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USA Volleyball

We Coach the Way We Were Coached

Aug. 26, 2009, 3:08 p.m. (ET)

Each fall for high school, then later when Junior Olympic volleyball clubs begin, training takes place that shows that the science of our sport has not impacted the cultural traditions of this same sport. Well intentioned and even trained coaches enter gyms all over America, and train their athletes they way they were trained.  That the science of sport - of biomechanics and motor learning and other disciplines - have researched and found better, more efficient and more successful ways of training, simply seems not to matter, or this information has not reached down to these levels. 

Many coaches seem more comfortable with not changing, and continue to teach their players in ways that simply slow down the kids' game learning, creativity and leadership development.  These same coaches demand their athletes to change, per their demands of technique and tactics, yet they fail take time to learn for themselves.  One of the more remarkable things seen is how much coach controlled, ball banging and flinging barking is going on.  Motor skill scientists note that no drills or skills are taught by soccer, basketball, and football coaches controlling the ball. No hoops coach shoots free throws or inbounds the ball so the players get "a good start," nor do football coaches take snaps so the rest of the team can get a better catch, and so forth. Yet in our sport, research shows that amazingly in many training exercises, the coach gets up to 12 times more contacts per hour than an individual player. This tradition of coaches controlling the reading and key skills in practice -- even when the coach cannot touch a single ball in a game and with most coaches playing at a level far different than those the athletes are competing at - is one of the strongest traditions in our sport that gets in the way of the players' learning. 

What is I am going to reflect on the things I see, which I have been writing about for decades, and hope perhaps some can see the reasons to improve their coaching - as they demand of their players to improve. Perhaps we can get a few more coaches to begin to help their players get better faster than they are now...so here goes.

Oh, and I am going to ask a lot of questions here, and challenge anyone reading this to answer the WHY, alone or with their coaching staff together - for the coaches and players who know WHY, beat the coaches and players who know HOW.

First Thing to Ponder - In America, there are 400,000 girls playing high school volleyball. Some 7,500 scholarships are available for these players when they get to the next level of college play. Some of these go to foreign players, perhaps a few hundred, but each year at least 1,500 volleyball playing seniors on full rides graduate into their chosen profession. Our sport also is filled with players with an overall grade point average that is near the top or at the top of any sport at that school. This is a testimony to the wonderful citizens to be coming out of volleyball. Meanwhile, in the USA, 40,000 boys play high school volleyball, and at the collegiate level, fewer than 100 scholarships are available for all four years. After subtracting the foreign players, fewer than 20 full scholarship level players, again with high GPAs, are seniors entering their next endeavors - including perhaps playing for the National team.  Now, from National High School Federation reports, girl's volleyball is the #2 team sport - ahead of all but basketball, and overall #3 in participation with Track and Field being the most popular. For the boys, volleyball hardly hits the charts right now, as hundreds of thousands male athletes go to football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and golf - sports with a professional pot of gold at the far end of the pipeline.  There is a clear difference in training of the two genders, with the men having embraced the science of motor skill learning research for decades.

So knowing those numbers, how have the highest level of our sport done - the USA Olympic teams? The USA women have won silver, bronze and silver. The USA men?  Gold, Gold, Bronze and Gold....  WHY?

Second Thing to Ponder - The vast majority of the teams I watch over the years, enter the gym, talk to the players, then get them running in various ways, then stretching.  Don't these players already know how to run, but not play volleyball as well? Has nobody seen the extensive Center for Disease Control study showing that in over 300 stretching programs viewed, none reduced injuries?  Was it that long ago that these players would sit at a desk for hours, practically immobile, and then hear the recess bell ring, and fly out to 15 minutes of all out activity, and come back in with maybe a scraped knee? None of them ran and stretched in advance of their chosen recess activity, they just went straight to playing.

