gamelike training

What a Serve City practice looks like

by Jeff Smith

Our club's training philosophy looks different at a 12U practice than it does at an 18U practice for obvious reasons. But the same general principles should be evident at any Serve City practice regardless of the age, experience levels or skill development of the athletes.

Besides our last blog post about our training philosophy, the best way to explain this philosophy is to show it by walking you through a detailed description of one of our practices. Here is the Wheaton 18 Blue team's January 16 practice as an example. I substitute coached that practice for our 18 Blue coach, Coach Cody, that day. Four of the 11 players were attending the shoulder risk reduction clinic hosted by our partner Olympia Chiropractic and Physical Therapy, so I wasn't able to use the coach's pre-written practice plan. Instead I crafted a practice plan that met the needs of an 18U team of seven players.

Here's what we did from start to finish.

7:00 p.m.: 2v0 cooperative split court

In this warm-up drill, two players deliver the ball back and forth over the net using three contacts each time (all passing and setting), running quickly under the net to track down the ball and keep it alive. Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off (away from) the net. Great drill for improving ball control, warming up and conditioning while playing volleyball.

7:05 p.m.: two groups of 1v1 and one group of 1v1+1 cooperative split court

In 1v1, one player is on one side of the net and her partner is on the other side from her. Players passed the ball back and forth to each other using one contact for one minute, then using two contacts (pass to self, set over the net to your partner) and finally using three contacts (pass to self, set to self, hit the ball over the net to your partner). Our emphasis was passing the first contact high and off the net and staying in balance.

In 1v1+1, two players are on other side of the net as passers and a third player is the rotating setter; she runs back and forth under the net to set the ball for each of her teammates, with players continually delivering the ball over the net in three contacts. (Cooperative refers to the players working together to string together as many consecutive three-contact series as possible instead of going for the kill and winning a rally, which is a competitive drill.) The emphasis was on conditioning and controlling the ball with the platform and hands.

7:15: 1v1 competitive split court

With their shoulders and bodies now warmed up, we played halfcourt rallies of 1v1. Each rally began with a serve. Players were playing solo against their teammates, so they were allowed and encouraged to use three contacts, passing to self, setting to self and then hitting the ball over the net. If a player won a rally, she moved to the serve receive side of the court. If a player lost a rally, she moved off the court and grabbed another volleyball while awaiting her next turn to serve. The emphasis here was on looking across the net before delivering the ball over the net to spot the open areas that you could attack.

7:20: 1v1v1 competitive split court

This is a terrific game for passing, bettering the ball and conditioning. One player is on either side of the court with a third player setting. One player serves to the other player, who passes to the setter. The setter sets back to her, and she attacks the ball and then runs quickly under the net to become the setter for the player on the other side of the net who was the original server. This same pattern continues as the player who delivers the third contact over the net is always responsible for then running under the net and acting as the setter for the other player. Points are awarded to whichever player ends a rally with either an ace or a kill.

7:25: Bjerring split court tournament

Players were divided into three teams of two and one team of one for three different rounds of 2v2 (doubles) or 2v1 when the solo player was playing. Scoring methods changed for each round. For round one, teams could only use forearm passing and overhead passing so the players could work on delivering aggressive free ball "attacks" into the opponent's court.

For round two, players were only awarded points if they won a rally off either a service ace or a kill off a standing or jump hit. For round three, players could only score points by winning a rally off either a service ace or a jump hit for a kill. The latter rounds encouraged an aggressive approach to serving and offensive play using back-row, front-row and free-ball attacks instead of playing it safe.

7:40: 15 Queens full court

Players were divided into two teams of two and one team of three and played full-court Queen of the Court, which especially stretched the serve receive and defensive abilities of the two doubles teams. One team served to a second team while the third team waited behind the end line to serve next as soon as the rally ahead of them ended. The serve receive team stayed on its side of the court if it won the rally. The serving team ran to the serve receive side of the court if it won the rally, and the waiting team then quickly took the court to serve next.

Fifteen refers to the total number of points a team needed to score to win the game. For points 1-5, a team could only win a rally using forearm and overhead passing or an ace. For points 6-10, a team had to win a rally only using a standing attack or an ace. For points 11-15, a team could only score a point off an ace or a jump hit for a kill.

We also worked extensively on zone serving in this game. Servers looked to me before each serve to signal what zone, or area, of the court they were to serve to. I gave each server a wide range of different zones to target, so the players got valuable experience zone serving to a variety of spots.

