A Dozen Pillars for a Productive Practice

As the club season starts, coaches spend significant time in practice sessions. The time spent in practice is the most precious aspect of a season. Every coach should operate their training sessions in a fashion that mirrors their teaching and coaching philosophy, knowledge of the game, how players best learn, the personality of the coach, and core values. I’ve listed below twelve pillars that fashion my training sessions. Arriving at these pillars is the by-product of many years of accumulated coaching mistakes and studying how great coaches ran their practice sessions. Pillars can change from coach to coach. The listed items are a glimpse of what matters to me. These are offered to facilitate discussion and foster creative thought about being most productive during training sessions.

In no specific order of importance:

Make Every Minute Matter

  • Coaches should have a written plan for each practice.  
  • All teams, partners, drills, and scoring of drills should be organized in advance.
  • Avoid team water breaks. Players should have water bottles at the court and drink while chasing balls, wiping floors, or keeping score. Or, take water breaks in groups. While one group is hydrating, the other can work on an aspect of the game.
  • Front-load practice activities. Send to players in advance of practice the content, keywords, and points of emphasis. By doing so, players should know practice keys before walking into the gym, eliminating explanations that take up valuable court time.
  • Any stretching is done outside of the allotted practice time. Do not spend valuable court time having players bend over to touch their toes.

Implement the Pareto Principle When Planning Practice

  • The Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto, specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, asserting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. Not all aspects of the game have equal value. Identify the 20% of the game that will achieve 80% of the value. 
  • A team scores more points from attack than any other skill. Consequently, spend a significant portion of time practicing attacking skills (developing a variety of shots; two, three, and four-step attack footwork; seeing and using the block, a variety of approach angles; etc.).
  • If your team can sideout at a higher percentage than your opponent, you’ll win the set. Every practice should include sideout offense.
  • More points will be won (or lost) for younger teams via the serve, increasing the importance of this skill.
  • Time allocation should be based on the age and competition level of the players.

The Key to Skill Development is Repetition

  • Plan practice sessions with game-like repetition as a priority.
  • Avoid long lines for skill contacts: small groups, short lines, immediate feedback with prompt opportunities to execute again.
  • For maximum repetitions in the allotted time, players not involved in a drill should learn practice duties (chasing balls, handing balls to the coach, floor wipes, etc.).
  • Practicing with a fast tempo will offer more repetitions.

The Goal of Practice is to Develop a Mastery of the Skills

  • The skill level of a team will dictate the level of play.
  • Pursue the automation of skill execution. Thinking during a match will slow down the response time. The goal of practice is to develop positive habits, thereby increasing the speed of execution.
  • The creativity of a player is subject to the skill level. A creative player lacking in skill will often make mistakes.
  • Use video and statistics to monitor skill development and provide feedback to the athlete.
  • The quality of the repetitions is more essential to improvement than the number of repetitions.

The Use of Quality Feedback is Essential to Skill Development

  • Be comfortable with the various forms of feedback (statistical, verbal, body language, video, scoring, win/lose, etc.). Find out what form of feedback resonates with players.
  • The feedback is more effective if it’s provided immediately to the player, with the player having the opportunity to repeat the skill immediately.
  • Avoid the unnecessary stoppage of a team drill or activity to give feedback to an individual.
  • The feedback should be specific to the behavior. Saying “nice job” sounds nice and might encourage a positive practice environment, but relative to a learning tool has very little value.

Correct Instead of Critique

  • Punishment will not facilitate better skills. Be hesitant to critique a player in front of teammates.
  • Provide a verbal or visual picture of desired behavior, then allow immediate repetition.
  • Always maintain a teaching mentality and focus on the solution rather than the problem.

Replace a Goal With an Objective

  • Goals such as “let’s work hard on our passing today” are vague. An objective is specific, such as “we are striving for an in-system passing percentage of 70%”.
  • Objectives should be in line with the skill level of the player(s).
  • Teach skills in a sequence of objectives that offer additional challenges.

Errors are Okay

  • If players fear mistakes, they won’t push the boundary of their current skill level.
  • You want to encourage mistakes in the pursuit of new skill boundaries
  • Finish a drill or practice with the opportunity for success.

Analyze the Game to Plan Activities and Quality Feedback

  • Take practice statistics to monitor performance.
  • Use statistics to plan future activities. Too many coaches use statistics only to monitor current skill levels. Use statistics to plan future practices, offensive and defensive systems, and strategies.
  • Challenge teams and individual players to improve statistical performance.
  • Use data to provide positive feedback to players.

Make Practices Fun and Rewarding

  • Having fun does not mean a lack of intensity and hard work. Having a positive practice atmosphere is essential to long-term success.
  • Reward a player or a team for positive effort or performance.
  • Have players leave the gym feeling good about the time spent

Differentiate Drill from Scrimmage

  • Use drills to focus intensively on developing one or several skills.
  • Scrimmaging is generally less efficient as a teaching tool. A game-like drill with a specific skill focus will likely be more productive when learning a new skill.
  • Performing successfully in a random environment (scrimmage) is the best indicator of true mastery.
  • Script scrimmage activities to work on specific aspects of the game. For example, all the serves will go to the libero, and the first attack must be by the left-side attacker. You can add items and develop scoring to work on any game aspect.

Players Must Learn the Necessary Visual Cues

  • The eyes only focus on one thing at a time. If a player attempts to see everything, they focus on nothing.
  • What are the visual cues for each skill? For example, when blocking, the visual cues might be: 1) is the pass over the net, 2) the angle of the attacker’s approach, 3) does the attacker have a strong approach, 4) where are the attacker’s shoulders facing, 5) is the attacker trying to wipe the ball off the hands, etc.
  • Visual cues are sequential. The players must focus on one item at a time.
  • During practice, the coach should ask, “what did you see?” so the player coordinates movements with visual cues.

These pillars reflect what is important to me. Your pillars may be different. No problem with that. The importance of having meaningful pillars cannot be understated for coaches at all levels.