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Drill Design 

Drill Design & Player Abilities:
Developing the Higher-Level High School Volleyball Program

by JT Spanos (Denver, N.C.)

For coaches who are continually learning the game, drill design is critically important to gain the growth needed to push your athletes and teams to the upper echelons of the volleyball hierarchy. This may be national, state or local recognition and in many instances, all of these. Particular attention must be given to how the drills fit into the objectives of the team. Pertinent questions: What will this drill accomplish? Is the drill safe for the athlete? Is this a waste of time? Are the drills representative of the actual game?

A) Drill Design and Objectives

As coaches, drills must be designed to get the athletes into game-ready physical, cognitive and affective form. Set and write down the objectives of the drills and at what extent you can evaluate the athletes’ growth in these drills. Have options to increase (or decrease) the drills degree of difficulty should the athletes overwhelm the drill objectives (add or subtract portions of the drill).

Coming from a football background, I was fortunate to have very good coaches who drilled us in the above manner. The commonality of the ‘football’ drills was repetition and game-like situations. This included player grading on performance, scouting reports on opponents and adjustment to upcoming opponents. Volleyball and all sports have since adapted to these concepts using psychology-of-sport methodology (remember, Coleman Griffith, the Father of Sport Psychology in the USA, began as a football researcher at the University of Illinois in the 1930s).

B) Learning the Drills

The word ‘beginner’ has different meanings for different authors of text including those producing sample drills. High school programs vary from lower-level varsity programs to higher-level programs with developed elementary, middle school and ninth grade ‘farm systems.' Levels of individual ability must be addressed. Drill objectives must be dependent upon the athletes abilities learned from prior instruction: those taught game/positioning concepts to those athletes who were allowed to play ‘sling’ volleyball (just send every ball over the net on any contact).

My personal situation was of not being allowed to train the middle school athletes (uncooperative coaches), who play sling ball, unless the athletes came to my camps. Therefore, in the next years, the athletes spent their JV seasons learning correct mechanics, game play and knowledge of the game (at the expense of just winning matches).

Athletes may only be volleyball players during volleyball season (no USAV, camps, no off-season training, or participate in multiple sports). This is especially true in counties that are strong in softball, soccer or basketball that tend to have very developed club systems throughout the year. Therefore, time must be spent on the cognitive part of the game and to teach the drill (physical), the purpose of the drill (cognitive), and the importance of the drill (affective). Teaching the drills will save practice time as the athletes move confidently from task to task.

C) Drill Progressions

In designing a quality drill, the athletes will need competition: like it or not, there must be a game winner and loser. The consequence need only be minor that is just difficult enough and takes very little practice time that the athletes would just rather not perform it. Examples could be ball shagging after the drill, taking down the net, 25 crunches or a wall touch. I have coached a team where the consequence was a single crunch or jumping jack. That team bought into the concept and drilled hard to NOT do that jumping jack for what it represented. This did not work obviously for all teams. Never underestimate the power of a minor consequence that makes athletes get up off the floor such as crunches, rolls or dives or push-ups.

Important points to consider in drill design at lower levels are how the players rotate in the drill (especially when there are errors made), and if the drill has the ability to add more (or less) options to increase the player progressions. If the drill requires a strong setter and you have none, can the drill succeed in your objectives with weaker ones? If the drill requires a positive serve, can the athletes still rotate efficiently when the serve is missed? Continually ask yourself these sorts of questions to evaluate the athletes (and the drill): especially if the athletes are new to you. The better drill, the better the flow of the athletes.

D) Drill Efficiency

A drill point not addressed often enough is efficiency – accomplishing intended goals in a given time frame. Coaches need to put time limits on drills to gain perspective on athlete progression. The drill time, unmonitored, can eat up valuable practice time and quality of performance could fall due to player boredom. Set the game clock when the drill begins. Adjust this time accordingly to player (team) ability and if you plan to add progressively to the drill. Drill time should be set when planning the practice (schedule). Build in extra time if teaching new drills or new progressions.

Design the drills so that each athlete on the team is progressing. Your better players need to grow also even at the expense of the lesser-skilled players. Drill goals need to be adjusted to deal with these athletes. Athletic abilities are not the same for everyone.

I had a couple of athletes on different high school teams that were much more advanced than their teammates. At times in practice, these players were somewhat unstoppable. Their teammates used them as an excuse to not play hard (even with the drill consequences in place). I had to put stringent point requirements on the advanced players to get quality effort from their teammates – progressively balancing the rewards so the team had chances to succeed. Luckily for our team, the advanced players wanted to get better instead of just strolling through it in practice gaining that ‘try and stop me’ attitude.

E) Drill Participants

Recently, an issue has come up whereas coaches are bringing in outside players to help in practice – mainly as blockers and hitters. Some colleges use the male club teams. Some high schools use their former players. In this sense, outside athletes can provide a strong practice team against your starters provided they understand a few important points. The outside players must also be taught what you want them to do (scout team, defense first,...) and to play safely. The last thing a coach would want is a group of non-serious athletes out for a recreational game that may injure your athletes. These outside players must be part of the practice plan with drills restrictions to help the team.

I have tried at times to bring in some boys to practice against, but in some instances deemed them too dangerous to play. They had to be trained to play first. Currently, there is a group of high school boys that can play safely. To make sure they stick to their duties in the drills, they are monitored (and fussed at) just like the team. These young men are part of our team, help out on game days and have become fans of our program.

F) Drill Conditioning and Evaluation

There should be a conditioning aspect to all drills. This could be accomplished in pre-season or early season by ramping up the drill pace provided there is adequate recovery and balance in muscle groups trained. Use the time between drills and before water breaks as a way to condition athletes by running to shag balls, to go get water, to gather with the coach for instructions, comments on play or assigning a new drill.

I have my athletes shag the balls after the drill by running to a ball and bringing it to the ball cart. They can only pick up one or two balls at a time and must then run again to get them all. This results in about 2-3 ball runs. The running to all downtime activities becomes continual time-out practice (where you only have a short time to speak).

At all times, the coach must determine the effectiveness of the given drill practiced. Continual drill evaluation of game transfer skills will aid in eliminating wasted practice time. Drills are for the athletes to progress not to just fill practice space. If the athletes love to play triples, put goal-oriented criteria into the rules. Use creative scoring and rewards for the winners and use the drill for the players to get better. At the same time, coaches should not let the players off-the-hook on the drill criteria.

I use big point/little point for scoring to keep the players focused on the practice plan. Another scoring method I use is a multiple points system for correct tasks (at the coach’s discretion) as opposed to only the rally point. When the serve is dominating the game, adjust rules to allow a serve point and a rally point (coach sends freeball to loser of serve point, for example).

Drilling in volleyball practices should not be a chore for the players. It is a necessary part of the game to enhance learning. The right design with monitoring and scoring will provide athletes with the competition they strive for. Build drills with specific objectives and add progressive criteria to enable high growth. Remember: Pressure equals Flow.