February 26, 2009

Volleyball Training Question

Readers, prepare yourself for the new record holder for the longest and most complete question asked to date (and it is a good one also!):

I have recently found your blog and am loving everything I read there. It is great to have such a straightforward resource for many of the questions that arise for volleyball players, parents, and coaches.
I am a club coach, and am hoping you can help answer a few questions for me. I have coached in 4 different states now, under many different styles of club directors. I am starting to get frustrated with the huge differences in teaching some of the most basic skills in our sport. I even see this when I attend camps, clinics, or accreditations. I have attended 2 CAP courses over the last 5 years, and differences were apparent even there.
I have asked many college coaches over the years to tell me what they want out of a player when they look at them. This way I can ensure that I am giving the players I coach the best chance of securing a position on a college team. And yet, many college coaches so far have seemed reticent to elaborate about basic skills and what they hope to see when viewing video or live performances.
So I am hoping you will be kind enough to elaborate some...
Basically, I am looking for a line of sorts to be drawn between the differing approaches to teaching and executing the technical volleyball skills. I have delineated some of the more common ones I have found over the years below...

1) Mid-line or Lateral Passing
2) For the arm swing during the attack: 'grab the tag' 'flip the pony' OR elbow high AND back (main difference here is the hand starts either behind the head, and all movement is at the elbow, or the hand starts beside the head, with the elbow back, and movement starts at the shoulder, then moves through the elbow extension)
3) swing blocking or lateral blocking?
4) Defensive posture: Butt High, shoulders and head low (quad dominant position) OR Hips lower than shoulders (glute and hip dominant position)
5) When Passing (not overhead passing): Facing where the ball is coming from OR where you are passing to?
6) Setters Footwork: Last two steps Left-Right OR Right Left?
7) 3 step, 3 1/2 step, or 4 step approach? (at the last CAP course they made this very clear that this is a starting point, because most approaches include transition footwork, and therefore can be 6, 7, or more steps... but they never came to a defined answer on which to teach as a starting point).

This is a just a small sampling of the many differences I have come across. Currently my only form of education on these subjects is to attend coaching clinics, CAP courses, or player camps. But even there I see a huge range. I understand that we all have different teaching styles, but if we all teach different form, positioning, etc, then how do we expect our players to progress? Where I live now is there is a large amount of coaches who are from other areas, bringing their preferred way with them. So this year, the club team I coach has girls on it who display every variation I have listed above, and many more. I just want to help them get on the right track for college. Any help would be greatly appreciated - thank you. Loren

Wow - This is a great question(s) and one to which there really is no single correct answer. Unlike something definitive (math, science, my disgust with rally score), volleyball training styles seem to be constantly in flux. As I have written about, I do believe there are two philosophies of training (Asian and Latin), while a third is growing (the Gold Medal Squared folks who lean toward the men's volleyball training styles).

As I work my way down to your specific questions, there are some items I would like to reflect upon in the pre-amble of your e-mail.

It can easily be frustrating to try and find common ground or a general philosophy with volleyball training in the USA (each college coach goes through this frustration when taking over programs) and I believe this may have been the push for the CAP (Coaching Accreditation Program) clinics conducted by USA Volleyball. To hear that there are differences within this system of teaching is disappointing.

As for college coaches not illustrating their preferences in basic skill sets, it could be merely a recruiting function. If they do not define their preferences, they won't be eliminated by a recruit - Think of a drop back quarterback eliminating all the running game offense programs in the very beginning of the recruiting process. I would also think many college coaches don't necessarily have a clear cut idea of exactly what skill sets they want. As silly as this may sound, there are a bunch of college coaches that are not very strong with technique and whose teams don't illustrate a specific style; it is more of a situation where they see a good passer and recruit them or they see a successful hitter and recruit them. The ends justify the means for these types of coaches.

I believe I had written a post in response to a question which provides some insight into what I look for in recruits - I went to find it in the Questions from Readers label, but there are 67!!! It is late, and I am outbound to go recruiting, so I will trust it is there.

Success and failure in recruiting has taught me to very much focus on skill sets and I am comfortable, based on my philosophy, with volleyball being physically and mentally played a certain way. Are my preferred skill sets better than another coach's preferred skill sets - For me, Yes. One thing which I have learned, is 'undoing' skill sets and re-establishing better ones is a big gamble. I have lost this bet a few times and won't take it any more. I am more comfortable taking a shorter or less athletic player, who has the correct skill development (correct as in what my eye sees), versus a tall or physical player who is deficient.

If I had to try and put my basic skill set preferences into a nice box, it would be to label them as organic. I just feel there is a certain way volleyball should be played, a way which yields positive results for individuals and teams, while keeping the players physically (and mentally) healthy. The majority of players which I remove from recruiting consideration have basic skills which I believe will not allow them to be successful within Division I volleyball, along with placing them into a high risk category for future injuries.

