I’ve written multiple times previously on the need for coaches to have a strong sense of their priorities. Here’s one example, and another. Priorities apply to all levels of our coaching, from what we do on the court in practice to the stuff we do in the administrative arena.

Here, though, I want focus a bit closer on how we prioritize what we do in practice. This is something I’ve addressed before. A post by Mark Lebedew, though, offers a way to really drill down in an objective fashion. I want to speak to that.

Look at the actions

The primary thrust of what Mark outlines is that we need to look at how actions are distributed in our team’s play. That gives us a strong foundation for how we allocate our training time.

Using an example match report from DataVolley, the ranking of actions for the focus team works out like this:

  1. Block/Defense (opponent attacked 96 times)
  2. Attack (79 attempts)
  3. Serve (73 attempts)
  4. Receive (66 attempts – not counting opponent service errors)

I know from experience that Mark almost always gets push-back because his focus is generally the professional and/or international level. Let me toss in some numbers from a random 15-and-unders girls’ juniors match I happen to have data on.

Attacks for the focus team were 59, while Serve and Receive were both 53. Unfortunately, I don’t have opponent attack figures, but we can probably make a safe guess they were somewhere around the 59 of the focus team.

Let’s look at a season of figures

How about we take Mark’s stuff to another level and look at whole seasons worth of data? Just for fun, I added up all the figures from all the matches the 2019 seasons for NCAA Division I and III women and Divisions I/II and III men.

Actual serve numbers are not reported in the NCAA box scores. Since each rally must start with a serve, though, we can use Points Played in that place. Reception Opps is Points Played less the total number of missed serves. Attacks/Rally is then Attacks/Reception Opps. Thus, it measures how many attacks, on average, there are in rallies where the serve is in (inclusive of aces). Those figures would obviously be higher if we subtracted aces from Reception Opps.

It’s interesting to notice that not only are the attacks/rally lower for men (likely due to higher Kill%), but that there isn’t a difference between NCAA Divisions.

What does this tell us?

So what’s the take-away from all this? As Mark notes in his post, the implication is that we should spend more time working on attack and block/defense (the latter being the case because we essentially always do it when the other team attacks) than on service and reception.

This is a general principle. There are a couple of elements that are worth unpacking, though.

Game-like training gets the balance right: It’s important to note that if you incorporate a lot of game play into your practice, then you’re probably pretty close to having the right balance of actions. This is especially true if you’re starting rallies with serves. And obviously you need to allow the rallies to play out to really get the full effect.

Multi-skill exercises: There is quite simply no way you can get the balance right if you try to work on the different parts of the game separately. You need to do combined exercises. That means serving and passing and attacking vs. a block and defense.

Your team’s balance can be indicative: The figures I presented above are general. You’ll want to look at your own counts because they could actually give you hints on where to prioritize things. For example, if your team is receiving more often than attacking, then you have a breakdown. Problems in reception are a likely culprit, but that’s not the only potential issue.

Drill down: Make sure you don’t just take these figures to mean you need to work more on attacking than you do currently. While that might be the case, you should probably look at the phases of play. Attacking happens partly in the reception phase, and partly in transition. Similarly, attacking happens from both in-system and out-of-system situations. You’ll want a sense of those divisions.

What if you want to improve something specific?

Of course, there’s always something specific we want to get better at. Just because we have a sense of how we should be distributing our attention, it doesn’t mean we have to be rigid about sticking to it. Giving something a bit more time is perfectly reasonable.

The thing I would note here, though, is that in many cases you don’t really need to change your work ratios. You can simply change your area of specific coaching focus. By that I mean what you are having your players concentrate on and where you direct your feedback.


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.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.