Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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! 🙂

Favorite drills/games to practice serve receive?

What are your favorite drills/games to practice serve receive?

I see that question, or a variation of it, regularly.

Drills

Here are a couple of different drills I’ve used, or seen over the years. The names are either what I heard them called, or ones I came up with myself that described them. Feel free to change them if you like.

1-2 Serve & Pass is one that lets at least one of your servers be aggressive, but without the problem of having lots of missed serves or one passer not getting many balls.

If you have a large number and want everyone involved, 2-sided Serve & Pass is an option. I actually prefer the Get-2 variation, though, as it gives weaker passers more reps.

A drill that focuses on individual rather than group passing is 8-Person Serve & Pass. This is something that is good if you have a bunch of players to involve. It is also well suited for a more controlled serving and passing set up as it features one server going to one passer. It’s an extension on the idea of Passing Triplets.

Games

I personally like to make things competitive as much as possible. To that end, I often look to do servers vs. passers games. They do not provided the highly focused individual repetitions of the two drills noted in the paragraph immediately above, but they do offer lots of more game-like ones.

In this post and this other one I wrote about a couple of different ways to think about scoring such games. The trick is to find a scoring approach that is fair for both sides. This is especially true when you do something like pitting your primary passers against non-passers. If you play a more mixed game (passers equally distributed on both teams), then you can use aggregate scoring. Each team has a turn passing and serving. Their final score is the combination of the points they earned in each role. That way, even if there is an imbalance in how points accrue (for example, the scoring tends to favor the passers), both teams will get it when it’s their turn.

Just about anything will work

Here’s something to think about, though. Literally, any drill or game that includes serve reception can be a good way to practice it. You don’t need a new drill for that purpose. You simply need to make sure serve receive is a key focus and gets specific feedback. And realize that the quality of the pass is one big form of that feedback.

To that end, small sided games like Winners, Speedball, and Player WInners offer the opportunity for lots of serve reception practice. Thinking more 6 v 6, there are games like 22 v 22 and 2 in 2 which include lots of team serve reception repetitions – especially if you allow for re-serves on misses.

Game-like reps will always be better than ones that don’t replicate game situations. Even still, to get the most out of them they require focused feedback on the skill. It’s not enough just to let them play.

Cooperative vs. competitive for games and drills

Generally speaking, there are two types of games and drills you can use in your volleyball training. One is cooperative where the group is working together toward some objective. The other is competitive where you divide the group and pit one part against the other. Each type of approach has its uses.

Cooperative

Broadly, going cooperative means having a collective goal. That could be something like 20 good passes when doing a serving and passing drill. The Continuous Cross-Court Hitting drill is a game-play example of a cooperative drill.

I personally find these sorts of exercises most useful when working on decision-making. For example, the Hard Drill – and variations on it – is good to help players learn when they should attack aggressively and when they should keep the ball in play. It helps train a more intentional type of play, as well as control.

There is a drawback to cooperative activities, though. The players tend not to challenge each other as much. In serve and pass the serves are a bit easier. In drills with hitters attacking, the swings are not as aggressive. Even if you make it a point to only count the hard swings, they still won’t be consistently as hard as would otherwise be the case. It’s a trade-off. You have to weigh the benefits of the control elements against this.

Competitive

Any exercise where teams (or players) earn points and compare those points to someone else is a competitive one. That ranges from normal games and wash drills to things like servers vs. passers games.

Obviously, when you go competitive you help to further develop your team’s competitiveness. The tricky part can be making sure what you give points for is what you want the team doing. Players will inevitably figure out the most straightforward way to score. That might not always be the sort of solution you’re looking for to the problem you are trying to present them.

For example, there’s a competitive variation of Continuous Cross-Court Hitting where a team scores points for kills and blocks. Since the defense only covers half the court, however, an attacker could easily just hit the ball off the block and into the open part of the court to score. Certainly, from one perspective that’s a good thing. The attacker has figured out how to use the block. The point of the exercise, though, is to stimulate good attacking and defending sequences. Hitters going block-out all the time defeats the purpose.

That’s the sort of thing you need to keep in mind when setting up your games.

