Review of 2017, look ahead to 2018

Well, 2017 was certainly an interesting year!

As is my habit at the turn of the year, I want to take a little bit of time to review the last 12 months. I’ll also get into some thoughts about what I see for the year ahead, as I did last year. I already did a review of the 2017 volleyball season. This post will focus on other things.

Travel

With Midwestern State I visited a couple of new locations during the course of our season. We played at Austin in a pre-conference tournament. While recruiting I also got to visit San Antonio. At this point, the only major Texas city I haven’t visited is Houston. Not sure that one is in the plans any time soon, though.

Personally, I made two big trips. The first was to the Olymic Training Center in Colorado Springs in February. I was there to attend my second High Performance Coaches Clinic. Here is my report on that. This time I also added in the Coaches Accreditation Program (CAP) Level III coaching course. I also wrote about that experience. I believe I have completed the requirements for my certification, but I’m waiting for final word at this writing.

My big trip was back across the Atlantic in May. The main part of that was spent in Poland where I hung out with Mark Lebedew while he ran pre-World League training camp for the Australian national team. I also spent a couple of days in Germany visiting with a coaching friend there. Of course I had to hit England as well. I spent an afternoon with a coaching friend there, visited with an old friend, and got back to Exeter for a meeting with my PhD supervisor to talk about our joint academic research work.

And then there was the MSU team trip to Buenos Aires. That was my first ever trip south of the US border, and also my first to a Spanish speaking country. It was a great experience, both in terms of the tourist side of things and volleyball.

Projects

It was a rough year for my various projects. Frankly, I did not get done nearly as much as I thought I would. All the organization for the Buenos Aires trip sucked up massive amounts of my non-coaching time. That was especially true over the Summer, which is usually a good time to get big things done. Not so much this year.

At the same time, Mark taking on the added work of coaching a national team alongside his work coaching a professional club team in Poland made it hard for us to collaborate on additional Volleyball Coaching Wizards work. It was my hope to have at least one new book published, but it just didn’t happen.

I did get do some work in the academic arena, but didn’t produce the second paper I had in mind. I also didn’t get a new edition of Inside College Volleyball published, as I wanted. Oh, well. It was still a worthwhile year.

The Blog

Once more I can report growth in readership of this blog. Quite big growth, actually! The year ended with over 100,000 visitors and nearly 220,000 page views, up about 35% from 2016. Honestly, that blows my mind. Along the way the site crossed half a million page views all time since it was launched in June 2013. It got just about 14,000 views that first year.

Again, readership has been basically global, though obviously the US dominates.

 

The most read posts for 2017 were the following.

  1. Volleyball tryout drill ideas
  2. Volleyball set diagram
  3. The qualities of a good team captain
  4. Putting together a starting line-up
  5. Game: Winners (a.k.a King/Queen of the Court)
  6. Scoring serving and passing effectiveness
  7. Getting volleyball players to talk
  8. Volleyball camp drills and games
  9. Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?
  10. Volleyball conditioning – a sample program

The blog now has over 900 posts. I imagine I’ll cross the 1000 post mark in 2018. Kind of crazy to think about reaching that milestone!

Looking forward to 2018

I enter this new year with a wait and see type of attitude. The one thing I know with certainty is that staff changes are coming at MSU. Our graduate assistant will finish his degree in May, so for sure a new GA will be required. Where things go with that is an open question. Add in the big turnover in players (7 out, and probably at least as many new players in) and you get the prospect for a lot of changes in the program. We’ll see how that all plays out.

In terms of my various other projects, there are three big things I want to complete early this year. One is publishing the second Wizards book, which should happen shortly. Another is updating Inside College Volleyball and getting that out the door. I also have another, non-volleyball, content project I’m working on.

Looking at the rest of the year, there are some other things I want to do as well. Mark and I need to get back to recording and publishing Wizards interviews, and I’d like to publish another book from the project later in 2018. I would also like to develop some longer-form coaching education content. Think an online course, or something like that.

