Tag Archive for Training Plan

Develop these habits to be a better coach

A while ago I commented on a blog post which discussed 10 things that lead to coaching failure. The same author has a related post looking at the habits successful coaches develop. They are loosely based on the ideas put forth in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (which is definitely worth a read).

They are as follows (paraphrased):

  1. Make training harder than competition
  2. Learn and develop at a faster rate than your athletes
  3. Make your rate of learning faster than your opposition
  4. Develop your creative thinking abilities
  5. Coach the individual
  6. Ensure that each player out-prepares their opposition
  7. Develop training plans which optimise impact on each player
  8. Make training as game-like as possible
  9. Adopt an integrated approach to talent development
  10. Lead

The first entry is something I have long lived by, and I think #8 has been pretty well covered. Notice the heavy focus on individual athletes. Also see how many relate to continuous learning.

I think #4 deserves a little extra attention.

You may not think of it this way, but coaching is a creative endeavor. At least it is when done well. I’m not talking about whether coaching is an art or a science, or some combination. It’s much more simple than that.

Coaching is about identifying a need and figuring out to meet it. That almost always involves trying to work around limitations or constraints. It’s creative problem solving. An example of this is dynamic practice planning.

Training beyond technique and tactics

I’ve talked before about how your training focus as a volleyball coach should be on making things as game-like as you can. Obviously, this is within the context of what you’re trying to do, and any limiting factors which apply. The point was that while the ideal is to make everything replicate actual game situations, sometimes you are forced work in a less game-like fashion.

In this post I want to extend that. I will specifically look at times when technical and/or tactical training is not necessarily the main priority. Certainly, those two things are the primary focal points of most games and drills. Beyond them, though, the two elements which come to mind are fitness and mental toughness. I’ll leave the former aside from a separate discussion, and focus on the latter here.

When I use the term mental toughness here I’m referring to characteristics like persistence, focus, being able to quickly put errors behind you, overcoming adversity, dealing with frustration, and the like – not just individually, but as a group. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I put together training sessions specifically designed to challenge players in one or more of these regards. The idea is that just as we want to train players technically and tactically for what they are going to have to deal with in match conditions, we should do the same with respect to the mental part of their game.

Think of it as game-like training for the brain. 🙂

How do I accomplish this? In a couple few different ways.


This is making things happen more quickly than they normally do in a match. Scramble is an example of this. As soon as a ball goes dead, the next ball is being introduced. This forces players to immediately turn their focus to what’s coming next. That helps train them to get passed the last play. They develop the “What am I supposed to do next?” focus. This is required for things like covering hitters where the tendency is to just watch as a teammate plays the ball.

Slightly too hard

I mentioned before the idea of aiming for 2 out of 3 good repetitions in training. Sometimes you want to make things a little bit harder than that, though. It puts players in a position where they can get frustrated because the balls they have to play are extra challenging or the complexity of the situation is greater. I don’t mean making things impossible. I just mean pushing it to the point where the players aren’t as successful as they are used to being so their frustration level creeps up. This sort of thing definitely happens in matches. Making them frustrated in training allows for the opportunity to encourage problem-solving. This is very useful in overcoming the challenges presented by the opposition.

Team targets

A major part of good team chemistry is the way players support each other in collectively achieving an objective. It’s fairly straightforward for players to deal with their own success or failure. It is much more complicated when factoring several interconnected parts. Group objectives where lapses in focus and/or poor execution force them to re-start puts everyone in the same boat. Examples are things like 25 good passes in a serve reception drill, or 10 pass-set-hit sequences in a cooperative exercise like the hard drill. It forces them to deal with not only the consequences of their own performance, but those of their teammates.

Adding the fatigue factor

Everything is less fun when we’re tired. Fatigue also brings emotions to the surface, especially when we’re frustrated. Adding an extra physical element to something which already pushes mental buttons, like with team targets above, can surface potential problems. In doing so, we can set about putting things on the right track. The continuous cross-court digging drill is one I sometimes use in this context. It’s a drill which gets harder the longer it goes on. Players simply have to fight through it. As a result, it offers lots of both individual and collective mental toughness training potential.

