Keep your athletes on the edge of their skills: the ultimate boredom buster

By Jeff Smith

Pat Riley is one of the most often-quoted figures in all of sports. One of the former NBA championship coach's greatest quotes is “There are only two options regarding commitment. You're either in or out. There's no such thing as life in between.”

Riley's quote was about commitment, but it can easily be applied to player development as well. The athletes in our gym are always headed in one of two directions: They're either growing or stagnating. There's no such thing as development in between.

One of the biggest culprits that contributes to the stagnation of our players is if we as coaches aren't intentionally pushing them to live on the edge of their skills, to be constantly stretching them outside their comfort zone to learn new skills, new ideas, new methods, new tactics and new strategies.

Besides speeding our athletes' skill development, this philosophy of training also keeps our athletes more engaged in team practices. It's difficult to be bored in practice if each day our athletes are being challenged and encouraged to learn new skills, refine current skills and extend themselves beyond what they think they're capable of -- to be comfortable being uncomfortable, as we explored in our last blog post.

Here are a few examples of how to create a practice culture where our athletes are excited to train and motivated to train hard and grow.

The power of video and competition

Starting with the team's first practice, Coach Tim began filming his 17 Smack squad's 2v2 Bjerring tournament half-court warm-ups, then uploaded the footage to his team's web page and assigned his players to watch the video between practices and track certain key stats to gauge their progress. Athletes won't admit this publicly, but most of them thoroughly like being captured on video, especially in today's media-saturated society.

Add in the fun of participating in a tournament as part of your practice -- while getting dozens of gamelike touches on the ball in the process -- and the 17 Smack girls enjoyed this part of practice as much as any other portion of their workouts. I should know -- my older daughter is on that team. On one drive home from practice, she expressed her pride at winning three straight Bjerring practice tournaments. I never heard her express a similar level of pride at mindlessly digging up down balls hit by a coach during a blocked defensive drill during previous seasons.

After watching Coach Tim's first video of his team's Bjerring tournament online, I stole his idea and did the same thing with my 14 Smack squad at our first few practices. The girls' play in these 15-minute-long tournaments wasn't always pretty -- training "ugly" never is -- but my athletes absolutely loved the tournaments and watching themselves on film afterwards. Early in the season, one of my players' moms emailed me to say "Hayley just loves the team's practices. She is having so much fun. As a parent, I love hearing how excited she is about being on the team and going to practice." The power of video combined with the element of competition are an enticing mix for many of our athletes.

Constant learning curve

Another strong motivational tool for practices is continually weaving in new skills, tactics and strategies to our training sessions. Keep them on the edge of their skills by continually challenging them with new opportunities to grow.

Coach Grant is among the coaches doing this with his 15 Blue team. He recently told me how he is teaching his players a fast-tempo offense with shoot sets to the outside hitters, quick sets to his middle hitters and gap sets and hut sets as well. His team is still learning to some extent to implement such a complex array of offensive plays into matches, but they're pushing each other to execute these plays, and with each tournament they're showing steady, encouraging improvement that has Coach Grant and the girls excited to continue down this path.

By setting the bar of expectations high for his team, Coach Grant has created a practice culture where his players are eager to work diligently with him during small-court and full-court grills to acquire the skills necessary to pull off such a demanding offense.

Score what you want to see from your team

Like Coach Grant, I've been teaching my 14 Smack team in Elgin a faster-tempo offense with decidedly mixed results, which is typical for a middle-school aged team. Learning and mastering the timing and skill involved in executing a quick set to a middle hitter, a hut set to an outside hitter or a gap set to an opposite hitter -- particularly off a live serve -- at this age level can feel like teaching algebra to a kindergartener. When left to their own devices, many of my players will resort to running the safer, more familiar high sets to each pin hitter. I'm also a huge proponent of back-row attacks, especially out of serve receive, but early each season I've coached my players will choose to hit down-ball attacks instead of jump attacks because they're simpler, safer and easier to control.

That's when as coaches we need to enforce the power of scoring constraints and enticements. At our last team practice, to ensure that my athletes were stretching themselves running our quicker plays, during a game of hitters vs. defense I awarded hitters 15 points for every jump kill off a fast-tempo set ... and conversely they earned only 1 point for any jump kill off a high set. As for standing attacks, they received no points, as down-ball kills were treated as a wash.

