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The State and Future of Volleyball Coaching Development in England

As I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions, I attended Coaching Conference 2013 put on by Volleyball England at the start of June. Part of the presentation was on the current state of coaching in the country and the breakdown of certification levels. I’ve now got the slides from the presentation, so I can show you some of what I found interesting – and some of what I was questioned about when I talked with people regarding it afterwards.

First, let me start of with a graph which shows the fraction of volleyball coaches registered with Volleyball England by region.

VECoachesByRegion

It’s interesting that the South West has the third most registered coaches. That tells me we have sufficient numbers in the area to do some interesting things if we get properly organized and motivated.

Here is a chart which shows the Volleyball England coaching registrations and the number of coaches at each certification level going back to the start of 2009.

Volleyball England Coaching Registrations and Certifications

There’s clearly been some nice growth in the total number of volleyball coaches in England – or at least those registering with the national governing body. The first level certifications are up, though not quite at the same rate (I think you need to combine the UKCC Level 1 and VE Level 1 to get the proper tally as I think the UKCC has taken over for that level). Level 2 coaches had a bit of a dip, but have turned back up. I think Volleyball England will be concerned if they don’t see that line get back to the same kind of upslope seen from 2009 to 2011.

As for the nearly flat line for Level 3 coaches, we were told that’s a function of Volleyball England not running the course very often. Obviously, there’s truth in that, but part of our discussions during the conference was the motivation for volleyball coaches to progress to that level. After all, at this stage it is not mandatory for anything. Plus, the course runs a week and has a pretty sizable price tag (I’ll report my own opinions on the course after I take it in August)

Here is a chart based on a survey Volleyball England did. I understand it to indicate the proportion of responding volleyball coaches who said they coach at each of the three age groups.

VECoachAgesTo me there’s a problem with this chart. I think ideally we’d probably want to see the u14 bar highest and the adult bar lowest. More realistically, though, we should look for the 15-18 bar being higher than the adult one. I would venture to say that is what you’d see in the US where there are thousands of high school and Juniors club volleyball teams (especially for girls), but only perhaps a bit north of 1000 collegiate programs and relatively few coached adult club teams. I think it’s the middle area where the work needs to be done to really grow the sport.

Lastly, here’s the slide showing the coach development pathway the Volleyball England folks see (click it for a bigger version):

Click for a full-sized version

Click for a full-sized version

If you look at the levels of play/coaching listed on the left and see how they line up with the coaching certification levels you’ll quickly realize that things are very different today – at least in the middling and lower ranks. For example, I’m pretty sure the majority of NVL coaches aren’t VE Level 3 certified. This speaks to what I mentioned before about the motivation of coaches to carry on up the levels. Unless a minimum certification is required to coach at a given level, there is probably going to continue to be the same sort of pattern as we see in the levels chart above.

I’d be very curious to hear what others think on this subject.

Game: Winners (a.k.a. King/Queen of the court)

Synopsis: Winners is a a rotational game which can be a good warm-up and/or a way to get a large number of players playing for assessment and other purposes.

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

Requirements: Full court, 9+ players, 3 balls.

Execution: Designate one side of the court the winners side. Have one team of three start there, with everyone else on the other side – the challenge side – with one team on and the rest waiting. The team on the challenge side serves, and the teams play out the rally. If the team on the winners side wins, they stay, otherwise they exit and the challengers move to the winners side and a new team steps in on the challenge side. Continue for a set period of time or until some objective is reached.

Variations:

  • For lower level teams where serving is inconsistent, the coach can initiate the ball to start each rally.
  • On a missed serve one can either say the whole team loses and switch in a new team, or just the server can be replaced.
  • Fixed teams can be used if there are the right numbers.
  • Lower levels players could go with 4s rather than 3s
  • To increase rally length (and thereby touches) play could be limited to only part of the court.
  • Attacking can be limited to only certain types – back row for example – or anything goes.

