Ten Imprudent and Obtuse Things I Generally Avoided in Coaching Somehow

Oct. 06, 2010, 3:40 p.m. (ET)

While my grassroots article from over 20 years ago shows lots more of the things I have somehow either changed or even completely avoided (Download “How to Ruin a Player”) – of late I have been hearing from the grassroots some variations and outright new versions of “Stupid Volleyball Trainer Tricks.” 

So here, in no particular order, are a 2010 Top Ten list of things I either avoided outright, by knowing the science of our sport, or started to do (by falling into the coaching the way I coached trap) and then changed as that science of motor learning guided me to adapt:

1. Cutting volleyball players from a team or tryouts based on an X min mile run…

Amazingly, this dumb thing is still being done to date. I addressed it earlier this year in a blog, but it just seems to keep coming back. Coach – the ability to run an under whatever number of minutes mile has NOTHING to do with being able to be a GREAT volleyball player. If you have any clue to one of the top three principles in motor learning, you have heard of the term “specificity in training.” The aerobic ability and skill needed to run a mile under a certain time limit has no bearing on the abilities needed to be a top volleyball player. We are an anaerobic sport of dashes, jumps, starts and stops. The muscles needed to run a nice fast mile are not the ones we need to develop for volleyball. Why not say next, now you need to swim 1,000 meters in the pool in under X minutes and if that is done, you need to bike ride 10,000 meters in less than X time…It shows that coach  or program really needs to learn the fundamental principles of motor learning.  The astonishing thing is, there are coaches who make this mile run a pre-determinant to being able to even tryout! So kids come to tryouts, put their bags in the gym then head outside and run a mile, and…those not making the cut time, have to come in and in front of their classmates, pick up their bag and leave…I know a ton of GREAT high school, college and adult players, not good, GREAT, who could not run a mile in under, say, 8 minutes. Go coach the cross country team this fall, but please stop testing the fitness and heart of those wishing to play our lifetime sport by such a selection method.

2. Slapping a ball…then adding insult to injury by throwing a ball at a player or the team

OK, how many of your opponents slap a ball before they do any skill and, for that matter, how many of them THROW a ball to a teammate or opponent. Now, some of you might beg to differ, saying you have not seen our referees here yet John….but the key thing is, being great at volleyball starts by giving the players realistic things to READ while the ball nowhere near them. When a hitter is allowed to toss a ball to the setter, you are stealing from BOTH players – the hitter may be able to toss and hit, but cannot pass and hit (oh no, specificity in training is back again) AND the setter is learning to read a toss, which has zero value to the ability of getting a jump on a pass by reading the body positions of a passer. Yet I would estimate that 90 percent of our players, when they hear the wonderful words “Let’s hit!” will start by tossing a ball (often from outside the court even, even worse…) to the setter. Coaches who slap a ball then initiate a free ball, are actually training their players to be LATE on a real free ball.

3. Doubles pepper in traditional form…

“What? It teaches ‘Ball control’” shout the lemmings.   Pardon me, but I do not want ANY player I coach to have the skill of digging a ball all the way back to a spiker. It just is the complete opposite of what “ball control” I would ever want a player to have… we think this must work as most balls are banged from zone four and go cross court, and if dug directly back to the hitter, they go in a line right to where the setter might be able to get the ball first as she/he releases from zones one or two. I am a lefty and hit my favorite angle shot from zone two, and love watching the setter screaming “Help me!” as the ball goes directly back towards me and nowhere near the setter. Stop learning to dig back to the spiker ever, and if you must do such a partner pepper, either have the digger dig to themselves (positive error first learning) or half way, and have the two players working hard to alternate being the “third” player who is not there.  

