Talent and the Secret Life of Teams (available at Amazon or the author’s website) is a collection of essays penned by former University of Nebraska head coach Terry Pettit. As such, it’s not really a unified coaching text in the same way as other coaching books. The subject matter of the essays is varied.
The very last chapter, which shares its title with that of the book, is the longest by a healthy margin. It is also probably the meatiest from a volleyball coaching perspective. By that I mean it goes deeper specifically into volleyball coach thinking and decision-making. That is done in the context of what happens during a season and in matches. Specifically, it’s a look back on the 1995 Nebraska NCAA championship season. Naturally, there is a lot of focus on what developed in the tournament and finals. Personnel management is as much a focus as match strategy and tactics.
In the second-to-last chapter, Pettit shares a letter he received from another volleyball coach. I would classify it as a “this is why we coach” type of story. It’s the sort of thing that happens that times in a coaching career. It reaffirms to us exactly why we do it.
The rest of the chapters are a mixture of humor and studies in leadership. The lighter stuff is often specifically related to life as a collegiate volleyball coach. That means there’s an element of inside joke to it. This may be lost on readers not experienced in that arena. Even without that reference, though, I think readers will get a few chuckles.
This is not your classic coaching manual, and shouldn’t be approached that way. Still, it offers some nuggets throughout to make it a worthwhile read.
Actually, to get a flavor of what’s in the book, listen to this YouTube webinar featuring Terry Pettit hosted by John Kessel from USA Volleyball. The first half of it isn’t the greatest, in my opinion, but I found the the second half or so quite interesting.
Synopsis: This serving and passing drill can be quite useful for working with larger numbers of players to keep them moving while also getting the developmental focus on those who need it most.
Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate to advanced players
Requirements: 12 players, several balls, full court
Execution: Set up three passers on each side of the court, with a target at the net and servers on both ends (like 2-sided Serve & Pass drill). Rather than staying for a certain number of good passes or time or rotating on each repetition, though, passers stay in place until they get two good passes. At that point they move to target, target goes to serve, and a server moves into the passing group (if multiple servers, have the one who’s been there longest go to pass).
You can use more or fewer passers than 3 as your system of play dictates.
You can increase the number of passes required to get out of passing.
If your passers are erratic, you can have two targets rather than one to allow for ball chasing to keep the drill moving more fluidly.
You can run this drill for time, for some total number of good passes, or for a certain number of good passes by some subset of players.
This drill has the advantage of keeping weaker passers in the passing rotation longer, giving them more reps.
The higher the number of good passes you require passers to get, the less frequent will be player rotation through the drill, and vice versa.
If the targets efficiently get the ball back to the servers on their side, the number of balls required to run the drill is only equal to the number of servers being used.
If you have several servers you can have multiple targets to allow for rapid-fire serving to keep things moving very quickly
The title of this post comes from a search query which brought someone to the website. When I saw it I was immediately struck by how often that question must get asked by coaches in any given season. They certainly ask it inside their own heads! I know it flashed through my head a number of times in years when I watched teams miss several serves in a row – often costing us momentum in the process.
So let’s think about why players miss their serves.
The first area we have to look at in addressing serving is the mechanics of the servers. The specifics there are best left for another time. Suffice it to say, players lacking good mechanics are very likely to be inconsistent (at best) with their serves. Much of the time it’s the toss which is the biggest culprit. Sometimes, however, mental issues can creep in which lead to faulty mechanics in an otherwise competent server (see below).
Nervous players make mistakes. I had a player a while back who demonstrated clearly in training more than sufficient power to get the ball over the net. Once she was put into a situation where there was some kind of pressure (drill or game), though, everything changed. Suddenly she could barely get the ball to the net. That’s an extreme case, but I see many players make mistakes serving because they are trying to avoid mistakes. This tends to manifest in poor ball contact coming from a weak arm swing and/or a soft hand rather than a firm one on impact (this happens a lot in hitting too). If you’re seeing a lot of balls come up short, you could have a problem in this area.
The reverse of tentative serving is being too aggressive. Balls hit hard into the net or flying well long are symptomatic of this issue. You as a coach have to define what is appropriate aggressiveness, as you will naturally see more missed serves when you ask your team to serve tough than would likely otherwise be the case. Of course there are also the cases of players just simply trying to hit the ball too hard (often boys).
Poor Situational Awareness
Players need to know when it’s acceptable to take risk and when they really need to focus on getting the serve in (see When the Serve Needs to Be In). If players are missing serves at bad times, it is up to the coach to get that corrected in training by making sure there are consequences for that sort of thing in drills and games.
