Drill: Dig and Set Back

Synopsis: This is a useful drill which focuses on both controlled digging and setting an out of system ball.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate to advanced players.

Requirements: Coach, 2+ players, balls, half court

Execution: Begin with a coach in either the OH or RS position at the net, in the diagonally opposite defensive position, and one more players waiting to come in behind. The coach hits a ball at the player, which that player digs to themselves and then sets back toward the coach. Continue for time or a number of good reps. (Saw this at USC)

Variations:

  • With two coaches this drill could be run in both diagonal directions on the same side of the court.
  • At advanced levels players could replace coaches.
  • If the players are sufficiently skilled the ball they set back could be hit by the coach to the next player in line to keep the drill continuous.
  • The coach(es) could hit from over the net on a box.

Additional Comments:

  • Along with being able to control the hit ball, this drill focuses on being able to put up a hittable ball to the hitter at the net diagonal from the digger. This is what you would want to see rather than the player trying to set the ball to the net in front of them (for example from zone 5 to the OH in zone 4) where the angle is extremely disadvantageous to the hitter.
  • This can be a good pre-match warm-up drill.

Technical Coaching at the Top Level

This update comes just after I completed phase three of my summer volleyball adventure. It featured two days worth of observing Long Beach State going through the last of their 2-a-days for the 2013 season. Coach Gimmillaro (now retired) is well known as a very technical coach. He spent many years producing coaching videos and doing clinics all over. His training sessions those two days were no exception.

In particular, ball control technique was a major focus of his in the gym. It all starts with the unique warm-up Long Beach used – both in training and pre-match. Here’s a sample of it:

It definitely didn’t stop there. Coach Gimmillaro was very active and hands-on in working with his players. He got them playing both serve receive passes and dug balls in a very specific fashion which focused on footwork and platform.

I chatted with Coach about the Long Beach sand program implementation (they won the 2013 National Team Championship). We also talked jump float serve mechanics, some volleyball business stuff, and a few other things. He even expressed a willingness to travel to England to run a clinic if there was an interest in doing so (I was coaching Exeter at the time).

Naturally, I got some drill and game ideas from watching training, which I have shared since. It is worth noting, though, that there was very little actual variety in the training sessions. The clear dominant focus was on really working serving and passing – building the foundation for everything else.

Game: 7 in a Row

Synopsis: This game features normal play, but with the use of bonus points and a focus on scoring points in bunches.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for intermediate to advanced players.

Requirements: two teams, full court

Execution: This is a 6 vs 6 game which operates normally in terms of service initiation and the play thereafter. The difference is in the objective and the scoring system. Teams are aiming to score 7 points in a row. Any rally win is a point. A bonus point, though, is given for first ball kills. Thus, it takes at least 4 straight rally wins for a team to win the game (three first ball serve receive or transition kills and a rally win). If at any point a team loses a rally its points revert to zero.

Variations:

  • You can alter the bonus point earning process to focus on whatever you prioritize – like certain types of offensive plays, aces, stuff blocks, kills on off-speed shots, etc.
  • You can even have smaller or larger bonus points (say 2 for a first ball kill and 1 for a 3-pass), especially if you find the 7-point target a bit too challenging for your team.
  • To create a more intense focus on serve receive offense you can assign one team to serve to start every play.
  • There should be no problem running this as a small-sided game.

Additional Comments:

  • The main focus here is on scoring points in a row, and conversely preventing the other team from scoring points in bunches. As a result, it would be best if the bonus points you employ support that cause.
  • I saw this one used by USC, though I might have it presented here in a slight different fashion than it was run.
  • If you do have only one team serve you’ll want to allow for miss serves (but not two in a row) to encourage aggressive serving.

Drill: 3-Person Pepper (Over the Net)

Synopsis: This is fairly simple multi-player pepper drill which can be used for warm-ups and general ball-handling practice.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Three players, one ball, a net.

Execution: Begin with 2 players on one side of the net, with one player at the net and one off, and 1 player on the other side. The single player toss the ball to the play off the net on the other side who passes it to their partner on the net. That player set the ball, then moves off the net, swapping positions with their partner. The passer hits a roll shot to the original tosser, then steps under the net to become their setter and the cycle continues.

Variations:

  • At lower levels the hitter can do a standing down ball, or even execute a set over the net rather than doing a jump and roll shot.
  • A tip can replace the roll shot if you want to work on that skill or perhaps work at a lower level (tipped balls generally going higher).
  • Advanced players can actually hit the ball at something approaching full power if they have sufficient control
  • Advanced players can be required to jump set
  • You can run this with 4 players, in which case players stay on their own side and the hitter and setter simply switch positions when the ball goes over rather than the setter ducking under the net.

Additional Comments:

  • This is obviously an extension of the 3-person in-line pepper drill, with the addition of the net giving it a more game-like aspect.
  • In the 4-person variation you basically have a co-operative version of small-court doubles play, so this drill could be used as a lead in to something like that, or in a similar fashion to something like the Hard Drill Game.

Getting validation from an elite volleyball program

Back in 2013 I spent two days at the University of Southern California (USC) during preseason. Head coach Mick Haley was kind enough to let me hang out with him and his staff observing preseason two-a-days. In the first preseason poll that year, USC came in ranked #4. Preseason polls are always a bit iffy, but regardless, we’re still talking about one of the best teams in the country that year.

In other posts I shared some of the drills and whatnot I saw being used. There were some potentially very useful ones. You can find them here, here, here, here, and here.

For now, though, I want to talk a bit about the concept of validation. Many coaches see watching other coaches run training as an opportunity to pick up new drills or training methods. That certainly can be the case. What is probably even more important, though, is seeing that others – especially those with more experience – do things like you do and/or have a similar philosophy. That can provide a great deal of validation.

