Archive for Volleyball Coaching

The importance of knowing what you’re up against

In the can’t boil the ocean post I mentioned that I’d seen that concept in the book Wooden on Leadership. It was actually part of a section which focuses on the “how” of winning. The context is mainly business, but the ideas translate easily to sports. From that perspective, the “boiling” bit spoke to the fact that you need to have focus.

There’s more to it, though. Specifically, there are three questions asked with respect to winning.

What’s the difference that will open up the gap between us and our opponents?

How are we going to be better than other teams? That’s basically the question here. In some cases it’s as simple has having bigger, more powerful athletes. A lot of times, though, we operate on a relatively equal playing field in this regard. That being the case, if our players are physically similar to everyone else, what can give us the edge to succeed consistently?

What capabilities must we have in place?

Once we know where we can get an edge, it becomes a question of getting there. How do we do that and what do we need to do so? Are those things we all ready have in place, or do we need to go out and get them? If the latter, how do we get that done?

What management systems are required?

Progress tracking is critical. What metrics can we use to gauge that performance? This may seem like a straightforward question, but it isn’t. There are plenty of statistics out there. The problem is they don’t necessarily measure what needs measuring or capture what we want to capture. The trick is finding the ones that do the best job. Then the question becomes one of capturing the data and properly analyzing it. For example, the concept of the “competitive cauldron” is popular in some circles. As Mike Hebert wrote in Thinking Volleyball, though, there are significant trade-offs involved.

What about just catching up

I should note that everything above applies equally from the perspective of catching up. You just frame the questions a little differently. The focus becomes one of narrowing the gap. First, you have to know where the gap lies, then you have to figure out how to close it, what you need to do that, and how you can track your progress toward that end. These were the focal points for us during my two years at Midwestern State. We were in a rebuild situation, so it was about getting ourselves back on competitive ground with the other teams in our conference.

Knowing what you’re up against

The thing that underpins everything I’ve just laid out is knowledge. If you don’t know the competitive landscape how can you know what it will take to win there? This is the problem that faces new coaches and those moving into new positions. I can speak to this from my own experience.

Why I started coaching at Exeter I had no idea what I was involved in. I’d never coached in England. I had no idea what the competitive level of BUCS (their NCAA) play was like. As a result, all I could really do was take a “get better” approach to my coaching.

After that first year’s experience, though, I was in a much better situation. I’d been through a league season. I’d seen teams from other leagues in the Student Cup. I got to watch the play at Final 8s. All of that gave me a much better sense of where we needed to be to compete with all but the very top teams (we couldn’t match them on a personnel basis). That let me prioritize things better my second year. The result? The women reached the national semifinals, which they’d never done before.

The point is to really know what it will take for your team to win – especially when on a fairly level playing field in terms of the physical element – you need to know the competitive landscape. Only then can you start to answer the questions presented above.

So if you don’t have experience in the situation you’re coaching, get out there and do some research!

You can’t boil the ocean

Apparently, the title of this post is a phrase that’s common in business use. I hadn’t heard it myself – despite working in the business world for years – until I came across it while reading Wooden on Leadership. From a coaching perspective I interpret it as meaning you can’t fix everything all at once. You have to prioritize and focus on at most only a couple of things at a time. If you try to have equal focus on everything you’ll end up not getting very far on anything.

I’ve written before on the subject of knowing your priorities and sticking with them. It’s a really important concept in coaching. I personally think it’s one of the two main jobs of the coach.

This doesn’t just apply to the on-court element. Chances are there’s a bunch of other stuff you have to do that doesn’t actually involve volleyballs. For example, all this stuff. You don’t want to be trying to boil the ocean there either.

And keep in mind that part of your job as coach is to ensure those under you are equally focused. If your players and/or your assistant coach(es) try to work on everything all the time, it’s going to foul up your well-made plans.

Selecting a team captain – one view

While reading the Nikolai Karpol biography, I came across the following quote.

“An important element in any victory is the team captain, the leader of the team is my main helper. She, both in life and on the court, has greater rights and greater responsibilities than the other players. The captain must be a player who understands the game and the coach’s thoughts, so when I choose a captain there is no democracy for me – I choose. The players have no say in it. There are sportsmen and women with a great deal of authority with their fellow players, but if they don’t understand me, they can’t be captains of the team I am leading. The captain must lead the team at training sessions and in the game, must know what to say to the referee, just as I would, she must know how the team is organised both on the court and in life. The captain is a player from whom I learn the problems in the team, both private and interpersonal conflicts. The captain knows more than the coach, she must know which problems should be hushed up and which ones need to be shared so we can solve them together.”

This is basically my own philosophy, as I wrote about before. I also wrote a post on the qualities of a good team captain which feeds into all of this. This is not the only approach, of course. That was the subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast episode. And team captains aren’t necessary in all situations. This particular approach works well for me, though.

Making the practice planning process easier

I once came across a question from a fellow coach.

Has anyone set up a database of drills/games/etc with a template for practices? e.g., in your template you can select from a variety of warmup items, then pick an individual skill, then a group skill, etc… so you wouldn’t have to a) remember every single drill since they would be in a database, b) hand write practice every day, etc.

I understand why something like this would be compelling. On the one hand, when I first got into college coaching I worked for a woman who was very structured. She was a facilities planner, so she liked her practices scheduled out basically to the minute.This sort of practice organizer is right up that alley.

On the other hand, there are definitely lots of options for drills and games. It can be hard to remember them. I’ve got some thoughts about this, though.

Why so many?

First, there is something I wrote about in the 1000 different drills post. Some coaches proudly have a large drill collection. They constantly swap drills in and out of their practices. As I talked about in that other post, though, this could actually hamper player learning.

Perhaps more meaningfully, always using different drills means time spent explaining them. That’s time not spent practicing. Remember, the more you talk, the less they train. If you have limited practice time, you need to get the absolute most out of it.

It only takes a few

Having said what I did in the last section, I definitely get the desire to mix things up and keep it fresh. We do need to keep player attentions in mind in our practice planning. That means changing the challenges and the focal points. Jan De Brandt and Teri Clemens, who we interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, both are proud of never running the same practice twice.

Here’s the thing, though. You can create an ever-changing practice plan using only a handful of exercises.

This starts with the understanding that you want to make things as game-like as you possibly can at all times. This is a simple function of the science of motor learning. You can’t always create actual game situations, or do things in a 100% game-like fashion, but you want to get as close as you can. If you have this idea in mind, it will likely cut down quite a bit on the number of possible drills you might use.

The second thing to understand is that so long as you make the exercises as game-like as you can get them, then what really matters isn’t the drill or game itself, but the feedback. That means you can use the same exercise for multiple different purposes simply by shifting the focus and feedback.

Finally, bonus points and other scoring systems can let you use even a simple 6 v 6 game in any way you like. Want to work on serve reception? Consider something like the points for passes system. Want to work on first ball sideout? Give a bonus point when the team does it, and/or to the serving team when they can prevent it. Want your servers attacking seams? Give them bonus points for doing so, regardless of the pass quality.

And of course you can also focus on something by having each rally begin in a certain fashion. Or if you want to run a wash game, you can have the follow-up ball(s) work a certain way. Let’s say you want to work on out-of-system hitting. You could start the rallies with a ball hit at the setter so a non-setter has to set the ball.

The point is you can work on just about anything you want in a simple 6 v 6 game by changing the way rallies are initiated, how you score them, and where you focus your feedback. And you can get really focused by using a second chance approach.

Get the point I’m trying to make here?

My own approach

I’m like Jan and Teri in that I probably don’t ever run the same practice twice. Teri actually goes even deeper in her interview (featured in the first Volleyball Coaching Wizards) and says she never had a list of drills. She just created whatever she needed when she planned practice. I approach things in a similar way.

Yes, I do have some standard drill and game structures that I use. By that I mean they are 6 v 6, or small-sided, or have a winners rotation, or something along those lines that is familiar to the players. This avoids the need for teaching new drills all the time. From there, though, I set up the ball initiation, scoring, and feedback so it focuses things on what I have for my priority that session.

I’m not saying this is the best approach for every coach. We all need to have a practice planning system that works for us. This one works well for me.

Thoughts on second contact when setter-out

A reader sent in a question about who should take the second ball when the setter makes first contact (setter-out).

