Creating a Priority-Based Practice Plan

In the early days of this blog I authored the post First Things First, Know Your Priorities. It’s main point is if you don’t have a destination in mind it’s kind of hard to map your course.

You have high level objectives in mind for your team/program. Those should be in terms of the grand scheme of where you want things to go. They may come down to you from someone higher up, such as club leadership, an athletic director, school principal, etc.

You similarly should have priorities for the current season. They need to be founded in the higher level objectives. The must also be based on your assessment of the players, knowledge of the competition, and the like.

As you progress through the season you will identify different things to work on to move the team toward those season objectives (or new ones if the situation dictates a shift). They could be something like improving on a particular skill or preparing for a certain opponent. This third tier of priorities is what drives the plans you make for your training sessions.The creation of a practice plan based on those objectives is what I want to speak to in this article.

Starting with your top priority

Any practice plan you develop must start first and foremost with your top priority. Let’s say serve receive passing is something you’ve identified as the top priority for today’s training session. Probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that. 😉

You might like the theoretical idea of spending two hours doing nothing put serving and passing. Chances are, though, you won’t be able to keep the players focused and mental engaged for that long. It’s rather boring, and the intensity of those kinds of drills tends to be pretty low.

So how do you create a training plan prioritizing serve receive, but not just about serving & passing drills?

Your players’ level and the available time obviously play a major role in how you structure your training plan. You may want a drill which does do the boring fundamental work, at least for a little while. For beginners that could be a basic toss and pass drill. For other players and teams you could use drills like 8-Person Serve & Pass or Passing Triplets. They would serve as a foundational drill to get the players lots of reps in a relatively short period of time.

But you could have come up with that yourself, right? No new insights there.

Creating focal points in other drills

The real trick to developing a practice plan which highlights your top priority is to make that priority the focal point of drills which seemingly are concentrated on other things. For example, you can add a passing element to a hitting drill. It makes that drill one where serve receive quickly comes to the fore. The players won’t be able to attack the ball well if they don’t first pass well! At the same time, it also makes the drill much more game-like than your standard hitting lines.

You can also adapt any games you play in your practice to get the focus on serve reception. This can be done by replacing a freeball or attacked ball with a served ball as the ball initiation. It can also be in the way you keep score (see Volleyball Games: Scoring Alternatives). A great example of this is the Points for Passes game. It awards points based on the quality of the serve receive passes executed.

Operating at one level up

Along with drills and games focused specifically on whatever priority you have for that practice, you can also have ones with a higher level perspective that require the priority focus for proper execution. We can think about this by asking the question, “What play or strategy relies on good execution of my priority item to work?”

Sticking to the serve receive passing priority, that higher level perspective is the serve receive offense. Depending on your team’s level, you may be want to run the quick attack off serve receive, to have a certain first-ball kill %, or perhaps a target serve receive rally win %. Good serve receive passing is required to achieve your offensive objectives. That means any games or drills with serve receive offense as the focus must have passing as a focus.

Thus, you have another way of sneaking passing work into your training without your players moaning. 🙂

Concentrating your coaching on your priorities

It’s not enough to just include in your practice plan drills and games which feature the skill, play, or strategy you want to highlight in your training for that session, however. You need to also concentrate your coaching on that priority. In our serve receive example, that means you need to focus on how your player move, set their platform, communicate, etc. This means letting other stuff go.

In my experience, it’s the letting go of non-priority stuff that’s the hard part for many volleyball coaches. We have a tendency to want to address every little thing.

The hitting drill I mentioned above where you can add a passing element is a perfect example of how easy it is to lose your priority focus. There’s a setting element which can grab your attention. No doubt the players will want feedback on their hitting as well. If there’s a block, that too could grab your attention. You have to resist the distraction and keep both yourself and your players focused on the serve receive priority for that day.

Of course if you have multiple coaches in the gym you could split up the focal points between you. For example, you could provide feedback to the setter(s) while another coach concentrates on the players passing. This keeps the main priority to the fore, but allows for working with players who are not executing that skill at the time without detracting from the rest.

Having multiple priorities

Much of the time we go into planning a given training session with multiple things we’d like to work on that day. That’s perfectly fine, but the number needs to be kept down to make it manageable. Two or three is probably about it in terms of the general practice plan. You may be able to have sub-priorities within drills or games, though, especially if you have multiple coaches at-hand.

If you do have more than one key focal point for a given session you need to prioritize them. Something has to be the main one. If you have a situation where a conflict between them arises, there must be a clear understanding of what gets the attention.

An example of this would be the combination of serving and passing. If you have two coaches at work, one can be with each group during a drill like Serving-Passing-Setting Quads. If, however, you are the only coach then you have to spend the majority of your time working with whichever group represents the top priority for that day.

