Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

Playing multiple matches a day question

I had an interesting conversation with the assistant men’s soccer coach. He and the guys on that team watched the first of our matches on Saturday before they left for their own. Naturally, that was our weakest performance of the tournament. :-/

He made the observation, though, that the team is different this year. In particular, he talked about how the team bounced back from losing a set. It’s something teams in prior years have not done well. The players have made that sort of resilience a part of their team focus for the year. They want to be the team that looks the same, no matter the score.

Recovering between matches

The question the soccer coach asked me had to do with how players handle playing multiple matches in a day. As he noted, soccer players in the US don’t play more than one match a day after about the age of 12. He was curious what was the biggest challenge for players when playing two matches. Is it the physical? Is it the mental?

I’m curious to hear what you think. Leave a comment below.

For my own part, I think it’s probably more mental than physical. Yes, there is definitely a physical element, especially for players who jump a lot. There’s a ton of mental energy exerted in especially a competitive match. Even as a coach I find myself wanting a nap after an intense match!

To be fair, though, volleyball players are used to multiple matches per day. That’s the deal for Juniors volleyball, after all. College players usually come from clubs that play in 2-3 day tournaments, and pool play rounds feature generally three matches a day. Obviously, those matches aren’t at the same level as a college match, and they are usually only best-of-3 rather than best-of-5. But the players are used to having to “get up” for a match multiple times a day.

High school block and defense

This is the time of year when many coaches are problem-solving with there teams. Here’s one of them via a recent email.

Hi, I coach a varsity high school team. We are not very good at blocking. I am wondering if there are drill to work specific timing, and/or what defense would you suggests for weak blockers?

There are a couple of elements involved here. Let me try to address each.

Not good at blocking

Saying you’re not very good at blocking is a little too broad. That could mean we’re a short team, or it could mean we have technical problems. The request for a drill to work on timing tends to suggest the latter is what this coach is worried about. Since I can’t really help a coach with a short team, I’ll talk training ideas.

Unfortunately, timing isn’t a mechanical issue. You can’t break it down into positioning or movement patterns. It’s basically a decision based on judgement of the hitter’s attack. As such, there isn’t a drill to fix it. Players have to develop timing by blocking against hitters, and any drill or game where that happens will do.

The real issue is feedback, which is where coaching comes in. You have to first make the blocker understand they are not jumping on time, and then work with them on reading the cues to improve that timing. For the former, video is a very good tool. Set up your camera (a tablet will do) and either record them or use one of the video delay apps.

Recognition of block mistiming might be enough to fixed the problem, but if it isn’t you have to train your blockers how to judge the timing. That means knowing the hitter’s hitting power, seeing how far they are off the net, and reading the play to know if the hitter is likely to attack aggressively or use a shot.

Defense behind a poor block

The point of back row defense is to have players where the ball is most likely going. It’s a probability game, plain and simple. Yes, there are read based adjustments, but those are based on starting points and general areas of responsibility. This basic idea does not change based on block quality.

What does change, however, is placement of defenders. The block takes away a certain part of the court – or at least it’s meant to do that. The defense then is positioned around it in the areas attacks are likely to go. If your block is ineffective, though, you need to shift your defenders.

So that leaves us with a question: At your level of play, if there were no block, where would the hitters most likely hit the ball?

Answer that question and you have the answer to how to arrange your defense.

Kill percentage off perfect pass

The following question came in from a reader:

What percent of kills should we expect on a perfect pass? Serve receive or free balls?

The answer to this is reliant very much on level of play. High school girls probably do not score at the same rate as college men, for example. Unfortunately, the mailer didn’t tell me what level they are at.

I honestly don’t have a specific answer in any case. I reached out to Mark Lebedew from At Home on the Court to see what he had to say, and he told me in the men’s PlusLiga in Poland (the top professional division) it’s a 62% kills rate, with a 47% hitting efficiency. This struck me as low, but that just goes to show that personal impressions aren’t always (or even often?) right. ­čÖé

Mark went on to say the PlusLiga sideout rate off perfect passes is 72%.

