Years ago, having played some myself, it was easy to say “yes” to coaching my daughter’s seventh-grade recreational volleyball team. My twisted logic told me, “I’ve played for years. These are young kids. How hard can this be?” So began my coaching career.

Unfortunately, I suffered from a common ailment that I call The Illusion of Knowledge. I assumed that my playing experience translated into coaching knowledge. The problem? This Illusion of Knowledge got in the way of my very best intentions. My approach, and my lack of coaching knowledge, translated into a marginally acceptable coaching method. I went ahead coaching, blissfully ignorant.

This process changed for me when I started down my own path of guided discovery, by learning how to coach. In 2004, I attended IMPACT, Increased Mastery and Professional Application of Coaching Theory. That was my first eye-opener. From there, I navigated my way through all three levels of CAP. I’m still working on being a better coach. I approach every season with two things in the back of my mind: I never want to be a kids’ last coach and I want to be viewed as more than just a parent with a clipboard.

With all the training I’ve personally been able to take through USA Volleyball, to me anyway, their ultimate message is crystal clear. In fact, it is so clear to me, I just don’t understand why other coaches don’t seem to see it as clearly as I believe that I do. If they did, if they truly understood even some of the most basic theories behind teaching a random sport such as volleyball to athletes, they would know that, for example, standing on a box and throwing tennis balls over the net with wrist snap is not only scientifically the wrong thing to do, but also, it is a tremendous waste of time for everyone involved.

Really? Standing on a box? That box is of uniform height. I’ve never seen a team where everyone has a uniform height, let alone a team that had a uniform vertical leap (which the box actually represents). What then is the purpose of standing on a box to throw a tennis ball at the floor? What does this teach the athlete?

If we train using a box, what have we more likely done? Standing on a box doesn’t account for several key factors that can severely alter the outcome:Where in the rulebook does it allow for any of our athletes to legally throw a ball? Let’s not forget one of the most coveted mechanics coaches what to see from their athletes as well, wrist snap. Sure enough, even the shortest athletes can stand on that box and throw a tennis ball at the floor with wrist snap. But, let’s remove the boxes, put an actually volleyball into play and set to them. Now let’s see how everyone does. My prediction? Lots of negative errors.

  1. Varying athlete heights
  2. Varying vertical leaping ability of athletes
  3. Where is the ball set in terms of height and distance off the net
  4. Opponent defense

All too often, clubs need to share a court with another team. What can you do with just half of a court? Should we do all the drills we know where it takes only half of the court to run? “Dig to Chase”? “Chase to Dig”? And the countless others we’ve all seen? I’m certainly not advocating any of those. Wouldn’t a better solution be to string a ribbon/rope over your half of the court and play over that makeshift net, instead?

Do you want to see your athletes as they experience net gains in skill level? That happens when you give your athletes more opportunities to play in a competitive game-like environment. It occurs when you are able to gain nets and use smaller size teams.

This is where the Gain Nets = Net Gains diagram comes into play, below. It is intended to graphically simplify USA Volleyball’s incredibly inspiring research, thoughts, and philosophies. Those of you in the Quality Management field will undoubtedly recognize the concept as it is patterned after Dr. Deming’s Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle.

Let’s look at another training technique that I’m sure most have seen, and may have even tried. While we’re considering this training technique, let’s also keep the Gain Nets = Net Gains diagram, from above, in mind.  Let’s just assume that my team needs to improve forearm passing. To help them perform this critical skill better, let’s have one person on the court at a time. I’m going to toss the ball, and the athlete is going to move into an athletic position as if they were going to pass the ball. Platform extended, come to a stop, platform angled to target, and so on. But, instead of passing that ball, I want you to instead open your arms and let the ball bounce between your legs. Is this a great training technique? I’m not sure, but, it seems to me to train kids to move to the ball, but, not to pass it!

Let’s examine this drill a bit more carefully. What do you see? You see a coach tossing, one athlete doing, and the rest of the team watching. If you think more learning takes place while watching, let me ask you: does watching someone learning to play the piano teach you everything you need to know to play at their recital? My point exactly.

The Gain Nets = Net Gains diagram clearly defines the things you shouldn’t be doing and those things that you should be doing more of. Teams, and athletes, need to play more. Not always 6v6. There are times when you do need to work on something specific where 6-a-side may make sense.

