Calling the ball

I’m hoping this post generates a bit of conversation. I’m very curious to hear what people have to say on the subject.

The widely accepted philosophy seems to be that we want someone making a play on the ball call it. They should say something along the lines of “Mine” or “Got”. And if there may be another player coming for the ball as well then they should keep calling until they either make the play or have someone call more forcefully and/or beat them to the spot.

Not all hold this view, I should note. For example, Mark Lebedew is not a proponent of players calling the ball. But that is a discussion for another time, which I address here.

Assuming you want players to call the ball, I’d like to hear your view on the following. The area of debate among volleyball coaches seems to be what the other players should or should not say when someone else is taking the ball.

My personal philosophy is that if you are not taking the ball you simply open up to the one who is. You are thus ready to cover them in case of a shanked pass. You can also help them with a line call where appropriate. What I don’t want to hear is “You” or “Yours”.

Why do I not like “Yours”?

For two reasons.

The first is that very often players go off sound rather than words, at least initially. By that I mean while passing you lock in on the ball. You’re not so focused on what’s happening around you. As a result, when someone says “You” the word may not register, though, the sound will. If the serve is such that you anticipate a call from your partner and you hear a noise from them, it may cause a hesitation. This is exacerbated when the player is already somewhat tentative.

The second reason is one of initiative. I want the calling to be a proactive thing which is part of starting the act of playing the ball, not a passive one of letting someone else do so. Also, if the other player isn’t already moving for the ball and you call “Yours”, it’s probably too late.

Of course much of the issue with ball calling can be sorted out by simply establishing the rules as to who has responsibility for the seam. This is Mark’s point.

By the way, I always like to hear players call the ball three times with increasing volume and conviction – “mine, Mine, MINE!”, “out, Out, OUT!”. This way no one is going to miss the call and in the case when a player is calling the ball for themselves is reinforces to them that they are taking it in their own psyche. Much better than a little “got” peep we often hear.

So what’s your philosophy? Leave a comment below and let’s talk about it.

Volleyball Coaching Concept: Wash Drill

Basically, a wash drill in volleyball is one which forces a team to do things in a row. Sometimes it is doing things in bunches. If the team does so it earns a big point. The objective is to accumulate some number of total points or to beat another team. If the team fails to reach the objective it is a wash. They don’t earn the point, or alternatively, the opposing team gets the point.

There are a few primary variations you’ll find in wash drills. They include the following.

X before Y
One team has to get X number of points before the other team gets Y points.

X out of Y
A team must get X number of points within Y number of attempts (or could be done on time).

X in a row
The team must score X number of “little points” in a row to get a big point.

There is also the variation of wash drills where achieving some objective doesn’t immediately give a team a point. It instead gives them an opportunity to earn a point. The bingo-bango-bongo game is a variation of this. It uses an “X in a row” core approach. Once a team gets that, though, they must win a service rally to actually get the point.

Wash drills in volleyball are useful for any number of purposes. Here are some examples.

  • An “X before Y” variation can make for more competitive games between teams of unequal levels, such as starters vs. non-starters.
  • An “X out of Y” type of game can pit hitters against each other in an attack vs. defense drill or game.
  • A variation of “X in a row” could be used to focus on executing a skill or tactic, such as successfully running a quick attack.I

If there’s something you want to work on with your team, there’s probably a way you can do it with a wash drill. The advantage of this approach is that it gets players and teams focusing on not just singular executions. That is the case with many skill development drills (think serve receive or hitting line drills). Instead, the focus is on execution repetition. This, of course, is much more realistic in terms of game expectations.

Don’t limit your players with negative thinking

Once upon a time I worked with Denise Austin at a clinic for a group of local Exeter P.E. teachers in England. It was on the subject of teaching volleyball to their students.

By the way, this is something every experienced coach should stand ready to do to help grow and develop the sport.

The things we talked about in terms of what to do to introduce volleyball to beginners is the subject of other posts. For the moment, though, I want to focus on something which happened at the clinic. A comment made by one of the teachers irked me.

It went something like this.

“They will never be able to do that.”

I don’t remember specifically what we were looking at when that was said. It doesn’t really matter, though. Statements such as this are self-fulfilling. So long as you think that, the player(s) will not be able to do whatever it is because you won’t allow it to happen. You will probably not provide sufficient opportunity to properly attempt development of that skill. Alternatively, you will actively (though perhaps subconsciously) sabotage it to prove you’re right. That leaves the players to develop the skill themselves (if they are so motivated). If they succeed, they make you look like an ass.

