Jim Stone | USA Volleyball National Youth Team
In the summer of 1977, I had the good fortune to work 8 weeks of volleyball camps with Carl McGown, the former head coach of the U.S. men’s national team who also coached 2 NCAA championship teams at BYU. To this day, I remember sitting in the cafeteria at Western Michigan University and watching as Carl scribbled on a napkin the keys to teaching skills. Here’s what he wrote:
- Provide a visual model of what you want the athlete to do.
- Provide Opportunities to Repeat (OTR).
- Provide more visual feedback of either the athlete performing the skill or a demonstrator correctly performing the desired skill.
- More OTR.
In various forms, this has been my coaching mantra for my entire career – the key aspects being repetition and feedback. As a coaching community, we can do a better job in these two areas. Coaches would be well served to keep in mind the words of Confucius, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
There seems to be a popular coaching model that encourages players to scrimmage a lot while the coach says very little. The assumption, I presume, is that players will improve with playing experience. Another model has teams scrimmaging a lot and coaches stopping the activity every 5 minutes to pontificate on their knowledge of volleyball. Neither of these models are a great teaching format and would certainly not fall under the model of skill development encouraged by Carl McGown.
Quite often, in scrimmage situations, the number of repetitions (OTR) for a player might be limited. Maybe nobody serves to a specific player, so the passing opportunities are reduced. Or the opponent can’t pass, so the blocking opportunities don’t exist. Consequently, the opportunities to repeat may be far less for certain players. Since most club teams only practice for 2 hours, the goal in every practice should be:
- How many game-like contacts can a player execute in the time available?
- How can I, as a coach, promote repetition and feedback opportunities?
One option is to create a bunch of drills that promote maximum contacts in a non-game like approach. For example, I serve 50 balls at each player. The players rotate every 10 contacts. This is termed a “blocked” activity. There’s value in blocked training where the player repeats a single skill, and there are also feedback opportunities. Blocked activities just can’t be the majority of your practice. Volleyball is a random activity where players must adjust to events with every contact of the ball. However, there’s a middle ground between blocked drills where the player just focuses on one skill and the randomness of a 6v6 scrimmage.
I call this middle ground “controlled randomness.” A coach can design activities to focus on specific areas of the game. So, instead of just playing with the sole focus being winning the competition, a coach can script the events to encourage OTR in specific skill areas while still pursuing winning. For example, inside a 6v6 scrimmage, the coach institutes a few parameters. These might be:
- “The first serve must go to Suzie,” or …
- “The first attack must come from the left-front attacker,” or …
- “Each middle attack that scores is worth 2 points.”
The options are endless. The goal is to provide skill-specific repetitions that give players/positions sufficient opportunities to improve. This also provides video and statistical opportunities for players to assess their progress. Also, the feedback that you can provide will be used immediately by the player since the format mandates immediate opportunities to repeat.
Keep in mind that this type of practice format requires more preparation on the part of the coach to plan activities that allow for quality feedback and opportunities to repeat. Pat Riley, former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat, has said he would take 3 hours to plan a 3-hour practice. I’m not sure this type of preparation is a requirement for a club or high school coach, but the focus on opportunities to repeat and on video feedback does require preparation and planning. The athletes, regardless of skill level or age, deserve our best efforts to facilitate their improvement.
Jim Stone coached the Ohio State women's volleyball team for 26 years and is currently head coach of USA Volleyball's Youth National Team. He is a contributing editor at Art of Coaching.