But, what happens when the coach decides they want to participate? Do the rules allow this to happen? Can an adult coach enter a youth volleyball tournament and participate as an athlete? Then why is it this can be seen in countless gym’s across the country?

The formula seen in the Gain Nets = Net Gains diagram, is deceptively simple. As a coach, if you plan your training sessions with this diagram in mind, I am convinced you will witness the increased mastery in your athletes that all coaches seek. I don’t have examples from club or college teams that are using these techniques to great success. What I do have, is an appreciation and understanding of teaching the game of volleyball to young athletes using the techniques in the diagram.

Are you going to suddenly win championships or develop highly recruited college volleyball athletes just by following that diagram? No. Of course not. You will, however, witness a rather astonishing thing, increased mastery. The awesome thing about witnessing increased mastery? That’s where a bulk of the aha moments are found. Nothing gives me greater joy as a coach than to witness athletes experience their own, personal aha moments.

This past club season, I have been nearly 100% committed to this type of training, net gains. In fact, one of parents writes: “With the small-sided games that we have been doing in training, I have noticed that the girls are getting many more touches on the ball. More touches means more training per session for every girl. The larger space to cover also requires them to react quicker to the ball and it improves their speed. This has really paid-off in games when they need to hustle to get to a ball. They seem to be getting to those balls quicker and, as a result, are able to keep fighting for points they have lost out on previously.” She summarized things perfectly.

If you are interested, you can begin your own personal transformation, just as I did so many years ago, starting with the upper right-most stop sign in the Net Gains graphic. The green background, the universal indicator to go, says to use smaller team sizes. Under the stop sign, it asks you to try and find ways to keep your athletes from standing in lines, from running (and warming-up) without the use of a ball, and from always playing 6v6.

Following the arrow down to the next stop sign, coaches are encouraged not to participate in the drills/games/grills. If the best drills in use today all involve the same common resonating message of pass, set, hit, then it would stand to reason a coach who passes, who sets, who hits for their team is taking away precious opportunities from their athletes.

As we head back up the circle, we’re on the do side, as well as on the achievement side. Do use more nets, use them with fewer athletes per team, and use them in as many game-like situations as possible. In all likelihood, this training is going to look ugly. In a random sport like volleyball, most learning takes place in a chaotic and ugly environment. Mechanics are important, and can be trained inside the game, while players are learning to read and react.

What if we were able to substantially increase the number of ball contacts per athlete hour of training time? Is it worth it to give your athletes more touches? Playing smaller-sided games gives you the opportunity to dramatically increase the number of touches. If you could get several thousand more touches for your athletes in a game-like situation over the course of the season, do you think your athletes would have improved more than if they got less?

During the 2015 club volleyball season, I had a parent who wanted to record statistics for me, even during training. What was discovered once the season ended was rather remarkable. Granted, this is one season’s worth of statistics, collected from one team, a U12 team. Please keep in mind, the numbers reported in the table come from Competitive Cauldron matches, played one night per week. There were seven matches per night, played 2v2, for a total of six-minutes per match.

Average Number of Individual Athlete Contacts

Statistical CategoryEarly-Season Training SessionMid-Season Training SessionLate-Season Training Session
Contacts per minute7.18.08.5
Contacts per match42.547.850.7
Contacts per even matches297.5334.6354.9

The number of contacts in the table are meaningful contacts. They were done in a competitive, game-like atmosphere and certainly didn’t come about from having athletes standing on the sidelines watching others. These contacts were chock-full of read and react opportunities for each athlete, not a chosen few. In 42-minutes of cauldron playing time, each athlete touched the ball about 335 times. That’s an impressive number. 6v6 scrimmaging certainly can’t deliver that many ball contacts in 42-minutes of playing time. Neither will 5v5 or 4v4. You might be able to match those numbers with 3v3, but, you would need to stay focused and have a ball ready at all times in order for you to push that number.

It stands to reason that if we play with fewer athletes on the court, and we focus on 3-hits, then that number of opportunities to contact the ball by the individual athlete is going to increase.

The greater volleyball community owes a huge debt of gratitude to the people of USA Volleyball. They have been ardent supporters of growing the game, of making the entire sport better around the world, not just here in the United States. If you want to be a better coach, explore and use the resources, many of which are free, from the USA Volleyball website. Explore the use of smaller sized teams during training, and see how your athletes will react.

Dennis Belaire is CAP III certified and a member of the Lakeshore Region