…And start working much more on improving what you can control as a coach to increase your players learning of volleyball skills.   There, I said it.  The previous “STOP” blog, STOP Doing  Drills, brought out the disgruntled and doubters like moths to a flame, even more than those who I failed at teaching/getting learning to happen through other STOP blogs – like my STOP Teaching Passing blog from three years ago.

When technique is taught in not only blocked drills, but progressions, we lessen the time a player has to learn the realities of the game and develop their techniques in those essential realities. It is not that I think technique does not matter; it does as it is a founding part of volleyball skills. What too many coaches do is spend too much time making the technique “work” in a blocked drill, and not create more time that very technique performed in the random nature of game play.

At the Olympic Training Center Conference several years ago with Dr. Richard Schmidt, author of the best “Drill” book around – Motor Learning and Performance, Principles to Practice, was asked how many trials a player in any sport should do, in a blocked fashion, before going into the gamelike realities of play. His answer was that it should be as many trials as it would take for the player to show a “very gross understanding” of the technique – and that would likely be 6-10 trials. What we see instead is thousands, even tens of thousands of repetitions in static, part and blocked training.  I offer again to email any reader, free of charge of course, Drs. McGown and Bain’s paper – “The Superiority of Whole Training.”  There those seeking first to understand, then to be understood can find about seventy reference papers to guide that understanding.

Coaches set limits on their players. Sadly, coaches also set limits on other coaches. This most recent trip to Dubai, UAE, allowed me to both give feedback to coaches and players, but to also -for the first time they said- get the coaches to share their secrets with each other.  I did it both in practical sessions, where the coaches taught, and in theory classes, including a 90 minute spirited discussion on things learned at their last international clinic. When I shared the new National Thailand Schools VB highlight film that I produced with Sport Development staff (thanks again Cassie Weaver and Leslee Harms), they could not believe the boys and girls playing were 11 and under.  (CLICK HERE to see this great video) I am proud of the work we did to bring and edit this film to bring this level of play to the awareness of the volleyball family. In just a month, the FIVB YouTube version has seen nearly 100,000 views! You watch this highlight film and you see players doing multiple one handed/arm saves (a skill founded in the technique of two arm forearm/overhead passing), giving free balls back in extra high ball flights  (a skill, delivering at a more challenging place and time), you cannot help but marvel at these young players VB IQ. 

This game is unique. What if we added fouls to it? What if we said the libero can go to the other side and distract any player – can’t touch them or the ball, but distract away - keeping it non-contact still. What if we made other sports rotate after scoring, or shoot/pass after three contacts, or jump as high as they could before batting or throwing a ball. The list is long, and I share it with you to share with your players and parents here. Staying with humor – the technique of flying vs the skill – birds fly instinctively, they know the technique. What they spend a lifetime doing is developing skill.

I enjoy the open discussions over in “Old School Volleyball” on Facebook, where they speak about the game “back then.” The thing is, for nearly 50 years, the beach game grew, and talent blossomed in technique and skill. So as a player worked his/her way up from novice through the Bs’ to the highest level of AAA ratings, based solely on competition – just how many beach coaches were there?  None, for the skill was acquired by playing higher level opponents in game play.  Bubba Watson gets it. Now we have new technology, to use great SELF-teaching programs like BAM Video Delay on the iPad to give a player the power of self-feedback. Or get your partner to trade videoing using $5 apps like Coaches Eye, Ubersense, and Dartfish Express.  Coaches are important, but their real role is to empower the player, not to control.

A discussion about technique over reading has been exchanged between national team staff. Asked if they would want a player with great technique, and not so good reading skills, or great reading skills and not so good at technique, and 100% of the coaches opted for a player better skilled at reading. When you watch the great series of X digs in X min – like this one of 133 digs in 3 minutes - you see the importance of doing whatever it takes to save the ball, regardless of the “technique violations” a technical coach might find happening.

Tradition is hard to change  There is a great quote by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”  This quote and another that shouted out to me about skill over technique “I have never seen a player tackled by a cone” came from a great football (soccer) blog  that I would ask you to read in full -  I concur 100% whether in a contact sport like soccer or lacrosse, or a non-contact game like tennis or volleyball. I have never seen a hitter blocked by empty space. When I coached lacrosse, we always had a defender hassling the ball carrier – not a cone. When we block, if 97% of the time you will be facing at least a single blocker – you develop your skill at reading the block and hitting past it, not by focusing on technique but by choosing one of many options to hit past or off the block – a skill, not a “technique.”