Scotty Bowman, great NHL coach, noted that USA and Canadian hockey players enter the rink and skate in circles, while players from Europe have pucks and stick handle as they skate around - and felt that to be a contributing factor to why the Europeans were better stick handlers, despite having less opportunities to train compared to what is available in North America.

So as little time as we have, and as important as skill and reading are in playing our game, we still enter the gym, run, stretch, and do not touch the volleyball for 15 minutes or more often. WHY?

Third Thing to Ponder -  Perhaps the most exasperating  thing to see happen then usually follows stretching. Our sport is played OVER a NET. In my decades of watching and coaching coaches, it still takes the vast majority of teams over half an hour to get the first ball to fly over the net, from the time they enter the gym.  They run, stretch, pair up and then pepper.  Reading a ball flying over the net is reality for diggers and passers, and hitting every spike of your life has to happen over a net, yet people take some 15 minutes to set up the net and then...ignore it for 30 minutes of a 120 minute practice.   WHY?

Fourth Thing to Ponder -  We fill a gym with players, then pair up and pepper.  I have been told that pair pepper teaches "ball control." OK, let's take it to the ultimate level - every kid in your gym is world class at pepper. So correct me if I am wrong here, but that means you have skillfully developed your players to be the best at:

  • a. Digging a spiked ball back to the attacker

  • b. Digging a spiked ball straight back to where it came from

  • c. Having so much "control" that the players stand practically stationary and do not practice home to base movement

  • d. Hitting a ball down without a net - and the closer you get to your partner the more down you can hit it

  • e. Hitting a ball right where you are facing

  • f. Hitting a ball basically right at the digger (so they can dig it), and even apologizing if you do not hit right at the digger.

Excuse me, but wouldn't  we want every player on our team to be:

  • a. Digging a spiked ball UP on your side of the net, center of the court first and nearer to the setter and NEVER knowing how to dig a ball back an opposing spiker.

  • b. Digging a spiked ball on an angle, towards the center of the court to start.

  • c. Skilled at moving from base/home (on opponent contacts 1 and 2 - setter tips etc) to somewhere else deeper. This forward/backwards move is made EVERY time the ball is on the other side of the net and we want players GREAT at this, not standing still

  • d. Hitting a ball OVER the net every time on a realistic flight for that player (which for our younger/shorter players is UP first!) - and the closer you get to your partner/opponent the more it needs to go UP and get over the net, not down.

  • e. Hitting balls any way BUT the way you are facing, so the attackers are more unpredictable and skilled at hitting not just cross court, but line and cut shots.

  • f. Hitting AWAY from the digger, not being good at hitting at a digger but being great at hitting the spaces of the court.

My favorite way to do this is to NOT pair up, but to triple up and have the digs go to the teammate in between the other two, NEVER back to the attacker, with the edge players much farther apart than traditional  pepper distance , and moving home/base and weaving from hitter to setter to digger.  What do we do though? We pair pepper. WHY?

 Fifth Thing to Ponder - At this level, if not all levels, you must win the "Serve/Pass War."  The teams who serve tough and in, and who can pass other teams tough serves, win the majority of the matches. Simple.  The serve is done on the average by each player in a game, about three times, before they lose the serve. How many rotations until that player serves in the game?  No, not 5 or 6....it is 11...then they get to focus on the skill of serving and do it again. As important as serving great is, program after program will not see a player serve until well into practice, or maybe even not until the end.  The COACH might serve a bunch, but that is another WHY for later...  Then, even though the way a player has to DO the skill in a match is to serve some three times then play 11 rotations before getting to serve again, the coaches have their players go back and serve, often at the end of practice, for 5-10 minutes straight. WHY?

Tied into the above is what I see every player do in this "serving practice."  They serve and watch, then get a ball. Then they serve and watch, and then get a ball. What happens in every game, every serve done by every player in the world? They serve and then sprint to their area of defense. What do coaches have their players do? Serve and watch.... WHY?

