Archive for Volleyball Coaching News & Info

Four hundred posts and counting!

Friday’s entry in the Coaching Log series marked the 400th post in this blog’s history, which goes back to June 2013. It still amazes me at times how much interest and readership the site has garnered. As I write this there have been nearly 25,000 users and almost 70,000 page views. Content from the blog has been used in the AVCA’s Coaching Volleyball 2.0 magazine on three separate occasions, and the site was a big part in my developing contacts in professional volleyball and elsewhere. Not bad for something that started off to be a resource for volleyball coaches in the South West of England!

The 10 most viewed individual posts to this point in the site’s history are:

  1. Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas
  2. Volleyball Conditioning – A Sample Program
  3. Drill: Run Serve Receive
  4. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
  5. Volleyball Set Diagram
  6. Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo
  7. Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness
  8. Planning your volleyball strength and conditioning training
  9. Game: Winners (a.k.a. King/Queen of the court)
  10. Drill: Passing Triplets

It’s worth noting that both of the first two posts, have actually each received more visits than the site’s home page thanks to how often they bring in visitors from Google, etc.

Happily, several posts have generated some interesting exchanges via the comment section. They include:

Hopefully I can continue to write stuff that people find interesting, thought-provoking, and/or useful.

A defacto U.S. professional volleyball league?

A while back via Facebook and Twitter I shared a link to a brief article from Coaching Volleyball magazine. That’s published by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Actually, it was less an article and more a letter to the membership from AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. In it she shares her thoughts on the potential future of NCAA volleyball. In particular, Kathy is concerned about the move toward a college structure where five conferences stand apart from everyone else in terms of money and resources. I won’t go into the back story behind all this. I’ll just say it’s mainly driven by football and men’s basketball, but has the potential to influence all sports.

My general feeling on these sorts of things is change is inevitable. We simply have to adapt to the new conditions. NCAA women’s volleyball has the advantage of being in quite a strong situation at the moment. Even men’s volleyball is making some gains. Volleyball at the high school level is the top girls’ sport in most states, with participation on the rise. As a result, I don’t think there’s a big risk of changes at the top of the collegiate hierarchy putting the sport in jeopardy. In fact, the reality of the current state of affairs is we already have a major divide.

The split is already there

As of this writing, the last time a school from outside the so-called Power 5 conferences (Pac-12, Big-10, Big-12, ACC, SEC) won the national championship was 1998. That’s when Long Beach did it. In fact, since then only once has a team from outside the Pac-12 and Big-10 won. That’s Texas. Taking it a step further, Long Beach in 2001 is the only lesser conference school to have even made the finals in that time. A couple of others have managed to reach the Final 4, though – (Hawai’i, Pacific, Santa Clara).

To put a finer point on it, among the Power 5, representation from three conferences at even the Final 4 stage has been scant. Since 1998 the SEC has only had three entries (Florida x 2, Tennessee), and the ACC just one (Florida State). Nebraska and Texas have done fairly well for the Big-12, but the Huskers are now in the Big-10, leaving the Longhorns as the only current Big-12 team ever to have made the Final 4.

In other words, we have a fairly narrow collection of teams contending for the national championship in any given year. That leaves a whole lot of teams playing for much smaller stakes. For the vast majority of the 320 or so Division I teams, a conference title is about as high as they are likely to ever reach. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. The same is true in other sports. Actually, we could say we currently have a better situation these days. Back in the 80s and 90s only a relatively small group of West Coast teams dominated.

Is college volleyball already professional?

What struck me reading Kathy’s thoughts, though, was that the top level of the sport is moving toward what we can view as a defacto professional league. We may really already be there! We can make a case that giving individuals scholarships to play volleyball is essentially a professional situation. Schools compensate student-athletes in some fashion because they are athletes. This is particularly so given the price tag of modern education. Paying players above and beyond that, though, would put things into a different category. That is especially true when considering the other perks players at the top schools get in terms of support.

