Heaven or Hell

By John Kessel | Aug. 10, 2013, 2:23 p.m. (ET)

Working in principles before methods has found me sharing ideas with a very diverse group of other leaders in sport and business.  The one idea that has helped my volleyball teams that also works in other disciplines is that of first teaching from the positive side a skill option, as you work towards perfection. A recent talk at this year’s USOC Olympic Assembly, hosted this year in USA Volleyball's home city of Colorado Springs, with  the head coach Mike from NAIA Northwest Christian College, and then with the USOC Leadership sessions with Ebay, General Mills and State Farm executive staff allowed me to share this same concept in a business way. This concept specific to volleyball is covered in much more detail in my article “From Positive to Perfection Training” – available by clicking HERE. 

When an intern joins the USA Volleyball Sport Development staff, they get two things to read first.  One is the article “No More Mistakes and You’re Through” from the iconic business magazine Forbes.  In he shares the importance of challenging yourself and doing new things never done before – which will of course have errors along the way.  We want to go swifter, higher, stronger as players and teams, so mistakes are simply part of the process – for Pobody’s Nerfect. An intern will also get a copy of this short poem by Kipling:

I have six friends

Who serve me true

Their names are What, When, Why

How, Where and Who

The current traditions in many sports teach what would be the worst kind of an error for long term development – in no small part as this error is the easiest way to do something. In soccer, good teams pass the ball teammate to teammate, but beginners simply kick the ball to the other end, in order to win. Similarly in volleyball, at the beginning level, the worst teams win – as they simply hit the ball back over on one hit, anywhere into the other side, any height over the net,any way they can. Good teams use all three hits, which when just starting means three  chances to err, and thus these teams lose at the start. The solution to beating these one hit teams is to learn to read this kind of “attack” by warming up with the game of “Tennis” something I covered previously in my blog titled “Tennis Anyone.” 

It goes deeper than just one hit, into the motor program being developed by pair passing and wall spiking.  For the “easier” reasons noted above, most teams run onto the court for both practice and game warm ups and pair up.  This tradition of partner passing is powerful, but is teaching the worst error first to any player. In digging and serve reception, the worst error is to send the ball directly back to where it came from.  Mind you, we know that this scores points and wins many matches in beginner volleyball, but it is negative error that is being developed and taught. Any good team wants this first contact not to go back over the net (to hell), but to ideally go to the setter … and if not perfect, to go UP to heaven on their side where 5 other teammates are with you.  To err in such a way so that THREE hits are possible, not relying on the other side to err. 

Our sport is pretty much one filled with errors, the another related important risk management tool – valuable again in all sports – is to put your ‘targets” in a place that allows the Bell curve off of perfect, to still let you play the ball. Note that a bell curve in this target way is really a circle, for errors go not just in line off, towards or over the net, but also left to right along the net from where the actual setter target is that you want. So stop keeping your setters standing on the net, and move them off 1-2 meters, so you keep more errors on your side of the net, even if they are negative and go past the target.  

Similarly, most coaches teach “wall spiking”   in no small part to develop a myth in our sport – that of the power and top spin that comes from snapping your wrist over the “top” of the ball.  I have covered this myth before, in that with a contact time of only .01 seconds, the wrist snap only develops 2.3 percent of the power, and more importantly no topspin. What is happening is more like a golf club hitting the ball – and no clubhead snaps on contact, they are quite rigid. It is actually WHERE the sphere of the ball is struck and the angle of the hand at that .01second moment, that makes the ball spin.  Thus learning to hit the ball down, as we do in wall spiking and traditional 2 person pepper, is actually making players worse at learning how to effectively hit the ball OVER the net or block.  Hitting down for all but the tallest and highest leaping players means you are getting great at hitting into the net, or under it. – what we call again is hell. Nobody learns anything when you spike or serve into the net.  Hitting over the net, into heaven, may still see the error of going out, but in practice your teammates are learning what out looks like, a VERY important reading skill.  Besides, the hell of hitting into the net is well under 2.5 meters, while the space for heaven is at least three times more space, depending on the ceiling height – and if you play outdoors, it truly is the space of heaven.

So take a look at this video of two 11 and unders doing this better kind of wall warm up. They are learning to hit over the 2cm wide tape put up on the wall at the height of the net. The other thing that you should notice is that they are not just hitting where they are facing, something they already are pretty good at.  They are working on NOT hitting where they are looking/facing, a skill far too few players have in our sport. When the ball comes first to them, simulating contact #1, they do not receive it back against the wall, but pass it up to themselves, the good error habit over bad (back over the net/immediately against the wall). Perfect would go to the net (the wall) but not too near it, but in pairs it is best to teach to “err up” not over.  Thus, if you pair pepper, start digging the ball up first to yourself, then set it and hit it over a net/leaping blocker/into heaven with your armswing, not into the hell of the net – even if the net is not there. The importance of playing over the net is not just gamelike, it is reality, and not doing such when you have a net is simply illogical and teaches bad habits.

So to help change the traditions of pair pepper, to the better habits formed by doing dig-to-yourself pepper, you simply warm up taking it to the level of 3 person pepper  and the person in the middle is the net!  They cannot jump, but they can block balls which are set “too close.” Some programs do this, but few take it to the even higher level of playing 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 and even 4v4 where the team of 1-4 players who loses immediately becomes the net. In showing this to school kids who want to play volleyball at recess, but have no net, they often call it by another sports game name of “monkey in the middle.” Whatever you call it, DO IT! as we need to start teaching a new tradition to play OVER the net, and of hitting into heaven, and not hell.  

To see this game in action all over the nation, check out the USAV website Grassroots section and click on the USAV Drill Video section to find the footage I have shot to make “Losers Become the Net. ” – Thanks for your help in growing the game together and as always we welcome your comments. If you are into Twitter, follow me at @JohnKesselUSAV and get advance notice on some of the new ideas I find to make you a better teacher of this wonderful sport for a lifetime.