Sometimes players simply are being asked to do something for which they lack the skill required. This is most likely to manifest when a coach calls a serving target either by zone or player (“Serve #2”). Players who just simply can’t consistently target their serves will often miss more serves in trying to do what the coach wants.
I think this list covers miss serve causality pretty well. If you can think of something else that should be here, though, definitely leave a comment.
Running volleyball try-outs is obviously about assessing players. Oftentimes, however, it’s also a question of managing a large number of players. If you don’t have to manage a lot of players, you can run virtually a regular training session. You just have to incorporate drills and games covering all of the key things you want to look at in rating the available players. As such, I’m will focus here on doing assessments as efficiently as possible. I’ll do that by providing volleyball try-out drill ideas that could be used to look at all the major skills.
As I discussed in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?, warm-ups tend to be quite badly handled. This can be especially true in a try-out situation where you want to get into assessment as quickly as possible. Warm-ups should be considered part of that process, not something which simply prepares players for it. I favor going right into basic ball-handling drills, especially ones with a movement element. Even simple pepper drills are quite useful here.
Chances are this is something you don’t want to spend all that much time addressing. Generally, we can fairly quickly judge the caliber of a player’s serving just by watching them do a couple of reps. To that end, just lining them up on either end of the court and having them serve back and forth like a pre-game warm-up may suffice. Doing this for a couple of minutes should allow you to give each player a watch.
If you want to narrow things down, you can take it a step further by introducing a goal. For example, depending on the level of play, you could set an objective of 10 serves in a row, or some number of serves to a given zone. I’d suggest a time limit to keep a drill from running on too long. If you have the players who reach that objective step out of the drill, you’ll get a good idea of the stronger vs. weaker servers.
There are plenty of possible serve receive exercises that can serve as volleyball try-out drill ideas. What you’re probably looking to judge here is which players are aggressive vs. passive, loud vs. quiet calling the ball, movement to the ball, and passing mechanics.A simple pass-and-follow shuttle (pass the ball and go to the end of the line on the other side) will give you an idea of simple ball-handling skill.
You want to see what players look like when receiving serve, though, to get a full assessment. A big deciding factor in how you set that up is the likely quality of the servers. If the players aren’t able to serve consistently, then you need to either do coach-initiated serves or use tossed/thrown balls in place of serves. Perhaps use something like passing triplets. If the players can serve, then probably the best way to get as many players on the court as you can is to run a 2-sided serving-passing drill.
You can probably get at least a basic idea of someone’s setting ability by watching them pepper or go through a setting shuttle such as the one mentioned for passing above. To assess a player for a setting role, however, you need to see them actually set to hitters. You also want to see how they move on the court. Setting to a hitting line is a simple solution to the former. Adding the requirement that the set comes off a pass adds the element of seeing the setter move around. You’ll want to put the setter candidate(s) in a game-like situation to finish the assessment, though.
A look at players in pepper will give you an idea of where a player is at in terms of armswing mechanics and ability to control an attack. Simple hitting lines provide an assessment opportunity to look at hitters in terms of approach, timing, jump, swing mechanics, and the like. If you don’t have a consistent setter on-hand you may need to have the hitting done off a toss. To go beyond basics, though, you need to put hitters in game-like situations. That will let you see how they handle the variability and how they actually attack the defense.
In many cases a quick look at the relative heights of your players provides a good idea of blocking ability. Going beyond that, however, you want to look at a prospective blocker’s footwork, quickness along the net, and ability to properly position and time their block. The footwork and speed side of things can be seen through simple blocking movement work at the net. The rest of it requires facing a hitter, though. That can be accomplished by putting blockers against a hitting line, perhaps requiring some additional initial movement (like MB closing to the pin blocker). Things like recognition, anticipation, and the other mental parts of blocking will only come by watching players in game-play situations.
You can probably get a significant sense of a player’s defensive abilities and mentality by watching them in game-like situations. That shows you who is aggressive and who is passive. It may also give you an idea of who is a lateral type defender (good for middle backs in most systems) and who is good at moving forward (good for wing defenders in many systems), as well as which players are able to read situations and hitters. To specifically assess dig control, you can put players through a coach-on-X type of drill. That’s where the coach hits balls at a group of players. This tends to be better for smaller groups, however, or situations where there are multiple coaches with room to spread out into different groups. Having players dig against hitting lines tends not to be very useful because it’s usually not very realistic.
As noted, there are some things you’ll want to assess which are best done in game situations. A good way to do this in a situation which moves players quickly through is something like winners. For a large group, you could split the court down the middle and run two sets of winners-3s on the same court. That gets 12 players on the court in a situation where they are likely to get more contacts than if they were playing 6 v 6. If you have a smaller group, a winners variation where you use backrow attacks only lets you see players having to cover more area, but in a situation where the attacks are less potent, leading to generally longer rallies than if the hitters were attacking on the net.