My analysis from the 2017 Midwestern State suggested our perfect pass kill rate was below 40%, which was definitely sub-optimal.

I’m curious to hear what folks with good figures say about kill % and sideout rates at their level. If you have any data, please share via a comment below.

Testing someone’s volleyball coaching knowledge

Here’s a question I’m pretty sure I’ve not been asked before.

What are some of the questions that a coach can ask the upcoming and beginner coaches to ascertain their understanding of the sport of volleyball?

I think this is a subject folks can have some fun with. ­čÖé

There are some variables here in terms of which direction you want to go with the questions. For example, is this meant to be a job interview kind of situation? If so, then the questions should probably focus a lot on the expectations of the job. They could be along the lines of:

Broader volleyball knowledge

In terms of some broader understanding of the sport:

  • What’s the FIVB? USAV?
  • Who’s the current national team coach?
  • Name X players from the national team?
  • What are the major international competitions?
  • What are the major domestic competitions?
  • Who are the current national champions?
  • Who are some of the most influential coaches in the sport?

Those are ones that come off the top of my head. No doubt there are plenty more.

This is your chance, dear reader. Use the comment section below to offer up your own suggestions.

How do I make my team strong in defense?

The following question hit my email inbox one day:

I would like to make my team a strong defensive team. Are there any drills to help with that?

First, let me restate something I posted in the You don’t need a new drill post. It’s not really much about the drills, or games, you use. Yes, they need to include the skill or tactic or whatever you want to work on. Beyond that, though, it’s about where you focus your coaching. It’s about how you provide feedback and where you have your players concentrating their efforts.

Now to the question of developing a strong defense. I think you have to address this from multiple perspectives.

Blocking

A team’s first line of defense is at the net. It’s blocking ability, or lack thereof, goes a long way in determining how effective the players in the back court can be in digging opposing attacks. Obviously, at the lower levels this isn’t a major factor because of player heights and/or weak hitting. Once you advance beyond that, though, blocking is important (see How important is blocking?). There are technical elements to blocking (footwork, swing vs. non-swing, hand penetration) which need to be developed. This is about teaching the techniques and focusing on them in your feedback while having the blockers working against hitters. There are also blocking strategies that need to be determined, which ties in with the next section.

Defensive System

Integrated with the blocking issue is the overall defensive system we’re employing.┬áThis is how we position our players to cover the court when the other team is attacking. The idea is to have players in position to defend the areas of the court most likely to be hit. A good resource for learning about different types of defensive systems and strategies is the book Volleyball Systems & Strategies. Once you decide on a system, you then put the team in situations where they face an attack and you focus your feedback on their positioning.

Digging

On the technical side of things, good defense requires players who can control balls hit at them.┬áHaving the perfect defensive system or strategy in place doesn’t mean anything if the defenders are shanking the ball all over the place. Training this often comes in the form of a coach banging balls at players, but there is a read element to good digging.┬á We can only develop that by defenders facing live hitters. Either way, it’s a matter of focusing your feedback on what you specifically want the players working on at the moment.

Attitude, intensity, etc.

The last element of defense is the mental part. That is readiness, a relentless approach, and full commitment.┬áThese are things which you don’t necessarily have to work on in a game-like fashion – or in some cases even in a volleyball context. That said, it makes sense to have things be as close to realistic as you can make them for optimal transfer to match performance. Again, it all comes down to the focal point of your feedback.

So the first question you have to answer when looking to making your team better on defense is which of the above areas you need to most work on. Establish your priorities, pick drills or games which include that facet of the game, and focus both your and your player’s attentions there.

Advice to foreign coaches on getting a job in the US

I received an email from a coach in England. This person asked how someone like him can coach in the States. It’s something I wrote about a while back. Here’s his query, though:

I am just wondering how I go about getting into coach in a programme in America. It is my dream one day to coach out there and I am only 28 so I have a lot of time however I would like guidance on how to get there. Any thing you could help me with that would be great

I will be honest. It’s hard for foreign coaches to get jobs in the US. There are three main reasons.

