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.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

2 comments

  1. Kelly Daniels says:

    Last thing, your statement, “Granted, putting in free balls isn’t exactly working on high quality contacts, but it helps keep them involved and engaged.”
    I see free balls as part of the game and consistently work on this type of contact with my athletes. Any free ball that is in a drill is initiated by the athletes. I toss or bounce toward the player(s) who sends the free ball over the net. The thing is that I ask the athletes to be tactical with the free balls if at all possible. If it’s a scrambling free ball then get the ball ‘over and in’ is the requirement. Quality contacts are always important with our teams, thus the training should reflect those scenarios.
    Thanks for your response John, I clearly understand your position and reasoning as you stated in the blog.

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      “Any free ball that is in a drill is initiated by the athletes. I toss or bounce toward the player(s) who sends the free ball over the net.”

      Yup, definitely can do that. It’s something I talked about with Mark Lebedew, coach of Berlin Recycling Volleys (3-time defending German men’s champs). Of course the definition of “free ball” is a little different at his level. 🙂

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