Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

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.

Creating Game-Like Volleyball Drills

In her book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, Sally Kus shares how to make drills game-like. This is something which gets a lot of attention in coaching circles these days (see my post on random vs. blocked training). Here are those steps.

  1. Identify the skill.
  2. Go back one play.
  3. Start the drill there.
  4. Perform the skill.
  5. Perform the next in the sequence.

So, for example, if you want to work on OH attacks you could do something like this.

  1. A serve or free ball from the other side of the net is initiated to a player.
  2. That player then transitions and attacks a set ball.
  3. The player then moves to their defensive base at the net.
  4. The player executes a block (perhaps with some initial footwork).

The idea of using these more complex drills is for the player to execute the skill within the context of how they do it during a match situation. The player sees what they will see before the skill (ball coming across the net, coming from a teammate, etc.), executes the skill, then does something immediately afterwards.

Admittedly, these types of drills run slower than the simple ones (like hitting lines). Aside from training the players to play the ball as they do in real life, though, these drills allow you to train multiple skills. This is done either with one player or several of them. Clearly, when working with beginners you’ll use less complicated drills. Even with that group, though, there are plenty of ways to make things game-like by initiating the ball over the net, having them execute a follow-up skill, etc.

Accidentally finding a useful new scoring system

Near the start of my second year in England I ran a small training session. It ended up being a trio of players from the Devon team that won South West Championships that year and a quartet of junior aged girls. The skill levels are obviously quite widely separated in a situation like that. As a result, there are limits to what you can do in terms of drills.

We did some fundamental work on ball-handing and serving and passing. Then I moved it to game play. I had the Devon players go against the four girls, playing on half a court to encourage rallies.

Obviously, we’re talking about teams which were quite imbalanced. In order to make things more competitive, I introduced a scoring twist. The young team used standard rally scoring, but the Devon team could only score on kills. Aside from keeping the game more competitive, there were some interesting side effects to using this system.

  1. Devon quickly started serving easily because they could only score if the ball came back over the net. That allowed them to run a transition attack.
  2. Devon started hitting the ball harder. They also attacked the ball from positions they perhaps would not have done so otherwise.
  3. The girls realized quickly that they needed to adapt their defense to deal with more aggressive play. That got them putting up a much more effective block to slow the Devon attack down.
  4. The girls were also freed up to play more aggressively than they otherwise would. After all, they couldn’t lose points for making errors.

The girls ended up winning 25-23. One of the Devon players and I were commenting afterward that the 23 kills they got in that game were more than many teams get in multiple games (even matches at certain levels).

I didn’t have all the side effects in mind when I decided to do that split scoring game. I was just looking for a way to even things out a bit. As I watched the play, though, I could see what was developing and it definitely gave me ideas for how I could use it in other training session.

In particular, one of the issues we had with the Exeter University women’s team in the prior season was putting the ball away. We played very good defense. That let us compete with even the top teams, but we just didn’t get enough kills. I saw that using this kind of scoring system for scrimmage play in practice could be effective in working on more aggressive attacking since there are no consequences for making hitting errors.

Volleyball Stretches

In my post about not wasting valuable time in your volleyball warm-up I think I expressed pretty clearly my view on stretching before becoming active. To my mind, we should outlaw jog-and-stretch. I have seen players take crazy amounts of time to stretch before even picking up a ball. A player on my Exeter team one year came to the gym 30 minutes before training just to stretch.

As this article notes, there is no evidence that stretching has any benefit in terms of preventing injuries or improving performance. In fact, the WebMD article I cited in that earlier post suggests there could be some negative effects. This Men’s Health article notes the following.

Although it’s often prescribed as an injury-prevention measure, static stretching before a workout might be the worst of all strategies. Because it forces the target muscle to relax, it temporarily makes it weaker. As a result, a strength imbalance can occur between opposing muscle groups. For example, stretching your hamstrings causes them to become significantly weaker than your quadriceps. And that may make you more susceptible to muscle strains, pulls, and tears in the short term.

So basically, static stretching before training or matches isn’t just a waste of time which you could put to better use. There’s a chance it’s actually harmful! I should note, however, this view is other studies contest this, but only in terms of the drop in performance.

But I am NOT saying stretching in general is useless.

All three of the articles mentioned do include suggestions that one stretch regularly to maintain range of motion, increase flexibility, etc. The Men’s Health article actually goes further. It says that one should stretch twice a day to work on generally flexibility. Just don’t do it right before exercise. Here’s the rub, though. You have to stretch twice a day or the gains you make won’t be retained.

So when should players do volleyball stretches?

