Originally published in 2009

About the Author: Rick Swan is the head women's volleyball coach at Colorado College. He is a CAP Level II coach in USA Volleyball's Coach Education Program.

Game-like training is a simple idea. It is the notion that athletes will learn to play the game of volleyball better by practicing the whole game rather than practicing the individual skills involved in the sport in an isolated manner. Success in volleyball is not determined by how well players can execute individual skills outside of the competitive game. Success is determined by how well the team (and its individuals) plays the competitive game of volleyball within the framework of the actual match.

At the beginning of last club season I received phone call from a friend who had just taken a coaching position for a local club volleyball team. As a new coach with a limited background in coaching volleyball (a few youth recreation leagues here and there) he came to me looking for some help. As I reflected back to when I first started coaching and thought about what I knew then and what I had learned over the years, I tried to think of what I could pass along to this coach that would help him the most during his rookie season. The first thing that jumped into my mind, and without a doubt, the biggest influence in my coaching career and philosophy was when I learned about game-like training.

I had played the game myself for many years and had been coaching volleyball for awhile and thought I knew a lot about the game. But then I spent a weekend attending a coach’s clinic where one of the topics was game-like training. At the clinic I learned what game-like training really meant. I was very intrigued and couldn’t wait to try it out on my players. It would mean a total change in the way we practiced. No more players standing in lines. No more players playing pepper to warm up. No more boring, repetitive drills where I would bang ball after ball at diggers until my arm was about to fall off. No more artificial drills trying to recreate the game of volleyball. If it wasn’t game-like we weren’t going to do it.

At the beginning of spring workouts I started implementing game-like training in to our practices. The first thing I noticed was that the kids were really responding to the new drills. They were working hard, and at the same time, having a lot of fun. We were practicing three days a week and after just a few days of practice my assistant coach and I begin to look at each other in disbelief. Were these the same kids who just a few weeks ago had no ball control what so ever? We couldn’t believe the improvement we were seeing.

In just a couple of weeks our players were playing volleyball better than ever. These young athletes were learning and improving faster than ever before. They were getting to balls that would have dropped weeks earlier. Their movement on the court, which was non-existent three weeks ago, was great. As coaches, we were coaching less, letting the kids play more and watching them get better. (If only we had learned about game-like training earlier). As things turned out we took a bunch of young kids (only two had any varsity experience), implemented game-like training into their practices and that fall coached them to a fourth place finish at the state tournament. The following year, with only one senior on the team, these young ladies won the first state championship in their school history. I know to this day, if it wasn’t for that clinic and changing my coaching philosophy to game-like training, those young ladies wouldn’t be the champions they are today.

So when that new coach asked me for help I asked him what he felt was important for his team to learn, specifically what did he feel was the most important skill in volleyball. Like many coaches the first thing he said was passing is the most important skill to learn. When I told him no, the next thing he said was serving. Although passing and serving are both very important, I explained to him that the most important skill to learn was reading and reacting. Passing is great but if you do not know how to move and react to the ball you will never be able to make a good pass no matter how great of platform you have. There is so much more to training than just teaching skills (thinking, communication, reading, and reacting, anticipation, perception and court awareness). The best way for an athlete to master skills is to experience the skills in game situations.

So much occurs in the game of volleyball that cannot be recreated by using artificial situations. Too many times a coach will run drills that are not game-like and use artificial situations that will result in bad habits that must be changed before the skill can be used in game competition. Examples of artificial drills are:

  • 1. tossing a ball in hitting lines
  • 2. hitting from a box
  • 3. a coach standing on the floor banging balls at a group of diggers
  • 4. spiking the ball against the wall
  • 5. partner passing
  • 6. partner setting
  • 7. not using the net in practice.

The more similar a coach can make his/her practice sessions to the specific element of actual game situations, the higher probability of success. Have your athletes play more one on one, two on two and “monarch of the court games” (which every kid loves to play). Common sense and motor development research point to the undeniable fact that the best way to train the complete athlete is to integrate the physical and mental aspects of the game by training and teaching them the whole game. Thus you will find the idea of implementing game-like training to your practices can add a breath of life into programs that develop teams that drill like champions but play like zombies.

Always remember that the best teacher of the game is the game itself!

Following are some key points that will help make your practices more game-like and more effective.

  • 1. If it’s not game-like, don’t do it!
  • 2. Make drills competitive - Always keep score (results oriented).
  • 3. Drills always have a purpose – Get 25 great passes.
  • 4. Drills always have consequences (Create pressure situations).
  • 5. Every practice is different. (Use different drills).
  • 6. Teach players/managers to run drills, not coaches.
  • 7. Keep it interesting and keep everyone involved (Players not standing in lines).
  • 8. Practice out of system (practice chaotic situations not just perfect situations).
  • 9. Coach less, let them play more and learn from the experience.
  • 10. Never underestimate the power of FUN! (MAKE IT FUN!!!)