Around a League in 80 Days

June 16, 2010, 5:36 p.m. (ET)

This past February 23rd, some twenty boys gathered in Palmer’s main gym, to start playing volleyball for their high school. Just ten weeks later, the two teams formed from the sweat and hard work of these young men, would end their season at Regionals, and not advance to the final eight teams of State.  This blog explores what can be accomplished in such a short time.

My son Cody has found his sports passion in volleyball. He played high school varsity tennis and lacrosse, and was captain for each in his last year.  He is a great skier, a pro “Call of Duty” gamer, and just graduated from four years of International Baccalaureate (IB) with a 4.8 gpa, taking some pretty heavy loads – including Mandarin Chinese (talk about a class you can’t give a child any help in homework with…). Yet he always makes time for volleyball. So when he wanted to form a volleyball team at his school, I thought it would be a great chance to get back into the gym and spend more time with him in his senior year.  I was not disappointed.

From a Grow the Game perspective, several things come to mind...

  1. The boys would rather play Speedball than any other game, even King of the Court. The intensity and focus they put into this one game, made it be one played nearly every practice.

  2. As winning the serve pass war is the most important thing, the additional serving/passing training – and how we did it with these beginners was perhaps the most important thing we did.

  3. Getting up three nets to train the 16-18 novices who stuck with it, again gave them very important over and near the net experience and training.

  4. Teaching defense in groups of three, not pairs, and focusing on digging up always pays off.

  5. Teaching only back row attacking from the start – in speedball, king of the court and offense training, also works.

  6. Powderpuff football and RuffnTuff Volleyball as fundraisers are a hoot.

Given the training amounts, and travel time for Jr. Olympic programming, it was great to be able to practice after school every day of the week. We also had some nice days where we went outside and played doubles or games in the spring sun.  There is something about being able to play for your school that adds to the focus for the players. The half the group who came out to play were classmates of my son, and none had played before. The other half were underclassmen, and several had played some before. We split into a team for the future and a team of seniors and I ran practices for both teams.  When tournaments and league play took place, coach “O” - aka Olajuwon Williams, took the younger team into competition and I coached the new players – plus one who knew how to play. We ran a 6-3 for about half the season, until one of the other new players learning how to set became too good, and he joined my son in setting a 6-2.  We passed with 3 players, sometimes 4, and everyone gave a go at blocking and hitting…and we had a blast. We had a GREAT team advocate in Kerstin Fracassin-Rieff, the parent of one of our freshman players (and also a USAV staffer), who did all the non-gym-coaching stuff so we could coach. That made it even easier, and the boys really helped out when we hosted home matches.

Oh, and remember, we taught hitting first to hook them, tied into overhead passing, and did not get to forearm passing until they really were hooked by the great skill for boys in our sport - attacking.  Sure you can't pass, can't spike it true, but you must first teach spiking when introducing our sport to boys - and let them realize the importance of passing, so they can hit, on their own.

Winning the Serve Pass War

To elaborate on the serving changes I am suggesting to all, given in part to the short season and lack of experience, the tradition is to just have the athletes serve – and serve for long “blocked” periods. When I ask in coaching clinics about how many rotations there are after a player loses their serve, the usual answer is six. The fact is, it will be 11 further rotations before you get your chance again.  With each server averaging 2-3 serves, that means “gamelike” training is not 5 minutes of serving in a row, but 1-3 VERY focused, deliberate, mindful practice serves…and then you do other skills for about ten minutes. That means we served 10 times a practice for a minute or so each time. Each time, due to the shortness of the skill set, they had to be mindful, not doing what you see in the traditional long serving periods of just serving where there is no focus. Then there is what you do “gamelike” after striking the serve – tradition is to stand back and watch, then get another ball. We did not do that, as in every game they were to play, the serve must sprint in to their area of defense, so we sprinted, and stopped just watching. Gosh, look the boys not only served about 100 times a practice, they did 100 short sprints too.

Finally the KEY change to serving we did was that the guys, after sprinting in, were to put their hands on their knees and SERVE RECEIVE a ball that their teammates on the other side were serving.  There were two ways to pass it – if a coach was off the net 2 meters as a setter target, they passed these serves to the coach who flicked it back to the passer. If there was no setter target, these beginners were to pass the ball up to themselves. The thing I am asking coaches to understand is that serve reception is ONLY learned by passing live serves, never by partner passing. Tradition is to just serve and let that ball hit the floor. It is my hope that you have never less than your liberos passing all these live, over the net, serves, and really everyone passing all these valuable learning lessons of real serves.

