Here’s a challenge from a coach in Ireland similar to one I’ve faced.

I set up an U18s girls team in Ireland. Volleyball isn’t too big here at the moment. My group is a mix of different skill levels: very beginner to intermediate. None are advanced. Any tips for running a practice when some girls are learning basics and others are learning more challenging skills?

I’ve definitely been in this situation. My last season coaching at Exeter we had a similar challenge. Imagine a high school where you have to work with varsity and junior varsity members at the same time and on one court. That was basically the scenario.

Here are a couple ways I managed things.

Split them up

One of the ways I worked with the two different levels of players I had was to separate them. For example, if we were playing some kind of small-sided game like Winners, I’d have the better players on one half and the weaker ones on the other. That would allow each to have a challenge at their own level.

Another example of splitting the team up is for skill training. Let’s say we’re working on hitting. With the more advanced group you might be working on directional hitting, while with the others it may be more just getting them to be able to attack aggressively.

Those are ideas where you’re working on one thing, but at two different levels. You could also split them for the purpose of running stations focused on multiple things. In that case, you simply adapt each station based on which group is there.

Working with them together

Doing things with the two groups is pretty straightforward when you split them. There may be space and coaching attention issues, but it’s relatively easy to manage things that way.

The bigger challenge is having to work with them mixed together. For example, when you want to do game-oriented activities like 6 v 6 play. The aim is to keep the weaker players from being “drill killers” by putting them in situations where they can succeed while simultaneously challenging the stronger ones to an appropriate degree.

One way you can potentially do this is by using different types of ball initiation for the two groups. You can give harder balls to the better players.

Giving the weaker players a second chance is another option.

You could also have different ways of scoring or otherwise succeeding based on level. These could be process-oriented goals based on things each group is working on. It could be different objectives, either in terms of the number of something (e.g. X in a row) or in terms of how they score. An example of the latter might be the weaker players can score from any attack, but the better ones can only do so from first or second tempo attacks. Similarly, you can apply different bonus points for the two groups.

These things may sound to you like stuff you can try if you’re doing an A-side vs. B-side game. That’s certainly true, but they can also come in to play in a mixed game. In fact, if you set up the scoring right you can really encourage the development of both groups, and overall group cohesion. Just arrange it so that the better players have to rely on the weaker ones to be able to win.

For example, you could say that a team can only score based on the action of one of the weaker players. As an easy one to consider, let’s say attacking. The team needs to get a kill from one of the weaker players. That will encourage the stronger ones to put them in the best position to succeed, and to support them.

Now add in something to challenge the better players. That could be serves coming from one of their own level, or maybe the coach attacking a ball. Now both levels of players have to rely on each other for success.

Final thoughts

With a bit of thought, you can find ways to make it work with a group of players of markedly different levels. No doubt it’s a challenge. If you do things right, though, you can not only develop both groups, but also strengthen team bonds.

One of the keys is to make sure you don’t match up the strengths of the better group against a weakness of the weaker one. That’s bad on multiple levels. Rather, try to flip that around and put a strength of the weaker players against a weakness of the stronger ones. That could be quite interesting.

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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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