It's all about the Reps, 'bout the Reps, and Game-like...

By John Kessel | Sept. 22, 2015, 5:05 p.m. (ET)

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It’s time to help some coaches understand the title to this blog, sung of course to the tune of “It’s all about the Bass…”  The principle of specificity says, “You must PRACTICE that which you want to DO, ”  and that “What you SEE determines HOW you move…” There are millions of methods that do not follow that principle, and more often than not, these methods also fail the principle of learning by doing.

We learn by doing. Primarily. Always. We are hard-wired to MOVE and learn as we move.  Do we learn by watching? Of course, but only a little in regard to motor learning – that of getting a new idea, or mirroring. That might only take one view, or ”a-ha!” moment. Then you must DO it. What exasperates me is how many drills have kids standing in line. The reason for small sided games is that the kids are DOING. Every coach in every sport needs to take time to look at their practices and ponder – how can I get more reps in this same amount of time; how do I limit having athletes standing in a line? 

Due to specificity, we not only need to get reps, we need to get realistic reps. Coaches sometimes fail to realize that just because players can do a simple drill, in blocked form, does not mean they can thus do the “same” skill in the speed and realities of the sport. We too often opt to train in ways that look good in practice, but simply do not transfer to the game.

The wall is ideally meant for hanging signs, (Click HERE to see hundreds of free USA Volleyball skill and think/ponder posters) like this quote I see 20 times each day in our USA Volleyball office. ”The habits we want to repeatedly do are ones that are game-like ones, since we are seeking game excellence, not drill excellence.”

A member of the 2nd largest volleyball coaching group in the world (Volleyball Coaches and Trainers on Facebook), posted this recently;

“Wall Passing: I know John Kessel is not a fan (not gamelike, and I agree), and for that reason I haven't done it in a while. However, last night with my 12s team I had them do it for 5 minutes, concentrating on forearm passing and staying in control. They averaged 200 passes each in those 5 minutes. They were tired from that, so I don't think more than 5 minutes is necessary, but I saw real value in it. Anyone else have thoughts pro/con of wall passing for a few minutes of practice? Most if not all of the other things we do in practice are short-sided games, etc.”

This comment triggered this blog, as I wanted things to be clear about what I am a fan of.

  1. The game teaches the game. Does this mean you stop teaching technically? Not in the least! It means you guide players discovery to perform the proper technique in the realities of the game. You teach. You pull players out, even if someone has to play alone (pass, set to self and hit) while you check for understanding and guide discovery on the error you are worried about.
  2. Once a player shows you they can DO it without the ball, they need to DO it always with the ball.  Over the net, in the game-like realities, where they will be learning and increasing their volleyball IQ.
  3. Feedback from the coach is essential.  Summary/bandwidth feedback means you let them DO it 4-6 times before jumping in with a concern, and more importantly that if they do it right 5 times and wrong once, you do NOT need to hammer the one wrong. You need to reinforce and give feedback on the five correct moves. When it’s the opposite (5 wrong, 1 right) the coach needs to guide the player to discover the error and the correction.  
  4. When the coach is in the drill, they are very poor feedback deliverers. If you control the drill, the whole thing stops to give feedback. If you are in the drill you can’t SEE all the pre-contact hints and cues the player is seeing/doing.
  5. Reps are incredibly important.  They are how we learn to do any motor program, from driving a car, to performing surgery to serve-receiving a volleyball. Too often, we forget to “catch the positive result.”

How about a Kessel Continuum/Flow Chart/Checklist…

1.      Sit around the house and do nothing or play ANY sport they want, even if it is not VB?  I want kids to do ANY sport they want.

2.      Playing on your cell phone before practice versus practicing alone against the wall? I want kids to be using the wall!

3.      Using the wall by passing repeatedly like a machine versus playing a game of 1 v 0 of self-pass (positive error), self-set, and hit the third ball over a net height stripe on the wall?  I prefer the 1v0 game as it is teaching positive error habits.

4.      Using the wall to play 1/2/3 or 4 v 0 versus using the net? I would want to always use the net, as we play over a net. We need to read THRU the net since what we see determines how we move.

5.      Standing in line to use the net versus using the wall as a station to increase reps while playing 2 v 0 cooperative and competitive scored games? Again, I would want to get more reps by using the wall.

6.      Scrimmage or wash scrimmage?  Monarch of the court or Speedball? Speedball or Doubletime Speedball? In all cases I would prefer the latter option, and I explain this below.

I am going to share a “secret drill” I created recently, for those who have gotten this far. We have not even had time to shoot it for the USAV website, but given this time of the season, everyone should be doing it with their teams, but first this important principle to ponder.

I have a principle – tied into focusing on getting more gamelike reps - that is “if you only have one ball in the air above your court, you should be wash scrimmaging.”  (3 ball wash scoring scrimmages get you nearly 33% more contacts per hour than just a scrimmage; it’s about…reps!)   What I see far too often is a full court, 12 kids and only one ball in the air. The kids? Standing in lines. Hitting lines. Passing lines. Sometimes lines and the ball is not even going over the net. And the worst…shagging lines. For example, a middle hitter vs middle blocker grill, with scoring and all. The coach is tossing the ball to the setter (not having the players pass/set/hit), and 2/3 of the team is standing around, ball retrieving. So many drills we do in sport could be done in wash scrimmages, so all the other players get to read, dig, react and learn; instead, we are “drilling…”   

Most of you know how much I love the game/grill “Speedball.”  Remember, compared to monarch of the court, you get up to 33% more contacts per hour, as there is no “run to the other side/Are you ready?” time being wasted.  The thing is, when you play speedball or monarch of the court, you still only have ONE ball in the air…. So I sat down and created DoubleTime Speedball aka Kesselisavolleydorkspeedball. I shared it with some clubs and one now calls is 2 v 2 plus 1. Call it what you like. In any case it is done by simply getting a second ball into the air above your court (and up to four balls if you do the four nets on a rope idea as seen HERE. Result? 100% more reps compared to speedball in the same amount of time.  See the drawing below.  

But wait, there’s more! The topper is how great it is to then have a round robin tourney. As seen in IMPACT and the free MiniVolley book of USA Volleyball, you simply have one team stay put while the other teams rotate in such a way that nobody will play the same group of three twice, it is always a new team to play. Four teams, three rounds five min per group, a champion group in 15 min. Eight teams make for seven rounds, so play four min rounds and you take of 30 minutes of practice, no schedule needed.

Finally, back to teaching technique. With the coaches out of the way and able to teach, they can at any time pull a player aside for guided discovery of the topic at hand, and the courts play on. We call this the teachable moment. So many coaches stop teaching during games, when this is the optimal time to teach. It’s ok to say to a team of two “you play solo, you get three hits, I need to speak with this player…”  If you have more players because you are a PE teacher, or you’re not cutting kids (thank you!), you can have teams of three.  With the four court version, you can play 48 kids! Even with doubles speedball on four courts you can have 32 kids active.

I hope we are clear. Specificity is a CORE principle which is too often ignored, but if you want to do something like play a tag game or something non-gamelike, go ahead. There are times when a wacky game of swim noodle soccer with a volleyball is the solution to what is ailing your team. Teams need to be bonded to battle. Nonetheless, those who get the most game-like reps, and at least some talent, they win most often. Funny how that works….