I’ve written before on my dislike of “blind” drills. Those are ones where the player(s) cannot see ball initiation. An example that comes up a lot in “how to get players to react more quickly” conversations among coaches. It’s an exercise where you hang a sheet on the net so passers can’t see the server. I won’t go into those arguments again here. You can follow the links.

I do want to add a bit of depth to this discussion, though.

Beware the guru effect

First, I have to share something I heard from a coach in one exchange I had online on this subject. He told me he started using the curtain drill after finding out a 4-time state champ coach uses it. When I pushed back on the idea that this drill had anything to do with their success, this is his reply.

I didn’t reference it to say THAT drill is why. They were 4 time state champions bc they had a roster full of Top D1 players…literally. But if he told me he used it all the time to work on serve receive and reaction time to the ball, that’s what I’ll do.

Can you guess my response to this?

If your answer is something along the lines of “You just admitted that this drill was not the cause of their success, so why would you do the drill simply because that coach says he uses it all the time?” then full marks to you!

I’d argue that this particular coach wins in spite of using this drill.

The whole idea of using a drill/game/exercise because a successful coach uses it is something addressed quite well in Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom.

Reading the server

There was a very useful idea that did come from that discussion thread, though. A separate coach posted this:

To help with reading, we set up servers vs passers on both side. When a server is about to start, the receivers in front of them who are off and in front of the server will turn around. They have to call out the zone and type of serve from about 10-15 feet away. We also give a bunch of tells from the starting point, toss, contact point and previous serve. Scout warmups!

THIS is how you improve reaction times in serve receive! You teach the players how to read the server.

Reversing the “blind” exercise

You want to know how important reading the server is for passing? Let’s bring in an example from soccer. It basically flips around the blind exercise thing. Instead of not seeing ball contact, but picking up the ball later in its flight, consider seeing ball contact, but then losing the ball in its flight.

Rather famously, there was a test of Christiano Ronaldo. He has to try to score from a corner kick with the lights going off while the ball is in-flight. It’s part of the video below, starting at the 5:30 mark.

It’s interesting to note from the first part of the test that the amateur they brought in as a comparison wasn’t actually horribly wrong in judging the flight of the ball. But he was off enough that he didn’t even get a touch. As the commentator indicated, he missed out on that little extra bit of information. Over the distance the ball traveled, though, that little difference from the initial kick ended up producing a meaningful variation between predicted and actual ball flight.

And if you had any doubt about just how much information a passer can get from the pre-contact actions of the server, the last part of the video should erase them. Ronaldo put the ball in the goal – and even with a less common technique – despite not actually seeing it beyond the point of contact.

It’s also worth noting what the woman talks about near the end as well related to players watching things on film and making predictions. That suggests watching servers (or attackers if we’re talking defense) on video can also be a useful training exercise.

Now, having said all this, if you want to use a blind drill to have some fun, go for it!

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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.

    2 replies to "Develop better player reactions from the start, not the finish"

    • Chelsea Posten

      John, is there a video demonstrating your version of “servers vs passers”? The drill I know with this name is not this one you describe. I can’t find it on YouTube either.

      • John Forman

        Chelsea – It’s not “my version” of anything. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anyone use it myself. As I understand it, though, you’re talking about the basic structure of a 2-sided serve & pass. Servers on both ends and passers on both sides. When it’s the turn for the server from Side A to go, the passers from Side A turn and watch the serve to judge where it’s going.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.