Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Teaching or facilitating?

Mark Lebedew once asked how much a coach is worth. In this post much of the focus is on how much player talent drives team success vs. other things, part of which is coaching. One commentator suggests that talent is 80% and coaching is only 5%, with the rest being organizational considerations. While I think the general point about the importance of talent in terms of winning and losing is valid, I would suggest that the influence of the coach is highly dependent on the level of play in question. The professional ranks and U14s are worlds apart from that perspective, to my mind.

This is all part of a larger discussion Mark and I have been involved in for a while now. It came up in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview of Redbad Strikwerda and again the interview with Giovanni Guidetti, and it’s a feature subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast episode. In that case the focus is more on which aspect of a coach’s role is more important, training (teaching) or match coaching. It’s an interesting debate.

At a certain point I began to think of myself as less a teacher and more a facilitator.

I consider myself an educator and very developmentally focused by nature, so this isn’t a question of teaching and not teaching. Rather it’s about the structure of the educational process and its effectiveness.

Retention is higher when a player figures something out for themselves rather than being told what to do. We’ve all seen it. You tell a player to do something 50 times and they don’t do it. Then something happens where they work it out in their own way and everything changes.

From that perspective, coaching becomes mainly about putting players in position to learn for themselves.

Does this mean that you never actually teach players anything? Of course not!

At the lower levels there is considerable need to instruct players on elements of the game and skill execution. As players progress, though, a lot of what they are doing is learning to adapt to varying situations and circumstances. And those adaptations necessarily change as their physical abilities and/or skills improve. We cannot possibly tell them what to do in every different scenario. The variations are effectively infinite.

Instead, what we need to give them is the tools to be able to handle what comes their way. This is basically the core of the random and game-like training ideas.

But it’s more than just an individual development thing. The same applies to teams as well.

You can tell a team to play a certain way. They will never play exactly that way, though. At least they shouldn’t! There’s too much variation in the game for one single set of rules to cover every situation. Players need to be able to adjust. We’re not training robots.

Players also need to learn to play with each other,  which is an on-going process. Granted, a lot of this happens when they first come together, but it’s not a one-time thing. As a season progresses the players will constantly be fine-tuning things along the way with respect to communication, positioning, play-calling, etc.

Our job, as I see it, is to facilitate all that.

It may seem like this is a semantic difference, but to my mind it alters the way one approaches things like how one develops a training plan.

Coaching Log – Sep 7, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

I returned to Sweden on August 30th. The weekend was primarily spent in a combination of meeting with the three American players in the squad and getting my new housing situation sorted out. The latter remains a work in progress.

Here’s how things went over the first week as far as the volleyball is concerned:

Monday
This training session, which was in our alternative gym, was all about starting the players getting to know each other and shaking off the off-season rust. As a result, I focused a lot on getting them all lots of touches and including a lot of game play. You can see the training plan I used here. I had the 10 players committed to the squad, plus one from last year who is expected to train periodically with the team and maybe help out with the coaching.

Tuesday
I had a team meeting immediately prior to practice. The focus was on the sorts of things I expect to see in training and what the players can expect from me.

The actual session, which was in our main gym, still had as a primary focus the “getting to know each other” and “shaking off the rust” elements. We had all the players from Monday, plus a young setter in the mix as well to make 12 (3 setters, 3 middles, 1 true right side, 2 true outsides, 1 libero, and 2 OH/Ls). That gave me the opportunity to do some 6 v 6 play for about the last hour of training. I used the 22 v. 22 game, and rotated the players around quite a bit.

The lead up to the 6 v 6 started with serving, and then serving and passing in groups of 6 on 2 courts. I included the middles and setters in the passing. Along the way, though, I learned that I should plan anything serving-focused for when we’re using the main court because when we’re using a multiple court set-up there isn’t enough approach room for the jump/jump float servers.

After serving and passing we moved to 6-person diagonal over-the-net team pepper.  I kept the players in the same 2-court split from before. They started with both sides attacking through 4, but they also worked 4 and 2, 2 and 2, and 2 and 4 to get all the angles. At then end I had them return to 4 and 4 and shift from cooperative to competitive. One of the groups was struggling during the first phase, so at a point I had them get together and talk through finding a solution.

From there we shifted to Speedball winners with 4 teams of 3 that I assigned. That started with backrow attacks only. About halfway through I opened it up.

Up to this point we hadn’t really talked about offensive play-calling, seam responsibility, switching, and other team related stuff. I wanted to force maximum communication and interaction as part of the team-building process by having them work that stuff out among themselves.

