Tag Archive for Training Plan

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 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. 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 challenging 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,

Coaching Log – Jan 25, 2016

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

Along with our Saturday match, the weekend’s Elitserie fixtures included Hylte hosting RIG and Örebro hosting Lindesberg on Sunday. The latter match was the more interesting of the two as it was far more likely to have implications on playoff standings. With both teams virtually assured of 12 points from their four matches vs RIG and Sollentuna in the second half, if either Örebro or Lindesberg is able to win both of their matches against each other – especially if they are 3-point wins – it will put them in position to seriously challenge for a top-3 playoff seed.

We’d have liked to see Lindesberg win 3-2. Alas, after a tight first set, Örebro ran away with a fairly easy 3-0 victory. Hylte also won easily. Basically, that means the standings to start this week had the same order as they did to end the first half of the season. The only difference is that Örebro has played an extra match.

Monday
Our Monday practice gym was cold, so I made some adjustments to the session I had in mind to try to make sure the players stayed active and didn’t cool off between activities. We started talking a bit about Saturday’s match, and then a bit about Wednesday’s opponent, Hylte. I had observed that they did some different things with their line-up in their weekend match than they did at Gran Prix. They started the setter in the same position, but they swapped the position of their OHs and their MBs.

After the talk and warm-ups, we did some 3-person over-the-net pepper, followed by serving-and-passing 3s. That was followed by servers vs. passers, with an adjustment in the scoring to have the passers target 2.2 rather than 2.0 as an average.

After that, I had them down continuous cross-court digging. That was something I hadn’t planned, but inserted for the “keep warm” factor. After that, we did some hitting and blocking with pin hitters going 1 v 1 against pin blockers. After doing a bit of Winners 3s, we finished up with a few 7-point games of left side vs right side.

Tuesday
We had two extra players on-hand – ones I’m hoping will be a fixture on Tuesdays from now one. They’ve both been with us several times before, but not on a consistent basis. Having them will definitely help doing more full-team type work – especially on what will often be the training before a match in the weeks ahead.

We had an opportunity to look at some video from Hylte’s weekend match, so spent a bit of time talking scouting. It wasn’t a lot of new stuff, though. More a reminder, seeing as we’ve played them 3 times already this year.

After warm-ups and pre-hab, I split the group over two courts and had them do a 3 v 3 cooperative back court game. The first part was just a warm-up extension, but after a few minutes I made it competitive in that the first court to get to 10 consecutive good pass-set-hits won.

From there we had the pin hitters on one court working on their directional hitting. I had a couple of blockers in place for them to work around. On the other court, the MBs were working on their attacks.

I then brought the groups together to do hitters against blockers and defense. Basically, this was the same thing we did last week where the block and defense were working on their positioning and reading and the hitters were working on their audible calls. They did play out the rallies.

From there we progressed to 6 v 6 play. I made about even teams and we played a variation on the 2-in-2 game. Instead of it being 2 serves and a point scored only if a team wins both rallies, otherwise it was a wash, we did alternating serves until a team won two in a row. That sees points scored more quickly. I had the games be to 4 and we went through four rotations.

Lastly, we played a regular 25 point game. This was A team vs B team, so to speak. It ended up being 25-15. There were some good rallies, but I think I probably won’t do that again. Just too lopsided.

I was really happy with what I saw of our defensive play. That facet of our game has really come along lately.

Wednesday
Let’s just say this wasn’t our best performance. During the first two sets we both served and passed serve poorly. The third set was much improved in both respects, but through the whole match we were constantly playing from behind. It was a tight affair, with no more than a 3 point margin in any given set, but we lost 0-3. That’s our first home league loss and the first time we didn’t get at least a point.

In the final analysis we came out ahead in terms of blocking, we had more aces, and we passed better. Our kill % was at the 40% level we’ve been working toward reaching. Our sideout percentage was high, but there’s was just a little higher. We simply made too many mistakes – particularly in the areas of attack and serve. In the case of the latter, not only did we miss nearly 20% of our serves, but they often came at bad times. The fact that we saw a similar issue against Sollentuna, I’m worried that we’ve fallen back into old habits.

Our O1 didn’t have her best match, which hurt us. We are heavily reliant on her scoring for us. This is something I feel like we need to remedy. We’re predictable. That’s fine against lesser teams, but against the better ones it means we’re constantly facing a bigger, better formed block. It’s going to take some of our other hitters stepping up to ease that pressure – and some better sets.

Friday
One player was missing because she needed to work. We also had a shortened time slot for training due to a floor ball match being played immediately afterwards. Given the early start and long ride for Saturday’s match this probably wasn’t a bad situation.

After warm-ups and prehab, I had them do some serving. We then did a cooperative cross-court team pepper. I made a few adjustments, though. In this case, the setters and the defenders were fixed. I had the two OHs and MBs rotate between front row and back row. One of my MBs defends in 6, while the other defends in 5. The OH played in the same position as the MB when in the back row. I allowed for both attacks through 4 and in the back row in this variation.

From there we went through the rotations. Because my OPP was missing, I had my back-up setter play in her position. The team received serve and attacked, then defended and transitioned against an attacked ball through 4 from me on a box. Not something I normally like doing, but I had to deal with the constraints.

We finished with back row Winners 3s.

Saturday
We were on the road at about 6:40 for our trip up to Örebro.

2016-01-23 14.09.03

The team was in pretty good spirits and energy going into the match. Unfortunately, the serving issues we’ve been having of late showed themselves again. We missed 11 serves in the first two sets, which prevented us from really taking hold of the match at certain times. We won the first set 21-25, but lost the second 25-19.

Serving improved in the third set, but our passing started to break down as that game when along. We jumped out to a big early lead – 14-4, I believe – but got stuck at a couple of points and ended up letting them back in. A combination of poor reception and not taking key chances eventually saw us lose that one 31-29.

The four set started of badly. I think we went down 6-0 based mainly on bad passing. We eventually recovered and were level on 8-8, but never could quite get on top of them. They ended up winning 25-19.

As noted, we started off serving poorly, but we passed pretty well – 2.00 and 2.14 in the first two sets. Serving was improved in the latter two sets – at least in terms of misses, but passing plummeted – 1.55 and 1.57. Basically, our Libero and O2 completely lost the plot. They combined for 9 aces or overpasses and recorded 22 1-passes.

Not that this was our only issue. A big problem was a lack of kills from our attackers. The setter did a pretty good job distributing the ball and getting lots of 1-on-1 situations, but we couldn’t put the ball away. Our O2, OPP, and M2 had kill percentages of 17%, 18%, and 7% respectively. This is a major issue. We need at least one of them to step up and produce because otherwise our O1 and M1 are just going to face bigger and more well-formed blocks, making them less and less effective.

Sunday
This was a recove

Thoughts, observations, and other stuff
On Tuesday, Engelholm won 3-1 over Amager in the Oresund Liga. That drew them level with us on 13 points, but into second on set differential. Here’s the current table:

OresundLiga-012016

There isn’t another Liga match until we host Amager the first week of February. That same week, Brøndby will host Engelholm in a match with major championship implications.

In the Elitserie, RIG also hosted Sollentuna on Wednesday in a battle of the bottom two teams. As was the case in the first half, Sollentuna came away with the win. Sollentuna was also in action on Saturday, making a trip down to Gislaved. As expected, the home team won 3-0.