Sixth Thing to Ponder - Coaches often have a lot to talk about, playbook info to share, team pictures to take, defensive and offensive systems to explain. So do teams get all the talking done first, even the short "Practice today is on this Whiteboard" talk - then warm up? Nope, they do whatever warm up and then sit their players down to talk after. I see the same thing in summer camps, where coaches warm kids up and then beckon them over to sit and talk about team systems, or talk for many minutes on they need to work on. WHY?

Seventh Thing to Ponder - Players slam the ball to the floor - another classic pair drill/warm up. Coaches set up a station (a good thing, we love stations as they promote deliberate practice and more activity/ball contacts in the same amount of time) where the players spike balls against the floor, bounce it off the wall and whammo, hit it again, over and over again. So now these players become the world's best at spiking the ball down at an angle that, in reality would go UNDER the net. In our national team vernacular of developing "good" vs." bad" mistakes, these ball slamming, wall bouncing players are becoming the best in the world at hitting the ball into the net - a negative error - rather than over the net. Hitting errors over the net are VERY important to teaching defenders' reading skills, as you must decide after maybe a meter of ball flight if the ball is going out, not as it goes by. Hitting out teaches teammates an important skill of getting out of the way, something hitting into the net never teaches. So some say this is done to teach "wrist snap."  If we share the science of the sport here, everyone would know that before contact and after contact, nothing is being done to the ball - so the question is how long is that contact? From high speed camera studies, the answer is - from .008 to .01 seconds. How much "wrist snap" is imparted in .01 seconds of contact? I will let you answer that yourself and simply ask, regarding all this downward ball slamming...WHY?

Eighth Thing to Ponder -  After peppering, the coach then often gets the players out on the court to "teach defense." This is followed by the coach flinging and spiking balls from the middle of the net, and from IN FRONT of the net at one player or even a weaving pattern of 2 or three athletes. They read a coach, without moving in their base/home way, a coach who is not hitting over the net, or running in and jumping and all that really go into READING an opponent's intentions as far as possible in advance. At the end of this kind of training, the coach has contacted the ball several hundred times, while each individual player has contacted the ball a dozen or two times. WHY?

Ninth Things to Ponder - Finally, the kids get to spike. Normally this is done the following ways

                The players stand out of bounds, outside the court and toss this "first contact" to the setter -- WHY?

                The players get set tight to the net and after hitting lands and duck and run under the net to the opponent's side of the court. This is done so well that we have hundreds of thousands of players doing hundreds of reps a week where they are learning to land and run under the net, as if this ever happens in a game.  WHY?

                Coaches set up this drill so one side hits zone four and on the other side, gosh, they are hitting zone four too! We have a nation of kids who can hit left side, and who are both unwilling or simply cannot hit zone 2/the right side. Could the coach set up hitting so that players get half their time hitting left side and the other half right side? Sure, but they don't, they continue to hit left and left and left and left and create hundreds of thousands of players who are unskilled at hitting right side. WHY?

                A variation of this them is that the coach tosses the ball - standing either at the net and throwing sets, or standing with a ball cart in a culturally designated spot in the back row around zone 5 and throwing to the setter and repeats this process without moving the ball cart after hundreds of throws.  WHY?

We know that reading a pass is a hugely important skill for a setter, and reading a live set is a hugely important skill for a hitter, just like reading a live, jumping hitter is hugely important to being a successful digger. Watch beach teams warm up and you see the setter hit at their partner who digs/passes and then reads the live set and hits it. Yet we continue to steal this skill of reading and instead throw passes and sets. WHY?

Tenth Thing to Ponder -  Anson Dorrance, who has won almost 20 NCAA Division One soccer titles, writes in his book Training Soccer Champions - "Conditioning is homework."  I see coaches creating conditioning stations vs. skill development stations all over the US. Athletes with only 100 hours of practice total until season's end, yet there they are,  learning to hop hop hop...doing situps, jumping rope, etc. What do these kids need to get better at most of all? Playing volleyball.  They know how to run and do situps and can get a lot of game conditioning playing short court over a net or 1 vs. 1 vs. 1 at a volleyball game station or other options, yet we continue to run and condition them. WHY?