How did the girls react to this scoring system? They "let it rip." I've enacted this point system many times before, and each time it gives the players the freedom to try our faster-tempo plays with no fear of failure. In this particular case, group A scored 31 points in two minutes behind one kill off a hut set to the outside hitter and another kill off a front slide attack by our left-handed middle hitter along with a 1-point kill off a high set to the outside. It was the highlight of our practice; our southpaw middle hitter was so pumped up after recording a rare kill off a play we've been learning for a few practices now. Let's face it: Who doesn't get stoked about the opportunity to score 15 points with one kill? The 1-point kills off high sets lost their luster with one creative scoring rule.

Sometimes I up the ante even further, giving hitters 10 points for a kill off a fast-tempo or back-row jump attack and 5 points for any similar attempt that doesn't result in a kill but at least is hit over the net (a positive error). This gives my athletes the ultimate freedom to experiment, be aggressive and "fail," though in this case they're succeeding by earning points even for jump attacks that sail 10 feet out of bounds.

(As coaches, this can be a real challenge for us. Watching attacks careen out of bounds can tempt us to spit out the words "just get it in" sometimes, especially after the 15th errant attack in the last five minutes of practice. I speak for myself as much as anyone on this issue. But if we can be patient, supportive and even encourage these mistakes, and offer timely feedback to help our athletes fix the flaws in technique that are causing these errors, the payoff is frequently just around the corner.)

Now the girls have progressed to the point where our scoring system in practices gives them no points for even down-ball back-row attacks. Their response? They rarely hit a standing attack in practices or matches anymore. At the start of our season, only three of our athletes could consistently execute a three- or two-step back-row jump attack. Now eight of the 10 can do it regularly, even our two 4-feet-10 liberos, and the other two girls are close to joining them, working feverishly in our grills to catch up with their teammates, one back-row jump attempt at a time.

Keep things fresh, fast paced and fun

To some extent our athletes like routine. If every practice were comprised of all new grills, games and drills, our athletes would get frustrated, and our practices would grind to a slow halt.

But at the same time, our athletes -- and, truth be told, us as coaches -- like fresh ideas as well. Try weaving one or two new grills into every practice to spice up your training sessions and keep your practices from going stale. Even throw in new concepts, like spending 10 minutes at the middle of your practice teaching a fun new skill like how to execute a pancake or taking a few minutes to play your athletes' favorite game just for the fun of it.

For example, Coach Tim lets his Downers Grove 14 Smack boys team finish each practice with a few minutes of pound-the-ball-as-hard-as-possible hitting lines if their effort level throughout practice was good. Our Wheaton 14 Smack team has an encouragement circle where Coach Nick has the girls take turns pointing out something one of their teammates did well during that practice. Three of the Elgin teams close each practice giving out hustle and best attitude awards to end each session on a positive note. My team loves Speedball and Rotating Columbus, so if we have a great and focused practice I'll close our time with one of these games or another game I call Volleyball Knockout, where the player who ends each rally with an error is "knocked out" of the game until only one player remains on the court.

Above all, make sure the pace of your practices is up-tempo. There are times when we are teaching a new skill or strategy, explaining a new grill or having to reiterate something our team is struggling with that practice needs to slow down. But, by and large, our practices need to be run at a high-energy clip, minimizing down time. This gets our athletes moving, competing, learning and getting the quantity and quality of ball touches they need to develop their skills -- while keeping them engaged, excited, stretched and having fun.

I've seen this with my own teams over the years. The slower I run my practices, the lower my athletes' energy level becomes. But when I make sure that most of my team's practice time is gamelike, random, competitive and scored, and my feedback and explanations are brief, occasional and to the point, our practices are productive, enjoyable, spirited and engaging. And yes, that sometimes means keeping my know-it-all coaching mouth shut and avoiding the urge to correct Sally every time she forgets to cover a tip or Margaret whenever she steals the second ball from our setter.

Taken all together, this life-on-the-edge-of-your-skills mentality makes for a fun environment where learning and taking chances are embraced, and where boredom is left outside the front door of your gym.

Jeff Smith is Serve City volleyball region director.