By Sami Bullon (Dallas, Texas - Ace VBC - North Texas Region)

Volleyball is the greatest game on earth. The excitement of rally scoring, a timely dig, hit, or block, the chess match between coaches finding the perfect match up or the sacrifice of the players’ bodies to keep the ball alive, you name it, you will never run out of reasons to explain why this is a great game.

None of the above reasons could exist without one major component: the player. Players make the game exciting or boring, slow tempo or fast tempo, nail biting or blow out. If the player is the main component of the game, the player should be the focus of every coach. I know some of you are saying “wait up buddy, what about the TEAM?” I am not questioning the value of one particular player over the remaining roster; I just want to emphasize the importance of each player to the team’s success.

The game has changed these last 15 years. Rally scoring has forced teams to cut down unforced errors. Being error free has forced players to specialize in some front row or back row position. I wonder how much this specialization has handicapped the overall player. We are so focused on developing position experts to fit our team goals and results that we end up neglecting the overall development of each player. How much defense and passing are our middles practicing? How much hitting are our setters getting? How much setting are our hitters getting?

I grew up with three brothers playing doubles any chance we had. Living in Brazil, a third-world country, we didn’t have a court available so we had to improvise in our backyard tying a line in one tree to the other and playing in a court marked by a water hose. Playing doubles helped us become complete players and be solid in every skill.

I went to high school hoping to be a setter or an outside hitter but I quickly realized it would be hard to get playing time at either position so I also tried out for middle. The best hitter in our school was a senior and middle. The guy could crush the ball but could not pass for dear life. One game we were passing so badly that our coach put me in for that middle guy just because I could pass. Passing was what cracked me into the rotation and eventually in the starting lineup. Back then there were no liberos. Middles had to play back row and subs would only happen when someone was really stinking or got hurt. I was considered the most complete player of our program having played every position throughout my high school career though I knew I wasn’t the most powerful hitter or the best setter. Yet, those 2 on 2 battles in my back yard helped me develop into an all around player and that has been one of the stone foundations of my coaching philosophy: developing complete players.

The need to develop complete players became more evident to me when my teams started giving up too many points by unforced errors. Our hitters were getting called for double contact way too many times. We would play excellent defense, and have our setter dig a ball for one of our hitters to come in and get called for a double. Sometimes, a game defining mistake. Other times, our block would slow down and attack that would go perfectly to our back row and a middle, who had just served, could not make a decent pass to our setter on a ball that even my grandma could pass. Sometimes, a game defining mistake. Other times, a great front row player would not be a consistent server costing us points with their service errors at crucial moments of a match. Sometimes, a game defining mistake.

Does any of the situations above ring the bell? Have you experienced any of these momentum changing mistakes? If so, let me share a few things that have drastically decreased these errors in our team and have made each of our players better all around.

A couples seasons ago, we decided to start our practices with a very simple drill that allows every single player in our team to pass, set, hit, dig, and block, regardless of their position. In the beginning it was tough to see how ugly some of them looked trying to set the ball, or how uncomfortable they looked playing defense. But a little bit of patience and a smile go a long way. Players like the competitiveness of the drill and towards the end of the season they liked performing a skill that wasn’t really the forte. Plus, the intensity sets a great tone for the remaining of the practice.

We start with a simple 4-on-4 set up with a player on the net as the setter and three players on the back row. Since this is our warm up, drill starts off a free ball. We start with a controlled rally where players need to hit (not full swing) at another player on the opposite court. Players hit from 10ft line. We even start with down balls at times. As soon as ball goes over the net, they all rotate clockwise. Setter gets out of the court, whoever is out waiting fills in at RB position, RB goes MB, and MB goes LB and LB becomes the new setter. We try to have different players touching the ball every time so we use as many players as possible per rally. Plus, players are forced to set to whoever did not pass/dig the ball. Players must have good court awareness and communicate well.

We run this drill with our 18s. You may think it’s much easier to run this with older and more skilled players. You’d be surprised to see how well some of the younger players do this. If they don’t do well, it’s because they are lacking ball control. At first it may seem too much. Any new complex drill starts off slow but the payoff is worth it. That’s the point. Develop all skills with a game like situation. Depending on age and skill level, drill should be more coach controlled but decreasing the need of a coach as players become more proficient.

After a few minutes where all players got enough touches you start having the setters (setters of the drill not your real setters) blocking with hitters attacking (full swing) from the 10-foot line. Then hitters start attacking from front row. In order to keep things organized, keep the same rotation for six points. No one switches positions for 6 points. 3 free balls from each side initiated by a coaches’ toss or 3 down balls from a player. After all six points are played, rotate them as explained previously (clockwise).

You can keep regular score or you can focus on another aspect of the game. We have kept score of block touches and stuff blocks. A block touch that allowed the defense to pass it to the setter is a point. A stuff block 2 points. They can only score this way. Play to as many points as you want. Since this is our warm up, we play to 5 points only. Maybe play best 2-of-3 little games. Same style, three free balls from each side then rotate.

