In any given season there is a time, or perhaps a couple of times, when you want your team playing at its absolute best. For many this is at the end of the year during post-season play. In other cases, though, there may be a desire to see a team peak for intermediate competitions. That could be a certain tournament, a big rivalry match, the start of conference play, etc.

Season structure plays a part

When I coached at Brown, the head coach talked about how different it was having gone from a situation where the Ivy League champion was determined in a season-end tournament. That system was replaced by one where the champ was determined strictly by league performance (no tournament). It changed the season dynamic. No longer could you just build things up to have the team playing its best volleyball at the end.

Taking the long view

This came to mind a while back when the Exeter university teams I coached in 2013-14 were in the stretch run. In less than two weeks they would both play in Final 8s. The men’s second team also had a Cup semifinal, and potentially a final as well. With the women in particular, things progressed very well in terms of peaking them at the right time. All season long my focus was getting them there, prepared to face that level of competition, and it paid off.

You really could say that I trained that team for Final 8s. If you asked the players, they would tell you I constantly talked about where we needed to be to go toe-to-toe with the top teams in the country. Obviously, we played lots of matches along the way. It was 34 by my count. Some were against good teams. Some were against poor ones. Frequently along the way I made coaching points based on our performance in them to help the players see where we wanted to be in terms of all facets of the game.

Different aspects of it

Much of my work with the ladies was on the mental side of things. That was in terms of building their confidence and a good playing mentality. It was also about making good decisions on the court and staying focused and doing their job at any given time.

Of course there’s also the technical and tactical development side of things. It’s hard to do a lot of individual skill training when you only have 3.5 hours of court time per week. The multi-week holiday break mid-season didn’t help in that regard. I focused my efforts on more team oriented stuff as the bigger priority. It was a simple question of larger gains to be had from improvements there. That said, the areas of serving and hitting are both places where notable improvement was seen through the year. Both were points of focus for me from the start. Later,, blocking came along as well.

Then there was the physical aspect of peaking. That’s having your players in the best possible condition when it matters most. This is probably the trickiest part. After all, volleyball training is about developing team and individual abilities and tactics. Hopefully, that is a path of continuous improvement. Trying to peak a team physically – and mentally, for that matter – is about knowing when to push and when to give them a break. And this isn’t just about what happens in the gym, because quite often what’s happening outside it plays a part (like exams and heavy course-load periods for students).

So what did I do?

With that team I had the advantage of having a pretty good idea of where they would be in the league. I knew we were strong enough to at least earn a spot in Championships. I also knew the team’s priorities. I didn’t have to worry too much about results along the way (though the team was 25-9 overall across all competitions heading into Final 8s). That gave me some leeway in terms of working different line-ups. I could focus on certain aspects of play, etc. to keep the team moving in the direction I wanted. Things aren’t always quite so easy.

Basically, for this team it was a question of building progressively through the season. I’m talking about training intensity here – both mental and physical. Every week I expected a little more of them. Sometimes it was subtle. Sometimes it was overt. Along the way I introduced physical and mental challenges intended to prepare them to take things up a notch and to be able to fight through in the face of adversity. It wasn’t a straight path, but then it never is!

In the final two weeks of training (4 sessions) I continued that process in terms of looking for a little more out of them each time on the court. My only shift was getting more specific with line-ups and tactics to prepare for Final 8s.

By the way, we reached the national semifinal that season. 🙂

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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