Saturday, July 28, 2012

10 Ways to Improve Your Practices

“Practice is the battle you must win.”  Hugh McCutcheon.

Here’s a few observations to help us all win the practice battle and make our players and teams better.

Serve and Play Defense
Players practicing serving should run into the court to play defense after every serve because they need to do this in the game.  Balls can be tipped or hit over the net for them for an even better game-like experience.

Hit Against a Block

Hitters should be hitting against a block.  Players need to learn how to beat the block in the game and blockers need to learn all kinds of great things about blocking – including how to make good decisions about whether to block at all.

Pass - Set - Hit

Setters should receive balls from passers/diggers (and from different angles) - because that is what they do in a game.  Let the setters see different angles and make the adjustments that they’ll be forced to make when playing in a game.  Oh, by the way, all those imperfect sets that will follow for a while are great game-like opportunities for hitters to work on getting their feet to the ball and developing trouble shots.

Reduce Ball Tossing

Start drills with a player-initiated downball or freeball - because the players need practice sending these balls over the net in the game and their teammates need practice reading these balls coming over the net in a game.  Yes, this will slow things down and yes we coaches will lose some control over our drill but the additional player touches and game-like reading opportunities will promote long-term retention and the motor learning will transfer well to competition.

Culture of Play

Create, promote and encourage a "culture a play" where players immediately begin touching a ball when they arrive at practice.  Impromptu queen of the court games and three person pepper drills are phenomenal ways to get the players more touches.  Create an environment where players run into the gym, throw down their bags and grab a ball.  Oh and please never require that they ask permission to use the volleyball!

Everyone Sets - a Little Bit
Allow all players opportunities to set during practice.  At this level, we are coaching volleyball players, not "hitters," and "blockers" and "servers" and "diggers" and “setters.”  Our players are juniors who need to become basically proficient in all of the skills of the game.  At this age the players are too young to be so specialized that our “hitters” are unable to set a ball and our “setters” (or defensive players!) are unable to attack a ball over the net.  Besides, when your setter plays the kind of great defense we’re always coaching her to play, what good will it be when nobody else on the team can set the ball because we coaches never gave them a chance to learn in practice?

Play Every Ball
Teach the players to pursue every ball until it hits the floor and create a culture of aggressive chasing.  Not trying to play a volleyball still in the air is the equivalent of refusing to run the bases after hitting the ball in baseball.  Play the ball and run it out.  It’s really quite simple and totally within the players’ control.  Not bothering to go for every ball every time is a volleyball epidemic at least in this region.  We need to coach better so players develop the mental and physical skill of pursuing every ball every time.

Helpful Feedback

Give players information that: (1) they don’t already know; and (2) will help their performance for the next time.  The timing must be correct as well - give the information as close as possible to the next time the player will perform the relevant skill.  For example, the time to give feedback to a blocker is not right after an unsuccessful block attempt has resulted in a kill.  Why?  Because the opponent is still serving and our blocker will likely have to receive serve, attack and/or cover a teammate all before the next blocking assignment.  Let her focus on the task at hand by waiting until your team is serving to give the blocking feedback.  Then, she’s much more likely to remember and implement the advice.

Warm-up Games
Let’s eliminate static stretching before practice.  It inhibits performance (at least temporarily) and doesn’t reduce injuries.  If you want the research, email me.  What we can do instead is give the players a ball and let them play games for a warm-up.  Play volleyball with a one contact rule; make small teams of 2-3 players; wave teams in and out each time the ball passes over the net; split the court down the middle and play two games at once; rotate after each contact.  These are all simple and great games to get the players moving in game-like ways, sweating a little bit, having fun and touching the volleyball, rather than running laps around the court.

Keep the pace of the practice – and the drills within it – fast.  A fast tempo does a lot of great things.  It trains the players for the pace of competition, gets them conditioning, keeps players focused and maintains an “energetic” atmosphere throughout the session.

Good luck and comments are welcomed!

[Originally published December 15, 2011]

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