7:50: Corners Queens

This is a game I recently devised. It is played as Queen of the Court except with a couple of challenging twists. All serves had to be delivered from zone 1 (right back) or zone 5 (left back) to either zone 1 or zone 5 on the serve receive side of the court. I gave players their zones to serve from and serve to. If they hit their zone they earned a bonus point for their team in addition to earning a point for winning the rally.

However, there were two catches. The first catch was they could only earn a point for winning a rally if they delivered the ball to zone 1 or zone 5 on the opponent's side of the net. The other catch was that, if they served the ball to zone 6 (middle of the court), their team would not receive a point for winning the rally. The reason for this rule was to emphasize serving and hitting to zones 1 and 5 instead of safely to zone 6, the easiest zone for teams to pass to their setter in serve receive and on defense.

8:05: Hitters vs. Defense

We were able to play about 12 quick-paced rounds of hitters vs. defense. This game featured a back-row passer, one setter and one hitter receiving free balls and converting them into pass-set-hit opportunities while the other four players played defense and attempted to prevent the hitter from recording any kills. Everyone played at least one round as a hitter. One setter hit from right back for one round to work on back-row attacks, while the other setter hit for one round as a right-side hitter, and the setters alternated setting on the hitter side and defending on the defensive side.

The other five players hit for two rounds apiece, with the outside hitter who was at practice hitting one round at outside hitter and one round hitting a new gap quick set, 41, we worked on for a few minutes. The middle hitter who attended practice hit 1s (quick sets) from the middle as well as the 41 gap quick set for a few minutes, and our libero and two defensive specialists each hit from middle back and left back to sharpen their back-row attacking skills.

This was a good drill for working on numerous skills at once, another staple of this training philosophy (multi-skill drills vs. single-skill drills): defending against front-row and back-row attacks, hitting a variety of shots from different positions on the court, setting a range of different hitters and types of sets (high sets, back sets, quick sets, gap sets, back-row sets) and even hitting to specific areas of the court. (The middle hitter was instructed to work on her wrist-away shots to zone 5, and the outside hitter was asked to only attack the ball cross court and to the high line.)

8:30: 30 Before 10

Since we were shorthanded that day, I volunteered my nearly 50-year-old shoulder to alternate serving with one of the other players at a team of six players on the other side of the net. The goal of the team of six was to deliver 30 pass-set-hit series over the net and into the court before the  two servers reached 10 service aces. Missed serves counted as a point for the side of six. The two servers served aggressively to make the side of six earn every point. We played three rounds of this game, with three different players joining me as servers. The team was able to receive roughly 140 serves in less than 20 minutes, a high volume of serves that sharpened their serve receive skills.

8:50: Zone Serving Queens

We finished with a fast-paced round of Queen of the Court with two teams of two and one team of three and the servers looking to me for their serving zones. In 10 minutes everyone served at least three times, and I gave them a wide range of different zones to serve to, particularly the short front-row zones (2 to right front, 3 to middle front and 4 to left front) so the players could get practice serving the short zones of the court.

9:00: dismissal

Thanks largely to the energy and efforts of the players, this practice met the four criteria of our club's training philosophy:

Gamelike: Every drill and game took place over the net and, in most cases, each rally started with a serve, or at least a free ball or standing attack. Nearly every rally was played out until the ball was dead, too.

Random: No rallies began with a pre-determined toss from a coach or teammate. Most rallies started with either a serve or a standing attack delivered randomly to different players. Athletes had to read, plan and execute the proper skills instead of receiving an easy toss from a coach or digging a hit from a coach standing on a box that required no reading of an opponent's actions.

Competitive: To increase the competitive nature of this practice, we scored everything and kept a competitive cauldron. Players earned 1 point for every game or drill in which they finished with the highest score of their teammates. For example, the hitter who finished with the most kills in Hitters vs. Defense earned a point for winning that game. Then, at the end of practice we added up the scores and determined which player won the most games and drills to win the competitive cauldron.

High energy: Each drill and game was performed at a fast pace. The only stoppages in play were to explain a game or drill beforehand, detail the scoring methods and rules for games and drills and occasionally to offer feedback and teaching points or ask questions as needed. By my rough estimate, the average player in this practice got well over 900 touches on a volleyball along with over 1,000 different reads of the opponent on the other side of the net; the latter of which is one of the most under-taught and under-emphasized skills in our sport.

The practice also stretched the players in many ways, introduced them to a few new concepts and was a lot of fun to play and coach.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

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."

volleyball hitter for Facebook.jpg

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.