Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Training Plan: First practice back

Priorities: Shake off the rust, evaluate the players for the season to come, getting new players mixed in, prepare the starters for the upcoming match

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 1 court

Players: 11

Notes: This was the first training session of the season. Because of a few different complications, it also happened to be the last training before the first match of the year. Not exactly an ideal scenario. The bulk of the prior season’s starters were returning, but the setter wasn’t one of them and we’re also integrating at least one other new player in the pool of prospective starters.

– – – The Plan – – –

Ball-handling warm-up Part 1: I had the players do a progression where sets of partners started at 3 meters apart and first passed 10 balls each back and forth, then did 10 sets each. They moved out to 6 meters and repeated, then did the same thing at full court width.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 2: I then had the players do the 2-Player Set & Touch drill to get them moving and work on footwork.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 3: To mix the players around and start integrating the new players in, I did rotating pepper by having one side of gym rotate every 90 seconds.

Ball-handling warm-up Part 4: I then moved things on the net to start getting the action more game-like and had them do 3/4-person over-the-net pepper.

The above took about 30 minutes all together

Serving warm-up: After a water break 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 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, with push-up punishment for those who did not get it done.

Serving and passing: With shoulders warmed-up and serving consistency developed (at least a bit), I moved to having 3 passers on each side in serve receive, with an additional player as target. The remaining players were servers. I had the passers rotate out to target after 2 good passes (started with 3, but one side wasn’t rotating enough), with the target then going back to serve. I did this until I felt like the main passers got enough reps.

Hitting warm-up: In order to evaluate the setting options for the upcoming match and to get the hitters some swings, I ran short 1-position hitting lines. That comprised 3 people at a time hitting first through 4, then in the middle, and finally through 2. Setters were mixed around as the hitter groups changed.

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 the players who will be at the upcoming match (one starter missing) going against the rest in a 6 v 5 (zone 6 was declared out on the 5-player side). The team of 5 served every ball. The team of 6 needed to win two rallies in a row in order to rotate. Because we needed to cut things short a bit for admin talks, I just went through the rotations one time before wrapping things up.

– – – Observations – – –

You’ll notice I did no traditional warm-up. The players were quite happy not to have to do the dynamic version we did last season. 🙂  I actually had to stop them from doing the throw-the-ball-back-and-forth thing players tend to do in pre-game warm-ups and such. This decision was all about getting right into shaking the summer rust off, having a chance to get a close look at the new players who were in training, and mixing those players in as quickly as possible.

Sneaky volleyball conditioning through pepper

Want an easy way to work on player conditioning while also having players develop their ball-handling skills?

Have them pepper for a while.

Now I’m not just suggesting you just roll the balls out and tell them to pass-set-hit with each other for half an hour while you sit and have a coffee. No such luck. You’ll actually have to do some coaching.

There is a trick to getting the most out of however long you want to run things. That is mixing up exactly what you have the players doing. There are loads of pepper variations. There are also many ways to focus on certain elements while keeping the players working hard. You’ve got a hitting element, a digging element, and a setting element. You can work with each singularly or in combinations.

For example, you could start with one player hitting at their partner, who digs the ball back for the hitter to catch and then go again. That provides focused consecutive reps for both players. While they are doing that you would be going around working with individual players on technique (and perhaps reinforcing bigger ideas, like effort). You can then have the digger play the ball up to themselves rather than to the hitter. Then progress to digging the attack to themselves and setting the hitter as in the 1-way Pepper drill. This sort of progression can be used in all aspects of pepper to work on skills singularly or in small combinations. The idea is to build toward eventual full-on pepper.

Adding a jump requirement to the setting and/or hitting parts of pepper can go a long way too. From a skill development perspective, it forces the players to work on getting their feet to the ball. On the conditioning side you’ll definitely see the players get gassed more quickly. This isn’t something you’re likely to be able to do effectively with lower level players in standard pepper. You could do it with them in a partial pepper situation, though. As a simple example, have them jump set back and forth for a little while and see how tired their legs and shoulders get.

The two keys to making this pepper conditioning idea worthwhile, and to not let the players catch on to what you’re doing, is to mix things up periodically so they have different points of focus and to be sure you’re actively moving around the gym coaching them. You do that and they’ll never suspect you’re developing their conditioning along with their skills. 😉

And by the way, this is actual volleyball conditioning. Much better than running or anything like that.