There are many similarities between NCAA collegiate volleyball and the experience of pro players at clubs in Europe and elsewhere. I wrote about it after spending time with a pair of clubs in Germany, That is only furthered if the top conferences continue to channel more resources into their programs.

Note: Business Insider posted a list of the top 20 university sports programs. It is based on athletics revenue, NCAA championship results, home football and men’s basketball attendance, and student survey responses. Interestingly, only two of those 20 schools has ever won a volleyball championship. Just seven have reached the Final 4.

Volleyball England influencing university volleyball

Volleyball England a while back announced an extension of its Talent Pathway into the university arena. The Talent Pathway is the progression of volleyball athletes through the youth ranks toward senior national team selection. They call it a senior academy program. The expressed idea is that it will provide English players a way to continue their progression and development beyond the Juniors level. England brought back the senior national teams in 2015 after they were defunded following the Olympics.

The announcement relates to what I wrote about in regards to the conflict between the competitive needs of university clubs and the demands put on them in terms of growing volleyball participation. I am all for making university volleyball in the UK stronger. It benefits the sport overall, and it should eventually develop a player pipeline for the national team (as it does in the US). From that perspective, I approve of the move.

But …

Let’s be honest, though. University volleyball (BUCS) is simply not strong enough at the moment. It does not provide a meaningful developmental platform for prospective international and/or professional caliber players. Barring a massive influx of talented athletes, it won’t be any time soon. The reality of the situation is that this will be all about playing top level NVL volleyball. Specifically, that means Super 8s.

That’s all fine and good (if it works as intended). Let’s just not think this is something which will have a direct impact on university volleyball. All it will tend to do is create a very clear group teams far above the rest. If other schools are encouraged to better support volleyball to be more competitive, then great! I see just as much chance, though, of them looking at this and saying “Why bother?”.

The competition/participation conflict

I coach in a country where volleyball is a developing sport. I also coach in a country where there is a big government focus to have a more physically active society. This creates a bit of a conflict. I brought this up before in different ways. A recent Volleyball England blog post highlighted this (to my mind), though.

The short article speaks of the gains made in volleyball participation at the university level of the sport. It talks about what the Higher Education Volleyball Officers (HEVOs) are doing to bring more people into the tent. This is all fine and good. A big part of Volleyball England’s funding comes from the government in the form of participation-linked moneys. Naturally, they will push programs and efforts to increase the number of people playing the sport.

As a coach on the competitive side of university volleyball, however, I can’t help but look at something like that and ask, what about the BUCS side of things? Where are the discussions of ways to increase the competitiveness of BUCS teams? What about how to turn beginners into competitive players? Or about ways university clubs can succeed when they are usually a lower priority sport? How about ways to attract more English players (BUCS has a strong international participation rate)?

Generally, those who push the sport forward are those who come through the competitive ranks, not those who are just recreational players. Volleyball in England will only benefit from a stronger BUCS volleyball structure.

We face this competition vs. participation conflict constantly at Exeter. The club is about 130 members strong – only around 30 of which are BUCS players. The rest are Beginners or Intermediates (our Intermediates do compete in the local area adult club league). The club only has a certain amount of gym time available. That must be split between BUCS training and Beginner and Intermediate sessions. The club is judged both on the success of the BUCS teams (3rd overall in BUCS points last year) and in the size of the club. We’re up against a wall, though. We’re in a Catch-22 where we need to get bigger to be seen as a more important sport at the university, but we can’t do it without more gym time, which we’d only get by raising our profile further.

The position of the sport at each university varies, though. At some schools, such as Northumbria and Durham, it is a performance sport. They offer scholarships to attract good players (some schools more than others – see Volleyball England influencing university volleyball). Exeter is not in that group, which obviously puts us at a disadvantage. Some schools have coaches while others don’t. Some schools get better support from their Athletic Union (or the equivalent) than others.

I would like to hear from BUCS coaches, club captains, and the like about their own experiences. How do you balance the demands of competition and participation?