Also, you have to consider whether being competitive is appropriate or not based on the balance of the teams. It’s a real challenge, even when using modified scoring, to make an A-team vs. B-team scrimmage competitive if there is a meaningful ability gap.

Cooperative-competitive

There is actually a third way to go that blends to two primary approaches. It’s one that can help to overcome the more passive elements of cooperative exercises. The idea here is that the players are rewarded for challenging each other, not for simply playing the ball to a teammate.

Consider again the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. The objective there is to sustain a rally by hitting the ball at a teammate so they can produce a controlled dig. That’s fine when you want to work on general control. The hitter has a set of clear targets.

At a certain point, though, you want your hitters aiming for the holes in the defense, not the defenders. A cooperative-competitive version of the drill would be to count as successful reps only those attacks that are aimed at seams or open areas. That might not sound cooperative, but if the whole group is aiming for a certain number of good reps, that’s exactly what it is. They collectively gets points for trying to beat each other. And you could add points for good defensive plays so it’s not just about hitting.

Can you see the benefit? Now you have everyone working hard to challenge each other. Attackers are working to find new ways to beat the defense. The defense is working to get better about reading the attackers’ intentions. As coach you get to decide what counts.

Could you get the same from a competitive version of the drill? Yes and no. Obviously, in that case the hitters and defense are trying to beat each other. In normal point scoring, though, attackers can sometimes still score points even when they play the ball directly to a defender. That’s not really what you’re after.

Also you may have an imbalance in your groups, or you may want to help develop an overall team spirit. In those cases, a more cooperative approach might be best. It’s great to see players excited for the good plays of their teammates. That’s easier to foster within the collective group when those great plays benefit everyone explicitly.

Thoughts?

Coaching Log – August 4, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

Preseason is underway!

We started our preseason training on Monday, after doing compliance and team meetings on Sunday. Technically, this isn’t preseason, actually. Rather, it’s pre-trip training. The NCAA allows 10 days of practice before an overseas trip. We leave on the 12th, so starting on Monday gave us 10 days plus two days off before we leave.

Today is actually one of those days off. We’ll take the second one on Tuesday. We’re hosting a high school tournament of sorts that day, which I get more into below.

We’ve done four days of split sessions. In the mornings we’ve done group sessions. Three of the players are attending Summer classes, each at different times. That mandated splitting things up in the morning, but we did full-team sessions in the afternoon. Morning sessions were no more than 90 minutes, while the afternoon ones went two hours.

For the first couple of days we had two focal points for the morning sessions. The first group comprised the middles and setters. They were largely about getting the timing of the middle attacks down, though that included a fair bit of work on footwork and movement patterns. We also worked on blocking. The second group was made up of the pin hitters and defensive specialists. They focused a lot on ball control and out-of-system play.

The afternoon sessions were of a different sort. For one, they featured a lot of competition. I’ll speak more on that in a moment. As you might expect, they were also our chance to see what the team looked like playing together in different ways so we could see where we needed to prioritize our work.

Some of what we did was cooperative, especially early in the sessions as part of ball-control oriented warm-ups. The competitive stuff was often less than 6 v 6. That allowed us to look at different elements of play.

On Wednesday and Thursday we turned our attention mainly to the defensive side of play. Our morning groups focused a lot on offense vs. defense, working through the structure of our play. We then carried that over into more full-team action in the afternoons. It definitely paid dividends.

Thursday was a tough one for the players. They were very obviously feeling the effects of the three previous days. As a result, we made things a bit lower intensity in the morning sessions. In the afternoon we kept things slower by playing regular games. This was the first time doing so – and playing on our main center court – so it let us see things in new ways.

Competition leader board

I mentioned doing a lot of competition in our team sessions this week. A big focus for us this year is really developing a winning mentality and generally competing harder. In support of that, we decided to keep track of wins among the players. By that I mean every time a player is part of the winning group in a competitive exercise, be it a point based game or a goal-oriented activity, they get a tick mark next to their name on our white board. We want to see who the winners are, and to incentivize a winning mentality.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to keep track of winners and losers. We have three MBs and oftentimes we have them rotate around so they don’t get overly fatigued. This is especially so in the faster paced games. Unfortunately, that means they aren’t part of any single team. I think we’ve decided to keep track of how many points are won by the team they are currently in and see who has the most at the end.