Not to mention the coaches who make players run when they violate some rule of the coach. What are they learning by running? That getting in shape is not good is one thing that comes to mind... If punishment were a great way to teach, your first grade teacher would have to run lines when you misspelled a word, or do sit-ups and pushups after adding and subtracting incorrectly, not to mention the fact that everyone coming out of prison after a long punishment, would be model citizens.  Teachers know that mistakes are simply opportunities to teach. Coaches it seems think that mistakes are opportunities to make kids run, not teach.  WHY?

Eleventh Thing to Ponder - I see coaches training their kids to be late all the time, training them to react and read a ball being slapped by a coach. I have never seen an opponent slap a ball in a match, but I have seen a lot of players react and run away from the net if I slap a ball while on the court. The most common tradition seen is to slap and have players back off the net, calling "FREE! FREE!" as the ball comes over. Are they learning to read and recognize what a free ball looks like, BEFORE the third contact is hit and comes over? Nope, like Pavlovian pups, they are trained to react to a slap, and move off the net as the ball comes over, thus learning to be late in a real match. They never get a chance to read if a ball is free, or maybe it's just a down ball, or - even though the opponent chasing down the second ball contact is in trouble  - if that opponent makes a nice save to the net,  there is no free ball and the blockers need to stay and block. Meanwhile, coaches continue to slap balls and watch their kids respond. WHY?

Twelfth Thing to Ponder -  Who needs to get good at hitting every ball over the net, especially every variation that might happen of that final third ball contact chance?  If you answered the coach, you fit right in with all the coaches who do just that in every practice. That it will NEVER be a coach's role to do such in a game seems to not matter to these traditional, ball banging coaches. They will stand there, just off the court in drill after drill, and pound a ball at the team on their side, to be dug/set/hit, or they turn their skill to the other side and hit over the net to zone 5 or 6. The traditional coach does this from standing off the court on the left side (of course, see above...) near the three meter line. The result is that the team does not get a ball coming at them to zones 1 and 2, for to get the ball to go there would require hitting it over the net outside the antenna. On the other hand, the coach may often hit toward zone 1 and 2 to the team on their side, as they stand on the ground, off the court a meter or more, just like the athlete's opponents will do in a match, right?  WHY?

The solution is simple, simply roam around the outside of the court on either side, being ball contact number two.  This results in an amazingly important thing happening... THE PLAYERS get good at putting the third contact over the net, not the coach. Coaches, or players, toss the ball low to any player, and that player works to send it best they can to zones 1 and 2 of the opponents. - while the opponents get better at reading the flight of the second contact and calling FREE!!! long before the third contact is made (see the point made above on ball slapping...).  If the toss is medium you want the player making third contact to standing spike it if possible, and the opposing team gets to learn and call DOWN BALL!!!  If you throw it higher, you want your athletes to get up and hammer it, no matter where it is on the court. These are skill the players need to have, with feedforward from the coach who is checking for understanding on where that third contact could have gone more effectively (given the game understanding experience of the coach).  We do this in the game, but not in practice, hitting the third ball ourselves. WHY?

Thirteenth Thing to Ponder -  Often in practice coaches pull out boxes for hitting/blocking training. Now mind you, if your players were training 6-10 hours a day, year round, there would be a good reason to get players, or even coaches on boxes to hit/block, to give a rest cycle to these players. What about for those putting in 4-10 hours a week, for nine to twelve weeks like a typical high school season? These are the athletes who need every minute to learn the timing/reading/adjustments needed to hit and block live balls. Yet there goes coach again - adding to his/her thousand plus contacts a practice (the ones they steal from the players opportunities to get better) and they stand and spike.   Meanwhile the diggers and blockers never learn to read anything but an opponent, frozen in time up in the air. What do you have to watch to learn your timing when a coach or some other player is standing on a box? The only thing moving, the ball. How smart is a volleyball? So coaches unintentionally teach players to watch the ball in blocking/digging. WHY?

