Blocked vs Random Practice with USA Men’s Volleyball Assistant Coach Mike Wall
All right, welcome back to the Volleyball Life podcast. I’m Chris McGown. Today we’re doing something a little bit different. We typically just talk with coaches about different ideas that they have, or different subjects that they might have experienced. Today we’re actually talking about a specific question that we got from a listener that listens to our podcast, sent in an email question. This is from Bob Moore. He asked a great question regarding blocked vs random practice. If you have questions, if you have subjects that you’d like to hear on the podcast, we’d love to hear from you. Simply email us at email@example.com, or find us on our Facebook page and send us a message there. Happy to answer questions on the podcast.
Bob’s question was this. He says “How do you know how much your athlete should know at their age or level? Is there a chart that says, if you are 12 and you can do this, you are ready to move on to 14 stuff, and 16 stuff, etc.?” He says “I’m coaching a 16s American team, and we did better than we have in the past. We didn’t win the tournament, but the girls played well. Lost to the eventual winner in the semis. My assistant coach and I wanted to go through some blogs.” He said, “We decided to embrace the John Kessel philosophy, in other words, let the game teach the game to a certain point.” He says, “And that’s where I am struggling, how much do I let the game teach the game — random training? How much do I put into proper technique — block training?”
Talking about blocked vs random practice is something we love at Gold Medal Squared. I am here with Mike Wall from Gold Medal Squared and from USA Volleyball. Mike did a presentation at the HP clinic a few years ago that address this particular issue. Mike, let’s dive in. You have some really, really good ideas, I think, on block versus random training, and where do you want to start?
Mike: Yeah, thanks for having me. Let’s see, we can start with, I guess, a general explanation of what each is for, maybe, for some of the coaches that are new or are not as familiar with block versus random. It’s a lively debate. It’s one that’s out there in the volleyball community, and certainly creates debate and questions. For me, I am just trying to simplify it for everyone.
In blocked practice, basically individuals are rehearsing the same skill over-and-over until improvement is made or seen by the coach. This is typically done in drills where players practice in a single skill numerous times in a row before moving onto the next drill. Then in random practice, it involves practicing multiple skills in a random order. For example, 6 on 6 volleyball would be considered random activity.
For me there’s three questions to discuss. To get to the questions, one of the most important questions is, how much time do we spend on each phase? And how can we help our athletes to transfer new skills in the random activities? Then lastly, how can we increase specific reps during random activities?
Chris: Let me just interrupt you. The definition that I like for block practice is that I am removing the randomness of the game when I practice in a blocked format. The classic example for me is, I am going to toss a ball to a passer in the same spot every single time. Obviously, the randomness of passing is that serves go all over the place. While, if I’m blocking practice for that passer, I’m going to, like you talked about, repeat that passing skill, but I’m going to toss the ball to the same place every single time so that that randomness goes away. Or maybe I’m going to toss the ball to a hitter, so that the randomness of the set goes away. So that he doesn’t see randomness. He sees the same thing, or she sees, the same thing, over, and over, and over again. Just that kind of repetitive nature of a skill or of a particular drill. I like thinking of blocked practice that way, that I am removing random elements of the game of volleyball, and, maybe, removing the speed and the visuals of that randomness as well.
Mike: Yeah. Really where this whole presentation came from was just, I believe that you need both phases. I think you need a little bit of blocked and you certainly need game like, at Gold Medal Squared, we’ve always preached, “The game teaches the game” and, “Reps, reps, reps,” in random settings. We also teach and have activities that we call mindful activities or cognitive activities, and really those are blocked activities.
Where the rubber meets the road is how long do you spend on each phase. You can’t take a group of 13 year olds and go play 6 on 6 competitive activity. You got to slow things down. You have to teach them some of the movements. I think what we’re trying to advocate for is, spend as much time as you need in these blocked activities to where your athletes can just barely perform the skill, and then let’s move onto more random.
