Establishing a Culture of Play

March 16, 2010, 10 a.m. (ET)

One of the more important principles to focus on in youth sports, especially volleyball, is to create an environment which encourages play. The value of play, from "street soccer" as best seen in Brazil but really found worldwide, to "pond hockey" in Canada and "driveway or playground hoops" or backyard baseball" in America - where tens of thousands of scholarship to pro level athletes developed their core skill sets, is well known. The Van Zwieten's in Florida heeded this concept, promoted also in the article "Gifts for a Volleyball Player" which you can download HERE, and built a backyard sand court. This is where Olympic Gold medalist Phil Dalhausser got his doubles start, after discovering the game and playing college club volleyball.

These days, backyard and street sports have diminished greatly - in part due to video game options, an ever increasing concern for child safety, as well from an almost maniacal focus on coach centered play starting at the very young level. In the talent rich pipeline of Brazil, you do not see parent controlled, coach centered youth soccer programming, but instead you see kid determined free-for-all games, like we used to see in America. At the same time, we do see this chance to learn by playing/doing in skateboarding and BMX bike riding, in skate parks where kids watch and learn from each other, and the streets and fields being used for learning through play - and no parents or "coaches" are found.

So in many sports it becomes highly important to create more opportunities for this chance to let the kids have the immense values found by simply playing.  One of those ways is to simply schedule more "Open Gym" time, which is really open gym, not just another chance to coach control and practice. Set up a court or two on a Friday night, or before school starts some mornings, have just one adult there for supervision, and let the kids pick the teams and determine what they want to PLAY.  My son's volleyball team has come in on Tuesdays before school, a day where school starts a bit later due to teacher training day generally, and they set up a rope net, and just play speed ball or monarch of the court for almost two hours. You just need a court, 3 other friends or more, and ONE adult there to supervise, not a coaching staff. Let the kids figure things out and simply play. You might want to encourage the older kids to spend some time mentoring by playing with the younger kids for a certain time - but don't force it the whole time, let the kids determine what they wish to do and how to form up teams too.

One of the most important times to create this culture of play, is before practice. Kids come early to a gym for whatever reason, and rather than play, they wait until the coach says "warm up!" That this warm up fails to follow a culture of play, has already been discussed, resulting in the first balls going OVER a net in some game/play-like way taking as long as 30 minutes in some gym cultures. What we need to change right away is this habit of waiting until the adult says "get a ball" to actually get a ball and start playing. It is part of creating more deliberate practice, but it goes deeper than this. We need to create a culture that encourages activity and play - by teaching and/or allowing every kid who comes into the gym to start playing right away.

So when one kid comes early, they hustle to get their court shoes on, and then grab a ball. Since the net is not up yet, and no other teammate is there - they go "partner" with the wall - and like the "homework" items so well covered in the MiniVolley book, they become great at hitting over the "net" stripe on the wall, and pass/dig the first ball off the wall to themselves, then setting themselves before again hitting the third contact over the "net" stripe on the wall.  That our traditions currently teach bad skills - by wall spiking down to the floor and repetitively passing each ball coming off the wall right back to the wall (aka straight back to the opponent) has been covered but bears mention again. If you can change your gym wall playing traditions to 1. Hitting every ball OVER a 7'4 ¼ " net/stripe on the wall and 2. Passing/digging every first ball off the wall to YOURSELF, you create a skill set habit that is positive in value. This skill set is not perfect, but it is VASTLY superior to the current tradition of spiking down to the floor and passing each ball off the wall back off the wall immediately. For those who have not read this concept of positive training towards perfection, rather than negative training, CLICK HERE for more.

When one other teammate comes, you play either cooperative or transition to competitive games 1 vs. 1 on the wall, until the net is up. Once the net is up, the culture should be to dash to the net, and start to play 1 vs. 1, OVER the net. A third teammate still can play 1 vs. 1 vs. 1 if only the wall is available, but if the net is up, play 1 on 1 PLUS one. There, the 3rd teammate simply is the setter for BOTH players. These are seen in action on the "Learning Volleyball Through Games" film found on the USAV Video section of our website. You can also do three person "pepper" with the middle person being the "net" and setter - using both rotation after each "net crossing" or staying in place versions. This is an ideal same-side-of-the-net warm up option that is much, much better than traditional pepper in the habits which are being learned.

Remember also to not do what is easiest and/or already known, and to make sure in all the above cases to:

1. Use the non-dominate hand for 1-2 minutes of "serve" and "spiking" options.

2. Not hit the way you are facing but to learn "line" and "cut" shots by turning your body right or left and still hitting the ball over the wall stripe, or the net to a partner, to keep the ball flying.

We want the kids to talk and bond, while PLAYING so that they increase their opportunities to learn whatever challenging game they have chosen. They should enter your court and become players, not sit there and basically spectate, waiting for you to tell them they can play. Your gym should be a place where the players get to PLAY, starting the minute they enter, until someone or something else - like another group of kids chomping at the bit to get the court space -- kick the first set of players off.  By using small sided games to warm up, you get plenty warmed up, while increasing the ever valuable deliberate practice time at a time where minutes of training are precious. Most importantly, you create a culture of play, which pays off when it comes time to keep score in a match - by creating better players, rather than spectators. 

What other ideas do you have for creating a culture of play? Let me know at or share as a comment below. As always, thanks for working with USA Volleyball to grow the game....


The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On March 18, 2010 Christian Stapff wrote

Well said John, It is 2010, and the need to say it again and again about COACHING AND PLAY cannot be over emphsized. Keep up th good work. Chris

On March 22, 2010 ed gover wrote

John, Thank you again for another fantastic article. The first 15 minutes of our practice is devoted to play... The moment a play sets foot in the gym the run to court to get started.. It goes from 1vs1 to 1vs 2 until the whole team arrives.. Thanks to you, everything we do is over the net when it comes to the young ones. Passing, hitting, digging.. and completely played out.. It is so exciting watching kids play again... You are the best! ed santa barbara

On March 25, 2010 peter stromberg wrote

I'm really glad to see awareness of the importance of unstructured playing in the world of volleyball, a sport I love. This issue has importance for all sports--I recently wrote a blog about this at Psychology Today:

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