Practicing smarter: how to get the most out of your practices

by Jeff Smith

With a shorter season and fewer practice hours than most other Chicago-area clubs, Serve City's volleyball players and teams must overcome a training-time deficit to keep up with our opponents.

How can our athletes and teams compensate? By practicing smarter, not just harder. Here are five ways to accomplish this.

1. Arrive early

As the military saying goes, if you're 10 minutes early you're right on time. Imagine if you arrive 15-20 minutes early to your next 20 practices and use that time to hone your skills. That's 300 extra minutes of work you could invest in your passing, setting, serving and other areas of your game. Consider how much you could improve with an extra five hours of training.

Then do it.

2. Set goals for each practice

Setting goals is like using a map to plot out a trip: It helps you know where you're going. As a volleyball player, you can set two or three specific goals for yourself for each practice. These goals will allow you to concentrate on areas of your development during practice that need your focused attention.

For example, let's say you're a setter who has been occasionally finding yourself arriving slightly late to the ball in the setting zone when transitioning from right back on defense. For Monday's practice your goals are to work on your footwork when moving to the ball and to improve your reaction time in transitioning from base defense to offense. Maybe you've also wanted to learn how to serve the short zones better, so your third goal for practice is to serve more effectively to zones 2 and 4.

After practice, take a quick minute to review your goals. In a journal or in a simple word processing app on your phone, note one thing you improved on and one thing you need to keep working on at your next practice.

By goal setting you'll be following the habits of pro athletes. Beach volleyball player Geena Urango discusses using goal setting in her practices in this video.

3. Seek out quality and quantity touches on the volleyball

Coaches cringe when they see a group of six to 10 girls form a circle and do circle passing before a practice or match. If you're doing circle passing with seven other players, in one minute you're probably touching the ball three or four times at most. By comparison, if you pair up with a partner you could get 25 to 30 touches in a minute.

Of course, developing your skills requires more than just a quantity of repetitions. You need quality as well. Motor learning science teaches us that the most skill acquisition and skill transfer from practices to matches occurs when volleyball players perform skills in a game-like drill setting.

At the risk of getting too technical, it's otherwise known as the law of specificity. Basically, specificity teaches that, to become better at a particular skill, you must perform that skill as closely to how you actually execute that skill in a game as possible, avoiding gimmicky drills that don't transfer well to actual games.

In volleyball, this means ...

  • If you want to get better at hitting live sets, the best strategy you can use is to work on improving your technique and timing by hitting live sets, not tosses from a coach or balls in a hitting machine.
  • If you want to grow into a more consistent serve receiver, the best way you can do this is to sharpen your skills by receiving live serves in game-like situations.
  • If you want to develop your back-row skills digging hard-driven jump attacks, your best choice is to practice digging up actual hard-driven jump hits from hitters who receive sets from live setters, not artificial hits from a coach or teammate tossing balls to himself and hitting while standing on a box.

4. Push yourself

Six-time NBA basketball champion Michael Jordan was famous for many reasons, including his passionate practice habits. His Chicago Bulls teammates and coaches called him the most competitive practice player they ever encountered. Whether shooting free throws or playing a scrimmage, Jordan went all out to win every drill and game of practice.

Treating every drill and practice like the Hall of Fame guard did is a good habit to build, constantly stretching yourself and your skills in the process.

5. Enjoy every moment

More than anything, the attitude you bring to each practice will affect your work ethic, growth and how much you get out of each training session. If you see practice as an opportunity to not only develop your skills and understanding of the game but also to play a sport you love, you'll be more motivated to pour your best effort into every practice.

In short, have fun! This doesn't mean goofing around, wasting time and disrespecting your coach and teammates. It does mean relishing the chance to play, compete, learn and improve with the other members of your team. When you love what you do, you'll enthusiastically do what you love -- and your game will get better as a result.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.