Where I think that a lot of coaches could use help, with this kind of transferring from blocked to random, is recognizing this in-between phase. I call this transfer phase. Where basically coaches will be in a block setting, they’ll hit a ball at a defensive player, for example, who will dig the same exact ball 15 times, and then we’ll say “Okay, let’s go play 6 on 6,” and away we go. When you do it that way, I think, the transfer is minimal at best.
I want to get in and talk about this in-between transfer phase or this… I guess, ability to stop and teach in random activities… in game like situations. That really that’s where this whole conversation started was just how long do you want to spend in each phase, and then how do we get from blocked to random.
Chris: I think that’s a really, really important point… a critical one. Bob’s question kind of made them seem like they’re mutually exclusive, right? He said, “How do I let the game teach the game with random training, and how much do I put into proper technique in blocked training?”
The assertion, of course, is, “Hey you can still teach proper technique.” You can be a teacher in a blocked environment, and you can still teach proper technique in a random environment, and some kind of mix of the two of them. You don’t only get to teach in blocked training. You don’t, “Hey there’s no teaching going on when we’re playing randomly.” That’s I think, one of your main points, right? It’s just, “Hey you have to be teaching the whole time.” There are lots of opportunities to teach across both of those phases.
Mike: Yeah. We talk about the three stages of motor learning. You got the cognitive phase, where the learner is first introduced to the motor task. Basically, they are figuring out the demands of the skill. You have the associative phase — the learner is concerned with performing and refining the skill. Really this is where we spend most of our time, or should spend most of our time. Then the autonomous phase is basically the athletes got it, they can perform the skill without really having to think about it.
I guess what I am arguing for is that we do a better job helping our athletes get from a cognitive phase, or blocked phase, to the associative phase. It’s almost like you put a little sub-phase after cognitive phase, called the transfer phase, and it’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s when we go from a blocked activity to a random activity — you just need to be a relentless teacher. This is where, I think, your dad — Carl, was just so far ahead of so many people. It’s just he was such a relentless teacher in this phase of the game. He would have me as an example. I had some funky arm swing mechanics when I got to the BYU. He made me go touch the basketball rim every day before practice, 10 times. I mean that’s as blocked as you can get, right?
Mike: We would argue that there is no way that jumping up and touching a basketball rim 10 times is going to transfer into the game of volleyball. But I go do it 10 times. Then we go and get into, say, even Queen of the Court — some type of early practice warm-up activity. On the very first swing, I got set and I went back to some my old mechanics. He blow the whistle, and he start the whole thing over. He said, “You just spent all this time over here touching… doing all these jumps, or you’re going to forget about it and just go back to everything you used to do?” Then if I did it again on the second rally, he blow the whistle and he’d say, “What are we doing? Are we trying to get better?” That’s just one example of thousands where he make you do these little blocked activities, and then we go get into a random setting. He was not afraid to blow the whistle, and stop those random activities, and teach. Basically force you to transfer what it was you’re working on a blocked setting into a random activity.
Chris: I think that’s just a really, really important example. I think there are lot of coaches that the message they hear is, “Boy, we got to get as many reps as we can. We just got to get reps. Come on, reps, reps, reps, reps.” They are loath to stop the drill, right, to blow the whistle and to say, “Hey, we’re not… we are foregoing reps right now. That isn’t the important part. The important part is that you do this right.” I see that in so many gyms where it’s just the coaches have this urgency to toss balls in, to keep things going, to keep the drill… we’re just getting reps at the expense of, maybe, doing it the right way at some point. That’s the kind of the magic here is figuring out it is okay to blow the whistle. It’s okay to stop the drill. It is okay to hold your players accountable for their mechanics and trying to dial them in a little bit more.
