Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Making the practice planning process easier

I once came across a question from a fellow coach.

Has anyone set up a database of drills/games/etc with a template for practices? e.g., in your template you can select from a variety of warmup items, then pick an individual skill, then a group skill, etc… so you wouldn’t have to a) remember every single drill since they would be in a database, b) hand write practice every day, etc.

I understand why something like this would be compelling. On the one hand, when I first got into college coaching I worked for a woman who was very structured. She was a facilities planner, so she liked her practices scheduled out basically to the minute.This sort of practice organizer is right up that alley.

On the other hand, there are definitely lots of options for drills and games. It can be hard to remember them. I’ve got some thoughts about this, though.

Why so many?

First, there is something I wrote about in the 1000 different drills post. Some coaches proudly have a large drill collection. They constantly swap drills in and out of their practices. As I talked about in that other post, though, this could actually hamper player learning.

Perhaps more meaningfully, always using different drills means time spent explaining them. That’s time not spent practicing. Remember, the more you talk, the less they train. If you have limited practice time, you need to get the absolute most out of it.

It only takes a few

Having said what I did in the last section, I definitely get the desire to mix things up and keep it fresh. We do need to keep player attentions in mind in our practice planning. That means changing the challenges and the focal points. Jan De Brandt and Teri Clemens, who we interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, both are proud of never running the same practice twice.

Here’s the thing, though. You can create an ever-changing practice plan using only a handful of exercises.

This starts with the understanding that you want to make things as game-like as you possibly can at all times. This is a simple function of the science of motor learning. You can’t always create actual game situations, or do things in a 100% game-like fashion, but you want to get as close as you can. If you have this idea in mind, it will likely cut down quite a bit on the number of possible drills you might use.

The second thing to understand is that so long as you make the exercises as game-like as you can get them, then what really matters isn’t the drill or game itself, but the feedback. That means you can use the same exercise for multiple different purposes simply by shifting the focus and feedback.

Finally, bonus points and other scoring systems can let you use even a simple 6 v 6 game in any way you like. Want to work on serve reception? Consider something like the points for passes system. Want to work on first ball sideout? Give a bonus point when the team does it, and/or to the serving team when they can prevent it. Want your servers attacking seams? Give them bonus points for doing so, regardless of the pass quality.

And of course you can also focus on something by having each rally begin in a certain fashion. Or if you want to run a wash game, you can have the follow-up ball(s) work a certain way. Let’s say you want to work on out-of-system hitting. You could start the rallies with a ball hit at the setter so a non-setter has to set the ball.

The point is you can work on just about anything you want in a simple 6 v 6 game by changing the way rallies are initiated, how you score them, and where you focus your feedback. And you can get really focused by using a second chance approach.

Get the point I’m trying to make here?

My own approach

I’m like Jan and Teri in that I probably don’t ever run the same practice twice. Teri actually goes even deeper in her interview (featured in the first Volleyball Coaching Wizards) and says she never had a list of drills. She just created whatever she needed when she planned practice. I approach things in a similar way.

Yes, I do have some standard drill and game structures that I use. By that I mean they are 6 v 6, or small-sided, or have a winners rotation, or something along those lines that is familiar to the players. This avoids the need for teaching new drills all the time. From there, though, I set up the ball initiation, scoring, and feedback so it focuses things on what I have for my priority that session.

I’m not saying this is the best approach for every coach. We all need to have a practice planning system that works for us. This one works well for me.

Quick drills that keep players moving

What are some suggestions for drills that are quick and can be run through in a few minutes consistently to keep them moving and pumped during practices?

Coaches wonder about this quite often from a couple of different perspectives. One is in terms of warming up. Another is in terms of keeping the training tempo high and players engaged. Let me address things from both perspectives.

Warm-up

For me, the main thought process behind picking a warm-up activity is getting the players’ heart rates up and muscles warm, and also executing some lower intensity volleyball skills. An example of this is what I call Brazilian volleytennis. I like this one because it involves so many elements. There’s lots of movement and relatively quick rotations, keeping players switching in and out of the play. On top of that, it requires good player communication and coordination along with a lot of reading. Oh, and it’s competitive.

A different type of warm-up activity which is more ball-handling oriented is over-the-net pepper. The version that has the most player movement and highest touch frequency is probably the 3-player version. There are lots of different pepper variations, so you have loads of options in this regard.