Please take time to understand these words from this same blog -“When we test a players skill level under conditions that do not reflect the performance environment, the player will alter his behaviour and base his response on the test environment.”  And this observation too -  In his book “Se På Spelet” (See the Game) - Andreas Alm identifies a problem with much of today’s technique and passing drills children as young as 6 years of age are exposed to. It develops ball watchers.  We are ball watchers, because we have been fostered this way”  The more traditional technique and passing drills rarely encourage use of the ball using perceptual information thus “fostering a generation of players that through thousands of hours of repetition learn to madly and intensely stare at the ball.”-  This need to develop players experience is also covered in this article

I have spent almost 20 years in the Paralympic and Wounded Warrior world of sitting and standing volleyball.  These heroes remind me how lucky I am to make an impact in the lives of these amazing athletes and their coaches. While in Dubai doing a zonal symposium on “Modern Trends in Coaching Youth,” I introduced the coaches to Kendra Lancaster, 3x Paralympic medalist, as she drove 2 hours after work from her home to share her ideas and experiences with them (and have dinner with me after, my treat of course). Helping Mike Hulett and Denise VandeWalle coach those young women in 2004 from a 0-24 European trip in May to a Paralympic bronze medal and multiple victories over those same European teams in August at the Athens Paralympics, will be one of my favorite years in a lifetime of coaching.

Watching my son do the same with the Special Ops team in less than a month, also to a bronze medal, is icing on the cake. More importantly, he got to learn from true heroes like Silver Star medal honored soldier Michael Day, who took 27 shots and survived.  These brave men make it easy to strive to be your best. You simply think of what our wounded warriors and those who gave all have done for us, and work harder to teach coaches to be better.

As this is about stopping teaching technique as much, I will share some thoughts regarding a technique that many demand, to the point of stating that players who are doing it “wrong” are doing so due to poor coaching.  I have been watching hundreds of hours of play, and looking through tens of thousands of motor drive photo sequences that I have personally taken, of NCAA, Junior, High School and international women’s and men’s volleyball – and from what I can see, well over 50 percent of the players are landing on one leg after spiking, and after blocking almost as much.  Yet there are coaches who are adamant that players must always land on BOTH legs in either skill set.

I completely understand that athletes with more strength, power and endurance are likely more capable of withstanding competition and training loads than others. From a technique focus, mechanically it is clear that landing force can be twice as high per leg/muscle for a player landing on one leg vs. two. Teaching the technique of landing on two legs is understood, but it is reality based?  In dialogue with Peter Vint, our USOC Director of Competitive Analysis, Research and Innovation, and some national team staff about one vs two leg landing, the question was posed if it was training poor technique or reality. Peter noted that that the game is not planar. Ever. Then he went on to say:

“That doesn't mean I support training "poor technique" but rather training in a way that not only recognizes but emphasizes the dynamic, multi-dimensional nature of the game. It is highly variable and often random. While planar training (and I'm not suggesting this is what's exclusively happening) will almost certainly provide some fundamental improvement in neuromuscular capacity, the expression of these forces will not be fully realized in multi-planar movements.

My point about addressing proper approach/takeoff mechanics has as much to do with perceptual skill as it does technical skill (and the physical capacity to execute them). Athletes that may consistently mistime their approach, leave early, and have to jump back out and cartwheel away from the center of the court are inevitably putting themselves in more precarious landing positions than athletes that can properly time the approach and align their approach trajectory to intercept the ball in a way that allows them to land on two legs more often than not.

We'd like to think the former will be injured more often and/or more severely…I've only rarely seen examples of "controlled" training that remotely addresses the velocity specific characteristics of multi-dimensional landing or even jumping. One of the best lessons I've learned as a biomechanist is "in order to jump higher, practice jumping higher". I feel there is a parallel here to what Kessel and Karch speak about in terms of "the game teaches the game". This is in no way to diminish the value of having greater neuromuscular capacity. Rather, it's to emphasize the reality of the way the game is played....variable, dynamic, often random.”