Well, after training and/or match play is a good time to get one of those 2/day sessions in. The muscles are warm, which is when stretching should be done. As a coach it gives you the opportunity to monitor what they are doing. If needed, you can provide instruction and focus. Be aware, though, that the research indicates no real anti-soreness benefit to stretching after training according to this article. Soreness comes from overworking the muscles. A bit of stretching isn’t going to fix that.

But of course if you’re not doing two-a-day training with your team, the after practice volleyball stretches won’t cover the suggestion of getting them in twice/day. The players will have to be responsible for themselves getting it done.

I know. That’s a horrifying prospect for many of us. 🙂

What volleyball stretches should players do?

I think a better question might be, “On what areas should volleyball stretches be focused?” I think we can all come up with the main ones like shoulders, quads and calves – the major drivers of volleyball action. There are a couple of places which tend not to get enough attention, though:

  • Achilles tendons
  • Hip flexors
  • Hamstrings
  • Pectorals

The Achilles relates to jumping ability. The others, though, spend much of the time in a volleyball match in a flexed state and not often in an extended one.

For example, there is very little long-stride sprinting in volleyball. As a result, the hamstrings don’t get much extension – or exertion, for that matter. That means they can shorten up and be relatively weaker than the surrounding quads and calves. This imbalance can create issues. This is why not only is it good to stretch those muscles, but also to make sure they’re included in strength training.

In the case of the pectorals, they do get stretched a bit when serving and hitting. Otherwise, though, a player’s shoulders tend to be rolled a bit forward (think passing and blocking mechanics). This can result in a slouch, which is a muscle imbalance. Not only should the pecs be stretched, but players need to ensure the opposing back muscles are worked for balance. Or you can walk around poking your knuckle between players shoulder blades. A strength coach I knew did that to get them in proper posture. 🙂

So what I’m saying is make sure the muscles and whatnot opposing the primary ones are getting at least as much attention as the main ones. Think of things like the core muscles and how most players will do a lot of twist reps in one direction due to hitting and serving.

USA Volleyball posted a series of stretches used my the Men’s National Team you can use as a reference.

This goes for coaches too!

Keep in mind that as a coach you run the risk of creating imbalance situations as well because of the way you initiate balls. In any given training session you may actually do more torso twisting and shoulder work from hitting, serving and such than your players. One of the things I have done to try to counter that is to try to do lefty reps either hitting or throwing (I’m a righty) to work the twisting and such in the opposite direction for at least a bit of balance.

Volleyball Games: Using Bonus Points Effectively

There is a major focus in volleyball coaching circles these days on making training as game-oriented as possible. That means moving away from rote mechanical – block – training. Incorporating the types of visuals, movement patterns, and situations one will see in a match is better. Obviously, nothing is going to be more game-like than actually playing. Let’s face it, though. The scrimmages and other volleyball games we do in training oftentimes drift away from the developmental focus we would like to have for that particular session.

There is a way to have your players concentrating on those key things, however.

By introducing bonus points, you can get your players focused on executing whatever skills or plays you want. For example, a bonus point for a 3-pass (see Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness) will have them concentrate more on passing. A bonus point for a stuff block will get your blockers more intent on their task. You can have even bonus points for more complex sequences. Think of things like quick attacks or combination plays, or for scoring on the first ball in serve receive.

You can also have point penalties for undesirable plays. For example, say you want to curb the amount of 1-arm digging or passing that’s happening. Assess a point deduction each time it happens. Maybe your team isn’t calling the ball enough. If so, you can subtract points for failure to do so. If you want free balls sent only to zone 1 you can asses a deduction when it doesn’t happen.

Here are some things to think about in terms of employing bonus/penalty points in your games:

  • You can vary the points based on the amount of focus you want to give something – more points for key areas of focus, fewer for lesser ones.
  • You can have multiple bonus/penalty items in your game, but don’t get carried away. The players can only focus on a couple of things at a time effectively, and you can only track of so many different things, so keep it relatively narrowly defined.
  • Be careful of unintended consequences. You don’t want you players forcing things to try to earn bonus points. Make sure you structure your point system to avoid that.

You’ll know you have your player’s attention on where you want their focus when they start yelling out bonus point scoring in the middle of plays. That’s probably not the best situation in terms of their game concentration, but at least you know you have them thinking about the right things. 🙂

Volleyball Coaching Concept: Wave drills & games

Wave drills in volleyball are quite useful when you work with larger groups of players. They’re also good in high intensity drills. They can help avoid excess fatigue.

Basically, wave drills involve grouping players. You then rotate them through positions in a game or drill together. Doing so can effectively minimize down time in the form of players sitting out. You can also use them to move players into a less demanding role after a high intensity sequence. For example, MBs shift from fast-paced front row play to serving or defense.

A game like Winners 3s is a simple version of a wave structure. At the end of each point, one group of players comes off while another group comes on. A third group may also shift from the challenge side of the court to the winners’ side.