See shall see where things take me!

I have some extra money. What should I buy with it?

From time to time a coach in a forum or discussion group looks for some advice about buying new equipment. Often it starts with something like this:

I have $1000 left in my fundraising account. What should I buy with it?

My personal philosophy on this sort of thing is to think about what you’ll get the most use from over its lifetime. Maybe that comes from my background in business and finance. 🙂

Anyway, with that in mind, here’s what I would look at in order of priority. I should note, I’m thinking here in terms of stuff to help from a coaching perspective. I’m not thinking about things like uniforms and other player gear.

Balls and ball carts

There is definitely a limit to how many balls it makes sense to have. You need space to store them, and the size of your gym plays a part.

For example, when I coached at Exeter our main practice gym had almost no space around the court. That means stray balls were always at risk of getting underfoot. As such, having a big number of balls didn’t make sense. I think we had 18s balls maximum. Different situation at MSU where the gym is much larger and balls roll well away from the court, allowing us to have four or five ball carts full of balls.

At a minimum, you probably want at least one ball per two players. That allows you to do partner work. More is definitely better, though. It lets you keep drills and games going without needing to stop to collect the balls. Granted, you can use that as a break, but you don’t want to have to halt things too often. So get as many balls as you can reasonable handle.

As for ball carts, you obviously need at least enough to hold all the balls. Beyond that, think about how you can distribute carts around your gym to facilitate ball entry and the like in your exercises. For example, if you like to do station work or otherwise split the team, you probably need at least one cart for each group.

Poles, nets, and stuff for additional court(s)

If you have the opportunity to increase the number of courts you can set up in your gym, grab it! That could be something as simple as creating a situation where you can suspend a long net across to run mini volleyball courts. Or you could set up full competitive courts. Whatever the case, you can add more nets to use for practice – perhaps to do stations or small group work. You can also potentially use the extra courts to host tournaments, and maybe even make some money in the process.

Video equipment

These days, if you are not using video in your practices you are behind the times. It could be something as simple as an tablet you use to record players doing reps and playing it back for them. Or it could be an delayed video system. This is the sort of thing where you can find a solution that fits your budget.

Addition coaching help

If you’re in a situation where you don’t have a full staff and could use a bit more help in the gym, maybe you can put the money to use on an assistant. This is not something you’d think of as having a long-term benefit, which is why I put it here. You never know, though. An extra pair of eyes or another voice in the gym could make a big impact with lasting effects, even if it’s just for a short period.

Coaching education

Can you use the money to go to a coaching clinic or convention? If so, that might be a great investment. Increasing your coaching knowledge is something that can have both an immediate positive impact and long lasting ones.

Ball throwers, targets, and other devices

As it’s position on the list implies, I think investing in one of the many devices available on the market should be a low priority. Most of the time these devices are quite expensive and are not used all that often. You have to really look your situation and make a realistic estimate of how often you’d use the new piece of equipment your considering. Then you should probably reduce that estimate because we all tend to overestimate these sorts of things. We have all sorts of grand ideas, but then the reality of having to pull the device out of storage, set it up, and take it down hits.

A serving machine is a prime example. First, you want to consider whether you really want players passing off a machine instead of from an actual server where they are also learning to pick up on visual cues. Second, could you not simply use real servers, thereby also giving them serving practice?

Admittedly, there are situations where a machine makes sense. For example, in men’s volleyball it is hard to get a high volume of reps off a live jump serve because of the physical demands on the servers. A serving machine in that situation makes quite a bit of sense.

Another situation where it might make sense is in a small group or individual training session. Maybe you don’t have someone who can serve, or at least serve the way you need. That’s another time when it makes sense to have a serving machine. Even still, you have to consider how often that kind of situation comes up to decide whether the machine is worth its large price tag.

