Tag Archive for Volleyball Practice Planning

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

Game: Win 2 Out-of-System Rallies

Synopsis: This is a wash type of game which puts the focus on attacking in a setter-out or out-of-system situation. It can be very useful for getting pin hitters (or back row attackers) to make good decisions when not put in the best of attacking situations.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 12+ players, full court

Execution: Initiate a setter-out ball (attack a ball at the setter, or otherwise require a non-setter to take the 2nd ball). Play out the rally. After the first ball, play is as normal. If the team receiving the initial ball wins the rally, they get a second ball in the same fashion. If they win both, they rotate. If they lose either the first or second ball, it’s a wash and the other team gets the setter-out ball. Play until one team rotates all the way around.

Variations:

  • You can keep a rally score tally going (each team gets a point for a rally won, regardless of who got the initial ball). If you set a score cap (like 25 points), then it will let you put a rough time limit on how long the game goes.
  • To encourage positive errors rather than negative ones, and hitter coverage, you can have a team rotate backwards if a pin hitter hits an out-of-system ball into the net or is stuff blocked.
  • Once a rotation is earned, you can either restart with a first ball to that team, or give the first ball to the other team.
  • As an alternative to initiating a setter-out ball, you could toss in a ball that is the first contact, and require a certain player (or position) to play the second contact off of it.

Additional Comments:

  • Be aware the players can be stuck in a rotation for a while in this game. In most cases it requires a team to win three straight rallies (stop the other team, then win two setter-out initations). This can be further exacerbated by having to reverse back on bad errors. You may want to consider doing rotation flips (1,4,2,5,3,6) rather than going sequentially as a result. Either that or have system to rotate players around to keep some (like MBs) from being in or out longer than desired.
  • This could be used in a small-sided game situation.

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum. It’s a major feature of the USA Volleyball training philosophy, and shows through in the CAP program. It definitely showed through when I did my CAP III course.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Once, during a serving and passing drill, the Midwestern State setters took turns setting off of the pass. One asked why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My response was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. They are at least willing to try. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Learning some coaching lessons

A while back I came across a post on the Rivers of Thinking blog. It is about coaching mistakes and the need for reflection. In this case, they come from soccer. I think the ideas are pretty universal in coaching, however.

1) Be aware of how you communicate.

In the post, the author shares a situation where he felt quite pleased about after a training session. He thought it went very well. He was stunned to find out afterwards from one of the kids that his language choice was received negatively.
Not long ago I wrote a post on the subject of unconscious communication, which relates to this from a mainly non-verbal perspective. And of course there’s always the yelling issue. In this particular case, though, the issue was sarcasm.

Being very careful with sarcasm is a lesson I myself learned along the way. It’s something that you need to be cautious about using, especially with younger athletes. In fact, you should probably avoid it all together in youth sports. They will pick up on the tone, which comes off as negative rather than humorous.

2) Challenge the source of the coaching style you develop

In the blog post the author talks about finding himself copying the coaching style of an older coach with whom he was working. He didn’t realize it at the time, and only figured it out later in hindsight. It’s a variation on the “This is how I learned” trap.

Now, if you have an awesome coach at a roll model then copying them might not be the worst thing in the world. Even in that case, though, you will need to do things your own way, not just be a mimic. Ideally, you’d like to be a composite of all the good characteristics you’ve seen in other coaches.

3) You can’t always control what your athletes learn

Have you ever worked on something specific in practice and at the end found out the players learned something unplanned and unexpected? That is the situation the author describes in his post. He was working on offense, but one of his players learned a lesson about defense.

The lesson here is that players are individuals. They bring their own perspective and context to things. That means they aren’t always going to see things the same way as you do. As a result, they won’t always follow along the learning path you’ve devised for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vital Heynen talks about just this sort of thing in the following excerpt from his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview.

4) Remembering to reflect real game situations

This piece of advice has to do with the rules of practice games and drills allowing players to do things that would be the right decision in a match situation. The author uses the example of a rule he used one day that forced him to whistle a play dead even though the player made a good decision – one you’d want to see in a real game.

This is something that comes up when you have the players operating in a constrained way. It came up at times when I was coaching at Svedala. We used a lot of small-court play. Sometimes that lead to really good attacks – particularly quick middle hits – going out when they would have been great in a real match.

And sometimes players find a solution to the problem you’ve posed them that isn’t exactly what you were after.

It’s a balancing act. You have to find that line where you have the players working on the development needs you are focused on without forcing them into an unnatural situation.

5) Match day is about the players, not you

The final idea of the blog post is that coaches need to overcome the desire to control play and the feeling that their ego is tied up in the result. The point made is that match time is for the players to have fun with their teammates, work hard, and maybe learn some stuff along the way – especially when talking about younger athletes.

The idea of letting the players get on with it and not trying to control things as a coach is in part the subject of my post on the desirability of play-calling from the bench. It goes beyond that, though, to address sideline demeanor and emotional reaction to results.

These, of course, are just a small sample of the lessons we coaches can and should learn along the way. What lessons have you learned? Share you story!

Working on out-of-system play

A coaching friend of mine in England asked me for some ideas on how to work on out-of-system play. What that really comes down to is the first ball element. How do you start the play or rally? He was working with a group of U15 boys, though the concept applies across all ages and genders.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by out-of-system. Broadly speaking, that usually means there are few, if any, attacking options available. Certainly, the quick attack is out. You might only have one hitter you can get the ball to for a real swing – often the OH in 4. For some, out-of-system more narrowly defines a play where the setter can’t take the second ball.