Another variation on this is breaking the team in to cohorts of three. They then play a 6 v 6 game during which those cohorts are rotated through front and back court positions. For example, a new wave comes on in the back court position on one side after each rally ends. That then cascades the waves through. It pushes the back court cohort on the other side of the net off as the front court group moves into their place. This allows you to have players on for 4 straight rotations. They are only off a minimal amount of time (1 rotation if you have 5 groups, 2 rotations if you have 6, etc.).

You can also wave on errors. Say you have 18 players. You split them into six groups of three. Three teams are assigned to each side of the court. Two teams are on and one is off waiting. The teams play through a rally. One of the cohorts on the losing side is replaced by the cohort waiting on the sideline based on some rule, like which group was at fault for the point lost.

I’m sure you can think of numerous other waves ideas. In fact, you probably use them in an ad hoc way right now. When you flip front and back row during a drill or game (like in Bingo-Bango-Bongo after a big point), that’s a form of a wave. The advantage of formal the wave rotations, however, is players are responsible for automatic waving. That means you don’t have to stop things to do it. This saves time and keeps the training intensity up.

Save time by naming your volleyball drills

You will notice that the volleyball drills and games I post here to share with you have names. You may or may not like them and think you can come up with better ones. If so, go for it. They are being shared so you can incorporate them into your training if you find them useful. I fully expect in doing so that you’ll make any adaptations you deem necessary.

Getting back to the point, though, there is a very specific reason for my assigning names to drills and games. It’s one which I encourage you to emulate if you aren’t already do it.

By naming each drill and using that name with your players you’ll make your training sessions go much more smoothly. Nothing grinds a well-tempoed practice to a halt faster than having to take several minutes to explain what you want for the next drill. Obviously, that can’t be avoided when introducing a new drill (which is why the start of the session is often the best time to do it). For those you use fairly regularly, though, having a name means the players know exactly what you want and can get on with things. There may be those who through either being new or being dense don’t know what’s going on, of course. The rest of the squad will get them sorted out so you can focus on what’s happening, though.

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t make modifications to adapt the drill to concentrate on your priorities for that session. As long as they don’t change the basic functioning of the drill, you do what you like. For example, you could say something like:

“We’re going to do The Belly Drill now. Since I want to focus on quick attacks today, though, we’re going to add a scoring element. A team will get 1 point for a kill from a quick attack. We’ll keep going until one team gets to 5 points.”

In this case I’m not doing anything in terms of altering the primary way The Belly Drill functions. All I’ve done is created a modification to focus on something I want the team working on that day. The players should have no problem understanding what the drill’s about because it will function the same as always, but now as a goal.

If, however, the modification you are thinking to make to a drill will alter the basic structure of that drill, then I’d argue that you’re now talking about something different. In that case you should give it a name of it’s own. You could perhaps use the first drill’s name as a reference point when describing it to the players, but you don’t want to get into a situation where every time you use it you’re saying something like “We’re going to use that modification of Drill Z that we did that one time before where the passers go there instead of here, and the hitters are on the other side of the net, ….” Just give it a new name. It’ll make everyone’s life easier.

There aren’t many of us volleyball coaches who have all the time in the world to run our trainings, so we need to use them as efficiently as possible and waste as little time as we can. Naming drills is one way to help spend more time on action and less on talking.

And definitely feel free to change the name of drills you find here on this site, in books, etc. You want them to be memorable for the players, so maybe involve the players in naming them.

Volleyball Coaching Concept: Wash Drill

Basically, a wash drill in volleyball is one which forces a team to do things in a row. Sometimes it is doing things in bunches. If the team does so it earns a big point. The objective is to accumulate some number of total points or to beat another team. If the team fails to reach the objective it is a wash. They don’t earn the point, or alternatively, the opposing team gets the point.

There are a few primary variations you’ll find in wash drills. They include the following.

X before Y
One team has to get X number of points before the other team gets Y points.

X out of Y
A team must get X number of points within Y number of attempts (or could be done on time).

X in a row
The team must score X number of “little points” in a row to get a big point.

There is also the variation of wash drills where achieving some objective doesn’t immediately give a team a point. It instead gives them an opportunity to earn a point. The bingo-bango-bongo game is a variation of this. It uses an “X in a row” core approach. Once a team gets that, though, they must win a service rally to actually get the point.

Wash drills in volleyball are useful for any number of purposes. Here are some examples.