Mike: I think we’re all guilty… I know I am, at one point or another, of wanting practice to feel good. You want it to feel good. You want the energy to be good. You want your drills to flow well. In blocked settings when you’re repeating a skill lots and lots of time, it gives you this false perception that, “We’re getting better. We’re good now. We got it.” Then as soon as you go into a random setting, everything can fall apart, of course, as we know. As coaches, we have a tendency to want things to feel good, to flow well. This is one thing that John Speraw does a nice job of it in our gym in USA. He’s really patient and comfortable when things are ugly and not going well. I think that alludes to your point. It’s clearly good if we get some good energy going, and practice can’t be too slow. There are actually times at BYU when your dad was in just teaching mode. He was just feedback, feedback, teaching mode. It does slow things down, but we got to be really, really fundamentally sound because of it. It’s always a balance but yeah, blow your whistle, don’t be afraid to teach, especially in those 6 on 6 settings where we’re trying to transfer new skills… new techniques into actually playing the game of volleyball. That’s the hardest part of anything we’re trying to do. I mean we could talk about the… not to digress too much, but we could talk about the sudden impact guys, and just how great of a job they had done teaching their kids the fundamental skills, and these little blocked activities; you toss here, one way toss, back-and-forth with passing. Back-and-forth with passing, our little forward passing drills. They clearly they had spent a lot of time investing in that phase of the learning process. Then when we got into some of the more 6 on 6 stuff, the transfer part of that hadn’t taken place yet. That was one of the things we tried to help them with, “Hey, let’s try to transfer some of the stuffs that you got completely dialed-in in the block phase into more random settings.”
Chris: Yeah. As you get going through this, if you had a, say, the question was how much time do I put in to block training, how time do I let random training… the guidance from Richard Schmitt, Dr. Schmitt, the motor learning guru, was when kids could just barely do it, get out of blocked practice. It’s kind of a rough definition but that’s kind of where we want to go, right?
Mike: For sure. But you got to be careful. If we can barely do it, and then we’re just jumping into the volleyball, it’s not going to transfer and most of the time. I shouldn’t say it’s never going to transfer, but it’s not going to transfer. We want to be in these blocked activities till our athletes can barely do it, and then we want to structure some drills that help them get to a more random place. I think that’s my point.
Chris: Yeah. Like we talked about, blocked is kind of the removal of randomness. What we want to do, not to put words in your mouth here, but to lead the discussion, what we want to do is, is we want to start putting some randomness back in. Maybe, we don’t want to put all the randomness back in — It isn’t just full blown volleyball, but we want to start introducing elements of randomness, and start reinserting speed, and visuals and randomness, right?
Mike: For sure. I guess there’s two ways we can go about that. We can make our blocked activities more random, or we can make random activities more blocked, by removing variables just like you are saying.
Chris: All right. I know you’ve got some suggestions, you made some in the presentation, but where do you like to start with that?
Mike: One of the things that we were talking about in the presentation was, let’s spend less energy debating blocked versus random and more energy creating better activities that helps our athletes make this transition. I’ll just give you couple of activities. One of them was one that you did at BYU, when you were there with the men, rather than a coach hitting at a defender, I think, it was… I don’t know exactly what you called it, but it was basically a setter… left-side attacker, you had a blocker, and then you had a line digger behind the blocker. The attacker, either tipped or rolled deep down the line, and essentially that defender had to be stopped, and balanced and had to see and you’re basically working on eye work. While you’re working on eye work, that defender… your blocker is getting block moves, lots of block moves and in one direction. So it’s not totally blocked but it is kind of blocked, because they don’t have to worry about going both ways. They’re getting lots of reps going in that one direction with their eyes, and with their feet, and with their arm work and everything else. Then setters and attackers are working on timing and connection. That attacker is working on his roll shot. There’s all the stuff that can take place in a little simple drill like that, that’s better than just a coach standing on the box, or a coach standing on one side of the net and hitting balls down at a defender, or blockers just doing mindless block reps. Just to something and simple as that can really, I believe, increase the rate of learning, and increase the transfer into real-life volleyball.
