How do I make my team strong in defense?

The following question hit my email inbox one day:

I would like to make my team a strong defensive team. Are there any drills to help with that?

First, let me restate something I posted in the You don’t need a new drill post. It’s not really much about the drills, or games, you use. Yes, they need to include the skill or tactic or whatever you want to work on. Beyond that, though, it’s about where you focus your coaching. It’s about how you provide feedback and where you have your players concentrating their efforts.

Now to the question of developing a strong defense. I think you have to address this from multiple perspectives.


A team’s first line of defense is at the net. It’s blocking ability, or lack thereof, goes a long way in determining how effective the players in the back court can be in digging opposing attacks. Obviously, at the lower levels this isn’t a major factor because of player heights and/or weak hitting. Once you advance beyond that, though, blocking is important (see How important is blocking?). There are technical elements to blocking (footwork, swing vs. non-swing, hand penetration) which need to be developed. This is about teaching the techniques and focusing on them in your feedback while having the blockers working against hitters. There are also blocking strategies that need to be determined, which ties in with the next section.

Defensive System

Integrated with the blocking issue is the overall defensive system we’re employing. This is how we position our players to cover the court when the other team is attacking. The idea is to have players in position to defend the areas of the court most likely to be hit. A good resource for learning about different types of defensive systems and strategies is the book Volleyball Systems & Strategies. Once you decide on a system, you then put the team in situations where they face an attack and you focus your feedback on their positioning.


On the technical side of things, good defense requires players who can control balls hit at them. Having the perfect defensive system or strategy in place doesn’t mean anything if the defenders are shanking the ball all over the place. Training this often comes in the form of a coach banging balls at players, but there is a read element to good digging.  We can only develop that by defenders facing live hitters. Either way, it’s a matter of focusing your feedback on what you specifically want the players working on at the moment.

Attitude, intensity, etc.

The last element of defense is the mental part. That is readiness, a relentless approach, and full commitment. These are things which you don’t necessarily have to work on in a game-like fashion – or in some cases even in a volleyball context. That said, it makes sense to have things be as close to realistic as you can make them for optimal transfer to match performance. Again, it all comes down to the focal point of your feedback.

So the first question you have to answer when looking to making your team better on defense is which of the above areas you need to most work on. Establish your priorities, pick drills or games which include that facet of the game, and focus both your and your player’s attentions there.

For club coaches and directors

As a college coach I watch a lot of Juniors club volleyball while out recruiting. That means I see a lot of different teams and a lot of different coaches.There are things club coaches and/or club directors might want to think about when they make certain decisions or choose to act in certain ways. Here are some of the ones that have occurred to me during tournaments.

Warm-up tops: Please, please, please put names or numbers on any kind of player warm-up tops. We college coaches actually watch players then. Sometimes that’s our best opportunity to get a good look at what a player can do. That doesn’t work if we can’t figure out who’s who.

Attire: Coaches, keep in mind that you are being observed basically all the time. I have no problem with coaches wearing athletic attire while on the sideline, especially if they do stuff in warm-ups. I don’t mind coaches wearing playful stuff. After all, this is a game being played by kids. What I do have a problem with is coaches who look like slobs. When you coach you represent your club and are a role model to your players. Think about what your appearance says from that perspective. Also think about what impression you may make on future employers.

Behavior: Along the same lines, think about how you act while you’re coaching. What do you want to project, not just to your players and to match officials, but also to all the other people who see how you behave on the sidelines. From my own perspective, it leaves an impression of what sort of person you are and whether I might want to work with you in some fashion, recommend your coaching to potential players for you, and judge your input in my recruiting process. It also influences what I think your players might be like when I get them after they’ve worked with you. Are you projecting what you want people to think?

Observations from USA Volleyball High Performance Try-Outs

During a couple weekends in April 2016 I took part in the High Performance try-outs. They happened the evening before the Lone Star qualifier tournament. The first was on a Friday before the younger age groups competed Saturday through Monday. The second was on Thursday before the older age groups played Friday through Sunday.

