressure serving and I have used this drill with several teams over the years. It creates a the obvious pressure of making a serve while also adding the element of doing so immediately after physical exertion.

We adjusted it a little, though. First, we split the team over two courts to make it competitive (who finishes first). Second, we only served in one direction to avoid balls impeding our jump servers.

The initial round the objective was to get the serve in with the requirement that the ball not be higher than the height of the antenna. Not a major challenge for this level of player, but you have to start somewhere. It took one group two tries to finish, and the other three tries.

We did it one more time, making it a little tougher. Again, the serve had to be flat. Now it also had to land in the back third of the court. The same group who won the first time finished this one in just a handful of tries. The other group took several rounds longer. The comments after reflected the the players did indeed feel the pressure of it. One of them was heard to say it was like eight match point serves.

Tuesday

Back to the split sessions once more. We continued to have a serve receive to attack focus that we did quite a bit of last week. This time, though, there was much more focus on serving. We kept track of the servers in terms of both how effectively they were hitting their selected targets and how often they missed their serves.

I think broadly speaking those who did the best were at about 10% errors. The others remained about 20%, so basically what we saw from the weekend. In terms of hitting their targets, it seemed to be below 50%. Not exactly great figures. No doubt more work in these areas will follow.

Wednesday

Although it wasn’t necessarily our plan going in, we put the players under considerable pressure in this session. This came from two exercises.

The first was a high tempo transition oriented drill. We wanted to work on base reset and being stopped in defense and coverage. On one side a team of six was the focus. Their objective was to quickly get back to base and stopped before setter contact each time they attacked a ball over the net. Their objective was to do that five times in a row. Each cycle started with them getting a downball and running the offense. Once that rally was over, the other side had a ball tossed to the setter for them to attack. If at any point the focus team did not do their job, they reset back to zero. There was very little time between rallies, so it went very fast and was very demanding.

The other tough drill was one where we had the OHs attacking against a set double block. Their collective goal was to get to +10. Every good attack away from where a defender would be (including block-out attacks) was a +1. Any balls in or hitting the net or stuff blocks was a -1. Our MBs and RSs did the blocking. It was a frustrating experience for a couple of the hitters.

We finished up with regular games, but shortened. We want to create more of a focus on getting going strong in matches, so we decided to aim to be first to 8 in our games. We’re hoping that helps with the sluggish starts we had to all of our first four matches.

Thursday

This was a travel day as we headed south to Austin for the weekend’s tournament. We did, though, do a bit of a server & pass session when we got into town. It only went about 35 minutes, but was kind of intense. Mainly, we did alternating serve reception in rotations. After that, though, we did a couple of rounds of Continuous Transition and finished with pressure serving.

Friday

Our first match of the day was against Black Hills State, from South Dakota. They are a member of the RMAC, which is one of the three conferences in our NCAA region, making it a meaningful one for regional ranking purposes. In 2016 they finished in 10th, and the pre-season conference poll saw them finishing at a similar level this year.

This was a tricky match. Black Hills already had a match under their belt – a 5-set win over fellow Lone Star Conference team UT Permian basin. They definitely gave us some trouble early on. The first set was a close on that we lost 23-25. I think maybe the fact that we expected to win and didn’t played with our psyche some as we had a terrible second set. Also, we were mixing around the line-up a bit, experimenting some with a 6-2 system. We lost 12-25 and hit -.091. After that, things settled out. We won the next two 25-20 and 25-22. The fifth set was tight for a while, but we went on a long right on points and won easily, 15-7.

Overall, we hit .211 on the match. That, though, was seriously lowered by the poor second set. All the others were .225 or better, with the final two sets coming at .385 and .300. The work on serving during the week paid off. We had only 9 errors on the match out of 100 attempts. Our junior transfer DS tormented their serve reception, picking up 6 aces.

Our second match of the day was against the tournament hosts St. Edwards. We played them at our home tournament last year and lost rather disappointingly. They are from the Heartland Conference, with is also part of the trio of conferences comprising our NCAA region. So another meaningful match for the rankings. Last year they tied for 3rd in the conference standings and were picked to repeat that in 2017.

