Before I get to the “How?” of developing volleyball IQ, a definition is probably in order. I define volleyball IQ as the ability to make good decisions on the court. It’s about doing the right thing in the moment. Think of all the little, quick decisions players have to make during the run of play – who to set, how to attack the ball, where to position themselves on defense, etc. Players lacking in volleyball IQ make the wrong decisions – in other words, pick the wrong solutions.

Actually, what might be even worse is players who don’t really think at all when they play. They lack intent in their actions. Obviously, inexperienced players fall into this category because they just haven’t learned any better yet. In more experienced players, though, we see the lack of intent manifest itself in panicky play during scramble type situations. They “just get the ball up” or “just get it over” rather than playing with purpose.

So how do we raise players’ volleyball IQ? There are a couple of different ways to do it.

Put them in the situation

If you want players to get smarter on the court in some way, you must put them in those situations in practice. There’s no way around that. Yes, they may conceptually understand an idea when talked about. Until they actually have to do it on the court, though, it’s unlikely to take hold and get reinforced. So create situations in practice that work on the concepts you want developed.

Here’s an example. When I coached the Exeter women they lacked good judgement on when to attack aggressively and when it was best to keep the ball in play. To work on that, I used The Hard Drill, a cooperative back row attacking exercise. The team had to get 7 good attack-dig-hand set sequences within a single rally. The attacks had to be aggressive to count. The sequences did not need to be consecutive so long as the rally continued. That means if they had to play a free ball or hit an easy shot over, the rally kept going, but the rep did not count toward the goal. If the rally died, the count reset to zero.

Obviously, the drill worked on many skills. A key one, though, was decision-making. It encouraged players to figure out when to swing aggressively – which they needed to do to get successful reps – and when it was best to just keep the rally going. In the early stages they needed a bit of a nudge to figure out how to “beat the drill”, but that’s all part of the teaching/learning process.

What did I do by using The Hard Drill? I took something that was a developmental need and made it a situational focus. Yes, there were other skills the players also worked on, but this mental aspect was key for success.

Key aspect #1 – Make it game-like

You’ll note that what I chose to work on attacker decision-making was a very game-like exercise. Yes, there are ways it could have more fully replicated a game, but the main elements of game play were there. This is extremely important.

As I noted above, volleyball IQ is about making good decisions in game situations. That means we need to train players to make those decisions in a game context. It simply won’t happen through the use of blocked drills where the focus is on technical execution. For the most part, they lack the kind of decision-making we’re talking about here.

Key aspect #2 – Encourage, don’t force

It’s important that you don’t force solutions on the players by providing them the or only one solution to the situation you’re presenting them. I say this for two reasons. First, the solution you provide might not be the best one in every variation of the situation. It might be right in most variations, or the most frequent one, but it could be totally wrong in others. Second, if you tell players exactly what to do, they don’t learn to problem solve for themselves. If they don’t develop that ability, then they will struggle mightily when things don’t go according to script.

Key aspect #3 – Make sure there’s quality feedback

Feedback is, of course, a key element of any kind of training. I make specific mention of it here because it’s something that can slip during game play, which is where volleyball IQ development happens. If we really want to improve decision-making, then it needs to be a big focus and we need to make sure the feedback mechanisms are in place and specifically aimed in that direction. And remember, there are multiple forms of feedback.

Consider The Hard Drill example above. There’s a built-in form of feedback. When a player makes an error while attacking a ball they should just keep in play the team’s count resets to zero. That’s pretty clear feedback that they made the wrong choice. The coach, of course, can provide verbal feedback. You might also incorporate video feedback as well. Generally speaking, though, the success or failure of the attack tends to be enough in this situation.

A place where video and/or verbal feedback is probably more necessary is something like working on defensive reading. If the player can’t make a dig they will realize they were out of place, but might not understand why. The external feedback can help provide the answer so the player can try to make corrections moving forward.

So make sure there’s a consistent, focused feedback mechanism for the players. It’s not enough to just put them in game situations and leave them to their own devices. Yes, eventually they’ll probably figure things out. It’ll happen much faster with good feedback, though.

Addressing mindless play (lack of intent)

I commented at the outset of this article that lack of intent might be worse then poor decision-making. So how can we address this?

As I suggested above, this sort of thing in more experienced players tends to manifest when they are in scramble mode. They tend to overplay the ball, or to play it as a way to simply relieve the pressure. In other words, they panic.

We address this by putting players in scramble mode so they can learn to play with intent rather than acting mindlessly. One of my favorite ways to do that is to run Scramble. As the name suggests, it’s a game that puts the players in scramble mode a lot. That, in and of itself, will tend to get them used to it, helping calm them down. With some feedback as well – perhaps in the form of a second chance approach – you can really focus on good decision-making.


Volleyball IQ can only really be developed in a sustainable way by playing. Yes, players can learn new things by watching video (or live matches), or by being told, but at the end of the day that stuff only sticks if they work on applying it in game situations. That’s why creating game-like situations to work on the developmental needs you see is so important. Volleyball IQ development is less about instruction and more about guided discovery.

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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.

    1 Response to "Developing volleyball IQ"

    • Sandy

      a lot of useful information, thanks for that

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