Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

Handling guest players in training

If you followed my Svedala coaching log entries, you perhaps noticed that on occasion I had guest players in training. Sometimes they were players evaluating whether they were going to be part of the team (former players). Sometimes they were players looking to get in a training session when their schedule allowed. In other cases they were members of the second team.

Each type of guest player requires a different thought process.

For example, when bringing in players from the 2nd team to train with us I looked to keep their roles very well defined. They were focused in areas where they were likely to succeed. It wouldn’t do my training efforts or their confidence level any good if I asked them to do things they just couldn’t do at a level comparable to that of the rest of the group. I wouldn’t help them and I wouldn’t help my team.

One week offered one of the more interesting guest player situations.

I receive a request from the coach of the Swedish equivalent of the national volleyball academy (RIG). He wanted to know whether a couple of his players could train in with us, as they were out of school. These were players from our region. One player, in fact, was from Svedala and played in youth teams with players in my squad. From a forward looking perspective, these are players who would potentially be targets for the team when they finished at RIG. That adds a kind of recruiting aspect to the mix.

Here’s the rub, though. RIG’s first team competed in the Elitserie as we did (their second team played in the 2nd division, as did our 2nd team). We played them the following weekend. How much did I want to talk about specific tactics and strategies when players from a rival club were in the gym with us?

Now, in the case of RIG it  was not a major competitive concern. They were a team we should have been able to handle. I did not worry about them reporting back to their coaches. The thing I was sensitive to, though, was talking about internal things with non-team members present. That goes for any kind of guest – player, coach, parent, club administrator, etc.

Parkinson’s Law definitely applies to practice planning!

Once, as I developed the training plans for the Svedala team, I recalled Parkinson’s Law. It goes something like this.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

I’ve written before about the amount of time you should allocate to practice planning. Part of that discussion was how easily the task could consume crazy amounts of time if not properly constrained. I experienced that while coaching at Exeter. I could find find myself spending all afternoon making up that evenings practice plan. Then, I had to remind myself of that a couple of times the first week of training in Sweden.

It was so tempting for me as I got started with a new team in a new environment to let the practice planning suck me in and not let me go.

You may be thinking, “But you were a professional volleyball coach. That was your job!”

That’s true, but that doesn’t mean I should let one task eat of a major part of my day. Efficiency in planning is just as important as developing an efficient training plan. There are a lot of other things for a coach to do. Watching video comes immediately to mind!

Training Plan: 11 players, just games

Priorities: Shake off the rust with lots of touches, start the process of the players getting to know each other at the beginning of a new season, get some initial impressions

Training time: 2 hours

Space: 2 courts

Players: 11 (2 setters)

Notes: Because set-up and take down were included in the allocated time, and some amount of time was necessarily allocated to introductions and initial discussion, the actual training period was somewhat less than 2 hours.

– – – The Plan – – –

Warm-up: No isolated warm-up.

Cooperative 1 vs 1 and 1 vs 1 w/fixed setter: Set up 4 games of 1 v. 1 and one game of 1 v 1 with a fixed setter. The idea is to get to 6 good pass-set-downball sequences. As soon as one group gets there, they all rotate in a clockwise fashion. If no one gets there in the time limit, rotate anyway.
11-player singles rotation3-person and 4-person pepper w/fixed setter: On one court is two groups of 3-person rotating over-the-net pepper. On the other court is a 2 v. 2 pepper with a fixed setter. The team’s two setters are market A and B. Again, play to six good pass-set-hit sequences (this time with jumping), or a the time limit. Rotation for the non-setters is clockwise. The setters switch positions each rotation.

11-player peppers

5-person and 6-person player winners: Each court has a game of Player Winners on it, one with 5 players and one with 6 players. Play for 5 minutes, then move the top 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person, and the bottom 3 from the 6-person court the other way (now making the 5 a 6 and the 6 a 5). Restart and go for 5 more minutes, then send the top 3 from the 6-person court to the 5-person court, and the bottom 2 from the 5-person court to the 6-person court. Play another 5 minutes, then repeat the process from after the first round. Play one last round of 5 minutes.

Winners 3: Finish with standard Winners (3s in this case) Start with back court attacks only, then shift to allowing front court attacks as well.

– – – Observations – – –

The first two exercises went quicker than expected. As a result I added a 5th exercise. The initial thought was to play Winners 4s, but instead I went with Neville Pepper. The 9 non-setters were split up into three roughly equal teams. They were the teams to play through the games. The setters were used in a fixed fashion, switching sides when the challenge side won a rally.