Pepper note: Whenever possible you should have your players go over the net. I am not totally against standard partner pepper (no net). It can have its uses at times. For skill development, however, it is not the best choice.

Leaving room to increase training intensity

Once upon a time I worked with a young fellow assistant coach. He had a good volleyball head. As is to be typical of new, youthful coaches, however, there were times where he needed to be reined in.

One of those situations occurred during a digging drill where we coaches were hitting balls from on boxes*. Our young friend was hammering balls at the players with near maximum swing velocity. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, so we’re not talking about ridiculously hard hits. They were still quite aggressive, though. As this was still early in the season (perhaps even preseason), I had to slow him down.

You see, a coach must be able to ratchet things up to the next level as a team progresses. He would limit in his ability to do that if he was already hitting balls near the maximum of his power before we’d even played our first competitive match.

By backing down from his hard swings a bit this young coach could do a couple of things. First, he could save those hits for latter when we really wanted to give the players a big challenge. Second, we could avoid creating confidence issues within the team as they struggled to dig the balls he was hitting. Thirdly, and perhaps even more importantly, he could keep the players from losing respect for him as may have been the case if they thought he was just out to abuse them or make them look bad.

Just another one of those nuance things which makes for good coaching.

* I don’t recall what kind of drill it was. In those days I worked for a head coach who was very block training oriented. Not that I myself knew much differently at the time.

Fancy New Drill Syndrome – A Coaching Affliction

I don’t think there is officially something called fancy new drill syndrome (FNDS), but there should be. And it’s not something volleyball coaches alone can develop.

Basically, FNDS is a condition whereby a coach sees a new drill and immediately wants to use it. How strong that inclination is depends on where the drill was found and the “cool” factor associated with it. Drills from books tend to have low cool factors. Videos are a bit higher on the scale. Clinics sit at the top. This is especially so if they are high profile, like those at volleyball coaching conventions.

Layered in there is the profile of the person presenting the drill. If the presenter is someone few folks know and/or is from a non-elite team, then the cool factor is low. If, however, the drill is being shown off by Suzie Supercoach from We Just Won the National Championship University or Awesomecoach Arthur from the We Just Won the Gold Medal National Team then we’re talking major cool factor.

So basically, the more investment we’ve made in coming across the drill (time, money, travel distance, etc.) and the higher the profile of the coach telling us about it, the greater the chances we’ll be trying that drill the very first opportunity we get. This, of course, is hardly the way it should be. It’s human nature, though.

We’ve all been there. Newer coaches still in what I’ve heard referred to as the “drill collecting stage” of their development are particularly susceptible.

FNDS can result in two potentially problematic issues.

Ignored training priorities
When a coach is super eager to use a shiny new drill they oftentimes fail to consider the priorities they should have in place for a given practice. Taking a bit of time to try a new drill may not seem like such a big deal one practice. If you have limited time and training opportunities, though, it can potentially have a meaningful negative impact. This, of course, can be avoided. Simply make sure to only work in the new drill when it’s appropriate to do so. Don’t just plug it in at the first opportunity.

Practices brought to a grinding halt

Invariably, incorporating a new drill into your training will take some time to accomplish. The players will need it explained to them. They probably need to go through it a few times before they fully get a handle on things. This is especially so if it’s conceptually and/or mechanically complex. This learning process is very likely to drag the tempo of training down. If the drill does not work, you’re left with a bunch of time and intensity lost. This is always the risk when trying to incorporate something new. You can minimize the impact by making sure to really think about whether a given drill is appropriate to your players, though. Also, placing its introduction into your practice plan at a point where it’s likely to be least disruptive if things don’t work out as hoped is best.

Unfortunately, FNDS is probably not totally preventable. Even experienced coaches sometimes get caught up in the euphoria. This especially true when they feel the need to shake things up a bit in their practices. Diagnosed early, however, FNDS can be successfully treated by the simple application of common sense.

There can, however, be the occasional case of FNDS run wild.

Don’t be this guy!

