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USA Volleyball

Reflections on Open Gym

Nov. 09, 2009, 11:54 a.m. (ET)

My son Cody is a senior at the oldest high school here in Colorado Springs.  We decided together to start a volleyball club at his school this year, to help grow the boy's high school club program. He is also captaining the varsity lacrosse team again this spring, as an attackman, and by my being head coach, I can fit spring volleyball practice better around the school lacrosse training.  In the past he played for his old school district program where he had gone to school for elementary and junior high, before opting into the International Baccalaureate program closer to home.  Starting a new team would mean leaving a team which was 3rd in the State Championships last year, but he wants his schoolmates to know the joy that comes from playing this sport so many think is just a girl's game.

The groundwork for Colorado's boys high school club program began over a decade ago, when Paul Hastings almost singlehandedly worked for months to find "advocates" at high schools all over the front range, to work with the Athletic Directors to create an opportunity for boys to play. He got the support of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Region of USA Volleyball, and the Colorado Officials, thanks in large part to Nancy Holm, who continues to this day to provide guidance and support at all levels. Paul lost a long fight to cancer a couple of years ago, but left behind leadership like that provided by Josh Crosier, former Johnson and Wales Head Men's college coach.   The whole story on how we in Colorado have been working to get boys volleyball to become a varsity sport can be seen at  http://www.cbhsva.org/  and you can contact Jeff Mosher at USA Volleyball, as that is his main staff focus - growing the under-represented population in our sport of the boys and men's game.

One of the biggest errors well intentioned volleyball leaders make is to follow the old maxim of "if you can't pass, you can't hit," along with its sister phrase "the most important skill in volleyball is passing."  There is a lot of truth in these sayings, all the way from beginner to the Olympic level, though I am adamant in noting that the most important skill in our sport is "reading" - and I don't mean books. That said, the problem is how we traditionally introduce the game to boys and really everyone at the youth level - by teaching passing first. 

When quizzed on this fill in the blank phrase "Coach, when do we get to ___________?" Most coaches know the two "correct" answers are "HIT!" and "PLAY!"  One of the most important quotes I put in the original IMPACT manual is that from our 1988 Gold medal men's coach Marv Dunphy, which in condensed form notes that the most important hitting drills are pass-set-hit, and dig-set-hit drills. So all this leads us to listening better to the kids and thus setting aside the oft said "once you can pass, you will get to hit" concept and putting hitting first. Now maybe you are starting to understand why in theIMPACT Plus section, the skill pattern is introduced starting with the spike, and then overhead pass, serve, forearm pass....

This leads us to how to hook boys on volleyball - which hopefully can now more clearly be seen. You say "Hi , I am a volleyball coach, let me show you what a spike looks like, and then let's hit."   Then after pounding a couple of real spikes, off of a toss from the setter which you overhead pass back, then get set and crush, you then stop and say - "Now I am going to teach you three Olympic team spike calls - which are done at this line - known as the 3 meter attack line - and those are "A" "Pipe" and "D." "When you watch the 2012 Olympics or our national men and women's teams at any time, these are three standard spike calls we use. So let's have at it" - and you set up, hitting the same direction over the net, with two or even three setters (coaches perhaps at the start), calling for A/Pipe/D. 

At the same time, watch their footwork, and if a player finishes "backwards" with a left-right finish, and they are not a lefty, take them aside and get them to finish right-left.  Teach the parts each player may show you they need - take a minute to show the arm swing with full reach if they don't know how to swing - but make sure they are erring in technique before fixing their technique. It is more likely to be an error in timing/judgment that is happening, which is not solved by talking more about the technique.

So why back row first always? This goes back to the principle of teaching positive errors first. These aggressive athletes may want to pound down, like you demonstrated at the net originally, but they do not have the body awareness to stay out of the net. More like crash into the net actually. By starting every training with back row attack, you accomplish three important things - safety (by not crashing into the net), positive hitting (learning an over the net arm swing/timing first, not an into/under the net one) and positive setting (putting the first sets off the net for both front and back sets, not tight to the net).

