Butterfly drills are a staple of volleyball coaching in some places. They come in bunch of different varieties. I never liked them as a player, and I don’t really like them any better as a coach.

This might sound like a bit of blasphemy to many coaches out there, but hear me out.

First, the positives

I understand the motor learning based value of volleyball butterfly drills from the perspective of distributed or serial practice. Because players only execute a given skill (serving, passing, etc.) intermittently rather than in blocked fashion, butterfly drills can be a positive compared to many alternatives.

My guess is most coaches don’t actually think of them that way, but it’s still a positive.

I also understand the value of keeping everyone active and moving (though don’t confuse that with getting anything done). Butterfly drills are definitely good at that since there’s usually very little waiting time.

Yeah, I know. That’s two positives and no negative so far. Get ready for it!

Now the negatives

My big issue with butterfly drills is the low quality of the repetitions. Yes, they might be distributed. They might even be something approaching game-like. Usually, though, the reps don’t actually put game-like pressure on the players.

What do I mean by that?

Let’s consider probably the most common butterfly – one with servers, passers, and targets. It looks like this.

volleyball butterfly drills

What’s the objective of the drill? Often it’s to get a certain number of passes to target, right? In parallel with that goal is another (often unspoken) objective, though. That’s to keep the drill going and not ruin the flow by having balls going all over the place.

That sound true from your experience? It certainly is from mine.

If this is indeed the case, what does that mean in terms of player motivation? The players want to finish the drill as quickly as possible, right? So how do they accomplish that?

Generally speaking, they do it by making the serves as easy and as direct to the passer as they can. That gives the passer the best chance of making a good pass. This advances both objectives. It means more passes to target and fewer breakdowns in the flow of the drill.

Also, providing any kind of meaningful feedback beyond Knowledge of Outcome is extremely challenging.

If all you want is players rotating quickly around the court, then fine. If you want them to actually develop their skills, however, not so good. You want them challenging each other. That means servers specifically trying to make it hard on the passers.

But then the flow breaks down!

If the players are doing it right, then it definitely does – especially if the error rate is anything like I talk about here.

We’re not here to have pretty looking practices (Tom Tait talks about this in his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview). We’re here to have effective ones. This inherently means they won’t be nice and pretty and looking like choreographed dance numbers.

Here’s the irony of butterfly drills. They are probably best for lower level players simply because they lack control. As such, the passers likely have a bigger relative challenge in getting balls to target. When players are good enough to serve balls with a reasonable level of accuracy, they actually make things easier. In other words, the better the players, the more useless butterfly drills tend to be in terms of skill development.

Oh, and one other thing.

In term of efficient use of time, running a drill where one error can potentially blow the whole thing apart, cause delays in repetitions, and lead to mass confusion as players fail to keep the lines balanced probably isn’t the best idea.

Just sayin’.

Feel free to disagree with me vehemently in the comments below. 🙂

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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.

    4 replies to "Why I don’t like volleyball butterfly drills"

    • Kelly Daniels

      Well Buddy you need to see Padua Franciscan HS VB ‘Butterfly’. I believe our butterfly drill meets your criteria.
      30x Overhead tosses to passers to warm up in the drill.
      25x Served 15-20 ft off the net to the passers to provide quick reading and reaction.
      20x Endline serving, which provides realistic scenario and serving accuracy training.
      15x Toss & Hit at 3m line to focus on digging backrow attacks.
      Each side must reach goal and not a total team goal. If one side reach the goal before the other the drill continues.
      If we are focusing on passing as a day’s effort, the ball is initiated from middle and left. We’ve done it where passer move to middle and right.
      I believe we get a lot out of the drill. Our passing avg at this point in season is 2.3 of a 3pt scale.

      • John Forman

        First a reply to the last comment. No offense, but your belief isn’t proof or really even evidence. Further, you’re only providing one season as evidence, which is definitely not enough given all the potentially influencing factors. Third, unless this butterfly is literally the only way you work on passing (which is basically impossible) then it is at best a contributory factor.

        Now on to the rest.

        The first bit, as you note, is basically warm-up. I would ask whether you could do something else (like something multi-skill) that would be a better use of time.

        I do like the competitive nature of the rest, but there are two drawbacks. First, once the first team reaches their goal there is now no incentive for tough serves anymore. They just want to finish. Second, because of that, the losing team – who presumably needs the work more – is cheated out of quality reps at the end.

        My other concern is if each of those nX numbers represent the good pass target that it’s too much single person passing. The game is played in coordination with others. I want to practice that WAY more than practicing passing individually, especially in a school varsity team environment. Maybe for JV I’d think differently. Maybe.

        Also, again if those numbers are the target, this seems like a long drill. And if it’s not, then my question about the quality of the reps come back because the team is progressing too quickly. How long does it normally run?

    • CoachS

      I totally agree with your views and use the drill not often at all!! Similar to the last comment, if I use the drill, it is for warm up, but I don’t look at the passing aspect at all.

      For me personally, for good teams it is to warm up players shoulders with tossing, Hitting standing, hitting with a toss, or serving. I always have 2 players passing that have to communicate and incorporate setter for setting reps (better reps than from tosses). It develops further, so that the outside passer starts attacking line!! against a block, and my server tries to defend after serving. This is a 15 min max drill for me and those 15 min include all those elevations of the drill. But ya, it’s more of a once a month thing to have a different warm up …

      I do love the drill for beginners though! But always try to incorporate step routines. Examples player p1 tosses over the net, player p5 passes and player p2/3 catches. Player who passed does her steps to get ready for an approach and then gets a toss from p2/3 that they approach to and catch at the highest point. This then slowly develops in p2/3 sets, p5 attacks, p1 serves, 2 players passing and so on …

    • Coach Mike

      I use the butterfly drill sparingly and only as a warmup drill with a focus on control, accuracy, and communication. Like John, I do not consider it a drill to improve skills, so I do not have any goals, targets to achieve, etc. Rather, I time the drill (5 to 10 minutes, max). With younger teams, we have coaches feed in a replacement ball as needed. The butterfly is one of many warmup drills in my toolbox. Some have little purpose other than to get the players moving or focus on ball control and communication. Others simulate the game and serve the dual purpose of warmups and skill building. I prefer the game simulation warmups and use them far more often.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.