Saturday, July 28, 2012

Maximize Practice Time By Eliminating Static Stretching

It's properly been observed for volleyball coaches that, "practice is the battle you must win."  (Hugh McCutcheon, U.S. National Women's Team Coach).  To win the practice battle, coaches must maximize the time they have with their players and follow sound principles of teaching through the practice session.  In this post, we'll talk about maximizing practice time by eliminating static stretching from your practice routines.

You’re ready to begin practice but the team needs to "warm-up."  So they walk out to the court, sit down in a circle and begin a series of static stretches ostensibly designed to get them ready to practice volleyball.  Right?  Wrong.  Waste of time.

Science of Static Stretching 
Current research demonstrates that static stretching prior to dynamic activities like playing volleyball decreases motor unit recruitment, motor unit synchronization and rate of force production.  In other words, stretching before practice inhibits performance and does not reduce injury.

In 2004, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study that reviewed 361 other research studies on stretching and concluded that there was no evidence that stretching before or after exercise prevents injury or muscle soreness [1].

In a more recent study conducted by kinesiology researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all [2].

In fact, there's evidence that static stretching actually decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent.
According to research conducted by the Tudor Bompa Institute, static stretching causes the muscle to lengthen, which interferes with its ability to recoil or contract forcefully.  The result of this stretching for volleyball players is that they experience a loss of power production. [3]  So please eliminate static stretching from costing you the first 10 minutes of every practice.

But even if you're not convinced by the stuffy scientific journals, at least be persuaded by the wisdom of what USA Volleyball's John Kessel calls the "recess rule," according to which "you sit 2 hours then go full bore for 15 min, no problem."

Have you ever seen kids stretch before they go to recess?  Of course not.  They don't want to waste recess time.  Exactly.  So, no more static stretching; it doesn't make the players safer and doesn't help their performance.  Get rid of the routine and extend your practice by 10 minutes.

[1]  The results are published in the March 2004 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.
[2]  Samuel, M., Holcolm, W., Acute Effects of Static and Ballistic Stretching on Measures of Strength and Power, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22(5): 1422-1428 (Sept. 2008)).
[3]  Gary Rothbart, The Effects of Stretching on Power Output for Volleyball Players, December 2011 <>

[Originally published March 26, 2012]

Five Elements of Drill Design to Improve Your Practices

For coaches everywhere trying to improve their practices here's a few elements of drill design excerpted from my coaching manual written for staff at the CT Velocity Volleyball Club.

To ensure game-like drills and increase transfer coaches should very frequently include the following structures in their drill designs for practice:

Hitters attacking against a block.  A hitter’s first responsibility is to beat the block.  Whether this is done by hitting off the block or hitting around it, players will learn this skill only in a practice environment that includes hitters and blockers.  The existence of the block is essential to providing hitters with the feedback they will need to develop game-like attacking skills.  Allowing hitters to hit on an open net does not prepare players to beat or utilize the block in a game.*

Setters setting live passes.   Setters should be setting live passes, rather than tosses, from varying angles on the court so they are prepared from their practice experience to do what they will need to
do in a game.  Be sure to have passes coming from zones 5, 6 and 1 (at least) so the setters can see in practice the angles they will see in games.

Initiate balls over the net.  Drills and games should be initiated with balls coming/going over the net.  Players need to develop in practice the visual motor skill of locating a moving volleyball in space, reading its path and determining where to meet it in space and time under conditions that resemble the game of volleyball.  This means that players need to read balls coming over the net at random angles, heights and speeds because this is what happens in a game.  Since the game does not require players to play balls tossed in from the sideline coaches should not train this skill.  Balls can be initiated over the net by serves, free-balls, down-balls, spikes and tips.

Players initiate rather than coaches.  Balls should be initiated over the net by players rather than coaches because this allows the players more contacts and affords the players reading opportunities more realistic to the games they play.  A coach-toss or entry here is acceptable to the player(s) who are going to initiate over the net.  For example, if Team B is to receive a free ball in your drill, bounce a ball to Team A, and require they free the ball over the net.  This adds a free ball contact to Team A’s practice experience and affords Team B a game-like opportunity to read that free-ball from a player who is likely more similar to an opponent than is the coach.

Servers play defense.  Servers should be running into a defensive position on the court after each practice serve because that is what they need to do in a game.  This practice makes serving more game-like, reinforces the need to get into the court quickly, creates opportunities to teach the base position and can be a conditioning exercise as well.