Additional Comments:

  • This is a good game to use when you have so many players that 6vs6 becomes limiting, and in tryout type situations when you’re trying to get general playing impressions for a number of players without having the constraint of set positions.
  • By incorporating requirements into the play – must have 3 contact, all players much touch the ball, bonus points for quick set kills, etc. – you can adapt the game to work toward the training objectives you have for the session.
  • If you are playing 2s or 3s on a full court you likely want to use beach rules in terms not allowing open-hand tipping and requiring sets to be straight forward or back (no sideways dumps over the net). Alternatively, you could just not allow such attacks in front of the 3 meter line.

Drill: Continuous Cross-Court Digging

Synopsis: Continuous cross-court digging is a high-intensity drill which builds mental toughness while working on individual digging and fitness.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill which can be used with all age groups and skill levels.

Requirements: Three players in the drill, two coaches, 6 or more players to collect balls and feed, lots of balls

Execution: Begin with one player in defense for position 5, and two players queued up behind. A coach positioned on a box or chair in position 4 on the other side of the net hits a cross-court ball at the player which they have to dig to target. The player then sprints across the court to defensive position where they dig a ball from a coach on a box in position 2 on the other side of the net. At the same time, the second player in line in position 5 steps in and digs a ball from the coach in position 4. The players continue going from back and forth digging in positions 1 and 4 until they collectively reach a predetermined objective of X number of good digs.

Continuous Cross-Court Digging

Variations:

  • If there are no boxes, tables, chairs, etc. for the coaches to hit from, they could stand on the same side of the net as the players.
  • Depending on the skill level of your team you could only count digs to Target 1 (a 3-pass), or you can accept digs to Target 2 off the net near the 3 meter (a 2-pass).
  • To work on keeping digs on their side of the net, a -1 can be applied to the count if there’s an overpass (but don’t go negative).
  • To get players focused on digging with proper technique and being prepared, you can do a -1 for single-arm digs.
  • The temptation may be to go with more than 3 players in the drill, but that will likely prove challenging because of the players getting tangled up moving back and forth. Even with 3 players the players are often dodging each other on the cross-over.

Additional Comments:

  • Keeping the tempo high is a key to this drill, which means the players collecting and feeding balls must be highly efficient or you need to have sufficient balls to overcome this deficit.
  • Make sure players crossing the court do so away from the net rather than toward it. Otherwise they are at risk of taking a ball in the head.
  • Do not let the players give more than 100% effort. If a ball drops with no attempt to play it they go back to 0.
  • Don’t alter the rhythm of the hitting once you get going. That will force the players to continue moving rapidly and not slow their pace.
  • Make sure the players are going all the way to the sideline and not stopping well inside the court, especially as they get tired. You can do this by aiming your hits to land near the sideline, which will keep them honest.
  • Talk to the players throughout the drill. Remind them to get to the right spot, to move quickly, and to use good technique. Encourage them throughout, and make sure the rest of the team does so as well.
  • Encourage players of similar skill to go together so you can adapt the tempo and aggressiveness of your hits to be able to challenge all players at a level suitable to their development.

Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness

For the sake of making solid objective assessments of your team and players, and to see how they progress over time, it is worth compiling as many volleyball statistics on them as you can during both training and competition. One of the easier stats to keep is that for serving and passing effectiveness.

Let’s start with passing, as it leads into the serving stats I’ll be talking about.

Scoring Serve Receive Passing

The common practice among volleyball coaches is to score passing on a 0 to 3 scale. This is primarily for serve reception, but one could also rate free ball passing and even digging in the same way. The scale looks like this:

3 – Perfect or near perfect pass giving the setter all setting options

2 – Good pass, but the setter has primarily just two options (forward or back)

1 – Poor pass allowing the setter only one option, or forcing a non-setter to set.

0 – Ace or over-pass

Generally speaking, teams want to aim for an average score of 2.0 or better. Squads who are able to do that will usually run an effective offense.

On an individual basis, the best passers will come in around the 2.3-2.4 level on average. Obviously, you probably won’t see that kind of average for lower level players.

I have seen some coaches use modifications on this system. For example, 1 could be an over-pass, shifting the rest of the scale up such that a perfect pass is a 4 rather than a 3. This might be suitable for lower level teams where an over-pass doesn’t translate into points for the opposition as frequently as it does at upper levels. In any case, feel free to adapt the system to suit the needs of your team.