In a related way, there is another technique promoted that does not address the reality of our sport. For the purposes of this section, by right, I mean the player’s dominate side in skill performance.  If you taught only right legged dribbling and shooting in soccer, or right handed dribbling and shooting in basketball, any coach in those sports would believe you are not doing a proper job in coaching athletes of any age. Yet in volleyball, almost every coach teaches only to the right hand. Over 75 percent of volleyball athletes injure their non-dominate knee side, based on insurance injury reports. Given what the antenna does to outside hitter demands, our national team says that balls set past the antenna are zero percent success balls – to ensure that balls are set by all players inside the antenna. As teachers of this random game, we need to increase every player’s abilities to use the non-dominant hand.

Another observation on skill over technique comes from serving. Rather than let players develop a great, powerful serve to put into the court- coaches tell their players where to serve.  This is inconsistent for me with my coaching philosophy of developing amazing leaders, so I don’t do it, but when a golfing coach sent me his thoughts on creating a putting circus and getting his players to deal with the chaos in his sport, I replied as seen below with more science – which is about developing a servers/golfers skill, not their already known technique. 

When I read your post I just flashed back to what Dr. Richard Schmidt said in his book on motor learning....in 1991 no less... page 204-205, after a picture of a golfer hitting a bucket of balls that has the caption "A common form of blocked practice, producing good performance at the time but not very effective for long-term learning" - he then writes "Repetition is deeply rooted in many traditional training methods, like the basketball coach who has her players shoot 100 free throws at the end of practice or the tennis coach who has his students do serve after serve from the same position on the baseline. Hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range with the same club over and over is another example.....My golfing friends tell me they 'can do anything' at the driving range, implying that they have risen to some new level of skill. When they return to the golf course to test their skills, though, their games are no longer better than before the driving range practice. Why?" - The answer is that blocked training is inferior in retention, and also it gives a false sense of skill/accomplishment.  In the criterion version of the skill section he then writes how the context for what you are ultimately practicing is very different from the blocked practice done in practice. One of his examples is, and again I quote "On the golf course (the criterion context), one never hits two golf shots in a row with the same club (unless the ball goes into the lake on the first one) and most shots are preceded by a long walk (or a search for the ball, in my case). In golf, the problem is to decide which club to use, how large a swing to take, how to adjust the stance on the sloping ground, and so on, requiring the solution of an almost novel movement problem, not just a minor variation of what was done a few seconds earlier as in blocked practice. Furthermore, the golfer only gets one chance to make this shot, with no possibility of modifying it on the next trial. Blocked practice at the driving range does not simulate the criterion skill very well."  I played 52 holes a day growing up sometimes with a HS golf teammate you might know - Corey Pavin.  Like Bubba Watson, and like I learned to ride a bike - I learned by letting the game teach the game. How can Bubba win two of the last three Masters, without ever having lessons or a coach?  Yes, teaching/mentors are important, but mostly in how good they are at guiding an athlete's discovery, not in telling them what to do.

Trevor Ragan is working hard to bring the science of motor learning  to another very traditional sport – basketball – if you are still reading this deep into this blog, you will find his newest newsletter – Training Ugly, a valuable read I believe, as in the interest of being a better coach, he  just recently spent several days with Karch and our US Women’s team, players and staff, in Anaheim. Jump on over to his blog NOW

One final comment on developing volleyball skill founded on technique.  Age group competition has grown exponentially over the years.  What used to be double age groups, 18, 16, 14 and under, now is single age groups as in 18,17,16 etc. What has vanished for the most part is where kids play against or with adults.  What helped develop both Karch Kiraly’s skills and those of Misty May, was the chance to play doubles with their fathers, and against adult teams.  I urge all coaches to get give their players a chance to develop their volleyball IQ by playing doubles every summer against adults on grass or sand. Sure, the kids should play some junior tourneys. They just need to compete and learn from adults – even if it means they lose on the scoreboard.  Remind them about sunscreen, then let THEM learn intrinsically....

Let THEM pick their partner

Let THEM pick the side they want to play on

Let THEM pick when to call time outs

Let THEM learn from more experienced, savvy, older players

Let THEM pick their uniform

Let THEM pick their music

Let THEM pick the ball they want to play with

Let THEM call their own blocking/defensive systems

Let THEM determine their own “playset” options/offensive decisions

Let ATHLETES be ATHLETES…and support them as humans who spend part of the life enjoying being a player.

Thanks for giving back to our sport by coaching, and since you are reading this blog to the end, for being a lifelong learner.  Feel free to share your thoughts and comments – and thanks for your help in growing the game together.