Chris: Yeah, we love that drill because you can coach everything too… you can have somebody watching the blocker, you can have somebody watching the attacker, “Hey, you got to still make a great approach and big jump,” even if you’re going to roll this ball or tip this ball, you’re still going to get up to it with the great arm swing. Then you can always coach the defender, “What you’re looking at? How are you sitting still? Are you getting a good read? What are you seeing?” Then coach their mechanics on how they dug balls too, “Hey, what kind of steps are you making to drive forward? Where are you going with this?” There were lots and lots of coaching opportunities, and teaching opportunities, within that drill too, yeah.
Mike: Yeah. Another great example, this time going from, maybe we want a dumb down a random activity and make it more blocked. One thing that we do is, we modify our ball setter ball hitter drill. This is a blocking activity, if you are not familiar with it. Many people are familiar with it. One of our drills is called ball setter ball hitter. It’s really good for blocking eye work, blocking foot work, bunch read work. What you can do is rather than having the offensive side set everywhere randomly, you can do 10 balls to the left, and now your middle blocker can really work on that move to his right. Then you can do 10 balls to the right offensively to the opposite, and then that middle blocker on the defensive side can really make good moves to his left and work on that, focus on that. Then you can slowly build to set the ball everywhere. It’s a really nice progression. You can work in a blocked… it’s not fully blocked, it’s, I guess, kind of blocked. You can work one way, work the other way, and then all of a sudden we’re blocking everywhere. It’s a really nice progression. Another example of, maybe, removing some variables from a fully random activity, making it a little more blocked, and then by the end of that activity you are back to pretty much game like.
Chris: Yeah. We love that. We would do all sorts of things to block that activity based on our needs in our particular levels. In high level men’s volleyball, of course, one of the really tough plays to defend is when there are middles in the gap, and an outside hitter is running fast to the pin, and you call a gap go. It’s a really tough play for… it puts a lot of pressure on that right-side blocker to defend gap go, and for the middle, for that matter as well. We would throw a bunch of reps in there where you can only set gap go and so it wasn’t left. It was just this one little fix play that we do. Then we bounce a ball that we said, “All right, this is going to be kind of a bad pass,” it’s going to get set high outside. Now the outside hitter has to hit it down the line. You have to hit it down the line. We would force them to hit a certain shot within this blocking drill. You could block part of the offense. You could block part of the defense. You could do some things. It really was a great opportunity to stop, and teach, and to get some really, I would say, situationally specific reps and teaching environment that was based on something that we saw a lot of and maybe areas where we were little weak, and just to chance of teach in those kind of things. You can vision that, “Hey, we’re not going to do that for our 13 year old girls, but we can do something similar for stuff that they see a lot of.” Maybe little free balls that land near the three meter line. We’re going to have a drill where there is a lot of that kind of stuff going on, and we’re going to make the kids hit those free balls to the three meter line from the other side so that it looks a little more random, but they’re going to aim at that three meter line spot, so that we get a little bit of blocked going on there. Yeah, we loved doing exactly what you described.
Mike: Yeah, it’s good stuff. There’s two more tips that we give to help people transfer from random to blocked. That’s scoring emphasis is one, so let’s say you want to work on… your team is having a hard time with pancakes, or they’re having a hard time with overhead digging, there’re so many ways to give an extra point if you perform the skill during a 6 on 6 activity, or a random activity, or a back to zero if you don’t make a strong movement, stay on your belly or whatever the case maybe. You can modify scoring to emphasize what it is that you’re trying to accomplish, and probably giving some positive reinforcement rather than back to zero if you don’t do this or that. Probably saying, “Hey, you get an extra point if you get that pancake.” Or, “Hey, you get an extra point if you get a stuff block.” Really emphasizing what it is you’re trying to transfer, can just spend a little more focus on that skill and just another way to kind a help things move along. Then the other thing which, Chris, I know you have all kinds of different examples here, is just a second ball emphasis, and lots and lots of drills, volleyball drills. There’s a second ball that gets entered after the serve. You can basically put an emphasis on whatever it is you want to work on; transition, or digging, or setting whatever, you can get so creative with second ball entrees.
