Court Management for Coaches

By Hannah Ross, CAP II (Badger Region) | April 17, 2018, 4:57 p.m. (ET)
Reprinted by VolleyballUSA Winter 2015-16

Any teacher will tell you that good classroom management is crucial for an effective learning environment. Numerous books, programs and tutorials have been designed to help teachers develop best practices. In volleyball, factors like players’ love of the game, desire for self-improvement and dedication to a shared goal somewhat mitigate the need for this skill set.

Still, in settings outside of formal club volleyball – programs that are large, co-ed, elementary-aged, multilevel or some combination of these qualities – coaches may need to develop their own set of “court management” skills in order to create an efficient, focused environment. The mixture of skill levels, ages and temperaments, coupled with the lack of formal competition to motivate and unify players, can make these programs seem intimidating or unappealing. However, with the right expectations and organization in place, they can offer a unique opportunity for playful skill development and unlikely collaboration.

Keep Players Busy

This can seem a tall order at first when there are 20-some kids on one court with one coach, but it’s an essential first step in good court management. Equally important to giving players an activity is giving them a purpose – they should feel like each ball contact is a chance to make progress toward a certain end, and that every ball contact matters. For this reason, drills that conclude with goal completion rather than time are typically more effective. The more engaged your kids are in volleyball activities, the less energy or desire they’ll have to squabble or get into mischief.

To begin with, look for situations and drills where players can be the ones tossing the ball to initiate play. This is a great way to give more touches and independence to the kids. With newer players, this can be-come chaotic at first, so it might be good to begin with partner work and drills that are otherwise familiar and simple. Explain up front that tossing a ball is another element of hand-eye coordination, and that part of the challenge of the drill will be for the tosser to get the ball to a certain location, and for the passer to react quickly and “better the ball” in the event of an off-target toss.

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Another way to maximize practice time is, when splitting a large number of players into smaller “on” and “target/shagging” groups, consider adding a third “ball-handling” group. Give this group a list of skills to practice, either individually or paired, that is longer than they’ll possibly be able to finish before you rotate the groups. Also, make your target/shagging group as much a part of the drill as possible. Make points scored contingent upon them setting the ball, or just touching the ball, or maybe passing it to a teammate for a third contact.

The main idea is for everyone to be working toward a concrete goal at all times, rather than mindlessly waiting in line or shagging idly until it’s his/her turn to be the center of the drill. Challenge yourself to design your practices so that unless a player is recovering his/her breath from an intense pit drill, no one is waiting off court for longer than 20 seconds.

Court Management

Choose Groups Strategically

The more volatile your team is, the more important pair and group selection becomes. Get to know your players and how they interact. Who are the peacemakers? The instigators? The workhorses? The chatterers? It is human nature to gravitate toward like-minded people, but this does not always create the best learning environment. Rather than leaving your groups to chance, plan ahead to arrange players in a way that will minimize conflict and maximize growth.

The method behind your pairings will depend on personal philosophy and the developmental stage of your team. With a new or highly combative group, your goal might be to maintain a calm, focused environment. Keep an eye out for confident, even-keeled leaders who will serve as a buffer between the more aggressive and the meek kids. Put the socializers with more disciplined partners to encourage them to concentrate on the skills at hand. Or, perhaps the players have reached the point where they’re ready for a push. Maybe it’s time to give two goofballs a chance to prove that they can keep each other on task, or to challenge two enemies to overcome an obstacle through each other’s support.

Thoughtful grouping can also be a powerful tool to handle a team with a wide range of skill levels. Maybe you want to put players with others at a similar level, varying the difficulty of the drill for the different groups. Or maybe you want to partner a more experienced player with a newer player. The new player will get better tosses and solid feedback, while the more experienced player will get the challenge of chasing down the wilder tosses and passes that often come from novices.

There are no universal rules for partnerships; the important thing is to make deliberate choices and keep a keen eye out for combinations which tend to maximize growth. Also, don’t wait until there’s a problem with conflict or lack of focus to start picking partners – that will feel like a punishment. Rather, set up the expectation right from the start that, regardless of classroom friendships, everyone will get a chance to work with a variety of partners each practice in order to learn different styles and build new working relationships.

Don’t Try To Solve Every Conflict

Even if you keep the kids as busy as possible and group them for maximal success, inevitably conflict will arise. With younger or more volatile groups, you might find yourself swamped with conflicts before practice has even begun – everything from “he kicked my ball away from me,” to “she was spreading rumors about me at lunch.” If you take responsibility for getting to the bottom of all of these petty disputes and convincing the two combatants to make peace, you run the risk of wearing yourself out before the start of the first drill. Worse, you’re directing your energy and attention away from the actual volleyball and the players who are quietly dedicated toward learning the sport.

Instead, try something like this as a response to quarrelers: “Wow, you both seem really frustrated. I want to help, but right now, I need to run this drill. If you just go sit over there and over there (point to two opposite corners of the gym), I’ll get back to you as soon as I get a chance.” Then leave them for five minutes or so, before returning to ask if they’re ready to join the drill. The answer will almost always be positive, and if they do still want to argue, give them another five minutes to watch all the other kids engaging in the sport.

Certainly there are conflicts too big for this method, or children who repeatedly seem to be picking on other players. These situations will require more serious conversation and intervention. However, this method will handle the vast majority of squabbles, freeing up your mental energy for the real reason you’re there – to coach and pass on a love of the sport. This method will also start to discourage disputes before they happen, because it sets up a certain expectation: The priority in this gym is volleyball and the team members who want to give their full attention and effort towards learning and playing.

Help Players Construct a Narrative of Collaborative Learning

In the end, in spite of the lack of tournaments and matches, the ultimate goal is to develop a sense of teamwork amidst the wide mixture of personalities. All other forms of court management are there to make space for this transformation to happen, and once it does, the other methods can start to take a backseat. The seeds of teamwork will already be planted throughout the practice – working with a mixture of partners, struggling through tough drills, exploring strange and unfamiliar movements, watching the progress others make, and finding exhilarating moments of perfect collaboration. The last piece is to guide the players towards assembling these moments into a narrative of shared learning, where they, as a unified group, face challenges, support each other through error and frustration, and ultimately grow in their knowledge of the sport and their ability to work as a team.

This process can be incorporated into practice with a few minutes of discussion at the start and end of practice. Before practice, you might mention something you want the players to keep in mind throughout the day – ways they see others supporting teammates, or situations where someone handles frustration well, or instances where someone has shown marked growth with a particular skill.

Early in the season, you might generate these prompts, but as your team develops, you might ask them for suggestions for the topic of the day. Then, at the end of practice, ask for 3-5 observations from what players noticed. This brief reflection helps build a sense of community as players recognize each other’s strengths and hard work. Beyond this, it reinforces the connection between effort and improvement. This is especially important in a sport with such an initially steep learning curve, where it often takes a full season to develop a consistent three-contact serve receive.

Once your players have bought in to the idea that shared exertion will lead to shared growth, the hardest battle is won. After that’s in place, you can kick back and coach some volleyball.