With the seemingly unending tasks that face us as coaches, it’s easy to get our priorities out of order. Two major areas that compete for our time and attention are Skill Development and Physical Development. Let’s talk about physical development, or Strength and Conditioning.

We want our players to be fit and strong. The questions that come to my mind are:

1) How do we know if they are fit and strong enough?
2) How do we make sure they stay strong throughout the season?
3) How much time should we spend on strength and conditioning?

The simplistic answer to the first question is; they need to be fit and strong enough to practice and play hard through the course of the season. If they can endure practices that are more demanding than matches and recover enough to continually practice at a high level for a couple of weeks, then they should be ready for your season. We want them to be fit and strong enough—not fitness queens or body building kings. They need to spend time playing volleyball, not body sculpting or logging miles on the treadmill.

To question #2, I believe the most important thing we can do to help keep our players strong throughout the season is to make sure they have enough recovery and rest. Even the fittest and strongest players will break down if you don’t give them adequate rest.

So the big question is; how much time should we spend on strength and conditioning so that they are fit and strong enough to endure the season?

The principle of Specificity of Training tells us that we should condition our volleyball players to play volleyball—not to be triathletes or power lifters. The best way to do that is by playing physically demanding games in practice. By physically demanding I mean playing multiple ball drills, where there is not the usual dead time between serves. Physically demanding does not mean you have to do coach on one, or play U-S-A until they collapse. And it definitely does not mean they need to run a lot. Practicing for 2 to 3 hours and including some games that are faster and more demanding than game-speed will condition them to compete in matches.

We must remember that in the spectrum of Skill vs. Fitness sports, volleyball is high on the Skill side. If your team is more skilled (better at volleyball) than your opponent, you are going to win more often than not. If teams are evenly matched in skill, then maybe superior conditioning will give you an edge, but it’s more likely superior mental toughness or team chemistry will be the difference. Remember, every time you choose to do conditioning when you could be practicing volleyball you are losing ground to some other team in the area that matters most—skill development.

Your gym time is precious. Maximize that time by practicing volleyball. Again, the most sport-specific way to do conditioning is to format games in practice that make the game more physically demanding.

When in the off-season, should we dedicate lots of time to lifting and conditioning? Many coaches believe so. I have heard coaches say “the off-season is the only time of year we can really work them hard in the weight room and make significant strength gains because we don’t have to worry about them being fresh for matches.” This is true, and we should dedicate a little more time to strength training and conditioning in the off-season for that reason. However, this is also true: The off-season is the best time of year to make significant skill gains and replace bad habits with good ones. That’s not going to happen in a weight room, and it is much more difficult to do during the playing season.
Fitness and strength are not skills. An athlete does not need 10,000 hours to be fit and strong. Serving, passing, hitting and blocking are skills, and their development does take time—and lots of it. Remember, you are not going to win matches by being stronger and fitter than your opponent. You will win by being better at volleyball.

Other thoughts on strength and conditioning for volleyball:

1. Avoid strength training or conditioning right before practice. Skill development is a learning process, and fatigue reduces one’s ability to learn.1
2. Reduce impact by jumping up to a box or platform or running stairs. Impact is reduced dramatically if you don’t have to land all the way from the peak of your jump.
3. Because volleyball players rely on short, explosive bursts of energy (anaerobic), work times in conditioning should be short and explosive. For example, sprint up stairs two-at-a-time for 5 seconds or less, rest for 10 walking back down, then repeat.
4. You don’t always have to use a weight room to do strength training. Many beneficial exercises can be done with body weight only (squats, lunges, stairs, jump to platform, etc.). If you can get medicine balls and bands, that kind of simple equipment can provide enough resistance and you can do those exercises anywhere.
5. Have your players use exercise bands before every practice to warm up and strengthen their hitting shoulder—a great way to prevent shoulder injuries.
6. Unless you are a certified strength trainer, you should at least discuss your activities with an expert to make sure you are doing things correctly. On the other hand, handing your team over to a strength coach who does not understand volleyball or specificity of training can be counter-productive. Often times a strength coach will try to cram your team’s workouts into a mold that does not fit the needs of your team.

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1207432