Sacrificing game-like elements

The sacrifice you tend to have to make when you do the four things I talk about above is that you may have to reduce the game-like aspect of things. The cross-court digging drill is a good example. It involves coaches or players hitting balls over the net from boxes. There is very little randomness to it. Players are not given the opportunity to read the set or the hitter, position around a block, etc. The movements do break-up the block elements, but they aren’t very game-like.

If I told you I used this drill to teach defense then you would be justified in arguing there are better options. In this case, however, the drill is one focused on the mental side of things, with digging hit balls simply facilitating that. I’m not suggesting you can’t do mental training in a highly game-like context. The hard drill mentioned above is game like, but also very mentally challenging. That’s obviously the ideal. I’m just saying that there are times when you may have to sacrifice game-replicating elements for your purposes because of your specific priorities at the moment.

As game-like as possible

In response to my post Going beyond maximizing player contacts, a reader made the following comment on LinkedIn.

“Reminds me of why I never even thought about teaching defense by standing on a box and hitting the ball at the defenders. How do you learn to read the block, the approach, the set location, and the hitter’s elbow position and arm swing by a coach standing still, tossing a ball a couple of feet, maybe, to himself to hit? Besides, who gets the most practice in that setup? The Coach, do you really need it? Same reason so many coaches are great servers, they get more practice than the players in lots of the drills. John Kessel has that saying about “The game teaches the game best!” I subscribe heartily to that sentiment and it would appear in the article that Mr. Forman agrees.”

I want to clarify something, since there has been a presumption about my volleyball coaching philosophy made here.

There’s a niggle I get when it comes to “the game teaches the game” ideal. It’s that taken to its logical conclusion we should just have our kids play all the time. That isn’t what Kessel means. There can be a tendency for a message like this to be diluted in transmission, though. The last word in the quote above – “best” – is often left out when volleyball coaches speak of this philosophy, or coaching style, or whatever you want to call it. That one little word is important, though.

Why do I say that? Because “… best” give us the flexibility we need to adjust things to our circumstances. We just simply can’t always have our players playing, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because of limitations. Sometimes it’s because of what we’re looking to accomplish. In those cases we perhaps cannot make things as game-like as would be ideal, but we have to try to make them as game-like as we possibly can.

Let me provide some examples.

Individual Training

Sometimes you only work with a single player. You obviously can’t play in this circumstance – unless you have a bunch of coaches or helpers available, which is rarely the case. You have to try to offset the tendency for this to result in very block-oriented training. By that I mean just isolated single skill repetitions.

The comment above about coaches hitting from boxes reminded me of some of the work I did while visiting with German professional men’s team TV Bühl in August 2014. We had one of the OPPs in for some individual work on his defense – his footwork in particular. The drill was a simple one. One coach was on a box hitting from 4 and I was on another box hitting from 2.

I think we all can agree this isn’t the ideal. As the commenter above notes, there’s no block or set or approach to read. I would argue the elbow and armswing elements remain, however. Plus, the attacks were at least coming from over the net and at an appropriate height. That’s more game-like than having a coach standing on the ground on the same side.

The fact that we mixed up where the attacks came from made for slightly less block-oriented training. I don’t remember whether we had him doing anything before or after digging. Adding in serving first, then attacking afterwards would have added game-like elements. We just wouldn’t have wanted to fatigue the athlete too quickly, though.

The idea in a case like this is to look at the situation and see what you can do to as closely replicate game type situations as possible within the limits you have. You aren’t going to be able to make the full sequence game-like. That being the case, focus on things around the key area of attention. In the defense footwork example here, we would ask the question what the player does immediately before having to react to the set positionally and immediately after digging the ball.

Harder reps

Sometimes in our training we want to put our players under more pressure than they are likely to get from their teammates in training. This might be to prepare for an upcoming opponent or simply to work on extending their abilities. Examples of this would be harder attacks or tougher serves. These are cases where having a coach hit/serve the ball rather than players offers a training advantage. It may offset the reduction in game-like elements and/or player reps – at least when used in a limited fashion.

