Lately I have been wondering why so many well meaning coaches, and players, speak to the importance of ball control.  I know I will be up against the many attendees of the Church of tradition and ball control  (CTBC as I call it) yet this is really important stuff to change. Nearly every player spends thousands of total hours doing partner passing. Last time I googled “volleyball drills” I got 3.8 million options, and I am certain if I asked the creators 99% of them, they would all be in no small part intended to “improve ball control.” The only other words used as much by the CTBC are “technique” and “fundamentals.”  So I was inspired to return to this topic after learning that a long time colleague of mine from the basketball world, Brian McCormick, with whom I have shared many conversations about motor learning over the decades, just wrote a kindle book called “Fake Fundamentals.”

For example take a look at the Bulgarian Team showing impressive, closed motor program, control of a ball. I am certain, with all their talents, they could not serve receive or spike a single ball with any control – despite the skills they have, in no small part due to specificity of training.  Yet I see volleyballs bouncing on the floor, being slapped for timing purposes, being thrown in the air to setters or spikers and so on…even though NONE of those things will ever happen in a match…ever….

The skill of learning to be at the right place and time, an open motor program in volleyball, is honestly the most important skill in any sport. Given the .008-.1s contact times on a player’s body while in a game that is basically controlled by an adversary about half the time. I think it is simply vital to our games core.  We call it “reading,” and coupled with the other core skill in sport, learning, I sadly see huge gaps in the teaching of these two cornerstone skills. When you bring the science of motor learning and the principle of perception action coupling, I find that maybe only 10 percent of any drill that athletes are told to perform, simply do not teach this coupling. The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, said in his fast paced sport of ice hockey, “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” I have said it before, but I will say it again due to its importance in perhaps a new way WHAT WE SEE DETERMINES HOW WE MOVE AND HOW GOOD OUR BALL CONTROL IS….

Let me share the abstract to some specific to volleyball research that addresses this. This is from Psychological Research (2012)

Long- and short-term plastic modeling of action prediction abilities in volleyball by Cosimo Urgesi · Maria Maddalena Savonitto · Franco Fabbro · Salvatore M. Aglioti

Abstract Athletes show superior abilities not only in executing complex actions, but also in anticipating others’ moves. Here, we explored how visual and motor experiences contribute to forge elite action prediction abilities in volleyball players. Both adult athletes and supporters were more accurate than novices in predicting the fate of volleyball floating services by viewing the initial ball trajectory, while only athletes could base their predictions on body kinematics. Importantly, adolescents assigned to physical practice training improved their ability to predict the fate of the actions by reading body kinematics, while those assigned to the observational practice training improved only in understanding the ball trajectory. The results suggest that physical and observational practice might provide complementary and mutually reinforcing contributions to the superior perceptual abilities of elite athletes. Moreover, direct motor experience is required to establish novel perceptuo-motor representations that are used to predict others’ actions ahead of realization.

That said, let’s get up-to-date with an article on the same concept that was published this year, not 4 years ago, in European Journal of Sport Science, 2015 Vol. 15, No. 4, 322–331,  

Perceptual-cognitive skill training and its transfer to expert performance in the field: Future research directions by David P. Broadbent, Joe Causer, A. Mark Williams, & Paul R. Ford

Abstract  Perceptual-cognitive skills training provides a potentially valuable method for training athletes on key skills, such as anticipation and decision-making. It can be used when athletes are unable to physically train or are unable to experience repeated key situations from their sport. In this article, we review research on perceptual-cognitive skills training and describe future research areas focusing on a number of key theories and principles. The main aim of any training intervention should be the efficacy of retention and transfer of learning from training to field situations, which should be the key consideration when designing the representative tasks used in perceptual-cognitive skills training. We review the principles that seek to create practice tasks that replicate those found in the field, so as to increase the amount of transfer that occurs. These principles are perceptionaction coupling, the contextual interference effect and contextual information, which suggest there should be a high level of similarity between training and real-life performance when designing perceptual-cognitive skills training. In the final section, we discuss the transfer of retained skill acquisition from perceptual-cognitive skills training to field performance, which we suggest to be the key area for future research in this area.  Keywords: Expert performance, skill acquisition, anticipation, decision-making

In none of the research I am reading do I see that partner anything for volleyball has any worthwhile transfer, as it is not really like what happens in a game.  The net is a crucial regulatory stimuli that gets ignored simply too often, while drills do not have the CONTEXTUAL information that is vital for REAL, not irrelevant, learning.

