Creating Talent with What You Have

By BJ LeRoy | Oct. 09, 2015, 1:50 p.m. (ET)

John Kessel's Grow the Game Together blog
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Guest blog written by: BJ LeRoy – Badger Region Northeast Board Representative

If you live in a place with thousands of players, this article might help you get better. If you live in a small market with just a few or maybe NO players (yet), this is a competitive advantage to help you take on those teams that seem to have all the talent.

The “experiment” is using the game and only the game (with some variations) to create a homegrown set of talent, starting with brand new players. This course of action comes from need; we’re a small town with other dominant sports, and we don’t get every athlete. We have to create talent, we can’t recruit it.

Results first: Using a few simple ideas through two years of very elementary local club, two summers of weekly “open field," and a first foray into beach, we have a group of 12-year-olds playing decent doubles. Every girl can hit, receive, set, serve and play defense, and there are even occasional blocks. They communicate and laugh and play with intensity. These kids love to play.

We’ve taken on some of the big clubs in the gym, holding our own and sometimes winning against superior “talent." We were the only team to beat our regional champions at the championships last spring. We have crawled out from the bottom to being “in the conversation” over two seasons.

Name-dropping apology; there are some big names listed here, only to give these people credit for ideas they shared at clinics or in print. Our program doesn’t have ready access to these great minds, though I’m sure if you had a question, they’d entertain it.

Some basic ideas in relative order in case you want to skip ahead;

  • Dialing it back (or up) for 11- and 12-year-olds
  • Mini-lessons for coaches
  • Principles
  • What success is
  • Training ideas; things that worked

Through sports, family and friends, we rounded up a few girls and opened the lab. Todd Dagenais (UCF) proposed the idea of dialing intensity up and down, like volume on a stereo, 1 through 10. To dial it up and brew initial excitement, we started outdoor as 11s on grass. Comfortable but stable. Low net, light balls, fun games. Ugly is pretty nowadays, and it was pretty ugly. They kept coming back; victory #1.

It’s scary to teach BRAND new players because you assume all their mistakes are yours. Lesson #1 Just teach. We call it Mistake Mountain; you have to make all the mistakes along the way to the top. We want them to make the mistakes faster so we can conquer them.

There is only a small amount of literature about teaching young players, mostly thanks to John Kessel. USAV IMPACT and MiniVolley are two great resources (and please ignore the clutter in the pictured basement on MiniVolley Page 9; my wife thanks you!)

Using the idea that you must create what you need, we designed our own drills for these ultimate beginners. Many old drills, but also new ones, which are explained at the end. Each of them was adapted from things we learned in other places. Dr. Carl McGown prefers that we teach beginning with principles, so here are ours for each new drill;

  1. We hit early and often
  2. There is a competition
  3. The ball flies over the net
  4. Reading the game play is key
  5. The whole skill is used
  6. The players initiate the start of play (almost always)

Lesson #2 was patience. It comes in different sizes; patience to NOT correct every error, patience when one practice each week is optional due to other (valid) commitments, and patience to accept some losses; patience when our practice is ugly and everyone else’s is pretty.

Success is tricky to measure. From IMPACT, you know you need to win. Winning isn’t always possible on the scoreboard. Convincing kids (and parents) of that is tough. Explain the progress and reward their process. It eventually comes, and when it does, it’s wonderful.

In our first season we had a few kids that couldn’t serve over. In a short time, we had them torqueing/round-housing. We didn’t allow the underhand crutch, and it worked. One player couldn’t serve over during the entire first season, despite perfect form. Patience! Between seasons, it clicked. She’s now one of our most consistent, maybe because we encouraged her process and her form. Success.

We won about 40 percent of our games the first club season. That equates to zero tournament wins, four match wins out of 22 and about 15 game wins. We didn’t win enough for some folks because we hadn’t (yet) developed our talent. We lost a few good players between seasons. You can accept losing some players, because they didn’t buy in to your program. (Matt McShane [formerly of Air Force] helped me through these losses in a pep talk at CAP III. I can’t quote it here, but I’m forever grateful.)

Improving a little means a lot. We stayed the course and remained patient. We won 60 percent of our games in year two, AFTER losing two great players. This equates to 80 percent of the matches. We had a good run at our region championships. We routinely took second in tournaments and got on a podium for the first time. We steadily got closer to elite teams in our region, and by some of their actions, we know they took notice. Success.

