Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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 (now retired) 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 was a major focus of his in the gym. It all starts with the unique warm-up Long Beach used – both in training and pre-match. Here’s a sample of it:

It definitely didn’t stop there. Coach Gimmillaro was very active and hands-on in working with his players. He got them playing both serve receive passes and dug balls in a very specific fashion which focused 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 was an interest in doing so (I was coaching Exeter at the time).

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.

Maximize plus points, minimize minus ones

I once had a conversation with a former men’s club teammate who is now an NCAA Division I head coach. His name is Steve. We talked about what it takes to consistently win sets, and thus matches. It revolved around the idea of points scored vs. points given away.

Steve had done some off-season research reviewing a season’s worth of conference matches. He found that teams scoring 18-19 points of their own through kills, blocks, and aces frequently won. The rest of the points from there to 25 would come from opponent errors. That’s hits into the net or out of bounds, ball-handling errors, missed serves, etc.

Now, this was a very specific set of figures related to a certain level of play. These figures don’t apply to everyone. For example, at lower levels one would expect teams to commit more errors. That means it takes fewer positive points to win your average set. It is worth doing some research to figure out what the plus points/minus points ratio is like at your level for winning vs. losing teams.

The reason it’s worth having this kind of information is it lets you figure out what sorts of things you need to prioritize in your training and/or match preparation. If, for example, you aren’t getting enough plus points then you’re probably going to have to work on strengthening your offense somehow. That’s because kills are the biggest factor there. If scoring plus points isn’t an issue, then the focus might need to be on avoiding the minus points. That means reducing errors. You should also look at keeping the other team from generating plus points. This is done through better defense, or perhaps more aggressive serving.

These are the sorts of things which should go into the on-going assessment process for competitive teams. I always look at them for the teams I coach.

Volleyball Stretches

In my post about not wasting valuable time in your volleyball warm-up I think I expressed pretty clearly my view on stretching before becoming active. To my mind, we should outlaw jog-and-stretch. I have seen players take crazy amounts of time to stretch before even picking up a ball. A player on my Exeter team one year came to the gym 30 minutes before training just to stretch.

As this article notes, there is no evidence that stretching has any benefit in terms of preventing injuries or improving performance. In fact, the WebMD article I cited in that earlier post suggests there could be some negative effects. This Men’s Health article notes the following.

Although it’s often prescribed as an injury-prevention measure, static stretching before a workout might be the worst of all strategies. Because it forces the target muscle to relax, it temporarily makes it weaker. As a result, a strength imbalance can occur between opposing muscle groups. For example, stretching your hamstrings causes them to become significantly weaker than your quadriceps. And that may make you more susceptible to muscle strains, pulls, and tears in the short term.

So basically, static stretching before training or matches isn’t just a waste of time which you could put to better use. There’s a chance it’s actually harmful!

But I am NOT saying stretching in general is useless.

All three of the articles mentioned do include suggestions that one stretch regularly to maintain range of motion, increase flexibility, etc. The Men’s Health article actually goes further. It says that one should stretch twice a day to work on generally flexibility. Just don’t do it right before exercise. Here’s the rub, though. You have to stretch twice a day or the gains you make won’t be retained.

So when should players do volleyball stretches?

Well, after training and/or match play is a good time to get one of those 2/day sessions in. The muscles are warm, which is when stretching should be done. As a coach it gives you the opportunity to monitor what they are doing. If needed, you can provide instruction and focus. Be aware, though, that the research indicates no real anti-soreness benefit to stretching after training according to this article. Soreness comes from overworking the muscles. A bit of stretching isn’t going to fix that.

But of course if you’re not doing two-a-day training with your team, the after practice volleyball stretches won’t cover the suggestion of getting them in twice/day. The players will have to be responsible for themselves getting it done.

I know. That’s a horrifying prospect for many of us. 🙂

What volleyball stretches should players do?

I think a better question might be, “On what areas should volleyball stretches be focused?” I think we can all come up with the main ones like shoulders, quads and calves – the major drivers of volleyball action. There are a couple of places which tend not to get enough attention, though:

  • Achilles tendons
  • Hip flexors
  • Hamstrings
  • Pectorals

The Achilles relates to jumping ability. The others, though, spend much of the time in a volleyball match in a flexed state and not often in an extended one.

For example, there is very little long-stride sprinting in volleyball. As a result, the hamstrings don’t get much extension – or exertion, for that matter. That means they can shorten up and be relatively weaker than the surrounding quads and calves. This imbalance can create issues. This is why not only is it good to stretch those muscles, but also to make sure they’re included in strength training.

In the case of the pectorals, they do get stretched a bit when serving and hitting. Otherwise, though, a player’s shoulders tend to be rolled a bit forward (think passing and blocking mechanics). This can result in a slouch, which is a muscle imbalance. Not only should the pecs be stretched, but players need to ensure the opposing back muscles are worked for balance. Or you can walk around poking your knuckle between players shoulder blades. A strength coach I knew did that to get them in proper posture. 🙂

So what I’m saying is make sure the muscles and whatnot opposing the primary ones are getting at least as much attention as the main ones. Think of things like the core muscles and how most players will do a lot of twist reps in one direction due to hitting and serving.

USA Volleyball posted a series of stretches used my the Men’s National Team you can use as a reference.

This goes for coaches too!