A closely related drill to this is the traditional 4 min off the court warm up by controlling coaches – here we see the coach usually getting 12x the contacts in the final warm up moments before a match – as the coach REALLY needs those contacts for their next hour or two of sitting on the bench. We also see a huge, almost disguised version of doubles pepper, with the coach hitting and the players digging where? Yep, back to the hitter, aka coach. Please, please, please, if you still have the time and space to do such an off the court warm up – have the passers/diggers stand side by side in TWO lines, not one (so a decision is being made, as it soon will happen in the match); Have the players spike/serve at their out yonder teammates and; have the passers/diggers directing the ball about HALF WAY between themselves and the server/spiker, to a SETTER. Not back to the hitter/server. Coach, if you want to do something helpful as the players do this warm up, stand near the setter and raise your arms…and be a NET.

4. Pulling down a player’s kneepads as a "teaching tool"

A brilliant example of not knowing the legal duties of coaching and the importance of building confident, aggressive defenders. With such logic, you would see football coaching telling players to remove their helmets or shoulder pads in practice for doing something the coach does not deem proper. I would be donuts to dollars if you watched a “kneepad-removal” coach’s practice, you would see HUGE gaps between the reality of the game, and the training being done. Who is punished for such non-gamelike waste of time training? The player of course, when they cannot read, anticipate or judge the actual game realities.  Try this instead…put long socks on your defenders arms as they practice, so they can learn to extend and recover and play the ball UP (not over or back to the hitter, remember the positive focus on training, not negative skill error development). To pull a player’s kneepads down must mean that coach wants to protect a player’s ankles some odd way. More seriously though, you simply do not want – based on the legal duty of a coach to provide a safe environment – be sitting on the witness stand and say to the opponent’s lawyer question of “Where were her personal, self bought kneepads when she bonked her knee(s)?”  -- “Well I told her to pull them down to her ankles…” Leave them be and teach them to move while the ball is on the other side of the net by TRAINING over the net, NOT in front of it, and thus being able to move to the ball earlier and likely be in better position, not needing to go to one’s knees and use the kneepads…

5. Running lines…doing pushups…as forms of punishment, while in the gym with a net…

 I watched an amazing hour show recently on the training of the Marine Corp Sniper. They trained completely “gamelike/motor learning principle based” changing shooting ranges from 300 to 1,000 yards, running with their guns while wearing their Gillies camo suits into scum filled ponds and while crawling thru hundreds of yards of brushy fields to get into shooting range –all the while with already accomplished sniper instructors using binoculars to spot them and eliminate them from competition, etc. So what did they do at the end when they hit all their targets? They did extra slant pushups to celebrate their achieving that step of the course. If you did not hit the required number of targets, you packed your gun and went back to practice again.  On a team that knows the value of contacting the ball, the time in the gym should be completely spent on getting better at playing volleyball, leaving any conditioning as out of the gym time, and the winners stay on and losers battle to get back on the court and win. 

This is a touchy subject for many, as they think punishment with running is OK, for you have to get into shape, and gosh, I see other coaches who win do that too… I don’t disagree with getting in shape, for that is a principle – Citius, Altius, Fortius (CAF) and beyond. What I am saying here is that it does not take any coaching skill to tell players to run lines if they err or lose, and while the net is up and the team is there, such physical training is wasting learning AND teaching time. “Conditioning is homework,” to quote the fairly successful Anson Dorrance, winner of his 700th Division 1 college women’s soccer match recently. The key point is here that being in shape is the REWARD, not the punishment, and following such a principle of CAF, your programming should reflect that, as the Marines did.

