From Doha to Dubai - Things Learned & Shared

April 09, 2014, 2 p.m. (ET)

So the past two weeks I have been in the Middle East, which is not anything like Middle Earth to say the least. The flight back is over 15 hours – departing at midnight and arriving in Washington DC at about 7 am – a flight that chases the darkness to provide a very long night to write this blog. My hope is that even though you could not be there for these clinics, you will be able to share in the secrets I did. After all – as Thomas Jefferson so wisely said: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine, as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.

My grandfather spent his life working for Standard Oil, and for several decades spent months each year based out of Saudi Arabia, even host Saudi leaders at the just opened Disneyland.  He would not recognize this part of the world, from then, as nations like UAE and Qatar where I have been teaching were Bedouin nations with no oil money at that time. What a difference a few decades makes. 

Doha, Qatar was stop one, a new capital with a downtown of buildings that each vie for being more unique than the last one. In general nothing is older than 20 years in general, such that an historical building might only be 30 years old. During this stop, as Development Director of World ParaVolley (WPV), I met for 3 days with the WPV board, preparing for June’s World ParaVolley Championships in Poland where the first two slots for Rio 2016 Paralympics will be decided. Note that with USAV help, we will have a new WPV DVD coming out next month, and have partnered with VolleySLIDE – to grow the game at the grassroots level. Make sure to follow Team USA this June to see if one or both of our USA Sitting VB teams qualify for Rio!

Brook Billings, former USA National Men’s team player is in Doha, so one evening after meetings I went and watched him play – you can see some pictures I took of his key match, that he won 3-1, here –  I think the most amazing thing I learned watching that match was that seven nations were represented on the court -Cuba, Brazil, USA, Canada, Qatar, Kenya and Sudan. This truly is a global sport for all nations.

The last day in Doha, I joined Sherif El Shemerly, Qatar VA Technical Director of National Teams, FIVB Instructor & Coaches Commission Member, and CAVB Coaches Commission President to teach a Qatar VB Association Coaches clinic at their Olympic Training Center. We met four years ago in Egypt where he was the Men’s National Team head coach. My blog called “LTAD - Michael Jackson and the CAVB”  tell of that pre-“Arab Spring” clinic with Carl McGown, Doug Beal, Bill Neville and Rob Browning.  It was a great chance to share on behalf of USAV, as Sherif is working on growing the game at a fast pace.

A short 45 minute flight, but time to get a mini-pan pizza served on the flight, and I was in Dubai. Home of the current world’s tallest tower – where Tom Cruise did is own stunts. I was asked to be one of two speakers for a six day long “Modern Trends in Coaching Youngsters” course. Over 30 coaches from six nations were able to share with each other. Adrie Noij  from the Nederlands was to join me in the teachings. Adrie is the creator of the NEVOBO kids’ games called “Smashbal” and Circulation Volleyball – where you rotate your team after every net crossing, in rally. I first met him when I taught a week long course for NEVOBO on Youth Volleyball in 1991 – I sure looked younger there as the photo shows, but seeing my bio in Arabic was pretty cool too.

Sadly, the day before the clinic began, Adrie emailed me and the association that he was too sick to travel and would not be able to attend. So a long meeting at the UAE national office transpired to make the adjustments for me to teach the entire course.  I had noted that next door to our Leadership Center was the Dubai Disabled Sports headquarters. They would be hosting the International Paralympic Committee World Powerlifting Championships later that week, just 20 yards away. That led me to find out they did not know our three time Paralympic Sitting women’s volleyball medalist Kendra Lancaster was living in UAE. She graciously agreed to come down after work to speak about ParaVolley to the coaches on the first evening, then I took her to dinner and shared a decades’ worth of reminiscing on the USA program since she joined it, and of the man who discovered her – the late John Armuth.

It was a great group of coaches, from 5 other nations beyond UAE, and my translation was done superbly by Youssef Hilbawi.  For five straight days, 9 am to 8 pm, with only meal and prayer breaks, we shared how to make volleyball stronger for kids at all levels. Most kids want to play football there (Emirates owns the great Barcelona Spain Football Club) – So footvolley films (see this one as an example) help them realize they can hook them with games that feature this option.  Daily we used either the 4 Nets on a Rope (left behind as a thank you to our host the Al Ahid Club), a Proctor & Gamble USAV net band, or my 46 meter long Kirkland Costco wire-edged white ribbon. They could see how they could fit 30  coaches or kids on a space that one adult court is currently set up to play/train, and even learned how to take that same large Team Handball/Basketball sized space to create 18 kids courts. Talk about getting more touches on the ball in the same amount of space and time.