Once more, we had a difficult start to the match. A late comeback put us in position to win, but in the end we came up short at 26-28. We made 12 hitting errors on the set. From there we won rather convincingly, 25-20, 25-17, 25-15. This was one of our better defensive performances as we dug more than half of opponent attacks and had 13 blocks. As a result, they only hit .075 for the match. We only hit .185 ourselves, but if you drop that poor first set it would be .263.

Saturday

The final match of the tournament saw us play Southern Arkansas. They are from the GMAC, and not from an adjoining state, so are not a regional team. In 2016 they finished 10th in the conference, with the preseason poll seeing them come in at 11th this year.

We played a lot of players in this match, and for one whole set went with a 6-2. It definitely led to some sloppy play. In the end, we won 3-1 on scores of 25-20, 25-22, 24-26, 25-17. Honestly, the third set wasn’t really that close. That’s the one we went with the 6-2 on. It took a massive comeback in the latter stages to make it seem respectable.

Our offense was massive in this match, with a .353 final hitting efficiency. That’s the best an MSU team has done in about 10 years. The last set came in at .567, with 19 kills! Our freshman OH had 21 kills, with a better than 50% kill rate (her total of 25 points is tied for 4th in program history since keeping track). In fact, so did our junior transfer OH, who ended up at a .524 efficiency. Our defense, though, was poor. Overall, they hit .206, but that was dragged down by an .077 in the first set. Our blocking was all over the place, which not surprisingly left our defense exposed.

Final outcome

Our 3-0 weekend made us tournament champions, so we came away with exactly what we wanted. It was the first tournament sweep for the program in four years (that one was at home). Obviously, we’d liked it to have been a trio of sweeps, but we did get to see some new stuff that may pay off in the future. Our sophomore OH got some playing time after missing last the initial round of matches due to injury.

Not surprisingly, our players dominated the statistical leaders for the event. While it didn’t include the tally from the final match (played immediately after our last one), it likely was at least very close to the end results. We had three of the top 8 in terms of hitting efficiency, four of the top five in kills/set, four of the top seven in aces/set, and two in the top eight for blocks.

Or senior MB was tops in both efficiency (.389) and kills/set (3.31), as well as holding fourth in blocks (1.38). For that, she rightly was voted MVP. We honestly felt like she should have made all-tournament the previous week, but somehow we didn’t get anyone selected.

Our senior setter earned Setter of the Tournament. Our transfer junior OH was also picked to the all-tournament team.

Pre-conference vs. pre-season

I want to address something that confuses volleyball people outside the US at times.

In professional sports – including volleyball – pre-season preparation includes a certain amount of external competition. They televise and analyze these games in the NFL, for example. In other sports, not so much.

Volleyball is one of those sports.

Professional teams (and non-pros as well) play loads of matches during their pre-season which they call friendlies. I watched one in 2015 when I was at Bühl. They hosted a Dutch team. If I remember correctly, they played something like 15 friendlies in 2014. That’s over the course of a pre-season lasting about two months. When I coached in Sweden, we played 5 or 6 friendlies during our month of preparation.

But they don’t count for anything.

Yes, my Svedala team won a pre-season tournament in Denmark. It did not, however, influence any kind of standings or rankings. This is where things are very different for NCAA teams.

In US college volleyball teams play lots of matches before they get into conference play. We don’t call them friendlies, though. We call them pre-conference or non-conference matches (not all happen before conference play) and they count toward our official season. The NCAA permits teams to play on a specific number of dates. Conference matches take up a certain number of those dates. Schools fill the rest with non-conference matches.

Once upon a time, pre-conference matches served the same purpose as do friendlies in the professional game. They helped prepare a team for conference play. Maybe also to give non-starters some playing time – especially when they happen during the conference season.

