Here is a common question we get, voiced in an email from a clinic attendee.

“I’d like to get an opinion from you. I’m concerned about the direction my club is going this season.  The club director is a good friend of mine and she has claimed to do a large amount of research on motor learning this summer and combined with what she has learned and the observation that our teams seem to be tired by the third day of a tournament, she is implementing a training program. She has not shared any research yet.

The open teams practice 3 days a week, for two hours each day. We have moved to a gym that is much nicer and has amenities like training equipment but is much more expensive than our old gym. For 1 hour of our practice, 2 days a week, we are going to be doing station-like training.  These sessions will combine conditioning and skills, to be sure that players are taught skills and can perform them correctly.  Examples of these stations include training blocking and passing on a vertimax, and training digging using the brand-new, expensive, ball launching machine.

My argument against is: One hour of a two hour practice is a lot time to NOT be playing volleyball. According to all I’ve read on motor learning, we should model, and have them performing the skill while giving feedback. I don’t see any benefit to performing passing on the vertimax at all. I can understand the desire to have girls jump higher, but I believe that having them play volleyball for 2 hours is going to improve their results in a game much more than a negligible increase in jump would.

We have a new coach that apparently works with a big East Coast School  in summer camps and has suggested this type of training. My club director has asked for any other opinions on the matter. I was hoping I could get an opinion from GMS on these example activities and suggested use of practice time in teaching skills. I think my suggestions are just too simple (the game teaches the game, get them playing a game and focus your feedback on the one thing you want to improve) and I am a man of no letters after my name nor do I coach at a college.

Thanks for any help you can provide!”
OUR RESPONSE—————————————————————-

Dear Coach,

I am not very well versed in the physiology behind the decisions we make relative to our fitness, other than the little I have read here and there.  What I believe is a general principle (and therefore I haven’t invested in researching the subject more deeply) is in the specificity of fitness (like the specificity of motor programs).  In other words, get fit for playing volleyball by playing volleyball.

They asked Michael Phelps’ coach why he didn’t do fewer fast workouts and engage in longer, slower, “fitness building” workouts.  I am paraphrasing, but the coach replied that when Phelps was racing, the coach didn’t want him to swim long and slow, he wanted him to go FAST.  He was the equivalent of a sprinting swimmer, so why work out like a distance runner?

Here’s a quote from our clinic manual, and the reference is included:

“Training is specific. The maximum benefits of a training stimulus can only be obtained when it replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the activities of a sport. This principle
may suggest that there is no better training than actually performing in the sport
. This text maintains that the principle of specificity is the single most pervading factor that influences the improvement of performance from a
physiological perspective. Training effects are, in the main, so specific that even minor departures from movement forms, velocities, and intensities result in undesirable training effects. This means that incorrectly designed training activities will have no carry-over value for a particular movement form, and may even have the potential to negatively influence activities.”

Trainingfor Sports and Fitness by B. Rushall and F. Pike (Macmillan Education
Australia Pty Ltd., 107 Moray St.,  S. Melbourne 3205, Australia). Website:

Basically what this is telling is us is what you are saying – to get fit for playing volleyball, you need to play volleyball.  The trouble for you (and many clubs) comes in that it is VERY hard to replicate the “Club Tournament Model”, i.e, playing several matches over the course of two or three days, where you play and then sit, play and then sit.  What we are telling you is that if you want to get your kids fit for tournaments, you have to get involved in some kind of fitness activity that very closely models the tournament environment, and that is almost impossible to do.  Of course your kids are tired on the third day of a tournament – you can’t put kids through enough of the tournament environments during your practice times to get them really fit.

So in the absence of being able to “practice like we play” (lots of matches over two or three days in a row), what are we left with?  Will an hour a day two days a week of circuit training help build fitness for a two/three day tournament?  The principle of specificity tells us no.

My opinion is that the best use of your time is to play a lot of volleyball during practice, and skip the fitness activities.  Make sure the practices are intense, so that the time you have with your kids is useful for not only volleyball but for fitness as well.  Get a lot of reps.  Don’t spend a lot of time talking – give feedback, but get in and get out and get to playing.

It would seem to me that ALL teams are tired on the third day of the tournament, because everyone is in the same boat.  What I think is that the team that plays the best volleyball (good mechanics, good systems, good choices) is going to have
an advantage in that environment.  And you can only gain that advantage by getting a lot of volleyball specific reps.

I am sure that your director will do things her way – clearly that’s her right and obligation as club director, to train the kids in the best way possible according to her accumulated understanding and wisdom.  But hopefully you can help guide her to some good decisions.  I don’t know if my opinion helps in any way, but here it is nonetheless.