Scoreboard wins are the measure of success by most people. They’re not my measure, so I’ll say these additional things.

  • Four players on our team of 10 are “setters”, and all our players can and do use their hands
  • Everyone passes and everyone plays middle
  • Every player played at least a whole game in the championship match when we won our first medal
  • We corrected three goofy-footers while using the game-like approach
  • We also learned good arm-swings and transition footwork during game play
  • The kids know what to do when “out of system”. (They know what out of system is!)
  • Our transition is awesome. Kidding, it’s a work in process, just OK for now. You didn’t expect everything to be roses did you?

The greatest measure of all these successes is that we don’t have the best players, just a lot of (now) good ones.

Having a good assistant is critical. If you’re a guy, get a female assistant, whether you are coaching boys or girls. Females in general pick up on the things that you stereotypical males don’t; the chatter, the team bonding, the need for a break, the need for a boost. Every day, I felt I needed to justify our approach to my assistant, even though she didn’t demand it. It made me better. She asked a lot of questions, nudged me at times, and did everything with enthusiasm (even though at times I suspected she didn’t believe. YET.)

We aren’t the best regional team (yet), but we can play with them, because our kids can play. With limited talent to draw from, we need THESE players to get better together. At 13s, with a net and ball change, we got the jump by playing this summer. Our Queen of the Yard tournament (pictured) was testament to that; six 12-year-olds playing 8 games each in a day-long event with good rallies and strategies, using the adult ball on an adult net.

Next up; beginning blocking, improving setting location, refining passing technique, speeding up the offense, enhanced video analysis, and scouting ourselves better. Of course, we will look to do all these through the game, as experience has shown us it can be done that way. And it’s fun. With credibility restored in our method, I hope to convince parents it isn’t all about the scoreboard. Expectations should be high; make these players better faster. If we can teach that this season, big success.

 Here are the drills for your use.


Training them is the critical piece of course. What do you do with a brand-new player? We found the weakest part of an 11-year-old volleyball player seems to be the shoulders. We had a bunch of strong-legged kids from soccer and basketball, but shoulders were weak. So we started with hitting in order to strengthen shoulders. Every time you hit, you create a ball to pass (dig), which also strengthens shoulders. And you’re working on the part of the game Rob Browning (St. Mary) says you can’t do enough of; serve and serve receive.

Of course we loved doubles, and Queen of the Court, and Speed Queens, and Back-row quads (or deep court exchange) and others. Assuming most people know these games, I’ll just say, we used them often. The favorite is Speed Queens. You can look the rest up.

Our very first drill was Partner Jump and Hit over the net. Partner One jumps and hits a self-tossed ball, Partner Two digs to self and catches. We taught (while they worked) how to float and spin the ball, planting right left, and swinging arms for momentum. Then it was alternating float and spin. Pretty soon, it was dig, set, catch. Then the partner had to move after she hit, to change angles and distances. Then it was time to compete, five minutes into Day 1. Dig and catch 10 times as a team.

This is with 10 kids all on the same net, total chaos. But look what they are doing; tossing, planting feet, jumping, hitting, digging and setting, reading, and concentrating. The room should sound like the seagulls in Finding Nemo (Mine! Mine! Mine!)

Then into 1 v 1, with the skills they just learned. We like playing work-up; the court is split with antennae into 3-meter widths for short court (3 x 3 meter) 1 v 1 games to 5, win by 1. It’s cutthroat. Win and you move up, lose and you move down. A funny phenomenon occurs. Since the courts are mini, the passes and sets tend to be mini. We learned from the late Carl McGown that a dig needs to be 12 feet or higher to have a positive hitting efficiency (on the averages). Watch for that if you play small court.

The coaches at Gold Medal Squared also teach that you first have to learn to move, and then you can learn to play. After reading Switch (Chris and Dan Heath), it’s apparent that your elephant won’t move unless it has motivation. At age 11, learning to move is boring. Playing the game was our way to show the kids that they need to learn to move.

