Reading & the HP Clinic Redux

Jan. 24, 2011, 5:07 p.m. (ET)

The last few days of the High Performance Clinic here at the Olympic Training Center brought back memories of a joke Craig Sherman, former Univ of Missouri head coach, pulled on me in the late 1970s at a USA National Development Camp. As head coach, I had spoken at length on the ways and importance of “reading” in our motor learning session for all players. This teaching of the science of sport is an important but overlooked part of many programs training, but I feel it is so important, it is part of the Minivolley book for helping even players 12 and under be aware of the science. So one summer morning I walked in and found during warm up, all of Craig’s players on the court sitting and reading the newspaper.  If you knew the creativity of Craig, the creator of the camp classic warm up dance “Rock Lobster,” you know how easy it was to have kids who learned to better love the game, from his ways of training.

So here, nearly 200 coaches listened in and asked questions of the presenters, with nearly 50 also coming in early an staying late to take CAP II and III training, and if they heard the word “reading” once, they heard it several hundred times. They also heard the words random, and gamelike, and trust, and player empowerment, and some other great words I have covered in previous blogs.  Still, it seems like a good time to note, not only how long we have been training not just techniques, but the most important skill in our sport – reading the game  - both that of your opponents, and that of your teammates.  For those wanting more, a grassroots article I wrote on the topic from several years ago can be downloaded by CLICKING HERE.  

There are many scientific articles on the topic, and one, called “Perceptual Expertise in Sport: Some Myths and Realities”  - was presented several years back in that year’s USOC Training and Design Symposium. Great stuff, so I asked speaker Mark Williams of the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences in Liverpool, United Kingdom, for permission to include it in our IMPACT manual, where it has been for several years. Indeed, we have been teaching the importance and ways to enhance reading for over 20 years in this annually updated manual, yet we continue to find experienced coaches not putting this skill at the highest level it deserves. If you have not taken IMPACT ever, or for a few years, I strongly suggest getting the newest edition of the manual. Contact and check the Events section for IMPACT Webinars or in person ones in your USAV Region. 

Karch gets it. One of the things I loved hearing from him this past weekend while talking about this skill, was his term of his own “Visual Encyclopedia,” which he has built over time.  When he, Carli Loyd and Hugh McCutcheon gave back to the sport doing a free player and coach clinic at the 10 courts of the Big House here in town (CLICK HERE to see the shots from that extravaganza)  – his eyes would turn into “Olympic Eyes” -- as Bill Neville, also in attendance, Karch’s 1984 Olympic gold medal assistant coach called them, even though Karch was just playing 6 vs. 2 with Carli against 8-18 year old boys and girls.

Carl McGown and Steve Bain’s excellent Gold Medal Squared and AVCA article “Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball, includes this important quote –

It is important to emphasize however that studies by Wulf [62] and Yan et al [63] have demonstrated that random training has even more profound learning effects in younger subjects than old….Moreover, limiting the use of block training to the earliest stages of practice is strongly supported by Schmidt [2], who advocates that optimal learning of a single movement class requires random variations from trial to trial. The neuronal explanation for these effects are perhaps best exemplified by our own observations (Bain and McGown), of inexperienced coaches training novice players where the instructor(s) become frustrated by the performance variability and lack of successful repetitions of new learners. As a consequence, these inexperienced coaches limit or abandon whole teaching methods for part, and random practice for blocked. Unfortunately, this course of action deprives the learner of the environmental variability and sensory inputs that are essential for the formation of motor maps and implicit behaviors, which are ultimately reflected in the acquisition of functional skills and expert performance [13, 18, 19, 29, 65]. In total, the evidence on this topic is clear; drawing distinctions between training methods based on age or ability is a coaching practice that has no foundation in either motor learning science or in the application of motor learning principles.

 Let me share a few examples of where well intentioned coaches fail to teach reading. Sorry for the repeat for those in the know from reading this blog, but I am finding so many don’t have time to read past blogs, so this will be new stuff to them….

1. Coaches tossing to the setter, or tossing to the hitter – Gamelike reading and timing is gone from the player. When you toss to the setter, you not only do not randomize enough, you steal the key reading from a setter of the passer, and if you toss for the hitter, the same loss of real reading vanishes. The idea “drill” remains, as always, pass/dig – set- hit by the players, not the coaches, even though the game/drill gets “a bit squirrely” to quote Hugh.  

2. Coaches tossing balls for “serving” – while at least it is coming over the net, no pre-contact/contact reading needed to be a great serve receiver is going on. You learn to read a toss, which NEVER happens in the game….Let the players serve, even if they miss often. They play, not you….

