Sneaky volleyball conditioning through pepper

Want an easy way to work on player conditioning while also having players develop their ball-handling skills?

Have them pepper for a while.

Now I’m not just suggesting you just roll the balls out and tell them to pass-set-hit with each other for half an hour while you sit and have a coffee. No such luck. You’ll actually have to do some coaching.

There is a trick to getting the most out of however long you want to run things. That is mixing up exactly what you have the players doing. There are loads of pepper variations. There are also many ways to focus on certain elements while keeping the players working hard. You’ve got a hitting element, a digging element, and a setting element. You can work with each singularly or in combinations.

For example, you could start with one player hitting at their partner, who digs the ball back for the hitter to catch and then go again. That provides focused consecutive reps for both players. While they are doing that you would be going around working with individual players on technique (and perhaps reinforcing bigger ideas, like effort). You can then have the digger play the ball up to themselves rather than to the hitter. Then progress to digging the attack to themselves and setting the hitter as in the 1-way Pepper drill. This sort of progression can be used in all aspects of pepper to work on skills singularly or in small combinations. The idea is to build toward eventual full-on pepper.

Adding a jump requirement to the setting and/or hitting parts of pepper can go a long way too. From a skill development perspective, it forces the players to work on getting their feet to the ball. On the conditioning side you’ll definitely see the players get gassed more quickly. This isn’t something you’re likely to be able to do effectively with lower level players in standard pepper. You could do it with them in a partial pepper situation, though. As a simple example, have them jump set back and forth for a little while and see how tired their legs and shoulders get.

The two keys to making this pepper conditioning idea worthwhile, and to not let the players catch on to what you’re doing, is to mix things up periodically so they have different points of focus and to be sure you’re actively moving around the gym coaching them. You do that and they’ll never suspect you’re developing their conditioning along with their skills. 😉

And by the way, this is actual volleyball conditioning. Much better than running or anything like that.

Pepper note: Whenever possible you should have your players go over the net. I am not totally against standard partner pepper (no net). It can have its uses at times. For skill development, however, it is not the best choice.

100 days, 100 posts

This post marks the end of the first 100 days of this blog. It’s also marks the 100th entry in the blog. It’s a nice milestone for something I started as a little side project. Got myself on a pretty good roll there during the summer months.

My various experiences coaching have provided considerable fodder for new material, and my August trip to several college programs in the US was quite useful as well. At any given point I’ve had several posts pending publication. I’m not sure how long that will be the case, especially with the other demands on my time I expect to have now that school is getting back in session. For now, though, I’m enjoying being able to keep putting my thoughts and ideas in print.

As noted on the About page, I started this website out as something to use in helping coaches in the South West of England where I’m located – and the broader English coaching community as well given the contacts I’ve started to develop from coaching in BUCS and NVL and attending coaching meetings. Thus far I’ve done very little to actually promote the site and what I’ve done has been mainly England focused. Interestingly, though, the traffic to the site has been very much multinational.

Distribution of Visitors to Coaching Volleyball in the first 100 days

A close examination will show that the UK is the next darkest country on the map, though the number of visits from there falls way behind those from the US.

As you’d probably expect, the home page of the site has been the most visited page. Here are the pages which round out the top 10:

Game: Bingo-Bango-Bongo
Volleyball Set Diagram
Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
Proposed FIVB rules changes ahead
Drill: Run Serve Receive
Volleyball Conditioning: A Sample Program
First things first, know your priorities
Volleyball Drills (main category page)
Making Mentorship Part of the Process

I’ve got loads of ideas for stuff I’d like to do with the sight and related social network platforms. If you have any ideas or things you’d like to see, definitely let me know through the Contact page, the Facebook group, or via Twitter.

By the way, the Facebook group now has over two dozen members and the Twitter feed has over 100 followers. Not bad for virtually no promotional effort thus far.

One thing I want to do is get some additional contributors pitching in their own thoughts, experiences, drills and games. It would be nice to have some varying perspectives.

Leaving room to increase training intensity

Once upon a time I worked with a young fellow assistant coach. He had a good volleyball head. As is to be typical of new, youthful coaches, however, there were times where he needed to be reined in.