Try-outs drove a big traffic uptick in August

I made mention of this briefly on Twitter and/or Facebook earlier, but August was by far the biggest month for Coaching Volleyball. Nearly 3700 people visited the site, 75% of whom were first time visitors, and there were over 10,000 page views. That’s basically double July’s figures, which had been the highest traffic month up to that point. When you see gains like that it’s always interesting to find out what was bringing people to the website in such big numbers.

Of course, as an author one would hope that all the increased attention was the result of some recent blog post that really captured people’s attention. Alas, that wasn’t the case in August. Over 70% of the site visits came from Google, which means people were coming into the site to find stuff written at some point in the past.

So what were they after?

Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas is the big winner. That one page, written in September 2013, accounted for over 16% of all page views. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time? was the only other page to garner more than 5% of the page views for August. Even the site’s home page only got 4.7%. I guess that gives you a pretty good idea of what volleyball coaches were searching for last month!

August is prime try-out month for volleyball teams in the US, especially for high school squads. As a result, it will come as no surprise that US coaches were the most represented among site visitors. In fact, they accounted for over 80% of visits! The UK was second at about 4.3%, with the Philippines coming in at 2.5% in third place, which is interesting in and of itself.

I’m starting to observe a pretty consistent traffic pattern on the website as well. Monday is almost always the peak day. Visits then trail off over the course of the rest of the week, with Saturday generally being the low point before things tick back up a bit on Sunday. Seems like coaches do their research early in the week.

BUCS volleyball 2014-15 schedule out

BUCS has posted the schedule for the new UK collegiate volleyball season ahead. It actually strikes me as being earlier than was the case last year, but don’t hold me to that. With the introduction of the new Northern and Southern Premier Leagues for the upcoming season, there’s had to be a restructuring through the divisions and various competitions. Somewhere along the way, it was decided not to do the relegations from Division 1 they had originally signaled, as I wrote about in early June.

As it turns out, that means the Exeter women’s 2nd team won’t move up to Division 1 after all. That may have an impact on how we structure training this year. Last season we trained the Division 1 and 2 teams together. I don’t know if that will be practical this year, though. I’m sure I’ll write about that later as things develop.

The introduction of the Premier Leagues has resulted in a shift in the structure of the Championship and Trophy competitions. In the past, the top 3 teams in each of the five Division 1 leagues qualified for Championships with Final 8s capping off the season. The rest went to the Trophy competition, which is a knock-out cup structure. Moving forward, only the Premier League teams will qualify for Championships. If the Final 8s structure is kept, which I think is the plan, then presumably there would be some kind of preliminary entry play-off, perhaps with the top teams byed. All Division 1 teams now go into the Trophy bracket, which turns into a season-long cup competition – in addition to regular league play, of course. The lower divisions retain their League Cups alongside the regular season.

The promotion/relegation system for the Premier League will involve the last place PL team in each league playing off, presumably against the winners of the geographically appropriate Division 1 leagues. That means relegation isn’t automatic, unless that bottom team has forfeit one or more matches. In the case of the Northern PL, two teams will be brought up this year to get their final count to 6 as they only start with 5.

As for scheduling, we shall see. I’ve written before about my frustrations with how that’s been handled. BUCS has posted a schedule based on their standard Wednesday fixtures. Given the distances involved for the PL teams, they have at least made a pair of concessions. The first is that they seem to have had both the men and women for schools where both genders are in the PL playing at home on the same dates, and playing other schools with dual participation on the same dates. This is what the Exeter schedule looks like:

Men Women
15-Oct @Warwick @Sussex
22-Oct Cambridge Cambridge
29-Oct @UEL @Oxford
12-Nov @Bournemouth @Bournemouth
19-Nov Warwick Sussex
26-Nov @Cambridge @Cambridge
4-Feb UEL Oxford
11-Feb @UCL @KCL
18-Feb Bournemouth Bournemouth

You’ll notice that the Exeter teams play the Cambridge and Bournemouth squads on the same dates, both home and away. Both teams are also home on the same dates. Not only does this help out in terms of travel, it also helps out in terms of coaching. I have coached both the men and women the last two years. Mostly, it wasn’t an issue because we generally avoided direct conflicts in the schedule. The risk this year was that there was going to be a load of conflicts, making it quite unreasonable for one coach to handle both squads. The schedule above only has three conflicts when the teams are away at different places.