This is something you need to define for yourself – or at least have in mind when planning a game or drill. In the latter case you can just make it so that someone other than the setter takes the second ball. That’s easy enough to do. You can have no setter on the court or make it a rule that someone else takes the second ball.

In the former case you have two options. One is to make the setter play the first ball. The other is to make sure there isn’t a quick attack option available. This can be done by not having any MBs (so just two pin hitters at the net). You can also make sure the first ball won’t be passed/dug well very often, by doing a virus type of thing where the coach throws in a ball that must be played as the 2nd contact (see Increasing player initiation), or by simply putting in a rule that the sets must be high to the pins and/or back row.

An example of the “can’t set quick” approach is the High Ball to Receive game. In that case the first set must be a high ball to the OH, with the rally playing out from there.

Once you have sorted out the first part the out-of-system training equation – how to force them to not be in-system – you can then turn the focus on whatever specific area you feel is most in need of work. In a lot of cases that would be attacking against a big, well-formed block. It’s pretty easy to set that up by adding an extra blocker. You can alternatively have the defensive team working on triple blocking, narrow the attacking zone, or things like that.

Increasing player initiation in games and drills

When a ball need to be entered into a game or drill, how is that being done? I’ll ask that again by way of an example.

Let’s say you’re running the game Baseball, which features a lot of free balls initiated to one side. Do you, as coach, send those free balls to the receiving side? Or instead do you toss a ball to the opposing side and have them send the free ball over to the receivers?

If you’re doing it, I’m guessing you’re thinking about control. You control the tempo and you control where the free balls go. Sound about right?

Certainly there are advantages to that.

There are also disadvantages, however. One of them is probably that the free balls always come from the same area – usually off the court somewhere. Not all that realistic.

The other is that is you’re the one doing the free balling you take the opportunity for learning and development away from the players who could be doing it instead. The free ballers can be learning where they should be trying to target the ball and otherwise how they can make things challenging for the other team.

You get two benefits this way. The players become better at sending free balls over if they have to do it and the receiving team gets more realistic balls coming at them.

Plus, you can still control the tempo of the game. You still need to feed the ball in, after all. It’s just to a different side. And of course you can put the free ballers in any kind of situation you like.

Where can you make a shift?
Think about other games and drills where the ball needs to be initiated from the sideline. I can think of a few. Bingo-Bango-Bongo comes immediately to mind as it is like Baseball in terms of the free balls.

There’s also 22 v 22. That’s a wash drill which features a second ball initiated to the winners the first rally. I personally have usually done that by way of a standing ball “attacked” at them. Depending on what you want to do, though, it would be easy enough to toss an attackable ball to the losing side for them to hit over. More realistic than a standing ball from the coach, right?

Give it some thought. Shifting the initiation like that adds a developmental layer.

Scoring System: 25 or reset

Here’s something you can use if you want to work on your team closing out a set (and fighting back). It’s a scoring system we’ve used at Midwestern State, and a variation on stuff I’ve seen in other places and have used myself.

In our case we started the scoring at 19-19 for a 6 v 6 game. The sides alternated receiving down balls until one side reached set point. When that happens, they serve for set point. If they fail to win the point, their score resets to 19. Play continues until one side wins on their serve. We ran this game by rotation as in this version there is no rotation.

There are a number of potential variations:

  • You could start with a different score. You can even use an uneven score if you have unbalanced teams, for example.
  • Make it a regular game by having rallies start with a serve and normal rotation
  • You can incorporate bonus points if there’s something you want to have as a focus, though you would still want the winning point to only come via the service rally.
  • You can use this scoring system for small-sided games, and not just for 6 v 6.
  • A missed serve after a certain point (e.g. 20) could reset that team’s points.
  • Instead of initiating with a coach’s down ball you could have a player send over a free ball, or have them attack and out-of-system ball.

These are just some possible ways you can tweak things to do what you want to do. I’m sure you can think of others.

Shifting from cooperative to competitive

I like to use cooperative drills like this, this, and this with my teams for a couple of reasons. One is that they give players a lot of quality Рmeaning game-like Рcontacts. They sustain longer rallies, so the ball crosses the net more often. Another is that they help train players to make good decisions in situations you want less aggressive play to just keep the rally going. You can potentially add in a couple other things as well.

At Midwestern State we sometimes ran a competitive version of the rotating cooperative cross-court hitting drill. Obviously, instead of having the players keep the rally going, they play to win each one. In this variation, points can only be scored actively, not on opponent error. Basically, that means you get a point for a kill or a block, but nothing for an opponent hitting error. At the end of a rally, a coach initiates a new ball (over the net) to the winning team (whether they earned a point or not).

The team plays 4 games to eight points, one for each set of attacking directions – 4 vs 4, 4 vs 2, 2 vs 2, 2 vs. 4.

On the face of it, this might be a nice way to work on cross-court defense and things like that. At one point, though, I was tempted to call a time out and see if I could get the hitters to think about the easiest way to score.

Have you figured out what that would be?

Consider this. You have one blocker in position 2. You have defenders in 4, 5, and 6 basically covering half the court. That leaves half the court wide open. Yes, it’s technically out of bounds. But if you can tick the ball off the block …

If the players were to get smart enough to realize this, then the drill/game kind of falls apart. At least it does from the perspective of wanting lots of touches from more sustained rallies. On the other hand, it could be an interesting exercise in getting hitters thinking outside the box and working the block.

My broad point in all this – like using other scoring systems and/or bonus points – is that you definitely need to make sure you think about the potential implications involved. Specifically, what might the scoring incentivize above and beyond the basic level?

Just something to consider in your planning.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity – as long as it has the blockers facing hitters, of course. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used, so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

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