Alternatively, you may want to put players or the team under a certain kind of pressure or a frequency of pressure they don’t get much of in simple training game play. Two examples of this are Scramble and 22 vs 22. In both games the coach is able to introduce balls which challenge the players in ways that perhaps they are not getting in game play, or that they need specific work on, and at a faster tempo.

Limiting player reps

Let’s face it. In some cases we simply can’t have our players doing all the reps we want in a given game or drill, either because of the fatigue factor or because of overuse concerns. The latter, in particular, was a big consideration when I was coaching at Brown. I know it was also a factor in some of what the SC Potsdam women’s German professional team did when I was with them during their preseason training (they didn’t do any jumping until my last day there). Using coaches to hit or serve is less game-like for sure, but you have to consider the trade-off. Better the coach gets a few extra reps than the players end up injured.

That said …

I do agree with the commenter about coaches getting more reps than their players. There are some situations where this can’t be avoided, but I personally try to set things up such that if I’m initiating a ball in to a game or drill there will be multiple contacts after my toss/hit/serve – preferably at least three. If you can do that you will generally be creating more random training elements and less block, which is the idea.

In Training beyond technique and tactics I extend on the discussion with respect to times when you’re not actually mainly training volleyball-specific skills.

Increasing player reads

A couple weeks ago I wrote about going beyond maximizing player contacts and the idea of read-plan-execute (RPE). In brief, RPE is what players do any time they play the ball. They read the contact before them, plan a solution, and execute the required skill. An issue with block training (simple reps) is it reduces the read requirement to essentially zero. That is why game-like drills are strongly preferred.

Going game-like makes sure we don’t lose the reading aspect of RPE, but what can we do to maximize our read opportunities? At the HP Coaches Clinic, Julio Velasco talked about watching as training. I’ve talked about this from a coaching perspective (see Tip for Coaching Volleyball: Watch more volleyball!), but the same applies to players. The more they see, the better they will be able to read the game. Karch Kiraly actually took that a little further. He in showed how players could do simulated reps when waiting their turn in line, which connects seeing and doing.

How can we increase reads in game play, though?

The answer is kind of simple. As John Kessell observed during one breakfast discussion at the clinic, you can have the players play 2-touch rather than 3-touch games. All else equal, it increases the over-the-net reads by 50%. There are also some other advantages to mixing 2-touch in as well, as I wrote about a while back in Using 2-touch games to challenge your players.

Of course there are trade-offs. You just need to strike a balance with your training focus.

Coaching from a solutions perspective

In my personal opinion, among the best sessions of the HP Coaches Clinic I attended was the one featuring Julio Velasco. Although presented on the court, it didn’t feature drills or games or anything like that. It was very much a discussion of coaching focus. Velasco hit on a couple of key ideas. My concentration is the idea of creating volleyball “players”, not simply skilled athletes. The concept of finding solutions was the major theme in this regard.

Now, the idea of problem solving (finding solutions) is one I’ve long been conscious of in my coaching. If we are doing our jobs as coaches we are putting players in positions they are likely to find themselves in games and helping to develop ways to deal with them most effectively. To put it in Velasco’s language, we are helping players find solutions to problems. For example, a hitter is facing a strong double block. What are the solutions available to him to produce the most favorable outcome given the quality of the set, his approach, etc.? I also like to follow a similar line of thinking from a team perspective. For example, we need a solution to break a string of service points scored by the other team.

There are two aspects to this idea of solutions that I really like.

Solution vs. Technical Execution

First, Velasco explicitly separated the solution decision from the technical execution in terms of assessing the outcome of a play. The example he used was a pipe attacker attempting a tip to position 2 when faced with a triple block, but seeing that tip go into the net. There are two things which can be analyzed here. The decision to tip to 2 as a solution to score against the triple block, and the tip itself. In this case, tipping to 2 is a good decision (solution), but the implementation was faulty. We could easily flip the case around and look at a situation where the same pipe hitter was blocked in an attempt to blast a hit by/through the block. In that case we might say the solution chosen was not the best, though the technical execution may have been fine (or that could have been faulty as well).