Coaching career motivations – ladder climbing vs. maximizing what you have

My friend Ruben Wolochin forwarded me a link to the Forbes article about Western Kentucky head coach Travis Hudson. I’d seen the article floating around, but hadn’t read it yet. I found it really interesting that an Argentine (Ruben) coaching in Germany (for top division team Bühl) forwarded it to me. Of course, the fact that a mainstream site like Forbes is writing about a volleyball coach is quite exciting for our sport.

Maximizing what you have

Ruben made a comment in our conversation related to Hudson’s performance.

Success means getting the best possible from your circumstances.

I agree with him 100%.

We don’t all have great athletes. Nor do we all have high quality facilities, or good support. We have to do the best we can with what we do have. Sometimes that means winning lots of matches and being a champion. Other times, though, the win/loss record doesn’t reflect the real accomplishment.

Perhaps the team I’m most proud to have coached is the 2013-14 Exeter women. Reaching the national semifinals that year was an accomplishment far beyond anything anyone would reasonably have expected. We had no scholarship athletes, but finished above teams with them. It was literally the best season we could possibly have had (the teams above us had FAR superior athletes and resources). We got the absolute most out of ourselves.

The experience of that season at Exeter reinforced in me the need to constantly look for ways to maximize performance and the rewards it can bring. That applies to everything. It’s not just about the on-court performance. Certainly, it seems like Hudson has been able to do that.

Ladder climbing

Flipping things around, my response to Ruben was that Hudson seems to know what’s important to him. The article highlights how he’s had plenty of opportunity to move on to a higher level for probably much more money. That doesn’t motivate him, though. He’s not interested in climbing the ladder, and he’s making plenty of money at Western Kentucky.

When I interviewed Mike Lingenfelter for Volleyball Coaching Wizards we talked at one point about finding your niche. That’s the idea that each of us as coaches should figure out where we best fit in the coaching spectrum. There are a lot of different age groups, competitive levels, and locations. Some suit us better than others.

Hudson’s clearly found what suits him. As a result, his personal satisfaction and sense of reward are extremely high. Going somewhere else would risk reducing that. Why bother?

Now, it’s true that sometimes you have to do the ladder climbing thing to reach where you want to be (I bemoaned the requirement for it at times in a previous post). And for sure some coaches are motivated toward greater prestige, earning more money, or whatever they perceive as the reward(s) of coaching at a higher level. I’m not here to argue what is the right or wrong motivation – only that each coach should understand their own (though we’re pretty bad at understanding what we’ll want or be like in the future).

Hudson said his motivations are, “… to help kids grow, see them graduate and develop them as people.” Do you know your motivation? I wrote about my own in the Why I Coach post.

Looking forward myself

The combination of getting the most from your situation and finding your niche is something I think about quite a bit when I consider my own situation moving forward. I’ve spoken with Ruth Nelson (another of the Wizards I’ve interviewed) on this subject. She was heavily involved in my move to Midwestern State, and we’ve talked career stuff a number of times since then. Motivation is a big part of that.

The thing I often wonder is whether I could do something like Hudson has done. I don’t mean take a team from obscurity to national significance. I actually did that already at Exeter. 😉

What I mean is whether I could become a lifer somewhere. Can I find a place where I’m able to settle and coach until retirement – whenever that might be? My history doesn’t really show much indication of being able to do so.

I honestly think the answer is yes, though. It comes down to the challenge.

Obviously, it is important to live in place I like and to work with good people. Beyond that, however, there needs to be the opportunity to continuously challenge myself and push things forward. And I’m not just talking about the volleyball. Organizing the Midwestern State team trip to Buenos Aires, for example, was a massive challenge that had nothing to do with the on-court work. Not that I don’t care about the team’s performance, because I definitely do. I just need for things to be multi-dimensional.

That’s what I’ll have in mind as I ponder my future career direction.