Once you have set a few to role model setting and the skill they are first doing of overhead passing, you then step out and let the athletes to the setting too, by creating a pattern that is foreign, but important to the attacker - that is to hit, land then become the setter. Right now our traditional hitting pattern teaches the spiker to fly after the hit. When done on the net, we are teaching our spikers to not have near -the-net body control and simply fly under to chase their spike. It is one of the top ten most non-gamelike things we unknowingly teach our players - the skill of looking like a chicken pecking for corn. It is a skill I can NEVER do in a game - hit and fly under the net - but a skill we "teach" to our players ad nauseum.

What SHOULD we be teaching?  How about the six most common things you must do in a GAME after you strike the ball in the air for a spike. Those are:

1. Land balanced and safely and become a blocker AT the net, since you did not kill it.

2. Land balanced and safely and then JUMP up quickly with no real approach to kill the overpass the digger does to your spike (since they are pepper players and trained to dig back to the spiker)

3. Land balanced and safely and then fly down ALONG the net to be a blocker in a new position, as your coach knows the concept of putting your best hitter against their weakest blocker, while putting your best blocker against their best hitter, and since you did not kill the ball, you need to slide along the net to front their best hitter.

4. Land balanced and safely and then BACK UP as fast as you can in transition away from the net.

5. Land balanced and safely and then turn and lift your arms up to celebrate as you run AWAY from the net towards your teammates as you killed the ball.

6. Land balanced and safely and then lift both hands above your head, brushing one hand on the other as you run ALONG the net towards a referee, using the universal signal for the officiating crew that the blocker touched the ball.

What DO we do right now? Hit and fly under the net, never learning to land like we will always need to in every point in a game we play, learning instead how to ankle sprain and get roofed on tight sets - rather than how to stay off the net and tool/wipe the block when it is tight. The new net touch rule is not the problem, it is how we teach play at the net - setting tight/negatively and hitting down into the net/negatively versus teaching positively first.

One of the funniest things is to force them to generalize early on (a GOOD thing) by having them hit then set then chase.  It seems it is human sport nature to hit and chase - as player after player will hit then land in an immediate sprint to their spiked ball.  So I will put in a big request here for creating more hitters who can set, and hitters who can hit off of any set, by having the tradition change to spike - set - chase. In time, you will pick setters from the athletes you have, but at the start, everyone needs to learn to set, so have them set after they hit, then retrieve the spiked ball of the teammate they set. I promise, they won't be able to do it at the start. They will hit and get well past the three meter line, often even already running under the net before realizing "Oh, I am supposed to set next..."   It is a change well worth making, for boys and girls of all ages.

While I am at it, remember the easier sets to set and hit are lower ones. So set more meter balls to start as these volleyball hopefuls first spike the ball - a pretty easy set to hit as the timing is easier, and an easier ball to set, as you don't put the ball up high out of your set, you simply put it a meter or maybe two meters above the height of the net. The antenna serves as the accuracy marker, as it is exactly a meter above the height of the net. Even little kids can set a meter ball.

So we have had two Open Gyms for Palmer, starting early on Tuesday mornings when there is a late school start due to teacher training.  I still say pretty strongly that, having come from an ice hockey background when the HS team I coached would have 11pm and 5 am practice start times, that we can find practice times early in the morning, we just don't think we can - despite what swimmers and skaters do.  So just after 7 am the first week, 10 boys showed up. I taught them the 3 meter line attacks as above, then the standard floater serve, and then we played speed ball for the last 45 minutes. Maybe this is modified Open Gym, for there is a coach who is introducing something, but most the time they do all the teaching and learning and I am just listening in.