Then there came into consideration at-large bids to the NCAA championship tournament. Tournament selection committees had to compare teams from all over the country, which saw things like strength of schedule, polls, and eventually the RPI and Performance Indicator develop. And of course, once you have those things, you get schools aiming to make themselves look attractive to the committee. Generally speaking, teams don’t control their conference schedule. That just leaves their non-conference schedule open to manipulation.

Let me provide an example from NCAA Division II.

At this level the first three rounds of play are regionalized. By that I mean the country has been divided up into 8 regions. Each comprises a group of conferences. From those conferences, a committee selects eight teams to compete in their NCAA Regional tournament. The regional tournament winners then advance to the national quarterfinal round.

The eight teams who reach the regional tournaments do so in two ways. First are the automatic qualifiers. Those are the champions of the conferences in that region. Midwestern State is in the NCAA’s South Central region as part of the Lone Star Conference. The Heartland Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference are the other two conferences in the region. The winner of each earns an automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament.

Now that three automatic spots are covered, that leaves five for the selection committee to fill. These are done primarily from the Region’s ranking of teams. The rankings reflect how teams in the region do against each other and how they do against common opponents, among other factors.

So if a team wants to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA regional tournament it must demonstrate its strength relative to other prospective at-large teams in that region. Teams do so by playing non-conference teams within the region. It can also mean playing teams outside the region that demonstrate your level of play in comparison to others.

The bottom line is that non-conference match selection matters for at least some teams. Not only must a team select its opposition well, it must do well against them. This is why we don’t call them friendly, and why we count them as part of our official season. You can compare this whole process to how the CEV ranks countries and teams based on their performance in CEV club competitions for consideration toward bid distribution and seedings.

Of course, if your conference is a weak one in your Region and only has access to the automatic qualification bid, then rankings matter less. Your major focus must be on winning your conference bid (though rankings to factor in to seeding). You can perhaps use the non-conference matches for other purposes. It would be nice if every team was able to do that.

Coaching Log – September 4, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

The 2017 NCAA Division II season is underway!

Player meetings

As we prepared for the first weekend of competition, we did individual meetings with all the players. They were basically a check-in to talk about where each of them was at in their development, how they were feeling about the team, etc. Of course we also talked with each of them about where we see them vis-a-vis playing time.

Monday

After a weekend off, we were back in action on Monday. The players had an early morning weights session to kick things off. Unfortunately, it was also picture day for the team. Pictures were supposed to happen in the 15 minutes before practice. If you know anything about how this sort of stuff goes, though, you know it never takes that little time. We had a 2-hour practice slot scheduled, but I think we only got to go for something like 1:15 by the time the picture dust settled.

The abbreviated session ended up being mainly about competition. It started with Brazilian 2-ball. We did a upper-classmen vs lower-classmen game in Buenos Aires that the older team lost. They asked for a rematch, and won convincingly. Of course, now that means we’ll have to do it one more time to break the tie.

After that we did a serving warm-up, then moved on to back row Speedball 4s. From there it was on to what we call Side v Side. That’s a competitive version of the Cooperative Cross Court Hitting drill. We played a series of games to 4 points where only earned points counted (kills, blocks).

The last 15 minutes or so was a 6 v 6 game. We wanted something fast-paced, so coaches initiated balls to the side that lost the prior rally. While that was happening, the winning team did substitutions.

Tuesday

The players’ Tuesday class schedule makes it impossible to do a full team session, at least at any reasonable time of day. Further, we have several Tuesday matches. As a result, we opted to split the team into morning and afternoon groups based on availability. Serving and passing was the major focus of the groups for this week, but mainly with offensive and blocking elements added in. It was a tough day for the passers as the servers were really going at them.

Wednesday

More fitness testing and weights in the morning. We carried elements of Tuesday’s serve reception work in to the start of the day’s practice. First, though, we worked through a couple of elements of our pre-match warm-up. We’re making some adjustments to what we did last year.

The two core element of the session were games. First we did a 4 v  4 out-of-system game to work on that phase of play in terms of setting and hitting. We then shifted to 6 v 6 play to work through rotations.