Communicate training priorities to your players

The best way to make sure your priorities for the session get the concentration required is to communicate them to the players at the outset. This serves two key purposes. One is to give you a chance to get the players on the same page with you in terms of the team’s developmental needs or strategic planning requirements. They are more likely to stay locked in and remain committed if they understand what’s going on and see the need for it.

The other reason to communicate priorities is to encourage players to not get caught up in other things. Going back to that pass-to-hit drill I brought up, it’s really easy for player to focus on their hitting rather than their passing since that’s the last part of each play. Telling them that you want to concentrate on the passing won’t keep them from reacting to their hitting performance, of course. It does offer you the secondary training effect of encouraging them to focus on one skill at a time, however. Over time, this can help them in game situations – especially when they may be struggling with one skill.

So in conclusion…

If you set the priorities for your practice, plan the drills and games you’ll use with those priorities in mind, and stay focused on them in your coaching during that session you are more likely to walk out of the gym satisfied at the end of the day. Do it consistently and you’re just about assured of being pleased with how things progress over the season. Of course this assumes you do a good job assigning priorities. But that’s a subject for another article. 🙂

The evolution of the libero position

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the game of volleyball in the time I’ve been involved as a coach (and a player all those years ago), and across the gap when I was away from coaching volleyball. While on my 2013 tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, one thing I saw was a shift in libero use. It’s no surprise this happened. The position was only introduced at that level about 15 years ago. It was going to take time for coaches to find the best ways to make use of the position.

The early days of the libero

Back in the early days the libero was largely just a glorified defensive specialist. They didn’t do much more than any DS would have done. They just couldn’t serve at that point (which they can do in one rotation under US women’s collegiate rules). A team took their strongest defender and/or ball control player, gave them the off-colored jersey. They were told to go do what you normally do, but in 6 rotations rather than 3.

When I was at Brown, our basic strategy was to identify the place the ball was most likely to go given our blocking scheme (either position 5 or 6), and put the libero there on defense. We tried to get her central in the serve receive pattern as much as possible. Not a bad approach. You want your best ball-handling player getting as many first contact touches as possible.

Back then we gave no real thought to the libero taking the second ball. After all, the libero couldn’t take the ball with her hands in front of the 3m line. The strategy was instead for the OPP to step out from her RS position to take it. Most teams used a similar approach.

Current libero use

Things have shifted in the last few years, though. These days liberos are given responsibility for the second ball when the setter has to dig. It’s not the OPP anymore. I can think of a few related reasons this shift has taken place, in no particular order:

  • More teams are targeting the setter, causing them to play the ball defensively more often.
  • OPPs are a bigger part of the offense now – especially for college teams running a 6-2. Making them set takes them out of the attack. Further, OPPs rarely set the middle when taking the second ball, often meaning just one attacking option.
  • Coaches are more conservative with their digging target. They strongly favor digs to Target 2 (about 3m line in the middle of the court). This would require an OPP to have to come further off the net to play a ball, often after they just got down from blocking.

With the ball dug to Target 2, and them often playing in position 5, the libero becomes a more interesting secondary setter. On balls dug behind the 3m line they can use their hands. On those closer to the net they can bump set. Since they’re in the middle of the court, they can go to either pin with the ball. Back row is another choice.

Suddenly it makes sense to have the libero acting as the second setter. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be among the quicker players on the court. (By the way, MBs now get more responsibility for the second ball dug close to the net since they can set either way as well).

Implications for libero selection and training

What all this means is that the requirements for the libero position have evolved. It’s no longer enough to pass and or dig the ball well. They now also have to consistently put up a good hitable ball to both pins and the back row. At the top levels this has results in coaches recruiting experienced setters to play libero. It also means a lot of dedicated libero setting work, such as that done in the Second Ball Setting drill.

Having former setters as liberos also brings a leadership factor into play. Good setters are generally also good leaders. Liberos may not direct the team the same ways a setter does, but their attitude, communication, and intensity can certainly set the team’s standard. We had a libero captain one of my years at Brown who definitely set the tone for the team. I saw a similar thing at USC when I observed preseason training there.

As coaches looking to identify and/or train prospective liberos, these are thing we need to keep in mind.

Worth a Listen: The Net Live

For those who don’t know, there’s a weekly broadcast/podcast that may be worth your time to give a listen. It’s The Net Live. It is a live broadcast, and you can find out information about that here. It is also available as a podcast you can listen to on that same site as well as via iTunes.

Two words of warning:

1) This is a longer-than-average length broadcast. That likely is reflective of it being a live show at its core. The result is a 2-hour program, which can be a bit of a long listen from a podcast perspective.

2) The show is very much American-centric. Lots of talk about US national team programs, collegiate and beach volleyball in the States. It does, though, touch on international competitions.