Depending on your age group, you might even want to jump straight in to more full game play, like doubles. Younger players, after all, don’t need the same warm-up as older ones.

High Tempo/Maximum Engagement

Once you get into the meat of a practice, keeping players moving tends to be more focused on player engagement, though it could also have a conditioning element. Basically, what we’re talking about here is activities where things happen quickly and changes are frequent. A popular example of this is Winners, also known as Queen or King of the Court, and variations on it like Speedball or the Belly Drill.

The main feature of Winners and games like it is the way players wave on and off the court. It keeps them moving, and possibly facing different challenges.

Another way to think about keeping players moving is to increase the tempo of your games and drills. Generally, this means finding ways to shorten the length of time between one repetition and the next. That tends to be a feature of wash type games and drills.

Make sure it’s not just about movement

It’s easy to come up with ways to make players move around a lot. That’s not really what we should be thinking about here. Most of us have limited time with our teams, and we can’t afford to waste any of that on activities that don’t involve volleyball. If you’re thinking that this movement could be part of player conditioning, I’d argue there are better ways to actually get in proper volleyball conditioning through the structure of your practice.

Those are my thoughts on the subject. I’d love to hear your own ideas. Feel free to share them via a comment below.

Structure things to keep them coming back

When coaching beginners, youngsters, and anyone else where retention is an important consideration we want to design sessions that leave them happy and wanting to come back for more. Motivation is important for committed teams of more senior players too, though. We want them just as eager to come back. That’s something we should keep in mind when planning our practices and training sessions.

Start with the finish

I previously wrote about building practice from the finish. In that case I talked about thinking first about the last exercise you wanted in your session, then working backwards so you have a progression toward it. When thinking in terms of having players eager to come back for the next session, a similar mentality is appropriate.

There is what’s known as a serial-position effect which tells us we remember the last part of a sequence best. Psychologists call this the recency effect. What this means to us coaches is that if we want our players to think positively about our training sessions we should end them on something they will enjoy or otherwise find fulfilling.

Flipping back to the start

The other thing the serial-position effect tells us people remember best is the first part of a sequence. This is the primacy effect. This tell us that we should make sure the first thing we do in a practice session is engaging.

The muddle in the middle

So if the end and the beginning are best remembered after the fact by players, what should we do with the middle part? Obviously, you do what you need to do. If we follow the psychology, though, we realize this is the part of the session where you can put in the less intense, less exciting parts. Need to slow things down or lower the intensity to do more teaching? This is the section in which to do it.

Understanding their motivation

Before I leave you to go out and structure your next practice based on these principles, there’s one last important consideration. You need to have a good grasp of what your players find engaging and fulfilling. These thoughts from a former player of mine provide one player’s thoughts to that end. You need to think about your own group of players, though.

In my experience, competition tends to motivate male players (Kathy DeBoer backs this up). Many female athletes, however, like to feel they’ve had a good workout. This is a very general perspective, though. Level of play and type of team are influencing factors. It’s important that you, as the coach, understand what gets your players’ juices flowing most.

Looking at jump count

In 2014 when I spent three weeks with a pair of German professional teams, I had a conversation with one coach about player jump counts. He was starting to use the VERT device to track jumps in training. It gave him a guideline as to when to shut things down. I had a similar conversation during one of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. It became the basis for a podcast.

All of this came after Volleywood posted something which suggested what I saw as a ridiculously high average player jump count. They said, “Most volleyball players jump about 300 times a match.” With no supporting evidence, I should note. I posted a comment contesting that idea. As this article shows, however, that idea somehow spread.

So what’s the truth?

The folks at VERT published a set of figures based on NCAA women’s volleyball. The following comes from an email they sent out which I received.

So setters jump the most, followed by setters, then outside hitters (probably including right sides). Notice none of them are anywhere close to 300. Yes, these are averages, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine any player in even the longest match getting to 300. Maybe, maybe hitters got that high back in the sideout scoring days when matches could go very long. Even then, that would be on the very high end, not the norm.

And according to the article I linked above, research indicates the average is significantly lower for beach players than indoor ones. Though for them you have to factor in playing multiple matches per day.

Training implications

So what does this mean for us as coaches?

