Archive for Volleyball Coaching

Creating a Priority-Based Practice Plan

In the early days of this blog I authored the post First Things First, Know Your Priorities. It’s main point is if you don’t have a destination in mind it’s kind of hard to map your course.

You have high level objectives in mind for your team/program. Those should be in terms of the grand scheme of where you want things to go. They may come down to you from someone higher up, such as club leadership, an athletic director, school principal, etc.

You similarly should have priorities for the current season. They need to be founded in the higher level objectives. The must also be based on your assessment of the players, knowledge of the competition, and the like.

As you progress through the season you will identify different things to work on to move the team toward those season objectives (or new ones if the situation dictates a shift). They could be something like improving on a particular skill or preparing for a certain opponent. This third tier of priorities is what drives the plans you make for your training sessions.The creation of a practice plan based on those objectives is what I want to speak to in this article.

Starting with your top priority

Any practice plan you develop must start first and foremost with your top priority. Let’s say serve receive passing is something you’ve identified as the top priority for today’s training session. Probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that. 😉

You might like the theoretical idea of spending two hours doing nothing but serving and passing. Chances are, though, you won’t be able to keep the players focused and mentally engaged for that long. It’s rather boring, and the intensity of those kinds of drills tends to be pretty low.

So how do you create a training plan prioritizing serve receive, but not just about serving & passing drills?

Your players’ level and the available time obviously play a major role in how you structure your training plan. You may want a drill which does do the boring fundamental work, at least for a little while. For beginners that could be a basic toss and pass drill. For other players and teams you could use drills like 8-Person Serve & Pass or Passing Triplets. They would serve as a foundational drill to get the players lots of reps in a relatively short period of time.

But you could have come up with that yourself, right? No new insights there.

Creating focal points in other drills

The real trick to developing a practice plan which highlights your top priority is to make that priority the focal point of drills which seemingly are concentrated on other things. For example, you can add a passing element to a hitting drill. It makes that drill one where serve receive quickly comes to the fore. The players won’t be able to attack the ball well if they don’t first pass well! At the same time, it also makes the drill much more game-like than your standard hitting lines.

You can also adapt any games you play in your practice to get the focus on serve reception. This can be done by replacing a freeball or attacked ball with a served ball as the ball initiation. It can also be in the way you keep score (see Volleyball Games: Scoring Alternatives). A great example of this is the Points for Passes game. It awards points based on the quality of the serve receive passes executed.

Operating at one level up

Along with drills and games focused specifically on whatever priority you have for that practice, you can also have ones with a higher level perspective that require the priority focus for proper execution. We can think about this by asking the question, “What play or strategy relies on good execution of my priority item to work?”

Sticking to the serve receive passing priority, that higher level perspective is the serve receive offense. Depending on your team’s level, you may be want to run the quick attack off serve receive, to have a certain first-ball kill %, or perhaps a target serve receive rally win %. Good serve receive passing is required to achieve your offensive objectives. That means any games or drills with serve receive offense as the focus must have passing as a focus.

Thus, you have another way of sneaking passing work into your training without your players moaning. 🙂

Concentrating your coaching on your priorities

It’s not enough to just include in your practice plan drills and games which feature the skill, play, or strategy you want to highlight in your training for that session, however. You need to also concentrate your coaching on that priority. In our serve receive example, that means you need to focus on how your player move, set their platform, communicate, etc. This means letting other stuff go.

In my experience, it’s the letting go of non-priority stuff that’s the hard part for many volleyball coaches. We have a tendency to want to address every little thing.

The hitting drill I mentioned above where you can add a passing element is a perfect example of how easy it is to lose your priority focus. There’s a setting element which can grab your attention. No doubt the players will want feedback on their hitting as well. If there’s a block, that too could grab your attention. You have to resist the distraction and keep both yourself and your players focused on the serve receive priority for that day.