  • An “X before Y” variation can make for more competitive games between teams of unequal levels, such as starters vs. non-starters.
  • An “X out of Y” type of game can pit hitters against each other in an attack vs. defense drill or game.
  • A variation of “X in a row” could be used to focus on executing a skill or tactic, such as successfully running a quick attack.I

If there’s something you want to work on with your team, there’s probably a way you can do it with a wash drill. The advantage of this approach is that it gets players and teams focusing on not just singular executions. That is the case with many skill development drills (think serve receive or hitting line drills). Instead, the focus is on execution repetition. This, of course, is much more realistic in terms of game expectations.

Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?

This post will no doubt ruffle some feathers, but so be it! 🙂

There is little I hate more as a volleyball coach than watching a team do a jog-and-stretch warm-up before practice or a match. I have to think there are only three potential reasons for teams to do that.

  1. The coach (or captain) is ignorant of the better options.
  2. The coach (or captain) is being lazy.
  3. The players are intransigent (perhaps due to ignorance).

All of these reasons (excuses?) can be addressed, and should be for the benefit of the team. When I agreed to take on coaching for Exeter University in 2012 one of my requirements was that jog-and-stretch be thrown out.

Why? Because jog-and-stretch is an utter waste of time. I mean that both figuratively and literally.

On the figurative side…

Static stretching (the sort we most often think of when referring to stretching) may not have any value for warming-up. There’s no evidence that it prevents injuries, which is counter to what a lot of people think. According to WebMD, research actually shows that it may be harmful in some cases – explosive sports (like volleyball) being one of them (but time between the stretching and performance may make a difference).

Regardless of whether static stretching has any value, athletes should do it when muscles are warm. Jogging a few laps around the court is not sufficient. This is why the suggestion is that you stretch after, not before, exercise. Static stretches are best for developing flexibility, not for warming-up.

Taking it a step further, a warm up should replicate the activities to be performed during the exercise, just at a lower intensity level. You may make the case that since sprinting is part of volleyball (though only barely), jogging is a good warm up to that. Fair enough, but what about jumping, lunging, shuffling, serving, spiking, and blocking? Not much jogging is going to do for them.

All of this is why dynamic warm-ups have become so popular. Here are a couple of examples.

The first is the Stanford University men during pre-match warm-ups.

This second features a set of exercises demonstrated by teenage players.

There many, many variations and types of dynamic warm-up exercises out there. Search YouTube and I’m sure you’ll find dozens.

That said, though, there is some research with suggests even dynamic warm-ups have little impact on performance. It’s limited so far, though, so we need to see more.

On the literal side…

Jog-and-stretch misses an opportunity for the players to work on volleyball-specific movements and skills. The dynamic warm-up at least can have some volleyball type movements integrated. Even there, though, most aren’t great for getting the shoulders warmed up for serving and hitting, which is why you often see teams go from there into some kind of throwing the ball back and forth.

I also think that throwing of the ball back and forth, in most cases, is a waste of time.

Why do I say that? Because in my experience, especially with male players, it becomes more about how hard they can throw the ball or how high they can bounce it and less about actually warming up. And it takes way too long with an opportunity for skill development lost.

A simple progression from light ball-handling to easy pepper (partner pass-set-hit) to full-speed pepper will warm-up a player’s shoulders at least as well and offers the added benefit of having them working on volleyball skills at the same time (to a degree). This is supported by coaches in professional volleyball. Though I’m sure you could come up with something better than normal pepper for pre-practice warm-up when you have a net available.

When I was a volleyball camp counselor we used to play games during the break periods. Because we had a limited window of time, we generally went almost straight into playing without much in the way of warm-up. For the first several minutes it was fairly cooperative with no aggressive hitting or serving. It was only after a while that we upped the intensity to a proper competitive level. We basically played ourselves warm. Much more enjoyable than jogging around and stretching. 🙂

Do the sums

To re-task the Tesco motto, every little counts (Tesco is a grocery store chain in England).

How many training sessions will your team have this year? How many matches? Add those two figures together and multiply by the 5 minutes (or probably more) normally given over to some kind of stretching. That’s how much more effective training time your players can get by non-ball related warm-ups.

Let me use the Exeter teams I coached as an example. We trained twice a week for something like 20 weeks and had at least 20 matches. If we replaced non-ball warm-ups with those that include the ball in some form we get 300 additional minutes of ball-handling work (60 x 5) over the year, which is like adding 2-3 training sessions.

It’s OK not to do what the elite programs do

Now obviously playing your team warm isn’t something that suits all situations. Still, one needs to give a lot thought to priorities when planning warm-ups. If you’ve got a developing group of players you should probably forget about the fancy warm-ups used by upper level teams with elite level athletes. For them it’s about preparation for high-intensity competition. They are beyond the point where a few more setting or passing reps are going to make any difference. For you, though, every rep counts – especially when you only see them a few hours a week.

And keep in mind there’s a negative relationship between warm-up requirements and age. Kids don’t need to do all that stuff. Just get them on the court playing!

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