Let’s take what happens on a perfect serve reception (not pass, please, NOT a pass – we rarely put a volleyball back to where it came from in our sport) from both the attacker and the opposing libero.  The game flow means all 5 attackers might attack. Most drills don’t teach this advance reading skill of being able to narrow, at game speed, the options most likely to come. The middle then is not set, nor the bic, and one of the pin hitters gets the set (outside or opposite). This attacker has been making decisions as the play develops on if they will have a fully formed block, be one on one, or even face, if the set to them is high, a triple block. As the attacker approaches they then have to adjust to the reality of the set – perfect, too low, past the pin, well off the net – etc. We know the setter INTENDS to deliver a perfect set every time, but with the wide variance of incoming receptions, a setter has their own variances to deliver which impact the success of their delivery.  As the attacker approaches, knowing the likely opponent defense being played, the block forms but the hitter has already decided that shot to employ and where to direct the ball. Side note, that this is done unlike ANY other sport. Volleyball players having to max jump and while up there in the air, max swing, it is one of the more remarkable things in sport, I feel. Get baseball/softball pitchers to jump as high as they can as they bat, and not allow for ANY balls or strikes and you might get my drift. Now back to the libero, who has the challenge of reading the attackers options and narrowing them down to the most likely ones, all the while moving to intercept that hard driven ball before it hits the floor. With the distance from attacker to floor being an average of about 7 meters, with a ball going 100 plus meters per hour, and recalling our average human reaction time of .2s – this does not include the time it takes to move, but just react, then intercept the ball so it goes UP (not over the net back to where it came from, and not like some worm burner golf shot inches off the floor for many meters). So does ANY real ball control get learned from being able to pair pass in the myriad of methods created by coaches, to develop it? I see coaches passing, spiking, even rolling balls UNDER the net and call them “ball control” exercises. I ask these drill creators to tell me what motor program would be learned if the players became the “world’s best” or “gold medalists” at that habit being formed. What are they really reading in anticipation and performing in a way that brought into the actual game? Would it still be a good thing? In every case, the answer is no.  These are examples of what are called “irrelevant training,” something players and coaches pressed for time when together in a gym, simply don’t have time to do.

Specificity is so specific…. Why don’t golfers play better after countless buckets of balls on a driving range?  After hitting thousands of times on a flat surface for “ball control” on the range and then how many shots do you take on a fairway vs. in the rough, traps, standing on slanted surfaces with one or both feet in a novel place, the ball below or above your feet. It can be ugly, as can any sport in learning the REALITIES, not the perfect form, required to play at the top level.  If a player can show you the proper technique without a ball, let them play and guide them to be in the right place and time.  For more on how our national teams “train ugly” visit This is why Bubba Watson’s training and play is so good. He played golf, never took a lesson, and let the games variation make him an amazing player. This specificity is wrapped very tightly into reading in that the sooner I can best determine what I am seeing, the better ball control I will have.  This example of a paper-scissors-rock robot winning 100% of the time, happens as the high speed cameras “read” the opponent faster than human reaction time. The robot forms the winning response as, even after the opponent, and “wins.” 

Recently, I had the joyful pleasure of working with about 100 employees and participants in the Goodwill Industries headquarters here in Colorado Springs.  Some were blind, some unable to get out of their wheelchairs, so we modified the game to be chair volleyball, and put the net up at the height of their waist when seated. Bring out the beach ball to slow the ball down a bit but more so to reduce any head contact injury and they played. There was no discussion of technique nor fundamentals, they knew that the ball was not supposed to hit the floor and that the ball would not hit the floor on their side if they simply immediately put it over to the other teams side as fast as possible.  That is what you see at the first level of the game, hot potato VB. They loved it, cheering wildly for every point.  Next time they play, they will shift to cooperative scoring, and see how many times both sides can rally in a row, even though it will still be one hit, so that the ball goes up more and we might raise the net a bit. What kind of ball control did they have? The same I see developed in pair drills – putting the ball back to where it came from.

What if our first tradition in the game became either 1 v 1 (as our sport’s creator William Morgan allowed as an option) or 2 vs 0?  Not back and forth ball control, but one where we 1. Put ball one over the net 2. Put our side’s first contact UP, not back over the net (nearer to the net as we get better). 3. Put the second contact UP on our side off the net and inside the antenna always 4. The final contact goes OVER a net.   As we get better, we go from cooperative scoring to 2 vs 2 competitive scoring, and we play doubles for years of our youth, not 6 vs 6.  We steal millions of gamelike repetition opportunities when we go to the 6 person variation of the game. We waste millions more when we fail our players by ignoring the net, and playing pair pepper – developing a “fake fundamental” which, if we were the worlds best at it, would result in certain defeat if that actual skill, delivering it back to the opponent, was done in the match. Yet we call this “ball control.” 