Small squad volleyball training

I saw the following question posed by a volleyball coach. Most of us at some point in our coaching careers have to deal either with having a small squad or having limited numbers in training, so I thought it worth addressing.

I have 6-7 players, how can i create game like situation without enough to scrimmage each other? Our first game is coming soon so I’m really needing this week to get them set up in their positions, learn where they need to go….etc. But hard without having another team to play the ball back over….

I can relate. Once, in my first year coaching U16 girls it was just me and 6 players in training. I decided to play a little game with them at the end of the session. It was me against them. I served every ball and if I could dig their attack with control, or they could not return the ball, I got the point. If they could get a kill, they got the point.

Funnily, after I developed a solid lead mainly by digging their attacks (experience in reading an attacker has its advantages!), one of the girls said in exasperation, “Can we please stop hitting the ball right to John!?” 🙂

I liked hearing that. At least one of them was looking for the team to try to problem solve so they could beat me! I’m pretty sure I still won the game relatively comfortably, but they did get more competitive.

I tell this story as an example of how a little thought and creativity can lead to useful solutions. I’ve seen plenty of examples of a smaller number of players taking on a full squad. It’s just a question of finding rules and/or a scoring system. You want a system that makes things appropriately competitive. And it should see the players focused on whatever the keys are for that particular exercise.

It’s also worth looking at ways you can train game situations with elements of the team. A 3-v-3 game back row game is useful to work on defense against back row attacks and down balls. A game where you have an OH attacking into Zones 1 or 6 going against an OPP attacking into Zones 6 or 5 can be a highly game-like activity using a limited number of players. The same for having OHs going against each other with cross court attacks.

A serve reception example of this could be to put two passers in to cover 2/3rds of the court (say Zones 1 and 6) and having a setter and hitting element incorporated. If you set it up so it matches a serve receive rotational situation (such a setter penetrating from 1 with the MB in 3), then you can work quite nicely on key aspects of that phase of play without needing 6 players on one side.

With activities like that, it’s about taking what’s going on in a certain part of the court. You basically exclude the positions which wouldn’t be involved the the game scenario you’re training. That frees players up for something else to facilitate the exercise.

Preparing to be prepared

In his Volleyblog column that was published in the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA Karch Kiraly talks about staying positive in the face of disappointment and adversity. A lot of the focus is on looking forward rather than backward, but there’s one part where he talks about preparation. At that point he mentions something he heard from a military prospective. First, you develop a plan. Second, you develop contingency plans for if/when the initial plan goes awry. The latter is critically important because, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” as Helmuth von Moltke stated. To put that in volleyball terms…

Your plan will probably go out the window on the first serve.

Our plans can get foiled at many different levels. It can happen in a match. It can happen in a season. Bigger picture, it can happen in a cycle (recruiting cycle for collegiate teams, Olympic cycle for national teams, etc.). The point is, it’s not enough for us to have a plan in place. We also need to have plans to be able to react when part of the primary plan breaks down. This is especially true in situations where a quick decision will have to be made – like I talked about in the Sub Six post. You need to know the decision you’ll make in advance so when the time comes it’s basically automatic rather than done in a panic. This requires thinking about all the different things that could potentially arise.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Don’t just plan. Prepare.

It’s not enough to have a contingency plan. You need to have prepared for it’s implementation in advance. Let me provide an example.

Your starting setter sprains an ankle. What do you do? If you’re like most teams, you’ll put in your second string setter, though in some cases your second best setter might have a different primary position (something I dealt with a while back). Seems like an easy call, but the next question is how prepared your team is for that change. I don’t just mean the setter coming in, though that’s part of it. I mean everyone. Have you given that setter enough reps with the starters for everyone to feel comfortable together? Or is the setter change going to freak everyone out?

If you’ve worked your second setter into the first team, or otherwise mixed players around in training, then the transition likely will be relatively smooth. The players will know what to expect and adapt accordingly. If you always did strict A-team/B-team splits in training, though, you could have a problem. Something to think about as you develop your training plans.

This is one of those things that separates great coaches from good ones. They are able to make good decisions when things are going against them because they’d prepared themselves to do so.

Opportunities in training on a lowered net

I mentioned before how you can use the game of Newcomb to work with inexperienced players. You can use it to teach court movement, positioning, and things like that in a volleyball-like, but slower speed situation. At the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic they did something similar, but for a more advanced purpose.

