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Tag Archive for Training Plan

Cooperative vs. competitive for games and drills

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

Cooperative

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

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

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

Competitive

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

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

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

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

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

Cooperative-competitive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?

Coaching Log – August 4, 2017

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

Preseason is underway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition leader board

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

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

Missing one

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

Speaking event

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

High school event

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

Recruiting

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

Thinking more broadly about feedback

Volleyball Coach

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

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

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

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

External input

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

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

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

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

Outcome based feedback

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

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

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

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

Using the different sources of feedback

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

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

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

It’s more about the feedback than the drill

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are all key considerations.

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

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

Practice Planning Question – Single skill focus sessions

Volleyball Coach

A question came in from an avid listener of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. It was on the subject of practice planning. Here’s the initial inquiry:

I was wondering how you plan mesocycle and microcycles for youth volleyball with 2-3 practices per week?  Would there be any reason to go an entire practice without serving, for example?  I know it’s important not to train athletic abilities back to back but is it true for volleyball specific skills too?  I just think because we only practice 3 times a week there is enough rest between practices that I could work on every skill every practice if I wanted to.  The U17 coach I am assisting this season has “serve receive days” and “defense days” where almost every drill that practice will be centered on whatever skill we are working on that day.  I’m not sure which method is better.

I do agree that fatigue should not be a problem for players when only practicing 2-3 times a week. There might be outside circumstances which challenge that, but generally speaking players won’t have any issues performing all skills each session. I asked for a bit of clarification about what a typical week of practices looks like in terms of skill focus. Here’s the response.

For example on Sunday would be conditioning day where the players spend 30 minutes doing non volleyball specific conditioning – box jumps, squats, etc. and the rest of the practice would be gameplay. Tuesdays would be defense day where the players will play kajima and wash type drills where all drills are initiated from a free ball, no serves.  Thursdays would be serve receive day where players will spend more than half the practice either serving or serve receiving, never playing the rally out.

I think there are a couple things to address here.

Conditioning during practice time

First, if I only have three practice sessions a week, I use them for volleyball. I don’t use them for strength and conditioning work, especially if I’m time constrained. If I’m doing my job they will get plenty of conditioning in practice. If I want to do additional work (like jump training), I do it outside of practice time – preferably on an off-day, if possible. That lets me maximize the time I have on-court.

Also, you need to do more than one strength and conditioning session per week to have any real impact. One very likely isn’t enough.

That said, game play after strength and conditioning is not a bad idea. It’s harder to work on technical skills when already fatigued.

Single skill focus practices

As for the main thrust of the question, I definitely can think of better ways to structure the week’s training. Now, this is not to say you can’t have a single focus for a given practice. You certainly can. That is probably best achieved, however, by concentrating your attention and feedback on that focal point across a variety of activities rather than in just one narrow set.

Let’s use serve reception as an example. Any game or drill that starts with a serve is an opportunity to train passing. That can be something as simple as serving & passing triplets. It could be more of a team serve receive like 8-person serve & pass, or a servers vs. passers game. Moving up the complexity, it can be a team serve receive drill where the ball is dead after the receiving team attacks. And of course there are many games that start with a serve. In the 22 v 22 game one team receives every serve in a single rotation until someone wins.

The fact that every one of those exercise includes serve reception means you have opportunities in all of them to focus on that skill. Your concentration of feedback and coaching is what determines focus more than drill choice. Obviously, the drills must include the desired skill. Beyond that, though, everything is possible.

Structuring skill training over the week

I personally want to have serving and passing in every practice in some fashion. It might not be the focus of that practice, but at least the players are still practicing the skill. This is particularly important when you only have a couple practices each week. I would not want my players going 3-4 days without serving and passing if I can avoid it.

One other point I would make is this.

While serving is the one skill in volleyball that you can train quite well in block fashion because it is closed-chain (completely player initiated), too much of it in one block tends to have diminishing returns. First of all, it can get really boring. Second, fatigue becomes a factor, especially for jump servers. The result of both is a drop off in concentration and effectiveness as time goes on. Better to mix it in throughout when the players are more fresh and can produce higher quality reps. Plus, game-like serving situations are always better than rote serving in terms of preparation for match conditions.

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

Working on out-of-system play

A coaching friend of mine back 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 player 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.

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I have liked to use cooperative drills like this one, this one, and this one with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality – meaning game-like – contacts because rallies are sustained and the ball goes over the net a lot. Another is that they can help train players to make good decisions in situations where less aggressive play is demanded to keep the play going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

The other day at MSU we ran a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they were looking to win each one. In this variation, points could 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 new ball was initiated by a coach (over the net) to the team that won (whether they earned a point or not).

The team played 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.