Each try-out was basically 4 hours. The first hour or so is administrative. The kids checked in, we measured height and reach, and tested block and approach jumps, plus a shuttle run. After that it was about evaluating the players in their positions and age groups. This took place through a series of single position drills, then multiple position drills, and finally 6 v 6 action.

From a staffing perspective, coaches like myself who volunteer had two sets of duties. During the first part we either checked kids in or tested and measured. In both cases I was on the jump testing station, which involved using the Vert device.

In the second part, the volunteers were either a court coach or an evaluator. Court coaches ran the drills and games. Evaluators assessed an assigned group of players. I was in the latter group both times around. The first week I had the outside hitters in the Select age group (born 2002-2003, so basically 14s). The second week I again had the outsides, but this time for the Youth group (2000-2001, basically 16s). This meant gauging the players on hitting, serve reception, defense, serving, and things like volleyball IQ.

The first tryout was very big – maybe 400 kids. The Select OH category I evaluated had 72 by itself. The second tryout was probably only about half the size as the focus was more on the older kids.

Obviously, there are challenges to running any try-out, never mind ones that big. I think there are ways to implement technology that could make things more efficient in terms of managing data, but you can’t really short cut the actual testing and evaluation processes. The evaluations are very standard and used for all try-outs. That includes the exact drills used. This is done to have consistency of measurement across try-outs which take place all over the country at different times.

Get out and help
I’m not going to say working these HP try-outs was the most exciting thing in the world. Try-outs generally aren’t high on most people’s list of fun times. These in particular, though, are a good way to meet and work with other coaches from around your region and beyond. They are also a chance to see how USA Volleyball does things and to maybe pick up some stuff you can incorporate into your own coaching in one fashion or another. They always need help, so make yourself available.

By the way, if you have any aspirations of getting involved in coaching at the national level you need to work at least one try-out. They are basically mandatory for being considered for inclusion in the staff of any of the programs USA Volleyball runs over the Summer. Those, in turn, are how you move up the USAV coaching ranks, should that interest you at all.

Coaching Log – Apr 25, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Because most of the staff was coaching their club teams at the Lone Star tournament, we didn’t have practice.

We took the team out to the sand court again. This time there was more of practice type focus in terms of doing some drills to work on ball control type activities – mainly in terms of serving and attacking. We wanted a little more focus than we had last time out. We did play some 2 v 2 + setter games at the end, though.

We were forced into the secondary gym because on Tuesday they started setting things up in the main gym for Thursday night’s sports banquet, which won’t get broken down again until Monday.

We started off with a variation on the cooperative cross-court hitting drill (team pepper). Previously, we started with them attacking through 4 and then switching to attacking through 2 with the objective of getting 5 consecutive dig-set-hit sequences in each configuration without stopping through the transition. This time we had them do a line-line version, so attacking through 4 and 2 and then 2 and 4. They were given 8 minutes to finish, which they did managed to do – just.

After that we did Run & Serve for the first time. We said they needed to get all the serves into the last 2 meters of the court and allowed for one missed serve by the group. It took them two times through to finish. Our thought for the next time is to exclude Zone 6, so force them to serve corners.

From there we moved to a servers vs. offense game which was an extension of the servers vs passers game we’ve been playing. This time we incorporated attacking. The receiving side earned a point if they got a good kill past the block (hard hit ball), and 2 points of they got a block-out kill. The servers earned a point for a 1 or overpass and 2 points for an ace. The receiving team was also given a point if the servers missed in the net or missed back-to-back (but not if they missed long or wide). Games were played to 15. The servers won each time, but the games were generally fairly close.

We finished up with a series of 5 v 5 games. Each side had a setter and MB at the net, and three back row players. Only earned points counted (ace, kill, block), but we subtracted a point on hitter errors in the net. Games were played to 8.

Although we normally go 2 hours, we decided to cut things short at about 90 minutes. We’d done all we planned and liked how the last couple of mini games went.