Missing one

We actually haven’t had our full squad up to this point. Our transfer RS is away this week on a family trip. We knew about it when we signed her. It’s not the greatest situation in the world, but there you have it. She’ll be back with us on Sunday or Monday and we’re including her in the team meeting type stuff remotely.

Speaking event

Saturday was the speaking event I’ve been working on putting together for the last couple of months. We had a number of no-shows, so the attendance could have been higher, but it was still a very positive event. The city’s mayor attended with his family. The university’s president had some very positive words to say about the work we’re doing, as did the Athletic Director. Danielle Scott’s speech was very well received, and she was featured in an interview on local TV.

High school event

As I noted briefly above, next week we host an event for local area high school teams. They come to our gym to play their first matches of the year. This is the second time running the event. Last year it was a 1-day affair featuring I believe 8 teams. This year we have I think 14 teams and the event is spread out over two days.

Recruiting

We got some good news on Tuesday. Our #1 OH target for 2018 verbally committed. That makes it two of our top choices. The other was a setter. Unfortunately, a couple weeks ago one recruit let us know she will go elsewhere, but we soldier on.

Thinking more broadly about feedback

Volleyball Coach

Alexis at Coaches Corner has a post where he talks about feedback. In it he says sometimes not providing feedback is the best choice. I certainly agree that coaches probably should not provide a constant stream of verbal feedback (see The more you talk, the less they train).

This is not a contradiction to what I said in It’s more about the feedback than the drill, however. Feedback is massively important in skill acquisition. It is a key component of deliberate practice.

But feedback is not just what we as coaches tell our players. We have to think MUCH more broadly than that.

There are two primary sources of feedback. One is outcomes. The other is external input. I’ll start with the latter.

External input

Feedback from some external source is what we tend to think of most often when we talk about feedback. It is an outside view of things the player doesn’t have for themselves and is thus provided by someone or something else. From this perspective, we usually think of what we say to our players to help them get better as our feedback. Certainly, that is an important type. There are other sources of external input, though.

Let’s think, for example, of who else provides verbal feedback to a player. Their teammates, right? The block didn’t get closed or wasn’t in the right position. The set was too low or the pass was too tight. Or, to flip things around, the set was perfect, or that was a great pass.

Sometimes players get a bit more technical with each other in terms of mechanics. That’s not always a great thing, but in the right situations is can be very valuable. Think player-to-player mentorship as an example of that.

Another source of external input is video. When players watch themselves they can see what things look like from outside to match it up with their kinesthetic sense. Basically, video is a kind of substitute for a coach’s verbal feedback. It isn’t exactly the same, but it goes in the same direction. Players just need some guidance for its proper use.

Outcome based feedback

Every time a player performs a skill there is an outcome. The pass went where they wanted or didn’t. Their serve went to their target or not. The attack was a kill, or it was a blocked ball, an error, or a dig. I think you probably get the idea.

We coaches cannot possible comment on every time each one of our players touches the ball. That means this outcome source of feedback is far bigger than anything we can provide ourselves. And yet, it probably doesn’t get the focus it requires.

This is a tricky part of the feedback system. One the one hand, it’s outcomes we are after. The player needs to know whether they accomplished what they intended. The challenging part is when the desired outcome happens despite the player making a bad choice or executing the skill poorly. In other words, they were lucky rather than good.

More experienced players generally know when they’ve done something correctly. They know when they got lucky. Outcome-based feedback is more problematic for those with less experience. They don’t know yet if they are doing things correctly. Even with experienced players you sometimes have to look at the decision-making element separate from the outcome so they can think in terms of whether there was a better choice. This means we have to consider outcome feedback when looking at our practice activities.

Using the different sources of feedback

So the bottom line is that you have multiple forms of feedback to consider how you do things. How you combine them should have a lot to do with the level of your players. In the case of inexperienced ones, you probably want to rely much less (if at all) on outcomes. Instead, you should focus on the external feedback – coach talk and video – related to the particular thing you are aiming to develop. The concentration is on the process rather than the outcome.

As players become more experienced – at least in terms of their training focus for that particular exercise – you can shift more to an outcome type of feedback, with less of the external sort. Here your external feedback likely shifts away from technical elements to more decision-making.

