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STOP Doing Drills

April 01, 2014, 7 a.m. (ET)

Okay, this version of my STOP series is likely to be a tough one for many coaches, but its truth is well founded in science, just not implemented well in our teaching practices.  I just watched perhaps my 2,000th “drill” on YouTube, as I seek to find any new ideas that others have created to help us grow and develop our sport.  On the Kudda website, I saw drills getting viewed nearly 100,000 times which were so….so….hmmm…well my mom said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, so I will leave it at that. I could only shake my head in disbelief and disappointment. Too many coaches simply do not know the science of motor skill learning.

Want to get a good turnout at a clinic or online? – Title your session along the lines of “I promise you will have 50 more drills after you hear me talk to you.” Never mind the fact that our three-time Olympic coach Doug Beal, when asked how many “drills” he did in training, responded with “maybe a dozen.”  Before the advent of the Internet, there were drill books, which went in their titles from 100 drills to 300, then 400 drills. Now  you “google” in the video section the term “Volleyball Drills” and you get about 3,000,000 choices.

I watched coaches telling the viewers that “heading” set balls over the net, “shouldering” them and playing “bloody knuckles” were drills that were teaching the players gamelike timing, judgment and whatnot…coaches who actually said the term “gamelike” for a drill that had players standing with their backs to the net on one side, while teammates kicked balls from the other endline along the floor, with the blockers being told to shuffle into the way of the rolling ball – all to teach “blocking positioning.”  These teachers choose to ignore the principles of specificity and opt to create even more methods.

One of the key reasons for this blog’s title is simply to ask every teacher and coach reading, to stop creating drills, and start creating learning opportunities.  There are vast amounts of energies being spent by players to learn the vast intricacies of so many non-gamelike drills; it could probably power our entire nation’s energy system for a good day or two. The game is chaotic enough just by playing it small sided to full 6 v 6 games (or 9 v 9 for the Chinese men’s version that is so entertaining on a 10x20m court). The key though is that we need to look at what we are doing from a learning point of view – as we want players to know how to respond properly in a game, NOT in a drill. With Reading and Learning being the most important skills in volleyball, we need to create learning of reality reading based opportunities. It is that simple. Learning in isolated drills simply does not work. It looks good in practice, but the athletes simply have to start learning once the actual game play starts.

Consider this fact – in a game, how many points are scored without starting with a serve? Since the answer is just a rare few by an official’s card, something to consider is how many of your drills start with a serve? At one level the athletes know this, as they are always begging to play monarch of the court, or speed ball, or scrimmage – learning opportunities/games which start with a serve.  It’s not that every drill or game you do should start with a serve, but it does mean more should. That is just part of training in reality.

How can you be so prescient when an opponent tips on your team, such that you could walk, not run, onto the court and save the ball, and your players watch it fall to the floor? Is it your walking “technique”? No…due to your knowledge of the flow of the game – the previous block(s) on that player, their underrunning of the ball,  the score of the game and so forth  - which only comes from game play, not drilling.  How do you know what play is likely at key points of a game or favorite shot of an opponent at those same key times. It is learned through play.

In an attempt to transition coaches to make drills more gamelike, we have begun naming them “grills” in the IMPACT manual – a gamelike drill. The thing is, in the end everything you are doing in your practices are learning opportunities – a special deliberate practice period that combines the opportunity for team building every minute, and team/individual game based learning at the same time.

My webinar teaching of the motor learning chapter of IMPACT has lately brought back a question that Dr. Richard Schmidt would “answer” with to coaches at a national symposium at our Olympic Training Center here in Colorado Springs a few years ago. In this case it was not just any coaches, but a large group of top Olympic and Paralympic  coaches including our own two- time Olympic medal winning USA Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon. I would estimate Dr. Schmidt, one of the top teachers and authors in the science of motor learning, said back “ARE YOU PRACTICING FOR PRACTICE OR FOR PERFORMANCE?” about a dozen times. In every case the coach was putting forward an isolated, blocked drill they thought had worked for them in learning their sport. We all, from Olympic coaches to elementary school teachers, regards of skill level or age, are wanting our charges to perform – in either a competition on a world stage, or in a test in the class.  While I won’t go into it here, sadly too many classroom teachers are now having to teach to the myriad of tests, rather than being able to give kids problem solving reality-based teaching in every subject.