One of those situations occurred during a digging drill where we coaches were hitting balls from on boxes*. Our young friend was hammering balls at the players with near maximum swing velocity. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, so we’re not talking about ridiculously hard hits. They were still quite aggressive, though. As this was still early in the season (perhaps even preseason), I had to slow him down.

You see, a coach must be able to ratchet things up to the next level as a team progresses. He would limit in his ability to do that if he was already hitting balls near the maximum of his power before we’d even played our first competitive match.

By backing down from his hard swings a bit this young coach could do a couple of things. First, he could save those hits for latter when we really wanted to give the players a big challenge. Second, we could avoid creating confidence issues within the team as they struggled to dig the balls he was hitting. Thirdly, and perhaps even more importantly, he could keep the players from losing respect for him as may have been the case if they thought he was just out to abuse them or make them look bad.

Just another one of those nuance things which makes for good coaching.

* I don’t recall what kind of drill it was. In those days I worked for a head coach who was very block training oriented. Not that I myself knew much differently at the time.

Comments on serving strategy from a coach

volleyball serve

At the start of the 2013 US college volleyball season I visited Southern California. During that trip I went to Pepperdine for their match against Wisconsin. Despite several injured players, Wisconsin won. I wrote before that Wisconsin used a 2-person serve receive system. There was another development later.

During his press conference, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield talked about his team’s aggressive serving strategy. Here’s the link to the coverage of that presser. The main page provides some text and commentary and a link near the top (just below the picture). The part about serving is toward the end:

Basically, Sheffield said two things motivated the aggressive serving. One was the need to put the Pepperdine offense under pressure. They wanted to do that by forcing bad passes. The thinned Wisconsin ranks meant they were particularly weakened at the net in terms of their block. Thus, they couldn’t afford to have Pepperdine regularly running their full attack if there was to be any prospect of victory.

The secondary reasoning was based on the effectiveness of the Wisconsin serve receive attack. Using the old terminology, they had a very high sideout percentage. That means they could rely on getting the ball back quickly if they missed serves here and there.

It’s worth a listen. I would still contend, though, that there were times when they shouldn’t have missed a serve. But that’s just my view. 🙂

Fancy New Drill Syndrome – A Coaching Affliction

I don’t think something called fancy new drill syndrome (FNDS) officially exists, but it should. And it’s not something volleyball coaches alone can develop.

Basically, FNDS is a condition whereby a coach sees a new drill and immediately wants to use it. How strong that inclination is depends on where they found the drill and its “cool” factor. Drills from books tend to have low cool factors. Videos are a bit higher on the scale. Clinics sit at the top. This is especially so if they are high profile, like those at volleyball coaching conventions.

Layered in there is the profile of the person presenting the drill. If the presenter is someone few folks know and/or is from a non-elite team, then the cool factor is low. If, however, Suzie Supercoach from We Just Won the National Championship University or Awesomecoach Arthur from the We Just Won the Gold Medal National Team presents the drill then we’re talking major cool factor.

So basically, the more investment we’ve made in coming across the drill (time, money, travel distance, etc.) and the higher the profile of the coach telling us about it, the greater the chances we’ll be trying that drill the very first opportunity we get. This, of course, is hardly the way it should be. It’s human nature, though.

We’ve all been there. Newer coaches still in what I’ve heard referred to as the “drill collecting stage” of their development are particularly susceptible.

FNDS can result in two potentially problematic issues.

Ignored training priorities
When a coach is super eager to use a shiny new drill they oftentimes fail to consider the priorities they should have in place for a given practice. Taking a bit of time to try a new drill may not seem like such a big deal one practice. If you have limited time and training opportunities, though, it can potentially have a meaningful negative impact. You can avoid this, of course. Simply make sure to only work in the new drill when it’s appropriate to do so. Don’t just plug it in at the first opportunity.

Practices brought to a grinding halt

Invariably, incorporating a new drill into your training will take some time to accomplish. The players will need it explained to them. They probably need to go through it a few times before they fully get a handle on things. This is especially so if it’s conceptually and/or mechanically complex. This learning process is very likely to drag the tempo of training down. If the drill does not work, you’re left with a bunch of time and intensity lost. This is always the risk when trying to incorporate something new. You can minimize the impact by making sure to really think about whether a given drill is appropriate to your players, though. Also, placing its introduction into your practice plan at a point where it’s likely to be least disruptive if things don’t work out as hoped is best.