The coaches lowered the net down to just about head height for the average player. The demo athletes then played a co-operative 6 v 6 game with no jumping. The third contact was set over. Basically, it was all the movements you normally see in volleyball. The players just did not jump.

In this particular case the focus was blocker movement. The coaches watched the middle blockers for proper focus on their reads and their footwork. It was a way to give those middles lots of reps without burn out.

Thinking more broadly, this is an exercise that can serve a number of purposes. It could very easily be a warm-up. It includes lots of volleyball motion, just done at a lower intensity level. You can tick up the intensity if you make the 3rd contact be a down-ball.

Of course, you can also get rid of the cooperative aspect and make it a competitive game. That speeds things up, demands more movement, and introduces more problem-solving elements. It makes reading more game-like, and gives you increased opportunities to focus players on specific aspects of their play while still is a lower intensity situation.

Team Try-Outs Part Deux

I previously told the harrowing tale of expecting 20-something women to try-out for the Exeter university women’s team I coached and ending up with 40-something. After making many, many cuts, we got down to 17 players to invite back. That’s along with 15 on the men’s side.

These were not expected to be the final rosters, however. It was anticipated that additional players would turn up in following training sessions. Those were players who hadn’t arrived to campus yet, didn’t hear about the trial, had a conflict, etc. That meant I had to plan these second sessions in much the same manner I did the first. By that I mean in terms of being flexible enough to account for an uncertain number of players. It was potentially something into the 20s.

One big constraint for the follow up was court space. These sessions were in our primary training facility, which had just one court and very little room around it. Basically, everything happened in the space of the court itself. Fortunately, we were up to 90 minutes for each group. We only had 60 minutes for the first.

For the women especially, the first try-out was mainly about cutting those not up to the standard because of the massive numbers. Having been able to cull that list, this session was about getting a good look at what we really had. It also provided a chance to start to think in terms of team composition. Yes, we may have needed to evaluate some more new faces, but it would be a minority part of the group, and as such it wouldn’t force a different approach.

Key areas of focus

It will come as no surprise that the two biggest areas I wanted to focus on to have a serious evaluation were setter and middle hitter. I haven’t seen too many situations where identifying OHs and OPPs, along with a libero, is a major challenge.

In the men’s case we had two guys back who set the year before. In an ideal world we’d probably want a new setter coming in, but we could get along without one. Only one of our primary MBs returned from the year before – maybe with one other – so that was really an area in need of new bodies. In the women’s case we lost all of our setters and primary middle players. We had one returner who could set and one who could play MB, but we were probably best if they didn’t have to.

The Plan

So with those priorities in mind – and given the requirement to be flexible in terms of the number of players to be accommodated – here’s what I came up with. Start with dynamic warm-up, then move on to pepper. If the numbers allow, do rotating partner pepper to get the players mixed up working together. Then do serving & passing, with setters in setting the ball to 4. From there, on to hitting by position. Finish up with some version of winners, depending on numbers.

The Reality

Shock of shocks, I didn’t have to deal with an excess of players. In fact, both teams were missing a couple of bodies from those called back, though there was one new male player. That let me basically run things to plan. With the men’s team I didn’t include setters in the passing drill because I pretty much know who they are, but instead shifted to a targeted good pass number (30), with a -1 for an overpass and back to 0 on a no-effort ball (they had to restart once). For winners I had the women play 4s because of the higher numbers (15), and the men play 3s on a narrow court.

There were two other sessions for both teams that week. I needed to make further cuts, at least on the women’s side, at the end of that span.

And then it all went sideways!

Once upon a time I mentioned a challenge I had in running a pair of tryouts for the Exeter university teams I coached. Specifically, I had to plan something despite not knowing how many players I would have, or how many helpers. I had only an hour allocated for each gender. That’s inclusive of introduction and warm-up (and any lingering registration stuff). So basically, I had to come up with a flexible warm-up activity that could account for players trickling in from getting registered. Then I had to have about 40 minutes worth of primary drills/games.

A real coach’s dream situation, eh?

I basically took a end-to-beginning approach in my planning. I wanted to end with some kind of play. Given my expectation of large numbers and the small amount of time, 6 v 6 was out. I needed something that could reasonably accommodate player counts in the 20s on a single court. I decided to go with two half-court Speedball games going side-by-side. Depending on the numbers, I could have both mini courts be doubles, both be triples, or one for each.