There was an assistant coaches meeting scheduled at 8:00, which I’d completely forgot about. We remembered right at the end of practice (just after 8:00), so I was late for what was only a 20-minute get-together. Whoops!

No practice today as there was the sports banquet. Only the head coach attended out of the staff as the rest of us were involved in the USA Volleyball High Performance try-out that evening in Dallas. This was the second try-out for us having done the one the prior Friday as well. The first one, though, was mainly young kids. This second group featured more kids of recruiting age.

I ran this session as the head coach was in Dallas for a combination of recruiting and club coaching at Lone Star. We only had seven healthy bodies, but there were a couple of assistants available to jump in. The intended main focus was on blocking and defensive intensity.  Because the main gym was still set up from the banquet the night before, we were in the secondary gym.

We started of with over the net pepper in groups of 3 and 4. After that, I had them doing a serving warm-up, then worked on some tough serving. They had to get +10, with a good strong serve being +1. If they missed a serve they would re-serve. If that serve was good, then it was a wash. If they missed the second, it was -1. I had it go for time.

Honestly, I’m kind of blanking on the rest. I know we did a 4 v 4 at the end where one side had a setter in 1, RS in 2, MB in 3, and a defender in 6, with the other side having a setter in 1, MB in 3, OH in 4, and defender in 5. We played 22 v 22 with serving done only into half the court. The players were pretty gassed at the end, and we only ended up going about 90 minutes.

I spent Friday afternoon through to Sunday afternoon in Dallas recruiting at Lone Star.

Busy weekend ahead!

Today starts what looks to be a pretty intense four day sequence.

This evening I’m working my second High Performance try-out in Dallas. Before that, though, I ‘m meeting up with a Volleyball Coaching Wizard for lunch (she’s also working the try-out). That’s supposed to be about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive. Last week, though, it was more like 3 hours – each way.

After the try-out, which will end around 8pm, I have to drive back to campus as I have to be there for Friday practice (6:30am). I will be running it because the head coach will be in Dallas with her club team playing in the Lone Star qualifier.

After practice I’ll be headed back to Big D once more, and staying until Sunday. I’ll be making my first appearance on the recruiting circuit in Midwestern State University colors at Lone Star. I’ve been to other qualifiers in the past, but this will be my first time at this particular one.

I’ll try to get some decent pictures and/or video to give those of you who haven’t seen anything like this an idea of how truly big these events are. There’s over 100 courts, mostly running 4-team pools in two waves.

Setter foot positioning

A reader of the blog asked the following question after reading the Setter Training: Weight Transfer post:

“Did I get it right, that you suggest that a young setter might have the front and back foot a little bit apart in order to execute the weight transfer? If so, what about back sets? Does the same back to front weight transfer help the arc in the spine? Or is it the opposite transfer front to back weight?”

Why feet apart?

First, the general recommendation for setters is that the foot closest to the net be somewhat forward of the other. In the indoor game, this basically means right foot forward. If you’re playing on the beach or otherwise in a situation where you’re setting from the left to the right (looking at the net), then your left foot would be closer to the net and thus should be the one slightly forward.

The main reason for this stance is that it keeps the shoulders turned slightly away from the net. This tends to mean mistakes are off the net rather than too tight or even to the other side. I’m not generally a fan of twist or turn setting or follow-through when it can be avoided. The reason is it tends to nullify the purpose of keeping your net-side foot forward. I accept the twist set’s value when forced to come well off the net, though.

Aside from that, you can’t really do a weight transfer through the set from back to front if you don’t have your feet staggered to some degree. Also, I find that setters who set with feet very close together tend to have a tighter overall posture. That is not beneficial to smooth setting, and by extension, accuracy.

What about back setting?

If the idea for the forward set is to transfer weight, what about setting backwards? Wouldn’t you want to do the same thing?

