This second in a series of sharing the evolution of popular drills – into grills or even games, takes on perhaps the most hallowed of traditions… “pepper.”

You may not even know why players call it this term, you just carry on this tradition of calling it and doing it its easiest form – digging  and hitting the ball back and forth in a straight line.  It comes from a pair baseball drill that is similar, with catching and throwing quickly back and forth, rather than the rebounding found in volleyball.

So rather than just keep doing something because everyone else does it, I ask you to again use the question a coach should ask of every drill they use and teach in practice –  “What if they became the Olympic Gold Medalists at doing this?”  What if your players became the world’s best a partner pepper, what does that mean they are good at?

In clinics around the world, coaches say, “Yeah, but John, this teaches ball control.” I believe and can see in decades of watching players  that it really teaches you to be great at digging the ball straight back at the person who hit it at you, right up to that attacker’s hitting area.   That is a habit, or form of “ball control,” I simply cannot fathom having the desire to have.  Let me say it again, I do not want ANY of my players to be good at digging or passing  the ball directly back to a person who hit it at you.  As covered in the grassroots handout article “From Positive to Perfection,” learning to dig the ball back to your partner is simply teaching your athletes to make the negative mistake as their base habit/reaction, rather than the positive, as the journey to perfection continues.

Let me ask you to reflect on a few questions:

The better a player gets at pepper, the more or less a player moves?  - in my experience, the great “pepper players” have such “ball control” that you could nail their shoes to the floor and they could still keep peppering – in no small part because the best pepper partners hit it right at their teammate.  Yet the better a player gets on real defense, the more they can move.  Do you want to teach players to move less or more as they improve as defenders?  The great ones move in advance to where the hitter is sending a ball, and minimize the movement needed at contact.

When a player does not hit at a teammate, they say what?   Why do they say “sorry” and not “DIG THAT?”  How many of your opponents hit at the defender?  As the distance is artificially short, and the ball is not coming over the net, with an attacker approaching, there is nothing to realistically read, nor is there really time to do so.  So we mindlessly become better and better at digging back to the hitter.

Why do players hit virtually all swings at their partner, facing straight on?  Why don’t they hit wrist away/cut shots and across the body/line shots?  It is not part of the tradition.

If you remember from IMPACT or motor learning education, random training is superior for learning – promoting better retention, problem solving, and game play. Pair pepper is a hidden “blocked drill” with players standing at a distance that is fascinatingly never taught or mentioned, but simply “understood.” Pair up with a player and say “let’s pepper” and stand near them, and they will automatically back up to “pepper distance.”  Do the same but stand” too far away” and immediately the duo will collapse the distance to “pepper distance.”  I have never heard anyone teach this distance, or mention the distance in feet or meters.  It is just a learned habit that the traditions of our sport “teaches.” 

You see, full skill movement in defense, has players who wait nearer the net when their opponents pass (ready for an overpass) and then set (ready for a possible setter 2nd contact dump shot) the ball. Then once it is seen there is no dump shot, coaches expect their players to move some short distance deeper in the court.  How far back is determined by your defensive system and the reading of the third contact attack, but invariably, every coach expects these defenders to move backwards, deeper in the court.  Does pepper teach this repeated backup reading move?  Yet you expect your defenders to do this every single time the ball is on the other side of the net….We teach them to be static in traditional pepper and since that is easier than moving, the players oblige…

So, now that you know how I feel about traditional pepper, what might I encourage to replace it? Let us begins with the evolution. The first ones are those you might use for pre-match warm up, or when you have no net that you can play over for whatever reason


This one change of tradition might be the biggest change to improve reactions and habits in defense that are learned from pepper.  Simply stop digging the ball immediately back to your partner, and instead dig it first up to yourself.   Then either hit that ball on two, or set it to yourself then hit it to your partner. 