Unfortunately, FNDS is probably not totally preventable. Even experienced coaches sometimes get caught up in the euphoria. This especially true when they feel the need to shake things up a bit in their practices. Diagnosed early, however, FNDS can be successfully treated by the simple application of common sense.

Occasional, FNDS runs wild, though.

Don’t be this guy!

The absolute worst case scenario is when a coach cobbles together a bunch of “cool” drills into a practice plan with no clear overarching objective or set of training priorities. I saw this extreme type of FNDS once in England. A young German coach ran a training session I observed. I watched him put the team through several different drills. In the proper context those drills each could have been quite useful. Instead, however, I was left wondering what he was trying to achieve with it all (other than maybe showing off what he knew).

From my perspective, the whole first hour or more of the 2-hour session was largely a waste of time. It did not addressed the sorts of things the team really needed to work on with a match coming up. When you only train once a week – as was the case with this team – it is borderline criminal to be as scatter-shot in training as what I saw that evening.

The scenario above was preventable. The coach simply needed to determine or be given by the team (he was just running that single session) one or more priorities for the practice and develop a training plan based on those priorities. He might not have been able to use so many “cool” drills in that case, but he would have provided the team a much better service.

Problem Solving: Three middle triangle

I once wrote about an early coaching experience when I had to use one of my middles as a setter. It worked very well, helping the team I coached win a gold medal. Less than a year later I had another situation which required a bit of fancy line-up footwork.

This time I was coaching a girls’ 16-and-under Juniors team. I had three players who could legitimately play middle at the team’s competitive level of play. I wanted (needed) all three players in there for their net play. A couple, though, weren’t all that keen on playing the position. Can’t say I blamed them as I always hated playing it myself. What I did was come up with a compromise that let me get them all on the court.

I forget at this stage which player I put where, but the basics of it were this. I put the three girls in a triangle in the line-up. One of them was the OPP. The other two were in the spots generally dubbed O1 and M1. In a 5-1 offense one usually puts their strongest OH and MB next to the setter. Those are the O1 and M1 respectively. I then put a couple of smaller OH type players in the two remaining spots either side of the OPP.

This line-up, of course, meant I had two of my quasi-MB players in the front row half the time and only one of them the other half. Obviously in the latter case that one girl played MB. In the other rotations, though, one would play MB and the other would play OH or RS, depending on whether the setter was up or back. Which one took the MB spot I often left to the players to decide, though sometimes I made the call if I saw something specific I wanted addressed.

The result was a pretty potent offense. It would have been a bit better with more experience in the setter position. It was sufficient for the team to finish 3rd in our regional championships, though.

The point is sometimes to get the most out of your team you have to do things in a non-standard fashion.

Slowing Down the Float Serve

I previously talked about how I saw the USC women’s volleyball team train to serve the ball 40mph (see Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important). While I was on my tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, I also witnessed some training that works in the other direction. By that I mean slowing down the serve. A couple of the players on the Long Beach State team were focused on just that while practicing their jump float serves. The reason for this probably requires a bit of explanation.

The main idea behind the float serve is to have the ball move in unexpected ways. This is true for both jump and standing versions. A spinning serve has a predictable trajectory. That make it easier to pass (assuming you can get in position). A float serve, though, has the potential to frustrate a receiver with a movement at the last moment.

Here’s the thing, though. As you increase the velocity of the serve you start to decrease its potential for that late movement. It’s like a putt in golf. You can strike hard enough to overcome the influence of the break which would normally happen because of the texture of the green. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind. A hard, flat serve that is well placed can produce positive results.

If, however, you want that unpredictable movement (and/or want to take some of the strain off your shoulder) you need to slow the serve down. When I coached at Brown and served at the team I called it a low velocity floater. It had a nasty habit of dropping quickly at the last instant as gravity rapidly overwhelmed forward momentum. At other times it curved to the side. A ball which started going toward one player ended up angling to the one next to her. It was fun to watch, but not so fun to pass. 🙂

The risk with a low velocity serve is if you don’t hit it just right it can be a problem. Too soft and it goes in the net. Not exactly dead center and it won’t float well. If you pick your targets properly, though, it can still be effective.