  1. Visa sponsorship – Many schools simply won’t sponsor and pay the cost of a foreign coach’s visa to work in the US. Frankly, there are usually more than enough domestic applicants.┬áThey need not bother look abroad. And even if they are willing, it may not last. One of my U.K. coaching contacts ran into this issue. He got a job coaching at a college in the States. During the year the school said it would not renew his visa for a second year, though.
  2. Recruiting experience –┬áRecruiting is a HUGE part of college volleyball coaching in the US. Foreign coaches simply don’t have any experience with this. That’s both in terms of the American youth volleyball system and the rules which govern recruitment.
  3. Cultural differences – There are some meaningful differences between how things operate in US volleyball and how they work elsewhere in the world. The social interaction between coaches and players – or lack thereof – is top of that list.

Now, experience overcomes some if this stuff. One can learn about recruiting and the cultural of college athletics (not just volleyball) by getting an opportunity to actually be part of a program in the US. There are two ways a foreigner can get their foot in the door that potentially get around the visa problem.

  • Graduate Assistant (GA) – I’ll admit I don’t know a ton about the grad assistant hiring process. Most colleges and universities, though, deal with international students all the time. They have established policies and procedures to sort them out with visas and the like. It is much easier to get a student visa than a standard working one in most cases. That makes this a potential route into US college coaching.
  • Volunteer Assistant – If you’re not an actual employee you don’t need to have a work visa. That makes a volunteer coaching position a viable option for non-citizen. You need to investigate how long you can stay in the States as a tourist, though. I think it’s 90 days, but I haven’t looked it up. It may depend on your nationality.

Obviously, the advantage to the GA position is it’s paid. Plus, you earn a degree that is often sought after for head coach hirings in the US. If you volunteer you have to pay your own way, though there may be some opportunities to earn a bit of money.

The NCAA website is one place to look for postings. There is also an annual job posting thread on the Volley Talk forum (Men/Women) where you can find postings for GA and volunteer positions. For those who don’t know, there are WAY more jobs in women’s volleyball than in the men’s game in the US.

Of course it’s always a good idea to network as much as possible.

The tricky bit in all this is that if you do actually land a GA or volunteer position you have the issue of still needing a work visa to stay on once your time there is done. You will probably need to find a pretty well-funded program to get sustained visa support to the point where you can get your green card.

All that said, for someone from an EU country it is probably far easier to look for coaching work in one of the professional leagues in Europe. Admittedly, though, there probably aren’t as many full-time positions as in the US. Then again, there also aren’t as many folks not needing visa support competing for those jobs either.

Why no high level teams playing a 4-2 system?

It’s another trip to the (e)mail bag for this post. The coach of a boys’ junior varsity team has a question about running an international 4-2.

As a JV coach … I’ve found that the learning curve (especially for the boys) is so steep, that simplicity is often the best strategy. This is why I’ve moved to an international 4-2 system (with no back row switches). After 2 seasons of experimentation (with both the girls and the boys JV teams), I think I’ve stumbled onto something that really works.

Several refs and coaches have asked me about it. Most raise a scoffing eyebrow as if it were too simple. But the scoreboard doesn’t lie. Simple works. Defense (with no penetrating setter) works. And since JVs so often overpass, the front row setter jump-and-dump turns that negative into a positive almost every time.

I know we’re not supposed to make the players fit the system, but rather the other way around. However, there is virtually no combination of players that does not fit into my 4-2. Plus, my kids can run slides in six rotations, which is about the only jumping technique (i.e., the lay-up) that they come in knowing already, and which virtually no other JV team in our area ever sees coming at them.

Because we had so much success with it at the JV level, our girls varsity is probably going to run it next season.

Is there a question in all of this? Yes. Why don’t we see the 4-2 more often at higher levels? Is it really too simple? Has anyone ever won championships using the international 4-2? I mean, sure, there are only 2 hitters. But a 5-1 is a 4-2 half of the time. And in high school, unless you have a lefty who can hit, how many points does your opposite really account for? (Not much, in my experience). And at the higher levels, it isn’t difficult to find a reliable back row attack. Plus, the gains you get in having 3 solid defenders the entire time, without the setter having to worry about vacating right back too early is, well, hard to quantify. But I think they’re real. I think that’s why we usually win, even with kids who don’t come in with club experience and only so-so athleticism.