It means it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have players do 150 or 200 jumps a day in practice when they will do far fewer in matches. If we do, then we are likely over-training, which puts us at risk of injury as a result of either fatigue or overuse. And we shouldn’t just think about jumps in practice here. We also have to consider jumps from strength training as well. It all adds up.

Creating pressure in practice

How do you create pressure situations in your practice?

That’s a question coaches ponder a lot. Especially when they see their team crumble in intense match situations.

The fact of the matter, though, is that there are different types of pressure. Some are mainly individual, while others are more team.

Individual pressure

In the case of individual pressure, we’re talking about a situation where one player must execute. That could be at the service line. It could be in serve reception. Or it could be as a hitter. These are situations where the individual player feels the pressure to perform well. Actually, it’s probably more a “not screwing up” type of pressure in terms of their self-talk, but that’s a different subject.

Creating individual pressure requires putting a player in a position where they have to execute. There’s an example of this in John Cook’s book, Dream Like a Champion. In it he describes a hitter vs. defense game where one attacker must win a game against a full defense. If they lose, they play again. They repeat the game until the player wins.

Now, that’s an example of individual pressure in a very individualized situation. There are also ways to create individual pressure in a more team situation. The run-and-serve drill is an example of this from a serving perspective. If we think of serve reception, though, we can create a situation where one player receives every ball. Their team cannot execute the offense if they cannot provide a good pass. Alternatively, flip things around and say that only a specific hitter can score.

Team pressure

While individual pressure is about putting the spotlight on a specific player (or position), team pressure is about the collective. This is about the team needing to come back from behind, or perhaps to close out a set when ahead. It’s about them staying focused and connected when the pressure is on, and not falling victim to fear and doubt.

One interesting game you can play from this perspective is 25 or reset. I’ve also seen it referred to as “slip and slide”. Basically, if a team gets to 24 and does not score they have to reset back to wherever you started the score (e.g. 19). This combines the pressure to close a team out with the drive to keep fighting if you’re the losing team.

On a smaller scale, wash games are little pressure situations. The team must, for example, win two rallies in a row. That increases the pressure on the second ball – for both sides.

Consequences

A lot of coaches use some kind of punishment for losing to create pressure, like sprints. I’m not a fan of this, as I’ve discussed. Further, research suggests it actually may not improve motivation. If the desire to win is intrinsic, then losing should be enough of a punishment. You don’t need anything else. If your players aren’t naturally competitive, then you need to tie something they care about in terms of playing the game to winning. That, though, is a different topic of discussion.

Similarly, if a player cares at all about the quality of their play, then failing to execute at an individual level will leave them feeling disappointed. Why, then, is anything extra required? If your players are not worried about their quality of play, then you may have some other problems to address before worrying about how they do under pressure.

 

Using competition in training, even for skill development

Mark Lebedew wrote a pair of posts on the use of competition in volleyball practice, both from a positive and negative perspective. Basically, his view is that adding competition makes for better practices. At the same time, though, competition can also distract from your training focus. I want to speak here on the latter point.

Mark makes the following observation.

When players compete in practice they tend to play more conservatively. They don’t use the techniques and solutions that they have most recently learnt because they are not yet confident in those techniques and solutions. The imperative is to win.

To facilitate learning, sometimes it is necessary to program unscored drills and scrimmages in your practice.

I definitely agree with Mark. When players are judged on outcomes (winning) it is hard for them to be experimental. They will want to use what they feel is more proven and fall back on established habits.

What if the scoring, though, relates to what you want them working on?

I’m thinking along the lines of the bonus point scoring idea. Players earn points for executing a skill the way you are teaching them, or for attempting something they are trying to learn.

For example, let’s say you’re working on serve reception and you want the players focused on platform angle. Maybe they earn a point each time they hold their platform when they pass.

What about a situation where you’re encouraging more experimentation? Let’s think about hitters working on attacking the block rather than simply trying to avoid it. They could earn a point each time they clearly attempted to use the block, regardless of the final result.

At a team level we could think about certain types of plays. Say you have an inexperienced group and you want to develop the quick attack. They could earn a point each time they try it in a game play situation – no matter the final outcome

You can mix and match the things you score for such that different players each have their own ways to score. And maybe there are team opportunities as well. This way you can continue having competitive games – with or without the normal point-per-rally scoring included – while continuing to have players focused on learning.