 *Hitting on an open net may be game-like for some novice levels of play.  In this case coaches should utilize a combination of blocking and non-blocking in their practice designs.  This will promote transfer by teaching hitters how to attack against the conditions they experience in the game (no block) while also giving opportunities to develop the skills that will prepare them for the next level of play (blocking)."

[Originally published February 11, 2012]

Five Random Tips on Effective Coaching Communication

As we move closer to a new season of club volleyball, it seems like a good time to review some ways we all can coach better.  So here's some observations based on my own mistakes and those of others in the high school, club and college game.

Ask Questions

Sometimes coaches think they always have to be giving instruction - because they're the coach.  The truth is sometimes the best way to teach is to ask a question.   No I'm not talking about asking "gotcha" questions like you're grilling a law student with the Socratic method.  I'm talking about putting aside the instruction sometimes and simply asking a player, "How did you see that play?"
The ensuing discussion can be a great way to teach because players learn better when they have a role in arriving at solutions.  So go ahead and ask questions, guide the players where you want them to go and allow them to discover the answers themselves.

Praise Effort Not Talent or Intelligence

A growing body of research is building that there is no such thing as innate talent; that expertise is acquired through exhaustive, purposeful and deliberate attempts to get better - a process called "deliberate practice."  (For two excellent books on the subject, I recommend Daniel Coyle's, The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated).

So, what does this have to do with giving some good 'ole fashioned praise in the gym?  Everything.
Apparently, what social scientists are learning is that when we constantly praise children (players) for their talent or intelligence, they begin to think that their success is due to innate ability and so underestimate the importance of effort.  According to ten years of research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, these children (players) also tend to give up quickly without sufficient effort to improve.  They think they're not naturally good at it, so why bother trying?  On the other hand, the correct kind of praise, which focuses on effort and performance can be a positive, motivating force that conditions children (players) to improve what they can control - their effort.  (The research is summarized in Po Bronson, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise).

Ok, great.  So what does this mean for coaching communication?  It means we have to watch our words more closely when we're communicating with our athletes.  We need to praise the process not the result.  Instead of saying, "you're such a great player," try saying, "great effort in moving your feet to the ball."  Instead of "you're naturally good at defense," say "you've obviously worked hard at this."

The key is to focus specifically on the work or effort involved in the performance rather than on concepts such as greatness, talent or intelligence.  You'll be a better coach for it and your players will reap the rewards.

Encourage Positive Errors
While we're on the subject of handing out praise, let's start encouraging the "positive errors" in the game over the negative kind.  What is a positive error?  Serving the ball too long is a positive error.  Sure, the outcome is a point for the opponent but in terms of mistakes it's a good one because by NOT serving the ball into the net (a negative error), we've created an opportunity for the opponent to play it and for the official to rule it in.  The negative mistake of serving into the net rules out those possibilities and requires no judgment or performance from the opponent at all.

There are many other examples of positive errors in the game.  Hitters attacking over the net and out of bounds are making a positive error while hitters attacking into the net are making a negative error.  By attacking over the net, you might get a touch call off the block; you cause defensive players to make judgments about "in or out;" and sometimes the ball just hits someone from the other team while it's flying toward the back wall.  From a spikers perspective, those are all good things that might happen just because she hit the ball over - rather than into (the negative error) - the net.

Control Your Emotions

Outward displays of disappointment or frustration during a match do not help your team learn or perform better.  It's simple, your role as a coach deprives you of the right to outwardly express your frustrations during a match.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you can't feel disappointed or frustrated.  When you work all week preparing for a match and then don't perform well in a losing effort - that's extremely disappointing and you have every right to feel that way (guess what - the players feel that way too). But what you can't do is yell and scream, throw your clipboard, toss your arms in the air, slap the bench, roll your eyes and pace the sideline venting your feelings at your team.  That's not being a coach.  That's being a jerk.

One of the best and most productive sacrifices you will make for your team is controlling your emotions and instilling confidence in your players at times when they most need it.

Say Nothing

Silence in coaching is waaaayyyy underrated.  Remember, you're not being paid by the word and many situations just don't call for your instruction and correction.  Of course, the art of coaching is to recognize when you're in one of those situations and when you're not.

Many times, I have managed to not figure that out.  One time we managed to get it right was unforgettable.
Our middle blocker had just served a bullet down the sideline, which the opposing player passed back over the net and about 3 feet out of bounds.  Well, it would have landed out of bounds except our server dutifully followed it to the sideline, pursued it out of bounds and then caught the ball, obviously figuring that would get her back to the service line quicker than waiting for it to fall.