3. Coaches tossing low and difficult balls from the net for “defense” – I did this for a few years, teaching the way I was taught – and my players never got a tipped ball. They expected the tip to come over the net to about waist height and then…SHOOT out into the corners, even with a coach’s head fake at times…. But every tip in REALITY goes over and drops down to the floor vertically. Sure balls go off a block deep, even off the court, but that happens from ABOVE the top of the net and often shoot at high speed off the court. Reading if there was a touch or not is very important, but there I stood, flinging balls corner to corner. Quoth the Raven – Nevermore…

4. Coaches slapping a ball (or Sarge’s bouncing  it to the floor version) as the cue for blockers to move off the net for a free ball – This simply teaches your players to be late, while slapping/bouncing never happens, and it steals reading of second contact to third contact (is it free, down, blockable, etc.?) which is when you really read what the third contact will be.  You want to make your PLAYERS, not you, great at both sending over mean free/third balls and reading and receiving them as well. 

5. Coaches hitting the ball over the net to be then dug/pass-set-hit in repetitive rally scoring games or drills -- See below on this topic…but it is important to understand that reading an adult skilled player hitting from the ground, when one’s opponents are jumping and moving all over the court – not standing of the court – and are either more skilled/powerful than the coach (in the national team case), or far less skilled (in the case of most USAV Junior Olympic Volleyball players), is not realistic training at all.

6. Box hitting at players - Here is what Hugh said in the 2011 HP Clinic on this…Box hitting is not efficient or very transferable and even the national team “only” trains 3 hours! They are worried about time and squeezing drops out of every rep….efficiency in teaching reading is perhaps the premiere skill in practice. So,  we want to get good at digging live hitters, not a coach on the box. Most our players are overseas playing professionally, so it is a lot of time each week but not a lot of time over the year.

I think the biggest change coaches can make for developing players is to stop doing #3-5. It is well conditioned however, so coaches find it hard to change, and players too, even when the new – much more reading realistic version – is done.  So while you can find this change in more than one of the past blogs, this is a redux, so I will see if I explain it again will help coaches teach reading better…

The key change to make is for the coach to rarely be contact #3, but instead to become a creative contact #2, ranging all over the outside, and even sometimes onto the court. You pass or even “shank” low passes which the ATHLETES then put over the net as they are doing the all important THIRD CONTACT OVER THE NET – reality in every game they ever play. Not you the coach. The players need your teaching as to WHERE to put these third contacts – primarily zones 1 and 2, not the other four – and to be challenged to successfully hit the ball low – tho at times, they also need to know how to put a ball as high as the gym ceiling allows….which internationally can be 50 feet or more. Cuba is great at this rarely seen first ball to receive…. They need you to throw low, to pass over, throw a bit higher to overhead pass over, throw a bit higher to standing spike the ball over, and throw them higher to teach them how to jump and hit balls coming at them from every area of on and off the court….The coach can also yell “I’m Contact One!” and the players then send the ball over after working hard to better the ball from the errant contact one sent in by the coach.

There is hope. Marv Dunphy keeps telling coaches to “Train in Reality”  - Many coaches know that “Gamelike” is hugely important as a principle, and I carry a banner to clinics with that single word in huge letters. Clearly the group of coaches at this just completed HP and CAP training received the message. Last week’s CAP group at the NERVA Hartford Winterfest heard it too, and I enjoyed reading this article on the topic by  Wayne Holly, Director  of CT Velocity who attended the course…

You all can rest assured that if new science comes forth in learning the skill of reading, that USA Volleyball through IMPACT,  CAP,  HP and even this blog will receive this information.  Then you can READ it the way Craig’s players teased me so long ago when I started emphasizing it, and transfer your ideas into your training….

Personally, I learned some new ideas and reconfirmed some core training ideas too – my top ten list to share here with all those growing the game would be….

1. Get your players covering contact 1 (overpass) and contact 2 (setter dump), who cannot move back on the quick sets, to open their arm and hand contact surface to widest possible to give yourself just a little bit better chance to dig the ball UP – Thanks Hugh McCutcheon.

2. That I need to enhance my “heaven and hell” idea wider, not just in positive vs. negative over the net as I have covered (for setting – using swim noodles;  serving – using the string gap, and hitting – raising the net 8-24 inches) but onto the floor. The purpose of creating these ranges in my athletes is so they don’t just hear that we need to make positive errors in setting (too high better than too low/too inside rather than past the antenna/too far off being far better than too tight) by keeping the ball off the net.  They need to see it in a new way, so I will be putting down on the floor, with tape,  a two foot area of “hell”, from the centerline to two feet off the net. Of course the remaining 28 feet, and even beyond the endline is “heaven” so again we have a positive focus for when we are performing. -- Thanks John Dunning.

