Tag Archive for youth volleyball

Kids playing alongside adults in volleyball

A while back, Mark from At Home on the Court, wrote a post on the subject of youth and adult volleyball players competing on the same team together. He referenced a quote from Nikolai Karpol, the former Russian women’s coach. Karpol was strongly in favor of age integration as a way to help younger players develop.

In the US there tends to be very little crossover between youth and adult players. The kids play Juniors and school volleyball. The next stop tends to be college volleyball. It’s only after that that we see them competing on adult teams in adult competitions.

There’s an NCAA restriction on outside competition which keeps college players from playing in adult tournaments. There’s nothing stopping the Juniors kids from doing so, though. I actually had an 18s team once play in an adult tournament which took place before the Juniors season started. It was an eye-opening experience for them. They couldn’t believe a bunch of “old ladies” could beat them despite clearly being physically inferior. ūüôā

Playing against adult teams is certainly a learning experience. It doesn’t go quite as far as what Mark and Karpol were talking about, though. They meant having youth and adult players together on the same team. I actually saw a mixture of that when I coached in England. Some teams playing in the National League and in the South West Regional league had squads totally comprised of Juniors aged players. At the same time, however, there were adult teams that included Juniors players.

Stepping up the levels of play, in Germany I saw a high school aged player in the SC Potsdam squad when I was on my 10-day visiting coach stint there. The team that won the Swedish Elitserie on the women’s side the last two seasons (Engelholm) featured a player who was only 15/16.

Certainly, we see teenagers in professional teams in other sports. Soccer is an obvious example. I am a supporter of the New England Revolution. Diego Fagundez started playing in their first team when he was 15. England’s Wayne Rooney famously got his start with Everton in the Premier League – one of the best leagues in the world – when he was only 15 or 16.

Granted, soccer is a sport where physical maturity is less an issue than in other sports. In more physical sports (think football), particularly on the men’s side when physical development is generally completed later, it’s tougher to encourage youth/adult integration. On the women’s side, though, physical maturation happens earlier – most often while a girl is still in the Juniors age group. From that perspective, there’s nothing to stop a kid from playing with adults.

Consider this. One of the best players in the history of volleyball, Karch Kiraly, is well known to have spent years playing with his father in beach doubles events in Southern California – adult events. Seemed to work out pretty well for him!

So the question is, why don’t we do more age mixing?

I asked one Volleyball Coaching Wizard with international coaching experience their thoughts. While they did definitely see the value, the concern expressed what whether from a child development perspective you want young players exposed to the more mature actions and conversations of older teammates – be they older youth or actual adults. I understand that view, but I’m not sure it’s that big an issue.

I’d like to hear what others think on the subject, though.

In places like the US where youth players rarely play with adults – and often not even with older youth – does it make sense for us to try to encourage more integration?

In places where there is a lot more age integration, should there be a move for less?

If so, why? If not, why not?


Teach them how to throw

A big developmental issue with female athletes in volleyball is a tendency to hit from a body position where the hips are square to the net. I’m not talking about final position, but instead starting position. In other words, they don’t initiate their swing from a hips open position. They look more like this:


…than like this:


Granted, the balls are at different point in the two photos, but I think you get what I mean. If you don’t, watch your players hit. How many of them have the open shoulder and hips of the guy above when they jump? How many of them jump with hips and shoulders basically square to the net?

The square position many female players attack from (and I once wrote about a male player doing basically the same thing on a jump float serve) means they cannot generate as much power in their swing because they are not producing it from their core. It also means they are at increased risk of lower back and shoulder injuries. This comes from more back arching and trying to generate power from the shoulder respectively.

Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Tait in his interview describes the mechanics of hitting a volleyball as run-jump-throw. I contend that because girls don’t learn to throw in a mechanically correct fashion (foot opposite the throwing arm should be forward) at a young age like boys do, it leads to the square body posture that is so problematic in their hitting.

I have talked with a number of folks about the need for young female players to be taught how to throw early in their development. It’s something I recommended to those coaching the little ones at Svedala when I was there. I recently had that discussion with Ruth Nelson, another Wizard who is the developer of the Bring Your Own Parent program for kids ages 5 to 10. She was in total agreement.

I know some coaches have their players throw footballs back and forth as a shoulder exercise. This is generally just for older players, though, as they have big enough hands to hold and catch those bigger balls. For the little ones you’d probably want to use something smaller, like a tennis ball. I’ll leave someone more qualified than myself to address the mechanical differences.

