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

Here’s how things went over the final week of pre-season:

I had one player message me on Sunday night saying she’d miss the first couple trainings of the week because she was back home in Stockholm with her family having a think about her situation because of some stuff going on off-the-court. Not exactly the sort of thing a coach wants to be getting after the fact. I told her in the future that I wanted to hear about this sort of thing ahead of time so that maybe I could help, and if not it would at least not be a surprise (a view echoed by the team manager). Needless to say, this went to the top of my list of things to talk with the team about that night.

We actually talked about a couple of different things at the start of training. Most of it was related to Saturday’s match. I let the players talk about what they thought and then added my own impressions. The two main ones were becoming a more aggressive, committed team on defense and making an adjustment to how we do hitting in the pre-match warm-up to encourage more reaching and hitting high rather than hitting balls right over the top of the net.

Only 9 players for training. I did a mix of slower tempo and faster tempo activities. It started with 21, which is on the slow side. The players struggled to complete it and I eventually stopped the drill to talk with them about the need for focus on skill execution in that sort of circumstance. In the end, only one of the three groups finished before I moved on to new things.

I introduced the Belly Drill next. After going through a non-scoring period to get them familiar with how it works, I tried something I’ve never done before. We did a kind of negative scoring system where a team earned a point for losing a rally. The first team to 21 ended the drill. We did back row attacking only, so there were some lengthy rallies. That made for a slightly longer game than I had planned, but it was fine. I liked how it played out in terms of encouraging a lot of scrambling on defense and forcing players to try to problem solve winning rallies. I also liked that it gave me an opportunity to give players a second ball right away after they’ve made an error.

We slowed things down again after that and did some serving and passing. Initially, I had the setters working with the middles off the passes. After that I also rotated the pin hitters through.

The last 10 minutes was spent playing Winners 3s on a narrow court.

Had 10 again for this training. After pre-hab, some partner pepper, and a serving warm-up, I did a serving and passing drill. On each side there was a setter, a pair of passers from the group of OHs and the Libero, plus a target for the setter and a server from the MB and RS group. I had the passers in 5 and 6 with the server first going from 1 and then from 5. The initial server did 10 good balls, then swapped with the target. The objective was to keep the passers working on communication, while giving the other players a chance to work on their own skills.

From there I had them do Speedball 2s (with fixed setters) on a narrow court as a game play warm-up. The rest of training was work on Rotations 2 and 5 (setter in 2, setter in 5), which were ones I identified from the rotation scoring stats of Saturday’s match as likely needing some attention. I did this through a series of mini games to 7 points with one side in each of the rotations. The Rotation 2 side had a libero back row with the setter, so they played 1 & 6 defense. The Rotation 5 side had a MB and OH back row playing in 5 & 6. I had the teams only attack in the direction of the defenders. Each mini game featured only on side serving. They played two of those games, then I rotated the 3 MBs, 3 OHs, and 2 setters alternatively. I think that means we played 5 or 6 pairs of games in total.

It was a pretty loose session in terms of the players being pretty relaxed and having fun (and the watching parents having a few laughs), but I still did a fair amount of coaching in terms of stopping things quickly at times to make a point or to talk through a positioning question.

Only 9 at training again this time. We share the gym with the second/Juniors team for about 30 minutes these nights as they wrap up their session. Because the players have basically just come from weight training, there’s not much need for a real warm-up. Because we’re on a side court with limited space on the ends and one side, what we can do is constrained. I’ve taken to beginning things with a game – a 2-ball, doubles version of bagger tennis (volley tennis). Basically, each team has someone underhand serve to the other side so that two balls are in play at the same time, with two players on each side. The players love it and get quite competitive.

After that, still working on the side court, we did did team cross-court pepper. Having 9 players with just one setter, I set it up to the setter was fixed on one side for the first half, then switched to the other side. That means the other side had a player rotating through setting. I also had fixed liberos in position 5.

My original plan was to play Winners 3s on the full court once the other group was done, or maybe the Belly Drill. We did play Winners, but with a twist. We grabbed some of the Juniors and mixed them in with the squad to make teams of four or five. The younger players could mainly only stay for about 15 minutes, so that was how long we let it run. It was a good, positive environment.

After that I had the players work through rotations 2, 3, and 6. With only 9 bodies, I had to set it up as MB, RS, OH, and L on each side. I set the mini games up so that one team served each ball, and the receiving team had the setter. After the initial ball, I then hit a down ball to the libero of the serving side. Along with working on those particular rotations, these games also involved a lot of work on out-of-system attacking.

I was done with what I wanted to do after about 90 minutes, so I gave the players the opportunity to work on some other stuff. They ended up doing a bunch of serving and passing with the MBs doing some hitting and blocking work in conjunction. I had my young MB play around with running a front slide.

Off to Denmark to start the Time Vision Cup preseason tournament, hosted by Brøndby Volleyball Klub. The opposition for our first match was Swedish defending champions Engelholm. We’d heard they were struggling a bit in their preseason matches, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The team were looking forward to the match, though.