Wednesday
This day started with the players together in the fitness club doing their weights work. I haven’t given them a specific plan yet, so just had them carry on with the program they’ve been using. After a 30 minute break we were together in the main hall for training. I’m not overly thrilled by by that scheduling, but it does give the team a chance to workout together (they mostly do weights on their own in small groups because of individual schedule considerations), and I will probably use it to check on technique from time to time. It does mean, though, that Wednesday trainings likely won’t be ones where I’d want to do much technical work because they will already be somewhat fatigued.

The other aspect to Wednesday’s trainings is that we have about a 45 minute overlap with the 2nd team at the start of our session. Since physically they were already warmed-up, I had them start off with what I guess is called Brazilian 2-ball volley tennis (teams of 2, 2 balls in play, the team that wins both balls gets the point, else it’s a wash). It was something they could do on the side court that would get them mentally engaged and competitive. I had the 10 core players and they opted to split on the basis of age. The younger group go out to a lead, but eventually the older ones caught up and ended up winning 10-9.

After that fun, I shifted them to a less fun exercise – the Hard Drill with the count holds as long as the ball remains in play variation in force and with rotation (no fixed setter). They did it fairly easily initially, then I told them to do it again and only count “good reps” on legit swings and balls set with hands. That took them a while, and at one point I had them stop and meet to talk things over. Eventually they got it, though only because I didn’t halt rallies on 3m line violations. I told them next time we do the exercise those will be rally-enders, which they seemed to readily accept.

I then had them do some target serving on the main court, which was now free. They were required to complete 5 sets of serving first to Zone 1 and then to Zone 2, and 5 sets serving first to Zone 5 and then to Zone 4. They had to get both in that order to count. I did timed. Some of them were able to finish one pair of zones, but no one did both.

After that we played Bingo-Bango-Bongo. Since we only had teams of 5, I had to make some rules. The two defined libero’s were fixed in the back row and everyone else rotated around them. When the middles were front row the teams played 3 front, 2 back, but when the middles were back row they played 2 front, 3 back.

I meant to do another round of target serving after that, but forgot and instead went straight into another 5 v 5 game. It was one where the teams alternated 2 serves (from players in the same back row position – e.g. the setters). They then played to 7 points in this fashion. I think we played 4 total games with me flipping OHs and S/OPPs each game and having the setters switch sides after two games. I’d planned on going a bit longer, but they were looking a bit weary, so I called it quits a bit early.

Thursday
No training. This is our regular day off.

Friday
This is a 3 hour time slot, though we got going a little late because of train issues. I just had the core 10 players. After they warmed up, I put the team through a pair of agility tests (‘T’ and a cone touch exercise) and did a pair of sets of measurements. One was broad jump and then 3 consecutive broad jumps. The other was medicine ball throws from lying on the back, from one knee, and then from two knees. The main objective was to evaluate plyometric fitness. I wanted to also measure jumping from a loaded position (already squatted) vs. jumping from with the full counter motion, but there was a technology fail, so I’ll have to try that another time.

Once we got to the volleyball, the main focus was on getting the offensive terminology and signal calling sorted out. We did that initially between the setters and middles while the others were doing a team pepper exercise on the other court. We then brought that into a team context by doing some 5 v 5 game play, which always started with a serve. To say the serve reception passing wasn’t good might be an understatement.

Saturday
This was just a 2 hour slot, again with only the core group of 10. My main focus was on reinforcing the offensive stuff developed on Friday, so after warming-up with some serving and some half-court 2 v 2 with fixed setters, I had them play Speedball winners. In this case, the setters were fixed, so there were 4 teams of 2 which I designated. Additionally, I had the requirement that the non-passer/digger was to run a quick attack while the other hit either a 2nd tempo or high ball.

We then did some Second Chance game play 5 v 5 with the setters and liberos back row. Initially I had the libero’s in 6, so we constrained the attacking to 5/6. In this case the MBs took the second ball on a setter dig. After a while, I moved the liberos to 5 and had them take the 2nd ball (and said no hitting to 6). It turned out that the second chance proved quite beneficial for one of the right side players who started to go block-out after getting stuffed a few times.

From there I flipped the rotations so the setter and libero were both front row and all the hitters were back row and did Scramble. A couple of balls dropped unchallenged in the first round, but after I told them they’d get an extra 30 seconds for that happening there weren’t any in the two remaining rounds. The intensity level and communication definitely rose nicely.

Thoughts and observations
Most of the time when we’ve been playing games I’ve allowed the players a second serve if they miss the first. This is something I do to allow them to be more aggressive in their serving, while also reinforcing the desirability of not missing two serves in a row, which is something I talked with them about in Tuesday’s meeting.