I will try to answer your question based on what I want and the reason I want it:

1) Mid-Line or Lateral Passing? The closest I can come for an answer is to say a hybrid of these two. I believe the passing platform should stay within the range of the hips. If a player gets outside of the hips, then the angles become to large (for me, Volleyball is geometry), but to always center the ball leads to a last second arm movement which easily results in a bad pass. The key for me is the feet - I don't care which foot is forward (left or right) only that a player move her feet to beat the serve to the spot, then stop to pass with the arms inside the hips.

2) Arm swing - Those are some interesting terms which you have illustrated. I like a hitter who loads her shoulders and brings her elbow back and high (above the shoulder) which naturally places the hand near the head before starting the swing. Again, I am back to footwork - If a player does not extend her last step, then the non hitting shoulder will not be forward and the hitting shoulder will not naturally load back. When we do camps, we point out to high school coaches when a hitter's last two steps are too close together, her shoulders are flat (parallel) to the net, as opposed to perpendicular to the net. This leads to a loss of power and/or too much stress on the attacking shoulder because a player is trying to hit hard by just using the attack shoulder's muscles instead of her whole body. This repetitive stress will lead to an injury. If a player does not load their shoulders correctly, and then keep the elbow above the shoulder, I won't recruit them.

3) Swing Blocking or Lateral - Swing blocking is like long hair for guys, it comes and it goes and rarely does it look good. I remember seeing swing blocking as a young player in the early 80's, and now it has re-emerged. I don't support swing blocking because it creates a fluid situation for the defenders to try and figure out where the attacker may hit the ball. The men's game brought back swing blocking because the hitters were gaining a higher altitude because of their approaches, versus the blockers; the 'swing' into the block allowed the blockers to increase their vertical touch a few inches. But, what they sacrificed was a solid, consistent block for the defense to play around. The easiest way to beat a swing block is to hit line at 3/4 speed or tip middle. Didn't someone famous say "a body in motion stays in motion"? A blocker cannot stop a 'swing', they naturally rotate through the blocking zone, which if you hit 3/4 speed down the line, you will tool/use the block for a kill. Also, that big swing motion obscures the hitter from the defenders and the instinct for the defense is to wait for the blocker to finish their swing; this hold or hesitation allows for off speed shots to have success. I want my block stopped, tight and penetrating as far as possible - Remember geometry; the easiest way to cut down the angle available to a hitter is to penetrate the zone of the net as far as possible - break the plane of the net. This will clearly define the zones available to hit, which allows the defenders time to make small adjustments in their positioning to best dig the ball. For me, that one great swing block stuff block, is not worth giving up 4 digs per game because the angles are hard to determine.

4) Defensive Posture - Hips low and head high; or as I say, the knees are in front of the toes and the nose is in front of the knees. This places the stress of the defensive posture on your quads and gluts, which are the two largest muscle groups in your body. The first example you illustrated is one we used to call 'monkey arm' defense/passing. Where the legs are straighter and the shoulders lower, this stress is placed on the small muscle groups in the back. Once again, this is not a natural position and I had a few athletes, early in my career, who suffered from back problems because this is how they were trained. It was only after we altered their posture to lower their hips and raise their head, that their back ache went away. Think about how someone would do a squat and how this lift generates power and stability - this is what I look for in defense. If a recruit does it the other way, she is no longer a recruit for me because she will probably develop a sore back. Also, the first example is geometrically bad - the passing/digging platform is almost perpendicular to the ground and must be radically adjusted to lift the ball when digging - This big arm movement while digging is not good. The posture which I support, places the platform more parallel to the ground and a player just needs to absorb or push through the dig to lift the ball to the setter - a much smaller and simpler arm movement to dig the ball.

5) Passing direction - Where the ball is coming from is where I want my players to face. Use geometry to tilt your passing plane in the direction you want the ball to go - DON'T move or swing the arms where you want the ball to go, just tilt the plane and move your arms towards the net; the geometry of the plane change will take the ball where it needs to go. Once again, keep it simple, angle your platform where you want the ball to go. When I see players making big body movements or big platform movements to direct the ball, this is a skill set which will not work in college volleyball. Remember that club volleyball is a like KinderCare serving - the sport courts are small, no distance to bomb a float serve or rip a jump serve like in the college gyms. College volleyball serving is a completely different animal than club and if your technique is not solid and simple, you will get lit up as a passer. I had made the mistake early in my career of just looking at someone pass in club and seeing them passing well, then mentally translating this into future success passing in college - Does not work that way. It was only after having a couple of good club passers get lit up by college volleyball serving, that I realized why this was so.