6. Benching a player after a short series of errors…

Oh, how we are Predictably Irrational, but I am really working here to help us all stop being so Fooled by Randomness to not understand the theory and science behind The Drunkards Walk. For those new to this blog, those are three pretty important books to read so you are simply not tricked by the things that happen in our wonderful but random sport. The art of coaching in part is being able to know the success levels of your players and let them play through those streaks if they are errors. You don’t yank them after they do a streak of successes do you? They should not have a constant fear of being yanked, which so many coaches are skilled at. We teachers need to understand better that mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and part of the learning process.  Streaks of errors will happen at all levels, and the more unskilled your players are at reading the real game and performing those skills at game speed, the more streaky our players will be. Our job is help the players understand that streaks happen, and that we are a team, and on their side and will not yank them for errors in skill. Now if a player is not paying attention, or giving full effort, then subbing them out to talk about those things a player can control is a good idea, but given the random sport we have chosen, when stuff happens, hang in there and believe in your team not just in words but in action. See them make a service error? They won’t serve for 11 more rotations so let them play.  I think some coaches might find value in this example of a great three word coaching philosophy – (remember that blog awhile back?)  and to make sure that you “PLAY THE PLAYERS”  For more on randomness impacting our game, see my “Stuff Happens” blog for more on this reality of our game. 

7. Forgetting the uniqueness of volleyball….

There is a whole article on this that is a very important one to share and teach all your parents which you can DOWNLOAD HERE, but our game has so many poorly understood uniquenesses that we must teach them to our new coaches and parents. The fact that at the lowest level the worst team wins. That unlike most sports, we must rotate (imagine the point guard becoming a forward, or a pitcher rotating to be catcher then outfielder) and thus need all around skills. We jump maximum effort and then while up there at the top of our jump, unsupported, we then are expected to do another maximum effort movement.  We are the most crowded team sport going, yet we are a non-contact game. We put up something right between the teams and then say you cannot touch this item we know as the net. We are the only people in the gym who know where the lost badminton birdies and prom balloons are – for we spend our time not looking down – able to see the lines - but way up in the air. Perhaps the most important thing is we are a rare “rebound” sport – where the others like tennis have been evolving in technology annually, we have to use our body to rebound, which evolves a bit slower… So teach these wonderful but potentially exasperating uniquenesses to your players, parents and new coaches, and you will be better off for it.

8. Teaching about the “importance of the forearm pass”…

This one is serious, yet so misunderstood. Most coaches I know ramble on and on about the importance of the “forearm pass” and how much they “teach passing.”  They say “can’t pass, can’t hit,” and go so far as coming into a clinic or school/youth sports organization and make the point of teaching the “forearm pass” first.  The kids pair up, passing dozens or hundreds of volleyballs back and forth, and the coach leaves – while the kids go home and get ice for their forearms and talk about the sadomasochist that just visited their program.  I made this mistake as a younger coach, along with the related error of doing “digging drills.”

Now, please understand that perhaps the number one thing a team MUST get good at is in “WINNING THE SERVE-SERVE RECEPTION WAR.”  This is so important it is a chapter by itself in my free Minivolley book mentioned a couple of blogs ago on youth volleyball - CLICK HERE to simply jump to that overview of how to do good youth volleyball...


At the international level the men’s teams that #1 serve best and #2 serve receive best – win the gold medals. On the women’s side at the top level, the teams what #1 serve receive best and #2 serve best, bring home the hardware. At the youth and junior level for both genders, the teams that #1 serve best and #2 serve receive best, win the vast majority of the matches. You have to get good at these two skills, doing speed ball, monarch of the court, four ball serve reception, 8 serves and passes over and over in training, so you have a ton contacts per hour in these two mission critical areas. 

That said, the key point I am really wanting all to understand is that you do not want to spend much time getting good at passing – especially if it is pairs – you want to get GREAT at serve reception, and that is usually not taught enough. I can know how to forearm pass and be good at passing by ripping off tens of thousands of partner passes and wall passes, and athletes who love the game will do these things away from the gym.  What we have to do in our precious 120 minutes together with the team and having a net, is to spend a large percentage of our time serving AND SERVE RECEIVING THOSE SERVES.  There is little value at being good at passing as it currently is being taught – in pairs, back to where it came from, not over the net, not off a live serve. There is HUGE value in receiving serves, using the skill of forearm passing perhaps – or overhead passing – but reading and anticipating as many live serves as you can.