When thinking in these terms you end up with a matrix of potential situations for any given play. Regardless of whether the result was positive or negative, you could have:

  • Good Solution / Good Execution
  • Good Solution / Bad Execution
  • Bad Solution / Good Execution
  • Bad Solution / Bad Execution

I think we can agree that generally speaking the Good/Good group of plays will rarely lead to negative outcomes while the Bad/Bad group will rarely result in positive ones. The two in the middle are a mixed bag. A player could make the wrong choice of solution, but not suffer for it through sheer quality of execution. Similarly, simply making the right choice in some situations can still lead to a positive outcome even if the execution of the requisite skill comes up short. Obviously, our goal as coaches is to move players toward consistently being in the Good/Good category.

Encourages game-like training

The second thing I like about this solution (or solution/execution) focus is that it inherently biases one toward creating game-like situations in training. This ties in with what I talked about in Going beyond maximizing player contacts with the idea of the RPE (read-plan-execute). Velasco’s solutions are the P part of that progression. The only way for players to learn how to make good decisions – to pick the right solution for the situation they are in – is to put them in situations which force them to do so. That means creating the right type of game scenarios.

Now that doesn’t mean all learning can only come during game play. One of Velasco’s comments during the session was a suggestion that watching is in itself a form of training. When players observe the solutions others use in situations, they learn what might be useful for them. Obviously, they then have to go and try those solutions for themselves, but it’s a good starting point.

Bringing the discussion back around to where I started it, while a skilled athlete is capable of executing at a high level, a good “player” is able to make good decisions – to find the right solution to the challenge of the situation they find themselves in. If we work with a solution mindset along side developing technical skills, and can get our players to approach things in a similar way, we will produce higher caliber volleyball players and teams.

Going beyond maximizing player contacts

If you asked the players I coached while in England – and the coaches I worked with in that span – I think getting lots of touches on the ball would be something they’d point out as part of my coaching style. At least that was a major part of what I tried to do. Sitting in Jamie Morrisson’s session of the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic, though, I realized I should have been thinking a little more specifically about how I did that.

It’s not just about quantity

Jamie brought up the term Read-Plan-Execute (RPE) to describe the full idea of what we’re after. By that he meant having the player reading the action leading up to the ball coming to them, making a decision on how to play the ball (finding a solution), then actually executing the required skill. This is something I’ve largely tried to do. I didn’t quite have the specific internal terminology developed yet, though. As a result, I was probably less efficient about it than I could have been.

As coaches we can easily get caught up with the last part of that sequence, the execution. That’s the technical aspect of playing volleyball, after all. It’s my understanding that the technique focus really came into Western coaching in the 1960s. That’s when the Japanese teams were at the height of their international prominence. Coaches in many places sought to emulate their strong technical training focus. That hasn’t gone away in the decades since, though USA Volleyball (among others) these days takes a much more unified view of volleyball player development – broadly speaking, the game teaches the game.

Random vs. Block training

I’m not going to get into a full-on motor learning discussion in this particular post. It’s a big subject in its own right. There is one important point to make, however.

In Jamie’s presentation he showed a pair of charts which demonstrate the performance difference of working in a block training (controlled, isolated reps) vs. a random (game-like) training manner. They both showed that while block training results in consistently better progression of technical skill execution, when it comes to retention, transfer, etc. random training is far superior.

This is one of those charts:

block-vs-random graph

Notice how initially block training looks to produce better training result. When tests were done on transfer to application (think moving from drills to a game) the block group showed a sharp drop in performance. Compare that to the random group. They not only retained their training gains, they also improved further.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t worry about technical execution. Instead, we should do it in an environment which forces the athlete to perform all aspects of the skill. That’s where the RPE idea comes in.

What is a good rep, really?

Here’s an example.

When working on hitting, coaches often toss the ball for players to attack. They no doubt think of it as a way to give the players lots of “good” reps. This may result in players who are good at hitting good sets. It stunts the players’ growth in terms of learning to handle different set tempos and placements, though. In other words, the coach has largely removed the read and plan aspects of RPE. The players are just executing.