Again, who knows if this will all hold. Exeter is certainly not keen to host on Wednesdays and I know some of the other schools – based on conversations I’ve had with coaches – aren’t keen on playing Wednesdays in general terms. They prefer weekends. We may yet end up with a very different looking schedule – perhaps one which features triangulars or something along those lines.

Actually, something does need to happen to adjust things. The last round of fixtures is currently scheduled for after the February 11 cut-off to get them all played!

However they do it, I hope it at least is sorted out ahead of time. There’s very little that’s much more frustrating than not knowing from week to week what the match schedule looks like.

What would sideout scoring look like now?

A question came up on Twitter the other day. The poster ask what it would be like if beach volleyball went back to sideout scoring. My guess is longer sets, and probably the need to go back to a single 15-point game rather than the best of 3 that seems to be the dominant format now, but with the smaller court now, maybe not.

Something I can’t help wondering is whether the motivation for the move to rally scoring is a moot point at this stage – or nearly so. FIVB introduce rally scoring in its efforts to try to make sets more predictable in length as a general move toward making matches fit better into a standard 2-hour sports television broadcast block. Of course the issue always ended up being the variation in length cause by the best-of-5 format, which they also tried changing with little success.

Should we really be thinking about the traditional TV time slot anymore? It seems to me that online streaming has just about made that irrelevant. At least it’s gone a long way toward doing so. In that case, why should we care about match length? The focus should be on exciting play, I would think.

So that begs the question – is rally score more exciting than sideout? The follow-up to that is what sort of changes would we see if sideout was reintroduced.

Would serving get more aggressive because it wouldn’t cost a point? That’s a little hard to imagine in the men’s game where there so much bombing of serves to begin with. Perhaps on the women’s side, though? Maybe at the lower levels of the game as well where there sideout percentages aren’t as high, lowering the imperative to serve aggressively? If so, an interesting side effect might be the development of better passers.

Perhaps it would be the other way – teams being more conservative in serving so as not to squander point-scoring opportunities. After all, if the other team sides-out, it doesn’t cost the serving team a point.

Would serving teams get more aggressive offensively? Since there’s no risk of giving away a point, maybe we’d see a bit more creativity and speed in attack. I was recently reading something Al Scates (long-time UCLA men’s coach) wrote where he described the Long Beach State women of the late 1980s and early 1990s as running an offense nearly as fast as seen in the men’s game. This is not something you hear a lot these days when comparing the two genders (though Karch Kiraly is trying to get the USA women moved in that direction).

The men play at a pretty fast tempo these days, though. We don’t see a lot of the middle of the court combination plays (Xs, etc.) we used to see, but there are a couple of reasons for that. One is the way blocking strategies developed (bunch and swing blocking in particular) to deal with those plays, which in turn led to the move toward faster outside sets. Another is the development of the back row play set providing an extra central attacker. Admittedly, that’s less prevalent in the women’s game.

It does seem fairly certain that between at least relatively evenly matched teams there would longer sets. In the real mismatches, though, they’d actually go faster, since a good team wouldn’t have to serve so many points to put a weak team out of their misery.

My feeling also is that sideout scoring more readily identifies the stronger team. In rally scoring, theoretically a team needs to only score a small number of “real” points to win a set. As such, it opens the door for more upsets, especially at levels where siding out happens at a high frequency. That might actually support the case for rally scoring in terms of keeping teams in a match longer.

Plus, even if the sets went exactly the same, play-by-play, a 15-0 score line looks much worse than 25-10. 😉

Is the US producing enough quality volleyball players?

There was a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. Criticism of the US soccer youth system triggered it. That was by one of the UK newspapers with respect to the system’s ability to produce world class talent. Naturally, someone wondered about the effectiveness of the US system for producing world class volleyball players.