 Part of the problem of learning to be positive first and always in your habits is that at the lowest level, it better allows for the worst team to win on the scoreboard. This is due to the fact that at this beginning to read/understand the game level, the team who simply hits it back on one hit, wins. You might be teaching three hits (three chances to err) and you lose at the start of learning this game, to those who pass and dig the ball directly back over the net. So you see overpasses falling (and as a much more experienced at physical activity you are baffled as to why it happens) untouched on the other side, and much celebration – for a habit that as you get better, simply will result in certain losing. Just not at the start, so we begin our thinking that pepper is a good thing.


This is the variation with the most movement, and thus a more advance form of positive pair peppering.  The player with the ball starts at about traditional pepper distance, then sets the ball to their partner, and immediately backs up, as a defender does after no second contact setter dump – to further than traditional pepper distance. The partner getting the set ball, hits (using all the shots they know) near their defender partner. Now, rather than dig the ball back to the attacker, the defender digs the ball up half way between their digging spot and their attacking partner, and that attacking partner moves forward to set the ball, and then the cycle repeats. Thus two players play as if there are three.  At the highest level, this is played over the net, explained more below.


                Static Version

When you have three, you can more easily develop the positive habits and reactions desired to be ingrained. For younger players, you start by simply overhead passing the ball in the right pattern, which is    A to C, C to B, B to C, C to A, A to B, B to A and  repeat….

A             B             C

As you progress, A and C dig to B and hit over B to each other, while B sets both A and C in the pattern.   At the start, the players hit “over the net” by B even raising his or her hands to be the “net” and turning around to read the dig of player A or C. Once the skill of hitting over this “net” is understood, player B should start moving right and/or left, so the dig is on an angle, as it will be more in the game. Straight lines do not happen too often in volleyball. Say player C is normally a right side digger, then they would want player B to move to their left, for digging attacker A “down the line” from zone four and towards their teammates, or if they were to dig player A from zone two, the dig would to more to their right, so B would move to their as their target.   This is a concept for all three person pepper options, along with the front/back movement of a digger.

                Movement Version

Now you add in the overpass/setter dump nearer the net, and then back up move. So while B sets to A, C moves back, and once A hits, they move up as C digs, then B sets, then moves back as C hits over B.  At the highest level, B moves “off the net” rather than standing still for each dig and set. These ties into making the positive error even more, no digging right up to the “net,” but digging off the net on each side.

                Weaving Version

 This one is what I strongly suggest for warming up, before a match or practice, when you only are using one side of the court.  I always start, for intrinsic learning’s sake, by seeing if the athletes can figure it out by saying “Each time the ball goes over the ‘net’ you need to change positions.”  If they, or you, can’t figure that out, it means in the above ABC pattern, when A hits over the “net” (player B), that player switches with B to become C’s setter.  Now the player pattern is B  A  C, and C digs to A, who, once the ball is set, C hits it to B over the “net”…then C switches to the net and A moves off the net, to receive the attack from B. In other words, the attacker becomes the digger’s setter on the other side of the “net.” 


It is important to understand that when the vast majority of players do pepper, they hit the ball down at an angle that is simply not gamelike for them.  They are essentially learning how to be negative in their hitting – learning how to hit into or under the net, not OVER the net, which is not only the perfection being sought, but even if you hit it out, you are making the other side think (is it in, or out?), but when you hit into the net NOBODY LEARNS ANYTHING.  So pepper without the net still needs to have players, jumping to hit or not as options, who learn armswings that hit the ball OVER the net.  When you add the net, reality dictates this. When the net is not there, you must ensure that your errors are positive, and over a net at an angle that is gamelike for you – jumping or not.

                Dig to Yourself  Version

Same as the first changed in pepper noted above – you just have to hit over the net, as you would in the reality of the game. This way you can’t get away with hitting low/waist high or other shots that would go into a net if the net were there.  You see, the closer you get to your opponent in a REAL game, the more the net looms in your way and makes you hit up and over more. In pepper without the net, the closer you get to a pepper partner, the more you just hit down at them.

