How can we avoid creating false confidence in players?Start by asking yourself this simple set of short questions. How often have you seen anyone teaching the other nets sports NOT using the net? Have you ever played/seen the teaching of table tennis from the same side of the net? Badminton? Tennis or pickleball?In my experience, I have never seen any Olympic level coach on down teach their net sport from in front of the net; except volleyball. Some of you might have seen a rare situation in tennis, which has such a large court surface, but I have not. That includes four years of watching my son in tennis practice. Watch the tennis/table tennis and badminton greats at the Olympics warm up before any match, and you will see them cooperatively hitting, over the net.The net is “regulatory stimuli” that governs the actions of players. It is something that, once you hit 13U in girls volleyball, you will have to be hitting over for about 50 years of play. Yet most coaches drill a huge amount of time without it. If you create it in ways that allow for hitting over it (like the USAV four nets on a rope, or a ribbon or rope) there will be coaches who cannot understand what you are doing. They may scorn the use of such nonperfect nets. Let’s keep thinking about regulatory stimuli in our sport.
Tossing to players
Ball flying over the net
<>Same side of net
Playing without any in/out judgement needed
An opponent competing against you
No opponent to read
Regulatory stimuli is a cornerstone of the principle of specificity. Yet in the interest of making things look better in practice, coaches add gimmicks and training devices, eliminate the realities of the game, and break the game up into drills that are not game-like, but easy to do, like partner or circle passing.This need for drills builds into the false confidence as the player can do the drill successfully, but fails when the specificity and reality of the game then return in the match. This past decade, one of our national team head coaches was told by an Olympian: “I need to do work on my setter/hitter timing.” Coach replied “We have been playing for two weeks, if you think that needs work, what are you waiting for?”From a recent Coach Your Brains Out podcast (check their site for great discussions with some of our sport’s best thinkers) my friend and mentor Dr. Carl McGown said two things to ponder. 1. He quoted Brent Rushall, another esteemed motor-learning scientist, “Coaches persist however in violating this basic principle (of specificity) with dubious arguments, false premises and distortion of facts." 2. He said about pepper, “… somehow, we want passing back and forth near the net to be helpful, but it’s not.”Why do people do this? Because that’s how they were taught, and it “worked.” The tradition of not using the regulatory stimuli of the net has resulted in the promotion of a huge amount of pair ball control done on one side of the net as well as repetitive wall passing, blocked and coach-controlled drills, machines, gadgets and many other ways of “training” that do not transfer or teach the realities of our sport.The net and antenna, plus the ball and court lines, are regulatory in the things learned in volleyball. We must follow their rules. The basket/backboard, ball, and court lines are regulatory for basketball. Coaches would never train the game flow and shooting shots without a hoop or backboard (just shooting into space and pretending it was good). Yet volleyball coaches constantly train without the reality of some sort of net. It is easier that way as no net “gets in the way” or forces the truth of what the contacts actually are like.Good coaches do more than just develop volleyball skills. They develop the whole person, physically and especially mentally. Our sport’s uniqueness starts with the remarkable lack of time the body is in contact with the ball – averaging under 5 seconds per match, per player. So over an hour of match play, what are your players doing for the other 59 minutes and 55 seconds of competition?
