STOP Teaching FREE Balls

By John Kessel | Aug. 23, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

Yes we are back with perhaps one of the most important “STOP” lessons of all – the need for coaches to stop teaching “Free” balls, especially the way the vast majority of coaches around the world teach it, and start teaching “Mean” balls.  

First we have the traditional ball slapping coach, who I see in coaching control mode, all over the world. They line up 3 blockers at the net, then slap the ball to trigger the pavlovian response of salivating players who move off the net as the ball comes over to them to play out.  This response of retreating off the net for the free ball is so well trained that when I do clinics, I set up three players at the net, tell them we are doing a “free ball drill” and then I slap a ball. Immediately all three players back off the net.  I never stop finding the ironic humor in this – and oft offer to start selling volleyballs on late night TV for people to carry as a self-protection device; yes ladies and gentlemen, you simply slap this ball you carry around and people bothering you will run away.

The key thing to understand, as a coach who knows why, not  just the how, is that when you train this way, you are actually training your players to be late…moving off the net as the ball is thrown over by the coach.  Why late?  Experienced players recognize this situation after the flight of ball contact number two, not after contact number three. If the second ball contact is going to not be able to be spiked, but will need to be forearm or overhead passed over the net, at the moment, long before the impending third ball contact is sent over the net, is when the front row player start their retreat, and the back row players also make their adjustments, often including a setter running to the net.

The second and even more important tradition to change is to teach your players to not send over “free” balls, but to still attack the ball.  At any level, I find this to be a top 10 skill set to develop in your players – tied into increasing volleyball IQ, teach your players how to score points even on the worst of free ball situations, the forearm pass send over.

Why are we not fully on the offensive and doing a better job of sending over an aggressive, slimy, court smart “free” ball?  Because our traditions right now have the COACH becoming the best skilled in the gym at sending over the third ball, not the players. Thus we need to STOP teaching free balls as we have and change.

You see, over the decades I have watched almost all coaches stand off the court, outside the antennas and hit at teams on both sides, often in 6 v 6 drills and even wash games.  “Train in Reality” I so often say, thanks to Marv Dunphy who taught me that phrase. Coaches, including  hopefully older former players giving back to the sport by coaching,  are not just off the court, they are most often near zone four, with a bucket of volleyballs by their side, and hitting balls to their side of the court for the players to dig/set/hit, or turning to hit the ball over the net to the other side, for the same dig/set/hit response.

My questions to my readers are these:

1.       Who is thus becoming the best at sending the third ball over the net?

2.       Can the coach send the ball over the net to areas 1 and 2 when they are standing off the court near zone four?

3.       How many “free” or “down” balls come at you from between the antenna vs. outside the antenna?

4.       How many opponents spike a ball from off the court to you on the same side of the net?

5.       How many opponents still two handed tip or even forearm pass the ball over the net, vs. standing spike the ball, at your level?

Point 1 – The sad answer is, the coach…yet last time I checked, the coach does not hit a single ball over the net in a match to their opponent. In this evolution we seek to empower the players more, both in volleyball IQ / reading and in skills, it is the PLAYERS who need to be skilled at sending aggressive, point scoring, crafty third balls to their opponents every single time. Again, NOT the coach. The coach should thus become the SECOND contact person in the gym, and do any of these variations

a.       Throw the ball low, and teach your players how to be great at sending a forearm passed ball aggressively and wisely over the net to the holes in an opponent’s court.

b.      Throw the ball a bit higher and teach the same aggression and skill in sending over an overhead pass

c.       Throw it even higher and teach them powerful, confident standing spikes over the net.

d.      Throw it even higher and allow them to develop the skill to maneuver, jump and in the air spike the ball over the net.

Point 2 – ALL teams, from Olympic level to youngest kids, should send the vast majority of their “mean” balls to zones 1 and 2. When the coach stands outside the court at zone four, they cannot hit balls over the net to these two zones. Ask any setter where they LIKE the ball coming from most of all, and they of course will tell you from the “ball cart coach tossing the ball to me” zone at the 5 and 6 seam. They have seen thousands of balls from this spot. Ask them what they dislike/are not as skilled at and they point to zone 1 or 2. This is due to the steeper angle they must set to any hitter, and as it is something they simply have not done at much of – any all levels of the game. So we need to then pour most the “mean” balls we send over on imperfect play volleyball to the very zones the setters dislike the most. Simple.

Point 3 – When the coach stands off the court in zone four – every ball they send to either side comes from outside the antenna. In game reality, some balls are that wide, certainly, but they still come from BETWEEN the antennas, not 100 percent from outside the antenna as the standing coach is training into their players.  When the coach becomes contact #2, not #3, they can send balls into the court in far more gamelike ways and the ball will come from between the antennas, as it most often does in the match.

