USA Volleyball’s response to COVID-19 and guidelines toward Return to Play.

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USA Volleyball’s response to COVID-19 and guidelines toward Return to Play.

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“Where is volleyball played?” is a question to ask your players or other coaches if you want to start an interesting discussion. “What is the most important skill in volleyball?” is the second question I ask to prompt some serious conversation. In regards to the first one, people will normally respond with the city/club/school they play for, so you then ask the question again…They will look at you a bit quizzically, then usually say, in the gym followed by on the court. When you ask the question again they will really think you are having problems and finally, usually give up. They are right about it being on the court, but part of the guided discovery lesson you are teaching here is to get them to realize the game is played ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COURT. Given the short distances between opponents and the speed of the ball, by the time the ball crosses the net on its way to your team, you are either going to do well or do poorly, because, no matter what your age, reaction time, or experience, you are either in the right place and time, or you are not. This is why the most important skill in our sport is READING.

Many coaches teach “ball control," Here's an example of great ball control at the team level. In that desire to gain such control, they do all sorts of methods that are not founded in reality or the specificity of motor learning of a sport. The average total contact time for Olympians in a single match is about 4 total seconds, except for the setter. The rest of an over 1 hour match, the players are working hard to move to be in that sweet spot in time, where technique matches the reality of ball and body flight intersecting. With the average human reaction time being about .2 seconds – and that is just reaction time, not “move/adjust time,”  by the time any ball crosses the net, a player is going to be able to do it “correctly” or have  to make some adjustments to get to the best intersection moment of their body to the ball. This is then why we say the game is played on the other side of the net.

WHAT YOU SEE DETERMINES HOW YOU MOVE. This wise statement by my friend and mentor Carl McGown must be understood. It is also known by the term “perception-action coupling.” When someone throws a ball to a setter, hits at them from a box, or in front of the net the action a player makes is specifically much different from what they would do in reality, where the teammate is digging/serve receiving it or the opponent delivering it over the net from a jump. Long before the contact, good readers of the game (often called high VB IQ players) are seeing things that are determining their movement BEFORE contact. It is so important to understand this, as it should change any coach’s drills to be far more gamelike than we currently see being implemented.

So what do you learn in ANY traditional wall drill? I have seen players train in a wide variety of ways against the wall; standing, sitting, laying down, kneeling, and on one leg all methods that coaches believe are teaching “ball control” when in reality these are just more methods not founded on the specificity of motor learning. When you watch diggers get six packed or hit on any part of the body other than the desired hand/arm contact point, why is that happening? Is it because their platform has suddenly gone on strike and “out of control?” If a ball changes flight, as floater serves do, in the last 2-3 meters of flight, ANY player, Olympian or 12 year old, will more likely shank it. There just is no time left to adjust in the last part of any ball’s flight to contact, just like you can’t catch the money in the “dollar drill drop” game.  Take for instance, this slide I use in my coaching clinics of FIVB 2x Olympian and 2x medalist, including a gold, Natalie Cook. I have been fortunate to know Nat since she was a kid in Australia. She is hard-working, passionate about the sport, and one who by playing doubles most of her life has had maybe a million “opportunities to respond” - the motor learning phrase coaches usually call repetitions or “reps.” One of the beauties of beach volleyball is that you get to work in the skill you are worst at, for if you are a worse serve receiver than your teammate, you are likely to get all the serves. Another though is that there are no walls and instead the game is played far more often OVER the net than in traditional indoor training.

As a side note, why is it that indoor players miss so many overpasses when they first start learning? The other team’s serve reception goes just a bit over the net and falls?  That is because the reading cues for the six person game has 3 blockers at the net, who handle all those just over the net errors. With the advent of being able to block over the net and thus a taller/shorter partnership in beach, this happens more often to the teams who don’t have a tall enough player to be a real blocker. Another very important thing about training over a net, is that when players train without it, the closer they get to their drill teammate, the more they just tap the ball to them. When there is a NET, the reality/skill of “the closer you get to your teammate, the more the ball must go up” is learned. The reality of a net being in the way is simply too often ignored, despite its “regulatory stimuli” (to use the motor learning science term) role in playing the game.

Again, what are you learning about for the actual game of volleyball when you wall drill? If you are doing it in truly “traditional” way, you are getting thousands of reps at being a bad volleyball player. There, I said it, you are working on being a worse player, as you are becoming an Olympic gold medalist at putting the ball straight back to where it came from. That is what “jungle ball” or very beginner volleyball looks like in part as one hit shots back over the net, especially to a team working on learning 3 hit volleyball, score points. The amazing thing about our sport is that at the lowest level, the WORST team WINS.  The team doing the “right” thing has 3 chances for error and a much smaller “correct” zone target. While the one hit wonders just have to clear the net at ANY height and get it to land ANYWHERE in the 81 square meter opponents court. This is also, by the way, what is being learned in pair passing and pair passing one hit over the net.

The other bad motor program/habit being acquired in traditional floor bouncing wall drills is to make the negative error (into the net/block) vs the positive one (over the net/off the blockers hands).  The most common wall spiking drill is one that if the skill was done in the game the coach gets upset at the error, even though the coach has been allowing it to be trained for years.

So am I saying never use the wall? No, it can be used in one or more “stations” to get reps while others use the court. This allows the rest of the players to get more balls in the air ON the court, OVER the net, so players are learning/reading by doing, not standing in lines watching. I would much rather see players playing 2 vs 0 and 1 vs 1 loser becomes the net, for the reading and habits being acquired are GOOD ones for competition and play, unless you want to win by hitting the ball over the net on one hit.

There is one way to use the wall, even if the reading cues being learned will not transfer to better digging/serve reception, the reaction/habits being established are ones making GOOD mistakes from perfect, not bad ones. This good error habit being developed is seen best in this video of two 11 year olds learning against the wall in ways that very few programs do, but hopefully you are beginning to understand why they are training this way.

So how good is the pass back to where it came from skill of “ball control” as developed in single contact rebounding against the wall and in pair passing? Ask any setter.  Paint the scenario of a serve being ripped down the line to zones 4 and 5, the left side of the court well in front of the setter. Ask them where those balls are passed to and they will point well in front of them. That is their current reality and only be stopping with the pair passing and wall drills and replacing them with games and grills of servers vs. server receivers, not passers, will their teammates get enough reps to more consistently get the ball to the setter target. This is why I wrote the blog saying STOP Teaching Passing. We simply want great serve receivers, who read the ball on the other side of the net, not passers, who are learning how to be bad serve receivers.  Most of us have limited time to train, and to come into the gym, where the net is up, and to ignore it, is wrong.