Of course if you have multiple coaches in the gym you could split up the focal points between you. For example, you could provide feedback to the setter(s) while another coach concentrates on the players passing. This keeps the main priority to the fore, but allows for working with players who are not executing that skill at the time without detracting from the rest.

Having multiple priorities

Much of the time we go into planning a given training session with multiple things we’d like to work on that day. That’s perfectly fine, but the number needs to be kept down to make it manageable. Two or three is probably about it in terms of the general practice plan. You may be able to have sub-priorities within drills or games, though, especially if you have multiple coaches at-hand.

If you do have more than one key focal point for a given session you need to prioritize them. Something has to be the main one. If you have a situation where a conflict between them arises, there must be a clear understanding of what gets the attention.

An example of this would be the combination of serving and passing. If you have two coaches at work, one can be with each group during a drill like Serving-Passing-Setting Quads. If, however, you are the only coach then you have to spend the majority of your time working with whichever group represents the top priority for that day.

Communicate training priorities to your players

The best way to make sure your priorities for the session get the concentration required is to communicate them to the players at the outset. This serves two key purposes. One is to give you a chance to get the players on the same page with you in terms of the team’s developmental needs or strategic planning requirements. They are more likely to stay locked in and remain committed if they understand what’s going on and see the need for it.

The other reason to communicate priorities is to encourage players to not get caught up in other things. Going back to that pass-to-hit drill I brought up, it’s really easy for player to focus on their hitting rather than their passing since that’s the last part of each play. Telling them that you want to concentrate on the passing won’t keep them from reacting to their hitting performance, of course. It does offer you the secondary training effect of encouraging them to focus on one skill at a time, however. Over time, this can help them in game situations – especially when they may be struggling with one skill.

So in conclusion…

If you set the priorities for your practice, plan the drills and games you’ll use with those priorities in mind, and stay focused on them in your coaching during that session you are more likely to walk out of the gym satisfied at the end of the day. Do it consistently and you’re just about assured of being pleased with how things progress over the season. Of course this assumes you do a good job assigning priorities. But that’s a subject for another article. 🙂

The evolution of the libero position

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the game of volleyball in the time I’ve been involved as a coach (and a player all those years ago), and across the gap when I was away from coaching volleyball. While on my 2013 tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, one thing I saw was a shift in libero use. It’s no surprise this happened. The position was only introduced at that level about 15 years ago. It was going to take time for coaches to find the best ways to make use of the position.

The early days of the libero

Back in the early days the libero was largely just a glorified defensive specialist. They didn’t do much more than any DS would have done. They just couldn’t serve at that point (which they can do in one rotation under US women’s collegiate rules). A team took their strongest defender and/or ball control player, gave them the off-colored jersey. They were told to go do what you normally do, but in 6 rotations rather than 3.

When I was at Brown, our basic strategy was to identify the place the ball was most likely to go given our blocking scheme (either position 5 or 6), and put the libero there on defense. We tried to get her central in the serve receive pattern as much as possible. Not a bad approach. You want your best ball-handling player getting as many first contact touches as possible.

Back then we gave no real thought to the libero taking the second ball. After all, the libero couldn’t take the ball with her hands in front of the 3m line. The strategy was instead for the OPP to step out from her RS position to take it. Most teams used a similar approach.

Current libero use

Things have shifted in the last few years, though. These days liberos are given responsibility for the second ball when the setter has to dig. It’s not the OPP anymore. I can think of a few related reasons this shift has taken place, in no particular order:

  • More teams are targeting the setter, causing them to play the ball defensively more often.
  • OPPs are a bigger part of the offense now – especially for college teams running a 6-2. Making them set takes them out of the attack. Further, OPPs rarely set the middle when taking the second ball, often meaning just one attacking option.
  • Coaches are more conservative with their digging target. They strongly favor digs to Target 2 (about 3m line in the middle of the court). This would require an OPP to have to come further off the net to play a ball, often after they just got down from blocking.

