Simple is repeatable: the most effective approach to volleyball training

by Jeff Smith

A coaching friend of mine conducted a fascinating experiment at a volleyball clinic last weekend. He was teaching a class of coaches some new approaches to creating a practice plan. After the coaches spent a couple of hours collaborating on a joint practice plan, my friend led them to a volleyball court to test out the plan. The coaches acted as players, performing the various drills, games and other activities they had brainstormed together.

For one drill, one of the coaches explained how the drill worked, shared the four or five teaching cues, or points, that the coaches had come up with for teaching the desired skill, then instructed the players to perform the drill. About 10 minutes later the drill concluded. The coach then asked the "players," most of whom were long-time coaches themselves, to recall the four to five teaching cues that he had shared with them.

Not one of the players/coaches could remember any of the teaching pointers that the drill was supposed to instill in them.

That's when my friend asked the group why they thought they couldn't recollect even one of the cues that they had painstakingly designed to help teach the skill they practiced in the drill. "There were too many cues for us to remember," one coach piped up.

"I agree," my friend replied. "So, if we can't remember four or five teaching cues conveyed to us by a coach when we're experienced coaches ourselves, should we expect the middle school and high school athletes on our teams to remember a list of cues taught by us in our practices?"

Everyone knew the answer to that question.

This is a lesson in reality that takes years for coaches, and educators in general, to truly learn. I still can look back and shudder at my first year as a coach, thinking that the more I talked and taught my players through long, in-depth explanations of how to pass, set, serve and hit, the more my players would naturally soak up my knowledge, learn and develop.

It didn't take more than a couple of months to quickly realize the fallacy of that philosophy. The kids' bored looks and inability to transfer a list of 10 teaching pointers into their performance on the court demonstrated to me that over-complicating things wasn't helpful to my players. I learned to pare down my instructions to a bare minimum.

It's ironic that, after 20 years of coaching, I talk and "instruct" less in practices today than ever before. Shouldn't it be the opposite? I know more about the game now than I ever have. I still read, discuss, study, observe and soak in new methods, techniques, ideas and insights, yet I've learned the age-old axiom of less is more.

In fact, like my coaching clinic colleague, I've gotten to the point where I try hard to limit my instruction to making one teaching point per drill or game. Research shows that attempting to impart more than one teaching cue at a time to students or athletes is fruitless and ineffective, so when I run a team through a ball control drill, I ask them to focus solely on one point or step in the process of acquiring or refining a skill.

It's the concept of "simple is repeatable." Simple movements are easier to achieve and put into practice than complex movements. If you wanted to learn from me how to spike a volleyball and I promptly rattled off the 10 keys to spiking success and then turned you loose, how would you respond? Would you start incorporating all 10 teaching points and begin bouncing kills in front of the 10-foot line? Or would you struggle just to remember one or two teaching cues and walk away frustrated by your lack of progress?

(It's akin to when I would cram for a final exam in high school and college. I might "retain" the mounds of material I basically memorized for a day or two, just long enough to ace a test. But I quickly forgot the information I studied shortly after the exam took place. Filling my head with dozens of details at once did me no good as a student in the long run.)

Yet coaches in volleyball, basketball, baseball and a host of other sports do this very thing, cramming young athletes' heads with information overload and complex concepts and then expecting them to digest it all and quickly pick up these skills.

Even some of the finest minds in coaching fall prey to overly technical and verbose teaching. I'm currently reading a book on how to build successful volleyball programs. One of the chapters covers the author's teaching philosophy on hitting. When he teaches spiking to his players, he gives them 10 cues -- and another 15-20 sub-cues -- to work on. That philosophy may produce results if you're coaching the outside hitters at Penn State or the University of Nebraska, but trying that approach anywhere else will leave you with a roster of confused athletes.

At Serve City, one of our training goals is to teach in a way that players can best grasp new concepts -- to emphasize simple movements that can be grasped and accomplished. When I was guest coaching at a 12-and-under team practice the other day, I ran the girls through a game of 4 vs. 4 in which I introduced them to three new skills. But, instead of trying in vain to teach the three skills at once, I introduced one skill at a time. I started by teaching them how to execute a side bump and gave them two pointers to practice: face the ball with their hips and shoulders and drop their inside shoulder in order to swing their platform toward the opponent. Even then I felt like I was providing too much detail at once, but, with the focus on just two simple points, these 10- to 12-year-old girls were pounding side bumps back and forth into the opponent's court within a couple of minutes. Simple was repeatable.

After a few minutes of working on side bumps within the context of a game of 4 vs. 4, I then used the same simple-is-repeatable approach to introduce how to back bump the ball: arch your back and swing your platform to your target. The kids did a terrific job of learning this new skill within a few minutes as well.

I saved the toughest skill for last: a drop step. I briefly explained and demonstrated the drop step move for passing balls that sail deep over the passer's head or shoulders, using three cues this time. I quickly noticed that the kids were struggling to put all three pointers to practice, so I began reinforcing just two teaching cues instead of three: face the ball with your shoulders and hips and shuffle step back to the ball. The girls figured out the other pointers on their own -- dropping the shoulder closest to their target and angling their platform to the setter, for instance. They just needed a couple of basic teaching cues to guide them in the right direction. And all the positive and constructive feedback I gave them over the next several minutes as they practiced this new skill focused only on those two teaching pointers, reinforcing the instances I saw them trying to execute the two cues correctly and reminding them of one cue or the other when they didn't try to perform one of the cues.

Next thing you knew, these fifth- and sixth-grade players were drop stepping to receive deep free balls and delivering passes toward their setter instead of standing in one spot, reaching high and swatting helplessly at the ball with their hands. They weren't executing perfect drop-step maneuvers each time by any means, but they were recognizing when to drop step and were striving to perform this skill when they needed to.

Whether the skill you're learning is how to create a platform, how to overhand serve, how to hit a slide attack or how to improve your golf putting, keep it simple and emphasize simple movements over complex movements so you can remember it, learn quickly how to repeat it and immediately put it into practice.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.