Scoring Serves

As for serving, we use a 0-5 scale which is largely an inverted version of the passing scale.

5 – Ace

4 – Over-pass

3 – Opposing team passes a 1

2 – Opposing team passes a 2

1 – Opposing team passes a 3

0 – Error

As with passing, the objective here it so average 2 or better. Doing so means the other team cannot run its offense consistently, making your defense and transition game more effective. Again, you can make adjustments to suit your needs.

Stat Both Training and Matches

I strongly recommend you score serving and passing in training drills and games as well as in matches. If you only score during matches then your bench players won’t ever get scored. Part of the reason for keeping volleyball statistics like this is to give your players very specific feedback on where they are currently and where they need to get.

Scoring serving and passing also gives you a clear an unambiguous way of ranking players for lineup decisions. You’re less likely to have ruffled feathers when you decide to have Joe hidden in serve receive or Jane serving last in the rotation if the player knows they are not one of the better performers in those skills.

Make Sure It’s Consistent

Since the serve and pass are two sides of the same coin, keeping these serving and passing stats is quite easy. The one requirement, though, is that a consistent metric is used to make scoring judgements. If you don’t have consistent ratings then the averages derived won’t be reliable. It may sound easy to define a 3-pass, but it’s going to vary based on the athleticism of your setter and/or the ability of your middle hitter(s) to stay available for a front quick set. You can be more liberal with your scoring if your setter is quick and your middles mobile, but if you have a more slow-footed setter and/or lumbering middles the range of passes which could reasonably be called a 3 will be narrow.

Making Mentorship Part of the Process

A few weeks ago I attended a coaching conference run by Volleyball England. It wasn’t an educational event so much as an opportunity to hear about where they were looking to take things and to share thoughts and ideas toward that end (though there was a session at the end on passing technique and coaching). For me the objective was to get a big picture view of what’s happening in the English volleyball community where coaching – and youth development, as it turns out – was concerned.

The overarching objective the V.E. folks told us they have is to create a world class volleyball coaching systems (their words, not mine), and we were given handouts diagramming how coaches could progress through the various levels of certification. We talked about all that, looked at examples from other sports like cricket and rugby, and broke up into little groups to generate discussion points for future consideration.

For me there is one glaring issue in the structure of volleyball coach developing in England. Namely the lack of mentorship. An educational structure is valuable, but there is nothing like learning at the side of an experienced individual. Outside of small pockets, that doesn’t seem to exist, and certainly I haven’t seen much evidence of it in the South West.

Learning from those who’ve been there and done that
My own volleyball coaching career started off as an assistant to the head coach of the girls’ team in my high school. Basically, I just helped out running a few drills in varsity team practices, though that later extended to helping out the team’s assistant coach with junior varsity training. After graduation I helped with the boys’ team as well.

Later, after a lengthy break during which I focused on playing and then my professional career, I became a part-time assistant coach at a 2-year Junior College, which was my first collegiate position. From there I moved on to assist on a full-time basis for a pair of Division I universities. I learned a massive amount from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I went through USA Volleyball‘s equivalent to VE’s coaching certification program, and I attended conferences and seminars, read books on coaching, and watched videos done by some of the more prominent collegiate coaches. I was a sponge.

That’s not the same as seeing all those things (drills, systems, etc.) put into action by an experienced head coach, though. Even more so when you are involved in doing it yourself as an assistant coach. There’s a lot of nuance to running a team, especially when you add in an organizational structure on top of it.

And importantly, getting to work under multiple head coaches lets you see things from different perspectives. We all coach a bit differently and we all have different coaching situations. A female coach is likely to have a different approach to certain things than a male coach. Coaching for a major university is not the same as coaching for a small local school, which in turn is not the same as coaching a Juniors team.

Learning by coaching
Please be aware, though, that this is not me saying one must just be an assistant or apprentice coach. During my years coaching collegiately I was often also the head coach for a Juniors team. That allowed me to put what I was learning into practice and to start developing my own coaching style. At the same time I could bring that experience and perspective back to my work as an assistant.

