Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Skip the warm-ups?

What if you could go straight into training without first running a warm-up routine of some sort?

Give me a minute before you start in on me about proper physical (and mental) preparation for practice. I’m not talking about taking players from zero to full speed straight away. I am definitely in favor of being as efficient as possible – in all regards – when it comes to the warm-up process. I won’t go so far as to suggest there be none, however.

Consider this.

What if you walked into the gym and the players were already warm?

I’m not talking about a situation where practice starts at 5:00 and you arrive at 5:20 after the team has done their dynamic warm-up or whatever led by the strength coach or team trainer. I’m talking about practice starting at 5:00 with the players already ready to go. They’ve taken it upon themselves to get warm on their own.

On the face of it, you might not think there’s much difference there. I’ll grant that it’s a subtle thing.

The difference isn’t so much a time consideration. That could be an element, but perhaps not the most important. Instead, the main difference is in who’s directing the warm-up, and probably by extension how formal it is.

We coaches tend to want to control things. Warm-ups aren’t exempted from this. The result is that basically players all go through the same routine. This is true even though they may have considerably different physical and mental warm-up needs. The latter can actually end up adding an addition time requirement to ensure everyone is optimally prepared to begin the day’s work.

What if we left the warm-ups to the players? Do you think they’d do a better or worse job?

Chances are those warm-ups would look quite different. Players tend not to like the formulaic warm-ups we coaches design for them. They instead favor something a bit more free form. In fact, they might simply prefer to just play themselves warm. They do this by starting at a low intensity and building up from there.

This is what the players at Midwestern State seem to like to do. In the 15-20 minutes before the official start of practice during my first Spring they did a little bit of shoulder warm-up, but then quite quickly got into playing small-side games (like Winners/Queen of the Court). They obviously didn’t go 100% right away. By the time we started practice, though, they were pretty ready to go. As a bonus, they’d gotten a fair number of quality contacts.

Aside from the players warming-up how they best see fit (or enjoy), this sort of player-directed system offers some other benefits. For one, it allows them to enjoy themselves without being under Coach’s supervision. For another, depending on the group it can either be a good collaborative exercise and/or one which furthers the identification and development of leaders in the squad.

Something to think about perhaps?

Move your feet or move your platform?

A topic of fairly frequent discussion in coaching conversations I’ve had in the last six months or so has been serve reception technique. A lot of us were taught some variation on the idea of getting yourself to the ball – perhaps center line, perhaps pass left. Call that the “move your feet” school of passing.

This is a school with deep roots. It basically goes back to the beginnings of forearm passing (no, people didn’t always pass with their forearms, but don’t ask me when that changed). In those days serves were comparatively weak. They were almost exclusively done from standing, so they had an arc and often had little in the way of velocity. In other words, there was time for passers to move – as witnessed by the USA men employing a 2-person serve reception when they won their Olympic gold medals in the 1980s.

Then came the Brazilians. In the 1980s they started doing topspin jump serving. It wasn’t quite to the point you see it today – especially in the men’s game – but it was fast enough to force a change in serve reception to generally having a minimum of three passers, which is what you see today.

Then came the jump float serve. Granted, it’s not as pacy as the topspin version, but the lack of an arc on the ball (because you’re serving from above the level of the net) combined with higher velocities than normally seen from the standing version made for less reaction time. One can often find coaches targeting 40mph+ for jump float serves. At that tempo the ball goes about 59 feet per second – so just under the length of the court. Not a lot of time to react and move.

Now imagine how quickly a strong jump serve gets to a passer – especially considering the broad jump taking them further into the court on contact. How much time do you think a passer has to move their feet.

So, basically we have a fundamental question:

At what point do serves move too fast for passers to use that perfect reception technique that we’ve all been taught?

One coach I spoke with recently joked, “14s.” Obviously, the answer comes down to the quality of the serving.

You can tie in here the idea of using arms vs. legs to add impetus to the passed ball. I’m not going to get into an argument here over which is better. Rather, I will ask a similar question as the one above:

At what point are serves hard enough that you don’t need to add anything to them to get the ball to target?

The answer is probably very similar to the answer to the first question. And at a certain point you’re trying to take something off the ball.

The bottom line in serve reception is the platform angle. It, and only it, will determine where the ball goes. This was a point made by Tom Tait when I interviewed him for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Along with being the original coach for both the men and women at Penn State, Tom is a long-time professor of kinesiology, so he knows a thing or two about this stuff. Though in this case he speaks in terms of physics and Issac Newton. 🙂

When I was at the HP Coaches Clinic last year, French coach Laurent Tillie caused a ruckus when he suggested a cross-over step and end passing with bent arms. After hearing about this, Mark Lebedew did a review of the French passing in recent international competitions and found that the main focus was on setting and holding a proper platform angle (the cross-over step only happened after the pass).

So while training passers, are we better off giving feedback on the platform rather than the feet?

Coaching Log – Mar 25, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

We’re actually on Spring Break this week at Midwestern State. In fact, that will be extended by Easter coming up this weekend as well, which the school gives off, so we won’t be back in the gym until the 30th. That’s when we’ll officially start our non-traditional (Spring) season. Lest you think I’m just kicking back and relaxing while the players are away, though…

Hah!

