Creating Kids' Volleyball Success

This year marks my 40th year of coaching youth volleyball, which I define as 12-and-under. The last few years, I have seen growth in this area, but far too much of it is adults coaching the adult 6-vs-6 game to little kids. This leads to far slower learning of the every important volleyball IQ area kids should be learning. One player touching the ball while 23 watch is not helpful. Drills where kids either stand in line not learning, or learn the irrelevant “skills” of pair passing, usually from the same side of the net, ignoring the vital importance of the net itself, are also not helpful. I have some thoughts, from gems hidden on the grassroots section of USA Volleyball and other ideas learned over the last couple of seasons of clinics and coaching…

Pair Up and Pass/Set/Hit

One way to combat the boring, standing-in-line tradition of training youth is to run practices just in pairs – OVER the net and doing receive/set/attack variations every time. You can serve back and forth to your pair partner. Starting with the setter at the ribbon/net, who tosses to their partner, do receive (both forearm and overhead)/set (lowest to start and higher as their reading/setting/attacking skills advance)/attack games. It is NOT about passing or setting the ball back and forth over the net on one hit – that is jungle ball. It is about receive/set/attack, no matter how young they are. When you run a long ribbon/net system – to get 25-40 meters of “net” and not 10 meters of a regulation net – you can lower the net for young ones and just get a whole class/group of 36 kids p/s/h in pairs. You get physical education/fitness by each group chasing their ball. You can put the ribbon nearer to one wall, not centered in the court/gym, so the chase is shorter and time on task even higher. You can either lower the net/ribbon, as seen in this photo of second graders – or hit from off the net – letting them know the “bic” (low, 1-meter high) set they are hitting is one of four main back-row spikes (A/Pipe /D are the others as seen here being practiced) they will see by the U.S Olympic volleyball teams.

Two vs. Zero

There is nothing more valuable than having the REAL ball control that comes with this warm-up/game. You can cooperatively score it, to set team/program records for in-a-row, and transition score it, where the pair cooperates to a certain number of net crossings before going full on competitive for the rest of the point. They reset and cooperate to that pre-determined number of net crossings. See some 8-year-olds playing 2 v 0 for the first time in their lives, and see what can be done at any age and level of skill.

Loser Becomes the Net Games

Everyone knows monarch/queen/king of the court. So when three or more kids are around, and no net, but they have a volleyball, just play 1 v 1 (three hits a side) with the loser standing in the middle being the net. Got four kids? One team is doubles and plays regular. Same with five, only two doubles teams. Then when you get to six players, you can play TWO groups of 1 v. 1 or one group of 2 v. 2 with the team losing the point standing in the middle (some kids might call this monkey in the middle from other sports games) arms raised and becoming the “net.” The net should be able to block – to learn to keep the sets off the net, but only the smaller players should be able to jump as the net. The idea is that the net can “jump” in order to get the “net” to be the women’s 7’ 4 ¼” net height or men’s 7’ 11 5/8” height (boys 15 and older play on the men’s height net). For more experienced kids, encourage real ball control by saying how they have to hit it over the net, including with the non-dominate hand. Remember to keep score; every time you stay on, you get a point. See examples of this game being played on sand, grass and even a parking lot.

Four Nets on a Rope Competitions

Kids should be playing 2 v 2 as much as possible at this age. The four-nets-on-a-rope system (or ribbon/rope courts) allows you to get 8-16 doubles teams to compete on one regular adult court. Eight teams compete in fast, round-robin games of 5-12 minutes each (there will be seven rounds, so 5-minute games take a half hour and 12-minute games take about 90 minutes). For 12 teams, do timed three-team pools on the four courts, which take 50 percent longer. Sixteen teams should play speedball for a certain amount of time. Then rotate the winners “up” one way, and the lowest scorer of the four teams the other way. Quickly over the competition period, the better teams play each other and the less-skilled teams are competitive against teams more at their level. Note that in starting kids' programs, it is better NOT to ask for the whole gym, but rather just half. Run the four nets from side basket to side basket in half the gym and let the kids playing soccer/basketball/other sports see your group having so much action and fun on your side.

Outdoors, if you link TWO sets of four nets on a rope on two adult sand courts, you can do the above variations, getting twice as much play happening. Yes, it is possible to have 32 teams, a grand total of 64 kids, playing doubles on just two adult sand or grass courts. If there are more full-sized courts, you can put four nets on a rope (most commonly using wooden “X” standards staked out) on each. You get 32 kids more per adult court. Put three or two, not four, larger and wider courts down the middle of each adult court. Of course you can also play doubles on the full-sized, 8x16 meter courts. When I run outdoor clinics (CLICK HERE on how I run those), I have had as many as 16 full grass doubles courts in a line, and tell the one team to stay and everyone else to rotate. With 4-minute games, you get everyone to play everyone in one hour.