I intentionally avoided doing much in the way of specific “coaching” during the first three training session. I wanted to help stimulate the integration and communication development process by putting them in situations where they needed to sort things out together rather than relying on me giving them instructions. That inevitably led to some confusion (especially between middles and setters on quick set play calling), but that forced them to talk with each other about it. On Friday I began to do more concentrated coaching, and increased on that on Saturday. It will be a feature from now on. By that I mostly mean quick comments/corrections to the players, though sometimes quick broader points to the whole team.

From here I need to start really working on the offensive tempo and the incorporation of the back row attack (pipe/bic) in to the scheme. At least one of my OHs looks likely to be quite effective. This, in turn, likely means defensively we play with the libero in 5. It seems likely that we have a pretty solid offense, and I think the defense will be pretty good. I need to take a closer look at our blocking in the week ahead, and serve reception definitely needs to improve.

Other stuff
I found out that I have to attend an all-day event on the 29th for coaches, managers, and team captains as part of the Elitserie kickoff. I think it will be partly promotional and partly a technical seminar of sorts. That’s a Tuesday, which means no training. Not ideal the week before our first league match, but decent timing for a break when considering we have a pre-season tournament in Copenhagen that runs Friday through Sunday. We’ll probably get in a make-up training on Thursday that week, though.

Parkinson’s Law definitely applies to practice planning!

Once, as I developed the training plans for the Svedala team, I recalled Parkinson’s Law. It goes something like this.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

I’ve written before about the amount of time you should allocate to practice planning. Part of that discussion was how easily the task could consume crazy amounts of time if not properly constrained. I experienced that while coaching at Exeter. I could find find myself spending all afternoon making up that evenings practice plan. Then, I had to remind myself of that a couple of times the first week of training in Sweden.

It was so tempting for me as I got started with a new team in a new environment to let the practice planning suck me in and not let me go.

You may be thinking, “But you were a professional volleyball coach. That was your job!”

That’s true, but that doesn’t mean I should let one task eat of a major part of my day. Efficiency in planning is just as important as developing an efficient training plan. There are a lot of other things for a coach to do. Watching video comes immediately to mind!

Training Plan: 11 players, just games

Priorities: Shake off the rust with lots of touches, start the process of the players getting to know each other at the beginning of a new season, get some initial impressions

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 2 courts

Players: 11 (2 setters)

Notes: Because set-up and take down were included in the allocated time, and some amount of time was necessarily allocated to introductions and initial discussion, the actual training period was somewhat less than 2 hours.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: No isolated warm-up.

Cooperative 1 vs 1 and 1 vs 1 w/fixed setter: Set up 4 games on 1 v. 1 and one game of 1 v 1 with a fixed setter. The idea is to get to 6 good pass-set-downball sequences. As soon as one group gets there, they all rotate in a clockwise fashion. If no one gets there in the time limit, rotate anyway.
11-player singles rotation3-person and 4-person pepper w/fixed setter: On one court is two groups of 3-person rotating over-the-net pepper. On the other court is a 2 v. 2 pepper with a fixed setter. The team’s two setters are market A and B. Again, play to six good pass-set-hit sequences (this time with jumping), or a the time limit. Rotation for the non-setters is clockwise. The setters switch positions each rotation.

11-player peppers

5-person and 6-person player winners: Each court has a game of Player Winners on it, one with 5 players and one with 6 players. Play for 5 minutes, then move the top 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person, and the bottom 3 from the 6-person court the other way (now making the 5 a 6 and the 6 a 5). Play 5 more minutes, then send the top 3 from the 6-person court to the 5-person court, and the bottom 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person court. Play another 5 minutes, then repeat the process from after the first round. Play one last round of 5 minutes.

Winners 3: Finish with standard Winners (3s in this case) Start with back court attacks only, then shift to allowing front court attacks as well.

– – – Observations – – –

The first two exercises went quicker than expected. As a result it was desirable to add a 5th exercise. The initial thought was to play Winners 4s, but instead Neville Pepper was used. The 9 non-setters were split up into three roughly equal teams. They were the teams to play through the games. The setters were used in a fixed fashion, switching sides when the challenge side won a rally.

Small squad volleyball training

I saw the following question posed by a volleyball coach. Most of us at some point in our coaching careers have to deal either with having a small squad or having limited numbers in training, so I thought it worth addressing.

I have 6-7 players, how can i create game like situation without enough to scrimmage each other? Our first game is coming soon so I’m really needing this week to get them set up in their positions, learn where they need to go….etc. But hard without having another team to play the ball back over….