I mentioned this in my blog “Around the League in 80 Days” but I will say it again here – WE WASTE MILLIONS OF VALUABLE, READING-RICH SERVES every day around the world, by simply going back and serving – for 1 minute or sadly for more like 10 minutes in a row. I think the value of training more gamelike and randomly has been made already, but I have not seen coaches grasp this in this important battle between server and “passer.” We go back and serve and maybe let the libero pass those hundreds of live serves, but we do not have anyone passing those serves usually. The solution?  Serve receive those serves. If you and your assistant cannot be the setter area target, which is the best option for these group serving periods, then have the players pass the serve to themselves – learning the positive error – and then catch it and go back to serve. Yes, the server should sprint into their area of defense after striking the serve, and then they simply read all the other side servers and receive the next one that comes nearest them, then return to do their serve.

Now I know at the younger levels that the closed motor program of serving develops faster than that of the open motor program of serve reception.  Part of the reason is that we teach passing – even to the point of a closed motor program against a wall – then expect our players to serve receive – which is simply a much harder and open motor program. The more we train this vital first contact OVER the net, off of OVERHEAD tosses perhaps first but quickly moving to serves – perhaps not full endline at the start (as in the short courts used in MiniVolley) – but knowing that the reality will be full endline serves when they play, the simple fact is, the more contacts we have doing real, over the net serve receiving of serves, the better we get at serve receiving.

OK, you can go back to saying “passing” but I hope you really work on reality training by serve receiving much more when you say that term.

9. Being Negative…

This one sure opens a can of worms. The negativity tradition comes in words and actions. Have someone videotape you, and only you, during a match. Is your body language empowering and encouraging, or are you a classic case of constant exasperation with the “ineptitude” of your players, even slamming a clipboard or two down onto the floor to make your point not just seen but heard. When you call them into a timeout, do you rant about things they have no control over (the past) or speak positively about what they can control (the next point, and only this next point). Do you say “Don’t ______” even though you can’t really teach a negative – so that when you say “Don’t serve into the net” you are helping them focus on serving into the net? Ask the players what they are thinking about when you “coach” and say “Don’t serve into the net!” --- they will tell you, and it ain’t serving over the net and in…Do you turn on your “coaching radar” as you walk into the gym (done by of course crossing your arms, a very positive body posture…not) and then ignore the motor learning concept of summary feedback, by instead watching them do 5-10 excellent skill performances, but then jump in there to “coach” when a single mistake is made by giving your words and attention to only the error?  It is yet another way many coach the way they were coached, rather than understanding how real learning takes place, and our role simply catching them doing it right, or close to right.  

10. Getting trapped in the technical perfection while not understanding the errors in judgment and reading or teaching the game between contacts…

This one is related to not understanding the importance of teaching serve receiving vs. passing mentioned earlier. While the technical skill of “passing” is simple to teach, the REAL skill of serve receiving requires READING a server. When I have asked our Olympic team liberos what percent of their success in serve reception is happening BEFORE the ball breaks the plane of the net, their answers since 1996 have all been basically the same – 80 percent on floaters and 90 percent on jump serves (95 percent in the men’s game). Yet we fail to give our players enough time to learn that 80 plus percent, and instead teach “passing” in front of the net, in pairs and all the non-reality, non-reading possible ways. This “drill” teaching of “techniques” vs. “game” teaching of volleyball reading and skills is done in each skill we teach. Throwing balls to the setter rather than passing them. Hitting coach tosses rather than real sets. Digging a player standing on the ground rather than having time to read the approach and body actions of a real spiker.  The list is too long to share here, but I would argue that over 95 percent of the comments made on technique by coaches who comment on the moment of contact – are really just miss-read and errors in judgment, often coming from doing things at below game speed so the players look good there, but those same players thus cannot handle game speeds. We toss to them to pass and then expect them to magically serve receive the bullet serves of a 13 year old.  Please, TEACH THE GAME BETWEEN CONTACTS BETTER and see what happened BEFORE contact that led to the improper technique. Stop telling them about the poor technique and start guiding them better on how to be in the right place and time, so they can perform the technique they do know well, they just have to learn how to get to that sweet spot in time Citius, Altius and Fortius…