With the ball dug to Target 2, and them often playing in position 5, the libero becomes a more interesting secondary setter. On balls dug behind the 3m line they can use their hands. On those closer to the net they can bump set. Since they’re in the middle of the court, they can go to either pin with the ball. Back row is another choice.

Suddenly it makes sense to have the libero acting as the second setter. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be among the quicker players on the court. (By the way, MBs now get more responsibility for the second ball dug close to the net since they can set either way as well).

Implications for libero selection and training

What all this means is that the requirements for the libero position have evolved. It’s no longer enough to pass and or dig the ball well. They now also have to consistently put up a good hitable ball to both pins and the back row. At the top levels this has results in coaches recruiting experienced setters to play libero. It also means a lot of dedicated libero setting work, such as that done in the Second Ball Setting drill.

Having former setters as liberos also brings a leadership factor into play. Good setters are generally also good leaders. Liberos may not direct the team the same ways a setter does, but their attitude, communication, and intensity can certainly set the team’s standard. We had a libero captain one of my years at Brown who definitely set the tone for the team. I saw a similar thing at USC when I observed preseason training there.

As coaches looking to identify and/or train prospective liberos, these are thing we need to keep in mind.

When not to serve their weakest passer

Back in 2013, I took some time to attend a preseason tournament. It featured a group of area men’s teams preparing for the upcoming NVL season in England. The hosts were Exeter Storm.  That’s the club with which the Devon Ladies team I coached the prior season merged. I took advantage of the live match play to try out a couple of volleyball stat apps on my iPad with an eye toward finding a good one to use while coaching the upcoming season. I also wanted to be there in support of the club generally, though.

Storm was new to the NVL that year. The were newly accepted into Division 3 (the club itself is only a couple years old). In the final match of the day they played a team which won promotion to NVL1 in a playoff the prior season. Despite the difference in level, it was a tight match most of the way through. Though, to be fair, Storm had played that same team close previously.

The captain of the men’s team I coached at Exeter University the prior season was an OH for the club. At a certain point in the match I observed that he was targeting a specific player on the opposing team with his serves. This player was most definitely the weakest passer they had. He was also by far their best hitter – an absolute beast who proved virtually unstoppable all day long.

Normally, relentlessly serving the other team’s weak passer is a good strategy. This time, though, not so much.

You see, in this particular rotation the serve was down the line (1 to 5). The result was often a 1 or 2-pass which forced the setter to come toward area 4. Normally, that would be a good thing as it would make the offense predictable. In this case, however, it meant the setter was virtually assured of setting this big hammer of a hitter swinging outside. The sideout percentage was very high despite the poor passes. The setter may have still set the same player if the pass went somewhere else or came from a different direction. Personally, I’d have at least wanted to give him the option of making that (bad) decision, though.

Now, in this instance the player made the call on where he was going to serve. I know because I asked him after the match. In another instance it could have just as easily been the call of a coach thinking too much about the normal percentage play. The Storm coaches didn’t seem to normally call serving targets for the players, so I’m reluctant to suggest they fell victim of that mentality. I can easily see other coaches doing so in other situations, however.

Just goes to show that sometimes doing the right thing can be the wrong thing.

Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important

Consider the implications of a volleyball serve coming your way at 40+ mph.

While I was at USC women’s team practice they worked on hard serves. Their objective was to reach that speed, if not higher. Yes, they really did have a radar gun out to measure. 🙂

Consider just how quick a serve at that pace goes from the server’s hand to the passer. For reference, 40 mph is nearly 59 feet per second, or a little under 18 meters per second. That’s not far short of the length of the volleyball court. So passers have less than a second to react and get themselves and their platform in the right position. Quite a few of the serves I saw were actually faster than 40 mph (mainly from the jump servers – both float and topspin). Even the weaker serves were well into the 30s. Of course the top men’s jump servers reach spike level speeds.