The latter may seem to make the show less than appealing to those outside the US, but from a volleyball coaching perspective don’t jump to any conclusions just yet. I have listened to a number of quite good coaching discussions. There was one about half-way through the September 3rd, 2013 show, for example. This is one of the advantages to being able to listen to the show via podcast.

In general terms, the show covers quite an array of subjects. They have lots of call-in and in-studio guests talking about everything from playing and coaching to news and events to different aspects of the business of volleyball. In one episode, for example, beach volleyball legend Sinjin Smith detailed the history of the AVP in a way which most folks have probably never heard before.

Give it a listen.

Book Review: A Guide to Physical Preparation to Play Collegiate Volleyball

A Guide to Physical Preparation to Play Collegiate Volleyball is co-authored by John Cook and Laura Pilakowski. They are the Head Volleyball Coach and Head Volleyball Strength & Conditioning Coach at the University of Nebraska respectively at the publishing date (2006). Basically, it is a pamphlet with five short chapters, and those chapters go as follows:

Chapter 1 – The physical demands of collegiate volleyball

This chapter starts with a talk of three evaluation elements used in the recruitment process. They include landings, symmetry of strength and movement, and arm-swing mechanics. This is all linked to core strength. The authors then go into the specific requirements of the sport and individual positions. There are some suggestions for ways to prepare for the jump from high school/juniors to collegiate volleyball’s higher demands.

Chapter 2 – Building a foundation

The three focal points of this chapter are Balance, Posture/Strength/Stability, and Jumping Skills. The respective sections have suggested exercises.

Chapter 3 – Expand on the foundation in the areas of jumping power and court quickness

As suggested, this chapter extends into working at improving vertical jump and quickness. It presents lots of exercises, and offers tips and thoughts.

Chapter 4 – The elements of a basic program

Here we get into the specifics of how to put together a strength & conditioning program for volleyball. This includes thoughts on how to do testing. The chapter also features an 8-week program, which includes both strength/power training and conditioning.

Chapter 5 – Information on how to develop a community of support personnel

The final section is contributed by an editor of the Performance Conditioning Volleyball Newsletter (under which banner the book was published). Conceptually, these few pages are worth reviewing. To suggest the list of support personnel suggested to help young volleyball players with their physical and mental development is ambitious may be an understatement, though.

Overall, I think this pamphlet can be quite useful for both volleyball coaches and players/parents.

Lessons from a Coaching Legend

I’m going to talk a little bit of football/soccer here for a moment. Don’t be alarmed! The volleyball link will become apparent in short order. 🙂

One Sir Alex Ferguson has gotten himself in the news a while back. The retired legendary manager of Manchester United is the subject of an article in the Harvard Business Review. It caught the attention of the folks in the business press and even ESPN. It’s titled Ferguson’s Formula, and it has as it’s foundation a case study a Harvard professor did back in 2012. Obviously, the main perspective is therefor a business one, but since it is also an organizational and leadership based look at how the successful manager operated, it is something volleyball coaches would do well exploring also.

Here are the eight key points:

  1. Start with the foundation
  2. Dare to rebuild
  3. Set high standards
  4. Never cede control
  5. Match the message to the moment
  6. Prepare to win
  7. Rely on the power of observation
  8. Never stop adapting

I could go into my thoughts about each of these ideas, but I think I’m going to hold off and do so separately (plus, you should read the piece for yourself). There are a couple of them (at least) which deserve their own posts, and hopefully in that way a discussion about them can develop.

I would, however, make the point that we can learn a lot from our coaching peers in other sports. One of the things I always find beneficial when coaching collegiately in the States is being part of an Athletic Department where I can go talk with a coach from the softball team or the squash team or the wrestling team about recruiting, player management, organizational issues and whatnot. If you coach in a club environment this isn’t quite so easy to do, but I definitely encourage you to seek out successful coaches in other sports (and it doesn’t just have to be coaches who win a lot). In my experience, coaches in all sports love to talk shop.

Drill: 8-Person Serve & Pass

Synopsis: If you have a large group of players, this drill can have all of them involved for work on serving and ball control skills. It has much in common with the Serving-Passing-Setting Quads drill.

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

Requirements: 8-12, players, a court, 4 ball carts, lots of balls

Execution: Put two passers and two servers on both sides of the net, along with a setter and a target for the setter. In the initial phase the server serves to the passer across from them. The pass goes to the setter, who then sets to the target (in either the OH or RS position). This means all four servers are going at the same time. After a given number of serves the server switches with the passer in front of them on their own side and the drill continues. After that, the servers switch to serving to the passer diagonally across from them.

8-player-serve-pass

Variations:

  • Depending on the number of players you have and whether you want your setters passing, you could just have targets with ball carts in the Setting position (coaches, for example).
  • If you have 12 players the rotation could be from Server to Passer to Setter/Target to Server.
  • Rather than going for a set number of serves, you could go for a collective number of 3-passes or cumulative passing score.