The tournament structure was round-robin pool play (2 pools of 4) over the first two days, with cross-over matches on Sunday. Each match was three sets to 25, regardless of results. My plan was to rotate the players more or less regardless of results. I began with what I expect to be our starting 7 in the first set, which we won fairly easily – mostly thanks to effective serving. Our young middle began the set with several points straight away, many aces, and that set the tone.

In the second set I swapped out the setter, libero, and right side positions. This set was closer, but we still won without too much difficulty. In the last set I started with the first set line-up, but brought in the second set subs midway through (except setter, as our young setter was a bit sick). We ended up dropping a close one, mainly because we struggled to get our block right against their one very strong attacker (OPP). That had me thinking about whether I should have played around with the match-ups a bit to see how it would have gone with our stronger hitting and blocking OH against her most of the time.

This was a two match day against the two Danish teams in our pool. We got to see them play a bit before our match on Friday. Neither could really match us in terms of the power of our attack, but both were pretty scrappy. This day I had an extra MB and had my second libero mix in a bit at OH to give some players a break. What I decided to do was to go starters in the first set. In the second set I put the reserve MB in for the younger MB, and then put the younger one in for our American MB in the 3rd set. I had the two liberos split the first two sets, then switched the second one to OH for the third set and had her go in for the American OH. The two RS players each played a full set out of the first two, then about equally split time the 3rd set. The American setter set the first two sets with the young Swedish one acting as a serving sub. The latter then set the third set herself, meaning it was an All-Sweden third set for us in both matches.

Team Køge was up first. Not a particular big team, but solid on defense. They gave us some trouble and fought really hard. We won all three sets, but it was 22, 23, and 23 and we had to come from behind each set. The serving subs I used did a good job and really helped get us over the top.

Amager was the opposition in the second set. We’ll see them again in the Oresund Liga. They beat Team Køge the prior day thanks to having a bit more offense. We made pretty short work of them in the first two sets, though, mainly through strong serving. We did lose the third set 26-28, but had needed to come back to get it to even make it that close. There might have been a bit of a focus slip there, as having won all three matches already by winning the first two sets, we had already assured ourselves of being in the title match.

The interesting question is what I would have done if we hadn’t won the first two sets. My plan all along was to rotate the MBs and the OHs to give the American players a bit of a break. If we needed to win the third set I probably would have kept the American setter in, especially given that the young Swedish one was still under the weather.

Hylte/Halmstad won the other pool, so was our opposition in Sunday’s final match. Like Engelholm, they are a team we’ll see at least 4 times during the Swedish season. We saw them play between our two matches on Saturday. The impression was that they were a good blocking team with some legit weapons in attack. I figured it would make for an interesting challenge for the team.

My approach to this one was treat it like the championship match it was in terms of playing to win, though for me it was still very much an evaluation opportunity. We again began the match with the presumed starters in, and promptly fell quickly behind. The energy wasn’t great. The players weren’t talking so much. We got blocked a couple times early. In the end we dropped that one 15-25.

I kept the same line-up to start the second set, but rather than starting with our setter in 5, I spun the rotation and had her start in 3 to get our stronger OH at the net. We ended up winning easily, 25-19. The rotation change may have been a factor in terms of favorable match-ups, but I think more important was the players talking through adjustments, who to go after in serve and attack, etc.

We were pretty in control for most of third set as well, using the same line-up and rotation from the second set. I did call a timeout at I think 21-20 when we’d let them creep back on us, but we ended up winning 25-22. We ended up with 15 blocks in the match, which is more than we had all of Saturday.

I would have liked to have won the first two sets again to allow me to give the back-up players a full set in the third, but I think getting slapped around in the first set actually may end up paying off in terms of getting the team to be more engaged from the start. I used all three of the bench players in at least two sets each (the first went so fast I didn’t really get a chance) and they were all effective, which is good.

Thoughts and observations
It’s always nice to get the season off to a winning start, especially when you know you aren’t playing anywhere near where you’ll be later if the players stay healthy and all that. My big focus in preseason was in getting the players working together as a unit, which they definitely did during the tournament. Now the focus will shift to working on developing some specific technical abilities, improving and expanding our defensive tactics, and refining our offensive capabilities.

Other stuff
Saturday is our first league match of the year against Örebro. We haven’t played them, so our scouting will have to be from player recollections and some video of them playing in preseason that is apparently available.

The team manager was with me on the bench for all the matches using SoloStats 1-2-3 on my iPad mini to keep track of passing and the rally-ending plays. That doesn’t give us the figures to come up with something like hitting percentages, but it does produce a fair amount of useful information on performance and rotational analysis. I’ve played around with it before, but this is the first time it’s gotten serious use. We’ll have proper stats during the matches moving forward, but it might be worth keeping in use anyway. We’ll see.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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