In a comment to my Do not allow players to go on autopilot post I talked about the need to take players out of their comfort zone – to make them uncomfortable. Long-time reader Kelly quite reasonably brought up the question of how exactly we do that. Let me start with a basic idea to help frame this.

What is the comfort zone?

In the What percentage of reps should be good? post I share something Karch Kiraly talked about with regards to the USA Women’s National Team. He said their goal was to see about 2 out of 3 reps be successful. That means – depending on the focus – either an individual or group would fail about 33% of the time. Much more failure than that was too much as the players became frustrated. Less and they didn’t get the challenge needed for optimal learning and development.

So here we have a sense of how we can define the comfort zone. In the USA gym, if you were successful more than 75% of the time (allowing for variance) you were probably too comfortable. I’m not saying that number is the one every team should use, but it does provide a starting point.

Going beyond the numbers, though, watch the players. If they don’t need full focus to perform the exercise in question, then it’s too easy.

Up the challenge – counting

One way to push players out of their comfort zone is to simple increase the demands when doing counting based activities. That means something like requiring 10 passes to target instead of 7, or 15 good sets rather than 10. A similar idea applies to upping the in-a-row number. And, of course, you can also convert a simple count target to an in-a-row target.

You can also introduce/increase a negative count to up the challenge. For example, -1 for an overpass when focusing on digging or reception.

An alternative to upping the count is to reduce the time or number of balls. As an example, consider the Hard Drill, which is a kind of cooperative team pepper. You might have the objective of getting 7 in a row. If the team gets there you can obviously up the goal to 10 next time. Another way to increase the challenge is to keep the 7, but give the team only 10 minutes to get there, or just 20 balls (as random examples). Beyond increasing the challenge, this is something that can help cap how long the drill takes.

Up the challenge – complexity

The other primary way to push players out of their comfort zone is to make things more complex. This can come about in a few different ways.

One is to add more players. For example, passing with two people is more complicated than having just one passer. Now there’s the question of coordinating and communicating responsibility. Ditto upping the number of players trying to block. The number of blockers at the net, and how well-formed the block is, changes the complexion of defending against an attack.

Another way to up the complexity is to add something the player has to do before and/or after the focus skill. A passer has to transition to attack after the pass. A hitter has to transition from their block. A setter has to penetrate from their defensive position.

Anything that introduces uncertainty inherently makes things more complex as well. For example, increasing the number of potential attackers a block faces. Players not knowing if the ball is coming to them in reception or defense is another example. Setters get much more uncertainty when working off passed balls – increasingly so as the passers have to work with more difficult balls. And carrying on from that, hitters face uncertainty when setting is inconsistent.

Up the challenge – pressure

Something else to consider in terms of making players uncomfortable is finding ways to up the pressure. As I outlined in Creating pressure in practice, there are a few ways you can do this. Essentially, it comes down to creating situations where more focus is placed on an individual and/or there being greater consequences attached to a specific thing. I’m not talking about physical stuff like sprints for the losing team, though. There are better ways to go.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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