Producing 'feisty, prepared players': the purpose behind our training philosophy

by Jeff Smith

Shortly after Serve City Lifezone 15 Blue had captured first place at the United Invitational on January 20, we received a text from a parent of one of the 15 Blue players. The end of the message read, "All the girls were going for the ball, and it’s clear that the Serve City coaching philosophy is resulting in feisty, prepared players who overcome a talent/size gap."

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That parent had just provided a great summary of Serve City's volleyball training philosophy.

Random, game-like, competitive

Serve City teams don't train like the typical volleyball club. Players who join Serve City from other clubs take a little while to adjust to our different training approach. I coached 18U, 16U and briefly 15U at another Chicago-area club prior to coming to Serve City. Although this previous club was beginning to dabble in the newer training philosophy, the coaches largely embraced the old methods of training. My ideas on training, learned from the science of motor learning, were seen a bit skeptically.

Many clubs are stuck in the same training methods they used 15, 20 to 30 years ago. Why? Because "it worked then and it works now," even though extensive research of learning methods in volleyball and sports in general clearly show that there is now a more effective training style available.

Motor learning: what science says training should look like

Our philosophy on player development is built on the science of motor learning: that volleyball athletes and teams learn and grow best when practices are structured around random, game-like, competitive, multi-skill drills and games.

What does a random, game-like, competitive drill or game look like? One of numerous examples is Queen of the Court. and its many variations. In game-like drills like Queens, players practice multiple skills at the same time under the direction of their coach. The game closely mimics an actual game of volleyball, and the athletes learn how to serve, receive serves, pass, set, hit, dig, read and anticipate what the opponent is doing on the other side of the net and make decisions on the fly in a challenging, competitive, game-like setting. No coaches stand on hitting boxes or toss easy sets to hitters, and balls are only received and delivered over a net, not artificially across the width of a court to a partner.

Feisty and prepared

This training approach helps players enjoy the most transfer from practices to matches (i.e., retain the most learning) and teaches players to understand the game and think quickly and creatively on their feet as they improve their technical skills, resulting in feisty, prepared players, as the Lifezone 15 Blue parent above noted.

Athletes in a club like ours especially benefit from this style of training. The "elite" athletes tend to migrate to the largest clubs that boast the highest team achievements, the greatest training budgets and the most on-court success. These top-level athletes then play for national, or travel, teams that practice 6-9 hours a week, receive 1-2 additional hours of private training and compete in 25-30 tournament dates over the course of a seven- to eighth-month season.

For Serve City to field competitive teams against these clubs, our athletes need some sort of edge, especially since our teams practice fewer hours a week and play a lot fewer tournaments than most other Chicago-area clubs due to our family-friendly cost structure and schedule.

In short, we have to squeeze the absolute most out of our training time.

Accomplishing more with less

That's one reason why many of our teams also run fast-paced practices. Our training philosophy lends itself to high-energy practices that pack large volumes of learning into shorter practice sessions. One dad, after watching one of my team's practices a couple of years ago, said to me, "You accomplish more in one practice than most coaches accomplish in two."

To be fair, that's largely out of necessity. Highly structured, intensely paced practices are designed to prepare our athletes as much as possible for tournament play against opponents who have the advantage of practicing more hours and with larger budgets than our teams do. We need to make our practices so challenging that our matches seem easy by comparison.

Following USA Volleyball's lead

We can't take credit for the randomized, gamelike training method. We have patterned our philosophy after the same training model used by the world's top volleyball organization, USA Volleyball. Our sport’s national governing body believes gamelike, randomized training -- not isolated, single-skill, blocked training (here is an example of a blocked digging drill) -- is the most surefire way of helping athletes develop skills and retain learning for the long term.

Not practicing to look good in practice

Game-like training can make practices sometimes look a bit chaotic, sloppy and ugly -- kind of like volleyball can look in an actual match in a sport where statistics show that 56 percent of all rallies are played out of system. But practicing these principles will ultimately help us develop better-equipped, more well-rounded and more competitive-minded players who are prepared to perform where it matters most: in the heat of a match.

Serve City teams don’t practice to look good in practice. We practice to improve and to perform well in matches.

U.S. women’s national team coach Karch Kiraly is one of the world's biggest advocates of this training approach.

“We are training to perform, not to drill," the three-time Olympic gold medalist notes. "All of the science tells us that we do the most learning when practice looks like an actual game – which is really random and not just super controlled. That governs just about everything we do in the gym. We’re trying to make every second count in our gym as much as possible to make the most transfer (of skills) we can get.”

I will unpack this training philosophy in greater detail over the next few weeks.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.