Our job as coaches is to push players to achieve more than they think themselves capable. We’re there to keep them growing and developing. We are not there to put limits on them.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

I once had a conversation with a high school coach on developing a quick attack with her team. This woman was generally a pretty good coach, at least by the measure of others in that state. In this area, though, she was extremely hesitant. Her excuse for not working on middle quicks was one you may have heard or thought yourself:

We don’t pass well enough.

I could be a little more colorful with my language here. Let’s just say that excuse is complete crap. It’s not that her team consistently put the ball on target. Rather, I think the excuse is a total cop out.

Here’s why I say that.

That thinking is completely the wrong way around. A team will never pass every single ball well enough to run the quick. As I noted in my post about scoring serve receive passing, good teams target an average of 2.00 or better. That means their average pass isn’t good enough to run the middle quick. Yet those teams still train the quick attack and use it in games when the opportunity presents itself.

The goal of passing is to run the quick offense by producing as many 3 passes as possible. If you give your players that kind of focus it motivates them to pass better. If all you do is run a 2-ball (second tempo or meter ball) in the middle, then the passers have no particular motivation. All they need to do is get the ball inside the 3-meter line and around the middle of the court. The 2-ball offense just doesn’t require that much precision.

Think of a successful quick attack as the reward for perhaps the ultimate expression of teamwork in volleyball. It requires three very precise coordinated movements. There must be a good pass. A hitter needs to attack at the right time. Finally, a precise set is required. If any of those things fail, the play fails. Players at basically all levels get excited when a quick attack is well executed, and for good reason. That is way more motivation for the team to pass well. It’s much more concrete than, “So the setter doesn’t have to chase all over the court.”

And it need not be something that complex.

I helped coach 12-and-under girls once upon a time. These were kids with no playing experience coming in. Some were as young as 8 years old. Nevertheless, we taught them pass-set-hit. It did not happen in games very often, of course. As the season progressed, though, we gave them the goal of N pass-set-hits per game. Even if they didn’t actually get the three contacts right most of the time, at least they thought proactively about something more than just get the ball back over the net. And when they did get it right they were very excited. The end result was our two teams finished as regional champs and runners-up.

Heck, Denise’s daughter could jump serve with an adult ball on an adult net from behind the end line as an 11-year old. If that doesn’t tell you can players can achieve a lot if we just push them and given them the right motivation, I don’t now what will.

So stop thinking that you can’t get a player or a team to a level of development or skill. Start thinking about how you can get them there.

Drill: 7-in-7 Hitting

Synopsis: This a good drill to get hitters focused on getting in good, consistent swings. It’s particularly useful to temper the aggression of some hitters (think male teams constantly hitting the top of the net rather than swinging high for deep shots), but also helps develop a “get it in” swing for those times when a hitting error should be avoided.

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

Requirements: At least half a court and one ball per player

Execution: The primary framework is a standard outside hitting line. The objective of the hitters is to reach 7 minutes of time elapsed before 7 hitting errors occur. If they fail they have to start over.


  • Balls hitting the top of the net can be counted as errors.
  • In case where a team is struggling to complete the drill, to avoid it going on forever you can put a fixed time limit (or number of attempts) and have punishment for failure to get done.
  • The hitting can be done from locations other than OH if you want to work on different types of attacks.
  • Rather than players tossing to the setter, balls can be initiated requiring them to pass or dig, then transition and attack. This will tend to slow things down, and lower the attack frequency, but will be more game-like and will force the players to deal with variability in the sets from a setter required to move around.
  • For advanced teams a target zone could be introduced.

Additional Comments:

  • Make sure the hitters are taking legitimate swings and not just hitting the equivalent of roll shots. The idea is to work on consistent swings, not giving away free balls.

Game: Newcomb

Synopsis: This is a great way to introduce the basics of volleyball play to new players and can be very useful in working with teams on positioning and movement.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for beginners and lower to intermediate level teams.

Requirements: Court, two teams of players. This game does not require a proper net, just a rope or something else strung at an appropriate height.

Execution: This is volleyball played with throwing and catching. There are (or have been) some rules specific to the official game of Newcomb, but the primary ones are balls must be caught (not hit, blocked, patted, etc.), no steps are permitted by the ball-holder, there is a 3-second holding limit, and throws must be made from the ground.