                Alternating  Version

This requires a lot of hustle, and a somewhat not exactly gamelike running under the net, but I say go for it in the interest of lots of movement and to keep digging up and not over the net.  After you hit over the net to your partner, you must run to the other side of the net to be your partner’s setter. After you set to your partner, you back up under the net to be the digger, while your partner, once they hit the ball over the net, then runs to the other side of the net to be their partner’s setter, before also backing up to the other side of the net. You learn to dig up even more, and yet never dig back over the net, since that would stop the pepper.

                Three Person Version

Weaving, movement, and lots of hustle, this is also known as the "Three on None Game."  It could include starting with serving,  just from near the three meter line unless you are pretty darn good.  You have one player on one side to serve/attack, the other two waiting to pass/dig, and whoever does that, runs to the other side, as the server/attacker runs to their “other side.”  Lots of hustle, and, like all these variations, you keep track of how many in a row you and your group can do, attempting to beat the scores of the other groups who are also pair or triple peppering.


Once again we return back to the value of playing doubles. Short Court, Shared Court, Narrow Court, Cross Court.  Put up that rope/2” ribbon/2-3-4 nets down the middle of your regulation court and have tourneys, try stuff, play non-dominate hand, figure out how to beat your opponent, and play, play,  play…. 

Let’s put an end to creating another generation of players whose fundamental habit/reaction to dig the ball back to the opposition/attacker, and at least have players who only know how to dig each and every shot UP where their other 5 teammates are….it won’t happen overnight, but it will create players in time who get those valuable leads in rally scoring that come from being able to transition attack, by not knowing how to dig the ball back to their opponent, but instead to their own side….

So while I have already blogged about STOP Teaching Passing – this is related in the same way, and I welcome comments or complaints below, or email me at  - Hope you have time to read some of the other important blogs in this Growing the Game Together series… next up will be the Evolution of Blocking Drills and then Spiking Drills. 

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On March 01, 2012 Hutch wrote
Enjoyed reading your comments. I have not used two person pepper since a read an article that you wrote several years ago about making sure the warm up transcends to the court. Our teams use the three person pepper with the each player following the ball and the middle person, who acts as the setter, standing off center so the person passing must rotate their shoulders to the target. In addition, this forces the hitter to open up to the set. At the appropriate time and place, I would like to share with you what I wrote to you in an email regarding what our teams now do during the 4 minutes prior to a club volleyball match.

On March 01, 2012 Hutch wrote
I do not know if my first comment went through. Always enjoy your articles. I wanted to share with you that, at the encouragement of one of your prior articles, my teams no longer do the two person pepper. We do a three person pepper where each player follows the ball after making contact. The players are put at the net and the back line of the court. The middle person is located off center and acts as the setter. This formation requires the passer to rotate their shoulders to make a proper pass and allows for the hitter to open their hips towards the setter before making contact. Sometime, when you revisit what we do prior to the club volleyball match, I will share what our team does during those 4 precious minutes.

On March 01, 2012 Sameul Wong wrote
Hi John I attended your coaching course in 2005 when you were in Singapore to conduct our level II course for coaches. You challenge coaches to question from traditions and ask if the drills could be more game like. I introduced and use several of the peppering variations with my teams during practise. Some players found it challenging to control the balls with that many things to focus on, others welcome the more intense drill.

On March 08, 2012 David wrote
Hutch: Don't wait, share with all of us your ideas for what to do with a four minute club arm-up. I keep changing up our warm-ups trying to find a way to maximize touches on the ball while the players are moving in a game like manner. My players are getting frustrated with my constantly changing up their warm-ups. I'm getting frustrated because nothing seems to be working for them. Some new ideas, that have worked for you, would be greatly appreciated.

On April 11, 2012 Randall Ayshford wrote
John, I have been an occasional reader of your blog over the years, but nothing puts your perspective in motion like seeing it live at the MVI Coaching Clinic a couple of weeks ago. Thanks for your ever growing fresh look at volleyball improvement and growth. Much appreciated by our coaches at Southern Minnesota Volleyball who attend the clinic. Some of your concepts have already worked their way into our training programs.

We very much welcome additional new comments, to be contributed below: