Drill: Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting

Synopsis: This drill could be viewed as a team pepper type of exercise in that it focuses on keeping the ball in play rather than go for the point. In doing so, it focuses on several facets of ball control, with an element of problem-solving and potentially a strong dose of mental toughness work mixed in.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 8 players, full court

Execution: Put one player each in positions 4, 5, and 6 with a setter at the net on both sides. The drills runs similarly to the Hard Drill in that the players have to keep the ball in play. In this case, however, all sets go to the OH in position 4. They must attack the ball cross-court so their teammates on the other side of the net can dig and attack in return. The objective is to get 10 good dig-set-hit sequences without the ball hitting the floor. If it does, the counter resets to 0.


  • Players can be required to rotate positions each time they send the ball across the net, or leave a setter in place and have everyone else rotate around them.
  • If there are extra players, they can be subbed in in either a rotational or contact fashion (e.g. sub goes in for the hitter)
  • You can vary the number of successful reps required based on the level of the skill of your team.
  • With advanced teams you can require that the 10 reps be completed consecutively, meaning the ball only crosses the net 10 times. With less advanced teams you can allow for faulty sequences where a team cannot execute a proper dig-set-hit, but keeps the rally going. In that case, you count the good sequences and don’t go back to zero unless the ball hits the floor.
  • The setter could be required to penetrate from back row if you are using just your actual setter(s).
  • The setter can be required to block (if not penetrating as above).

Additional Comments:

  • Make sure to enforce that successful reps only count if there’s a dig, a clean set with hands, and a legitimately attacked ball (no soft swings).
  • Allowing a team to not have to get all 10 reps in a row will result in faster completion of the drill if time is a concern. It will also let you get the players to focus on keeping the ball in play when they are in scramble mode.
  • Because there can be considerable frustration with having to restart on errors (or discontinuities), mental toughness can be a developmental aspect to this drill.
  • You may have to put a time limit on the drill to keep to your practice plan.
  • There is a problem solving element to this drill in that it behooves the players to make sure the best defenders are the ones receiving most of the hits to keep the play going. This thinking is something you may have to hint at if they aren’t getting it.

Training Plan: Toughness, Passing, Court Work

Priorities: Start to identify best passers, work on mental and physical toughness and conditioning, court positional work

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 14

Notes: This session followed a hard one two nights prior, and a slower one the prior evening where the team worked on rotations positioning, and coverage.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: Started with a dynamic warm-up because of lingering stiffness and fatigue from the sessions the prior two nights.

Light Positioning Work: Used the Newcomb game to have players run through rotations, coverage, and base/defense positioning work as a light on-court warm-up continuation featuring court movement.

Serving warm-up: 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.

Serving Game: Ran the Amoeba serving game two times through to work on directional 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.

Serving and passing: Ran the Get-2 passing drill and recorded passing stats. Kept the drill going until there were 30 total 3-passes. About 6 balls hit the floor with no or insufficient player effort, resulting in 6 punishment runs (rather than going back to 0 as I wasn’t doing an out-loud count).

Hitting: Had the whole team run quick attacks to help reinforce the need for good passing.

Passing: Put the team through the Run Serve Receive drill with each player having to get 7 good passes to get out.

Serving: Ran the Run & Serve drill to put the players under physical and mental pressure (especially after all the running they’d had to do prior).

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 6 v 6 play to reinforce the positional work from the prior day and the beginning of training, and to start evaluating players by position.

– – – Observations – – –

I actually tried doing a winners variation drill after the second bit of passing, but the players were missing too many serves so I had to drop it quickly and move on. The serving bit which followed was scheduled, but just moved up.

Practice Plan: Initial Mental and Physical Challenge

Priorities: Physically and mentally demanding session to quickly get players back into serious training mode after the try-out and selection process, start establishing team mentality

Training time: 1.5 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 16

– – – The Plan – – –

Initial Warm-up: I had the team do a dynamic warm-up to start, knowing it was going to be a physical practice.

Ball-handling warm-up: I then had the players pair up and do a bit of passing and light pepper.

Serving warm-up: 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 around-the-world serving where they had to get a good serve into each zone 1-6.

Serving and passing: I used the Get-2 passing drill as a fast-moving serve/pass exercise with a goal of 32 good passes. Overpasses were -1 and balls hitting the floor with no effort on them sent the count back to 0.

Position Hitting: In groups of 3 on both sides of the court, I had the players pass a free ball then hit, with the rest on ball collection and feeding duty. I then had the middles spend time running quicks. Using the small groups kept the tempo high for those in the drill, forcing them to do a lot of movement, transition, and jumping in a relatively short window of time.

Defense: To really push the players mentally and physically, I had them go through the Continuous Cross-Court Digging drill.

Team play: I finished up with Winners 4s

– – – Observations – – –

Although the group had already gone through the selection and try-out process, there was still the question of player commitment in some cases. Along with wanting to quickly get training at a high, demanding tempo and intensity to facilitate some needed conditioning work, I was looking to expose any potential commitment cracks. In other words, I wanted to encourage any who might be inclined to quit to do it now rather than in a couple of weeks.

Coaches coach

During my second year in England I was watching some NCAA women’s volleyball on ESPN Player with two of my Exeter university players. At one point during the match, the male player of the pair turned turned and asked how I could handle dealing with coaching them – meaning the university men and women – after having coached Division I volleyball in the States. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Firstly, I should note that I think we were watching Kansas vs. Georgia. This is meaningful because while I did indeed coach DI collegiate volleyball, I was at a significantly lower level. Not that these two teams in particular are known for being national championship contenders in volleyball. They do both play in good conferences, though. While I did coach against the likes of Wisconsin, U. San Diego, USC, and Penn State, it’s not the same as coaching in programs of that caliber. We can certainly have a discussion about the meaning of coaching at those different levels, but I’ll leave that for another day. The point here is that I couldn’t claim to have coached elite level athletes. Later, of course, I coached some former PAC-12 and ACC players at Svedala. But I digress.

Secondly, I’d coached at all sorts of different levels of volleyball over the years up to that point. It started with high school volleyball many, many years ago. From then up to the time of this conversation my experience included club volleyball from 12-and-unders right up to 18-and-unders, different calibers of collegiate teams, a boys scholastic team, and the various things I did in England. In other words, it’s not like all I’d ever done was coach at a higher level than what I was coaching those days.

More than all that, though, I felt like I fall under the “coaches coach” classification. Some might argue I have a coaching addiction. Might be hard to refute that given how many teams I was involved in coaching those days. 🙂

I will admit to having preferences in my coaching. Working with young kids doesn’t tend to be my thing, and I generally favor coaching female players rather than male ones. That said, I helped a 12-and-under team win in regional championship once upon a time and lead a boys scholastic team to a gold medal in my first head coaching experience, so I’ve certainly had success outside my main comfort zones.

The bottom line, though, is that I really get a lot out of coaching. It’s about teaching and developing these players. It’s about maximizing a given team’s potential. I think those who are really passionate about coaching probably think the same way.

Agree? Disagree?

Book Review: Talent and the Secret Life of Teams by Terry Pettit

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.

Drill: Get-2 Serve & Pass

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.

Additional Comments:

  • 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

Why does my volleyball team miss serves?

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.

Poor mechanics

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.

Overly Aggressive

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.

Insufficient skill

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.

Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas

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.

Setting Priorities
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.

Drill: 1-way Pepper

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.

Additional Comments:

  • 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.