  • For more advanced groups things like throwing from in the air (alley-oop style) and blocking may be permitted.
  • For developing groups a mixture of Newcomb and proper volleyball contacts may be allowed.

Additional Comments:

  • The game can be used to work teams on movement and positioning for things like offensive and defensive transitions.
  • If played competitively, this game can also get players thinking about finding open areas on the court in advance of working on skills like setter dumps, tips, roll shots, etc.
  • Played at a sufficiently high level, this could be a good warm-up.

When the Serve Needs to Be In

In volleyball coaching circles the idea of a “Commandments of Serving” has long been around. Even back in the days of sideout scoring when it didn’t hurt quite so much to miss a serve there was a list of times to make sure to get the ball in. Here’s the list I’ve put together, arranged in no particular order.

Please note that what I’m about to talk about needs to be viewed in conjunction with the decision you make on how aggressive you want your team to be from the service line.

Set point

It’s pretty obvious why you don’t want to miss a serve when it’s set point against you. No need to give the other team the win on a platter. If you have set point you want to make the other team fight it off, not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously, it’s different when your team is well up on points, but even still you’d like to avoid given the other team any hope of a comeback.

After a stoppage

There are four types of stoppage in volleyball:

  • Before sets start
  • Team Timeouts
  • Substitutions
  • Officials’ timeouts/delays

You don’t want to miss the first serve of a set for obvious reasons. No sense giving the other team the first point without a fight. Even more, you don’t want to blunt a team’s enthusiasm coming out of the break with an error right away.

In the case of timeouts and subs, this is especially about not letting the other team break your momentum. They are often both used to “ice” the server. You’d rather not make the other coach look good by missing then (though it doesn’t work as much as you might think).

As to the officials’ timeouts, that’s mainly having to do with contested calls, scoring issues, and the like. The energy can flag during these breaks and the other team may be distracted (and/or angry that the call went against them). Missing the serve lets them off the hook.

Consecutive Misses

The following types of missed serves are the ones that give coaches grey hair and high blood pressure:

  • When you missed your last serve
  • After your teammate missed a serve
  • When the other team just missed a serve

The first entry here has more to do with the individual than the team. A player who misses straight serves, especially if the first miss did not follow a string of service points, risks putting them in a negative head space. It could not just negatively impact future serves, but their overall play. Even if there was a string of points scored before the first miss, there are reasons not to want to see consecutive errors which I will get into below.

In terms of missing after the player before missed (teammate or opposition), this is about not giving the other team a chance to build momentum. If they miss a serve and then you miss one, not only don’t you punish them for doing so, you give the initiative right back. And if you miss after your teammate misses you kill any chance you might have to develop momentum and probably give it to the other team.

A really painful example of this came when I was coaching the EUVC Men in the 2013 BUCS Super 8s. We were playing Cambridge in the last match of pool play. We’d won the first set without too much strain and were ahead in the second. Then we missed a string of I think four serves in a row (maybe 4 out of 5). It was the turning point of the match. It let Cambridge catch us and we never got the momentum back, going on to lose that set and then the decider. Even worse, the team wasn’t able to recover from the reversal and played poorly in the crossover match which followed.

Emotional turning points

There are a few emotionally sensitive points in a match where one should avoid service errors:

  • After a long rally
  • Following a great play
  • When the other team has just scored a string of points

The first two are situations similar to when someone makes a great up on defense or chases a ball down off the court. The last thing you want to see in those cases is someone then putting the ball into the net. It wipes out all the good feelings the prior play generated. A missed serve after a hard-fought rally does the same thing.

In the case of when the other team has scored a string of points, the situation is a bit reversed. There is usually some sense of relief to breaking their serve (particularly if it was a long string). A missed serve at that point tends to create a “Here we go again” sort of feeling. At least try to give your team a chance to shake off the recent struggles.

Unfavorable match-ups

From a tactical perspective it makes sense to try to delay as long as possible situations where the other team can bring their strongest players to bear. You thus would want to avoid missed serves when:

  • The next server for the opposition is a strong one
  • The other team’s best front row player will rotate out of the back row

Obviously, if you’re playing a balanced team this sort of consideration won’t come to mind. However, if they have an absolute stud hitter, for example, you probably don’t want to accelerate their return to the front row by missing serves.

When you’re much better

In the instance where your team is the markedly better of the two, missed serves are hard to justify. You don’t need to be aggressive to win (see this post). The one excuse is that perhaps you want some players to work on their more challenging serves. Even still, you have to be cautious because several missed serves can suddenly make a match uncomfortable.