And of course my own experience is not the only way one can develop as a coach. There are many examples of P.E. teachers who took on a high school team and became very good coaches with long careers teaching and coaching. Some of them eventually progress into the collegiate ranks and work their way up by demonstrating success.

There are also former players who moved into the coaching ranks at a lower level after their playing careers were over and started working up from there. I actually worked under two coaches who started their careers running high school teams, one of whom had previously been an All-Conference player in her own right.

There is no doubt, though, that it helps to head coach at a given level if you’ve spent some time assisting at that level. And having someone there along the way to help you navigate your way in developing your coaching knowledge and talent can only accelerate one’s development.

Putting it into practice here
All of what I said above is a major motivation for developing this website and its related volleyball coaching group. I want to see a structure develop whereby coaches can learn from each other. Most especially I want to see a system unfold where mentoring of new coaches by experienced ones can take place. It may be some time before we’re there on a formal type of basis, but at least we can start moving in that direction.

Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo

Synopsis: Bingo-Bango-Bongo is a 6 vs. 6 transition oriented game which gets players focused on scoring points in a row using a little point/big point type of structure.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for intermediate to advanced players.

Requirements: Two teams of 6, two coaches/players, half a dozen balls.

Execution: Start with two teams of 6 on the court and one coach (or spare player) on the sideline on either side of the net with balls. One coach initiates a free ball across the net and the teams play through a rally. When that rally finishes, the other coach initiates a free ball in the opposite direction. The coaches then continue to alternate.

When a team wins a rally they get Bingo. If they win a second rally after that, it’s Bango. A third rally win in a row produces Bongo. At that point the team with Bongo serves for a point. If they win the service rally they get a point and the teams rotate. If not, the cycle begins again fresh with a free ball to the serving team.

Note, when one team wins a Bingo, the other team resets back to nothing.

Variations:

  • In order to give middle blockers a break, you can flip the teams back to front rather than rotating when a big point is scored. I often do something like 1-4-2-5-3-6.
  • You can rotate/flip both sides on a big point, or just the winning side if you want to maximize time working on weaker rotations.
  • For lower skilled teams (or when you want to move things along more quickly) you can do Bingo-Bango and have Bongo be the big point. In other words, the serve for point would happen after just two rally wins in a row rather than three.
  • This could be done with smaller groups, like 4v4, in a smaller space.

Additional Comments:

  • The coaches should initiate balls as quickly as is safe to do so to keep the tempo high. This forces the players to maintain focus and adds a conditioning element.
  • Any players not involved in the game should be alert to keep balls out of the way so things can move quickly – and no one risks injury.
  • Since this is a free ball initiated game, it offers opportunity to wok on specific free ball plays for teams having advanced offenses.
  • Coach should make sure the team not receiving the free ball is quickly getting to defensive base as the ball is being initiated.
  • While playing the game with smaller groups like 4v4 would limit the ability to working on full-team free ball offense, there would still be the opportunity to work on elements of it. For example, the setter and middle hitter could work on first tempo balls.

Book Review: Volleyball Drills for Champions

Published in 1999, Volleyball Drills for Champions is a collection of chapters authored by some of the more prominent US collegiate coaches (current and past). Each author (or in two cases a pair of them) focuses on one particular subject area: Serving, Passing, Setting, Attacking, Blocking, Digging, and Drill Design.

Right at the beginning of the book is a handy guide listing all the drills included. The 2-page table includes the primary and secondary skill(s) covered by the drill. It also includes how many players it incorporates and how many balls are required. This makes for a nice quick reference for a coach looking to develop a practice plan.

Each primary skill chapters averages 12 drills. The drill descriptions include a:

  • Purpose describing the intention of the drill
  • Procedure outlining the execution of the drill
  • Key Points to help both the coach and player focus on desired outcomes
  • Variations discussion to make the drill more or less challenging or focused
  • Equipment Needed section listing the requirements for running the drill.

At the beginning of each section is a couple of pages worth of preliminary material. This is where you find the variation from different contributors. Some of the sections are technical while others are more philosophical. One of the short-comings of this arrangement is that where things get technical there are no visuals.

