Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Learning some coaching lessons

A while back I came across a post on the Rivers of Thinking blog. It is about coaching mistakes and the need for reflection. In this case, they come from soccer. I think the ideas are pretty universal in coaching, however.

1) Be aware of how you communicate.

In the post, the author shares a situation where he felt quite pleased about after a training session. He thought it went very well. He was stunned to find out afterwards from one of the kids that his language choice was received negatively.
Not long ago I wrote a post on the subject of unconscious communication, which relates to this from a mainly non-verbal perspective. And of course there’s always the yelling issue. In this particular case, though, the issue was sarcasm.

Being very careful with sarcasm is a lesson I myself learned along the way. It’s something that you need to be cautious about using, especially with younger athletes. In fact, you should probably avoid it all together in youth sports. They will pick up on the tone, which comes off as negative rather than humorous.

2) Challenge the source of the coaching style you develop

In the blog post the author talks about finding himself copying the coaching style of an older coach with whom he was working. He didn’t realize it at the time, and only figured it out later in hindsight. It’s a variation on the “This is how I learned” trap.

Now, if you have an awesome coach at a roll model then copying them might not be the worst thing in the world. Even in that case, though, you will need to do things your own way, not just be a mimic. Ideally, you’d like to be a composite of all the good characteristics you’ve seen in other coaches.

3) You can’t always control what your athletes learn

Have you ever worked on something specific in practice and at the end found out the players learned something unplanned and unexpected? That is the situation the author describes in his post. He was working on offense, but one of his players learned a lesson about defense.

The lesson here is that players are individuals. They bring their own perspective and context to things. That means they aren’t always going to see things the same way as you do. As a result, they won’t always follow along the learning path you’ve devised for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vital Heynen talks about just this sort of thing in the following excerpt from his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview.

4) Remembering to reflect real game situations

This piece of advice has to do with the rules of practice games and drills allowing players to do things that would be the right decision in a match situation. The author uses the example of a rule he used one day that forced him to whistle a play dead even though the player made a good decision – one you’d want to see in a real game.

This is something that comes up when you have the players operating in a constrained way. It came up at times when I was coaching at Svedala. We used a lot of small-court play. Sometimes that lead to really good attacks – particularly quick middle hits – going out when they would have been great in a real match.

And sometimes players find a solution to the problem you’ve posed them that isn’t exactly what you were after.

It’s a balancing act. You have to find that line where you have the players working on the development needs you are focused on without forcing them into an unnatural situation.

5) Match day is about the players, not you

The final idea of the blog post is that coaches need to overcome the desire to control play and the feeling that their ego is tied up in the result. The point made is that match time is for the players to have fun with their teammates, work hard, and maybe learn some stuff along the way – especially when talking about younger athletes.

The idea of letting the players get on with it and not trying to control things as a coach is in part the subject of my post on the desirability of play-calling from the bench. It goes beyond that, though, to address sideline demeanor and emotional reaction to results.

These, of course, are just a small sample of the lessons we coaches can and should learn along the way. What lessons have you learned? Share you story!

Working on out-of-system play

A coaching friend of mine in England asked me for some ideas on how to work on out-of-system play. What that really comes down to is the first ball element. How do you start the play or rally? He was working with a group of U15 boys, though the concept applies across all ages and genders.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by out-of-system. Broadly speaking, that usually means there are few, if any, attacking options available. Certainly, the quick attack is out. You might only have one hitter you can get the ball to for a real swing – often the OH in 4. For some, out-of-system more narrowly defines a play where the setter can’t take the second ball.

This is something you need to define for yourself – or at least have in mind when planning a game or drill. In the latter case you can just make it so that someone other than the setter takes the second ball. That’s easy enough to do. You can have no setter on the court or make it a rule that someone else takes the second ball.

In the former case you have two options. One is to make the setter play the first ball. The other is to make sure there isn’t a quick attack option available. This can be done by not having any MBs (so just two pin hitters at the net). You can also make sure the first ball won’t be passed/dug well very often, by doing a virus type of thing where the coach throws in a ball that must be played as the 2nd contact (see Increasing player initiation), or by simply putting in a rule that the sets must be high to the pins and/or back row.