Book Review: A Fresh Season by Terry Pettit

I previously reviewed Terry Pettit’s book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams. I also interviewed Terry for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. A Fresh Season is Terry’s second coaching-related book (he published a book of poetry). Like the first, this one is a collection of different essays and the like, including a poem or two.

This is not a coaching book, per se. You are unlikely to learn from it how to do X, Y, or Z.

Rather, it’s a variety of stories, observations, and commentary. Some of it is recent in origin, while other stuff seems to have been written years ago originally. The subject matter is all over the place.

For example, there is an essay by one of Terry’s daughters that is a kind of “letter to my freshman self”. In it she offers advice on how to get through that first college season, and the seasons to follow.

There’s a chapter called A Letter to the Parents of a Prospective recruit that is a coach’s appeal. If you coach college volleyball you will seriously think about using it in your own recruiting efforts!

A theme of a couple of different chapters is the idea of being uncomfortable. Terry advises recruiting players who have willingly made themselves uncomfortable. He talks about how players need to be put in uncomfortable situations to develop. He also admonishes coaches to put themselves in uncomfortable situations. We cannot, he says, demand less of ourselves than we do of our athletes.

There is a chapter outlining the factors which predict future head coaching success. Prior head coaching experience is top of the list. Not surprisingly, passion and integrity also rate quite highly.

Terry focuses directly on juniors coaches in one section. It’s perhaps the one part of the book where he gets pretty explicit about what he thinks they need to focus on. People probably won’t agree with everything he says, but at least is provides plenty of food for thought.

Another repeated theme in the book is recruiting, requiring, and relating. Terry introduces them as the Three Rs of Coaching in one chapter. They then pop up again from time to time in other chapters.

Those are some of the highlights. There are nearly 40 chapters, but the book is only about 180 pages, so each is quite short. The only lengthy one is the last (nearly 20 pages), which relates the history of Nebraska Coliseum, where Nebraska Volleyball played for so many years – including all of Terry’s time coaching there.

Overall, I think A Fresh Season is a good book. It’s length and structure make for a pretty quick read. At times it’s funny. In many places it’s thought-provoking.

Increasing player intensity in practice

What are some ways you get your team to pick up the intensity more in practice?

This is a question that comes up among coaches on a regular basis. I think there are two primary ways to accomplish this.

Up the tempo

Perhaps the easiest way to increase training intensity is to raise the tempo of your activities. Generally speaking, you can do this by increasing the pace at which balls are entered in or shortening the time between rallies. The latter is something I wrote about in Washing to increase scrimmage intensity. When you add a new ball in as soon as a rally ends, it naturally increases the tempo. The players don’t have any time to drop their intensity back down, so it stays at a higher level.

Add competition

Adding competition to your practice can definitely make things more intense. And it doesn’t even have to be strictly a volleyball game. Sometimes you can use seemingly silly things to get the players competing and having fun. That ups the intensity, and oftentimes it carries through the session. Two games like this which immediately come to mind are Amoeba Serving and Brazilian 2-ball. They aren’t the most complicated games in the world, but players get into them.

Don’t let it drop

Having increased the tempo and/or added competition to you practice, make sure you don’t then put in something that will bring the intensity crashing back down. For sure there will be carry over from one intense activity into whatever comes next. If, however, that following exercise is something like a serving and passing drill, it’s all going to fade away.

You will have a hard time sustaining intensity when individual technique is the main focus. It just doesn’t work that way, so plan carefully. I favor putting the lower intensity stuff first, then building up as the session goes along.

Give them a purpose

Going beyond what you actually plan into your practice, you should also consider what the players are thinking. They are much more likely to be invested, and thereby intense, if they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It helps them focus, and focused players tend to be more intense players.

Looking back on the 2017 season

The NCAA women’s volleyball season is official over. Champions at all levels have been crowned. Seems like a good time to look back on the 2017 season with respect to MSU Volleyball to see how we did.

You can look back to my last in-season log entry to see how we ended the year in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). In this post I’ll take a look at things in more detailed fashion, and also look at the historical context of our performance.

The Rankings

We finished 16th in the NCAA Division II South Central Region’s RPI rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from 20th in 2016. On the Pablo ranking (available at Rick Kern), we ended the year at 115 out of 297 in Division II, a 12 spot improvement. In case you’re interested, we came in at 469 out of 1297 in the Pablo composite NCAA/NAIA all divisions ranking. We landed at 98 in the Massey Ratings, up from 143 in 2016.

2017 Team Statistical Performance

Let’s first look at how MSU compared to the rest of the LSC statistically. Here are the final team conference-only stats for 2017.

Our offensive performance lines up really well with where we finished in the league. We simply did not score enough in attack. We were a solid team on defense, and quite good when it came to serving and blocking. Unfortunately, that only gets you so far. At the end of the day, you have to put the ball away when you get the opportunity.

The biggest issue there was our low kill rate at just 31.5%. Could we have made fewer errors? Sure, but at 15.4% our error rate was not particularly high. It was within 1% of most of the teams above us, and better than some. By comparison, the Kill % for Tarleton was 39.4, Angelo and Kingsville were in the 37s, and everyone else other than Western NM was in the 34s. As you can see from our standing in terms of Opponent Digs and Opponent Blocks, we simply hit the ball at their defenders too often.

Year-over-Year Comparison

Offensively, we were basically at the same level in 2017 as we were in 2016 when our Hitting Efficiency was .163. Our 9th in that category this year is the same as it was last year, though we did move up one place in Kills/Set.

Looking at our offensive positions, it’s a mixed bag. We definitely got more production out of our middles – 3.7 k/s as compared to 2.9 k/s – and they hit for a little better efficiency. Our pins were less productive, however. The OHs might have had a slightly higher hitting percentage, but were a down a fraction in kills/set. The big drop was in the OPP position. We went from 2.35 kills and .174 efficiency to 1.03 and .069.

Our defense was where we really got better. We massively improved in Opponent Hitting Efficiency, going from .221 to .183. Our block was a huge factor there, as we increased our Blocks/Set by nearly 1 whole block. We jumped from 10th to 4th in that category. We also were better in digs, improving to 16.17 from 13.76 and moved up to 7th from 9th.

At the individual level, the first thing that really jumps out is the production at our libero position. In 2016 we didn’t have anyone above 2.63 digs/set. This season our libero finished at 4.81. Not surprisingly, there are also some dramatic improvements in blocking. In the OPP position we went from 0.48 to 1.02. Our MBs in 2016 were at 0.61 and 0.54. This year it was 1.21 and 0.86.

Historical perspective

While the program still has a way to go in becoming what we all think it could be, and this season didn’t meet expectations in some ways, it still had some good things happen with respect to the history of MSU Volleyball.

  • First ever foreign trip.
  • First time beating West Texas after more than 30 failed attempts.
  • Most overall and conference wins since 2013.
  • The 4-match win streak we had early in the season was the longest since 2013, and the longest away from home since 2011.
  • This was the first season since at least 2008, when national rankings started to be noted on the schedule, that our only non-conference losses were to ranked teams.
  • The set we took off of Central Oklahoma was the first we’d taken from a ranked team since 2014 and the first against a non-conference ranked team since 2011.
  • Season Blocks/Set were 6th highest on record, Total Blocks the 8th highest, and our 2.20 Blocks/Set in the LSC were the most since 2010.
  • Our 2nd place position in the LSC in Aces/Set was our best position since 2007
  • The 4th place our top OH held in the LSC Kills/Set ranking was highest for an MSU attacker on record (2004 the first available).
  • Our setter’s 3rd place in conference Assists/Set was the best ranking for an MSU player since 2008.
  • Our freshman MB’s 1.21 Blocks/Set in the LSC was the most for an MSU player since 2005.

We can add in the fact that our combined total of 27 wins over the last two seasons is the most since the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. We need 14 wins in 2018 for the best 3-year total since 2008 to 2010.

Thoughts on the season – big picture

Generally speaking, I am satisfied with the season. Was it disappointing to miss out on the conference tournament? Of course.That fact that we did so is a good lesson in how things you have no control over can decide your fate. We had more wins this year than last, but finished one place lower in the standings.

At the same time, though, it’s also a lesson in how you need to perform every time out. Had we won a couple of those matches we lost early in the season due to really poor performances, our season could have ended very differently.

I think one of the issues we had early in the conference season is that we were too focused on outcome.In particular, I think there was too much pressure to win. That may sound a bit odd on the face of it, but stick with me.

The idea of reaching the NCAA tournament had taken hold in a lot of minds. It’s something the program hasn’t done since 2007, so obviously it’s a major goal. The problem, though, is only 3 or 4 teams from the conference make the NCAA tournament. We were a team that barely made it into the top 8 of the LSC in 2016. It’s not such an easy thing in a competitive conference to move up 4-5 spots from one year to the next.

So there was all this internal pressure to win at the start of the LSC season. This was in a group of players with no history of being in that kind of situation, and thus no real tools to handle it. It’s something we’re working on, but it takes time and experience. On top of that, the players are sick of losing – especially in conference. That can lead to playing not to lose rather than playing to win. I think we definitely had issues with that over the course of the season.

The combination of those two things made for some notable ups and downs in mentality. This wasn’t helped at all by the death of an MSU football player early in the season. That threw everyone for an emotional loop. These are young people who haven’t had to deal much with that sort of thing yet in their lives.

All in all, though, I think the season represented pretty good progress. We finished #16 in the NCAA South Central Region rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from #20 in 2016, and #25 in 2015. Importantly, we kept improving – and wanting to improve – right up to the end. That was definitely not the case in 2016 where we basically just survived the last couple of weeks of the season.

Thoughts on the season – the details

In any season there are areas which go well and those that don’t. The 2017 was no different in that regard.

From a playing perspective, the major objective we had coming out of the 2016 season was better defense. Our block was poor and we didn’t dig nearly as many balls as we felt we should. We made defense the top priority for our off-season development. We definitely were much better in that arena this year. The one area we persistently struggled in, though, was defending against the right side attack.

The offense for me was a disappointment. We just never could get that going the way we wanted. Part of it was a decided lack of any real right side threat. We might have been able to get more there with a personnel change, but it would have meant significantly reducing our blocking presence. In any case, that’s a change we really couldn’t have made until later in the season given who was available and the progression of player development.

The other trouble area was the second OH position. The two players who took turns there struggled with their consistency and made far too many errors in attack. We were not helped by losing our freshman OH early on to a knee injury. She would have at least challenged for playing time.

One thing I like a lot is that our senior players went out on their best season at MSU. I mean that both in terms of team and personal performance. Our attacking players had their most kills and their best hitting percentages this year. Our defensive players had their most digs this year. And our setter had her most assists (and digs) this season. You expect that to be the case, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Looking forward

It will be an interesting situation for the program moving forward. Next season we will only have two players with more than a single season’s experience at MSU. Everyone else will either be 2017 or 2018 freshmen or transfers. One the one hand that means little in the way of experience at our level of competition. On the other hand, though, it also means none of the baggage left over from the teams that finished last in the LSC in 2014 and 2015. In a way, now is when the real future for MSU Volleyball is shaped. That’s pretty exciting.

Game: 2-player, 2-ball Volley Tennis

Synopsis: This is a great warm-up type game that gets players moving and competing while also working on communication and strategy.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for all levels

Requirements: 4+ players, full court

Execution: Split the group in half and put the teams on opposite sides of the court. Two players from each team will be involved in each rally, so the rest will be off behind the end line waiting to rotate in (if you have more than the minimum).