There are a few dated references in some of the discussion. This is understandable. The book was published before the introduction of rally score in US collegiate volleyball for more than deciding games. None of these references, though, have any real impact on what is being talked about in the text.

The bottom line is this is a drill book intended to act as a reference source. You will no doubt be familiar with some or many of the drills. That doesn’t devalue the book, though. My experience is that coaches forget about drills not used in a while. It’s nice to have a refresher for those times when you need to change things up or are working with a different caliber of team or player.

Along the same lines, the intros to each of the drill sections are quite useful. They are brief (as is the last section on designing drills), but act as reminders of the key coaching points for each skill. Some even provide a bit to think about in terms of how you approach a given facet of the game with your team. For example, will your focus be on aggressive serving or minimizing errors?

Overall, I’d say Volleyball Drills for Champions is a pretty good reference to have on your bookshelf.

First Things First, Know Your Priorities

Everything you do as a volleyball coach starts with the priorities you have. Kind of hard to achieve goals you don’t know you have, after all, isn’t it?

Working from priorities is a top-down process. Unfortunately, many coaches take a bottom-up approach to their coaching – especially inexperienced coaches. Quite often newer coaches get caught up what I’ve heard described as the “drill collection” phase. They forget to think bigger picture. By that I mean a coach will learn a new drill and become excited to use it in training. They fail, however, to look at the context of that training to judge whether the drill is suitable at that time.

Every drill in every training session should have an objective. Every training session should have one or more objectives. There may be objectives for certain periods of time during a season. For example, pre-season objectives vs. early-season objectives, vs. late-season objectives. There certainly will be overall season objectives for the team. The club or school program of which the team is part will have objectives. The requirement is to start with the top level priorities and work down so it all lines up and every effort of yourself and your players is pulling in one direction.

This is not to say that each training session in a given period of time (like pre-season) should have the exact same objectives. It’s just that the objectives chosen for a given session should contribute toward the reaching of the next level of objectives.

For example, your pre-season objectives may be to develop fitness, get rid of the off-season rust, and create a cohesive team. You can focus on any one or more of those objectives in your pre-season training sessions.

I go deeper into developing a training session plan based on your defined objectives in other posts. For now, make sure that what you do in training lines up with the team’s higher level objectives. You will be a much more effective and productive coach just taking that step.

Drill: The Belly Drill

Synopsis: The Belly Drill is a game-play based volleyball drill which develops scrappy play and commitment to keeping the ball off the floor. It also challenges players to problem solve in the manner of “How can we get out of this drill?”

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill which can be used with all age groups and skill levels.

Requirements: A full court, enough players to be divided into 3 groups, and a supply of balls

Execution: Start by dividing your squad into teams of 3. Two teams start on the court, one on each side of the net, with the remainder waiting on the side. One of the teams starts the drill on their stomachs. Slap the ball, which is the signal for the team on the floor to get up. Then initiate the ball to that team and let the two teams play through a rally. Whichever team loses the rally goes to the floor while the winners are replaced by a waiting group.

Variations:

  • Use different ways of initiating the ball to adapt to the level of your team and what you want to work on. For example, you can initiate balls very quickly after the slap and/or use hard driven balls or tips and tosses to open court areas to challenge a more advanced group while you can go slower and use underhand lobbed balls for a less advanced or younger group.
  • The standard set-up is to use 3 players on a full court, but that can be adjusted. Additional players can be added for lower level groups. Working with a smaller court is also an option, either for lower level teams or to increase the length of rallies (and thereby touches).
  • You can set contact rules such as each player much touch the ball once to encourage communication and anticipation, or only allowing two contacts to work on scramble play.
  • You can run the drill for a fixed amount of time, until you think the players are too tired to carry on, or until some goal is reached (X number of kills, for example).

Additional Comments:

  • The question often comes up “Why not have the winners stay on rather than the losers?” The replay is generally quite obvious once someone has gone through the drill, especially when one team gets stuck on the court and has to fight hard to win a rally to get out.
  • If you have sweaty players, have them go into the down position of a push-up rather than all the way down on their stomachs to avoid leaving slippery patches on the floor.
  • The players not on the court should be alert to stray balls, making sure they stay clear of players on the court.
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