An example of the “can’t set quick” approach is the High Ball to Receive game. In that case the first set must be a high ball to the OH, with the rally playing out from there.

Once you have sorted out the first part the out-of-system training equation – how to force them to not be in-system – you can then turn the focus on whatever specific area you feel is most in need of work. In a lot of cases that would be attacking against a big, well-formed block. It’s pretty easy to set that up by adding an extra blocker. You can alternatively have the defensive team working on triple blocking, narrow the attacking zone, or things like that.

Increasing player initiation in games and drills

When a ball need to be entered into a game or drill, how is that being done? I’ll ask that again by way of an example.

Let’s say you’re running the game Baseball, which features a lot of free balls initiated to one side. Do you, as coach, send those free balls to the receiving side? Or instead do you toss a ball to the opposing side and have them send the free ball over to the receivers?

If you’re doing it, I’m guessing you’re thinking about control. You control the tempo and you control where the free balls go. Sound about right?

Certainly there are advantages to that.

There are also disadvantages, however. One of them is probably that the free balls always come from the same area – usually off the court somewhere. Not all that realistic.

The other is that is you’re the one doing the free balling you take the opportunity for learning and development away from the players who could be doing it instead. The free ballers can be learning where they should be trying to target the ball and otherwise how they can make things challenging for the other team.

You get two benefits this way. The players become better at sending free balls over if they have to do it and the receiving team gets more realistic balls coming at them.

Plus, you can still control the tempo of the game. You still need to feed the ball in, after all. It’s just to a different side. And of course you can put the free ballers in any kind of situation you like.

Where can you make a shift?
Think about other games and drills where the ball needs to be initiated from the sideline. I can think of a few. Bingo-Bango-Bongo comes immediately to mind as it is like Baseball in terms of the free balls.

There’s also 22 v 22. That’s a wash drill which features a second ball initiated to the winners the first rally. I personally have usually done that by way of a standing ball “attacked” at them. Depending on what you want to do, though, it would be easy enough to toss an attackable ball to the losing side for them to hit over. More realistic than a standing ball from the coach, right?

Give it some thought. Shifting the initiation like that adds a developmental layer.

Scoring System: 25 or reset

Here’s something you can use if you want to work on your team closing out a set (and fighting back). It’s a scoring system we’ve used at Midwestern State, and a variation on stuff I’ve seen in other places and have used myself.

In our case we started the scoring at 19-19 for a 6 v 6 game. The sides alternated receiving down balls until one side reached set point. When that happens, they serve for set point. If they fail to win the point, their score resets to 19. Play continues until one side wins on their serve. We ran this game by rotation as in this version there is no rotation.

There are a number of potential variations:

  • You could start with a different score. You can even use an uneven score if you have unbalanced teams, for example.
  • Make it a regular game by having rallies start with a serve and normal rotation
  • You can incorporate bonus points if there’s something you want to have as a focus, though you would still want the winning point to only come via the service rally.
  • You can use this scoring system for small-sided games, and not just for 6 v 6.
  • A missed serve after a certain point (e.g. 20) could reset that team’s points.
  • Instead of initiating with a coach’s down ball you could have a player send over a free ball, or have them attack and out-of-system ball.

These are just some possible ways you can tweak things to do what you want to do. I’m sure you can think of others.

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I like to use cooperative drills like this, this, and this with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality – meaning game-like – contacts. They sustain longer rallies, so the ball crosses the net more often. Another is that they help train players to make good decisions in situations you want less aggressive play to just keep the rally going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

At MSU we sometimes run a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they play to win each one. In this variation, points can only be scored actively, not on opponent error. Basically, that means you get a point for a kill or a block, but nothing for an opponent hitting error. At the end of a rally, a coach initiates a new ball (over the net) to the winning team (whether they earned a point or not).

The team plays 4 games to eight points – 4 vs 4, 4 vs 2, 2 vs 2, 2 vs. 4.