There’s a game the USA women’s team uses called Bonus Point Bingo which incorporates these kinds of ideas.

Increasing player intensity in practice

What are some ways you get your team to pick up the intensity more in practice?

This is a question that comes up among coaches on a regular basis. I think there are two primary ways to accomplish this.

Up the tempo

Perhaps the easiest way to increase training intensity is to raise the tempo of your activities. Generally speaking, you can do this by increasing the pace at which balls are entered in or shortening the time between rallies. The latter is something I wrote about in Washing to increase scrimmage intensity. When you add a new ball in as soon as a rally ends, it naturally increases the tempo. The players don’t have any time to drop their intensity back down, so it stays at a higher level.

Add competition

Adding competition to your practice can definitely make things more intense. And it doesn’t even have to be strictly a volleyball game. Sometimes you can use seemingly silly things to get the players competing and having fun. That ups the intensity, and oftentimes it carries through the session. Two games like this which immediately come to mind are Amoeba Serving and Brazilian 2-ball. They aren’t the most complicated games in the world, but players get into them.

Don’t let it drop

Having increased the tempo and/or added competition to you practice, make sure you don’t then put in something that will bring the intensity crashing back down. For sure there will be carry over from one intense activity into whatever comes next. If, however, that following exercise is something like a serving and passing drill, it’s all going to fade away.

You will have a hard time sustaining intensity when individual technique is the main focus. It just doesn’t work that way, so plan carefully. I favor putting the lower intensity stuff first, then building up as the session goes along.

Give them a purpose

Going beyond what you actually plan into your practice, you should also consider what the players are thinking. They are much more likely to be invested, and thereby intense, if they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It helps them focus, and focused players tend to be more intense players.

Can players learn to read on defense, or is it an innate ability?

Is reading something you can teach players? That’s the basis of a question asked by a fellow coach.

So I’ve been thinking about this one for a while: can you teach a player how to read on defense or is it a natural ability? I feel like no one ever taught me to read; I was just naturally good at it. For those of you that say you can teach it, what drills/tools do you use?

My initial response is that there is no such thing as a natural ability to read the game of volleyball. Reading in a sport is entirely contextual in nature. There may be experience from other sports which help, and certainly visual acuity plays a part, but in order to translate what you see into some kind of understanding of what’s coming you need knowledge and experience.

So, to my mind, what someone sees at “natural” reading ability probably has more to do with visual ability than actual contextual understanding. I’m happy to hear evidence to the contrary. Lacking that, though, I’d definitely say players can learn to read better. And even if there is a natural element, you can still improve it.

That being the case, what can we do to help players read better?

Provide visual cues

Reading is all about picking up the visual cues. That starts, of course, with paying attention. I once had a conversation with a team about reading – specifically about what they were looking at on the other side of the court. One of them, in what was clearly a moment of revelation, confessed that she’d just been watching the ball. Obviously, that’s not nearly enough.

So what are the players looking at? What should they be looking at?

On a gross level, they need to understand the situational context. Is the setter front or back row? Where are the hitters located? What is the quality of the pass? These are the sorts of things that allow you to narrow the range of possible actions by the opponent.

At a more micro level, what is the hitter’s line of approach? Where is the ball relative to the attacker’s hitting shoulder? Is their approach fast or slow? Where’s your block? How fast is the set? Will your middle close in time? How far off the net is the set?

Players need to constantly watch and look for the cues that will tell them what’s coming next. Your job as coach is to teach them what those cues are.

Putting them in the situations

You can teach the players what to look for, but they will only really learn to do that if you put them in position to do so. As I noted in The two purposes of drills and games, that means putting them in the proper game context and having the right platform for getting them the feedback they require.

The first part of that is pretty easy. There are all kinds of games and drills that can create the context you need. The trick is to get the right feedback. To do so, you probable need to have a very similar view of the action as the player. For example, if you’re working with your defender playing in Position 6, you likely need to stand behind them so you can see what they see. It’s really hard to provide feedback to them if you don’t know what’s in front of them.

That said, an alternative to standing behind them is placing a camera there. This can be an excellent way to give the player feedback. If you use video delay or otherwise can rewind and let them see things again, they can actually have a second look.