Positive to Perfection Training

The second core thing we trained was to do everything positive in error form, as they learned what was expected of them. This is seen in the article in grassroots called “From Positive to Perfection,” and was done in teaching every skill. Serve all had to err over the net if not in, spikes the same. Passing first went up, then towards the net – and always no closer than a meter, and the same for digging. Nothing was played back to a partner. The hitters/setters first learned the 3 meter line sets of the national team – including lower sets (but still off the net) like a “Pipe.”  We did not have a single injury all season, despite their lack of experience spiking and blocking with a net right in the way. The other team would often be celebrating thinking their attack had fallen, but the Palmer defense would pursue and get it back over the net. They defeated Cody’s team from last year, where Mitch Beal plays, a team full of experienced boys, and lost twice in the deciding game with this year’s state champion.  More importantly, we fielded two teams, one of seniors learning the game, and a second of underclassmen who should all come back next year to keep the program going. The two teams were but 3 games (not matches) from both qualifying for state. All of Cody’s teammates were asking their intended colleges if they had a college club team too! 

Pepper in Threes or Dig to Yourself

As noted above, the habit I did not want them to “know” was how to dig a ball back to the attacker – so we focused on training in groups of three – weaving from attacker to setter/target to digger while running under the rope nets. When we only had our half the court for pre-match warm up, we again only trained in threes, just on the same side of the net, using the setter/target as the net to clear. When we were off the court, sometimes even outside on nice days, the players, never me, served long to a pair of side by side passers (so a decision had to be made, not “Yours!” hopefully), who passed to the setter who was half way between the serving teammate and the passers.  We would start with everyone setting – so all the beginners  had experience in setting, then at the end of the season, just the setters set the passed balls, to a teammate who then went to serve that ball.  Note that in hitting, we again let them hit, then set, THEN chase after a spike.  It is amazing how long this new habit took, but created all players who could set if needed. What they wanted to do was…hit and sprint, under the net, to their own spiked ball. Nope. Not allowed. Hit, now set, then chase.  if we ever just had two for the final pepper group, each player dug the ball to themselves, set it, then hit to their partner – never digging the ball back to the attacker.  It is changing culture, but it pays off, as you learn the right dig, not the wrong dig.

Volleyball Fundraiser

Another by product of this training was that a key school fundraiser, for student council, had a level of play that was remarkable. The school in the fall has the boys’ coach the junior vs. senior girls in flag football. Then in the spring, the tables are turned and the girls coach the junior vs. senior boys in volleyball. Customarily this is a jungle game, but this year, after about two months of practice and competition, the match was a great battle. Add in that the student council even allowed the juniors to have boys team underclass players bought and put onto the court – and even the coach – and you had some great fundraising going on. The seniors won of course, but not easily, and the future looks good for next year’s ruffntuff too.  Consider adding such an event to your player’s schools, in a fun way to grow the game.

You know, the men have won all three indoor volleyball gold medals the USA have ever won. I just noticed something interesting in our last World League match, two wins over an improved Finland team. What I noted was this list – captain (not present due to family emergency), (Phoenix, Ariz.), starters - (Wheaton, Ill.),  (West Seneca, N.Y.) , (Alpine, Utah), (League City, Texas), and (Alpine, Calif.)….These medals came in part because of those who helped make sure boys were given a chance to make volleyball their lifetime sport.  If starting a boys program is of interest, as all Junior Girls clubs benefit on many levels from having a boys team or teams connected, get in touch with Jeff Mosher at and check out this part of our USAV website on Boys development by CLICKING HERE and watching the webinar: Developing Viable Boys Volleyball

On a closing personal note, my son is planning on taking a gap year, and working as in unpaid intern for US Paralympics and USA Volleyball. He was accepted to some great volleyball schools like UCLA, UC Berkley and UC Santa Cruz, but waiting a year is the decision. He just worked the Native American Volleyball Academy in New Mexico, and will work the Sitting World Volleyball Championships in Oklahoma, and the US Special Olympic Nationals in Nebraska, and play men’s BB in Vail and the 18 Open in Austin for Jr. Nationals this summer. Maybe we will see you on the road, but if not, let us know how we can help you grow the game in your area.