Point 4 – Like all forms of standing on the ground pepper, when the coach stands and hits, the players learn an angle to dig that is not gamelike. This certainly is also the case for the players on the same side as the coach who then dig the ball – they are digging not just a standing on the ground attacker but one who is actually outside the antenna.  When coach sends the ball over the net to the other group, that coach will never hit it outside the antenna to those players. Yet standing there, ball bucket at the ready, coaches have no problem hitting totally unrealistic hits to be dug/set/hit. Again, when you finally break this tradition, the ball, if outside the antenna, will still pass between the antennas for either side. Another little thing that adds up over time…

Point 5 – Invariably the coach hits nearly 100 percent of the balls, swinging with “ball control” and hitting it top-spinned right to the player.  Who hits that well on the teams you play? Most of us know not many opponents. At the lower levels the shots we must handle are two handed tip shots, fist shots saved over the net, forearm passes and even reverse forearm hits. If they do hit it, it goes up then over more often due to opponent height/lack of jump. At the higher levels the reverse is true, but the failure to train in reality when a coach hits remains the same.  Would any of you reading this hit a ball at the USA men at the level they see coming even on down/free balls from the 2012 Russian Gold medal team?  Sorry, but for 99 percent of us the answer is no, I would not hit a ball as the USA men have to handle from their opponents they play. So it is far better to have Clay Stanley or David McKienzie hitting a ball over the net, than me as a mere mortal coach.  Since reading skills are vital at all levels, again having the players send the 3rd ball over is vastly superior for training that essential read.

So now what you get to be doing is moving all around both sides of the court, not frozen at zone 4 married to your ball cart. Remember, there is a reason the ball cart has wheels…so move it, deeper, and endline as well and to zone 1 and 2 side, circling the court. Randomly toss balls of various heights and teach your PLAYERS how to send mean balls to the other side with forearm passes, overhead passes, roll shots, standing spikes – all not being hit the way you face – to Zone 1 and 2 from no matter where they are on the court.  When you throw from behind the endline, turn and look like a teammate chasing and errant serve reception down and even back forearm pass the ball into the court. Low, medium or high, they then have to learn to be aggressive and skilled at sending the ball over, with your guidance on how to be slimy and mean, not giving the opponent a free ball, but a mean one that is still hard to handle. In the beginning, they will err, and often, but we are teachers and they will improve.

In the end, you get to players who earn awards for getting the opposing coach to slam their clip board and scream at their players “You guys that was a FREE ball for gosh sake, how did you let it drop!!!!”  The how comes from you – who have taught your players to be great at hitting “better the ball” third contacts at all levels. Hitting it to the spot that the back row setter is vacating., and it falls…hitting it to the setter, who has to then handle the first ball and get someone to back them up, not nearly the offense that would have been run if the setter was able to set the second contact.  Since we are teaching our players leadership and to be empowered as players, this way of play to pressure zones 1 and 2 happens not just in 6 v. 6, but in speedball, monarch of the court and other smaller number per side games. Stop being happy that they just got it over, and give your players the time and contacts to be mean ball players, not free ballers…

So I have covered a related idea in my blog  “Tennis Anyone?,” but I need to bring that game/warm up favorite of both genders of our national teams.  When you play one hit over the net tennis warm up variations, you get 1. Players who are GREAT at still scoring points on a third contact forearm or overhead pass. 2. Players who can READ those one hit over the net contacts by the low skilled players they face, or even high skilled ones who simply err and overpass. Those balls just no longer drop after a great serve; they get received and converted into a transition kill that is so valuable.

At the other side of the court, the team RECEIVING this ball should be thinking “OPPORTUNIYISNOWHERE”  That some reading this older blog title see it as “nowhere,” is a topic for your sports psychology staff visit – and I hope you read it as “now here”…for it is! It is too bad in English that opportunity is a FIVE syllable shout, and not a single one as it Is in other languages, and perhaps we should not call “Free” but call “Chance!” as another tradition to change. Nonetheless that is often what is occurring with teams not trained as we have noted above, and it is a chance to score the ever important transition kill that gives you a lead in rally scoring.   With the ball coming from more zones 1 and 2 now, you get batter at converting these opportunities no matter where your team gets the ball from, as you help all 12 players, both the starters and non-starters, to be mean ball players who then can convert even off of a mean ball.  Remember, this skill should be developed not just in 6 vs. 6 play, but in speedball and monarch of the court games and the like.

Now you get to run the quick set front row player attacks with the bic player coming from back row.  You get spikers/attackers (not hitters…lol) who look at the other teams block and swing hit from one side to the other side of the court to attack against the opponent’s weakest blocker….You get the setter to stay back, not run to the net to set, so that teammates can forearm pass/overhead pass a ball to the net that they can hit on two, or twist in the air and set the trailing attacker who hits a meter ball while the opposing team lands from trying to block the setter hitting on two…. Players who know where the gaps are and can attack them better.  In other words, players who can play and score off even the meanest “free” ball, as their own teammates have helped them be able to convert those toughest and meanest balls by giving them to themselves….It may not always be rainbows and ponies out there, as Hugh McCutcheon notes and we all found out in the gold medal women’s match, but these little things add up, and this one, to teach MEAN balls by the players, not free balls or no third contact over the net skills by the players, is in my top ten changes we all need to make…

Off to London to jury the sitting volleyball venue for the Paralympics.  Knock on wood I will not have a situation like badminton’s or fencing’s juries did in London 2012, or the #1 volleyball jury change of taking the USA win over Japan away, due to a missed red card, and triggering the men’s team shaving of their heads in support of Bob Samuelson…That is a history lesson for a jury that I hope I do not have to enforce.  Like my journeys to Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, I will be blogging daily from London with a “Growing the Game Together” focus,  so look for those soon and Go Team USA! 

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