I have a question about emergency setting. Up until this year, I’ve always used my right side player (in a 5-1) to take second ball whenever my setter (in right back) takes first ball. It has worked well enough since I’ve been lucky enough to have right sides with decent hands. The major downside, as far as I can tell, is that you take one potential hitter out of the equation, and the passing angle from RB to RF can be awkward at times. That said, it’s always worked well enough for me.

But now the trend seems to be to have the libero take second ball and to set to one of the pins, usually to the left. That also raises the question (for me anyway) as to whether it is more efficient to have the libero set out left back or middle back (not to mention worth worrying about the “finger action” rules that restrict the libero…)

It seems to me that a libero coming out of left back (especially in perimeter or even “middle middle” defense) is going to have a more favorable angle for a set to the right side pin, if the setter is passing high to the middle. It also seems like s/he will have an easier time getting to second ball.

But what if it is overall more sound defensively to have your libero in middle back? In that case, is it even worth having your libero as your emergency setter? Wouldn’t it be harder to get to second ball from middle back (or even middle middle)? Wouldn’t the angles be a little more awkward for setting to the pins?

Does anyone use their outside hitters (in left back) to take second ball? (It seems to me that that would mean you would have to train both of them which wouldn’t be as efficient as training just one person)

Just wondering what people do. And whether or not there is a consensus on what works best, with respect to emergency setting.

I previously addressed this topic from a different perspective. In that case a reader asked about moving the libero from left back to middle back. As such, I’ll leave out that element in my response here.

It is now definitely the preferred approach by most coaches to use the libero, playing in left back, to take the second ball in these situations. You see it at the national team level on down. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best solution for your particular team, though. Let me address it form a couple different angles.

Front row player

As the emailer suggests, one option for taking the second ball is the right front player. Usually, this is the Opposite. This was the favored approach for many years. I used it to good effect coaching the Exeter University women as my OPP had excellent hands and we didn’t run a fast offense.

The biggest question for me using the OPP is the middle attack. Can they actually set it? If not, then it really narrows the offensive options down considerably. For a lot of teams it means the ball can only be set to the Outside Hitter. Maybe you have a back row option as well. You don’t have a quick attack option, however, nor do you have a right side hitter, making the block’s job much easier.

If the OPP can set the middle, then it opens things up considerably. That only holds, though, if the ball is dug close enough to the net. If not, you’re in the same situation as if the OPP couldn’t set the middle attack. This is a real issue when teams are often coached to dig the ball to the 3m line.

An alternative to the OPP taking the second ball is the Middle Blocker doing so. This is actually the cornerstone of the standard 4-2 offensive system where the setter plays middle front. If you have an MB with good hands who can set both front and back, it can work. Since they can set both pins, the opposing blockers can’t stack up on just one.

The challenge for the MB, though, is that they usually are coming down from a block. They are programmed to get ready to attack, so setting is an adjustment. And if the dig is well off the net there just might not be time for them to get to it.

Back row player

As the reader notes, the player in middle back probably has the furthest to go to take a second ball. Also, their direction of approach can make the angles difficult, unless they have really good footwork.

That basically leaves left back as probably the best choice back row player to take the second ball in a setter-out situation. Whether that is the libero (or MB) or the OH is it’s own consideration.

Obviously, the libero has limitations when it comes to using their hands. That may not be as big a deal as you might think, though. First, if the OH isn’t a confident setter, they’ll probably bump set the ball anyway, just as the libero would. Second, libero’s can develop pretty good jump sets for use on balls just beyond the 3m line – in some cases, even quick sets. Finally, so many digs end up at the 3m line that situations where you really want a hand set (e.g. to set quick) are probably going to be limited.

All things considered

When you consider all the factors, you’ll see why so many teams have the left back person – mostly the libero – take the second ball. If the dig is close to the net, it might make more sense for a front row player to set the ball. If it’s not, though, then using the back row player allows for a larger number of attacking options.

So it really comes down to where your setter digs the ball.

One final thought

The emailer uses the term “emergency” to describe these situations where the setter takes the first ball. I don’t think that term applies, though. In the modern game, teams are out-of-system a large percentage of the time. That makes it a quite normal situation which should be trained in line with how often it happens.