Chris: For me that’s one of the really, really good ways of having a little randomness in the game. Kind of a blocked perceptive, hey, it’s going to be… we’re going to do a transition move, so you got to make this transition move, but then maybe I’m going to hit the ball over the place off of this transition move. So they get this blocked move because they know where the ball is coming — hey, they’re coming at to the block this outside hitter and then the game gets random from there. Yeah, second ball entries are really good place to have that.
Then you mentioned it — hey, you go back to zero if you don’t do this. Just as I’m coaching younger kids, I find one of the things that really gets their attention and causes them to be mindful, it is that I blow my whistle and you’ll lose the rally if you don’t have whatever mechanics that we’re working on in place. For example, I like it when my younger players before contact on the serve are in a position to receive serve. They got their platforms already formed, their mechanics look good. If they don’t, if their arms are bad, or they’re out to the side or something, when I blow the whistle and the ball get served, then I’ll immediately blow the whistle again and go, that team loses because Sally didn’t have her hands together when the ball got served. You guys are gone. Get out of here. Pretty soon that thing that I blew the whistle about, everybody is super dialed in about that. Sally the next time through, that she’s on the… maybe the monarch side of the court ready to… she won the rally she goes under. I blow that whistle, Sally is highly dialed in. She knows that her team is going to lose that rally. They’re going to lose. They’re going to have to take off if she doesn’t have her mechanics in place. I think that’s another, like you talked about — blow the whistle you guys lose, scoring the drill can really provide an emphasis and really can bring some focus to your kids.
I think maybe we, probably, should have preface the discussion with this, Mike, but that’s another thing that is really, I think, effective as you get… or helps you be effective, as a teacher, is that you tell your kids, “Here’s what practice is about. Here’s what our intentions are. Here’s how it’s going to go. It’s about you performing these skills correctly. We don’t care about the result so much. We care about… but I didn’t care about whether you won or lost the rally.” He cared about whether your arm swing was correct. He wasn’t blowing the whistle if you didn’t win the rally. He was blowing the whistle if you didn’t do the mechanics right. I think that’s really important for us to tell our athletes early is, “Look, my focus isn’t on whether you kill this ball or not, I only want you to have good foot work.” Or, “I don’t care where this ball gets passed, I only want you to have this platform the way I want it.” Having those discussions, and making sure that they understand your intentions and what’s going on, I think, really sets a good foundation for learning too.
Mike: Just to wrap things up, I think, it’s really important to have drills that your athletes like. Of course, we want practice to be fun. Your dad would always say, “Hey, if you like this drill or you don’t like this drill, tell us.” This and that. But really, where the rubber meets the road is our job as coaches is not to run drills. Our job as coaches is to teach. Sometimes I think we fall in love with drills and collecting drills. We need to have all these different drills to keep things fresh. Really what keep things fresh is learning, and progressing, and becoming a better volleyball player and as coaches, becoming better teachers. If we can create that type of environment where we’re not relying on a drill to make our practice great, we’re relying on getting better and learning. That’s where the magic happens. I think that’s a really important point, and a nice reminder for everyone.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, thanks for your time, and Bob thanks for your question. Again, I don’t know that we answered the entirety of your question, but we love discussing these kind of topics. If any of you out there that are listening have more questions, please send them in: firstname.lastname@example.org via email. Or our Facebook page, send us a message there. We’re happy to answer questions at any time. Mike, how’s the weather down there in Arizona?
Mike: Ah, it’s 80 degrees today. The fish are biting. I’m out of here.
Chris: All right. Good man. Good call. Well, thanks again. We hope you enjoyed the show. We hope to catch on another Volleyball Life podcast from Gold Medal Squared. Have a good one.
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