The ball only needs to cover about 50 feet (14 or so meters) to reach the passer from serve contact. That’s not very far and a good serve has both the tempo to get the ball there quickly and movement to force passers to change position. This is why teaching good initial position and preparedness, efficient movement, and solid platform mechanics is so important for good serve receive passing – not to mention proper passer communication.

Coach Gimmillaro at Long Beach State focused a great deal on the mechanics of passing (and digging). He was a stickler for early platform preparation, moving in specific ways (run forward, shuffle back and to the side), and keeping stable strong body posture completely through the playing of the ball. Not surprisingly, his team is traditionally good in serve receive and defensive ball control.

Critiquing a ball-oriented volleyball warm-up routine

This video got a fair bit of attention once upon a time (on Twitter, I think). That is how I came to learn about it. Upon review, however, I was disappointed. The second half where they are using balls in strength and conditioning work I’m fine with. There are some good elements there. They don’t specifically require a volleyball, but since you have them at hand, why not use them? The first half, however, I found to be utterly useless. You will understand my reasons if you read my comments in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?.

Jogging, as I noted in the referenced post, is of little value to volleyball players. Now these guys are adding in silly things like spins. And what’s this stuff with tossing the ball up in the air? The only real attempt to have anything volleyball-like in there is the bits where the players mix in some sets and forearm passes. The mechanics of those skills, though, are poor – making their inclusion worse than useless. They are reinforcing bad habits, effectively.

If you want to have players moving and executing ball-handling skills then have them move in a volleyball-like fashion (shuffles, transition footwork, short runs, etc.). And have them execute those skills with proper technique – especially when dealing with young and developing players. Things like jog-and-set or jog-and-pass might be good to mix things up in a big camp or to have a bit of fun (team shuttles, etc.), but are not for use on any kind of regular basis.

Volleyball coaches, don’t be afraid to try something old

Back in 2013 I attended the match between Pepperdine and Wisconsin at the former’s Malibu campus. As I mentioned on social media then, the away team actually used a 2-person serve receive most of the match. You can see a sample from one of the rotations below.

click for larger version

click for larger version

In this example you can see the two front row hitters (OH and MB) poised to take a short ball. The backrow OPP is deep to support making line calls (and maybe to take a ball right to her). Meanwhile, the libero and back row OH split the court as the primary passers. The latter two were the passers in all rotations, even when that OH was front row. In one rotation, when Pepperdine had a hard topspin jump server going, they dropped the other OH in to make a 3-person serve receive. That was the only time they went away from the 2-person system, though.

To say using only two passers is unusual would be a major understatement. It was something popularized in the 1980s by the US men when Karch Kiraly and Bob Ctvrtlik/Aldis Berzins handled all the passing during their 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medal runs. When topspin jump serves moved to the fore in the latter 80s, though, teams went away from 2-man reception. In 1998 I used it very successfully myself coaching a boy’s team to a gold medal in a tournament. I did so because I had two clearly dominant passers and the serving was not so tough. I can recall few if any other times I’ve seen it used over the years, however.

Kelly Sheffield, the then new Wisconsin coach, should get considerable credit for having the guts to go down this path (I actually coached against him when I was at Brown and we hosted his Albany squad in something like 2004). Since the 2-person formation is so rarely seen, he could easily have come up against considerable criticism. He potentially could even have faced opposition among his players. From what I saw, though, it worked quite well. His two passers were very solid. Just goes to show that sometimes taking old ideas down off the shelf and dusting them off can pay dividends.

Developing Volleyball Beginners

In Sally Kus’s book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, she talks about working with young kids. Her specific focus is on developing a pipeline for older youth teams (school, Juniors club, etc.). The advice, though, is universal and much applies to working with older beginning players as well as youngsters.

Make sure it’s fun

The first thing we have to do with those new to volleyball is to make sure it’s fun. You won’t keep the players focused for very long, or see them come back, if they aren’t enjoying themselves. What fun means will vary, of course. You won’t do the same things with adult beginners as you would with a bunch of 12 year-olds. As with any other type of presentation or activity, you have to make it fit your participants.