11. Specializing too early…

Like making a Top Ten list which at the end you realize needs to be a top eleven. We have to hear our top National team coaches when they say – “We want players who are good at ALL skills and GREAT at one or two…”  We need to follow Brazil’s lead and play more 6 vs. 6 games using a 6-6 offense and defense, where EVERY player learns to set and hit and do all six skills while younger. To follow the Dutch Federation modification of our “4 vs. 4 Exchange” game and make all games for kids 12 and under be three or four person teams max, and rotate the whole team, even the subs coming in, whenever the ball crosses the net in the rally.  DEVELOP players and figure out how to win that way, rather than specialize them so you can win at this lower level. “To systematize is to sterilize” a famous Brazilian soccer coach once said. Anyone knowing the amazing talents of the Brazilian players, and their development thru the game of futsal, understands why they turn out more elite skilled players than any other nation.  My blog on coaching high school boys last spring showed how we need to let everyone set and spike, not just pick setters right away. Instead of letting everyone hit then chase their ball- have them spike, then set the next teammate, then go chase their spiker’s hit.  We need to play more doubles and triples and let them all learn to dig and pass and set and spike from all over the court- not pick one setter to set at younger levels. 

Whew, that was a long list. Feel free to add more below in the comment section, or email me at john.kessel@usav.org.  Thanks for growing the game with USA Volleyball and we hope to catch you online for an upcoming free USAV webinar, or in person at a coaching course near you.


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

On October 10, 2010 Jeremy Brahm wrote

On #2 my assistant and I have actually passed the ball back and forth for three hits in the back row so the girls get used to free balls because many of these free balls come from the back row. Plus, I can put the ball deep or short to keep the girls focused on attacking the ball. I like the 3-person pepper that you suggested in #3. #6 for my team is hard because we only have six girls and I have to explain to them, "Where have the serves gone?" If they are short, move forward. If they are deep, move back. I will try to watch the servers over the match to remind them who serves where, but the first time the girls have to adjust themselves.

On October 15, 2010 Richard Currey wrote

What a fantastic article, John. I have seen more coaches, especially for the women, make the mistake of trying to "be firm" or "intense". The only thing that I would add to this list is that if you want to be successful in a sport, you need to WANT to play. If the coach is constantly berating, criticizing, reinforcing negatives, who would want to play for them? Where's the incentive to come back? How many potentially great players quit playing our sport because they didn't want to deal with the coach? It should be a FUN experience, wrapped around a whole lot of positive instruction.

On October 15, 2010 Kraig O'Rourke wrote

Typical! Every time you write, I learn something. Just to be fair, I need to warn you that I intend to plagiarize and quote from these eleven points often. Good stuff. 

On October 21, 2010 Chris Hertel wrote

John, Generally I like this stuff, but in the spirit of comments in the SportsScientist's blog I have some comments. On # 1 through 7 any objections I have are so minor that I won't bother. On 8 I take exception with your example, not with the point you are making. You use world class teams to make your point, but I think that the example is flimsy. The best receiving teams often don't make the final round! I think that as the level increases winning the receiving battle is less and less important. Receiving well enough to hit is the important thing, not being better at receiving than the opponent. At lower levels winning the receive battle is probably close to a rule, as the level goes up it is probably more of a guideline. I've seen a lot of games where the better passing team loses! I think the mid-80's Cuban teams would still, to this day, be among the top teams (actually I think many of the teams from that era would be on top today). Those Cubans were certainly not as skilled receivers as the Koreans, Russians, Brazilians and Chinese, but they consistently beat them all when it counted. USA coaches, ironically, were the first to recognize the Cuban's method! Now a variant is a staple of GM2.

We very much welcome additional new comments, to be contributed below: