What kind of fitness testing should I do at the start of preseason? That’s a question I see a regular basis each year as volleyball coaches prepare for the start of the new season. It’s query that begs follow-up questions.

First, do the results of the test have any direct influence on who makes the team, or on playing time?

I emphasized “direct” for a specific reason. Certainly, we can all agree that players who come in to camp out of shape are potentially at a disadvantage. They may get cut or miss out on playing time because they simply cannot keep up with everyone else. That’s different than saying, “Anyone who doesn’t do 50 push-ups won’t make the team”, or “You won’t play until you can do 50 push-ups.”

I would be VERY hesitant about using fitness test results to determine who makes the team and/or who plays. For one, what if everyone – or at least a large number – fail? Or the wrong player(s)? Second, are you even testing things that really matter? I’ll focus on that second one more in a minute. For now, though, I’ll just say I think it’s a very risky proposition to make hard and fast rules. They tend to paint you into a corner. Imagine if your best player(s) failed the test? Nightmare scenario!

Next question – assuming you answer “No” to the first question – do you have some kind of weight training or related program you run during the season?

If you do, then it makes total sense to do some kind of initial assessment of the players. That helps calibrate the workout program, either broadly or individually. I should note that testing on the first day is probably not the best idea in this case. See my Coaching Conversation with David Gil and Natosha Gottlieb to hear when strength coaches think is the best time for assessment.

If you won’t have a workout program, and thus will be focused on volleyball, then what’s the purpose of testing? Seems to me you’re just wasting potential practice time.

What do you test?

I think the old timed mile test has mostly gone out of fashion, thankfully. It is completely useless for volleyball purposes. Most of the reasons I see given for it have nothing to do with the sport and could be handled better in other ways. Ours is not a steady-effort sport, unlike running a mile. It instead comprises short bursts of activity with rest periods in between. The work to rest ratio is about 1 to 3 on average.

So basically we want our players to be able to perform short-duration explosive movements, then recover, repeatedly without performance degradation. For example, to be able to jump just as high at the end of the a set as at the beginning, or at the end of a match as at the start. This can be hard to measure, unless you have access to technology such as VERT. It’s also hard to train for specifically outside of actually playing volleyball (see conditioning via practice).

Of course, there is also the actual physical performance of the movements involved. Think jump height and floor movement quickness. Also arm speed for hitting/serving. This stuff is easier to measure directly. A step below that is assessing how players do in the weight room on things like squats that presumably feed into the actual performance movements. You’ll want a strength coach involved in that.

I encourage you to check out the Coaching Conversation I did with David Gil and Lauren Steinbrecher on player performance metrics. It could give you a nice sense of the things to evaluate.

Bottom line

At the end of the day I think it’s really only useful to do a fitness test or physical assessment in preseason if it’s part of an on-going program. If you’re just going to test things that one time and that’s all, then you’re likely just wasting time and effort. Put that to use on the court instead.

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.

    2 replies to "Preseason fitness testing"

    • Coach K

      This is a subject I wrestle with often but I’m always a little afraid to talk about. I don’t do any conditioning with my high school team.

      I’ve heard stories from nearby high schools about their crazy summer conditioning programs. These are successful teams where I really respect the coaches. But it seems rough. Some fitness tests are so grueling that kids leave vomiting and crying. I know some of these girls and they dread the conditioning so much, they don’t want to go to volleyball practice. Again…high school. It seems wrong to me.

      Two years ago when I took over my first high school team, the volleyball program was unstable and the numbers were low. So I kept traditional conditioning to a minimum because I couldn’t afford to scare off any players. I decided that my inexperienced team would get a lot more out of 30 minutes of ball control than 30 minutes of running. I also assumed we wouldn’t be in too many 5-game marathons.

      It’s not like we didn’t condition, though. I just tried to make it revolve around game-like situations. I mean, like Coach Forman says, volleyball players don’t need to be good at running a mile. They need to be good at digging, jumping, transitioning, etc. That’s the kind of conditioning we do…and the girls don’t hate it. In fact, I think they really enjoy the high-energy practices and they always complain when it’s time to go home.

      It all worked out pretty well that first year. Now I’m on my third lap and I still don’t do any traditional conditioning. I’ve never thought that we were at a disadvantage because we were gassed at the end of a match. In fact, we are 3-0 in 5-game matches over the last two years. I will say this, most of my team plays another sport so they are probably getting some conditioning and weight training elsewhere.

      Sorry, that got long…To sum up: I don’t condition—haven’t for 3 years. We play volleyball instead. We are now a good team (not elite). Everyone seems happy.

      But…Am I making a huge mistake? Am I putting my players at risk? Are all of you veteran coaches cringing right now?

      • John Forman

        Volleyball is conditioning. Full stop, end of sentence. If you do a good job of managing tempo and intensity in your practice sessions, then you’re not going to have any problems with lack of fitness on match day. Now, that is not to say that conditioning in the lead-up to preseason isn’t useful. It is. It prepares the players for the demands of training – at least when done properly.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.