We can come up with similar examples with just about every other skill. Think about anything that involves a player executing a skill off a tossed or otherwise very predictable controlled ball. When take the read or read-plan elements out, we actually hinder the long-term development of our players.

Making sure to include the read and plan elements

All of this means we should be conscious of how we structure our games and drills to make sure we are getting full RPEs for whatever skill or tactic we want to focus on at the time. This generally necessitates have the contact or game situation prior included. By that I mean something like when focused on setting, include a passer so the setter has to read the passer’s movement and position rather than simply going off a toss where little or no reading is involved. Or when working on free ball offense, having a free ball inducing situation on the other side of the net.

Now, having said that, we don’t want to get carried away. In the setting example you could quite easily find yourself thinking “I should be maximizing RPEs for my passer as well.” That might motivate you to put something random in the chain before the pass, which might then have you thinking about something random before that, and so on to the point of basically just playing and starting everything with a serve. There is definitely value in having lots of game play in your practice, but training is about being focused on developing a certain aspect of your players’ or your team’s development. As such, you need to constrain things in ways that will necessitate the removal of the random element at some point. The key is identifying where that should be.

The bottom line is that rather than thinking in terms of maximizing touches – as I’ve been doing – we should be thinking in terms of maximizing RPEs.

Lots of players, little space – Help!!

Yesterday I had an email come in from a reader of the blog – or at least someone who stopped by for a visit. She asked:

I am currently coaching both a 5th and 6th grade team with a total of 22 players. However, we only have one small gym to use and we must practice them together a lot. Can you help me find drills to do that will include a lot of players?

I can totally sympathize with this problem. In my time coaching in England I was frequently forced to try to manage a lot of players in a small area – especially during try-outs for the university teams. It’s definitely a challenge.

The first thing I would bring up is something I know both USA Volleyball and Volleyball England – and I’m sure other federations – are proponents of at the grassroots/beginner level (and beyond). That’s mini volleyball. By that I mean not just playing small-sided games, but also playing on smaller courts. In England they have badminton courts in basically every gym. You can generally get 3-4 in the space of a volleyball court. Using them lets you go from 22 on one court to 5-8 on each court.

In the US badminton lines may not be as readily available, but it’s not hard to create them with tape, cones, etc. In terms of nets, you can use the badminton ones if you have them, or you can create your own long net to string across the gym. The great thing about working with beginners and youngsters is that you don’t really need to be overly concerned with net height. At Exeter the beginner group of university players often trained using standard badminton height nets.

USA Volleyball has a section on ideas for setting up mini courts in their mini volleyball guide.

The other idea I would toss out is stations. Break the gym up into areas where you can have players working on different skills. That will let you get them split up into smaller groups, which serves a similar purpose to mini volleyball. Smaller groups means more touches and less time standing around. You can then have them do movement and ball-control drills/games in 2s, 3s, or 4s.

As I mentioned previously, I’m actually working on a book aimed at helping coaches maximize their available resources. Being able to deal with high numbers/limited space is part of that. I would love to hear other ideas on how to do that. If you have one, definitely feel free to leave a comment below, Tweet it to @CoachingVB, post it on Facebook, or use the contact page to send it to me.

Keep your priorities in mind

When I was coaching at Exeter, the men’s team captain once asked if he could run about 20 minutes worth of defensive work in training that night. I let him do it. In part it was because the guys could use the work. I also wanted to see what he was going to do.

Alas, what came about was the sort of thing I tend to see among relatively new coaches. The drill he used was one in which a player in 5 dug a line attack and a cross hit, then switched to 1 to dig a cross ball, then a line attack. Two to three players rotated through the drill as a group, doing 20 total rotations. It’s not a bad drill, but in this context suffered from issues of intent and timing.