I can relate. Once, in my first year coaching U16 girls it was just me and 6 players in training. I decided to play a little game with them at the end of the session. It was me against them. I served every ball and if I could dig their attack with control, or they could not return the ball, I got the point. If they could get a kill, they got the point.

Funnily, after I developed a solid lead mainly by digging their attacks (experience in reading an attacker has its advantages!), one of the girls said in exasperation, “Can we please stop hitting the ball right to John!?” 🙂

I liked hearing that. At least one of them was looking for the team to try to problem solve so they could beat me! I’m pretty sure I still won the game relatively comfortably, but they did get more competitive.

I tell this story as an example of how a little thought and creativity can lead to useful solutions. I’ve seen plenty of examples of a smaller number of players taking on a full squad. It’s just a question of finding rules and/or a scoring system. You want a system that makes things appropriately competitive. And it should see the players focused on whatever the keys are for that particular exercise.

It’s also worth looking at ways you can train game situations with elements of the team. A 3-v-3 game back row game is useful to work on defense against back row attacks and down balls. A game where you have an OH attacking into Zones 1 or 6 going against an OPP attacking into Zones 6 or 5 can be a highly game-like activity using a limited number of players. The same for having OHs going against each other with cross court attacks.

A serve reception example of this could be to put two passers in to cover 2/3rds of the court (say Zones 1 and 6) and having a setter and hitting element incorporated. If you set it up so it matches a serve receive rotational situation (such a setter penetrating from 1 with the MB in 3), then you can work quite nicely on key aspects of that phase of play without needing 6 players on one side.

With activities like that, it’s about taking what’s going on in a certain part of the court. You basically exclude the positions which wouldn’t be involved the the game scenario you’re training. That frees players up for something else to facilitate the exercise.

It’s about more than just the coaching

Observing other coaches isn’t just about seeing what they do on the court.

It’s more than just watching the kind of drills and games they run. It’s more than seeing how they structure their training sessions.

Granted, it’s fine to want to look at those things, especially if you are a developing coach. They provide ideas you can evaluate for use in your own coaching. Even experienced coaches can take something away from doing that sort of thing.

If all you’re doing is making notes of the practice plan and the activities it encompasses, though, you’re missing so much other stuff. Here’s just some of the additional things you can watch during a training session:

  • How the coach interacts with the players during the down times
  • How the coach communicates during the activities
  • Where the coach stands and how they move around
  • Positioning and involvement of the assistant coach(es)
  • How the coaching staff interacts among themselves
  • The composition of the player group
  • The general environment of the session
  • The tone and energy of the players and the training

With a bit of thought about your own team’s training environment and processes you could probably think of a few other things someone from the outside could potentially observe.

Aside from being additional sources of insight, inspiration, education, and the like, taking all these other things in provides context to what we’re seeing in terms of what the coach has the players doing. No two teams operate the same way. A lot of that has to do with the combination of personalities (player and coach) and the environment which are involved. You must consider the context in which something is being done, especially by an experienced and successful coach. If you don’t, you are likely to misapply what you’re seeing in your own efforts. Check out this Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast episode for more on that subject.

Also consider another layer of what you can potentially take away from spending time with other coaches. Here I’m talking about the more day-to-day sort of stuff they do to manage their teams. What do they do off the court? How do they interact with management or administrators? What is their recruiting process?

These aren’t the sort of things you are likely to see just going to watch some training sessions. You need to spend time with other coaches away from the gym. When I took over a professional team for the first time at Svedala, as much as the on-court stuff was interesting, the off-the-court area was where I felt I had more pressing developmental need.

That’s a big part of why I decided to return to Germany that August before getting things started in Sweden. I could talk with the coaches, and even members of the management team, about a wide array of non-training things in the context of what they were doing with the team, and generally see how they operate.

The point is, while it’s definitely a good idea to get out there and watch other coaches in action and interact with them, it’s important to use the experience to go beyond the Xs and Os and to take a deeper look at things.

Volleyball coaching a distraction

Does this sound like you during the volleyball season?

Am I the only one that can’t get any work done during the day because I continually get distracted by thoughts of today’s drill schedule?

I know I certainly struggled keeping my focus on things that should have held my attention (work, studies, etc.) at various points and times. While I coached at Exeter volleyball issues frequently sidetracked my days. That was true even when I wasn’t coaching that evening. I remember in my early days of coaching college volleyball spending time developing practice plans while at my day job.

