Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reading: The Most Important Skill in Volleyball

How often do you walk into a practice gym and see volleyball coaches shouting out technical corrections to players performing a skill - "reach!", "extend!", "elbow back!", "platform out early!", "bend the knees," or something similar?  This "coaching" activity undoubtedly is often followed by some form of technique training in which the athletes repeatedly perform passing, digging or blocking skills with the idea that repeating the skill over and over again properly is a good way to promote excellence of execution.

Coaches, myself included, do these things because we know that great volleyball players have great technique and the best players in the game have flawless technique.  So we teach technique...and we teach it...and we teach it...and we teach it.  Now, its the end of the season and what have we accomplished?  We (hopefully) have helped our players to develop great technique when they contact the volleyball. But if that's all we've done then we've failed to teach a pretty darn important skill in the game, and arguably the most important one - the skill of reading - of anticipating what is about to happen before a player actually makes contact with the ball.

Why is preparation for the contact at least as important as what we do while making the contact?  Because the time we spend making contact with the volleyball is a minute fraction of the game; and if players are ill-equipped to anticipate where the ball is going they seldom will make contact with the ball once it arrives.  Consider the following information from John Kessel's article, No More Drills, Feedback or Technical Training:

"The importance of preparation, reading and anticipation over the actual contact can perhaps best be seen with these facts from the Beijing 2008 Olympics.  The average USA player contacted the ball 17 times per set in the indoor games (44 times for beach).  Both teams played 8 matches in their runs to the Gold Medal finals, averaging 4 sets per match.  Most coaches do not know the average contact periods per skill - so I will share those now - .10 sec for setting; .05 for passing; .01 seconds for hitting and .03 for blocking.  So using an average contact time of .05 seconds - the average total time of CONTACT by a player through the entire Olympic games was - 27.4 seconds."

That information is absolutely amazing to me.

So, back to our original question.  If a volleyball player contacts the ball for an average of only 3.4 seconds per match (27.4 seconds in 8 entire matches) - why do we coaches spend so much time on coaching the techniques used to properly contact the ball and so little time (if any) coaching the reading skills that should be employed between the contacts?

Is it fair to say, as John Kessel would, that it is not about the contact as much as it is about the preparation for contact that we must get better at teaching?  I think it is.   Coaches, how many times has your team been scored on by a tip that you could see coming so clearly from the bench that you could have walked out on the court to dig it?

To coach effectively, we must find ways to help our players see the game as we see the game.  We must train them what to look at, what to look for and how to interpret what they see so they become better prepared to anticipate the play, rather than react to it.

[Originally published January 17, 2011]

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