Thursday

We practiced our pre-match warm-up at the beginning of the session to prepare for the weekend action. After that, we repeated the prior day’s serve/pass/attack drills, then moved on to 6 v 6 to continue working on rotations.

I think the session started out pretty well, but the focus seemed to drift as time went on. Lots of bad errors started to come in to the action. That suggested to me a mentally fatigued group.

Friday

Our competitive season started at Tarleton, our fellow Lone Star Conference team who was hosting a tournament. It’s an event that featured not only relatively short travel (about 2.5 hours), but also an interesting competitive mix.

Our first match of the day was against preseason #23 Rockhurst. The were the champions of the western division of the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC) last year, and made the NCAA tournament. To be blunt, we played pretty poorly in a 3-0 loss (-8,-13,-17). You expect to have a tough time against good competition, but we just made too many mistakes and didn’t put them under nearly enough pressure.

The one bright spot was our serve reception. We passed better than 2.00. Also, in working through a few different lineup variations we got to something that seemed to put us on the right track moving forward.

The second match was against Maryville. They too represent the GLVC, but were at the bottom of the league in 2016. We started off poorly, managing only six kills in the first set, but our opponents made a number of errors that kept us in it and we eventually got our noses in front. The remaining two sets we were much more effect, hitting over .300 in both and getting comfortable wins for a 3-0 final result (-21,-21,-18).

Saturday

Our first match of the day was once more a challenging one. This time it was preseason #18 Central Oklahoma. UCO is a member of the MIAA, where they finished 3rd in 2016. The teams above them were Nebraska-Kearny, who we see in a couple weeks, and Washburn, who we played last season. Although they are not part of our NCAA region, UCO counts as regional opposition for us because they are from an adjoining state. That means playing them impacts our regional RPI. None of the others do.

This was a far better match for us than the initial one on Saturday. We had our struggles in the first set, just making a few too many errors. That improved in the second and third sets. Instead, we had UCO under constant pressure in rallies. It very nearly resulted in a win in Set 2. We were up 20-16, but just couldn’t close it out. In Set 3 we rode an 85% sideout rate to a relatively comfortable win. Unfortunately, the final set saw us fall back to making too many errors, so we lost 3-1 (-17, -22, 25-20, -21).

Service errors was a problem for us. We had 21 of them (against 6 aces). Our aggressiveness was rewarded in UCO only passing 1.80 on the match, but all the misses contributed to an overall sideout rate of nearly 70%. In contrast, we passed a 2.26, which was the best of the weekend.

It has to be said, this was probably the best match MSU Volleyball has played in years when you consider the caliber of competition. The energy level was great. We just needed to be a bit cleaner in our execution and to close things out better when we had the chance.

The final match of the tournament for us was against Southwest Baptist. They were the bottom team in the MIAA last year. I figured going in it would be a trap match after the big energy exerted in the first. I was right.

We really struggled to get back going again to start the match. The unsurprising result is that we fell behind early in the first set. Our offense was pretty ineffective and we weren’t stopping them. We managed to start to get the engine rolling as the set progressed, but a bit too little, too late, so we lost a close one.

After that, we ended up winning relatively comfortably, though it didn’t always feel like it. We hit .400 in the final set, which pulled our final hitting efficiency up to .195 for the match. That gives you an idea of how enemic our attack was for much of the time. It was our middles who led the charge there. As the match progressed they became nearly impossible to stop. Our freshman went 4 for 5 in the final set. The end result was a 3-1 win (23-25, -19, -18, -14).

For the fourth time in a row we passed better than 2.0 in this match. We arguably made too many serving errors once more (15), but this time we got the aces (13) to balance that out.

Thoughts from the tournament

All in all, the 2-2 record on the weekend is what I expected. I would have liked our first and last matches to have been better ones, but you expect that kind of thing early in the season with as many new players as we’ve got.