We’ve had multiple meetings as a coaching staff to develop our priorities for the Spring season, to talk about recruiting, and to start getting things going for the camps and clinics we’ll be running over the Summer. We’ve also been looking at ways of getting more technology (video especially) incorporated into our training to increase effectiveness.

I’ve had to develop a flyer for our Spring tournament and coordinate with Sports Information on getting the word out about that. I need to do something similar for camp. I’ve also have to shop for equipment. Of course there’s been a bunch of stuff I’ve had to do as part of starting a new job. And of course I’ve had loads and loads to do to get my new apartment furnished and configured.

And it’s not like I don’t have other things on my plate either, like preparing papers for academic publishing. It’s been a busy couple of weeks!

I’ll have more technical stuff in the next log entry after we get the team training going. The planned schedule is to do team training four days a week (three of them with 6:30AM starts!), and a group work on the 5th day. Along with our home tournament on the 9th we’re going to an away tourney on the 2nd, which is a bit quicker than you’d normally prefer. That will pretty much the schedule all the way through April.

Sticking to your training philosophy

A question was posed in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It went like this:

“So my team is pushing back on my approach of training ugly and limiting/avoiding singular focus drills. We started out winning our first tournament, but after a series of unfortunate events they don’t believe in it or the process. Any thoughts or helpful advice????”

In case you’re not aware, the “training ugly” concept is one focused on random (game-like) training rather than block (straight reps). It also celebrates making mistakes along the way (think Climbing Mistake Mountain).

As I’ve experienced myself, sometimes the players push back. They say they want more reps. I got it from some of my players at Svedala – mainly with respect to serve reception and defense. To my mind, there are two issues which need addressing.

First, the players probably don’t have an understanding of the benefits of random training over block training. After all, more reps is a good thing, isn’t it? The chart I included in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post shows a pretty clear advantage to random training. We have a sales job to do in this regard. We need to convince them that one game-like repetition is worth multiple reps that aren’t game-like.

Second, we should be careful that we don’t go too far in terms of creating a high error environment. This is something I addressed in What percentage of reps should be good? The approach in the USA women’s gym is to try to be at about 2 out of 3 reps be successful ones. More than that an you’re not pushing enough. Less than that and you run the risk of leading players into frustration. It’s a balancing act.

Of course at the end of the day being able to show players how much they are improving with your training method would be of considerable value. The problem is this isn’t always very easy to do. And outcomes (like winning tournaments) isn’t really a good measuring stick because of the various influences involved (the competition, player availability, etc.). If you can find a way to do it, though, it will go a long way in helping your credibility with the players, which ultimately is at the core of it all.

Having a pre-serve process

volleyball serve

Serving is the only closed-chain skill in volleyball. By that I mean it’s the only skill which is not reliant on someone else first doing something. Setters need a pass. Hitters need a set. Blockers and defenders need an attack. The server, though, is in full control of their own execution. That allows them to develop a routine before they put the ball in play.

Having a pre-execution routine is something we see in other sports. Baseball is probably the most obvious example for American sports fans because it has so many discreet plays. You can definitely put tennis in the same category, though.

In volleyball, some servers have very simple routines – hold the ball up, wait for the whistle, toss and hit. Others get more involved with a bunch of bouncing and/or hitting the ball. Perhaps the most over-the-top pre-serve routine I’ve ever seen involved a bunch of bouncing with weaving body/leg movement. Not something I personally would have encouraged.

And it doesn’t just apply to the player with the ball – the server or the pitcher. It also applies to the receiver, as Natalie Hagglund (US national team and former USC libero) pointed out in an article once. In fact, hitters in baseball have some of the more ridiculous pre- routines.

In particular, Natalie’s discussion of pre-serve routine focused on keeping things simple.

“Your process should be short, sweet and should be able to trigger some sort of reaction.”

I’d say the same thing about serving.

And beyond the process, there’s also the focus. Here too Natalie recommends keeping this limited. If you’re focused on too many things you’ll probably find yourself overwhelmed. This applies to coaches just as much to players, by the way.

A 1-hour practice plan

One Spring day at MSU we had the last of the off-season practice sessions with the team before they went on Spring Break. After the break we were shifting into the non-traditional season (Spring Training). Those with an NCAA background know we could only do 2 hours of on-court work in the off season. All the players had done an hour already earlier in the week – either individually or in small groups. This session, though, featured everyone. As I had recently found out, that was allowed in Division II. It wasn’t in Division I when I coached that level.

Since we only had two practices before our first Spring tournament, the head coach wanted to give the players a chance to go 6 v 6 for the first time in a long while. We therefore decided to devote 30 minutes to that. The first 30 minutes was build up to it.

Here’s one of the tricks of maximizing your time with the players in this kind of situation. Get them to warm-up on their own before you get into the gym. That way you can go right to work. By the time we got there, the players were already into playing back row Winners 3s.