Real ball control is learned by playing opponents on the other side of the net. Real ball control is gained by setters delivering a ball from usually their left side and delivering it on a totally new angle and ball flight. Not back to where it came from. Real ball control comes from reading a setter (and even the passing teammate to start off and get clues as the what the set will be like), who most often is moving and learning to jump at the right place and time – that sweet spot in time of full extension – while SIMULTANEOUSLY make the best decision on how to send it over the net and over/around/off/through a block of 1-3 opponents. Yet we spend millions of hours hitting from the ground (there’s that pair pepper skill again), hitting it down with nobody ever blocking (or doing hitting without a single blocker) or against a wall/without a “net” which means the player becomes great at hitting it down in a way they never will in a match. These traditions not only cause fake fundamentals, but truly they are developing fake techniques and fake skill which have no value in an actual match.  They just look good in practice…but not when it comes to performance time, as the transfer we “expect” is not happening in reality.   

I have shared this video on Cristian Ronaldo before in my blog, but it needs to be seen again, in full, as it teaches some of the realities of ball control which apply in our sport – mostly reading, power generation, ball contact and timing.

These last couple of months I have had the pleasure of doing some clinics in Denver for some USAV clubs, parents, players and coaches together.  The ribbon goes up, and the parents see how many hundreds more over the net/reality like contacts their child is getting playing 2 v 0 – and the “lack” as it were, of ball control. Could we do it 3 v 0? Sure, but your child gets 50 % less repetitions that way and you are paying for gamelike reps. Could we do it 2 v 2? YES, but most programs train over just 10 meters of net, thus they lack the net space to do doubles (unlike our 50 or so USA national team players each morning who have 35 nets in their Anaheim Sport Center). I will let the words of a coach, just a bit after the clinic, in an email she sent me do the sharing. Mind you, I get lots of testimonial thank you’s, but since we are not selling any product, but learning, collaborating and pondering, I feel a bit less like a infomercial I guess, ha.

I wanted to email you and thank you for showing us the ribbon drills 1v1, 2v0, etc... I have been using them with my 16-1s team and my 13-2s and it has made a HUGE difference even after incorporating it into the practices since you've come to my club….My two teams are completely different skill levels but has helped them in different ways. IT'S AMAZING.

Let me add in some words from a video clip I took during the most recent USA Volleyball High Performance Clinic, by someone CTBCer’s might listen to more than just me, Karch Kiraly. In a breakout session we were discussing defense/pepper. This was what was said:

HP Coach: And that posture is specific, like she asked if serve receive defense was a whole ‘nother animal in terms of the posture they’re in.

KARCH: I think our posture is not unlike what Laurent was talking about just in terms of I’m going to be in this position here and I’ve got to put out good surfaces when the ball is at close range, and then I got to move a couple of steps I don't get much time to move with the speed of the offense in our gym anyway. So it’s three steps and get back we have our, you’ve see it in our gym, we’ve got tape X’s on all the base positions and then we’ve got to move as best we can to get back and still, especially down the line we’ve got to just put some surfaces out and get hit by the ball and if it gets hit up here hopefully I’m a little more like this, but still can go forward and then I can point some of these surfaces up a little higher because there are lots of plays where I don’t get to put a nice clean, forearm platform on it.

HP Coach: So do you still want them (your players) straight back on defense? Can I still sprawl for a ball up in front from an upright position?

KARCH: Well, whatever works for you balance wise. I can go forward from that position and I can still do something like that. But maybe if I’m moving back here, it’s probably just something like 1, 2, 3 and now I’m ready to go, but I’m not playing defense like this because it’s really hard. What’s going to happen if does hit me nice and clean here, is it going to go under the net or back over the net?

HP Coach: Under the net.

KARCH: We want to keep it on our side. So we’re trying to angle everything up. I think he (Laurent Tille) was having players dig and go set so there is some value in just the idea of getting the ball straight up. Straight up is awesome if you could dig to yourself every time you’d be one of the better defenders in the world if you could make the ball hit you a lot. So a lot of it is getting hit by the ball and then once you make the ball hit you and make it go straight up, you’d be fantastic.

So I am going to ask, again, for you readers of this blog to stop teaching the way you were taught and to change in tradition.  I hope what I have written gives you something to ponder about. Look at what you do and ask yourself “if my player became the 3 time Olympic Gold Medalist at this skill as this drill is teaching, it is a reality of ball control that will happen in a match?”  From “pepper” the way it is currently taught, to hitting “lines” (including running under the net and tossing balls), we need to change to teach and form good habits not bad ones.  To see more on this, read my article “From Positive to Perfection,” and other blogs in the “STOP…..” series.

Then again…if you want to teach REAL ball control, specifically speaking, take a shot at learning what this gal has

May the variance be with you.