If you want to run 6 v 6 and have a large group, you can do a something like Neville Pepper. In this case, one team of six stays on for a fixed period of time. The teams on the other side rotate after each rally. You can also do a wave variation in which you rotate 3-player lines through each few points either from one end or from both ends.
In the end, what you pick to run as volleyball try-out drill ideas must be based on your selection priorities. It’s just like training priorities to develop a practice plan. If you’re looking to pick 12 players from a group it is different than if you’ve already got 8 returners and just want to pick players who fill some needs. Similarly, it’s different picking varsity vs. junior varsity. So start your try-out planning process by thinking about the sorts of things you need to identify and assess. Then work from there.
More volleyball try-out drill ideas
Hopefully, these volleyball try-out drill ideas at least give you a starting point to develop a good plan. A single article like this can’t really go into a lot of depth, though. That’s why I put together a booklet that goes further.
Synopsis: This pepper variation allows for consecutive execution of skills rather than a constant switching around through pass, set, and hit (saw this one run by USC)
Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate to advanced players
Requirements: Two players, one ball
Execution: This is a variation on basic pass-set-hit pepper. Rather than one player hitting, the other digging, and the hitter then setting to restart the sequence, in this version the digger plays the ball up to themselves and then sets their partner to hit again.
This should be done for some number of successful reps before the partners switch roles.
For more advanced players the requirement could be that the reps be consecutive, perhaps allowing for some scrambling so long as the ball doesn’t hit the floor.
Advanced players can be required to jump set and/or jump hit.
As with all pepper drills, this could be useful in warm-ups.
It is worth thinking about mixing up pepper variations to keep things fresh and/or to create more focus on certain skills.
Synopsis: This is a good drill to get a lot of people involved in serving and passing on one court. Excellent for larger squads and/or try-out situations.
Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate to advanced players
Requirements: 12+ players, a handful of balls, a full court
Execution: This is an extension of a simple servers and passers drills where three passes and a target are on one side (perhaps with some players waiting to come on) and servers are on the other side. In this case, set up three passers and a target on each side and have servers and waiting passers on both ends. You can go for time or some target number of passes.
This drill can be static with servers and passers staying, or you can create a butterfly type of system where the servers become passers, passers move to target, and the target takes the ball to become a passer.
If you want to work your setter(s) you could create a setting target in either the OH or RS position who rotates on each ball with the setter staying in place.
If you use a passing system with more or fewer than 3 passers, you can use that number in the drill to give the passers practice working in that system.
Consecutive missed serves can really slow this drill down so it is worth considering a punishment for serves missed in a row.
Servers who miss should be required to go get their ball and return to the serving line.
To move the drill along as quickly as possible, have the servers go as soon as the new passer is in on the other side rather than waiting to alternate with the servers on the other side.
Priorities: Shake off the rust, evaluate the players for the season to come, getting new players mixed in, prepare the starters for the upcoming match
Training time: 2 hours
Space: 1 court
Notes: This was the first training session of the season. Because of a few different complications, it also happened to be the last training before the first match of the year. Not exactly an ideal scenario. The bulk of the prior season’s starters were returning, but the setter wasn’t one of them and we’re also integrating at least one other new player in the pool of prospective starters.
– – – The Plan – – –
Ball-handling warm-up Part 1: I had the players do a progression where sets of partners started at 3 meters apart and first passed 10 balls each back and forth, then did 10 sets each. They moved out to 6 meters and repeated, then did the same thing at full court width.
Ball-handling warm-up Part 3: To mix the players around and start integrating the new players in, I did rotating pepper by having one side of gym rotate every 90 seconds.
Ball-handling warm-up Part 4: I then moved things on the net to start getting the action more game-like and had them do 3/4-person over-the-net pepper.
The above took about 30 minutes all together
Serving warm-up: After a water break I had them partner up across the net. They started at about half-court just serving the ball back and forth with a focus on good mechanics. As they felt warm they backed up until they got to the point of doing full court serving.
Target serving: I had them do 5 good serves each to Zones 1 and 5 where they had to put the ball in the last 3 meters of the court, as well as 5 good serves in front of the 3-meter line. I gave them 5 minutes to complete the drill, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.
Serving and passing: With shoulders warmed-up and serving consistency developed (at least a bit), I moved to having 3 passers on each side in serve receive, with an additional player as target. The remaining players were servers. I had the passers rotate out to target after 2 good passes (started with 3, but one side wasn’t rotating enough), with the target then going back to serve. I did this until I felt like the main passers got enough reps.