The other thing I would add is that the situation where the setter has to play the first ball is not the only time a team is out-of-system. Sometimes the first contact is poor and the setter can’t get there. Or someone else is in a better position to put up a good set. For that reason, every player on the court should be able to step in and put up a hittable ball.

Coaching Log – May 14, 2018

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

This was wind down month for the year. The players finished classes the first week of the month, then moved on to final exams the second week. Then it was on to Summer break!

Team Meeting

I had a team meeting on May 1st to wrap up the Spring training cycle. Mainly, it was to provide details for the Summer – when our strength coach would give them their Summer program, start of preseason, camp dates, etc. We talked about how Spring went, both from their perspective and ours as coaches. The team’s mentality on the court was excellent, and I encouraged them to use the Summer to share it with the incoming freshmen as part of connecting with them.

The Athletic Director also took some time to speak with them. I can guess about what, but I wasn’t actually in the room for it.

Little details

There’s always little bits and pieces that come up near the end of the year. An example of this is the Summer Voluntary Workout Request Form. This is for those student-athletes who will be around during the break and intend to take part in the voluntary workouts run by the strength coaches. Some of the players actually found it a bit invasive.

There was also paperwork and online training for players who were going to work our camps and/or clinics. Background check and child safety type stuff.

Our strength coach gave the players their Summer workout program on the 4th. It comprises three 4-week training cycles. I passed it along to our signed incoming freshmen.

Fundraising Clinics

Starting the second week of May we ran 90-minute evening clinics Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. These are targeted at 3rd through 7th graders, so it means a fairly wide range of skill and experience, not to mention stature. This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve been running these clinics as a way to raise a bit of money for the program. They don’t bring in a ton of money, but it all helps.

The one annoying thing about the clinics this year is that they’ve now been folded into the institutional structure used for camps. Because it was a fundraiser, we didn’t need to do that before. Putting it under the camp structure means a bit more administrative load and some costs we didn’t have before.

New head coach

The team was informed of the new head coach late in the day on the 11th. The press release went up on the 12th.

So ends the 2017-18 school year and season for MSU Volleyball and my log for the year.

To block, or not to block

Hai-Binh Ly at thevolleyballanalyst asks the question, Is it Worth Blocking in Non-Elite Volleyball? In it he questions whether or not it’s even worth have players go up to block when they could pull back and play defense. In particular, he’s talking about smaller players effectively incapable of putting up a good block.

I’ve written previously on the question of how important is blocking? Once you reach a high enough level of attacker power and ability to hit the ball down into the court, blocking becomes important. If you can’t at least slow the attack down, or limit the space into which they can attack, you’re in trouble. Having an extra defender may not actually help all that much.

In this particular article a couple of ideas come up. I think they are worth addressing.

Blocking metrics

As his moniker suggests, Hai-Binh Ly (HBL) is analytically inclined. So naturally he developed a metric to attempt to capture individual blocker effectiveness. I have a couple problems with it, though.

First, HBL doesn’t include block touches which lead to dug balls on the defending side of the net. To my mind this is a major issue, as it speaks to preventing the opposing hitter from attacking the ball unopposed into our court. As noted above, that’s part of the purpose of blocking. It’s not just about blocking for points.

Second, HBL doesn’t use total player block attempts. Instead he uses block touches (except as just mentioned) to work out an efficiency. I think this leaves considerable information out, especially with regards to diagnostics.

Also, looking at blocking errors as the only negative blocking outcomes fails to capture the reality that poor blocking technique, timing, etc. often is the reason for an attacker being able to score off the block out of bounds (block out). That also speaks to diagnostics.

Why?

Using his blocking efficiency measure, HBL looks at the players on his team. He then makes a judgement as to which ones are worth having block and which aren’t. Putting aside my issues with the metric, I think we cannot just leave it as a simple block/don’t block judgement for each player.

One of the main purposes of statistics is to see what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. They help us develop our training priorities. HBL’s numbers bring a couple of questions immediately to mind.

1) Have the smaller players been trained to soft block effectively?. That means intentionally trying to deflect the attack upward and into their own court so it can be dug. Unfortunately, even if they are, this would not be captured in the blocking efficiency metric.

2) Are some blockers’ efficiencies low due to poor timing and/or poor location? In my experience, less experienced female players especially are often late on their blocks. Both genders have problems setting their blocks in the right location. As a result, the low efficiency levels may not be about lack of size and or jump. If so, we can improve them.