One player I overheard saying that it was the most fun he had had in any sport in years.  They did not want to stop when it was time to take down, but culture has to be taught as well, and they did a great job of sharing the breakdown/clean up of the gym, doing it far faster than I expected. You see, one of the "traditions" we want to teach all our sport's teams to have it to "Leave the place you practice/play BETTER than when you came there."  Just another part of my core coaching philosophy of "Developing Amazing Leaders."  We all should leave the places we visit cleaner than when we got there, it is good for our sport and our athletes.

The second open gym? Twice as many boys showed up, so that said something. Got the players from the week before to partner up and teach the skills of hitting and serving to the new players. Set up a second net with a rope as we had too many players for one net.  Added demo-ing then doing the slide jump serve - as that teaches the importance of torque and a low toss (done to themselves in this closed motor program), and then played more speed ball with larger team size. One of the varsity girls team's players, season now ended joined in.  Matt, a frosh roofed her - which gave all the chance to chant "He's a freshman" - one of my favorite school cheers to hear in the gym, as it is a cheer for the future of our sport and the team getting to cheer.

The second practice ended with an event I had never seen in my life in the way a six pack came off an overpass. We were playing in a diamond formation in speed ball - three back row hitters and one setter to the right of center, 2 meters off the net. A overpass happened, yet the novice setter jumped 2 meters back anyways, thinking he could set it I suppose. He could not, so he turned, still in the air, and looked at the ball flying over, which was hit full force by my son Cody, drooling at such a nice gift, even though the ball was a couple of meters off the net. Now, I have seen players get hit in the face while at the net blocking and I have seen players digging down the line, nice and low and ready but whapped in the face. But i have NEVER seen an overpass hit from 2 meters back, strike a player in the face who was up in the air looking at the attacker while also being a couple of meters back. 

The ball richocheted off the poor "setter" and flew back over the net, and landed on for a "transition kill" of sorts. Nobody went for the save however, as every player, on and off the court, were on the floor laughing in hysterics. Cody even landed and fell to the floor laughing as hard as he ever has, while also watching the facial dig fly back over to his side. Last nite I took the kids to see Brad Sherwood and Colin Mocherie performing live here at the Pike Peak Center, if you know what I mean....These are two of the most giften improv comedians ever, you may have seen them on "Whose Line is it Anyways." They did the mousetrap game, where 100 loaded traps are on the stage and they walked around barefoot, with blindfolds, speaking to each other in the alphabet game, and trying to avoid the traps. We laughed hard all thru that and the show, but i still think the hardest I ever saw Cody laugh was after that unique six pack he delivered. 

I went back to USA Volleyball, got on EBay, and ordered three rope nets for about $25 each. The next practice I bet over 30 students will show up, and since I don't have a key to raise the endline baskets, we are just going to put up the center court, and as the bleachers are back, create courts to either side of the center court, anchoring the whole 3 nets/100 foot net line from one wall to the other. I can put in a long piece of wood into the stair step space in the bleacher wall - and anchor there to tighten the net. It will take less than 5 minutes to set up all three nets I estimate. Might put down a painter's tape 3 meter line for the side courts, if there is not a line to use as the attack line, will see. The program has two players who have ever played the game before last Tuesday's first Open Gym. I will let you know how things go.....

So in closing, Jeff and I have some great material out on how to start school programs, spring leagues for boys and girls, and how a JOV club benefits from adding a boy's program.  It's all on the best practices section of the USAV Grassroots button, so check it out. While you are at it, take a look at the Fun Theory Website, and come up with ways to make our game even more fun, and share them below, rather than keep the ideas a secret.   Thanks for growing the game and remember to laugh and have fun along the way...

Comments

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

On February 02, 2010 John Kessel wrote

I have done a lot of research on the value of unstructured play. Help with the Institute for Play and other Play groups. The value of "Street Soccer" noted in a previous blog, with no coaches around and just playing to gain what can be called deliberate practice now.... This new SI article shows the value better than most I think...matching with the Wired article on teaching reading and game sense based in part on Wayne Gretzky http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1165306/index.htm For those who have not read the Wired article, and to help you share it with others, here that is... http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/15-06/ff_mindgames Kessel

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