Hitting warm-up: In order to evaluate the setting options for the upcoming match and to get the hitters some swings, I ran short 1-position hitting lines. That comprised 3 people at a time hitting first through 4, then in the middle, and finally through 2. Setters were mixed around as the hitter groups changed.
Game-play: To get them playing and to continue the process of mixing players up and giving them a chance to get to know each other on the court, I had them play Winners 3s.
Team play: I finished up with the players who will be at the upcoming match (one starter missing) going against the rest in a 6 v 5 (zone 6 was declared out on the 5-player side). The team of 5 served every ball. The team of 6 needed to win two rallies in a row in order to rotate. Because we needed to cut things short a bit for admin talks, I just went through the rotations one time before wrapping things up.
– – – Observations – – –
You’ll notice I did no traditional warm-up. The players were quite happy not to have to do the dynamic version we did last season. 🙂 I actually had to stop them from doing the throw-the-ball-back-and-forth thing players tend to do in pre-game warm-ups and such. This decision was all about getting right into shaking the summer rust off, having a chance to get a close look at the new players who were in training, and mixing those players in as quickly as possible.
Want an easy way to work on player conditioning while also having players develop their ball-handling skills?
Have them pepper for a while.
Now I’m not just suggesting you just roll the balls out and tell them to pass-set-hit with each other for half an hour while you sit and have a coffee. No such luck. You’ll actually have to do some coaching.
There is a trick to getting the most out of however long you want to run things. That is mixing up exactly what you have the players doing. There are loads of pepper variations. There are also many ways to focus on certain elements while keeping the players working hard. You’ve got a hitting element, a digging element, and a setting element. You can work with each singularly or in combinations.
For example, you could start with one player hitting at their partner, who digs the ball back for the hitter to catch and then go again. That provides focused consecutive reps for both players. While they are doing that you would be going around working with individual players on technique (and perhaps reinforcing bigger ideas, like effort). You can then have the digger play the ball up to themselves rather than to the hitter. Then progress to digging the attack to themselves and setting the hitter as in the 1-way Pepper drill. This sort of progression can be used in all aspects of pepper to work on skills singularly or in small combinations. The idea is to build toward eventual full-on pepper.
Adding a jump requirement to the setting and/or hitting parts of pepper can go a long way too. From a skill development perspective, it forces the players to work on getting their feet to the ball. On the conditioning side you’ll definitely see the players get gassed more quickly. This isn’t something you’re likely to be able to do effectively with lower level players in standard pepper. You could do it with them in a partial pepper situation, though. As a simple example, have them jump set back and forth for a little while and see how tired their legs and shoulders get.
The two keys to making this pepper conditioning idea worthwhile, and to not let the players catch on to what you’re doing, is to mix things up periodically so they have different points of focus and to be sure you’re actively moving around the gym coaching them. You do that and they’ll never suspect you’re developing their conditioning along with their skills. 😉
And by the way, this is actual volleyball conditioning. Much better than running or anything like that.
Pepper note: Whenever possible you should have your players go over the net. I am not totally against standard partner pepper (no net). It can have its uses at times. For skill development, however, it is not the best choice.
This post marks the end of the first 100 days of this blog. It’s also marks the 100th entry in the blog. It’s a nice milestone for something I started as a little side project. Got myself on a pretty good roll there during the summer months.
My various experiences coaching have provided considerable fodder for new material, and my August trip to several college programs in the US was quite useful as well. At any given point I’ve had several posts pending publication. I’m not sure how long that will be the case, especially with the other demands on my time I expect to have now that school is getting back in session. For now, though, I’m enjoying being able to keep putting my thoughts and ideas in print.
As noted on the About page, I started this website out as something to use in helping coaches in the South West of England where I’m located – and the broader English coaching community as well given the contacts I’ve started to develop from coaching in BUCS and NVL and attending coaching meetings. Thus far I’ve done very little to actually promote the site and what I’ve done has been mainly England focused. Interestingly, though, the traffic to the site has been very much multinational.
A close examination will show that the UK is the next darkest country on the map, though the number of visits from there falls way behind those from the US.
As you’d probably expect, the home page of the site has been the most visited page. Here are the pages which round out the top 10:
I’ve got loads of ideas for stuff I’d like to do with the sight and related social network platforms. If you have any ideas or things you’d like to see, definitely let me know through the Contact page, the Facebook group, or via Twitter.
By the way, the Facebook group now has over two dozen members and the Twitter feed has over 100 followers. Not bad for virtually no promotional effort thus far.
One thing I want to do is get some additional contributors pitching in their own thoughts, experiences, drills and games. It would be nice to have some varying perspectives.