Coaches, in this practice vs. performance statement by Dr. Schmidt, there is a huge difference between a player who has technique, and a player who has volleyball skills.  Drills teach technique, while games teach volleyball skill – as in “volleyball IQ”.  Let me say it again- the vast majority of drills used by well-intentioned coaches teach technique, and not the volleyball skills necessary for successful performance. In addition, because of the scoring that comes in a “game” always – deliberate practice levels, that internal focus on solving novel situations and striving to get better every day, is higher in the chaos.

The motor learning principles that are core to understanding the question are specificity, implicit vs. explicit learning, whole vs. part training, and random vs. blocked learning... I have covered the related concepts of “Learning by Doing” in a recent blog by that title, including the importance of retention in learning. The problem is most drills are: 1. Run by the coach, not the players, 2. Part based in either actual technique or as related to a whole game, rather than whole and 3. Blocked for “success” in practice, rather than chaotic like the game is in its inherent randomness.  The coaches are doing things that make a practice look good, but which do not transfer to the game nor are retained as well by the athletes, while giving them the all-important volleyball “IQ” of a real player.

In a discussion with Brian Swenty, who founded the great Volleyball Coaches and Trainers (VCT) Facebook group, he noted how many coaches struggle with the whole vs part principle in how to provide appropriate feedback, or what to coach and how technically. "If I don't run this drill with them passing on their knees how will they learn to keep their platforms straight"? "If we don't put kids on a box, how will we isolate their armswing or blocking technique"? and on and on.

Brian writes “The key is something I call "Single Item Focus Video Review". It is what you have been saying for years, but it is how I was able to justify really spending time running "Grills" instead of drills. This is particularly effective when I want to train technique as well as outcome based skill. - So, we will run the video delay software or Ubersense...I really like setting up the iPad with the video delay and making it a station. We will play our game or whole skill drill and isolate one thing we really want to see. Serving is the easiest to start with as it is closed motor and oh so important (toss, armswing, contact point, blah blah), but can be done with anything. I am still dealing with ball strikes to the stand (hasn't really happened too badly) and when rallies go beyond the 15-20 secs on the delay, but I digress. The delay works really well in the Butterfly as you can make it a station to review the previous skill then "bump" to the next one.”

If you have not seen these and other app and “assistant coach” options– check out my recent blog on the topic

During the symposium, I guesstimate the word “specificity” was said about 2,000 times. With some 30 different sports represented, the principle kept being brought up when examples which were thought to be specific would be shared, but the presenters would then note that such an example or drill was not really specific.

One of the items shown was what I remember being called a “Russian leaper,”    where a belt went around the player’s waist which was attached to heavy elastic cording which was anchored to the floor.  When the device would show up on the screen, the presenters were asked if it was something that would help their players.  Every presenter said, “nope, not specific enough.” These were not just volleyball trainers, but top coaches/trainers in other Olympic sports that knew motor learning.  

Same thing happened with the “Speed Ladder” which brings me to a quote from Dr. Richard Schmidt’s Motor Learning and Performance – Principles to Practice book, now in about its 5th edition“It is fruitless to train such fundamental abilities such as quickness and balance, so concentrate on the fundamental skills instead…”  Still, we live in a land of quick fixes, gimmicks, and late night television ads. So you will always see people telling you to hit this ball frozen in time, run this shuttle run or weave, or pattern your feet through my handy dandy speed enhancement device. They can’t sell their method to you if they call it a non-specific, no-skill transfer, profit-for-me device.