Keep in mind that as a coach you run the risk of creating imbalance situations as well because of the way you initiate balls. In any given training session you may actually do more torso twisting and shoulder work from hitting, serving and such than your players. One of the things I have done to try to counter that is to try to do lefty reps either hitting or throwing (I’m a righty) to work the twisting and such in the opposite direction for at least a bit of balance.

Use dynamic as well as static stretches

I mentioned in my other post (and provided some examples) how dynamic stretching has become popular in volleyball over the years. Static stretching is good for extending maximum range of motion, but dynamic stretching develops effective functional range of motion.

About hitter training and the myth of the wrist snap

There’s a post worth reading on the USA Volleyball blog (hat tip to Coach Rey). It looks at hitter training and focuses on getting players to execute skills in game-like fashion as often as possible. In other words, getting away from “block” training which breaks the skill down and works on its components individually. That’s a major focus of modern training for coaching volleyball. There are some worthwhile things to think about toward that aim in this piece.

The “myth” of wrist snap

At the end of the blog post is an interesting exchange about the mechanics of hitting a ball with topspin, whether that’s a spike or a topspin serve. You need to read that section from the bottom up to properly follow the flow, as the sequence of the discussion is in reverse chronological order (like an email exchange).

The major take-away from that topspin conversation is that wrist snap has nothing to do with it. Your hand is not in contact with the ball long enough for it to wrap over the top the way it looks to do when you execute in slow motion.

So do we stop coaching wrist snap? Or does it actually serve a purpose?

Volleyball Coaching Concept: Wave drills & games

Wave drills in volleyball are quite useful when you work with larger groups of players. They’re also good in high intensity drills. They can help avoid excess fatigue.

Basically, wave drills involve grouping players. You then rotate them through positions in a game or drill together. Doing so can effectively minimize down time in the form of players sitting out. You can also use them to move players into a less demanding role after a high intensity sequence. For example, MBs shift from fast-paced front row play to serving or defense.

A game like Winners 3s is a simple version of a wave structure. At the end of each point, one group of players comes off while another group comes on. A third group may also shift from the challenge side of the court to the winners’ side.

Another variation on this is breaking the team in to cohorts of three. They then play a 6 v 6 game during which those cohorts are rotated through front and back court positions. For example, a new wave comes on in the back court position on one side after each rally ends. That then cascades the waves through. It pushes the back court cohort on the other side of the net off as the front court group moves into their place. This allows you to have players on for 4 straight rotations. They are only off a minimal amount of time (1 rotation if you have 5 groups, 2 rotations if you have 6, etc.).

You can also wave on errors. Say you have 18 players. You split them into six groups of three. Three teams are assigned to each side of the court. Two teams are on and one is off waiting. The teams play through a rally. One of the cohorts on the losing side is replaced by the cohort waiting on the sideline based on some rule, like which group was at fault for the point lost.

I’m sure you can think of numerous other waves ideas. In fact, you probably use them in an ad hoc way right now. When you flip front and back row during a drill or game (like in Bingo-Bango-Bongo after a big point), that’s a form of a wave. The advantage of formal the wave rotations, however, is players are responsible for automatic waving. That means you don’t have to stop things to do it. This saves time and keeps the training intensity up.

Save time by naming your volleyball drills

You will notice that the volleyball drills and games I post here to share with you have names. You may or may not like them and think you can come up with better ones. If so, go for it. They are being shared so you can incorporate them into your training if you find them useful. I fully expect in doing so that you’ll make any adaptations you deem necessary.

Getting back to the point, though, there is a very specific reason for my assigning names to drills and games. It’s one which I encourage you to emulate if you aren’t already do it.

By naming each drill and using that name with your players you’ll make your training sessions go much more smoothly. Nothing grinds a well-tempoed practice to a halt faster than having to take several minutes to explain what you want for the next drill. Obviously, that can’t be avoided when introducing a new drill (which is why the start of the session is often the best time to do it). For those you use fairly regularly, though, having a name means the players know exactly what you want and can get on with things. There may be those who through either being new or being dense don’t know what’s going on, of course. The rest of the squad will get them sorted out so you can focus on what’s happening, though.

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t make modifications to adapt the drill to concentrate on your priorities for that session. As long as they don’t change the basic functioning of the drill, you do what you like. For example, you could say something like:

“We’re going to do The Belly Drill now. Since I want to focus on quick attacks today, though, we’re going to add a scoring element. A team will get 1 point for a kill from a quick attack. We’ll keep going until one team gets to 5 points.”

In this case I’m not doing anything in terms of altering the primary way The Belly Drill functions. All I’ve done is created a modification to focus on something I want the team working on that day. The players should have no problem understanding what the drill’s about because it will function the same as always, but now as a goal.

If, however, the modification you are thinking to make to a drill will alter the basic structure of that drill, then I’d argue that you’re now talking about something different. In that case you should give it a name of it’s own. You could perhaps use the first drill’s name as a reference point when describing it to the players, but you don’t want to get into a situation where every time you use it you’re saying something like “We’re going to use that modification of Drill Z that we did that one time before where the passers go there instead of here, and the hitters are on the other side of the net, ….” Just give it a new name. It’ll make everyone’s life easier.

There aren’t many of us volleyball coaches who have all the time in the world to run our trainings, so we need to use them as efficiently as possible and waste as little time as we can. Naming drills is one way to help spend more time on action and less on talking.

And definitely feel free to change the name of drills you find here on this site, in books, etc. You want them to be memorable for the players, so maybe involve the players in naming them.