In my case this time around it came from watching the USC assistant coach, Tim Nollan, running setter training. It was a mechanical issue I won’t go into now, but I wrote about it here. Suffice it to say that Tim (obviously with Coach Haley’s backing) was encouraging something I have long made a focus with the setters I’ve trained. I is counter to the approach I’ve seen taken in a lot of gyms (if it’s even addressed at all), though. Having the opportunity to see the coaching staff of a top volleyball team train their players the same way I do goes a long way toward validating my own methods. It was both satisfying and encouraging.

Now, I should say you must be a bit cautious with this sort of validation. It’s very easy to just look for things that confirm your thinking and not pay attention to what challenges it. This is called confirmation bias. That is counter-productive.

So get out there and watch your peers, but with a fully open mind!

Drill: 3-Person Pepper (In-Line)

Synopsis: This is fairly simple multi-player pepper drill which can be used for warm-ups and general ball-handling practice. (Saw this one while watching the University of Rhode Island training)

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Three players, one ball

Execution: Begin with 2 players on one sideline and 1 player on the other. One of the two players hits the ball to the 1 player, who digs it. The hitter sets the dug ball back to the digger, then runs around behind them. The digger hits the set ball to the other player, and the cycle continues.

Variations:

  • More than 3 players can be used with little problem
  • Advanced players can be required to jump set and/or jump hit

Additional Comments:

  • Having the hitter wait and set the dug ball rather than run around behind the digger right away slows the movement down, which will help less skilled player keep from chasing all over the place.
  • One of the coaching points of this drill is for the digger to play the ball only part way back to the hitter rather than all the way as is normally done in pepper. This is a more realistic approach since the player does not want to dig a ball in match play all the way back to the hitter, but somewhat short of that for the sake running a transition attack.

Creating Game-Like Volleyball Drills

In her book, Coaching Volleyball Successfully, Sally Kus shares how to make drills game-like. This is something which gets a lot of attention in coaching circles these days (see my post on random vs. blocked training). Here are those steps.

  1. Identify the skill.
  2. Go back one play.
  3. Start the drill there.
  4. Perform the skill.
  5. Perform the next in the sequence.

So, for example, if you want to work on OH attacks you could do something like this.

  1. A serve or free ball from the other side of the net is initiated to a player.
  2. That player then transitions and attacks a set ball.
  3. The player then moves to their defensive base at the net.
  4. The player executes a block (perhaps with some initial footwork).

The idea of using these more complex drills is for the player to execute the skill within the context of how they do it during a match situation. The player sees what they will see before the skill (ball coming across the net, coming from a teammate, etc.), executes the skill, then does something immediately afterwards.

Admittedly, these types of drills run slower than the simple ones (like hitting lines). Aside from training the players to play the ball as they do in real life, though, these drills allow you to train multiple skills. This is done either with one player or several of them. Clearly, when working with beginners you’ll use less complicated drills. Even with that group, though, there are plenty of ways to make things game-like by initiating the ball over the net, having them execute a follow-up skill, etc.

Maximize plus points, minimize minus ones

I once had a conversation with a former men’s club teammate who is now an NCAA Division I head coach. His name is Steve. We talked about what it takes to consistently win sets, and thus matches. It revolved around the idea of points scored vs. points given away.

Steve had done some off-season research reviewing a season’s worth of conference matches. He found that teams scoring 18-19 points of their own through kills, blocks, and aces frequently won. The rest of the points from there to 25 would come from opponent errors. That’s hits into the net or out of bounds, ball-handling errors, missed serves, etc.

Now, this was a very specific set of figures related to a certain level of play. These figures don’t apply to everyone. For example, at lower levels one would expect teams to commit more errors. That means it takes fewer positive points to win your average set. It is worth doing some research to figure out what the plus points/minus points ratio is like at your level for winning vs. losing teams.

The reason it’s worth having this kind of information is it lets you figure out what sorts of things you need to prioritize in your training and/or match preparation. If, for example, you aren’t getting enough plus points then you’re probably going to have to work on strengthening your offense somehow. That’s because kills are the biggest factor there. If scoring plus points isn’t an issue, then the focus might need to be on avoiding the minus points. That means reducing errors. You should also look at keeping the other team from generating plus points. This is done through better defense, or perhaps more aggressive serving.

These are the sorts of things which should go into the on-going assessment process for competitive teams. I always look at them for the teams I coach.

Game: Points for Passes

Synopsis: This game features 6-v-6 play, but with a major focus on serve receive passing, and by extension serving.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: two teams, full court, several balls

Execution: One team starts with 32 points, and the other with 0. The 32-point team severs every ball and scores a point on any rally win. The 0-point team also scores on any rally win, but also gets points based on the rating of each serve receive pass based on the 3-point scoring system (so a 3 pass earns them 3 points, a 2 pass earns them 2 points, etc.). The teams play to 40, meaning the 32-point team only needs to win 8 rallies. An ace counts as a rally win, but missed serves are washes. The receiving team rotates each time they win a rally. The serving team does a front-to-back switch on each of their rally wins, but ensuring that servers change up.

Variations:

  • You can change the starting point for the serving team to widen or narrow the gap the receiving team needs to overcome.
  • You can change the winning score up or down to require the serving team to win more or fewer rallies.
  • There can be negative consequences for multiple missed serves – especially in a row – from the same server.
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • I saw this game at University of Rhode Island training when I was there.
  • Of the six times I saw this played (three different sets of match-ups played with each side being the receiving team and serving team once), only once did the receiving team win. That came when they averaged a 2.0+ pass rating. Thus, good serve receive passing is a major focus point.
  • There’s a way to make this a 2-sided game (both teams serve rather than just one) outlined in the post Points for Passes Variation
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