Regardless, if you’re working with younger – or potentially just inexperienced – female athletes, it’s worth incorporating throwing time in your training. You will likely help them become more powerful hitters and reduce their risk of injury.

At what age should kids compete?

What is a good age for kids to start playing in legitimate competitions?

I’m not really asking here whether little ones should have scores kept. That’s a bit tricky in volleyball since it’s a point target sport. You have to switch to a timed model to be able to toss out the score, if you really wanted to go that route.

Rather, what I’m asking is at what point it really make sense to have kids playing in meaningful competition. I’m talking about big tournaments and things like that rather than simply playing in an in-house type of league. Is there really any benefit to these youngsters playing in regional or national level competition? Is the potential higher level play meaningful in their development?

This is something Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Turco talked about in his interview. He runs a Juniors club, but for the 12s age group they do not take part in even regional competition. They are strictly in-house. Tom doesn’t see any potential benefit worth the added time and expense involved for the families.

I go even further and wonder whether the kids would be better off not playing in these bigger tournaments from the perspective of early specialization. I challenged a 12s coach from Texas a while back on this basis. By all accounts it’s very hard to judge at that age what position a player is likely to be best suited for down the road. That being the case, it doesn’t make much sense to have them in fixed positions.

Unfortunately, the desire or pressure to win encourages coaches to field their best team, which often means positional specialization. If we take that aspect of things away for players in these younger age groups, would we end up producing better players in the long run?

And maybe reducing the competitive pressures early on helps keep more kids in the sport.


Youth volleyball, Swedish style

One Sunday while coaching in Sweden I attended Svedala’s annual youth volleyball tournament. Over two sites and 8 courts the club ran several age groups, and both boys and girls. I spent the day on the site of the younger groups.¬†In theory, this isn’t meant to be about particular age groups, but rather level of play. In practice, we’re talking generally 10s to 14s. Here’s a photo from the action.

Swedish youth volleyball in action

The rules at this level are different than what I’ve seen in other places.¬†The matches are 4 v 4, which is similar to what I saw in England. As with England, they also play on a lower net. The difference is that in England they play on badminton courts while in Sweden they use full-sized courts. That may sound crazy for these age groups, but there’s a twist. They allow a bounce.

Here’s how it works.

Teams must play the serve normally. After that, the receiving team can let the ball bounce either after the first contact or after the second. A bounce is not required, however. From there on the bounce can come at any point, including immediately when the ball comes over the net. The team can only let the ball bounce once each time it crosses the net.

It was interesting to watch. There are definitely some pluses and minuses.

On the plus side:

– The players learn not to give up on the ball. A lot of balls that would otherwise be rally-enders remain in play because of the bounce allowance.

– There are more rallies, some of them quite long.

– The bounce, when used in what seems the most tactical way, creates an opportunity for players to generate more legitimate set-hit sequences. Specifically, a team can make a concerted effort to play a real first contact. They can then use the bounce to allow the “setter” to get into good position to set, which then tends to produce better balls for the hitters. I saw some pretty good swings as a result.

On the negative side:

– Allowing the bounce gives players an excuse to be a bit more passive than they might otherwise be in regular volleyball.

– Obviously, playing a bouncing ball is different than playing a normal pass, set, or hit. That means players are developing reading and movement patterns which will be of limited use in a real game.

One thing that is always an issue with young players in competition is they figure out pretty quickly that sending the ball back over the net fast limits the opportunities for you to make mistakes. In other words, players are incentivized not to play 3-touch volleyball. Sally Kus addressed this in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully.

I didn’t notice that changing with the bounce rule, in particular among the most inexperienced players.¬†The more experienced players did seem willing to try to develop a real attack. I don’t know how this developed. Maybe they realized that being able to use the bounce reduces the penal effect of a bad contact. Or it could be a function of decent coaching. Perhaps both.

Line-up and substitution strategies for a 12s team

I received the following email from a reader who is struggling with a personnel use strategy for her young team and wants some help.

My husband and I are new coaches to 12u club volleyball team in Missouri. One thing that we struggle with is the substitution rules and rotation strategies. We have been running a 5-1 for ease, but would like to introduce the 6-2. We have 8 players. Do you sub a player for position only? Can libero only go in for any player in the back row only? Do most setters play all around or come out when on the back row?