Forget about wins and losses

The last thing we need concern ourselves with when working with a bunch of volleyball newbies is the score line. The focus instead needs to be on developing the skills, movement patterns, understanding of the rules, and the mentality to play proper competitive volleyball. Concentrating on the winning and losing at this stage will only tend to get in the way. It puts undo pressure on the players. Further, it potentially leads the coach to weigh the results of matches over developmental needs.

Reward them for playing volleyball properly

Let’s face it. Beginner games often degenerate into sending the ball over in one touch. That being the case, we need to reward them for things other than scoring points and give them alternative goals. Players will quickly realize that three contacts on their side is three times as many opportunities to make a mistake. The result is volleyball which looks a lot like tennis with six players on the court – serve and volley.

One of the things Kus mentioned doing is keeping a second score along side the primary one when playing games. This is noted on the volleyball game scoring alternatives page. This score is for the number of times each team did something developmentally positive. For example, a pass-set-hit sequence. If you can get the players focused on whatever your objective is and not the actual scoreboard, you can go a long way.

As coaches of young and beginning players it is our responsibility to focus on teaching the right way to do things. That includes rules, 3-contact play, and proper mechanics. If we can do this in an enjoyable fashion we’ll have players ready to take the step to the next level when the time comes.

Required volleyball reading?

I did the last of my planned collegiate program training visits on Wednesday, this time at UCLA. Interestingly, when I got to the gym ahead of their training session I found them doing a review/discussion of the book Crucial Conversations. Assistant coach Stein Metzger told me it was something they were looking to use to improve on the communication front as that was seen to be a problem with the team last year. I haven’t read the book before myself, but it’s a best seller so clearly quite a few others have done. Might just give it a look to see what’s what.

I’ve got just about a week left in the States. While I don’t have any plans on visiting any more schools and their practices, I may yet get a bit more volleyball in before I head back for England. The University of Wisconsin will be playing at Pepperdine on Saturday evening. Pepperdine is supposed to be a beautiful campus (located in Malibu), so I’d like to go just to have a look. I happen to also know the Wisconsin coach from my days at Brown when he was coaching at Albany and they came to one of our tournaments. He’s definitely moved up in the world since!

I may also make a trip to the famous Manhattan Beach. I’ve been told there’s a fantastic little Mexican food joint there. Oh, and it’s known for some pretty good beach volleyball action too. 🙂

I think once I have some time to let everything settle and can reflect I’ll write a post looking back on my 5 campus visits and the different things I observed. Look for that when I get back.

Left the land of volleyball giants for a spell

Two days in near San Diego were a breath of fresh air, so to speak. It was four days at USC where the players made me feel like a shrimp, and Long Beach State, which isn’t too far behind. That made a nice change of pace visiting with my coaching friend Andrea Leonard at Cal State San Marcos. The team was ranked #20 in the NAIA preseason poll (the NAIA is an alternative US collegiate system to NCAA). Even still, those are players of mere mortal stature. No 6’4″ and above (there’s a bunch of 6-footers on the roster, but that’s more a function of typical volleyball height inflation than reality). In other words, I got to spend two days watching volleyball played much closer to what I saw day in and day out in England.

What that means is I saw a team where developmental needs are paramount. Andrea had a team with 11 new players out of 19. There were certainly some useful players on the San Marcos team. At that level the play, though, is dominated by scramble plays more than high powered attacks and massive blocks. It’s fun to watch the elite teams at work. The reality of coaching for most coaches, however, is that we do our work with non-elite teams. Of course that’s not to say we can’t learn things from how the coaches of elite level teams operate. That is exactly why I went on my little volleyball tour.

On Wednesday I visited UCLA, (ranked 12th in the preseason poll). That was my last practice viewing. I also talked some sand volleyball with Stein Metzger. I took in a match over the weekend as the NCAA Division I season kicked off (Wisconsin at Pepperdine), but no more training sessions after that.

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