The question of how to get the most out of volleyball games and drills which pit the starting six against the non-starters is one every coach faces at some point along the way. In some cases you can reasonably ask the question as to whether you even want to have an A team/B team split, but instead have mixed groups. That’s a discussion for a separate post, however.

The focus here is on situations where there is a clear drop in level between those in the first string and those in the second string. This creates issues of competitiveness in training game situations and/or a differentiation in training needs. In this article I focus on how to make games more competitive. In a later post I’ll look at how drills can be designed to be maximally effective.

Bolstering the B side

One way you can make your second string more competitive is to add a player or two to that side of the court. This could be an assistant coach. In the case of women’s teams, perhaps you can bring in a men’s team player (or vice versa, in some cases). It could be a local outside player of some sort.

The problem with these solutions is when it means leaving a member of the squad on the sidelines. It’s both developmentally problematic and a major morale consideration. Plugging someone in to make the necessary six or to play an unfilled position is one thing. Replacing a player with someone outside the squad because they are more competitive with the A team is another.

Differentiated ball initiation

In some games external ball initiation is a feature. That’s when the coach sends in a ball they control. These provide an opportunity to change the intensity of those balls to balance out the competitiveness. For example, the A team could receive an attacked ball while the B team received more of a down ball or a free ball, depending on the difference in level. The idea is to have the first ball put the teams on roughly equal footing in terms of first contact challenge.

Make sure you don’t alter the focus point of the game, though. Take the example of working on free ball offense. You don’t want to have one side getting free balls and the other getting attacked balls. Rather, what you can do is make the free balls more challenging for the stronger side. Do this by making them lower and faster. Put them in places where players have to move more. Locate them in seems between players. Things like that.

Mixed scoring systems

Playing A vs B under a standard set of scoring rules will (hopefully!) result in the A team winning a lot. That might make the first teamers feel good (through probably only to a degree). It isn’t going to do very much to the morale of the second teamers, though. You want the second string to feel like they can compete. They need to have a reasonable chance to win for you to get the most out of them. To do that you’ll need a scoring system which levels the playing field.

Of course one way to do this is to spot the B team a certain number of points. For example, they could start at 7 in a set to 25. I’m not a big fan of this sort of thing, though. By handicapping the first string you’re basically highlighting how much worse you perceive the second string to be.

What I like better is to have different sets of scoring rules. Here’s one example of this. I had a situation where there was a group of experienced adult players going up against a group of juniors players. Because the levels of play were so far apart, I said the experienced players could only score a point on a kill, while the inexperienced players would score as normal. It made for a quite close game.

You can set up these mixed scoring games like you would a bonus point system. This offers the opportunity to have the A team work on specific developmental needs. Meanwhile, the B team works on their own. For example, if you want the A team more focused on quick attacks they could get a bonus for successful execution, while perhaps the B team gets bonus points for just running the quick even if no kill is registered. Alternatively (or additionally), the B team could get points for keeping the A team out of system with challenging serves.

Wash drills also offer an opportunity for mixed scoring systems. A simple example of this would be in an otherwise normal game to require the A team to win two rallies in a row to score a point, perhaps with the second rally initiated by a challenging ball from the coach, as described above. Alternatively, the wash rules could be adjusted to make things more competitive. For example, in Bingo-Bango-Bongo you could require the A team to win three rallies in a row to earn the right to serve, but the B team only has to win two rallies.

Think about your priorities and be creative

Creativity is something you’ll need to employ to find ways to make your non-starters competitive with your starters in training games. Think about your overall priorities, as well as the priorities you may have for each set of players involved. Your second string is probably going to be your first string some day, so you don’t want to overlook their development while you’re getting your first team the playing time together you think they need. It’s not a question of finding new games to play. It’s just a question of finding the right ways to play the games so all players benefit the maximum possible.

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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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