We soon learned together that they didn’t know how to move, so we started Passing Ladders. In CAP II, Kim Oden used a drill: Five players across the net in a line received tosses one by one. The players work together to receive X in a row to one simple key, before they could move to the next key. In our version of Kim’s drill, a coach stood at the bottom of a ladder. The players initiated the ball over the net to the passer, and we started at the absolute bottom; call mine. Five “mines” in a row made the coach move up a rung. Then on to the next goal. Here were the steps to our ladder.

  1. Call mine
  2. Move to ball (plus above)
  3. Move to ball with no mis-steps (plus everything above)
  4. Move to ball and catch (plus above)
  5. Touch ball on forearms
  6. Pass upward
  7. Pass above court
  8. Pass to partner who catches
  9. Partner could hand set
  10. Pass set hit

Each must be done five times in a row to make the coach (who is afraid of heights) go farther up that ladder. If you don’t get all five, you start over at that rung. Set a timer. If they don’t make it, you have goals to accomplish next time (not yet.) “No mis-steps” was a critical rung for us.

Maybe the staple of our warmup is Bring the Beach Inside. We cut the net into thirds, and set the players up 2 v 2 on the two outside courts. Setter on one side is performing a beach warmup with a hitter on the left; hit to the hitter, dig, set, hit between the antennae. On the other side, a blocker and a digger. A “waiter” is shagging. Then the same pattern starts on the other side of the net; setter, hitter, blocker, digger, waiter. Both sides are going at once, and each hitter gets three balls. Every ball hit through the antennae is a chance to score. Scoring is individual (because teams are constantly changing). The hitting team each get a point if they score; digging team each get a point if they block, or if the blocker catches a ball the digger dug (they don’t hit back). After each hitter has three balls, they rotate. Setter to hitter, hitter to blocker, blocker to digger, digger becomes “waiter” and “waiter” becomes the new setter on her side. All players are rotating on one large circle.

This is the second favorite drill for the players, and it’s the coaches favorite. So many places to stand and teach; the waiter is a natural “teaching moment." This is where we teach form, footwork, platforms, eye focus. You can flip-flop the game to hit on the right, and we typically “popcorn” in the middle, meaning everyone scrambles to a new position. We play to a time limit or a high score, whichever comes first. We may restrict the blocker sometimes, so that the hitter has to hit angle or line. We sometimes let the defense call their block (yes, with fingers behind their butts like the pros). Another variation is introducing a “free ball” from the digger to the hitter.

Since the hitting lines drill teaches a lot of bad lessons, we use the Beach game above, or a game we call Mine-Pass-A. Some coaches call this a butterfly, but it really isn’t one. We make two courts the long way and slate into two groups. Two passers, a setter, and the rest servers. Serve, call “mine”, pass, and hit a back-row ball. Good passes stay; bad passes rotate to setter, setter to server, successful server to passer. It’s not an auto-rotate, so that’s the competition.

When we only have half the court during our match warm-up, we run this sideways. We just pretend there is a net, and we don’t hit. If you put the servers behind one sideline, and the passers behind the other, it’s almost a game-like distance. Other coaches think we are crazy; refs often tell me there is one minute left for serving. “Aren’t we already doing that?”

The 12s spend about 90 percent of the time out of system. Julio Velasco’s out-of-system drills from HP 2015 had six players, all at once, self-tossing from random locations while imagining game situations where they had to bump the ball sideways to 5 feet off, 5 feet in. For 12s, we designed Rock-the-Hula (credit to Elvis.) A hula-hoop went on the court at about 5 and 5, and players did the same thing as Julio’s drill; except we got a point for bumping it into the hula hoop, and a point for catching it on the bounce. Of course there are many teachable moments here; we often asked, why are we doing this? Why should it be at 5 and 5? Great Rock-the-Hula competitions led us to the next natural step of playing doubles, with passes purposely going to 15 and 15, and the “setter” putting a ball to 5 and 5 for the passer to hit. Out of system issues solved. AND, we get to yell Rock-the-Hula at tournaments when we are out of system. More funny stares.

Coaches vs six. This became a necessity as we were often short on numbers at our optional practice. We liked controlling the action on our side, and giving the six side lots of new things to read. They started getting pretty good, and we enticed them by offering three points if they could pass-set-hit to win a point. As coaches, we sometimes played every ball over on one, because we see so much of that from other teams. We also celebrate and high five and do all the things we want the kids to do, which fires them up, and teaches them how to react in between rallies.