In discussions of training methods, I often see coaches wanting to differentiate beginners from more experienced players. The argument goes that more game-oriented or variable (a.k.a. random) activities – which research indicates tend to be more effective – are fine for the more experienced athletes. Beginners lack the skill to play in game-like situations, however. Thus, we have to stick with isolated (likely blocked) reps to teach them the fundamentals.

Beginners can’t play?

Is it really true, though, that beginners can’t play volleyball without some initial training?

We’ve all seen backyard and/or P.E. class volleyball. It’s ugly, to be sure – at least by our standards. We can’t say, however, that those people – who probably haven’t had any skill training- aren’t playing volleyball. That argues against the need for some kind of training before letting beginners play.

Now, I will say that a bunch of untrained adults or teenagers do find playing volleyball easier than a group of 8-year olds. That’s not about skill, however. It’s about strength and physical literacy (balance, coordination, etc.).

A lot of the struggles we see in kids come from their need to develop hand-eye coordination, gain strength (lessened considerably when we use smaller courts, lower nets, and lighter balls), and learn how to manipulate their body. Skill is secondary. This is why Ruth Nelson includes movement training activities in her BYOP program for little kids – to develop physical literacy alongside volleyball techniques. I’ve also seen it a lot in youth training programs in Europe and elsewhere.

If beginners can actually play without training…

But back to the broader point. If we clearly have evidence of beginners playing volleyball with no real training, why do we think kids on our teams are somehow different? Is it because beginner volleyball doesn’t match our image of what the game should look like? Do we struggle with the “ugly” nature of the game at that level?

My guess is yes.

If so, we need to get over it. Playing is fun. Simple, isolated execution drills not so much. More fun means more engagement. This is a key element of working with beginners. After all, the first rule is to make them want to come back.

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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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