This happened with the Devon Ladies during the 2013 South West Championships. During the round-robin part of the event we were playing a team of lower quality, but one good enough to put up a fight. At one point four of our serves were missed in a row, allowing the other team to claw back into a potentially threatening position. As soon as we got back to making our serves we pulled away, but for a while we gave the other team some hope, which can be a dangerous thing.

It’s mainly about the momentum

You may have observed in my comments above that a lot of the reason for not missing serves at certain times comes down to grabbing or maintaining momentum. We all know how important momentum and psychology are in volleyball. It needs to be encouraged and cultivated in any way we can. Make this your focal point when looking at serving, and other parts of the game as well.

Now train it!

It’s not enough to think about when a serve needs to go in during matches. The mentality needs to be integrated into player’s minds during training. Make sure there are consequences during drills and games for missing serves at bad times. That will reduce (though I very much doubt totally eliminate) bad misses during matches and make your life on game day just a little less stressful.

Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?

This post will no doubt ruffle some feathers, but so be it! 🙂

There is little I hate more as a volleyball coach than watching a team do a jog-and-stretch warm-up before practice or a match. I have to think there are only three potential reasons for teams to do that.

  1. The coach (or captain) is ignorant of the better options.
  2. The coach (or captain) is being lazy.
  3. The players are intransigent (perhaps due to ignorance).

All of these reasons (excuses?) can be addressed, and should be for the benefit of the team. When I agreed to take on coaching for Exeter University in 2012 one of my requirements was that jog-and-stretch be thrown out.

Why? Because jog-and-stretch is an utter waste of time. I mean that both figuratively and literally.

On the figurative side…

Static stretching (the sort we most often think of when referring to stretching) may not have any value for warming-up. There’s no evidence that it prevents injuries, which is counter to what a lot of people think. According to WebMD, research actually shows that it may be harmful in some cases – explosive sports (like volleyball) being one of them.

Regardless of whether static stretching has any value, athletes should do it when muscles are warm. Jogging a few laps around the court is not sufficient. This is why the suggestion is that you stretch after, not before, exercise. Static stretches are best for developing flexibility, not for warming-up.

Taking it a step further, a warm up should replicate the activities to be performed during the exercise, just at a lower intensity level. You may make the case that since sprinting is part of volleyball (though only barely), jogging is a good warm up to that. Fair enough, but what about jumping, lunging, shuffling, serving, spiking, and blocking? Not much jogging is going to do for them.

All of this is why dynamic warm-ups have become so popular. Here are a couple of examples.

The first is the Stanford University men during pre-match warm-ups.

This second features a set of exercises demonstrated by teenage players.

There many, many variations and types of dynamic warm-up exercises out there. Search YouTube and I’m sure you’ll find dozens.

On the literal side…

Jog-and-stretch misses an opportunity for the players to work on volleyball-specific movements and skills. The dynamic warm-up at least can have some volleyball type movements integrated. Even there, though, most aren’t great for getting the shoulders warmed up for serving and hitting, which is why you often see teams go from there into some kind of throwing the ball back and forth.

I also think that throwing of the ball back and forth, in most cases, is a waste of time.

Why do I say that? Because in my experience, especially with male players, it becomes more about how hard they can throw the ball or how high they can bounce it and less about actually warming up. And it takes way too long with an opportunity for skill development lost.

A simple progression from light ball-handling to easy pepper (partner pass-set-hit) to full-speed pepper will warm-up a player’s shoulders at least as well and offers the added benefit of having them working on volleyball skills at the same time (to a degree). This is supported by coaches in professional volleyball.

When I was a volleyball camp counselor we used to play games during the break periods. Because we had a limited window of time, we generally went almost straight into playing without much in the way of warm-up. For the first several minutes it was fairly cooperative with no aggressive hitting or serving. It was only after a while that we upped the intensity to a proper competitive level. We basically played ourselves warm. Much more enjoyable than jogging around and stretching. 🙂

Do the sums

To re-task the Tesco motto, every little counts (Tesco is a grocery store chain in England).

How many training sessions will your team have this year? How many matches? Add those two figures together and multiply by 5 (or more). That’s how much more effective training time your players can get by dropping jog-and-stretch or some other non-ball related warm-up.