On the face of it, this might be a nice way to work on cross-court defense and things like that. At one point, though, I was tempted to call a time out and see if I could get the hitters to think about the easiest way to score.

Have you figured out what that would be?

Consider this. You have one blocker in position 2. You have defenders in 4, 5, and 6 basically covering half the court. That leaves half the court wide open. Yes, it’s technically out of bounds. But if you can tick the ball off the block …

If the players were to get smart enough to realize this, then the drill/game kind of falls apart – at least from the perspective of wanting lots of touches from more sustained rallies. On the other hand, it could be an interesting exercise in getting hitters thinking outside the box and working the block.

My broad point in all this – like using other scoring systems and/or bonus points – is that you definitely need to make sure you think about the potential implications involved. Specifically, what might the scoring incentivize above and beyond the basic level?

Just something to consider in your planning.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity – as long as it has the blockers facing hitters, of course. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used, so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

What if you’re not coaching “the game”?

Over at the Arizona Sidelines Coaching Blog there was a recent post which addressed the subject of doing non-game-like drills. It included a lot of references to videos of activities which would appear to have very little to do with actual volleyball. The leading example was one where a coach was rolling balls and requiring a player to moved to them and roll them back. I’ve actually seen a variation of this drill run. The author said the following:

“Motor learning science is adamant about Game-Like Reps in practice; better skill acquisition, better transfer and better retention. Chasing rolling balls across the floor while 10 girls stand and watch doesn’t come up a whole lot in the game. So why?”

Now, I am very much in line with the philosophy of making things as game-like as we possibly can in training. Just the other day I had a go at men’s volleyball players at a recent match for some of what they were doing. Here’s a question, though.

What if we’re not actually training the game at the moment, though?

Let me clarify. In volleyball, as in anything, there are technical skills and there are game skills. Motor learning, as noted above, strongly suggests that skills are best developed in a game-like environment. And I doubt anyone will argue that learning things like reading and decision-making are also best accomplished in a similar fashion.

What about things that are not specific to the sport, though?

I’m not talking about physical stuff here. First off, you can make the case that any strength and conditioning work you do should be directly related to the sport you’re playing. Further, you can also make the case that much of that type of development is best accomplished on the court.

Instead, I’m talking about mental development. I have in mind what might broadly be classified as mental toughness. More specifically, it could include things like dealing with adversity, focusing on the next play and letting mistakes go, and those sorts of things. I know personally these are things I specifically work on with my teams. I’ve talked about ways of doing so in my Training beyond techniques and tactics post.

If mental training is the primary focus of a specific exercise, can we accept deviations from “the game teaches the game”?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing their watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. This isn’t done by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.

Are your players mentally or physically fatigued by training?

Orest Stanko at the Pak Men blog wrote a post mainly focused on the value – or lack of value – in physical consequences (punishment) for the failure to do certain things in training. An example is push-ups when one does not call the ball. It’s worth reading from that point of view. It follows along the lines of some things I’ve written before (see On the question of punishment in volleyball training).

Though only briefly mentioned early on, one idea Orest presents really grabbed my attention. It was that coaches should focus less on player fatigue as a training objective. Rather, your goal should be mental fatigue. Sports are generally viewed as mainly operating in the physical realm. It is therefore easy to see why coaches would think having physically tired athletes at the end of practice is the objective.

Obviously, there is a strong physical element to training. In particular, if you believe that the best form of conditioning work for your team is what you do in training, then it’s reasonable to think in those fatigue terms.

But as coaches we don’t just focus on developing physical abilities. A massive part of our role is to help our athletes the mental side of the game – reading, decision-making, etc. You may even be able to say it’s the bigger aspect of our job.

That’s where the idea of mental fatigue at the end of training comes in to consideration. How do you challenge players mentally as much as you do physically (or more)?

The answer is pretty simple. You put them in positions which force them to read and make decisions. Importantly, you also have a feedback mechanism with respect to that reading and decision-making so the players can judge their performance.

Think about the implications of those requirements,