Planning Purposeful and Pertinent Practices
Written by Jeff White
Head Volleyball Coach
So, you’ve gone to a few volleyball clinics, read some recommended books, watched a dozen instructional videos, and have been introduced to hundreds of volleyball drills and instructional aids, each of which seem like the blueprint for achievement. Yet, you come away intimidated, overwhelmed, and confused on how to implement what you have learned into practice plans that will help your team. Many questions may come to mind when deciding what to incorporate into your practice plans in hopes of effectively preparing for your team’s success such as “How do I put all of the drills I have learned together in an effective practice plan?” or “How many drills do I need to run an efficient practice?” The purpose of this article is to outline the basics for building an effective and efficient volleyball practice plan that will enable you to do the most teaching and increase your athlete’s improvement, while maximizing simplicity.
“Never mistake activity for achievement” is a quote from arguably the most successful coach in any sport, John Wooden, and speaks to the notion that each drill in a practice session should have a greater purpose than providing an opportunity for physical activity. The fundamental question that should be asked when preparing for any practice session is “What should we practice today and why?” Well, technically that is a two-part question but you get the idea. The second portion is actually the most important to ask because if you do not know why you are running drills, you are wasting your time, and more importantly the athlete’s time. You must determine where activities in each practice fit within the daily, weekly, and season goals and objectives, and why they will be effective in improving performance. Actually, utilizing a small number of drills and providing multiple variations of each is a great strategy. As DaVinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” A volleyball season can be broken down into parts: pre-season, early season, mid-season, late season, and post-season. The content, purpose, and feedback of individual practices may change as the seasons move on but the basic skeleton of the practice plan itself does not need to be different during each stage. This article will address some simple techniques that will simplify your practice planning and ultimately improve your team’s performance, while minimizing the overwhelming feeling of intimidation when trying to answer the nagging question, “What should we practice today and why?”
During a typical practice, much of the focus is on team dynamics, such as offensive and defensive systems, leaving very little time to work on individual skills. Pre-practice tutoring sessions are essential to the success of a ‘regular’ practice. Set up a standing 30-minute session just prior to each practice to train your athlete’s individual skills by position. At these sessions, the coach can work with smaller groups, no more than three athletes, and give augmented feedback that will be specific to the skills that will help the athlete perform better during the team’s practice sessions. These types of sessions are especially beneficial for the setter position due to the complexity of their responsibilities, including footwork, set placement, ‘knowing’ their hitters, decision-making, and match management. Coaches can use this time to maximize ball touches, make sure they are on the same page with their athletes, and it allows them to interact with each player on a more personal basis. When athletes improve individually, the entire team benefits. Tutoring sessions are essential to increase individual skill levels and when each player performs at a higher level, the team will be more productive on the court.
Practices are generally started with warm-up activities, but make sure you provide your athletes with opportunities to improve during this time. When determining how your team will warm up, consider the purpose of the activity. Many coaches spend 10-15 minutes at the beginning of practice static stretching and are unaware that static stretching has no known relationship to injury prevention. I am not advocating that stretching is not important; rather that it should be done at least 30 minutes prior to participating in physical activity to increase flexibility and range of motion, not prevent injury. Instead of wasting valuable practice time stretching, use alternative warm-up activities that improve your team’s skills, such as fitness, ball handling or footwork. Blocking, approach, transition, and setting footwork can all be incorporated into the first few minutes of practice. Not only does this type of warm up actually get your athlete’s blood flowing to large muscle groups, their individual skills can be improved on a daily basis as well. Short, basic fitness activities such as crunches and push-ups can improve core and upper body strength and can be increased as the season progresses. If you insist on stretching, simply ask the athletes to perform these movements before or after practice on their own time. Now that your athletes are ready to practice, you can now move your practice session into small group activities.
Small Group Activities
Small group activities, such as 3-on-3 or 4-on-4, consist of modified game situations with fewer players on each side of the court, maximizing ball touches and participation. Each activity must be as ‘game-like’ as possible. As Marv Dunphy and Carl McGown have put it, “The best way to learn how to play volleyball is to play volleyball.”
Simple drills such as ‘Doghouse’ and ‘Monarch of the Court‘ are great examples of small group activities. The athletes are performing all of the skills in a ‘game-like’ situation but with fewer players on the court, there is nowhere for a weaker athlete to hide. Small group activities also help to develop the ‘whole’ player because there are no positions and every athlete must perform all of the skills. The key here is to choose a select few drills that you are comfortable using and create variations within that drill. For example, in Doghouse the ball can be entered as a free ball, down ball, tip, hard driven ball, or serve. This creates five different aspects of volleyball to focus on while using the same basic drill.
The “doghouse” is the side with three players and the coach, who can enter the ball with a serve or bowl the ball in the court. The coach can move around the court and enter form any desired location. The “scoring” side is the side with three teams of three. The rules are simple:
a. Win a rally on the serving side, shag your ball, and get back in line
b. Lose a rally, go in the Doghouse
Teams can only score points on the “scoring side” of the net, which is the non-Doghouse side. Teams that win rallies in the doghouse do not score points, but simply go back to the “scoring” side.
Play to as many points as time permits (first team to 15, 20, 25,etc.).You can also play more than one round and change teams.
