USA Volleyball Features Let the Kids Handle ...

Let the Kids Handle Every Volleyball

By John Kessel | May 08, 2017, 6:16 p.m. (ET)

Growing the Game


I spoke with an award-winning mathematics teacher about effective and efficient learning. We talked about how teaching methods for math had changed over the years. She said that one of her most important principles in teaching math was to “never take the pencil from the child’s hand” as she often had well-intentioned parents and assistants take the pencil and show how to solve something.

I shared that in volleyball, many times, a coach will personally model techniques in practice  toss, serve and even spike at players. And that sport researchers have found that volleyball is unique that way.  

Researchers found that the volleyball coaches played the No. 1 role on the court. Researchers counted the number of reps/contacts in the gym, and the volleyball coach got the most.

That didn't happen in basketball or football. In basketball they didn’t see any tossing/reps by the coaches – taking free throws so the team could rebound, or starting fast breaks/inbound passes. The football coaches were not taking snaps/throwing/running or blocking on the line. They saw the coaches demonstrating in small groups and one-on-one a lot, but only rarely handling the ball as they demonstrated something.

Related: Teach Your Players to Hit More Effectively | Getting Your Players to Show You the Answer

It was a lively discussion and it made me realize that in my gym, the players handle nearly every ball. It starts with them getting the balls out of storage and checking the pressure. They know that if balls are not inflated right, that the feedback they will be getting will not be accurate. You know if the balls are not inflated right when your athletes literally squeeze every ball in the cart, for the “right one.”

It continues with hustling for every ball to collect them and get back on task. They all know the safety shout of “DOWN!!” if an errant ball is rolling near a teammate who might jump. 

When I presented once to 1,000 hockey coaches, I had a slide featuring NHL coach Scotty Bowman, who made this observation between European and American puck-handling skills. The Americans warm up by skating in circles before a game, and those from across the pond skate those same circles, but handling pucks from the very start. Many sports do something similar, not involving their "puck” until priceless learning minutes have passed – especially when practices last a total of an hour or so.

How To Make it Work

  • Start warming up 1v1 with the ball from the moment practices start, playing 1v1 like Olympic gold medalists Reid Priddy and Riley Salmon did for years, and you will get players who are crafty and skillful inside the three-meter line.  

  • Start by playing narrow-court doubles with an easy serve, and cooperatively score to see which group of four can get the most three-hit net crossings in a row.

  • Start with salt and pepper over a ribbon so 12 kids get space to play this more game-like version of pepper - and track how many in a row they can do. 

The kids get better by playing, not practicing, and the sooner they get to playing, the better they will play the game. Their skills do not effectively develop by standing in lines, waiting for a coach to give them their gifts of contacts.

Sure there are times you might start the ball in wash or other scrimmage drills, perhaps as the second contact, in some game-like way. Refrain, however, from being the third contact, so you can develop crafty, clever, slimy skillful third ball deliverers. It can be the injured player (instead of the coach) who sends in the ball, or a little sister or brother watching in the gym, which I can promise gives them a huge love of the game as well.

This one simple change will improve your practices more than you can imagine.

One other thing is that you will not be sore anymore, though you will get in better shape as you will be moving around a great deal more. No more standing there tossing or setting or even serving. Instead you will be able to see the actions that lead to errors at contact far better.

Yep, keep the pencil in the kid’s hand…so true in sport as well.