First of all, sometimes winding back the clock and making use of old systems and strategies is exactly what’s called for in a given situation.

Second, the 4-2 system (usually the international version) is very frequently employed in developmental situations. For example, I know from seminars that Volleyball England uses it at the national level. I think it is employed up to U15s (4-2 first, then moved to 6-2). They don’t go to a single setter system until U17s. I’ve heard of others who follow a similar pattern. The V.E. idea is to use the 2-setter system to develop a greater number of setters in the pipeline. That is definitely worth thinking about in a high school JV situation.

Why not at higher levels?

Now, the question is why you don’t see the 4-2 in use at higher levels of play.

As you move up the levels of play, you quickly reach the point where transitions from the back row are not a major issue. This is especially true in the men’s game where they can so easily cover the ground. Yes, you’d probably get better defense in Zone 1 if you always had a dedicated defender there. Certainly, that’s better than someone who tends to cheat and bail out regularly. It’s a trade-off, though.

I’d venture to say that most coaches would favor a single setter system if asked the question. The consistency of set location and tempo, of play-calling and decision-making, and of leadership on the court having just one setter are generally seen as superior to a 2-setter system. In the US women’s collegiate game you do see some teams using a substitution-based 6-2 (setters only play back row). They want to always have three hitters at the net and/or to have a bigger block. I think if you look at the numbers, though, most teams are 5-1.

And of course in both the men’s college game and in all international play (FIVB rules) you don’t have the subs to use that kind of approach. You’d have to have both setters also be hitters to be able to run a 6-2. And there just aren’t all that many players who are both good setters and good hitters.

Further, since good setters tend not to be as big as the hitters, having them in the front row all the time in a 4-2 system means always having a somewhat smaller block. It also means they probably aren’t as effective as hitters out of the back row as a more traditional Opposite. Of course there are always exceptions.

The right focus?

I think the bigger question in all this for me is why the focus on winning for a JV team?

Simple can be very good. It can also be detrimental. You put a bunch of 12s players on the court in a game and they quickly realize that the best way to win is to put the first ball over the net every time. That gives the other team the opportunity to make the mistakes. Very simple, but not really what we want them doing, right?

To my mind, the purpose of a JV squad is to prepare players to play in the varsity team. If we win, but do not serve the greater purpose, what’s the point? With that in mind, I would want to know how well an international 4-2 with no back row switching does that.

I’m not saying it doesn’t. Far from it!

I can see a number of developmental advantages to the system. That’s why the likes of Volleyball England and others use it at the national level. But by the time players are high school aged they run a 6-2 with setter/hitters. The 4-2 up through U14s prepares players to play a 6-2, which then prepares them to play 5-1 at what is effectively high school varsity age.

So, bottom line in all this is how well the 4-2 approach prepares players for whatever system or style of play is used at the varsity level. If it does the job well, great! If not, then a rethink is in order.

How do I get a college assistant coach position?

A reader emailed me the following:

I have been applying for assistant coaching positions for college volleyball but haven’t had any luck. What step will you advise so I can get my feet wet. I was considering on becoming an volunteer coach for a local college.How would you suggest asking for a position as a volunteer coach?

In response to a follow-up email, she told me her background is as follows:

  • Played first at a Junior College, then at an NCAA Division I program.
  • Was a student assistant at her Division I school
  • Assisted at a junior college for a season
  • Coaches juniors volleyball

In terms of cracking into Division I or II coaching, which is where more full-time positions are available, one of the first things to consider is trying to find a Graduate Assistant position. That offers the advantage of earning a Masters degree. This is very desirable when it comes to getting a head coach job down the line. Obviously, you also gain coaching experience.

