A visitor asked the following question.

What are some differences in coaching strategy and tactics at the high school varsity level vs. junior varsity level?

The query comes from the high school context, but it really could apply to any situation where you have 1st team/2nd team situation. By that I mean the competitive focus is on the 1st team – the varsity. Also, there’s a link between the two squads. The 2nd team – the junior varsity (JV) – is a feeder for the 1st team.

Different focuses

This is important because it means the JV is inherently more of a developmental team. Usually it comprises younger, less experienced players. That doesn’t mean you ignore development for the varsity. Further, it doesn’t mean JV teams don’t play to win. The balance for the varsity between competition and development just leans more toward competition than it does for the JV.

This more developmental consideration for JV is something I wrote about before. It means you might make playing time and playing system decisions differently than if your goal was just winning as much as possible.

The core idea for JV

Because the JV team is intended to feed the varsity team, I think its top priority should be preparing players to play varsity. At its most basic that means developing their skills and volleyball IQ to a sufficient level. More than that, though, it also means getting them ready to play using the systems and tactics of the varsity team.

Now, I’m not saying that JV has to play the same way as varsity. If they are capable, then sure. Go for it. For example, some schools have JV kids who’ve played juniors volleyball. That might allow them to play the same way varsity does, albeit at a lower skill and physicality level.

In other situations where the JV players aren’t so talented you probably need to build things up. For example, let’s say the varsity coach favors a 5-1 offense. The JV kids could start in a 4-2 and advance to a 6-2 as they learn and progress. That would then make the jump to the varsity’s 5-1 pretty easy to handle.

I think Bill Neville is given credit for saying you shouldn’t do tactically what you can’t do technically. Your goal for JV players is for them to be able to employ the varsity team’s tactics – if not while still JV then certainly within a short period of time upon reaching varsity status. That means you need to develop their technical capacity in that direction.

This is your big focus with the JV team. All training and playing time decisions should have that as the foundation.

The varsity vs. JV implications

So what does this all mean for how you coach varsity vs JV in terms of tactics and strategy? Well, first off it probably means you’re going to spend less time on tactics and strategy with the JV kids than you do with varsity.

Necessarily, a big focus for the varsity team during a season is collective play. That means things like team serve reception, blocking schemes, defensive positioning and responsibilities, and offensive plays. Some is in preparation for a specific opponent. Some is just general work to improve. At the same time, match decisions are mainly focused on maximizing performance in the moment.

In contrast, I would spend basically zero time with a JV team preparing for an upcoming opponent – unless it presented a specific opportunity to teach them something new. Everything would be on our own improvement. Similarly, when it came to matches I’d have development as my first priority. That necessarily means I might do something that reduces our chances to win today, with the understanding that it (hopefully) improves the varsity’s chances of winning down the road. Think playing time and/or player position decisions.

But always pushing

Obviously, the JV kids aren’t as good as the varsity ones. That clearly has implications for the complexity of what you can do with them. You’ll probably at least have to start with simpler stuff. System-wise that could be like running the 4-2 first as I mentioned above. Tactically it might be having an OH run a 2-ball from serve receive before trying to do it in transition.

What the difference in level doesn’t mean, though, is that you shouldn’t challenge the JV kids just as much as you do the varsity. The challenge will come at a lower level, necessarily, but you still need to have a bar that you keep raising as they develop.

Whatever you do, don’t put limits on them based on your own expectations. Find a variety of ways to challenge them and see how they respond. Then help them get better.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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