Changing the dynamic

There’s an element to the first part of the section above that I think needs to be addressed. Sometimes you need to take players out of their normal pattern to get them to expand their reading capacity. Among young players especially there is a tendency to play their “spot”. They go to a position on the court and just stand there waiting for the ball to come. No real reading involved. Why? Because that’s where Coach told them to be.

In order to change that mentality you have to put the players into a different situation – one where they can’t just play “their position”.

A great example of this is doubles (2 v 2) and other related small-sided games. You can also do it in a larger context by expanding players’ area of responsibility. For example, you can play a 5 v 5 game where it’s 3 front row and 2 back row players. That type of situations requires defenders to cover more area, encouraging them to get better at reading.

You can also flip that around for the block and play 2-up/3-back. Now it’s the blocker who need to cover more area.

In the Spring of 2017 one of our main priorities for the Midwestern State team was to upgrade our defensive capability, especially in the area of reading. We did a lot of sand doubles, small-sided games, and the type of 5 v 5 I mentioned above. As noted in the last section, though, it’s not just about putting them in situations that encourage reading. You also need to consistently get the players good feedback.

The two purposes of drills and games

An online debate in the volleyball coaching community got me a little bit fired up. I avoided getting involved, but came away from it needing to make an observation. It’s a very simple realization, if you think about it. The problem is I don’t think a lot of coaches really do that.

So here goes.

There are two purposes to any drill or game used in a training context. The first is to provide the players the opportunity to execute a given skill or tactic. The second is as a vehicle through which the players can receive feedback on said skill or tactic.

It’s really that simple.

These are the two considerations when deciding what drill or game to use in a practice. Does it give the players sufficient execution opportunities (reps), and does it allow you to give them the necessary feedback?

The reps

This tends to be where the debates about skill development in volleyball happen. There is a camp strongly advocating for game-like training – what’s called random training. The game teaches the game, as they say. Carl McGown was one of the very early advocates for this approach, based on the science of motor learning. USA Volleyball strongly carries that torch these days.

Despite the research, though, there are many coaches who still favor what is sometimes referred to as technical training. That is what is more formally called blocked training. It’s basically getting reps in a controlled environment. Think something like setting off a tossed ball.

I talk about blocked vs. random training in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post. You can see there some of what the motor learning research says and why it strongly favors random training. That said, McGown did acknowledge the value of doing a limited number of blocked reps before moving on to randomized ones.

Putting all that stuff aside, let’s think about what exactly we are trying to do as coaches. We are trying to maximize player performance in the context of a game situation. As such, doesn’t it just make sense to replicate in practice as much as we possibly can those types of situations?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where your players don’t do in games what they do well in practice – and I certainly experienced this early in my career! – then it’s probably because your training context is wrong.

Digging a ball hit by a coach on a box is not the same as digging a ball hit from a live hitter. Passing a served ball by yourself is not the same as receiving serve as part of a 3-person reception pattern, especially if you also have to think about transitioning to attack. They may look the same, but that misses the underlying mental processes which are so important to motor learning.

Does that mean sometimes the reps are going to be ugly? You bet. Get over it. It’s part of the process, as I noted in Climbing Mistake Mountain and in What percentage of reps should be good? They will get better with time.

Feedback

I’ve written about the importance of feedback in the post You don’t need a new drill, so I won’t go too far with it here. I just want to touch on the need for it, which is a place where coaches can fall short. Those who take the game teaches the game approach can sometimes fall victim to just letting them play and a “figure it out for themselves” mentality.

For sure, players get a lot of feedback from what happens during play. Their pass either goes to target or doesn’t. Their serve either goes where they want or not. The result of a swing provides a hitter with useful feedback. While that may be enough for an experienced player, though, it’s less so for younger, developing players. They can lack the knowledge to coach themselves, especially when trying to work on something new.

It is really important that you continue to provide players with feedback even during game type exercises. Obviously, you can’t do it the same way you can during more blocked type drills where you can stop after every rep. That means you can’t always give instant feedback. You still have to find a way to make it work, though, preferably without bringing the whole session to a halt.

The bottom line

So the bottom line in all this is that when you develop your practice plan you have to think about a couple of things. You should have a clear set of priorities to begin with, of course. From there it’s a question of figuring out how to get the players executing what you want them working on in the best possible context. Then you figure out the best way to give them the required feedback.

Simple! 🙂