If you only have eight or so kids, play 1-v-1 speedball on two courts or just 1 v 1 on all four courts. That is what the creator of volleyball gave as the second rule of the game – where just one person played on a side (or two, or three or more. It's where the term “sideout” came from).

Two-Contact Games

Once the players' volleyball experience and IQ is ready, limit the contacts per side to two. Things will get uglier/more random/chaotic. Each side, from small court doubles teams to six a side, will get 50 percent more chances to read the ball coming over the net. The more chaotic version of the game can be done for maybe 25 percent of your game play. I have blogged previously about a national team favorite warm-up known as “vollis” where both sides cooperatively then competitively send the ball back and forth with just one hit (and no bounce). There is “chaos,” where TWO balls get served at the same time. The game ends when one side gets both balls to be a point. When one ball is down, you can “revive” the ball by serving it to the opponent side before the second ball becomes a point also. Chaos, as a warm-up for any age and sized court, usually has no jumping and one to three contacts per side is required. When teams warm up with balls and over the net, they get better at volleyball while moving a lot.

Sitting Volleyball

Too often, programs lose their gym space. Rather than cancel the practice, play sitting volleyball (or play outside if the weather and time of day allows). Share the court that is available as you can set up THREE sitting courts on one regular indoor court - endline to 3 meter line/3m line to 3m line/3m line to other endline. Put two chairs centered on each endline and tighten the ribbon or rope and play. The court is .5m short officially, but who cares? The athletes will get better at overhead skills, laugh and learn more about the Paralympic version of the game. There are only four rule differences from the Olympic version:

  1. Blocking the serve is ok
  2. Feet can be over lines or under the net as long as the bottom is behind the lines
  3. No “butt lift.” You must stay on at least one cheek when blocking or attacking
  4. Do not go lower to defend, set or receive. Put the ribbon/rope over the top of the chair back, and secure it with something heavier – weight plate from the weight room, 50 lb petfood bag or even someone sitting in the chair (seen in these pics).

Kids Coaching Younger Kids

That which you teach, you learn. Sadly, many programs feel adults need to teach kids at all levels. There are even programs where parents teach their kids one on one. Around the world, kids 11-12 years of age are spending half their practice teaching 7-10 year olds. The only adult you need is the head coach, who is there to guide the discovery of the older kids while they teach the younger kids in one-, two- and three-person groups/teams. These young coaches become better players and role models for those just a few years younger than themselves.

Play Coed

Competing with or against older, more experienced players or players of the other gender can help any team. Coed play is underrated in developing younger players' skill sets.

Three-Team Pool Events

This is for full-court doubles, triples, four- and six-person teams. These pools are only three rounds, with the off team refereeing. Even the smallest gyms should be able to fit two courts, if six hoops are up in the same gym. Playing either 45-minute matches or best two-of-three to 21 (starting at 4-4), the pool play rounds take just over 2 hours. In the finals, the No. 1 team from each pool competes on court 1 and the No. 2 teams playoff on court 2. The No. 3 teams from the pools referee. In just over three hours, four of the six teams have played three matches.

If these two-court events become a chain of competition, each round you can advance the top team into a higher group, and move the third-place team or teams to a lower group. You can do these three-hour competitions on Friday evening – we call them date night competitions/leagues that allow the parents to have time for dinner and a show. You can do them Saturday mornings, from 8-11, so the families have time for other activities, or Sunday afternoons/early evenings after church.

In every case, with athletes of any age or experience, you check them without the ball to see if they grasp the actual technique by their showing you what they think it looks like. Once you are confident they know it, even when you don’t see it in the game, you keep guiding them to learn how to be in the right place and time to best do each skill. Still, they should be playing over the net, not ignoring it, and having fun.

See Higher Level Volleyball

Show young players volleyball some of the longest and most exciting rallies. This helps them see that the game is three contacts with lots of movement and rallies. Then take them on a field trip to watch a high school or college game of either gender. With lead time for larger groups, many schools will offer discounted admission and even a chance to meet/greet the team before or after the match. The National Collegiate Volleyball Federation, which is for college club volleyball teams, has a season from fall to mid-April for their nationals. Those men and women would LOVE to have kids come watch their practices or tourneys.

Set No Limits Based on Age

I urge coaches and teachers to take 12 minutes to watch the 2013 Thailand School Volleyball Championships. Note in advance some important things in this video, seen more than a million times between the FIVB and USAV websites.

  • Young boys are playing this game at a high level.
  • These are not all-star teams selected from tryouts and regional recruiting efforts; they are just that kids from each school.
  • No attacked ball is hit into the net. Over the net and out is the only attacking error they make.
  • All but three digs go UP onto their side, not over the net.