Actually, if you watch a lot of setters you’ll see them sort of do just that. What do they do when they are forced to move back to play the ball (e.g. passed too far toward the right-hand antenna)? They tend to back set in line with their backward weight transfer because it’s quite easy to do. Obviously, that means they aren’t well positioned to set other options, so it’s not what we’re really after.

The other thing you see setters do when they back set is actually take the ball slightly behind them. Essentially, this serves to put their weight behind the ball. That is where you want it in order to be able to push – just like for a front set. The problem there is everyone knows you’re going to set behind.

Using the same back-to-front weight transfer for back sets as the one I talked about for front sets actually makes more sense than you think when you consider the physiology of what’s happening. It’s not the same as when a setter pikes trying to front set. By that I mean their weight is all going in the opposite direction to the ball.

In a back set, in the back-to-front weight transfer you shift your body weight behind the desired path of the ball. At the same time, you are driving force from the legs through the hips, up the torso, and then along the arms. All the force of your body is going in the same direction. Much of that is upward in direction, but that’s fine because when you back set you are usually closer to your target than you are doing a front set to the antenna (shorter set = high arc). And if you need to set further you just alter the trajectory by arching your back more to create a less vertical line of force transfer.

Watch good setters and try it out for yourself to see what I mean.

Something to ponder: Using handicaps in volleyball

Consider this a “Something to think about” post. It’s just an idea that popped into my head once. This article is basically a way for me the think through it in print, and maybe stimulate some thoughts.

What’s a handicap?

If you’re familiar with golf you probably know about handicaps. For the non-golfers out there (I’m not really one myself, but I know the game a bit), the handicap is basically a way of allowing players of different calibers to compete with each other on equal terms. To quote Wikipedia:

A handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability based on the tees played for a given course.

In stroke play, it is used to calculate a net score from the number of strokes actually played during a competition, thus allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on somewhat equal terms. In match play, the handicap difference between players is used to determine the number of strokes the high handicap player should receive from the low handicapper during the playing of their round.

Basically, it works like this. Let’s say you have a handicap of 4 and I have a handicap of 9. If we play together, your score after 18 holes should be 5 strokes fewer than mine (e.g. 76 vs. 81). If it’s less than that, then I performed better for that round that you. If it’s more, then you performed better than me.

Handicaps in volleyball?

In volleyball we sometimes give the losing team credit for keeping it close. One example of this is the 3-2-1-0 point system. That’s where teams get 3 points for winning in 3 or 4 sets, but only 2 points for winning in 5. A team gets a point for a 2-3 loss. Another alternative is the system I’ve talked about being used in England. That’s one were in a timed game staying within 25% of the winning team’s score earns the losing team a point.

Now, in some cases these point systems penalize teams for not playing as well as they perhaps should have. They also reward teams for playing well. It’s not really the same as the handicap idea, though.

Think about how many situations there are where we see meaningful mismatches in competitive level in matches. There are high seeds vs. low seeds early in tournaments. There are highly funded teams vs. low funded ones in professional leagues. As a result, there would seem to be at least some potential value exploring the handicap idea.

The question is how to actually get the handicaps determined in a fair and reasonable fashion. This is especially true when there isn’t a large playing sample from which to calculate them.


Coaching Log – Apr 18, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

This week’s Monday morning was a bit better than last week’s. At least the player didn’t seem to be a leg-weary as they were. The head coach did need to “remind them” that we don’t let balls drop uncontested in our gym early on when we had them playing some 2 v 2 2-touch games.

From there we split them up between serve reception on one court and more blocking work on the other. In the latter case the focus was block penetration, with use of an elastic.

Some target serving followed, working on deep corners. We then did the Hard Drill on each court to work on multiple elements – defense against back attacks, being intelligent in bad-ball situations, staying aggressive under pressure, etc.

The remainder of practice was 6 rotations worth of a 6-v-6 drill where the serving team had to register three straight points. We called serves missed long or wide as washes, but a serve in the net sent the team back to 0. Each team had a turn passing and serving. Afterwards we talked about amping the drill up a bit by may be making it first-to-3 so either team could “win”.