6) Setters Footwork - Neither right/left or left/right. I don't want my setter to time or step into the set. I want them beating the ball to the spot, get stationary, mostly square their hips to the front setting target and then deliver the set. I don't care about the sequence of steps, only that they get to the spot, get stopped and the set the ball. If they are not stationary, the middles and potential combination play does not know exactly where to set their attack pattern. I also don't like the idea of a setter being in motion, when sequencing their steps to a ball passed off the net, because the ball is in motion, the setter is in motion and then the hitter is going into motion. Three things in motion is not a good thing. This is where setting gets too technical. I want high hands, up early, a stationary body and a quick release. I am not concerned on the foot sequence or exactly how many degrees open the hips are to the seventh sign of Aries or if the ball is landing in the third quadrant in zone 6, with the label facing upside down on the slide. After I see a setter who has the basic movement and release I want, then I look for the decisions being made. Is she setting the go to hitter at crunch time, is she feeding a hot hitter, is she wasting a set early to gain points later, does she apply direction received from the coach, etc. Many players play the setting position and are quite good with their technique which they have been taught, but are they setters? Setters are the ones that manage the hitters and passers to attain victory.

7) Approach Footwork - I like to start with teaching a two step approach. As simple as this sounds, the last two steps in the approach are the most important. Too many players are using their last two steps in the wrong fashion - to adjust to the set. Very good hitters use their last two steps to EXPLODE into the set and attack. By teaching the last two steps, the right left broad jump attack, you can develop this explosive movement. Hitters who take huge broad jumps hit the ball very hard - a big broad jump is a transfer of power from approach, through the attack. If you don't broad jump, then this accumulated energy is dominantly used on the lift or vertical portion of the approach and the power of the attack is generated with the shoulder muscles. As I wrote above, using the shoulder to hit hard leads to repetitive stress injuries. A big broad jump, using the last two steps to develop power will naturally allow for a hard attacked ball - yes, a player will lose a couple of inches vertical jump, but they will gain the ability to hit hard and hit hard healthy. As for teaching, I then add a 3 step approach, then a 4 step approach and then as the CAP course illustrated, with transition or a deep serve receive position, you can easily have a step sequence that is 7 or 12 steps. When I am recruiting, if I see an attacker with a limited broad jump, they will not be recruited by me. Hitters with a big broad jump are hard to block and dig, because they are flying through the air which means their angles of attack are constantly changing. This constant change is much harder to read, than a hitter who jumps dominantly up and down. An up and down attack is a static angle which is so much easier to block and read defensively. I will pass on a taller player who has a small broad jump and recruit a shorter player who flies through the air when she hits.

Volleyball training is a lot like comedy - some people find some things funny while other find something else humorous. There really is no right answer or no wrong answer. I find it important to develop a training philosophy that is logically correct (thus organic) and lends itself towards healthy athletes.

Some of the complaints which I have heard is when a coach or club director jumps head first into a new training philosophy in the middle of a season. First it is was USA Volleyball with the Asian style of training brought by Coach Toshi - Everyone was going nuts doing everything the Toshi way.
Now the Gold Medal Squared ideas are being immediately implemented by folks as the greatest thing since knee pads. It troubles me to see drastic changes in philosophy mid-season.

I am open to just about any new idea, as long as it is safe and follows my organic volleyball way of thinking. To this end, I have borrowed liberally from the Latin style, the Asian style, elements of the men's game, along with beach volleyball. There are also skills of each of these mentioned volleyball genres which I have rejected. I try to introduce new things slowly as to blend them into our team's overall training style. This way, if something does not produce the results I want or is not a very good fit, then it can be eliminated with minimal drama.

My suggestion for you is to look at all the different training styles which you have been exposed to via clinics, CAP courses, other coaches or teams and take those philosophies/skills that 'feel' right. Listen to what your inner volleyball coach is telling you (a bit new wave) because you must be comfortable and confident in what you are teaching.

Volleyball in the United States is just too divergent for there to be one dominant training style - too many factors in our geography, our socio-economic situation, our genders, our resources to allow for something for which other countries would say "this is the USA style of volleyball". As coaches, we are influenced so often by so many inputs that changing, accepting and rejecting styles is common place. Guess you could say the same thing about every part of American society?

But, this perceived weakness is also a strength. We can assimilate new ideas, we can adapt new techniques, we can take ideas to the maximum conclusion better than many other countries which tend to be quite rigid in the way they train for volleyball.

Back to Loren's situation with empowering her players to achieve college volleyball. Since coaches are not as open as me (even though I hide behind the Internet blanket of anonymity), you can't really slot your skill development training to enhance college volleyball potential. I suggest you try to eliminate those techniques which can lead to stress injuries, while modifying others into a simpler form. Volleyball has become too complicated in my opinion. Is Logan Tom a complicated player? Is Kim Willoughby a complicated player? I feel the best players tend to be simple in movement, technically simple (and correct) and physically/mentally gifted. Think about how something (movement, offense, defense, hitting, serving, etc) could be achieved successfully in a more simplistic form.

I hope my post was of help. way.