A rally starts with one player from each team on the court, and one off the court beyond the end line as “server”. The servers count to 3 together, then underhand throw the ball over the net to the other side. From here the teams play volley tennis with one contact per ball per side. Play continues until both balls are dead. If one team wins both balls they get a point. Otherwise, it’s a wash (no point). Game is to 10, or whatever you choose.

Variations:

  • You can play on a reduced sized court for younger players.
  • You could play with teams of 3, but probably wouldn’t want to go with more than that.
  • Illegal “serves” (toss too flat) can either be a replay or you could count them as if they were a missed serve. The latter counts as a ball won by the receiving team.
  • You can split the group out any number of ways – by age, by height, by shirt color, etc.

Additional Comments:

  • This game was first introduced to me, I think, by the Swedish players when I coached at Svedala. They referred to it as Brazilian 2-ball tennis (or something like that). To this day I refer to it that way with my teams.
  • Every team I’ve ever seen play this game – my own and others’ – has enjoyed it a great deal. Even up to national team level professionals.

Can players learn to read on defense, or is it an innate ability?

Is reading something you can teach players? That’s the basis of a question asked by a fellow coach.

So I’ve been thinking about this one for a while: can you teach a player how to read on defense or is it a natural ability? I feel like no one ever taught me to read; I was just naturally good at it. For those of you that say you can teach it, what drills/tools do you use?

My initial response is that there is no such thing as a natural ability to read the game of volleyball. Reading in a sport is entirely contextual in nature. There may be experience from other sports which help, and certainly visual acuity plays a part, but in order to translate what you see into some kind of understanding of what’s coming you need knowledge and experience.

So, to my mind, what someone sees at “natural” reading ability probably has more to do with visual ability than actual contextual understanding. I’m happy to hear evidence to the contrary. Lacking that, though, I’d definitely say players can learn to read better. And even if there is a natural element, you can still improve it.

That being the case, what can we do to help players read better?

Provide visual cues

Reading is all about picking up the visual cues. That starts, of course, with paying attention. I once had a conversation with a team about reading – specifically about what they were looking at on the other side of the court. One of them, in what was clearly a moment of revelation, confessed that she’d just been watching the ball. Obviously, that’s not nearly enough.

So what are the players looking at? What should they be looking at?

On a gross level, they need to understand the situational context. Is the setter front or back row? Where are the hitters located? What is the quality of the pass? These are the sorts of things that allow you to narrow the range of possible actions by the opponent.

At a more micro level, what is the hitter’s line of approach? Where is the ball relative to the attacker’s hitting shoulder? Is their approach fast or slow? Where’s your block? How fast is the set? Will your middle close in time? How far off the net is the set?

Players need to constantly watch and look for the cues that will tell them what’s coming next. Your job as coach is to teach them what those cues are.

Putting them in the situations

You can teach the players what to look for, but they will only really learn to do that if you put them in position to do so. As I noted in The two purposes of drills and games, that means putting them in the proper game context and having the right platform for getting them the feedback they require.

The first part of that is pretty easy. There are all kinds of games and drills that can create the context you need. The trick is to get the right feedback. To do so, you probable need to have a very similar view of the action as the player. For example, if you’re working with your defender playing in Position 6, you likely need to stand behind them so you can see what they see. It’s really hard to provide feedback to them if you don’t know what’s in front of them.

That said, an alternative to standing behind them is placing a camera there. This can be an excellent way to give the player feedback. If you use video delay or otherwise can rewind and let them see things again, they can actually have a second look.

Changing the dynamic

There’s an element to the first part of the section above that I think needs to be addressed. Sometimes you need to take players out of their normal pattern to get them to expand their reading capacity. Among young players especially there is a tendency to play their “spot”. They go to a position on the court and just stand there waiting for the ball to come. No real reading involved. Why? Because that’s where Coach told them to be.

In order to change that mentality you have to put the players into a different situation – one where they can’t just play “their position”.