Activity #1

We had 12 players with just one court set up. The first thing we did was to have them play 3 v 3 on a narrow court. In other words, we had two games going on next to each other. We grouped the players by position, then did a count-off to decide their teams. We ran two rounds of play, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers for the second one. If I’m remembering correctly, it was a back row attack only game. The games went to 8.

Activity #2

The second activity is something I did at times with my Svedala team. I developed it as a kind of a Belly Drill or Speedball variation in teams of 4 (counted off as above). Two teams were on the court with one off waiting to come on. The teams on played out a 4 v 4 rally (all hitting options available). At its conclusion, the waiting team replaced the losers while a coach initiated a ball to the winners (down ball over the net).

This is a fast-paced game. The players don’t get much down time. We played for 15 minutes and the teams kept track of rally wins. I think it was something like 27, 25, and 20. So we got in at least as many points as you’d get in 1.5 sets in less time than it generally takes to play a single one. This is more rallies we would have seen in Winners 4s, with the inherent delay of teams waving through to the winners’ side.

Activity #3

The last half of the session was simple game play. We divided the players by position. That created some imbalances and caused some funky rotational requirements. One of the assistants jumped in to balance out the hitting, while a pair of defenders split time playing back row for one team. They got into a second set before the hour was up and decided to keep going after we left.

Skill coverage

Let’s think about how much we included of the various skills in this short session.

  • The 3 v 3 game and the 6 v 6 both included serving, though in the latter case not everyone ended up doing it because of the team compositions (some players front-row-only).
  • Serve reception was part of both the 3 v 3 and 6 v 6.
  • All of the games included setting, though it was only in 6 v 6 where the setters specifically took all the second balls. In the other games sometimes they did, but often times it was other players.
  • Hitting was included in all three games from a variety of locations.
  • Blocking was included in all three games, though only in the 6 v 6 was their regular double blocking.
  • Defense was included in all three games, with the 4 v 4 essentially starting each rally with a defense ball (down ball from the other side of the net).

So you could say the balance was skewed toward the “open play” type of skills – setting, hitting, blocking, defense – with a bit less in serving and passing. We could have boosted the serve reception by having the assistants serve a ball to start the next rally in the 4 v 4 game.

Let them play!

There was a player in the Midwestern State squad when I first visited campus in early February 2016 who could not hit a down ball or a back row attack to save her life. I mean she literally did not have the skill.

I found out later the cause of this problem. Her high school coach never let her hit.

I will grant you that she was pretty tiny. It must have been obvious from early on that hitting and blocking weren’t going to be her thing. Genetics put her clearly into the libero/defensive specialist category.

I get that a coach probably isn’t going to have her spend much time in hitting drills and the like. But to not have her even learn how to do a good down ball? Come on! That’s criminal in my book. It’s specialization gone crazy.

First of all, even tiny little defenders sometimes need to use that skill. Heck, sometimes they can even attack the ball outright from the back row if they aren’t libero at the time. So there’s a very clear volleyball reason to teach every player to hit from either standing or jumping.

More importantly, part of what we must be doing as coaching is instilling a love of the game in our players. That’s a whole lot easier to do when you actually let them play!

And this applies to players in other positions as well. Let your setters block. Include your middles in defensive training. Give your pin hitters the opportunity to set. You never know when being able to whip a non-specificity skill out will make the difference between winning and losing.

Being more well-rounded makes players better. It gives them a deeper appreciation of the game and all it entails. It also makes it more fun for them, and that means they may stick with the sport longer.

So please let them just be players instead of positions sometimes.

Coaching Log – Mar 15, 2016

I’m going to start a new coaching log sequence to share the stuff I’m doing at Midwestern State for the rest of this current academic year. This is likely to be different from the ones I did for Exeter and Svedala in a couple of ways.

First, I’m not the head coach, so I won’t be the sole driver of the coaching involved. I’ll be part of a staff, with a head coach setting the tone and me working within that framework. Second, coaching at the college level involves a ton of moving parts. Yes, there’s on-court work, but there’s also recruiting and player academic supervision and lots of other organizational stuff which are integral to the job.

In fact, we’ve already started talking about how we’re going to revitalize the office area I work in. This wasn’t motivated by me, by the way. The rest of the staff were already thinking about it. Here’s the view from my desk.

MSU VB assistants office

I don’t know yet how frequently I’ll do updates. I need to see how things fall out. This time of year, since the on-court team schedule isn’t as full and defined as is the case in the Fall, I may just end up doing ad-hoc updates as things happen which I think might be of interest.

With that, let me start off telling you what I’ve been doing since I arrived in town on Saturday morning. Basically, I’ve been running around. I had to secure an apartment. I had to buy a car. I had to shop for furniture and other household goods. I’ve had to do various admin things on campus (visit HR, get my ID, etc.).

I’ve spent A LOT of money!

And I’ll be spending more getting my life in order. My to-do list is still a mile long with details big and small. Trying to secure auto insurance has been the single biggest hassle. Definitely making me miss the days of not needing a car. 🙁

I was in the gym for an hour on Monday, though. We did an individual session with one of the players. Mostly they do their sessions in groups of 3-4, but this one’s schedule doesn’t work with anyone else’.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity – as long as it has the blockers facing hitters, of course. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used, so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

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