Big rewards from seeing fellow volleyball coaches in action

During the course of just over three weeks in 2013 I spent a total of eight days watching various teams go through their training, and two other days taking in matches. It was a fantastic experience. I made some positive new connections. It reinforced some old relationships. And it was great for reconnecting me with US collegiate volleyball after several years away.

As you might expect, sitting in on 13 different training sessions from 5 different collegiate teams (URI, USC, Long Beach State, CSU San Marcos, and UCLA in that order) saw me get some ideas for drills and training methods. I posted several in the Drills and Games categories.

Drills and game ideas can be found in many different sources, though. For me it was more interesting to see a couple of different things. One of them was how certain aspects of the game had changed in the prior few years. In particular, it was clear to me that there had been an evolution in jump float serve mechanics. The changes in the use of the libero was interesting to observe as well, among other things.

The other was seeing the ways the various programs operate and the different types of managerial styles. Teams have different levels of resources allocated to them, and that can play a part. For example, USC has a fantastic training facility and loads of staff on the one end. CSU San Marcos, on the other hand, had to play its home matches at a local high school. They also only had a part-time assistant coach. Some head coaches are more supervisors and big picture overseers. Others are very hands-on in training, either through requirement or personal coaching focus. I also saw variations in the way warm-ups were handled, practice uniforms, and generally the vibe of the teams in training (though that was largely subtle).

Needless to say, I jotted down quite a few notes. I also recorded several bits of video to help me recall things and to provide visual and auditory support to my players of the things I was trying to teach them.

Actually, some of the most rewarding time was getting to talk with the coaches. Some of the coaches were folks I already knew, and we had all sorts of good conversations. Even those I was meeting for the first time, however, were generally quite willing to chat about what they were doing and answer questions. Some even shared things with me on related subjects with no prompting whatsoever.

I definitely recommend this sort of experience from a lot of perspectives, including a mentorship type of angle along the line of I wrote about in Making Mentorship Part of the Process. In fact, it may be something which can lead to finding yourself a good coaching mentor. Even if that’s not the case, seeing other coaches in action – particularly well-experienced ones – can get you seeing things from different perspectives. That’s never a bad thing.

So get out there and do it! You don’t need to make a 3-week trip like I did to learn some new things. Just find a good coach in your area and see if they’d be willing to have you come along and observe. Chances are they’ll say yes.

Critiquing a ball-oriented volleyball warm-up routine

This video got a fair bit of attention once upon a time (on Twitter, I think). That is how I came to learn about it. Upon review, however, I was disappointed. The second half where they are using balls in strength and conditioning work I’m fine with. There are some good elements there. They don’t specifically require a volleyball, but since you have them at hand, why not use them? The first half, however, I found to be utterly useless. You will understand my reasons if you read my comments in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?.

Jogging, as I noted in the referenced post, is of little value to volleyball players. Now these guys are adding in silly things like spins. And what’s this stuff with tossing the ball up in the air? The only real attempt to have anything volleyball-like in there is the bits where the players mix in some sets and forearm passes. The mechanics of those skills, though, are poor – making their inclusion worse than useless. They are reinforcing bad habits, effectively.

If you want to have players moving and executing ball-handling skills then have them move in a volleyball-like fashion (shuffles, transition footwork, short runs, etc.). And have them execute those skills with proper technique – especially when dealing with young and developing players. Things like jog-and-set or jog-and-pass might be good to mix things up in a big camp or to have a bit of fun (team shuttles, etc.), but are not for use on any kind of regular basis.

Game: 2 in 2

Synopsis: This is a simple, likely fast-moving, game which requires players to score in both serving and serve receive situations.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: Two teams, full court, 2 balls

Execution: This is a standard serve-initiated game with alternating pairs of serves (Team A serves once, then Team B serves once) using a wash scoring system. A team must win both the service rally and the serve receive rally to score a point. If one team cannot win both rallies, no points are scored and the two serves are repeated. Teams rotate each time a point is scored.


  • Depending on how long you want this game to go on, you could run it to a set point objective (15, 25, etc.), or just on a timed basis.
  • You can change the rotation rule to require a team to win a point before it can rotate (rather than both teams rotate together).
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • If you don’t count missed serves as rally wins for the receiving team you will encourage players to serve more aggressively. Just make sure the players don’t miss serves consecutively per the rules.
  • Requiring a team to score a big point to rotate would likely have the benefit of giving more reps to your weaker rotation(s).
  • This game was inspired by something I saw in Long Beach State training.