An alternative path into coaching is to become a Director of Volleyball Operations (DOVO). This is technically a non-coaching role. It is, however, an opportunity to learn a lot about running a volleyball program that could be handy later. It also lets you learn by observing and having regular interaction with the coaching staff. Such positions can be direct stepping stones into a coaching job with that program.

Volunteer coaching is certainly an option. I would suggest if someone were to go this route, though, that you have a very specific focus in mind. Volunteer coaching can be a path into a full-time coaching position, but only if you put yourself in a good position. That’s probably something worth it’s own article. The main idea is that if you’re going to provide your coaching services for no pay, you should have a pretty good idea of the path forward from there – either with that team or elsewhere (note that I talked about volunteer and grad assistant options as ways in for foreign coaches into the US as well).

It’s worth having a look at the annual jobs thread which runs at Volley Talk.

Regardless of which way you look to go, one thing worth doing is getting out and working a bunch of college camps. That will get your exposure to potential employers and help you develop your network, which is a very good thing.

How do you motivate players to win?

A reader sent me the following question. It’s about keeping a team focused and having the killer instinct when they have the opportunity to win.

As a club volleyball coach for several years, one of the challenges I face mostly is motivating my players to maintain their winner’s mentality… if anything their killer instinct. My current age group are 13s and 14s and they have the talent and skills but mentally, it’s a rollercoaster — they can’t seem to maintain the aggressiveness and fail to beat the teams they can and should beat…. just too many mental mistakes. I’ve collected many sports motivational quotes and use them during our timeouts and team meetings but can’t seem to absorb. I’ve used some of your drills as well.

I had two initial thoughts on reading this question.

Understand gender differences

The first was to wonder if the coach in question is talking about a girls’ team. I got confirmation that this is indeed the case. It’s been my experience that female players tend to be less naturally competitive than their male counterparts, and instead more cooperative. I think this is probably even more true for younger players. I’ve had conversations with other coaches on this subject – male and female – and they generally agree.

This is something Kathy DeBoer wrote in her book Gender and Competition. She made the observation men battle to bond and women bond to battle. In my experience, it’s very true.

A lack of competitiveness definitely doesn’t apply to all female athletes, of course. The setter I had at Svedala is a perfect example. She is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. That means you need to consider the individual aspect of things along the way. You could have a mixture of competitiveness levels, which impacts how you try to address things.

I think the broader point here is that for certain types of players or teams it’s best not to address competitiveness just from the perspective of winning for winning’s sake. You need to think about looking at things in other ways. Winning could be an indication of excellence in performance or teamwork, reaching a joint objective, or something else which is important.

An example of that would be my Exeter women’s team from 2013-14. They had the collective goal of reaching Final 8s in Edinburgh. To get there, they had to win matches, so they were very motivated to do so. Without that strong group objective, they probably wouldn’t have been so focused on winning.

Focus on non-win related objectives

The second thing that came immediately to mind when reading the email above is that the coach needed to shift the focus away from winning and on to something else. This can be especially helpful when playing weaker competition – or alternatively, when playing a better team from a different perspective.

When I was coaching at Exeter we often faced teams that could have been considered inferior. In those situations I went in with specific areas of focus for the team for that match. An example was serving. I’d tell the team I wanted them to focus on their more aggressive serves or their serving accuracy. Against another team the focus might have been on our offense or some other facet of the game. In every case the idea was to work on things I wanted to develop or improve upon for the more important matches down the road.

In all these cases, while I certainly wanted and expected the team to win, I put the focus on process rather than outcome. Obviously, what I had them concentrating on was things that I felt would contribute to winning.

Breaking things down into chunks

Another thing which might help in situations like those described in the email is breaking each match down into smaller “games. This is something which got discussed in an episode of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. I encourage you to give that a listen as Wizard Mike Lingenfelter shares his own method for doing this, and my podcast partner Mark and I offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Thoughts from readers?

There are other things I know coaches do to try to encourage competitiveness. I’d love to hear what readers use to this end – what they’ve found useful and what hasn’t worked. Use the comment section below to share your experience or ideas – or questions if you have them.

 

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