The absolute worst case scenario is when a coach cobbles together a bunch of “cool” drills into a practice plan with no clear overarching objective or set of training priorities. I saw this extreme type of FNDS once in England. A young German coach ran a training session I observed. I watched him put the team through several different drills. In the proper context those drills each could have been quite useful. Instead, however, I was left wondering what he was trying to achieve with it all (other than maybe showing off what he knew).

From my perspective, the whole first hour or more of the 2-hour session was largely a waste of time. It did not addressed the sorts of things the team really needed to work on with a match coming up. When you only train once a week – as was the case with this team – it is borderline criminal to be as scatter-shot in training as what I saw that evening.

The scenario above was preventable. The coach simply needed to determine or be given by the team (he was just running that single session) one or more priorities for the practice and develop a training plan based on those priorities. He might not have been able to use so many “cool” drills in that case, but he would have provided the team a much better service.

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.

Critiquing a ball-oriented volleyball warm-up routine

This video got a fair bit of attention once upon a time (on Twitter, I think). That is how I came to learn about it. Upon review, however, I was disappointed. The second half where they are using balls in strength and conditioning work I’m fine with. There are some good elements there. They don’t specifically require a volleyball, but since you have them at hand, why not use them? The first half, however, I found to be utterly useless. You will understand my reasons if you read my comments in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?.

Jogging, as I noted in the referenced post, is of little value to volleyball players. Now these guys are adding in silly things like spins. And what’s this stuff with tossing the ball up in the air? The only real attempt to have anything volleyball-like in there is the bits where the players mix in some sets and forearm passes. The mechanics of those skills, though, are poor – making their inclusion worse than useless. They are reinforcing bad habits, effectively.

If you want to have players moving and executing ball-handling skills then have them move in a volleyball-like fashion (shuffles, transition footwork, short runs, etc.). And have them execute those skills with proper technique – especially when dealing with young and developing players. Things like jog-and-set or jog-and-pass might be good to mix things up in a big camp or to have a bit of fun (team shuttles, etc.), but are not for use on any kind of regular basis.

Technical Coaching at the Top Level

This update comes just after I completed phase three of my summer volleyball adventure. It featured two days worth of observing Long Beach State going through the last of their 2-a-days for the 2013 season. Coach Gimmillaro is well known as a very technical coach. He spent many years producing coaching videos and doing clinics all over. His training sessions those two days were no exception.

In particular, ball control technique is a major focus of his in the gym. It all starts with the unique warm-up Long Beach uses – both in training and pre-match. Here’s a sample of it:

It definitely doesn’t stop there. Coach Gimmillaro is very active and hands-on in working with his players. He gets them playing both serve receive passes and dug balls in a very specific fashion which focuses on footwork and platform.

I chatted with Coach about the Long Beach sand program implementation (they won the 2013 National Team Championship). We also talked jump float serve mechanics, some volleyball business stuff, and a few other things. He even expressed a willingness to travel to England to run a clinic if there’s an interest in doing so.

Naturally, I got some drill and game ideas from watching training, which I have shared since. It is worth noting, though, that there was very little actual variety in the training sessions. The clear dominant focus was on really working serving and passing – building the foundation for everything else.

Creating Game-Like Volleyball Drills

In her book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, Sally Kus shares how to make drills game-like. This is something which gets a lot of attention in coaching circles these days (see my post on random vs. blocked training). Here are those steps.

  1. Identify the skill.
  2. Go back one play.
  3. Start the drill there.
  4. Perform the skill.
  5. Perform the next in the sequence.

So, for example, if you want to work on OH attacks you could do something like this.

  1. A serve or free ball from the other side of the net is initiated to a player.
  2. That player then transitions and attacks a set ball.
  3. The player then moves to their defensive base at the net.
  4. The player executes a block (perhaps with some initial footwork).

The idea of using these more complex drills is for the player to execute the skill within the context of how they do it during a match situation. The player sees what they will see before the skill (ball coming across the net, coming from a teammate, etc.), executes the skill, then does something immediately afterwards.

Admittedly, these types of drills run slower than the simple ones (like hitting lines). Aside from training the players to play the ball as they do in real life, though, these drills allow you to train multiple skills. This is done either with one player or several of them. Clearly, when working with beginners you’ll use less complicated drills. Even with that group, though, there are plenty of ways to make things game-like by initiating the ball over the net, having them execute a follow-up skill, etc.