A reader and subscriber to the weekly newsletter sent the following questions.

This winter, I’ll be coaching 7th/8th grade (girls) volleyball for the first time…a long-time dream finally coming true. I’ve browsed your website a bunch but figured I’d reach out if you have any recommendations for a good starting point in terms of practices. Some of these girls will probably have prior experience but I am anticipating a lot of need for the basics/fundamentals of the game. 

There’s a few different things to have in mind in this kind of situation.

Teach them the game

The first thing I would say is that when dealing with new players your #1 priority is teaching them the game. You should, of course, do it in a fairly basic fashion, but still do it. There is a tendency to want to jump right into skill training. That’s understandable, since they basically don’t have any. Just keep in mind that they want to play volleyball, not just do drills. Giving them an understanding of the game also provides them a context for what you’re trying to teach them on the skill side. Chances are, they’ll have at least some basic understanding. You’ll just need to build a bit on that.

Lots of variation in ability

You’ll note in the question that the expectation of this coach is to have a mix of experience levels. That is quite typical. Even if you have a group with basically the same level of experience across them all, you’re still going to see a lot of variation. Because of their different stages of physical development, the kids are likely to be much stronger in some areas than in other on an individual basis. You might have a taller kid who picks up hitting fairly quickly, but who can’t pass to save their life. Another kid might pass really well, but can’t serve the ball over the net. Some kids will be comfortable taking the ball with their hands and others will be terrified. You have to be prepared for this, both in terms of planning and in setting your expectations.

You can and should control things

This age group generally doesn’t have a lot of ball control. As a result, you’re going to need to do a lot of initiation stuff – more than you’d want to do for a more experienced group. Your purpose in doing so will be two-fold. First, you’ll need to put balls in so they’re good enough for the players to actually get reps. Thing controlled serves or tossing in a second ball if there’s a missed serve. Second, you can control the challenge level for each player. As noted above, they are likely to have abilities all over the place. That means they need different levels of challenge.

Focus a lot on serve and pass…

If you want the kids to actually be able to play something looking like volleyball they need to be able to serve and pass serve. That means you need to spend a lot of your time on those skills. I don’t mean doing endless drills. The players likely won’t have the attention span for that kind of thing. You’ll need to mix it up to keep them focused. Just make sure serving and/or passing feature a lot, and make sure you maintain your coaching focus there.

With specific regards to serving, my philosophy is to start them with standing serves, but to get them playing with a jump serve as soon as they show the physical capacity to do one.

But don’t leave out the rest

As much as serving and passing are likely to be the biggest areas you want to focus on, don’t concentrate on them exclusively. Make sure you work on setting and hitting too. Obviously, you want them to develop those skills. Just as importantly, though, there’s that context thing I mentioned earlier. It’s a lot easier for them to understand the need for good passing when they can connect it to better setting and hitting opportunities.

And have everyone doing everything

I hate that I need to even mention this, but I feel like I do. Make sure every kid gets training in all areas of the game. Don’t keep the shorter kids just doing back row skills and the tall kids just doing front row stuff. There’s a lot of physical change happening in this age group. You never know where a kid is going to end up, so you don’t want to stunt their development by pigeon-holing them. You need to have a long-term perspective on their volleyball development.

Give them knowledge of performance

Feedback is always important in the learning process. For new players, since they really don’t know anything, the focus should mainly be on the positive side of things. Affirm when they do it right more than criticize when they get it wrong. Motivation and confidence can be fragile. You want to be supporting those things, not breaking them down.

Also make sure they can judge for themselves when they do things properly. This is knowledge of performance. For example, when I worked once with a group of inexperienced 13s my passing focus for them was above the height of the antennae and in the middle of the court. That was something each kid could judge for themselves. I didn’t have to be there to tell them each time. This sort of thing is important, because you can’t be watching every kid all the time.

Recommended reading

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on coaching this age group, as most of my work has been with older athletes. That being the case, I would highly recommend Sally Kus’ book Coaching Volleyball Successfully. It’s got some really good stuff for middle school and high school coaches.

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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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