The inevitable lift call was made amidst a jubilant celebration by our opponent (and I'll add a ridiculous display of call-begging by the opposing coach whom by this time had lost all sense of decorum).  As our player sheepishly walked back to the bench, clearly embarrassed, there was nothing for me to add.  This was not a "teachable moment" where I needed to step in and explain not to catch the ball.  She knew that.  The best course of action was to keep my mouth shut and give her a high five.

[Originally published November 2, 2011]

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]

Science of Coaching: Why Do We Practice?

Why do we practice?  Most people would say that we practice to get better.  But get better when is the question?  Are we practicing to get better in practice or are we practicing to get better in competition?  While the answer may seem obvious the question itself has profound importance for the science of coaching and how to design practices that best train our players.

The goal of practice should be to improve players' performances in the long term (beyond any one day) and to support the transfer of the training to non-practice environments (competitions).  Many coaches believe that the training methods they use to enhance players' performances during practice will accomplish these twin goals.  In fact, the science is otherwise.  Motor learning research has shown consistently that the training methods that best enhance performance in practice do not transfer well to players later performing in competition.

Now this can be very difficult to accept because what the science is saying to us coaches is that the methods we're using - and which are actually working - to get our players better during practice should be scrapped because they're not teaching the players how to play and compete in actual competitive games!  That's a tough one to swallow, so stay with me and keep reading to learn how this can possibly be so.  The explanation depends on a distinction between what motor learning experts call blocked and random practice.

The Science: Blocked Practice Versus Random Practice

Motor learning research distinguishes between two types of practice styles.  Blocked practice involves athletes repeatedly performing the same skill again and again, usually until some "improvement" is shown.  This is commonly done in skill drills where players practice a single skill numerous times before moving on to the next skill drill.  Repeat passing or repeat setting drills are classic example of blocked practices.
Random practice, on the other hand, involves players practicing multiple skills in a random order while minimizing the number of consecutive repetitions of any one skill.  Game-like drills requiring players to perform several skills in random order (as the situation demands) with only a single opportunity each time to perform each skill would constitute a random practice style.

So which of these is more effective?  If we're practicing to get better when we compete (as opposed to getting better for practice) then the science overwhelmingly favors random practice.  Numerous researchers and studies consistently have concluded that blocked practice makes players better in practice and random practice makes players better long term in competition.

In their excellent article, Motor Learning Principles and the Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball, Carl McGown, Ph.D. and Steven Bain, Ph.D., summarize the research as follows:

"Random vs. Blocked Practice:  The random versus blocked practice methods represent a fundamental paradox regarding athletic performance during training and subsequent performance during competition.  Based on performance measurements during practice, blocked activities, in which athletes repeatedly rehearse the same task, result in superior performance during the training session.  In comparison, performing tasks and skills in random order decreases skill acquisition during training.  Consequently, based on measurement of performance effects during practice, many coaches and players believe that blocked practice is superior to random practice.
Such a conclusion however, mistakenly assumes a positive correlation between performance in practice and long-term skill retention.  The paradox arises from the fact that blocked practice is in fact very ineffective for transfer of learning to competition as performance improvements measured during practice degrade rapidly, and inefficient because retraining on the same skills will be necessary.  Conversely, random practice is both effective, transfer to competition is high, and efficient, skill acquisition is relatively permanent.  Indeed, the superiority of random practice has been substantiated for a large number of sports skills including volleyball, badminton, baseball, basketball, tennis, and soccer, and its utility and training applications thoroughly reviewed by Schmidt and Lee.
Finally, scientific research into the neurological reasons for this superiority have revealed that variable activities increase and strengthen the brain connections that are responsible for learning motor skills whereas simply repeating the same activities exerts no measurable effect on these brain connections.  Therefore, if motor learning (transfer and retention) is the goal, random practice is a fundamental principle to follow." (references omitted).

What Does This Mean for Coaching?

Armed with this scientific knowledge what does this mean for the volleyball coach?  Simple.  It means we must make our practices more game-like by designing "drills" and "games" that incorporate the science of random practice.  It means we must do what we implore our players to do - get out of our comfort zones - and creatively put our players in situations that resemble the randomness of the game.

For me, studying motor learning principles has caused me several seasons ago to scrap one of my favorite drills - Passing 150 - which required our three main passers to pass 150 balls in a row from our servers.  Now I know that the while the first 25 pass attempts made it more likely that the next 25 would be better, the players were not likely going to retain much from the experience in our match the following day when they received at most 2 or 3 balls in a row and had to play the game of volleyball in-between each one.