When Dan Coyle started his great blog titled, “The Talent Code,” he tried to help coaches understand the difference between the tradition of “quickness” over the realities of reading and gathering information, writing:

Science is showing us that our instincts about quickness are wrong. The best performers, it turns out, aren’t reacting more quickly (thanks to limits of nerve-conduction speed, human reflexes are pretty consistent). The best performers are using time differently — namely, they’re using it to get more information.

For example, let’s take the classic case of a tennis player returning serve. You would instinctively think that the best returners are the ones who react the quickest. But you’d be wrong. Experiments show that the best players succeed because they wait longer before they make their swing. They use that time to gather information about the ball, the spin, the opponent’s position, and make decisions about it. And in tennis — as in many other areas of life — the better data you have, the better result you tend to get.

In other words, being quick isn’t about speed; it’s about information. It’s about learning how to wait."

It is hard for traditionalists to change from drilling to game situation learning opportunities, for it just looks so messy. Kinda like when kids first start drawing with crayons, stagger, weave and fall like a drunk when learning to walk or wobbling and crashing as they learn to ride a bike. They want the “look of success” in a blocked drill, as players “pepper with control” on the same side of the net, even though those same athletes can’t dig a ball in a game very successfully. When national team hopefuls at a recent USA Volleyball High Performance clinic went from pair pepper to actually digging and hitting a ball over a net, Hugh McCutcheon turned to the crowd and said “Looking a little squirrely out there,’ as the “skill” of pepper was humbled by the game’s realities.

Over the years I hear from scholastic coaches who in their change to motor science-based and game- based training, find themselves in an interesting quandary. They are winning more, and often going to their level of playoffs, only to be struggling with their Athletic Director who, despite the success, is expecting, even demanding that they stop playing so much and start drilling more. One solution I have to this problem is that each coach should have 2-3 drills that that a team can pop into when the Athletic Director drops by.

A classic drill that still gets some reality happening, is the “butterfly” drill, with the athletes doing the throwing (heaven forbid they serve, that is too chaotically “unsuccessful”).  Lots of success in that running, throwing and catching – not serving, receiving or setting. Make it even more gamelike, but a bit more chaotic, by having the usual target either catch the ball like a setter (rather than the traditional catch it any way you can) or even better, set and COVER their set. Want to ”risk” getting even more gamelike? Add a second passer so a gamelike decision of “mine or yours” has to be made. Even more gamelike? Run it same side of the net in “Front/Back” format so you stop setting left side to only zone four, and give every player setting the experience of back setting to zone two. Even more chaotic – just play 6 vs. 6 and make each side rotate after their ball goes over the net. And finally the most chaotic of them all – play 6 vs 6 with TWO balls – serving at the same time to start, and only winning the game when BOTH balls are dead for one side of the court – the first dead ball being able to be brought back to life by the “losing” side running and getting the ball back into play with a serve.

If the athletic director stays longer than the best controlled version of your butterfly drill, then regress back into some sort of coach controlled circle drill, or even a form of coach on three (sorry, I just can’t propose coach-on-one), where the coach, not the players, are in control.  Once the AD is gone, return to the player controlled games where you are out of the game and thus able to see what the players are doing in the game between contacts, and to provide questioning to individuals or small groups, while the ball(s) remain in flight.

In closing, I wish to share a favorite poem of mine, from the book The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton published in 1965.  I find its lesson helpful when dealing with those who choose to ignore the science in sport and not change how they teach. Maybe it will help you in your journey to become the best teacher you can be in helping us grow the game together.  As always, comments welcome if they are something my mom would find of value and approve of.. Indeed, perhaps I should retitle these STOP series blogs to PLEASE Stop, after all, it is important to say please…. 

THE EMPTY BOAT

If a man is crossing a river

And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,

Even though he be a bad-tempered man

He will not become very angry.

But if he sees a man in the boat,

He will shout at him to steer clear.

If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,

And yet again, and begin cursing.

And all because there is somebody in the boat.

Yet if the boat were empty,

He would not be shouting and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat

Crossing the river of the world,

No one will oppose you,

No one will seek to harm you....

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