An online debate in the volleyball coaching community got me a little bit fired up. I avoided getting involved, but came away from it needing to make an observation. It’s a very simple realization, if you think about it. The problem is I don’t think a lot of coaches really do that.

So here goes.

There are two purposes to any drill or game used in a training context. The first is to provide the players the opportunity to execute a given skill or tactic. The second is as a vehicle through which the players can receive feedback on said skill or tactic.

It’s really that simple.

These are the two considerations when deciding what drill or game to use in a practice. Does it give the players sufficient execution opportunities (reps), and does it allow you to give them the necessary feedback?

The reps

This tends to be where the debates about skill development in volleyball happen. There is a camp strongly advocating for game-like training – what’s called random training. The game teaches the game, as they say. Carl McGown was one of the very early advocates for this approach, based on the science of motor learning. USA Volleyball strongly carries that torch these days.

Despite the research, though, there are many coaches who still favor what is sometimes referred to as technical training. That is what is more formally called blocked training. It’s basically getting reps in a controlled environment. Think something like setting off a tossed ball.

I talk about blocked vs. random training in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post. You can see there some of what the motor learning research says and why it strongly favors random training. That said, McGown did acknowledge the value of doing a limited number of blocked reps before moving on to randomized ones.

Putting all that stuff aside, let’s think about what exactly we are trying to do as coaches. We are trying to maximize player performance in the context of a game situation. As such, doesn’t it just make sense to replicate in practice as much as we possibly can those types of situations?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where your players don’t do in games what they do well in practice – and I certainly experienced this early in my career! – then it’s probably because your training context is wrong.

Digging a ball hit by a coach on a box is not the same as digging a ball hit from a live hitter. Passing a served ball by yourself is not the same as receiving serve as part of a 3-person reception pattern, especially if you also have to think about transitioning to attack. They may look the same, but that misses the underlying mental processes which are so important to motor learning.

Does that mean sometimes the reps are going to be ugly? You bet. Get over it. It’s part of the process, as I noted in Climbing Mistake Mountain and in What percentage of reps should be good? They will get better with time.

Feedback

I’ve written about the importance of feedback in the post You don’t need a new drill, so I won’t go too far with it here. I just want to touch on the need for it, which is a place where coaches can fall short. Those who take the game teaches the game approach can sometimes fall victim to just letting them play and a “figure it out for themselves” mentality.

For sure, players get a lot of feedback from what happens during play. Their pass either goes to target or doesn’t. Their serve either goes where they want or not. The result of a swing provides a hitter with useful feedback. While that may be enough for an experienced player, though, it’s less so for younger, developing players. They can lack the knowledge to coach themselves, especially when trying to work on something new.

It is really important that you continue to provide players with feedback even during game type exercises. Obviously, you can’t do it the same way you can during more blocked type drills where you can stop after every rep. That means you can’t always give instant feedback. You still have to find a way to make it work, though, preferably without bringing the whole session to a halt.

The bottom line

So the bottom line in all this is that when you develop your practice plan you have to think about a couple of things. You should have a clear set of priorities to begin with, of course. From there it’s a question of figuring out how to get the players executing what you want them working on in the best possible context. Then you figure out the best way to give them the required feedback.

Simple! 🙂

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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