In the case of Long Beach, the coach was using this low velocity serve as part of a mixture of serving styles his team would employ to keep opposition players off balance. He had two jump topspin servers (one lefty, one righty), two players working on the slower jump-floater, and a couple players working on standing float serves they could hit either short or long. Hard to get comfortable as a passer when every server is doing something different.

Tip for Coaching Volleyball: Watch more volleyball!

How much volleyball do you watch?

Do you only watch the matches your team plays? What about those of your competition? And how about those of prospective players for your team or club? How about matches in which you have no personal stake?

Now imagine you’re a coach for an NCAA Division I team (the top collegiate level in the U.S.).

Your team plays roughly 30 matches during the main competitive season (Spring for men, Autumn for women). Maybe it gets in a half-dozen more during the off-season. You watch video of your team’s matches to identify problem points. You watch video of your competition to scout them for upcoming matches. Of course you watch loads of video sent to you by prospective recruits to your program. That’s along with spending long hours in convention centers and gyms watching Juniors competition (and sometimes high school matches). And if you’re a junkie (like me), you watch matches on TV or online as well – time permitting.

Now let’s compare that to your average club coach in England, as an example.

Your team plays say 20 matches a year in whatever league you’re in, and that’s spread out over about an 8-month period. You aren’t recording your matches and you certainly aren’t exchanging video with upcoming competitors for scouting purposes, so watching lots of match video is out. Recruitment isn’t a major thing, so you’re not out observing loads of youth matches or highlight videos as a part of your duties.

Which coach do you think is more rapidly growing their understanding of the game and getting the broader perspective on things?

I don’t make this comparison to denigrate volleyball coaching in England, or anywhere else, especially since there are plenty of US coaches operating at a similar level. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate a developmental opportunity.

We learn from both observation and experience. Watching lots of volleyball is part of the process of learning about coaching volleyball.

It’s no good, though, to just watch as a supporter or fan of a team, however. You need to do so with a critical eye. What’s going on in the match and why? What makes this player good or that player poor? What strategies are being employed by the coaches involved? It’s not watching to enjoy the experience of watching, in other words. It’s watching to understand and critique – basically, watching with a coach’s eye rather than a spectator’s.

In fact, it would be a good exercise to watch matches with a paper and pen (perhaps more likely a tablet these days) to take notes and make observations. Think of it like being a reporter. Rather than writing about who won and loss and which players were the stars, though, you’re writing about the strategies, offensive and defensive systems, player mechanics, etc.

Watching lots of volleyball with that critical eye, especially across different levels of play, will definitely accelerate your development as a coach.

Game: Hitter vs Hitter Challenge

Synopsis: This is a good game to help assess hitters in a ranking fashion while also encouraging competition intra-squad.

Age/Skill Level: This game is probably best suitable for intermediate to advanced groups.

Requirements: Two teams, full court, 1 ball

Execution: Identify two hitters to go against each other and set a fixed rotation line-up for each team which matches – for example, setter up on both sides. The only way points can be scored is if the designated hitters are part of the play. In other words, to score they must get a kill or a block, and they will concede a point on an error. Plays by others will only suffice to win/lose a rally, not a point. Thus, if a non-featured hitter gets a kill, their team wins the rally, but it is a wash in terms of points. Rather than earning the right to serve by winning a rally, however, the team earns the right to receive serve. In other words, the losing team serves, not the winning team. Play to a determined number of points.


  • The primary types of hitter match-ups would be OH vs. RS/OPP and MB vs. MB so the hitters are blocking against each other. One could also do a variation which sets backrow attackers in opposition.
  • You could potentially add in bonus points if you want to encourage actions or behaviors in the focal hitters.
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • The advantage to using this sort of assessment exercise rather than some kind of hitting line situation is that it puts the players in game situations rather than in some kind of rigid structure. That will allow you to better judge how they will be in games, and also their influence on the team overall. For example, there may be a hitter who doesn’t get a great many kills, but is a massive positive influence on their team that they end up winning anyway.
  • Ideally, you’ll want to try to make the opposing teams as closely balanced as possible for a fair judgement. You can also have the hitters flip teams to that end.
  • Having consequences for losing (for the whole team, not just the hitter) may help to encourage competition and keep the supporting players motivated and focused.
  • Depending on how many players you have and what you need to do, this might be a game you can use in a try-out situation.
  • I saw this game used by CSU San Marcos.
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