My immediate response in this case is to suggest that 12s is too early for positional specialization. This is something I talked about in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players (the comment by Rich is very worth reading). There should be no libero, and there shouldn’t be players who are only setters. Instead, every player should be playing in all positions. Plenty of time for specialization later.

With these young players the focus is 100% on development in all facets of play. I know this is the stance of USA Volleyball. Volleyball England has expressed the same view, and I’m sure there are other national federations who agree.

It’s not about winning on the scoreboard. It’s about winning in terms of development. Sally Kus talks in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully about using alternative scoring methods to have the kids focused on playing the game properly, not simply trying to win.

From that perspective, the preferred system is a 6-6 where everyone sets and everyone hits. Substitution strategy is then down to appropriately sharing out playing time.

That’s my view, anyway. I’m happy to hear other opinions.

Coaching youngsters like college players

There’s a good article in the this edition of the AVCA member magazine, Coaching Volleyball, by Leon Blazer. It’s titled The Great Divide: Lessons Learned from Coaching at the Club Level. The author is a guy who was a collegiate coach, but who found himself coaching 12s for his local club. I found a lot of what Leon wrote about to not only be very good for coaching his current age group, but for older players as well. There’s one particular aspect I address in another post because it also relates to an email I received.

Here’s my one issue with the article, though. Why is he specializing these kids? At that age group they should learn to be all-around players, not setters, middles, etc.

Sure, specialization may lead them to more wins. Blazer is clearly proud of having achieved quite a bit of success with the team in that regard. This, though, is where I think coaching them like a college team is inappropriate.

Mostly, college coaches tend to think of their team as the last stop in any given player’s career. That means they aren’t thinking about an individuals long-term development. Instead, they are focused on getting the most out of them in the present (which obviously isn’t to suggest they don’t develop them as well). This is one attitude which cannot be taken at the youth volleyball level. Kids are still physically developing. You simply cannot know with any real certainty where they will be in a few years.

Were I in Leon’s place I would want to do all the things he’s doing in terms of attitude, training, mentality, pushing them, etc.¬†I would just have everyone set, everyone hit in all front row positions, and everyone play defense. In my view, this is a mandate that should be coming down from the leadership of the club – potentially even from the USA Volleyball and/or the region in which the club competes. I know Volleyball England talked about doing something along those lines.

Is the US producing enough quality volleyball players?

There was a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. Criticism of the US soccer youth system triggered it.¬†That was by one of the UK newspapers with respect to the system’s ability to produce world class talent. Naturally, someone wondered about the effectiveness of the US system for producing world class volleyball players.

For those not familiar with it, the US system essentially has three primary facets. At the top is collegiate volleyball.¬†US national team players come almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools.¬†At this level, players are virtually professionals.¬†They exchange their athletic services for a potentially very costly education (but that’s a separate debate!).¬†College players generally have a 3-4 month regular season.¬†During that time they train 3-4 days per week and compete two others (single matches during the conference season, 1-2 matches during pre-conference play).¬†During the off-season there is about a month where they can do daily team training. They also are allowed a small number of competition dates. Otherwise, the focus is primarily on strength & conditioning work. A couple hours a week of individual or small group training is mixed in.

Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball (and middle school volleyball in some regions). The high school season tends to be similar to the collegiate one in terms of length and gym time commitment. Club volleyball takes place in the school off-season. Teams will generally not train more than three times a week and the play is tournament focused. The top teams compete in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I college ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.

There is no proper pro league in the US at this point. Players who want to go that route have to catch on with a team abroad. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that have developed in soccer as the teams in MLS work to establish feeder systems. This makes them less reliant on the college system for players. That’s often been seen as a weak point in the chain, since college soccer is not at the level of training and competition players developing in the professional systems in other parts of the world get.

Actually, even where top level professional leagues exist in the US there isn’t an underlying youth academy system. Yes, MLS is going in that direction as it looks to the overseas model. Baseball and hockey both have minor league affiliates through which they can develop younger players, but many of them still come through the college ranks, and generally speaking a player won’t enter these systems until after high school. The NFL and NBA don’t really have the same kind of minor league structure. Football is essentially entirely reliant on college for players. In basketball you’ll occasionally get players like LeBron and Kobe who skip straight to the pros, but most will spend at least some time in college.

The US model therefore sees sports very much linked to education. In England, there’s an element of that in term of BUCS at the university level. The structure is different, though. The school doesn’t sponsor the teams. It’s not a varsity situation.¬†Rather, clubs affiliate with the school. Even that isn’t something commonly seen in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.

