The secret to great volleyball teams and teams that have fun is that their coaches know how to run amazing practice sessions. The perception that coaches are responsible for determining the outcome of games with their decisions on game day is only partially true. What most people do not see is all of the hard work put into developing players and building a healthy team environment, all of which occurs at practice. The majority of the time that teams spend together is spent practicing and little playing competitive games. Coaches have a great opportunity to shape their teams and improve their players skills through amazing practices. During the games players shine, but practice is where the coach shines and makes some of their biggest contributions to the success of the team.
Have a purpose, but remain flexible
First start by identifying the purpose of the practice, every practice should have a purpose, for example improving the team’s digging ability, communicating more effectively, or it can even be establishing camaraderie and having fun. Use league games to evaluate where players are at and understand what the strengths and weaknesses of the team are. Games provide the perfect opportunity to measure a team’s progress and develop insights as to what needs to be worked on in the next week of practice. Once it is clear what needs to be worked on that is the purpose of the next practice and drills are selected to work on improving the identified purpose.
Know before you enter the gym what drills you are going to run, in what sequence, for how long, and when water breaks are. This will allow practices to run efficiently and maximize practice time with players. Having a plan is great, but also have some alternatives or points in the practice where you can pivot. If a team is not handling a drill well and it is becoming counterproductive for them to stick to the practice plan and continue that drill for the next 15 minutes have some back-up plans in place. Not only back up drills are needed, but also have a few fun drills or activities in your back pocket to introduce in case the team becomes frustrated or is struggling with the practice plan.
Maximize the number of touches on the volleyball
This is important for two reasons, one because every coach will tell you they do not have enough time to work with their team and second because maximizing the number of times players make contact with the volleyball allows them to master volleyball skills and remain engaged throughout practice. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success found that the successful people he interviewed and studied all became an expert or master at their craft after 10,000 hours of experience. This is an estimate and not a hard in fast rule, but shows that there is a considerable time commitment needed to become an expert at something and by giving players as many opportunities as possible to make contact with a volleyball will develop skills faster.
Not every team or coach may have the expectation or desire for their players to become a volleyball expert, collegiate, or professional player. Not every player wants that either, but every player does want to play and by maximizing the number of touches players have on the volleyball will keep them engaged and increase their enjoyment in practice. All players no matter at what level should enjoy the game and practices that are designed to give players lots of opportunities to touch the ball will be much more fun.
Design practices to allow players to get a lot of repetitions at each drill. This can be accomplished by splitting your team up and participating in different drill stations. Set-up as many stations as possible, this is where assistant coaches are great to lead a station or team captains. Have the groups of players rotate through each station and know how long the time spent at each station will be. Drills should not have long lines where players are waiting for extended periods of time to complete their next repetition and avoid scrimmaging or lecturing players for extended periods of time. Instruct players as they are completing the drills, this gives them immediate feedback and will allow them to make adjustments during their next repetition.
Another key element to maximizing the number of touches on the volleyball is to ensure that there are enough volleyballs to run the drills at a pace that allows the maximum number of repetitions. Having to chase down the only volleyball the team has before the next repetition wastes time and interrupts the flow of a drill. A good ratio is 1.5 balls per player, if there are 12 players there should be 18 volleyballs.
The last but often overlooked way to maximize touches on the volleyball is to incorporate volleyballs into warm-ups. Every team should warm-up properly before any game or practice and it should include a volleyball. Get creative with the warm-ups or make slight modifications to drills to decrease the intensity and use it as a warm-up drill. Avoid static stretches, instead use dynamic movements that simulate movements that would be made in the game or practice, but at a slower pace.
Practice at the proper intensity level
The coach will have to decide this based on their player’s age and how competitive of a program is being run. (is this a recreational league or a club volleyball team?) Understand that every team is different and practices should be run at the intensity level that is appropriate for the age and skill level of the players. Every coach regardless of their team should expect players to give maximum effort during practice and that expectation must be set early on. Ensure that players understand that they are expected to come have fun and give their best effort during every drill and game.
Coaches can increase the intensity of volleyball practices by making the drills competitive. Every drill has a desired outcome and players will score points for accomplishing the goal of the drill and they will compete against their teammates to do so the most. Keep players engaged by varying the scoring method or the target number of points needed to win the drill.
Another way to add intensity without competition between players is to encourage players to keep track of their personal best on a drill, for example during a passing drill they should count how many successful passes they complete and the next time the drill is run they should aim to beat their personal best. This is a great way to build confidence and motivates players to improve.
Drills should incorporate conditioning
No player is happy about running sprints at the end of practice. Coaches like to do this because their players are building the physical capabilities needed to compete, but these same capabilities can be obtained through drill design that also includes touches on the volleyball. The coach can increase the pace of a drill to add a conditioning element or shorten the rest period between repetitions. There are many ways to increase the conditioning aspect of a drill, but drills should never be run for the sole purpose to condition players. Conditioning drills waste valuable time and decrease opportunities players have to get touches on the volleyball.
There are volleyball workouts that are beneficial to players development including agility training, strength training, and cardio. Conditioning sessions should be completed outside of the gym and should be the focus during the off-season and pre-season.
End practice on high note with a fun drill
Every coach should have three to five drills that are fun and that players love. Players are involved in the sport to play and they have much more fun playing games than doing lots of drills that are focused on developing skills. Both fun games and drills are needed to improve players abilities, but save the fun ones for the end of a practice and keep players coming back for more by ending on high note. This keeps practice fun and also gives players something to work towards while completing other drills. The fun drill should also be related to the purpose of the practice and further develop skills the team needs to work on. A great example of this is the Popcorn Setting Drill found here. After a practice designed to work on a team’s setting abilities this is a great way to end on a high note. Fun drills should also have an element of competition and involve players working together on teams. The drills that are one on one or focus on a single player at a time should be left for other parts of the practice.