Additional Comments:

  • This drill is run frequently by Long Beach State.
  • With a smaller group you can run this only in a half fashion (2 servers, 2 passers, etc.).
  • This drill really requires lots of balls and several ball carts to be run smoothly, so it isn’t suitable for teams with smaller equipment levels. This unless you can find an efficient ball rotation system which keeps the drill moving.

When not to serve their weakest passer

I recently took some time to attend a preseason tournament featuring a group of area men’s teams getting ready for the upcoming NVL season here in England. The hosts were Exeter Storm, the club with which the Devon women’s team I coached last year has now merged. I was taking advantage of the live match play to try out a couple of volleyball stat apps on my iPad with an eye toward finding a good one to use while coaching this season (more on that in a later post), but also wanted to be there in support of the club generally.

Storm will be new to the NVL this year, having just been accepted into Division 3 (the club itself is only a couple years old). In the final match of the day they played a team which last year won promotion to NVL1 in a playoff. Despite the difference in level, it was a tight match most of the way through (though, to be fair, Storm has played that same team close previously).

The captain of the men’s team I coached at the university last season is an OH for the club. At a certain point in the match I observed that he was targeting a specific player on the opposing team with his serves. This player was most definitely the weakest passer they had. He was also by far their best hitter – an absolute beast who proved virtually unstoppable all day long.

Normally, relentlessly serving the other team’s weak passer is a good strategy. This time, though, not so much.

You see, in this particular rotation the ball was being served down the line. While the result was often a 1 or 2-pass which forced the setter to come toward area 4, which normally would be a good thing as it would make the offense predictable, in this case it mean the setter was virtually assured of setting this big hammer of a hitter swinging outside. The sideout percentage was very high despite the poor passes. The setter may have still set the same player if the pass went somewhere else or came from a different direction, but I’d have at least wanted to give him the option of making that (bad) decision.

Now in this instance the player was the one making the call on where he was going to serve (I asked him after the match), but in another instance it could have just as easily been the call of a coach thinking too much about the normal percentage play. The Storm coaches didn’t seem to normally call serving targets for the players, so I’m reluctant to suggest they fell victim of that mentality, but I can easily see other coaches doing so in other situations.

Just goes to show that sometimes doing the right thing can be the wrong thing.

Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important

Consider the implications of a volleyball serve coming your way at 40+ mph.

While I was at USC women’s team practice they worked on hard serves. Their objective was to reach that speed, if not higher. Yes, they really did have a radar gun out to measure. 🙂

Consider just how quick a serve at that pace goes from the server’s hand to the passer. For reference, 40 mph is nearly 59 feet per second, or a little under 18 meters per second. That’s not far short of the length of the volleyball court. So passers have less than a second to react and get themselves and their platform in the right position. Quite a few of the serves I saw were actually faster than 40 mph (mainly from the jump servers – both float and topspin). Even the weaker serves were well into the 30s. Of course the top men’s jump servers reach spike level speeds.

The ball only needs to cover about 50 feet (14 or so meters) to reach the passer from serve contact. That’s not very far and a good serve has both the tempo to get the ball there quickly and movement to force passers to change position. This is why teaching good initial position and preparedness, efficient movement, and solid platform mechanics is so important for good serve receive passing – not to mention proper passer communication.

Coach Gimmillaro at Long Beach State focused a great deal on the mechanics of passing (and digging). He was a stickler for early platform preparation, moving in specific ways (run forward, shuffle back and to the side), and keeping stable strong body posture completely through the playing of the ball. Not surprisingly, his team is traditionally good in serve receive and defensive ball control.

Game: High Ball to Receive

Synopsis: This game works on hitters being more aggressive in challenging the block, which also means a focus on good hitter coverage, with additional work on serve receive and free ball attacking.

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

Requirements: Two teams, full court, a couple balls

Execution: This game begins with a coach-initiated ball to one team. That team must then run an outside or right side attack off a high set (no quick or faster tempo sets allowed on this first ball – and the ball must be hit, not tipped or rolled). The rally is played out from there in normal fashion (any set is permitted after the first ball). The winner of that rally earns the advantage to receive first a served ball, then a free ball. A point is awarded to the team which wins each of those rallies (not just the receiving team). The next coach-initiated ball goes to the other team. Play 8 points before rotating.

Variations:

  • You could make this a wash game by forcing a team to win both the serve and free ball rallies (either just the receiving team or the either team).
  • To work on weak rotations you can require a team to get 8 points before rotating (or some number of big points under a wash system).
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • The idea behind the initial high ball attack is to get players to be aggressive about attacking the block (looking for seems, going high hands, etc.). As such, players should be required to take a legitimate swing at the ball and not permitted to tip, roll, or otherwise use an off-speed shot.
  • Encouraging the challenging of the block also puts a premium on hitter coverage.
  • I saw this game used by UCLA.