The challenge for us coaches is creatively to design our own drills with scientific principles and our teams' needs in mind, to never stop learning and sometimes to ignore what our lying eyes see happening in practice.

[Originally published February 18, 2011]

Volleyball Randomness and the Process of Playing

Well, I'm home from the 2011 Mizuno Winterfest Tournament and finally recovered from four straight 19 hour days of coaching and studying volleyball.  Here are some thoughts on the tournament and the game itself gleaned from competing in well more than 3,000 volleyball games over the last 22 years.

Volleyball is a random game.

Officials make bad calls.  Balls pop perfectly out of the net and other times drop straight to the floor.  Attackers hit blockers' hands, fingers, palms, wrists, forearms, elbows and heads and the ricochets sometimes are convenient and sometimes are very inconvenient. Great hitters attack balls one half inch out of bounds and lesser hitters miss-hit balls that fall impossibly to the floor.  Tough serves brush a 3/8" diameter antennae and are ruled out of bounds and weak serves slam the net tape and dribble over for points.  Poorly controlled digs bounce off ceiling lights right to teammates and perfect digs hit low gym ceilings and bounce away.  I've seen an attacker get stuff blocked off his own forehead only to have the ball ricochet back over the net and fall on the floor for a point.  I've even lost a match in overtime beating the block with an attack that bounced off the defender's chest and rebounded back over the net and on to endline.  These things happen in the game of volleyball.  They are weird, unpredictable and random and you know what?  No matter how hard or consistently we practice - they will always happen.  Their will always be randomness in the game.

If you're not convinced, go play (or watch) 100 volleyball games and you'll see.  If you don't have that much time, at least give Leonard Mlodinow's wonderful book, The Drunkard's Walk, a good read.  In it the author (a brilliant physicist and mathematician) describes in a very entertaining way the reality of how randomness affects our daily lives.  It is equally applicable to volleyball.

So volleyball is random.  Great.  Where does that leave us.  Should we stop practicing because no sane person trains to get better at a random game?  I mean can you imagine watching someone practicing to get good at throwing a seven in dice?  Of course not.  But that doesn't mean we hang up our volleyball training sneakers either, for there's a difference between dice and volleyball.  The former is entirely a game of chance requiring no skill whatsoever the latter is an intensely skill-driven game, the results of which are driven by execution with some randomness sprinkled in.  The goal in practicing for volleyball is to develop our skills sufficiently to control what we can control in the game - our execution - and thereby try to limit the effects of that other little thing in the game called randomness.

How do we do that you ask?  It's a two-part process.  First, we must practice deliberately to improve our performance.   More on deliberate practice in a future post.

Second, as players and coaches we need to discipline ourselves to focus more on the process of playing than on the result of the game.  When we focus on the process, we learn to judge our performance by the things we can control, i.e., our movement, techniques, communication, readiness, effort, attitude, positioning, judgments and thought processes.  These are the bedrocks for future improvement; they are the how of our play and they cannot be ignored in our (over-) reactions to the (sometimes random) results of the games we play.

Far too often teams win and everything is fine; lose and everything stinks.  The same team that loses back to back five set matches by 2 points and "can't finish" or "seal the deal" is a couple of random lucky plays away from being the team possessed of "mental toughness" with players who "just wanted it more."  Should we really persist in believing that a couple of random points in a five set match should produce such disparate "analyses" or is it that we have failed to see randomness in the game and mistakenly drew conclusions from results rather than process?

The team needs either to improve its mental toughness or not.  A win or a loss produced by two points has absolutely nothing to do with correctly identifying that as an improvement goal.  Think about it, am I really to conclude that a team is mentally tough because a ball ricocheted off the opponent's block and flew right and out of bounds instead of flying left and into the defense (a random example)?  No matter how deliberately we train, random events will always occur in the game - and sometimes will decide the results.  As players, coaches or even parents, our analysis has to be better than this.  Win or lose, a team's performance - its process of playing - should govern our analysis.

I have a habit of note-taking during matches to help me plan upcoming practices.  Seldom if ever does my practice plan depend on the result of the match.  Why?  Because we could play poorly and win and play great and lose.  The process of our play, not the result of the match, dictates the design of our practice.
So if you see me coaching at a tournament and want to talk about my team, ask me how the team is playing; ask how the players are performing; ask if they are competing and working on change; ask me if they're working hard, loving the game and committed to improving.  Ask me any of these questions and we can talk for hours because I love talking volleyball and even more I love talking about the amazing players that I am coaching.

[Originally published January 22, 2011]

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]