The first big question which seems to be coming out of the debate on Volley Talk is whether in fact there’s a problem with the US developmental structure. Then, assuming one thinks that at least there is the potential for improvement, where are the problems and how can you address them.

Of course there is one big overarching question.¬†Should the US volleyball system aim to produce elite international caliber players?¬†Or should participation be the goal? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter.

Continuing on the youth development theme

A while back I blogged on the idea of youth athletic development and the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. The idea of overspecialization, which is contrary to LTAD, was the subject of an OpEd in the New York Times. The author focused a lot on overuse injuries. They also, though mentioned how kids in some sports continue to play on adult-sized surfaces with full-count teams.

I attended a Coaching Children & Young People workshop as part of my Volleyball England Level 3 certification. In it I was asked whether volleyball has implemented reduced participant and/or small-court games for young players. Needless to say, small-sided games is something I’ve talked about before. I’m a big supporter, and use them extensively even with experienced players.

For a number of years younger players in the States have played on a shorter net. They also play with a lighter ball. In England the focus is on playing 4-v-4 at the lower levels. They do so on badminton courts, usually with a lower net as well. In Sweden the play a couple different variations of 4-v-4 with the younger kids, and I’ve heard other countries do the same. It’s a good trend in the sports world to give kids more ball contacts and more opportunity to reasonably play the game within the scope of their physical abilities.

What’s a little bit ironic in our sport is that even though many of our participants don’t start until they are teens, we still have issues with overuse injury. It is a constant thing on our minds coaching college volleyball in the States. There’s been considerable debate as to whether kids even in the 15, 16, 17 age group should continue to play multiple sports.

Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD)

I mentioned before the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) concept I learned about in England. This model focuses mainly on youth in sports. It takes into account things like physical and mental growth rates and development. The basic progression looks like this.

  1. FUNdamental
  2. Learning to train
  3. Training to train
  4. Training to compete
  5. Training to win

The LTAD model addresses the idea of when sport specialization should take place. It also speaks to when competition should come in to play, and to what degree, as well as what types of activities and exercises are recommended, and things like that. Here’s the British Athletics model, which offers a bit of detail.

FUNdamentals – where the emphasis is on fun, developing basic fitness and general movement skills. This is training years 1 to 3, and ideally a chronological age of 6 to 13.

Learning to Train – where the emphasis is to learn how to train and develop their general skills. Consider this as training years 3 to 5, and ideally a chronological age of 10 to 15.

Training to Train – where the emphasis is event(s) specific training – This is training years 5 to 7, ideally a chronological age of 13 to 17.

Training to Compete – where the emphasis is to correct weaknesses and develop athletic abilities. Here we’re talking about training years 7 to 9, ideally a chronological age of 15 to 19.

Training to Win – where the emphasis is on enhancing performance. This is training years 10+ and ideally a chronological age of 18

I’d be curious to see how prevalent these ideas are in the States. The US youth sports model is not academy linked (mostly) in the way it is in England and elsewhere. As a result, there tends not to be one main organization overseeing a given youth athlete consistently over time. Additionally, in volleyball we tend not to be too involved in the earliest stages of young athlete development. This is because it’s a relatively late pick-up sport for most participants.

Here’s an example from when I was the Girls’ Juniors scheduler for the Northeast region. The distribution of teams made it clear that most players got their start as high school freshmen. There were more 15/16 year old teams than in any other age group – way more than for the younger age groups (12s, 14s).¬†Girls started in the sport as junior varsity athletes at their high school and played Juniors volleyball on the back of that (Autumn high school season, Winter/Spring club season). There was then a bit of a taper in the 17/18 age group. Simply, those who didn’t make varsity or just lost interest in the sport fell away.

Granted, the Northeast is not exactly a volleyball hotbed. I suspect there is a similar Juniors participation peak at the 15/16 age level across the board, if perhaps not quite so exaggerated in comparison to U14s.

Getting back the point, even though playing volleyball specifically isn’t something we see a lot of in young kids, that doesn’t mean the LTAD model doesn’t apply to our sport. We can introduce the key foundational aspects like movement and coordination early on, and even some of the general ideas of the sport via games like Newcomb, which I personally first played in primary school (volleyball was part of the P.E. curriculum in middle school – grades 6-8). It’s certainly food for thought, and something those involved in youth volleyball should be looking at.

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