Maybe, maybe not

I should note I’m not against HBL’s thinking that in some cases it might be best not to block. When I coached at Brown one match we ran out of subs and a defensive specialist ended up in the front row on the right side. Needless to say, she did not block. Instead,  she pulled back and played the tip. Conveniently, that’s exactly what the opposing hitter did! So sometimes that’s exactly the best approach.

My point in all this is that I would first be sure we’re measuring things appropriately and that the players are doing a good job trying to execute useful blocks before completely abandoning it. Even smaller blockers can prevent hitters from just teeing off on the ball. As such they at least take some pressure off the defense. As such, I might try to look at broader metrics like Kill % or Hitting Efficiency with and without the block before making a final judgement.

Should you start with your strongest servers?

volleyball serve

You’re getting ready to write your starting line-up on the slip for submission to the scorekeepers. You have a decision to make. Do you set the rotation to start with your strongest server(s)? Or instead, do you have a different priority?

For me the answer is, “It depends.”

Level of play is a big part of the consideration here. If you are coaching a younger team, or at a lower experience level, where lots of points get scored directly from serve, then it definitely makes sense to lead with your best server(s). Think about a 12-and-under team. One strong server can run off bunches of aces, right?

At higher levels, though, you may want to go in a different direction. There are still strong servers, but it tends to be less about aces and more about putting the other team out-of-system. In that case, we’re talking more about scoring in transition. As a result, there might be some other considerations to think about.

Thinking about match-ups might be part of that equation. Or perhaps you’re running a 6-2 system and want to delay the first sub as long as possible. As a result, you start your setter in Position 1. Similarly, you might want to keep a small blocker out of the front row as much as possible, so you start them in Position 1. Or flipping that around, have your dominant attacker in the front row as much as possible. That probably means you want to start them in Position 4.

As you move up the experience and skill levels, line-up decisions tend to become more multidimensional, and nuanced. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is trying to be in your best scoring rotation(s) as much as possible. That means starting there – or at least close to there.

Quick drills that keep players moving

What are some suggestions for drills that are quick and can be run through in a few minutes consistently to keep them moving and pumped during practices?

Coaches wonder about this quite often from a couple of different perspectives. One is in terms of warming up. Another is in terms of keeping the training tempo high and players engaged. Let me address things from both perspectives.

Warm-up

For me, the main thought process behind picking a warm-up activity is getting the players’ heart rates up and muscles warm, and also executing some lower intensity volleyball skills. An example of this is what I call Brazilian volleytennis. I like this one because it involves so many elements. There’s lots of movement and relatively quick rotations, keeping players switching in and out of the play. On top of that, it requires good player communication and coordination along with a lot of reading. Oh, and it’s competitive.

A different type of warm-up activity which is more ball-handling oriented is over-the-net pepper. The version that has the most player movement and highest touch frequency is probably the 3-player version. There are lots of different pepper variations, so you have loads of options in this regard.

Depending on your age group, you might even want to jump straight in to more full game play, like doubles. Younger players, after all, don’t need the same warm-up as older ones.

High Tempo/Maximum Engagement

Once you get into the meat of a practice, keeping players moving tends to be more focused on player engagement, though it could also have a conditioning element. Basically, what we’re talking about here is activities where things happen quickly and changes are frequent. A popular example of this is Winners, also known as Queen or King of the Court, and variations on it like Speedball or the Belly Drill.

The main feature of Winners and games like it is the way players wave on and off the court. It keeps them moving, and possibly facing different challenges.

Another way to think about keeping players moving is to increase the tempo of your games and drills. Generally, this means finding ways to shorten the length of time between one repetition and the next. That tends to be a feature of wash type games and drills.

Make sure it’s not just about movement

It’s easy to come up with ways to make players move around a lot. That’s not really what we should be thinking about here. Most of us have limited time with our teams, and we can’t afford to waste any of that on activities that don’t involve volleyball. If you’re thinking that this movement could be part of player conditioning, I’d argue there are better ways to actually get in proper volleyball conditioning through the structure of your practice.

Those are my thoughts on the subject. I’d love to hear your own ideas. Feel free to share them via a comment below.

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