For those not familiar with it, the US system essentially has three primary facets. At the top is collegiate volleyball. US national team players come almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools. At this level, players are virtually professionals. They exchange their athletic services for a potentially very costly education (but that’s a separate debate!). College players generally have a 3-4 month regular season. During that time they train 3-4 days per week and compete two others (single matches during the conference season, 1-2 matches during pre-conference play). During the off-season there is about a month where they can do daily team training. They also are allowed a small number of competition dates. Otherwise, the focus is primarily on strength & conditioning work. A couple hours a week of individual or small group training is mixed in.

Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball (and middle school volleyball in some regions). The high school season tends to be similar to the collegiate one in terms of length and gym time commitment. Club volleyball takes place in the school off-season. Teams will generally not train more than three times a week and the play is tournament focused. The top teams compete in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I college ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.

There is no proper pro league in the US at this point. Players who want to go that route have to catch on with a team abroad. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that have developed in soccer as the teams in MLS work to establish feeder systems. This makes them less reliant on the college system for players. That’s often been seen as a weak point in the chain, since college soccer is not at the level of training and competition players developing in the professional systems in other parts of the world get.

Actually, even where top level professional leagues exist in the US there isn’t an underlying youth academy system. Yes, MLS is going in that direction as it looks to the overseas model. Baseball and hockey both have minor league affiliates through which they can develop younger players, but many of them still come through the college ranks, and generally speaking a player won’t enter these systems until after high school. The NFL and NBA don’t really have the same kind of minor league structure. Football is essentially entirely reliant on college for players. In basketball you’ll occasionally get players like LeBron and Kobe who skip straight to the pros, but most will spend at least some time in college.

The US model therefore sees sports very much linked to education. In England, there’s an element of that in term of BUCS at the university level. The structure is different, though. The school doesn’t sponsor the teams. It’s not a varsity situation. Rather, clubs affiliate with the school. Even that isn’t something commonly seen in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.

The first big question which seems to be coming out of the debate on Volley Talk is whether in fact there’s a problem with the US developmental structure. Then, assuming one thinks that at least there is the potential for improvement, where are the problems and how can you address them.

Of course there is one big overarching question. Should the US volleyball system aim to produce elite international caliber players? Or should participation be the goal? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter.

Insights from a coaches survey

Sports Coach UK did a general coaching survey earlier this year and the results were recently reported. Volleyball coaches represented 140 of the responders, so they were able to break out their responses and compare them to the overall figures across all sports. You can see the results here (PDF – courtesy SWVA).

A bunch of the questions were demographic in nature. Probably unsurprisingly, there are way more males than females coaching (78% vs 22%). Interestingly, though, that’s a more male-biased ratio than the all-sports figure, even though volleyball participation in England is seems to be quite balanced.

In the category of “We need to work on this!” is the distribution of paid vs. volunteer coaches. In volleyball 76% of coaches are voluntary compared to 59% across all sports, and only 1% are full-time coaches vs. 9% in general. (I’d be really interested to see how this compares to the numbers in the US.)

Perhaps tied to the income-making prospects just noted, the motivation for coaching certification progression is not very good among volleyball coaches. Only 35% expressed an intention to gain another qualification in the next 12 months compared to 52% across all sports. I know motivating the progression through certification levels has been a topic of discussion at Volleyball England.

What is even more troubling is the general educational effort among volleyball coaches. The survey asked respondents about the use of 12 different educational options over the last year and volleyball coaches were behind the general average in every single category. In particular, three categories stand out as problematic – workshops, conferences, and online courses. All three have double-digit % gaps between volleyball and the all sports average. In the case of workshops it’s 33.1% vs. 66.4%!

The results of a “have you sought to gain this type of information” set of options shows very similar results. Volleyball is behind the broad average in all but two categories.

I think opportunity and availability is a factor in this, though. There just aren’t that many volleyball events of this sort available, which is something that came up at the Volleyball England coaching conference I attended earlier this month. For my own part, I have some plans to maybe address at least the online course element.

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