While my example of how a kid learns to ride a bike (no coach, no camps, no drills, no progressions, --just lots of riding) is no different in this nation – the question of how long it would take to learn with 12 kids and just one bike hit home. Still, when they went to share their favorite drills and warm ups, they grouped the kids into either one group of 12 (11 thus waiting/watching) or two groups of six.  The coaches watching could see how the kids at the back of any such line/group, were just being kids, and far away mentally from learning volleyball.  So up on the whiteboard (there were two brand new ones that might have been bought just for this clinic), went the following reminder chart:

12 of 1

6 of 2

4 of 3

3 of 4

2 of 6

1 of 12

The question of conditioning in practice and overall was another interestingly received topic. I shared my story of playing some 400 games 1 vs. 6 (and giving a 10 pt lead, letting my young opponents hit any shot including tips anywhere they wanted – just as long as I get 3 hits and start the match serving) to illustrate how volleyball skill at all but the higher levels is far more important to acquire during practice. I also shared two of my favorite quotes from the great UNC soccer coach, Anson Dorrance - “Conditioning is Homework,” and “In the Entire Off-Season, all we do is Play.”  The myth of “learning to play tired,” also gave me time to share about the new $27 million dollar Ted Stevens Center at our Olympic Training Center, and its important recovery focus. Still, it seems fitting to share these “conditioning” ideas we did come up with that actually are also often part of getting more contacts per hour.

Countdown – While they said they would count up in their culture – I am not aware of any middle east space ships being sent aloft - they loved the idea of giving kids a very limited number of seconds to get every loose ball on the floor and into the basket before the count ended. They also could see the sprinting, aka conditioning going on, let alone the important getting back on task/increasing the contacts per hour principle from their motor learning training to start the course.

Whistle & Sprint – Both the coaches and players walked in on the first whistle to group up. Once discussed, they always sprinted in to any group whistle. As a side note, they also learned the importance of talking to their players with a wall to their back. Having 30 other coaches watching them, and the kids looking at the coaches, not the training coach, helped with this coach positioning concept.

Last Player Does More - Even in groups of three or four, having the athlete at the end of the line stop just watching/waiting and do something - a skill rehearsal or single movement exercise -  gets the end-of-the-line player(s) focused, not goofing off as young players often to.

Serve & Sprint – Every clinic this still cracks me up. Ask the coaches/players to go do some serving, and watch them serve and watch, never running onto the court.  Ask them how often you get to do that in a match, serve and observe, and they smile sheepishly. If you serve 100 times in practice, and sprint to base every time – (you end up with…) gosh, 100 short wind-sprints of a totally game specific variety.  

Second to Third Contact Move – This one is always an “a-hah!” moment for coaches. You see, in traditional pepper, you not only get better at digging a spike back to the opponent, you get worse at moving in a defensive posture. The better you get at pepper, the less you move as you show your “ball control” but in game reality, the better the defender, the more he or she moves. So in over the net, or same side of the net triple pepper, you get the defender to “wait in base reading” for contact one and two, then have them move in their defensive posture backwards any distance you want prior to third contact. This move should be done every rally of every point in the game, and thus is also practiced in this far more gamelike way of “pepper.”  This is covered in the “Evolution of Pepper” blog from a couple of years ago.

Warm up with more Two on None – It was a delight to see how the USAV net band allowed 6 groups of 2 to play this great warm up. It also agreed with the line at the bottom of my Kesselville sign that says, “Use of the court without use of the net is prohibited”. Use the net 100% of the time please. Our time is too short in every practice to ignore the net as much as most coaches do. For lower skill level teams, to give them a bit more time to hustle to the other side of the court and be the “other team,” change the game to “Three on None.”  For those not familiar with this warm up game, you simply start with 2 or 3 players on one side of the ribbon or net, and once you touch the ball, you sprint to the other side of the net to receive the ball and keep the rally going.  Cooperatively scored, this is one of my favorite game-teaching grills, especially as a warm up.  This grill will be added to the USAV Skill/Drill Video section by mid-April, if you want to see a bunch of very young UAE kids playing (along with a couple of coaches pitching in to get the kids more contacts per hour) – CLICK HERE

Start Practice Running in the Butterfly Grill – For those coaches who demand players to run, or even do footwork, the compromise is to have the players run through a multi-ball, over the net, butterfly grill. This final level, where lots of running happens, just in more game like ways, is best seen in the blog “Evolution of the Butterfly Drill” 

Homework – For youth, not only do we agree with Anson Dorrance that “conditioning is homework” – we gave them exercises to do using either their bodyweight or surgical tubing for resistance. If you have a large group and few volleyballs, these bands and bodyweight exercises can be done as a station in the gym as well.


Remember that part of every classroom board back in school? These are the lessons that stayed up all-clinic long, and why….

SPECIFICITY – Game-Like – This was put up first in the “Save” area of the class whiteboard and referenced countless times. They got it.

WHY? – Probably the running class “joke” as they started to ask themselves why in so many discussions it was great to see how they pondered and answered. After all, the coach who knows why does beat the coach who knows how. I did not want them to change just because I said so – like when they coach their players – we always took the time to understand the WHY of each new idea. After all, this course was titled “Modern Trends in Training Youngsters.”

Change – They brought me in to do with the coaches, that which the coaches do with their players – teach their players to change. So my role was to change the participants coaching skills for the better. This meant there were a lot of “why change” discussions also going on.

Share Secrets – An FIVB course was held in UAE in 2013, and three attendees of the group in this course also attended that eight day training. So one of the sessions had those three attendees teaching the other 30 what the most important new ideas they had learned.  Every practical session featured these top club coaches sharing their favorite drill – and then getting my feedback on how to improve it – and a new grill or game that I shared. My translator, Youssef Hilbawi, a fellow FIVB instructor, led a spirited 90 minute session on lessons learned where dozens of new ideas to grow the game in UAE were generated. When I asked the last time they had gathered to share ideas like this, the answer was never. So not only did I make them promise to share what they learned from this course in the next 10 days with fellow coaches from their area who could not attend, they also are supposed to gather again in six months for a day of discussion. Finally, I invited them all to join the AVCA, attend the Convention, and to send their best HP representative to our 2015 High Performance Clinic at the OTC next winter.

FUN/Play  – Each participant got a USAV SportKit DVD, and each practical session opened and closed with a few new and fun warm ups and cool downs that are found in the some 30 pages of that part of the USAV MiniVolley book.  Remember you can get this resource at no cost from either your USAV Region OR if they are out of stock, send a stamped ($1.49 or more) self addressed 9x12 envelope or larger, and we will send you one free of charge.

Retention – I find this topic too often ignored by those who demand blocked, part, coach directed teaching.  It is simple, retention is superior when skills are acquired in random, or whole, or either intrinsically or through the guided discovery by a skilled teacher/coach. Because I see high level play acquired at even a very young age by kids who get the benefit of such game training – you would think that I am telling coaches to stop coaching, or drilling or focusing on a part that needs fixing in a technique or skill.  Not even close, I just think most coaches spend too much time in these less effective for retention and learning areas is all. When I asked Dr. Richard Schmidt how many blocked trials of a new skill he would recommend before going on to random, he said “between 6-10, then we get to whole and random training.”  I agree with his science, as he is a far better motor skill learning scientist and expert than I am.

Increase the Contacts per Hour – I need to replace my “Increase Contacts per Hour” motor learning principle sign which was recently stolen, as I appreciate and miss those words being seen in the gym for each session. Increasing the opportunities to respond is identical to the importance of increasing learning opportunities, noted recently in my blog STOP Doing Drills. There I asked for coaches to better create reality-based learning opportunities during their precious 1-2 hours of practice.  You would have thought I was asking for coaches to entirely stop practicing.  Wait, I do want coaches to stop practicing….and I want them to instead let the players practice, just another way to get more opportunities to respond for the players!  Remember all – how we move is determined by what we see. Think about that for awhile….

Set High Expectations and Technique Understanding – I will blog more about this in my upcoming blog “STOP Teaching Techniques,” as that title should confuse even more coaches who don’t read beyond the title or understand the real difference between technique and skill. In the end, this group of professional full-time coaches saw both the fundamental techniques and how simple they are for kids, and how those key techniques are acquired through grills and games as part of developing volleyball skill/IQ.

Be a Better Storyteller – After all, your parents did put you to bed by reading you bedtime facts or bedtime moral techniques. The coaches probably heard 100 short or even longer stories in our time together, and I know they will remember those stories better than the facts I shared otherwise. It is just how we are hard wired as human beings.

Buy & Use Whiteboards – Not one, but two, or even three. While they all acknowledged that their classrooms all have boards, pretty much none of the programs had whiteboards in their gym. Every day of the clinic they saw how the board improves learning in the gym.

Ask more Questions – Culturally there was a lot of explicit/from the coach training going on at the start. They began to be more Socratic and player empowering as the clinic went on.

Scoring – How do I win? – From day one to the end of the clinic, I probably had to ask that question 50 times – For even “ball control” drills done with cooperative scoring makes at least a highest “in a row” mark to strive to or beat.  If you say you are training game-like, well how are the points going on the “scoreboard” in practice, as they ALWAYS score every rally in the game.

Teach the Angles of the Game – Do more THREES, or if you do pairs, keep doing game-like angles, as done in “Two/Three vs. Nobody” and alternating pepper. The reality of the game is that the ball changes angles pretty much every single time, so the sooner you start learning these varying angles of the game, the better the volleyball players you will have. Again, for kids, starting with the smaller, but still game-like angles happens by playing small sided/smaller court games. It can also happen on a full sized court by starting with, for example, a setter working on front and back sets with the ball coming from court zone 4 near the three meter line, then to five, six, and one.  The hardest angle for any setter, youth or Olympian, is a ball coming from zone 2 and that is the “final” hardest angle. This is all outlined in IMPACT manual in the section called BASE (Build All Skills Efficiently) drill building. You might perhaps want to re-visit your manual if you have one.

So hopefully if you have read this far, you also have now received some new ideas from our gathering in Dubai. If you have more to share, please put them in the comments below, for all of us to use to grow the game together.