For any volleyball coach the decision of what areas of player and/or team development need working on in future training sessions is one which has to get made repeatedly throughout a season. As I noted here, some of what you put at the top of the list will be dictated – or at least strongly influenced – by higher level priorities and expectations. The rest, though, are very likely to be dynamically determined. Any number of factors contribute to them. Think about things like where you are in your year, the results of competition, and how players have progressed to-date. The successful volleyball coach knows what to put at the top of the priority list and what should be ranked near the bottom.

Identifying areas of need

Before making any ranking of priorities, we need to be able to identify the things that need work. Sounds pretty easy. Watch the players or the team in training and match situations. See what they do well and what they don’t. Simple, right?

What if you’re taking on a new team and you’ve never coached at that level before? Or what if you’re coaching in a new league or conference? Or what if you’re coaching players from different volleyball backgrounds than your own? And what if there’s a significant rules change? Any of these can influence how your prioritize what you do in early training sessions.

I’ve been through all of these things in my own coaching career. Several of them came all at the same time as I started coaching in England. I began training two teams of university players with no idea of what BUCS competition was going to be like. The same was true of coaching National League Division 1 volleyball when I took over the Devon Ladies team midway through the 2012-13 season.

Granted, in the final analysis knowledge of the competition may not have changed how I started off coaching the teams before I was actually exposed to BUCS and NVL1 play. I was, however, certainly in a better situation from that perspective going into my second season. I could then look at things from the perspective of “To make us the most competitive this year I need to work on …” That’s as compared to thinking “To improve this team I need to work on …” It may seem like a small difference. It can meaningful influence where you focus your attention, though.

Don’t think only of techniques and tactics

While you’re looking at your players and your team, make sure you’re not just focused on how they play physically. Also consider how they play mentally. You are just as responsible for training their mindset as their technical ability.

A player who plays the ball beautifully isn’t much good if she doesn’t actually go for the ball. A hitter who can hammer the ball could be a major liability if his decision-making is poor. Six spectacular athletes won’t fulfill their potential if they all play as individuals rather than as a team.

Be able to look deeper to find the root cause

One thing you have to develop as a coach is the ability to understand what’s really causing a problem. That may be mental as noted above. It may also reflect other problems.

For example, say Suzie isn’t digging the ball well in the back row. Is it because she’s not using good mechanics, or is it because she’s not in the right position? If she’s not in the right position, is that because she doesn’t know where she needs to be. Or is it because she’s adjusting to an improperly formed block? Inexperienced coaches often lock in on the final aspect of a bad play without thinking of the links in the chain getting to that point.

Or let’s say Steve has a very low hitting percentage. Is it because he’s not getting many kills, or because he has too many errors? If it’s the errors, it is a question of blocks (if you count blocks as errors), or is it hitting the ball into the net or out of play? Does the set have something to do with that? If so, is that because the team is out-of-system too much? Steve’s case could be one where the big cause is poor passing, which you must address with the team, but also poor decision-making which is at the player level.

Putting it all in order

Once you’ve got your list of things you want to work on or improve, it’s time to rank them. At face value it would seem like you want to put the areas of attention that are most likely to have the biggest impact at the top of the list. Generally speaking, that is a very good way to approach things.

In my own case, for example, when I take over a team I almost always focus most of my initial efforts and attention on getting the team’s playing mentality where I think it needs to be. That is what I see as being the single biggest influence on competitiveness – and enjoyment of play in many cases. With a team full of returning players I don’t have to spend as much time on that (hopefully), but can instead concentrate on other things.

At times, however, it’s useful to focus first on areas which may not have so much of an influence on the players’ or team’s performance. There is value in being able to let the players see small gains in a relatively short period of time. There are also times when you can build gains in the bigger areas of need of improvements in the smaller ones.

In other words, you need to understand the concept of big rocks vs. little rocks.

Keep these things in mind as you set your training priorities and develop your practice plans based on them.

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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 "Developing your training priorities"

    • John Forman

      Hi Oliver – Thanks for leaving your thoughts. I definitely agree the mental work is generally connected to technical/tactical training. The question a coach needs to answer when developing a practice plan, though, is how much to specifically pay attention to it vs. being focused mainly on execution. Same can actually go for in-match coaching too!

    • Oliver

      I agree when you say that mental work should have the main focus in practice. Usually the technical an tactical skills are more or less on the same level in each league. What makes the difference is the mental part. At least from what I experienced so far. The good thing is, that working on mental volleyball stuff is always connected to practicing techniques or tactics…

Please share your own ideas and opinions.