Let me use the Exeter teams I coached as an example. We trained twice a week for something like 20 weeks and had at least 20 matches. If we replaced non-ball warm-ups with those that include the ball in some form we get 300 additional minutes of ball-handling work (60 x 5) over the year, which is like adding 2-3 training session.

It’s OK not to do what the elite programs do

Now obviously playing your team warm isn’t something that suits all situations. Still, one needs to give a lot thought to priorities when planning warm-ups. If you’ve got a developing group of players you should probably forget about the fancy warm-ups used by upper level teams with elite level athletes. For them it’s about preparation for high-intensity competition. They are beyond the point where a few more setting or passing reps are going to make any difference. For you, though, every rep counts – especially when you only see them a few hours a week.

And keep in mind there’s a negative relationship between warm-up requirements and age. Kids don’t need to do all that stuff. Just get them on the court playing!

Book Review: Volleyball Systems & Strategies

Volleyball Systems and Strategies is a book put together by USA Volleyball. It’s based on the work done in its Coaching Accreditation Program (CAP) – the US version of Volleyball England’s coaching certification sequence. It is a very comprehensive look at the next level of volleyball above that of individual skill. That’s how a team plays as a unit. To that end I think it has the potential to be very useful for new and developing coaches. It’s also useful for anyone thinking about how they can maximize the performance of their team given the types of players they have.

There are six primary sections to the book.

  1. Serve, Transition, and Serve Receive looks at the types of serves (float, jump topspin, etc.) and team serve receive patterns.
  2. Defensive Systems describes ways a team can set up in terms of both floor defense positioning and blocking.
  3. Defensive Strategies looks at different ways the systems above may be employed based on the strengths and weaknesses of your team and/or your opponent.
  4. Offensive Systems focuses on different offense configurations, such as the 5-1 or 6-2.
  5. Offensive Strategies discusses ways to employ an offensive system to put your team’s attackers at the advantage.
  6. Systems, Strategies, and the Team concentrates on developing good training plans and handling the team before, during, and after matches.

Each section of the book comprises chapters focused on one aspect of the bigger subject. These chapters generally feature five elements.

  • An initial description of the system or strategy
  • Personnel requirements
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Options for implementation
  • Coaching points

The final chapter of each section (except the last) lists drills to work on the system or strategy covered. There are as many as 20 drills listed. That’s plenty to work with.

There’s a companion DVD with the book. It covers the primary topics listed above, excepting #6. It also shows some of the drills included. Call it about an hour in length.

There’s a lot of material in Volleyball Systems and Strategies. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if the reader can grasp it all they will be well on their way to being able to find the right systems and strategies for any team they coach, regardless of competitive level.

2013-14 BUCS Men’s and Women’s Western League Teams

The BUCS website has been updated with the the teams for the upcoming season. The Western league is the one in which teams from the South West compete. Here are teams for Division 1.

Men’s Division 1
Bournemouth 1st
Exeter 1st

Men’s Division 2A
Bournemouth 2nd
Exeter 2nd
UC Falmouth
UWE Winchester

Men’s Division 2B
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 1st
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 2nd
UW Newport

Women’s Division 1
Exeter 1st

Women’s Division 2A
Gloucestershire 1st
Exeter 2nd
UC Falmouth

Women’s Division 2B
Gloucestershire 2nd
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 1st
SW Pontypridd & Cardiff 2nd
UW Newport

Bournemouth won both the men’s and women’s Division 1 last season. Aberystwyth was relegated out of both men’s and women’s Division 1, with Gloucestershire moving up on the men’s side and Swansea earning promotion on the women’s side.

It’s worth noting that last year there was no Division 2B for either men or women. There were 8 women’s sides last year in Division 2A, so we’ve seen a net addition of 2 teams there – Southampton Solent out; Exeter 2nd, UW Newport, and UC Falmouth in. On the men’s side there were only 6 teams in Division 2A, so it’s a net pick up of four teams – Southampton Solent out; Bournemouth 2nd, Exeter 2nd, UC Falmouth, UW Newport, and UWE Winchester in.

Adding 6 teams in one year strikes me as a pretty good indication of the direction of volleyball in the South West. That’s nearly a 25% jump in the amount of playing opportunities on offer in the region for a group of young people ideally situated to become future coaches. And of course the growth also means more coaching opportunities for those of us already in the field.

By the way, don’t go by the fixture list BUCS has posted on the site. They feel the need to fill that in and basically make stuff up. The recent history of the Western league is to due tournament style competitions as much as possible.