Volleyball coaches, don’t be afraid to try something old

Back in 2013 I attended the match between Pepperdine and Wisconsin at the former’s Malibu campus. As I mentioned on social media then, the away team actually used a 2-person serve receive most of the match. You can see a sample from one of the rotations below.

click for larger version

click for larger version

In this example you can see the two front row hitters (OH and MB) poised to take a short ball. The backrow OPP is deep to support making line calls (and maybe to take a ball right to her). Meanwhile, the libero and back row OH split the court as the primary passers. The latter two were the passers in all rotations, even when that OH was front row. In one rotation, when Pepperdine had a hard topspin jump server going, they dropped the other OH in to make a 3-person serve receive. That was the only time they went away from the 2-person system, though.

To say using only two passers is unusual would be a major understatement. It was something popularized in the 1980s by the US men when Karch Kiraly and Bob Ctvrtlik/Aldis Berzins handled all the passing during their 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medal runs. When topspin jump serves moved to the fore in the latter 80s, though, teams went away from 2-man reception. In 1998 I used it very successfully myself coaching a boy’s team to a gold medal in a tournament. I did so because I had two clearly dominant passers and the serving was not so tough. I can recall few if any other times I’ve seen it used over the years, however.

Kelly Sheffield, the then new Wisconsin coach, should get considerable credit for having the guts to go down this path (I actually coached against him when I was at Brown and we hosted his Albany squad in something like 2004). Since the 2-person formation is so rarely seen, he could easily have come up against considerable criticism. He potentially could even have faced opposition among his players. From what I saw, though, it worked quite well. His two passers were very solid. Just goes to show that sometimes taking old ideas down off the shelf and dusting them off can pay dividends.

Drill: Second Ball Setting

Synopsis: This drill is largely focused on working on the libero taking the second ball rather than the setter, but also generally works on out-of-system setting. It can be a good volleyball warm-up drill as well.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Two players, 1-2 coaches, a few balls, half a court

Execution: The drill sets up with one player in left back and one in right back. Position a coach at the net in the left front and right front positions. One coach starts the drill by hitting a ball to one of the defenders. The other defender steps in to take the second ball and sets in diagonally to the coach across from them (right back sets to left front, left back sets to right front). Continue for a set time or number of good reps.


  • Use players rather than coaches as the hitters.
  • Use just one coach/hitter rather than two and change sides at some point.
  • Hitter(s) can attack from boxes over the net.
  • Rather than just working 2 players, rotate players on a dig/set sequence.
  • To work on your players setting either the OH or the RS attacker, you can change up the requirement that they only set diagonally the way they are coming into the ball and have them instead set the same side they are from (i.e. left back sets left front).

Additional Comments:

  • This is a drill I saw Wisconsin use during its pre-match warmup. I think I also saw it, or a variation, at either Long Beach State or UCLA training when I was there (perhaps both).
  • The main focus of this drill is to work on out-of-system sets by back row players, so it makes sense for the players in the drill to be operating from their primary defensive positions.
  • Note also that this drill is used a lot to work on the libero coming in to set the second ball if the setter has to play the first one. It assumes, however, that the libero is playing in left back (position 5). If that is not the case in your team (perhaps she’s playing middle back in 6), you can shift the drill such that it’s a middle back and right back variation.

Developing Volleyball Beginners

In Sally Kus’s book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, she talks about working with young kids. Her specific focus is on developing a pipeline for older youth teams (school, Juniors club, etc.), but the advice is universal and much applies to working with older beginning players as well youngsters.

Make sure it’s fun
The first thing we have to do with those new to volleyball is to make sure it’s fun. You’re not going to keep the players focused for very long, or see them come back, if they aren’t enjoying themselves. What fun means will vary, of course. You won’t do the same sorts of things with adult beginners as you would with a bunch of 12 year-olds. As with any other type of presentation or activity, you have to make it fit your participants.

Forget about wins and losses
The last thing we need concern ourselves with when working with a bunch of volleyball newbies is the score line. The focus instead needs to be on developing the skills, movement patterns, understanding of the rules, and the mentality to play proper competitive volleyball. Concentrating on the winning and losing at this stage will only tend to get in the way, put undo pressure on the players, and potentially lead the coach to weigh the results of matches over developmental needs.