The UCO match definitely showed us what this team is capable of. It’s going to be a question of building from there. There are definitely things we need to get better at. I think we could dig hard attacks better than we did. We can vary up our attacks – in particular our OH attacks – more than we did, both in terms of direction and mixing in shots. Obviously, serving needs to improve. I think overall we missed about 19%, which is simply too high.

The thing I did like is how many improvements we made just over the course of the event. The middle connections became better. Our new players definitely learned some good lessons, while our experienced players were very solid and consistent, as you’d hope.

Cooperative vs. competitive for games and drills

Generally speaking, there are two types of games and drills you can use in your volleyball training. One is cooperative where the group is working together toward some objective. The other is competitive where you divide the group and pit one part against the other. Each type of approach has its uses.

Cooperative

Broadly, going cooperative means having a collective goal. That could be something like 20 good passes when doing a serving and passing drill. The Continuous Cross-Court Hitting drill is a game-play example of a cooperative drill.

I personally find these sorts of exercises most useful when working on decision-making. For example, the Hard Drill – and variations on it – is good to help players learn when they should attack aggressively and when they should keep the ball in play. It helps train a more intentional type of play, as well as control.

There is a drawback to cooperative activities, though. The players tend not to challenge each other as much. In serve and pass the serves are a bit easier. In drills with hitters attacking, the swings are not as aggressive. Even if you make it a point to only count the hard swings, they still won’t be consistently as hard as would otherwise be the case. It’s a trade-off. You have to weigh the benefits of the control elements against this.

Competitive

Any exercise where teams (or players) earn points and compare those points to someone else is a competitive one. That ranges from normal games and wash drills to things like servers vs. passers games.

Obviously, when you go competitive you help to further develop your team’s competitiveness. The tricky part can be making sure what you give points for is what you want the team doing. Players will inevitably figure out the most straightforward way to score. That might not always be the sort of solution you’re looking for to the problem you are trying to present them.

For example, there’s a competitive variation of Continuous Cross-Court Hitting where a team scores points for kills and blocks. Since the defense only covers half the court, however, an attacker could easily just hit the ball off the block and into the open part of the court to score. Certainly, from one perspective that’s a good thing. The attacker has figured out how to use the block. The point of the exercise, though, is to stimulate good attacking and defending sequences. Hitters going block-out all the time defeats the purpose.

That’s the sort of thing you need to keep in mind when setting up your games.

Also, you have to consider whether being competitive is appropriate or not based on the balance of the teams. It’s a real challenge, even when using modified scoring, to make an A-team vs. B-team scrimmage competitive if there is a meaningful ability gap.

Cooperative-competitive

There is actually a third way to go that blends to two primary approaches. It’s one that can help to overcome the more passive elements of cooperative exercises. The idea here is that the players are rewarded for challenging each other, not for simply playing the ball to a teammate.

Consider again the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. The objective there is to sustain a rally by hitting the ball at a teammate so they can produce a controlled dig. That’s fine when you want to work on general control. The hitter has a set of clear targets.

At a certain point, though, you want your hitters aiming for the holes in the defense, not the defenders. A cooperative-competitive version of the drill would be to count as successful reps only those attacks that are aimed at seams or open areas. That might not sound cooperative, but if the whole group is aiming for a certain number of good reps, that’s exactly what it is. They collectively gets points for trying to beat each other. And you could add points for good defensive plays so it’s not just about hitting.

Can you see the benefit? Now you have everyone working hard to challenge each other. Attackers are working to find new ways to beat the defense. The defense is working to get better about reading the attackers’ intentions. As coach you get to decide what counts.

Could you get the same from a competitive version of the drill? Yes and no. Obviously, in that case the hitters and defense are trying to beat each other. In normal point scoring, though, attackers can sometimes still score points even when they play the ball directly to a defender. That’s not really what you’re after.

Also you may have an imbalance in your groups, or you may want to help develop an overall team spirit. In those cases, a more cooperative approach might be best. It’s great to see players excited for the good plays of their teammates. That’s easier to foster within the collective group when those great plays benefit everyone explicitly.

Thoughts?