This leads naturally to the No. 1 skill in our sport being reading (aka anticipation or volleyball IQ). Also, every first ball (aka serve) and no less than the third ball (hopefully an attack) have to clear the net. The false confidence of pepper takes that difficulty away, stealing quality contacts from players every time.Tossing by the coach (and also slapping the ball, another coaching skill in our sport's traditions that does nothing for reading) right to the player is another way we develop false confidence. In the interest of form/technique, we put thousands of balls right to the player who then thinks they can do the skill, only to find out in the match that few, if any, balls come right to you. Instead of hitting, we throw, stealing the chance to read the reality of the actual skill. We have spikers hitting off of tosses or even worse, a ball in a machine.We falsely develop the confidence of setters setting off of tosses that arrive right on their forehead from a ball cart in the zone 5/6 seam that never moves. These setters spend 95 percent of their REAL game time moving and running to the ball to bump set, run through, call help, or set anywhere in the court but the actual spot they have been training in for years.The picture in this paragraph shows the actual contact points in the most recent Olympics by a setter from Iran who many say is the most deceptive and skilled setter in the game. Every world-class match has this bell curve of setter contact points (off of world class serve receivers), yet we put setters in one spot and block-train tens of thousands of sets that don’t happen all that often at ANY level.We have millions of players who can confidently partner pass, and hit off a toss. Yet when a REAL served or set ball arrives, they struggle with when and where to do the technique as the ball is not close to them. Young players may pair pass hundreds of times in a row, then forget their skill when they get out onto the court in a game. In fact, they haven’t learned the skill of reading or moving, because of partner passing. In front of friends and parents, they cannot serve receive at all.Often, they don’t even move to the incoming ball because they have learned that their partner pass teammate will hit it right back to them. Too often, it is passed directly back to them by a teammate, when in the game, it is driven hard over the net by an opponent, and away from them. They pepper well, but are flummoxed in the game when they pass the ball too tight, or over the net.Even at the highest level the problem persists. U.S. Women's National Team Coach Karch Kiraly has the focus point of “Dig UP and OFF.” We have players who spend months saying “sorry!” when they hit a ball not right at a partner, who must want to say to an opponent in a match “hey, that is not right at me!” Players should not be saying “sorry” when it is not nearby. They should say, “dig that!” It is our fault as coaches that we seek to develop the players' “technique” without the constraints that will exist in the actual game.See this 5-year-old? He can do the core passing technique. That means the ball “knows” the angle of his arms. Perhaps his feet could be more staggered or balanced, but as you can see, his “teammates” are learning good campfire defense. If you put the ball right to him, he can perform, even if it is a camera shoot. What he can't do YET (an important word for coaches as this blog shows) is do it in reality at game speed. He doesn’t know how to read so he can move sooner. This same bafflement is seen at all ages when moving from pair-passing confidence to dealing with over-the-net failures.All ages suffer from the physics of our game; the ball must rebound. Five total seconds of contact per match is a reality. They cannot read the flying ball in time to be at the right place at the right time.Better is faster, which is developed over countless hours of game play, with experience being a core key to success. In one skill, serving, an Olympian and a 13-year-old can deliver the same serving speed. Some nations deal with this by restricting younger players to serve a maximum of five points in a row. Canada uses a form of competition called “triple ball” for 13U, where each point is actually a served ball and two thrown balls. Game-like ways of training at gradually increasing speed by first using a balloon, then a beach ball, then a light ball, allow a player to learn the technique of reading in a real way.When players are not taught the at least 1/3 power that comes from the shoulder turn/torque in serving, we again fall back on developing false confidence by moving new or younger players up into the court, “so they can get it over.” Those coaches steeped in technique and winning get players to learn an underhanded serve, rather than teaching them a serve that will transfer more effectively to the overhead serve that the majority of players do. A torque (or roundhouse) serve, as used by more than one third of the players in the world, fully integrates the power that comes from torquing.There are also coaches who take advantage of this step in modification, and have good servers blasting away from much closer to the net. Yet another example of developing false confidence, this time by seeking the outcome (winning) over the process of serving from the actual endline, which is less accurate and more challenging.
Prepare for Real Situations
We want to prepare for anything, so we need to limit some things we do. We coach to play not drill. Small-sided games for new players or other ways to contain a whole game are great solutions for building real confidence. This learning in reality does not look pretty at the beginning, and for younger players it is true chaos. The coach's enthusiasm over progress, not the outcome, is essential. Still, just like you learned to ride a bike, you learn by making mistakes. Want to get a sense of that learning by error and mistakes again? Take this weekend to learn to ride a unicycle, and see how many times you err. This specificity in learning a motor skill is seen wonderfully in this classic video about learning to ride a “backwards” bike. You know how to ride, but when things are flipped, well, you simply do not know how to ride a backwards bike is all, and it takes time to learn it.I love to teach the game to ALL, from 5 years old to 75. We have this wonderful sport for a lifetime with true teamwork that is fun. So when non-elite players join me, I want them to love the game, not some drill. Special Olympians, senior citizens and picnic volleyballers may just play volley-tennis, not three-hit skill development. This one-touch mentality results in a unique situation in our sport, where at the lowest level the worst team (who hits any and every ball over the net on one hit), usually beats the better team (who is working on three contacts).For athletes who get time to practice, and do not want to win on single-hit balls going over the net, they need to play three-hit volleyball by doing three-hit volleyball. No matter what their age, they can superhero, superhero spike; not hit coach throws or partner passes. We MUST change the Exploratorium of learning that the gym is, to be the most effective in performance enhancement. This comes from playing doubles as a pair option (that takes four people in reality), or superhero/superhero/spike partners, or 2 vs 0 (BEACH example -- YOUTH 10U example) , or wall options that are game-like – but not from the current way most pair up.We need to build real confidence by training in reality and using regulatory stimuli as much as possible so players habits and skills are valuable to the way they will play the game.