We also keep score of digs. A dig that keeps the ball in play is a point. If the other team puts the ball on the floor straight (without any defender touching it, including blocker), the defensive team loses all points. You will see your middles diving like you’d never imagine they could, and since tips are allowed, you are automatically working on your base defense and footwork as they move to defend line or cross. Not allowing the ball to touch the floor forces players to expect the ball to be dumped at any given touch. Also, depending on the set, there may be 1-on-none situations (hitter with no block). In that case, defenders just need to be brave and take it like good soldiers. The best part of this is that since we only have single blockers, it is easier to read the hitter and that might be the single most important skill when playing defense. Same style, 3 free balls from each side then rotate.

Ultimately, you want your hitters to put the ball straight on the floor. Same style, 3 free balls from each side then rotate. This is where is virtually impossible to come to an end. We usually have the first team to score 3 (clean balls on the floor) wins. Have hitters tip, roll shot, tip long line, long cross, or all put swing. They should work and develop their whole arsenal. If this doesn’t come to an end soon, you have realistic evidence that your team is capable of at least touching anything that comes their way. With one blocker only. If your double block works well, you can feel pretty good about your defense digging everything.

For younger ages, leave the blocking aside and try to focus on quality touches and ball control. Focus on a solid pass, set, hit sequence every time. Set a specific goal for the number of times the ball goes over the net and back. This may be want you finish your practices with. Make sure younger kids have been taught there defensive spots, being ready do dig all touches from opponent, and good communication. Above anything, encourage kids to get out of their shell and be more independent thinkers on the court and no so robotic with that this-ball-is-mine/that-ball-is-not-mine mentality. As they progress, make it more challenging according to what skill you want them to develop. This year one of our setters could not go to Nationals with us. We had to improvise a back up setter in case our only setter got hurt, which would have been catastrophic until Kristin, one of our outsides became our 2nd setter. As we scrimmaged and played a warm up tournament for nationals, we took our main setter out the game and went with Kristin for entire games trying to expose our players to a possible “worst case scenario”. Turns out our worst case scenario wouldn’t have been that bad at all.

This season has been by far the season with the least amount of double contacts called on our team. It also has been a season where I felt most comfortable playing out of system because I knew no matter who set or who hit the ball, we will still play that ball over with at least some degree of difficulty and not just simply free ball it over like a 5th grade team. At times we even saw some teams pulled out their blockers and call for a free ball just to have a bomb coming from the back row.

Based on the improvement I’ve seen on our players lately, I wonder how much better they would have gotten had they done similar drills when they were just learning the game. It reminded me when I was a kid playing in my backyard with my brothers. Players need to be exposed to as many different situations as early as possible so they can grow into solid players like big and strong trees.

The tallest and strongest tree was once a seed. Planting the seed is not fun. A farmer needs to stay outside under a hot sun preparing the soil. A farmer needs to get his hands dirty. Sometimes the ground is dry, it hasn’t rained and the drought just keeps getting worse. Coaches are like farmers. A master coach always finds a way to plant that seed. The lack of talent may be your drought. The lack of rain can be the lack of help or support from parents, players or even your school or club. But you still have a job, a job I hope you love as much as I do. Some seeds take years to produce fruit. It’s likely that others will harvest the results of your job. Some may even ruin your work. I am positive if all coaches exposed players to drills like this, we would have a much better crop of players today, and certainly in the future.

There is nothing wrong with the specialization of positions happening in today’s game. We just don’t want to hinder other major skills to the expense a single one. You never know who is going to get injured. You never know who is going to be sick. You never know who is going to step up and change the momentum of the game.

That will only happen to players that believe they can make a difference on the game and trust their skills. Confidence is the most important skill at any sport. Complete players have the confidence to do a bit of everything and the courage to do more then what is expected just for the simple fact they know they can do it. They have done it before. They can do it again. Ultimately, that’s the skill you want to insert in your players’ mind. The more they are exposed to all skills, the more comfortable they’ll feel about performing it during a crucial moment in a game.

In the USA National team, a player must be good at all skills and be great at 1-2 skills. Last Olympic Games in Beijing, the Men’s team won the gold medal and the women’s won silver. The last point that gave the men their Gold medal over Brazil (boy did it hurt) was a rally where the middle blocker Ryan Millar (waiving off everyone around him) set perfectly Clay Stanley (from the 10ft line) for the final point and the gold medal. Can you imagine if he had been called for double contact or just made a bad set? Could that have been a game momentum mistake?

Your team may not play for the Gold in the Olympic Games, but there are games that mean just as much to our kiddos as an Olympic Final match. When that game comes, you want your players to be ready and confident.

Dale Carnegie once said: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.” Make your players active in areas of the game they have been deprived of. Dare them to grown. Water those plants. Help them fully develop. Teach them how to play different positions. They can be experts at a position and not be terrible on everything else. After all, a team, more often than not, reflects its coach. How are you being portrayed by your players?