And through it all players should be encouraged to view feedback in a non-judgement fashion (see The Inner Game of Tennis).

It’s more about the feedback than the drill

Someone on Twitter tagged me in a tweet in which they shared a link to a handful of setting drills. It said, “some new volleyball setting drills that improve your team setting technique.” I took a look and wasn’t impressed. For the most part, it was just variations on setting back and forth. One of them actually recommended setting a served ball.

None of the drills was game-like at all. In my reply I suggest to always work on setting off a pass. How often in live play do setters set a ball straight back the way it came to them? Very rarely. So why practice it so much? Let them practice movement and body position based on something more realistic. Even setting off a coach’s toss is more realistic than just setting back and forth.

But that’s not the biggest thing I thought skimming the article.

The thing that really stood out to me, though, was the idea that you need new drills (or games) to do a better job teaching player to set. You probably don’t need a new drill. Instead, you need to provide good feedback, regardless of the activity. This is a key factor in intentional practice. Any activity in which you can focus on a given skill will work to train that skill.

What makes a drill or game useful for skill development is the quality of the feedback the player gets.

  • Are you talking to them?
  • Can they watch themselves on video?
  • Did you structure the activity so the outcome provides direct feedback?

These are all key considerations.

So if you want to help a setter improve their skills, do two things. First, put them in as game-like a situation as you possibly can. Second, make sure they have very good feedback.

This, of course, goes for any position or skill.

Coaching for aggressiveness, reduced errors, and other stuff

There’s an interesting article at Volleyball Toolbox from long-time high school coach Tom Houser. Nominally, it is the response to a question about helping create more aggressive teams that make fewer errors. It covers a few different ideas, though. I think they are worth reviewing.

There’s no replacement for experience.

Just about the first thing Tom talks about in the article is how he struggled early in his career to help players. He compared his knowledge of what his players needed to “Swiss cheese” because there were so many holes in it. The first reason for this is his lack of experience, and it’s a very legitimate point.

I mentioned in my coaching stages post how early-career coaches often think they know a lot, but really don’t. Sure, they might know a whole bunch about playing volleyball, but coaching is a different skill set. And tied in with that is the amount of volleyball you watch, particularly from a coaching perspective.

Learn from others, but understand context

Another thing Tom talks about is his learning process as a developing coach. He says he was never an assistant coach, thus didn’t have a mentorship experience from that perspective. Obviously, that’s a disadvantage.

As with many of us, Tom turned to books and videos to increase his knowledge and grow is toolkit. He notes, though, that much of what he saw was presented by national team and NCAA Division I coaches. He struggled to relate those drills and such to his high school players’ level. Tom called them “nearly useless”. I respect that he was thinking of the context differences. I think, though, that was probably a bit harsh. Most drills and games are adaptable to different levels. Not all, but most. But then doing so usually requires some experience, so see above.

Much coaching communication you hear is useless

Tom talks in his article about coaches saying things like “get low,” or “snap,” or “move your feet,” or “call the ball”. We hear phrases like that all the time. We’ve probably said them ourselves.

The point is in most cases those things don’t actually address the root cause of the problem, so they don’t actually address anything useful. Just like when parents yell them from the sidelines. 🙂

Coaching for aggressiveness

Moving on to addressing the question that inspired the post, Tom provides a relatively simple way to coach it. “All you have to do is ask your players to perform the drill WITHOUT punishment/consequences/eye-rolls for making a mistake performing the skill.”

This definitely matches my own philosophy. Aggressiveness will result in errors at times. You cannot encourage the one without accepting the fact of the other.

Also, Tom said he basically sets up games that require certain types of aggressiveness to win. Pretty simple, really.

Reducing errors

Having said that about the errors, Tom also shares his thoughts on keeping them to a minimum. One is the understand their source. Are they bad decisions, or are they bad execution? See what I wrote related to this breakdown in Coaching from a solutions perspective.

For the first type of error, it’s our job as coaches to teach better decision-making. In terms of the second type, Tom credits his teams making fewer mistakes on encouraging players toward simple, efficient mechanics.

Those are the major points. Definitely give the article a read and see what you takeaway for yourself.