3. My old blue and white “Dog Obedience Trainer” clicker might even work with kids – see  This is all part of simply “Catch them doing it Right” that allows animal trainers – using only positive reinforcement techniques – not modeling/showing the right technique, not telling these “athletes” in words – but by simple and positive reinforcement of desired techniques through shaping.  So as shared in the past, put dry erase “dots” on beach or indoor players when you catch them doing it right, keep a chart on the cauldron white board where players get to put up a mark for every click or times caught doing the right or near right thing, give them glow in the dark stars, or beads for their team bags in honor of their little or big achievements, put on the gym floor writings honoring those successes or efforts or mastery moments with painters tape “Hollywood Stars”…remember your first grade “gold stars?     There are no little things, these little clicks all add up to success. In talking with Nev about this today in the USAV office, he noted that Vic Lindal from Canada has been doing similar training in volleyball, and Vic refers to the dog training website so clearly I need to look into this more. I often speak of how in a college course that I trained a rat to perform many “athletic skills” in a Skinner Box, from marble rolling to rod pulling (and setting the marble that almost gave me an “F” in the course. It was all without showing or telling, just shaping thru the positive reinforcement of food pellets. A clicker sound does not add any calories to the equation, so I like it.  - Thanks Karin Thomsen (and Bill Neville)

4. Cone of Ignorance vs. Cone of Control – Hugh reiterated that it is not a coincidence that if you get stopped before hitter contact, that you dig more balls, and shared how, unlike the Simpson’s clip on the cone of ignorance (CLICK HERE to catch that 20 second clip), -that the cone of control is in front of you… Forward, forward, forward is said all day long in the gym. -- Thanks again Hugh McCutcheon.

5. That my teaching of “Extend & Recovery” is alive and well at all levels. It was so well shown by Paula Weishoff in the 1984 Olympics were she would fly low and long across the floor to pop the ball up, then just get to her feet.  It is what I have taught for decades (and not shoulder or even “barrel” rolling ) and goes hand in hand with teaching the pancake, “j-pop” (giving very low balls extra height), Reverse pass (the national team called it “Tomahawk”), and “camel toe/” (the national team called it a “fistie”). These were all tools in your cone of control, along with practicing dry run sprawls every practice, which all players, National team or “14ers” need to have in their “toolbox.” – Thanks Karch Kiraly.

6. A great reminder that feedback is the most important factor in teaching and changing behavior – Brought up by Doug in an HP WestWing classroom discussion called “Where We Have Been and Where We are Going.” Being great at giving good feedback/feedforward has been a core part of IMPACT over the decades, and the one thing most coaches can improve will be in giving SPECIFIC feedback. It also made me reflect on how so many coaches talk about needing to “motivate” their players. While I believe that the players who have come to practice are motivated (it is the millions of kids not doing sports, but instead sitting and watching TV who are NOT motivated),    I suggest you start with this section on Motivation from Wikipedia.  -- Thanks Doug Beal.

7. That kids taught from the start to make positive errors over traditional negative ones, and through the joy of playing volleyball, can make the presenter of the HP Session called “Take it Home – National Team to 14s” have to keep saying, “these are not like your usual 13 and 14s,” as they jump serve, dig/pass/set off the net, and keep the ball in play for many long rallies. Same for a national team player who noted with chagrin, and to much attendee laughter, that her blocking skills even allowed her to be tooled by a little athlete. What a memory to be able to train WITH these new national team players for the young athletes. That those short but skilled kids were Rick Swan’s and my own “14ers” from Team Colorado, was special, even though I was having to work with my son Cody and Joe Harmon at the Big House for the Hugh (“Olympic Bald Guy”), Karch (“Mom Approved”), and Carli (AVCA 2010 Player of the Year) Give Back Clinic, noted previously.  – Thanks Rob Browning.

8. That the HP session called “Transitions Through Volleyball by the National team players hopefuls in attendance shared so many great mini-topics on discussing what in volleyball they should have known years ago and want coaches to start teaching now, was wonderful. My favorite statement by one of the players was…  “Teachers of the game, not raising their voice – just teaching – explaining things, don’t get angry or defensive if the player questions. Be more open-minded, be better teachers-coaches.”  - As I say in CAP and IMPACT – Defend, without being defensive; this is information, not criticism; facts, not opinions; simply we are sharing the science of the sport…. – Thanks former NCAA/new National Team Player Hopefuls.

9. That the HP session –  “How to Make Serving Better”  - confirmed all the ideas in my recent blog on “Top Ten Serving Secrets”  My athletes, who have been trained with a Radar gun since I learned they cost less than $100 back in 2009, have been getting that feedback and my “14ers” who have great bullet float serves, serve as hard and fast in our training as the National Team players did in the measurements being shared during the session. -- Thanks Jim Stone

10. That teaching hitting lower sets from the 8 meter line, to 6 meter, to 4 meter to 2 meters and not much closer (staying out of “hell” unless blocking or doing emergency net recoveries) works with national team players and 14 unders.  It opens up the offense, and hitting lob 1, 2 and 3s both front and behind are something even the national team players are using, not just my 14ers. – Thanks Paula Weishoff.

Being proactive here….yes these sessions were recorded in HD and will be available at a clinic session comparable cost. They won’t be readied until after the tryout period for the HP staff, so likely sometime this summer. If you want to put your name on the list for getting information on the sessions/costs/date etc, email   As always, thoughts/questions/ or information indigestion on this and the other blogs are welcome at and thanks for your help in growing the game.

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P.S. Some great news on new USAV grassroots programming and upcoming webinars soon to come!