A great example of this is doubles (2 v 2) and other related small-sided games. You can also do it in a larger context by expanding players’ area of responsibility. For example, you can play a 5 v 5 game where it’s 3 front row and 2 back row players. That type of situations requires defenders to cover more area, encouraging them to get better at reading.

You can also flip that around for the block and play 2-up/3-back. Now it’s the blocker who need to cover more area.

In the Spring of 2017 one of our main priorities for the Midwestern State team was to upgrade our defensive capability, especially in the area of reading. We did a lot of sand doubles, small-sided games, and the type of 5 v 5 I mentioned above. As noted in the last section, though, it’s not just about putting them in situations that encourage reading. You also need to consistently get the players good feedback.

The two purposes of drills and games

An online debate in the volleyball coaching community got me a little bit fired up. I avoided getting involved, but came away from it needing to make an observation. It’s a very simple realization, if you think about it. The problem is I don’t think a lot of coaches really do that.

So here goes.

There are two purposes to any drill or game used in a training context. The first is to provide the players the opportunity to execute a given skill or tactic. The second is as a vehicle through which the players can receive feedback on said skill or tactic.

It’s really that simple.

These are the two considerations when deciding what drill or game to use in a practice. Does it give the players sufficient execution opportunities (reps), and does it allow you to give them the necessary feedback?

The reps

This tends to be where the debates about skill development in volleyball happen. There is a camp strongly advocating for game-like training – what’s called random training. The game teaches the game, as they say. Carl McGown was one of the very early advocates for this approach, based on the science of motor learning. USA Volleyball strongly carries that torch these days.

Despite the research, though, there are many coaches who still favor what is sometimes referred to as technical training. That is what is more formally called blocked training. It’s basically getting reps in a controlled environment. Think something like setting off a tossed ball.

I talk about blocked vs. random training in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post. You can see there some of what the motor learning research says and why it strongly favors random training. That said, McGown did acknowledge the value of doing a limited number of blocked reps before moving on to randomized ones.

Putting all that stuff aside, let’s think about what exactly we are trying to do as coaches. We are trying to maximize player performance in the context of a game situation. As such, doesn’t it just make sense to replicate in practice as much as we possibly can those types of situations?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where your players don’t do in games what they do well in practice – and I certainly experienced this early in my career! – then it’s probably because your training context is wrong.

Digging a ball hit by a coach on a box is not the same as digging a ball hit from a live hitter. Passing a served ball by yourself is not the same as receiving serve as part of a 3-person reception pattern, especially if you also have to think about transitioning to attack. They may look the same, but that misses the underlying mental processes which are so important to motor learning.

Does that mean sometimes the reps are going to be ugly? You bet. Get over it. It’s part of the process, as I noted in Climbing Mistake Mountain and in What percentage of reps should be good? They will get better with time.

Feedback

I’ve written about the importance of feedback in the post You don’t need a new drill, so I won’t go too far with it here. I just want to touch on the need for it, which is a place where coaches can fall short. Those who take the game teaches the game approach can sometimes fall victim to just letting them play and a “figure it out for themselves” mentality.

For sure, players get a lot of feedback from what happens during play. Their pass either goes to target or doesn’t. Their serve either goes where they want or not. The result of a swing provides a hitter with useful feedback. While that may be enough for an experienced player, though, it’s less so for younger, developing players. They can lack the knowledge to coach themselves, especially when trying to work on something new.

It is really important that you continue to provide players with feedback even during game type exercises. Obviously, you can’t do it the same way you can during more blocked type drills where you can stop after every rep. That means you can’t always give instant feedback. You still have to find a way to make it work, though, preferably without bringing the whole session to a halt.

The bottom line

So the bottom line in all this is that when you develop your practice plan you have to think about a couple of things. You should have a clear set of priorities to begin with, of course. From there it’s a question of figuring out how to get the players executing what you want them working on in the best possible context. Then you figure out the best way to give them the required feedback.

Simple! 🙂

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