There’s an interesting quote from The Little Book of Talent where author Daniel Coyle talks about needing different types of training for the different types of skills involved.

“While hard skills are best put together with measured precision (see Tip #8), soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself.”

Let me start by explaining what Coyle means by “hard” and “soft” skills.

The examples of hard skills he uses in the book are things like playing a violin and Tom Brady throwing a pass. By comparison, the sports example of soft skill he offers is Lionel Messi dribbling through the opposing defense. The former are very precise, controlled things while the latter involves considerable improvisation.

Let’s put that in a volleyball context. The one thing we can firmly place in the hard skill category is serving. It is entirely self-controlled and precise, like throwing a football. After that, things become much more improvisational. That doesn’t mean random. It simply means the player has to judge things on a running basis to figure out the best solution to their current situation.

Consider an attacker and all the things that go into what they do with the ball. What’s the location and tempo of the set? How many blockers are there, how big are they, and what’s their timing and spacing? Is the hitter getting a good approach, or not? The ultimate skill execution (hit, roll shot, tip) and aim (go past the block, go off the block, recycle) is an improvisation based on the situation. Training helps the player develop a full range of those skills. Importantly, also to understand which one is best in a given situation.

But, you might argue, the actual skill used is precise. True, but you cannot detach the skill from the decision-making which leads to it. This is the Read-Plan-Execute (RPE) concept. Tom Brady can throw a football in isolation from everything else. A hitter cannot attack a ball in isolation. The ball must first be put in play (e.g. set) in order to do so.

Coyle makes the point that we should train hard skills in very controlled, precise fashion. Soft skills, though, are a different thing entirely. They require varied context so the athlete can work through all different kinds of possible solutions. Specifically, he says:

“When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, and on getting clear feedback. Don’t worry too much about making errors – the important thing is to explore.”

The first part of the first sentence above is about as strong an advocacy for variable and game-like training as you’ll find.

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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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