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