Reward them for playing volleyball properly
Because beginner games so often degenerate into sending the ball over in one touch, we need to reward them for things other than scoring points and give them alternative goals. Let’s face it, players will quickly realize that three contacts on their side is three times as many opportunities to make a mistake. The result is volleyball which looks a lot like tennis with six players on the court – serve and volley. One of the things Kus mentioned doing is keeping a second score along side the primary one when playing games (as noted on the volleyball game scoring alternatives page). This score is for the number of times each team did something developmentally positive, like a pass-set-hit sequence. If you can get the players focused on whatever your objective is and not the actual scoreboard, you can go a long way.

As coaches of young and beginning players it is our responsibility to focus on teaching the right way to do things. That includes rules, 3-contact play, and proper mechanics. If we can do this in an enjoyable fashion we’ll have players ready to take the step to the next level when the time comes.

Game: 18 before 12

Synopsis: This game features 6-v-6 play with a focus on closing an early gap, or conversely closing out a set when in the lead.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: Two teams, full court

Execution: This starts with the score at 13-7 with the game played to 25 under standard rules.


  • You can change the starting point and spread to adapt to your team.
  • If you want to do more focused work on serve receive offense and/or transition attack, you can have one team serve every ball.
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • This is one I saw USC use, though I might not have it totally right.
  • If you do have only one team serve you’ll want to allow for miss serves (but not two in a row) to encourage aggressive serving.

Drill: Passing Triplets

Synopsis: This is a good drill to work on passing (and potentially serving) in a way with maximizes reps while having a game-like featuring in the ball coming over the net. It is also a good warm-up drill on multiple levels.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Three players, two balls, a net.

Execution: Begin with a passer and target on one side of the net and a ball initiator on the other side. The initiator and the target each start off with a ball. The initiator sends the ball over to the passer, who passes to target. As soon as the first ball comes over the target tosses their ball to the initiator so they are ready to do the next repetition quickly. Continue until the passer reaches some defined number of good passes.


  • The initiator can send the ball to the passer either by tossing or by serving.
  • In order to work different angles, the drill can be run on a diagonal rather than in a linear fashion. For example, instead of the initiator being in zone 1 and the passer in zone 5, the passer could be in zone 1.
  • If you have to use 4 players because of numbers you can add a player at the net as a second target with a ball. This could be quite useful for lower level players where there are more shanked passes, as it would allow the reps to continue while one of the targets chases down an errant ball.

Additional Comments:

  • If the initiation is done by an underhand toss with the ball allowed to roll off the fingers (USC called this bowling) it will imitate a topspin ball. If it comes from a 2-hand overhead toss it can be made to be like a hard, flat float serve. A simple underhand toss or underhand serve could imitate a freeball.
  • If the initiator serves from mid-court it can be a good way to warm up the shoulder while working on mechanics without having to also worry about power.
  • Having the two balls going is meant to keep the drill moving quickly as the idea is to maximize reps in minimal time, so make sure the players keep the tempo high.
  • Having the ball come over the net in a variety of ways (you could have the players go through several rotations varying up the initiation) helps the players learn to recognize and adapt to different types of balls, especially with the ball coming from over the net.

Required volleyball reading?

I did the last of my planned collegiate program training visits on Wednesday, this time at UCLA. Interestingly, when I got to the gym ahead of their training session I found them doing a review/discussion of the book Crucial Conversations. Assistant coach Stein Metzger told me it was something they were looking to use to improve on the communication front as that was seen to be a problem with the team last year. I haven’t read the book before myself, but it’s a best seller so clearly quite a few others have done. Might just give it a look to see what’s what.

I’ve got just about a week left in the States. While I don’t have any plans on visiting any more schools and their practices, I may yet get a bit more volleyball in before I head back for England. The University of Wisconsin will be playing at Pepperdine on Saturday evening. Pepperdine is supposed to be a beautiful campus (located in Malibu), so I’d like to go just to have a look. I happen to also know the Wisconsin coach from my days at Brown when he was coaching at Albany and they came to one of our tournaments. He’s definitely moved up in the world since!

I may also make a trip to the famous Manhattan Beach. I’ve been told there’s a fantastic little Mexican food joint there. Oh, and it’s known for some pretty good beach volleyball action too. 🙂

I think once I have some time to let everything settle and can reflect I’ll write a post looking back on my 5 campus visits and the different things I observed. Look for that when I get back.