Wash Games or In-a-Rows
No matter how new you might be to coaching volleyball, you are probably aware that the team that earns the most ‘runs’, multiple in-a-row points, during a volleyball match has the best chance of winning. Wash Games are an attempt to teach athletes to win two points in a row against their opponent. These drills are usually 6-on-6 to replicate a match situation but any number combination of athletes can be used. The coach can determine the drill and the entry of the ball but the scoring is always the same. Each rally counts as a ‘little’ point and if two little points are earned ‘in-a-row’ then that team earns a ‘big’ point. The coach designates how many big points are needed to win the drill, but ‘5’ is common. On hyper-competitive teams, a time limit on the drill may be necessary due to the high number of ‘washes’ leading to no big points. Any 6-on-6 drill can be used for wash games but a recommended activity is called Transition Wash, which is a defensive drill that involves 12 players, emphasizes competition, and earning a two point run.
a. A coach on one side of the court slaps a ball that is being held, two front row blockers make a blocking move, and the coach hits a soft roll shot to team A.
b. They dig, transition, set, and spike the ball to team B. Team B blocks, digs and transitions.
c. When the rally eventually terminates another ball is immediately thrown to the team that loses the rally and they transition attack.
d. With wash scoring it is usually best to play to 2 BIG points to win a rotation. You’ll want to keep a separate scoreboard (we like a basic flip scoreboard) to keep track of the rally points, since the scoring grid above just keeps track of BIG points.
Wash Games are an important part of building a strong team and developing a competitive environment because your players are being trained to play to win and understand the importance of scoring more than one point in a row. Once you have set the competitive tone, you must set aside time each day to develop the two most critical basic skills for success in volleyball: serving and passing.
Serving and Passing
Every sport has their fundamental skills that must be mastered to achieve a high level of competency and in volleyball they are serving and passing. Luckily, these two skills can be practiced separately or simultaneously but must be incorporated into every daily practice plan. Serving drills must have a purpose and goal. Do not ask your players to go to the backline and serve without giving them a location to serve to or a number ‘in-a-row’ they must achieve before the end of the drill. An excellent drill for deliberate serving practice is called On the Mat.
On the Mat
Put multiple targets down on one side of the court (a 4×8 gymnastic mat makes a great target but other targets such as hula hoops may be used) in strategic serving zones (deep corners, short, etc.). Serve at the targets a fixed number of times. Count serves that hit the mat, serves that are in the court but not on the mat, and service errors. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat a LOT. A good number of serves is 10. An example of how score can be reported would be ”6/2” which would indicate that of 10 serves, a player hit the mat 6 times and made 2 service errors (therefore there were two serves that were in the court but didn’t hit the mat).
Serving can be done as a closed skill, meaning it takes place in a stable, predictable environment and the performer knows exactly what to do and when. Passing, however, is an open skill performed in an unpredictable, changing environment, which dictates how and when the skill is performed. The passer must adjust to the ball that is moving toward them and then perform the skill. Passing is the first skill in a three-step sequence of pass-set-hit and mastery is vital to the success of the team. Passing drills should be inserted at several times throughout every practice session during the season. The Butterfly Two-Sided drill is excellent for developing and sustaining passing skills and the coaches can position themselves to give augmented feedback (volleyballtoolbox.com).
The simple directions to your athletes in this drill are to “follow their ball.” The rotation goes like this… *servers to passers, *passers to target, *target to servers. You will have two serving lines (on each side of the court), two passing lines (on each side of the court), and two targets. The athletes can serve, or the coaches can toss/bowl.
Of course, there are many other drills that train serving and passing. Train these skills every day and incorporate them into all practice plans.
Communicating the Practice Plan to Your Team
Planning a purposeful and pertinent practice is the first step to having an effective practice. However, the delivery of your practice plan is just as important. Knowing how to present the plan to your team and ensure that they know why you are practicing in this manner is essential for their understanding. One simple to use tool is helpful in communicating what will be done in practice and why it is being done. White boards are excellent tools to show your team that you are serious about them and exemplify your readiness for the practice sessions. The preparation level of the coach dictates the success of a practice as noted by Wooden when he said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. Athletes want to know that you care about them and one of the best ways to show them is by using a white (dry erase) board. Write your entire practice plan on it, complete with instructions, diagrams, and cues that you will use during the practice session. The transparency created by showing your team that you are prepared for practice will build trust, improve the effectiveness of your training sessions, and the accountability will force you to walk in the gym each day with a plan. When you run competitive drills, the board will also provide a place for score to be kept and saved for transfer into a stats program or “competitive cauldron”. If you cannot afford a white board, use large sheets of paper or poster board instead. Get creative, but make sure to present your team your practice plan and you will be surprised with the results.
Putting it all Together
Purposeful practice is the only way to get better and planning is essential in achieving your goals and being an effective volleyball coach. This means you should (a) Know why you are doing a certain drill/activity, (b) Use pre-practice Tutoring, (c) Use small-group games, (d) Use wash drills to promote competition, (e) Incorporate serving and passing throughout the practice, and (f) Ensure clear communication. With the proper preparation and right mindset, the task of practice planning can become more manageable and even enjoyable. Every coach must attend to the strengths and weaknesses of their individual teams, but a few effective elements described here can assist coaches in running successful practices. Many of the concepts in this article came from the Gold Medal Squared Coaching Foundations Clinic, which I have attended, and provide a roadmap for purposeful and pertinent practice planning for training athletes. Of course, each coach must decide on the methods they feel is best for their team, but the best advice seems to be, simple is better.