Conflict of focus

I did a bit of after-action discussion with the captain following the training session to give him feedback. First, I talked about cutting back on the number of times players went through the drill. With each player going through 20 times, that’s 80 dig attempts. That’s a lot of time in the drill and a lot of swings by the guys doing the hitting. It’s also a lot of standing around time for those not directly involved (though they were collecting balls, attacking as target, and feeding the hitters). I told him I would have probably cut it back to maybe 5-7 times through. If I wanted lots of reps to have guys do the drill a couple of times. His response was that he wanted a conditioning element.

Now, wanting to include a conditioning aspect to drills isn’t a bad thing. In this case, though, the captain also had an expressed intention of working on digging mechanics. Those are two very contradictory points of focus. Changing mechanics is something you’re going to struggle to do when a player is simply just trying to make it through the end of the drill.

Bad timing

My other issue with the drill was that it failed to account for the calendar. That training was sandwiched between two matches, and only 90 minutes in length. We needed to spend the bulk of the time looking at where we wanted to get better from the prior one to try to take a step forward in the next. It was neither the timing nor the length of session to have a conditioning oriented drill. At the same time, the drill went at least twice as long as intended. I was fine with a 20 minute defense drill as it could be an extension of warm-ups. That would leave me with about an hour to work on team stuff. What I ended up with was about 30 minutes to get in game play.

As I said, these are kind of classic new coach mistakes. They decide they want to work on something, or get excited about a new drill they’ve come across, and jump right in without considering priorities and context.

You may be asking why I let it go on so long. The answer is long-term thinking. One training wasn’t really going to change a heck of a lot. On top of that, I probably won’t make it through the season with the team as it won’t be long now before I finish my major PhD work enter the job market. The team leadership needs to be able to run trainings without a coach, as the odds of finding a replacement to finish the season aren’t very good. By letting the captain see how the drill ran, how long it took, and providing feedback I hopefully helped to make things better in the long run.

Why use coach-initiated drills or games

Regular reader and frequent commenter Kelly recently emailed me in regards to one of my coaching log entries. It related to coach-initiated volleyball drills/games.

“I have to ask…Why are you initiating the drills? My understanding as many of our American coaches are realizing for every ball we touch the less our athletes touch thus prevented from learning. I clearly understand the argument that the athletes do not have the control as the coach. That is sooo true, but will they ever if the coach is continuously contacting the ball. Your last segment 6 v 6 scrimmage you mention below really confused me in why you were serving. I would think the coach’s position would be to evaluate and instruct as needed. I mean no disrespect, one’s experience determines how one coaches their teams. Not saying you are wrong. Just trying to understand why.”

What Kelly is primarily referring to is a 6 v 6 I ran. I served to the A side rather than having a player do it. I honestly can’t remember when I had last served at a team in that fashion. It’s not something I favor doing. In this particular situation, however, my decision to do so was motivated by two things.

First, I had arranged the B side such that the only two really solid servers were in the front row. I needed them there to provide more of a challenge to the A side at the net. Those in the back row were inconsistent in terms of putting the ball in play. And when they did they were not particularly challenging.

Second, it gave me the opportunity to apply pressure to the A side in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible (serving a given player in a certain way, putting the ball in a seam to test the communication, etc.).

In all honesty, the first reason was the primary motivator. The second was really just a nice byproduct.

Generally speaking, I am big on maximizing player ball contacts. I like to use over-the-net pepper variations and small-sided volleyball games to get players touching the ball frequently in so-called “random” situations. Something like a serving & passing drill is a bit more “block” oriented, but still features lots of player initiated ball contact (here’s more on block vs random training, and why one is better than the other).

There are three basic times when I’ll insert myself as ball initiator.

1. When I want more precision and/or power than players are currently capable of producing.

2. If I want to control the tempo, usually meaning increasing training intensity by initiating new balls at a faster pace than players would be able to do so themselves.

3. When I want to level out a competitive imbalance by making the first ball harder/easier for one side.

I should note, however, that if I have the available bodies I will have players initiate new balls rather than do it myself. For example, in bingo-bango-bongo, if I have 14 players I will use the two not currently in the play to send in the free balls. Granted, putting in free balls isn’t exactly working on high quality contacts, but it helps keep them involved and engaged.