Organize Your Practice for Learning

“You haven’t taught until they have learned”

~John Wooden

If you want your players to learn and make it stick, you need to make it harder. By harder, I don’t necessarily need physically more challenging. Many studies indicate that the learning process is more lasting if there are learning challenges that make the process more difficult.

It is normal behavior to seek the path of least resistance in our lives. Most of us would prefer the learning process to be easy. Unfortunately, for many coaches’, the path of least resistance is large amounts of scrimmage activities in practice. There is undoubtedly value to scrimmage activities. However, too often, these play sessions are lacking in both player focus and coach feedback. The hope is by playing; the players will advance their skills. However, both teaching and learning are more complex than just playing the game.

To be of value, the activities in practice need to have both focus and feedback. The athletes are working on specific aspects of the game. The coach is providing feedback. As the player develops, they can begin to supply their feedback based upon results.

I’ve listed below some concepts that will enhance the learning process for your players. As I write these areas of emphasis, I can deal with reality or wishful thinking. Wishful thinking has equally skilled players, with lots of time for training and not too many players on the court. However, in reality, coaches have about two hours of training with many players on the court possessing various skill levels. I’ll make every effort to “keep it real.”

Some helpful definitions are in order.

Blocked training- working on a single skill with lots of repetitions. An example of blocked training might be serving 15 balls using cones as targets. Some coaches are adamantly against this form of practice as it does not replicate game activities. I’m not as opposed to blocked training as some coaches; however, I wouldn’t recommend a practice full of blocked activities.

Random training– since the game is random and unpredictable, the practice activities should reflect the nature of the game. There are mounds of evidence that indicate this form of training produces positive and lasting results. However, a cautionary note would be for the coach to monitor if all the players receive sufficient repetitions to facilitate skill development. Again, in the real world of club or high school volleyball, there are many players on a court, so be very aware of the opportunities for players to develop their skills.

There is a place in a productive practice for both blocked and random activities. Or, you can experiment with what I term “controlled-random” activities. We’ll get to that soon.

Focus on specific aspects of a skill- As players work on their skills, they should focus on a specific aspect. I’m confident that Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky doesn’t go to the pool with “going for a swim” in mind. I have no doubt there is a focus on the pace of training, a technical aspect of turns, stroke mechanics, etc. Volleyball athletes should have a similar focus. The coach must be up to speed on their knowledge of the skills to provide appropriate guidance. I’m confident this increased focus on a skill will impact the general focus on practice performance.

Flip/Flop- I’m not too fond of long lines in any activity. Relative to learning, waiting in a long line challenges the player to maintain a focus. I will rarely have more than three to four players on deck when running a drill. If I provide feedback on their spiking form, they repeat the skill while that feedback is fresh. If there are ten players in a hitting line, whatever feedback you supply will be forgotten when they get another chance to attack. The players not directly involved in a drill are chasing balls, entering balls, receiving feedback from the coach as they prepare for their turn, etc.

Tempo– If you want your team to play fast, they need to train fast. Keep the pace of everything you do at a reasonably fast tempo. The drill should be organized to get as many repetitions possible in the limited time that you have with your players. Much of the feedback you are providing should be done “on the fly.” Be very hesitant to stop an activity so you can talk. If you need to talk to a specific player, pull them aside and let the activity continue.

Put space between repetitions-Using the concept of Flip-Flop; there is more benefit from a learning perspective to perform five sets of ten serves versus fifty consecutive serves. Use the time between sets to provide feedback, watch a video of previous repetitions, look at stats, or chase balls.

Intertwine Other Activities– The nature of the game is connecting the skills. You can build from a blocked serve-receive drill in the following manner:

  1. Serve receive reps
  2. Pass to attack
  3. Pass to attack vs. a block
  4. Pass to attack vs. a block and team defense
  5. Pass to attack vs. team defense, receive a free ball to attack again.

Even though your primary focus as a coach might be the pass, you are slowly connecting other aspects of the game.

Embrace the Struggle– Under the umbrella of helping the athlete achieve success, the tendency is to make the practice somewhat easy. As a rule of thumb, if players aren’t struggling a bit — that is, if their performance isn’t somewhat hindered — they’re probably not engaged in ways that will lead to meaningful, long-term comprehension and understanding. For example, I rarely do time-based activities in practice. I prefer a drill or practice that is based on a specific number of successful contacts. For example, five serves from zone 1 to zone five between the passer and the sideline. To make it more challenging, you can say five in a row. Basing practice activities on success brings more focus and builds the player’s confidence upon completing the task.

Controlled-Random Activities-Volleyball is a very unpredictable activity. The players learn the most in activities that resemble the game. Therefore, a majority of your training needs to incorporate the arbitrary nature of the game. Players need to adjust to events, read the upcoming play, strategize, execute skills, etc. However, if we rely on 6v6 scrimmage, a player(s) may not receive the repetitions required to improve. I try to script most of my scrimmage activities to work on a specific aspect (transition attack) or allow a player to work on a specific skill (serve from zone 1 to zone 1). For example, if the focus is on sideout offense, I will set up scoring parameters, such as the offense must sideout three times consecutively in order to score a point and rotate. Or, another example, if I want a player to work on serve receive, the opposing team is told all the serves must go to that player. So, the passer receives a lot of repetitions, and the servers receive work on serving accurately. The rest of the point is played out in a normal fashion.

Testing– Forcing players to recall material specific to skill or team systems is beneficial to the learning process. I give random quizzes on material that they should know. Most of the time, this quiz is verbal in a team meeting format. Generally, players don’t want to look bad in that environment. So, they take greater responsibility to learn the necessary material.

As you plan your practice activities, you might implement some of these concepts and let me know your observations. Good luck with your training.