Needless to say, for the sake of our employment, grades, relationships, or whatever, this is probably not something we should be in the habit of allowing to happen. 🙂

Here’s a possible way to tackle this issue. Set aside some specific time during the day when you permit yourself the volleyball distraction. I suspect it’s not a good idea to just cut it out cold turkey.

On a related subject, I realized planning practice takes basically all the time I allow myself to do it. By that I mean if I start working on it 2 hours before training it takes 2 hours. If I give it 30 minutes it takes 30 minutes. To address this situation I don’t start putting together the actual training plan until a certain time each day.

That isn’t to say I don’t think about what I wanted to accomplish that session beforehand. That process begins pretty much as soon as my last contact with the team ended. It’s just that I am more efficient writing up the actual plan itself.

Early season practice planning

Practice planning is – or at least should be – a major part of any coach’s efforts. Generally speaking, the wisdom goes that you should spend about as much time developing a training plan as executing it. That said, the question still remains what elements you should include. This is the subject of a question I once saw posted. In particular, it was with respect to early season plans.

How do you generate an effective practice plan? I struggle in the beginning of the season when I see new faces, different levels of talent, a need to work on fundamental basics for some girls but not others, pressure to throw a lineup together for an active preseason, and it’s just me.

Generally, I start a season by evaluating where we’re at in all the major facets of the game. I want an idea of where both individual players and the team are relatively to where they need to be. Having that information lets me develop my training priorities – both short and long term.

That being the case, I like to develop initial session practice plans which incorporate a bit of everything. That’s serving accuracy and consistency, serve reception, offense, and defense. Of course I try to do that in as game-like a fashion as possible. I don’t mind stepping back, though, if there’s something I feel like I need to look at more directly. You need to see enough repetition for each player to have a sufficient basis for analysis. That may require more of a “block” than “random” focus in some respects. I don’t want to go too far toward block, however.

The key thing to keep in mind here is that the top priority is assessment. Training is a secondary priority, of course. For these initial sessions, though, it’s not the most important thing to be thinking about. Once I’m done with the assessment process, training takes over as top priority.

Let me offer an example from when I started at Svedala.

I that was my first time working with those players and in almost all cases the first I saw of them on-court in person. Before I could figure out what to prioritize for training I needed to know where the players and the team were from a number of different perspectives. My plan was to have them spend the first practice basically just playing a number of different games to get a general overview. Then, in the subsequent sessions, I’d narrow the focus down to look at certain things more closely based on what I saw in that first session.

Here’s the plan I went with for that first session.

Having said all this, chances are there are certain things that you know you’re going to need to work on in training. For younger and developing players, serving and passing are usually right at the top of the list, as an example. You can easily incorporate training of the things you know will be priorities right from the start, and build in opportunities to assess other areas around that.

Player-run small-group training session

I watched some of the Svedala area players do a little bit of a training session one evening during July 2015 before I took over the team. It was something they organized and ran among themselves. There were two players from the Elite team, with three from the lower and youth teams. While watching, I found myself thinking it provided something of a template for a small group training situation, so I figured I’d share the basic outline.

They didn’t do any kind of formal warm-up. Instead, they basically played themselves warm through a progression. That started with a 1-touch game played inside the 3m line with the 2 Elite players against the 3 others. They started with forearm passing only, then shifted to overhead passing only.

From there they moved to a 2-ball, 2-person tennis type of game. Basically, each team served the ball underhand simultaneously. From there they played 1-touch until both balls were dead. Again, it was the Elite players against the 3 others, with the latter rotating a player in after each rally.

After that they moved to some serving and passing. One player served. One player was setter. There was a passer in 6 and a passer in 5, with one off as a sub. Each good pass resulted in a set to 4 attacked by the passer in 5. After each play, the players rotated with the 6 moving to 5, 5 coming out, and the remaining player coming in at 6. After a set number of reps, they switched servers.

Next up was a diagonal attacking and defense drill. They had a fixed setter setting both sides, then split the Elite players and partnered each with one of the younger players. Players were in positions 4 and 5. Each rally started with a free ball (initiated by a player’s mother, who coaches the U15s). Every set went to 4 and after the ball crossed the net the players switched positions. This was not a cooperative game. The hitters were swinging to score, but there were rallies.

That covered the first hour.

In the second hour they spent a bit of time working on 4-person defense with players in 1, 4, 5, and 6 with a player hitting from a stack of pads in 4 on the other side with periodic rotation. They did some more of the diagonal attacking and finished up with just some individual serving.

I feel like I’m forgetting something, but I think you get the idea. Maybe this gives you some thoughts for helping players in an open gym situations and the like.