Well, these volleyballs must be very important in controlling their own destiny, because coaches tell and train you to watch the ball a whole lot. This comment to watch the ball is so silly it is almost sad to hear. Have you ever looked at the eyes of every player and practically every fan, as the ball is flying toward the floor, or over the net?  ALL their eyes are wide open and lasered on the ball. Yet coaches seem to believe you don't watch the ball flight already anyways, but instead must purposefully look at your shoes, or look over and wave to a fan in the match and stop watching the ball in flight. What is ironic is that in great blocking, you want the blockers to watch as much of the attackers approach as possible, for by the time you get into the air, as the hitter hits, there is no humanly possible time to adjust. This needs to be done by learning to simply jump at the right place and time in front of each individual attacker - who are short, tall, slow, fast and need to be blocked at different times and places. Yet we stand on boxes and think we are teaching reading and judgment of the attacker. WHY?

Fourteenth Thing to Ponder and Beyond....If you are now thinking about changing, since the answers to all these "WHYs?" are essentially "Because we coach the way we were coached," then  consider getting more to ponder by attending a USA Coaching Accreditation Program (CAP) course. You are encouraged to also click on the grassroots- coaches information button at www.usavolleyball.org and reading some other articles. From the hundred or so there, here are ones that ask even more WHY type questions on many other areas of our sport that need to catch up with the times and start following the science of our game. "The Most Important Skill in Volleyball", "The Game Teaches the Game", "Volleyball Bridges to Cross","Twenty five Questions for Volleyball Coaches," and "How to Wreck a Player" are the ones suggested you download and contemplate next.  Hopefully you will not be feeling like you are pondering the imponderables, and will be able to blend your strengths as a teacher of the game with the science of our sport. No matter what, we THANK YOU for coaching and giving your valuable time to these precious athletes, both on and off the court. If you have any questions, additions, suggestions, feel free to comment below or email me at john.kessel@usav.org

Comments

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On October 09, 2009 Larry Price wrote

So sad; but so true. Volleyball is a game that can be played for a lifetime. And coaching volleyball is an endeavor best performed by lifelong learners. An experience my wife & I had last night was a sad reminder of a problem in athletic coaching. We recently relocated after running our own developmental volleyball club for six seasons. Along the way, we had recruited coaches and added teams and reached a stage of 100+ players across 10+ teams, girls youth, boys youth, and even an adult men's team. Not too shabby for a Mom & Pop club working for free in a community of 50,000 residents. Now we're evaluating clubs in a community of around 600,000, many hours from our old home, trying to decide what club we want to coach for. Right off the bat, we're being told by a coach that the only way to teach skills and the game is her way. And anybody who coaches for her club HAS TO do it her way. Excuse me. We're thrilled to learn new things and new ways to approach coaching. But, it's a two-way-street. I'm pretty confident that coach could learn some things from us too. And, guess what, that coach spent at least 15 minutes last night teaching young girls how to PEPPER. In an hour-long clinic, she used the net for maybe 15 minutes total. Exactly the "old school" methods referred to in this blog. Very frustrating.

On December 13, 2009 Jim Stultz wrote

Sadly some of the "winning coaches" in our area still use mostly all of the old school methods. Of course other coaches/parents/players see this and decide that this is best practices for teaching volleyball. They wonder what I am doing in my practices. "All we do is scrimmage". "My coach doesn't teach skills anymore". Extremely frustrating to say the least. You are doing what is best for your players but somehow it gets turned around and makes you feel like you have no clue what you are doing.

On November 29, 2011 John Kessel wrote

College Athletes Mentoring Middle School kids... http://www.marinij.com/rosskentfieldgreenbrae/ci_19411343

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