Since I had access to the bigger sports hall, I really wanted to see serving and passing. For that I picked the 2-sided serving & passing drill. It’s one that allows for some flexibility in numbers involved. That said, however, you probably don’t want more than about 14 in the drill (6 passers, 2 targets, 6 servers). That meant I needed to have something on the side for excess players and to thereby have a rotation through the drill. That would have to be something like a pepper or defensive drill which could be done without the net in a fairly confined area. I decided that if I had helpers of a reasonable caliber I would have a defense station, but otherwise go with group pepper.

Now, if players were serving – and then later hitting – I needed to make sure their shoulders were sufficiently warm. To accomplish that, I decided to split the group in half. One would do a partner serving warm-up on the net, the other would do partner pepper off the court. After a certain amount of time (probably 5 minutes max) I would have them flip.

That leaves the initial warm-up. My plan was to have the returners lead the group in dynamic warm-up after the introduction. By that point we should have most people, if not all, through the registration process and ready to go. Plus, it would give me a chance to see who takes it seriously and who just goes through the motions.

That was the basic plan going in. Here’s the reality.

The women

I ended up with what must have been close to 50 women’s trialists!

That mandated a rapid change of approach. We had to make on-the-fly cuts, which I wouldn’t otherwise do. Fortunately, we had more gym space than we’d though, so rather than saying to a player “Sorry, you’re out” we could simply move them over to the other side of the curtain where they could continue working with some of the helpers who were on-hand. Yes, those players probably figured out pretty quickly what the situation was, but it was a bit more gentle than having to just ask them to leave the gym outright.

We ran four-person pepper after doing a dynamic warm-up. That was when we started culling the more obvious No’s. I then had them doing some serving – kind of like a pre-match warm-up thing. Definitely not ideal given the numbers we still had, but it was an easy way to identify more players just not up to the required standard.

Luckily, having the extra gym space availed us of a second court. Because of a curtain situation it wasn’t full-sized, but we managed. I split the group in half and sent one set of players over there to hit, keeping the other to do serving and passing, swapping the groups at a certain point. We were able to get down to 27 players left in the mix for the last 20 minutes, during which I had them play Speedball, more or less as outlined above.

The men

Things were much more reasonable for the men. We only had 20 of them to manage, which was just a little more than we had last season.

Because they had largely been peppering and stuff on the other side of the curtain before getting going, after doing a dynamic warm-up I had them go straight into doing some serving. As with the women, I also had them doing serving and passing, and finished with Speedball. Because I had a bit of extra time, though, I also had them run through hitting lines going through 4 and 2.

Outcomes

I met with the leadership after the men’s try-out to discuss who would be invited back for this week’s try-out continuation. On the women’s side we cut the list from that 27 still involved at the end down to 17. On the men’s side we ended up with 15.

Moving forward

The week after that initial tryout we had sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They were a combination of a continuation of the try-outs and the start of training for that year’s teams. The anticipation was we might see a handful of additional players turn up who either didn’t know about the trials, weren’t on campus yet, had a conflict, or whatever.

I was personally looking forward to being able to really take a close look at the new players that week after the initial view. Especially with the women, it was almost impossible to do that during the tryout. As I told someone that evening, I was so focused on who we should cut that I didn’t have the opportunity to really look at the Yes and Maybe players to see what they had to offer. Now I could do that and start to think in terms of team composition.

Volleyball Coaching Concept – Second Chance

A while back I shared something called the Second Chance Game. The basic idea is that a player who makes an error is immediately given an opportunity to correct their mistake. For example, a hitter spikes a ball into the net. The coach immediately makes them hit another ball, and potentially another, and another until they have a good swing. It is worth noting that doing this sort of error correction need not be confined to one certain type of game. It can happen at any time, in any game or drill.

During my time with the professional teams in Germany, I saw many examples of the coaches using this kind of second chance approach. They did it in passing drills. They did it in defense drills. They did it when working on movement. They did it for setting. The point was to not accept the bad repetition – especially if it was driven by poor technique, bad decision-making, etc. – and reinforce the desired execution.

In fact, second chance is often best used in drills because it’s easier to have a do-over in those situations than in game-play. Second chance when having your team play tends to create a continuous play situation. This can be useful at times, but if you’re looking to have something with a more discrete stop-start process (like with rallies begun by a serve), then second chance from an individual player perspective is probably not the best choice. You could, however, do it from a broader team perspective by repeating the play from the start or from some key juncture.

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