Quality play starts at the top

Feb. 28, 2014, 8 a.m. (ET)

Quality play starts at the top

By Ryan Millar
First printed in the Winter 2009-10 Volume 37, No. 4 issue of Volleyball USA
To subscribe, visit this page for more information

The game of volleyball has changed. That statement rings true louder now than ever before. A volleyball match is won in an hour and a half. I remember playing matches in college that lasted three-plus hours. The game has changed. So how we train and practice must change, too.

After going through exactly what it takes to win the ultimate prize in volleyball, quality over quantity is the new revolution in volleyball training. There was never a time during our 2008 Olympic conquest that we ever felt over-trained.

In my book, our head coach at the Beijing Olympics, Hugh McCutcheon, is the pioneer of this revolution. Hugh is incredibly good at knowing the exact time to finish practice.

I think many coaches think that a good practice means, “Keep going. We’re playing at a high level, so of course we should continue to practice longer.” I say do the opposite. Let me explain.

First, good coaches are good planners. They know exactly what they want to do in practice before practice even starts. As a coach, you should decide the day or the night before what you want to do in the upcoming practice. Think about things that your team needs to be better at, then bring your plan to the gym and implement it.

Your practice should start with a warm up, a stretch and maybe a ball-control drill. Then, have a good, competitive arm swing warm-up drill. Next, you might do some blocking or defensive work followed by a well-designed six-on-six drill.

While your team is practicing, be attentive. Watch what’s happening. Feel the vibe of the practice. If you decide you need to intervene to motivate players to work harder or pay special attention to something specific, please do. If your six-on-six drill is taking too long, stop practice and finish it the next day. Do not sacrifice quality over quantity. Your practices will benefit. Your players will benefit. And your results will benefit.

I have a philosophy when I play volleyball: If I’m going to be here, I might as well be here. What I mean by this is, if I’m going to be at a certain place to practice, I’m going to give my all during the time I’m there. If I commit to becoming the best volleyball player I can be, I have to put forth my best effort.

There have been numerous times during a tough practice when I’ve said to myself, “Man, oh man, this is really hard practice. Oh, well. If I’m going to be here I might as well be here.” Simple enough, right? If this attitude is instilled properly in your players, it can work wonders.

If your players know that you aren’t going to over-train them, you’ll see an immediate increase in practice intensity. I can think of hundreds of practices on the National Team where 12 guys were fighting for their lives. We would fight for the opportunity to be part of history.

Every one of those players knew exactly what to expect every day at practice. If you show your players that you can develop great practice plans and know exactly when to call it quits, you too will have a group willing to throw their hearts on the floor every day at practice. They’ll be ready to make their own history.

Quality training also depends on who you are as a coach. Your players are a reflection of you. If you’re a hard-working coach, you’ll have hard-working players. If you’re a lazy coach, you’ll have lazy players.

I have two great examples. I had a great high school volleyball coach. He was the hardest working coach I’ve ever played for. He didn’t work harder than other coaches at coaching tactics; he worked harder when it came to practice. He would play with us every day. He hated to lose. No matter what drill we were running, he had to win. What this did is plant a seed of competitiveness that is still inside me today. When working with your team, what type of seed will you plant?

Playing professional volleyball, you have very different coaches every season. One year, I had a terrible coach. He had no interest in what was happening in practice. When we would play poorly in matches, he wouldn’t understand why. We were a reflection of him. He would constantly talk on his phone during practice and converse with people in the gym that had nothing to do with practice. This made practice casual.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for having fun at practice. But in this case, guys would just mess around. If our coach didn’t care, why should we? Your players are a reflection of their coach. What kind of reflection will you be?

Being a good coach involves being consistent. Consistency as a coach means that your players know exactly what to expect every day in the gym. This gives them the opportunity to make up their minds when it comes to how they approach practice and matches. Be who you are. No one can change who you are. If you’re an intense coach, be intense. If you’re a quiet coach, be quiet.

The important thing is to let your players know that you’re all there to accomplish team goals. They need to know that the road to success starts with effort in the gym, whether you’re trying to achieve a league championship, a state title, a Junior Olympic gold medal, a national title or an Olympic gold medal. Be a consistent coach. If you are, you’ll develop consistent players.

I like to have fun when I play volleyball. I like to have fun when I coach volleyball. I personally think a lot of coaches underestimate the power of fun. Reaching the highest level of volleyball requires an extreme amount of seriousness, but it also requires a large amount of fun.

Remember those practices I talked about earlier? Twelve guys fighting for their lives? Those practices were very serious, but they were also incredibly fun. Let your players talk a little bit during drills. Let them joke a little bit during practice. You’ll see a willingness to compete harder, longer and better. If your players enjoy what they’re doing, you’ll enjoy the results.