No practice sessions today. Instead we had two groups of player in to watch video from the weekend for about an hour. A lot of the focus ended up being on defensive positioning and movement. We also briefly met with the team at the end of the day before they did a group activity together. At that point we basically progressed the team chemistry development process in the direction of accountability.

Illness and injury had us down a couple of bodies in this session, then we lost another one as part of a collision during the first half to bring us down to only eight. It ended up being a challenging session from a frustration perspective. This was largely driven by a couple of cooperative drills where the team (or groups) had consecutive sequence targets.

The first was a simple 3-person over the net pepper. We gave them a target of 10 straight dig-set-hit sequences, allowing them to hold their count level if they couldn’t get a good sequence, but kept the ball in play. This was in 3 groups on one court. That obviously creates issues due to the small space, but the bigger issue was simple lack of clean execution. By the point when we called time, one group had managed 5 and the other two 4.

After doing some serving and passing, we did the other cooperative drill, which was basically an out-of-system focused activity. This one was a 4-corner set-up with players in 1, 2, 4, and 5 on each side. Balls had to be attacked cross-court. If the ball was dug by the back row player, the other back row player had to set the ball (to either pin hitter). If the front row player dug the ball, either back row player could set.

The goal was 8 consecutive good sequences. It took probably close to half and hour. At one point relatively early on when it was clear they were struggling I brought them in to get them thinking about how communication could make it better. Later on we had them take a team timeout.

At noon we had two players who couldn’t make the video sessions on Tuesday in for their own session.

We gave the team the morning off from lifting as a break from the early wake-ups and because there are a few banged-up bodies. For afternoon team practice we took them out on the sand court at a local school. Basically, they just played games. It was rough going at the start as some of them clearly had little to no sand experience. By the end, though, they were starting to have some pretty good rallies.

We tried a variation on volley tennis to start this practice. Basically, it was 2 people on court on each side, with one ball in play as opposed to the two balls from the Brazilian variation we did before. Instead we had one player on each side holding a ball which they had to pass to their partner if they were going to play the ball coming over from the other side. Some refer to this as “don’t drop the baby”. We found, though, that by the end both sides had adopted a strategy of one person holding the “baby” while the other ran around the court playing the ball. So it became pretty much 1 v 1. We decided that the next time we tried it we’d make it a 2-touch game rather than just 1-touch.

After that we had them to serving and passing triples as warm-up for then moving on to the servers vs passers game we’ve been playing.

We then had them do the hitters vs defense where the antenna is set up so the attacker can only go through a narrow channel dominated by a double block. Last time we had them hitting through 4. This time it was through 2.

Next up was Pin Magic, which is a 5 v 5 game. You have pin hitters in the front row and three back court players. Each rally is started with a bounced ball which acts as the first contact. That side’s player in 5 must set the ball, and the ally goes from there. Points are only scored on kills which are set by the player in 5 (on either side).

We finished up with a couple of rotations of 22 vs. 22. We used the variation where a first-ball kill in the initial rally earned that side a big point (no second ball).

Heading to HP try-outs

I’ll be having a new volleyball experience today. I’m working the USA Volleyball High Performance try-outs in Dallas this afternoon.

For those who don’t know, the High Performance program is USA Volleyball’s talent identification program. It’s been in place for more than a decade. Basically, during the course of each juniors season there are try-outs for the program run in conjunction with the national qualifier tournaments. They are used to select players for the HP program camps and programs which run during the Summer.

I actually helped out with a Volleyball England try-out one time. That was for their girls’ Cadet and Junior national teams, which is something like U16 and U18. That try-out was also meant to identify a group of players to bring in to future camps, but obviously on a much smaller scale than what we’re talking about here in the US.

Today’s try-outs are for U14s. Next week on Thursday there’s a second try-out for the older girls. I’ll likely be working that one as well. I’ll provide a report on the experience in a future post.

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