About a decade ago my kids and I went up to Lander, Wyoming to run a high school volleyball camp at the base of the Wind River Range, and home of the famous “cheesewheel” (a batter fried cheeseburger) and NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.  We went to help the Ragan family, mom Janet was head coach then, daughter Ali went on to become a teammate my daughter at Bowdoin College, sons Eric and Trevor were into sports too. Eric now coaches college volleyball, while Trevor stuck with his sport, basketball. 

A couple of years ago, Trevor got in touch about motor learning science wondering how the principles would apply to his sport of basketball.  After several long talks and countless emails, he founded his hoops camp, “Championship Basketball School” using a more competitive and game based method to training, with solid success. The thing is, when you do summer camps for your living you have 9 months of free time and Trevor, a growth mindset based learner,  took full advantage of those months to learn to be a better basketball teacher. 

This led to his visiting our USA National Team training site in Anaheim, and seeing first hand the concept of “training ugly,” which he has recently set up a website about, in order to extend the impact of the science in sport beyond just basketball, and into all sports.  I have enjoyed assisting him in his efforts.  I urge you to follow his sharing of the things he learned, and is learning at www.trainugly.com.

Dr. Richard Schmidt, the great motor learning science professor and author of five editions of the important “drill” book Motor Learning Science, Principles to Practice, is one of those Trevor has dialogued with.  One of the most powerful “aha” moments for many US Olympic coaches came a few years back we got a chance to hear Dr. Schmidt speak at the Olympic Training Center here in town. He would be asked about a drill that was not random or whole that one sport might do, and he queried back “Are you practicing for practice, or for performance?”  Of course these high level coaches would respond, performance, as they help guide athletes to Olympic medal success, to which he then would respond something to the effect of well then don’t do that…

Fast forward to last week when I got a chance to sit in on a fantastic talk to the USA Swimming National Age Group coaches by the talented teacher/scientist John Medina. He is also the author of one of the must read books for any aspiring coach and parent, entitled Brain Rules, which I hope to find time this season to cover more in depth. During this gathering, a passionate discussion took place about Dr. Brent Rushall’s two articles in their #1 swimming science periodical about USARPT. It was there I heard a term that resonated with me for volleyball, “Irrelevant Training.”  I certainly see such training in every sport, especially in volleyball. The majority of “drills” VB coaches do, fall into this category of training, as what is being learned as a “skill” is either irrelevant to the way the game is actually played, or they are developing motor programs which result in poor volleyball game action, while learning a drill action that is not correct for the game.  Thus, the blogs I write about “STOP :_” (now being termed “limit” so that those who can’t understand the grey, not black or white, aspect of these observations) and “Evolution of :__” 

I daily get wonderful thank you calls/letters/emails/Facebook posts, from coaches who have changed from drills to grills (fully game-like drills), to scoring in games played by any size of “team,” especially 1 vs 1, 2 vs 0 and 1 vs 1 plus 1, to player run grills/games, and to coaching through guided discovery, not extrinsic learning.  They have become comfortable with the “ugly” aspect of training, with the countless variations that comes from our complex random rebound sport. Sadly, there remains a large population of teachers of our sport who resist changing from teaching the way they were taught. They prefer to look good in practice, even if performance is not happening in game play, and often lament with variations of the comment “Ee look so good in practice…what happened”

This frustration led to a growth mindset coach writing Dr. Peter Vint, the US Olympic Committee’s Director of Competitive Analysis, Research and Innovation, and me about how might he help his club directors embrace the changes science has given us.   He wrote us saying the director of the club argued (as most coaches do) that  “A coach can control exactly where the ball is hit forcing the player to execute a specific skill and with players serving the number of reps is much lower for the passers than when the coach inputs balls.”  And that “with unlimited time and resources random may be better but with the limited amount of time in club volleyball (4 to 6 hours a week) player needed the half a practice of blocked reps and the club’s previous success was proof of that….”  The coach then closed our discussion with “It's funny how when I started coaching my response to random/variable practices was "all they do is play, they should break it down more" to now where I am almost 180 degrees opposite and advocating for more play and less drills!  I appreciate the time you guys both devote to grassroots and all coaches for that matter.”   My responses would be well known if you read anything in my blog, and follow Peter’s response, which he graciously said to use here. I felt of import as it is not just me again saying why…but a scientist who not only knows, but loves our sport.  Here is what he said: 

Thanks for your patience with my response. It should come as no surprise that both John and I will advocate for variable over blocked practice at almost every step. While blocked practice with frequent and immediate feedback may be indicated for true novices, once the athletes understand what is being asked of them tactically and/or technically, variable practice and bandwidth or summary feedback should be introduced. 

The issue you're experiencing is an absolutely classic one. As coaches, we have fallen into the trap of believing that "getting reps" is important and that the best way to do this is through coach-controlled, blocked practice. While repetitions are absolutely important, we believe that striving toward "repetitions without repetitiveness" is actually the best way to carry out learning-focused training. 

In quoting, "…the coach can control exactly where the ball is hit forcing the player to execute a specific skill…', The coach in question is clearly and solely focused on a specific aspect of a specific technical skill. What is lost in this approach is the perceptual skills that are required to execute this skill during continuous match play. So, while he may feel he's maximizing time, he's actually wasting it by removing elements of play that are absolutely essential to execution during competition. 

The references John has sent should serve you well. However, I would add that your last question is a very good one and points to some of the challenge in implementing a designed variable practice (Note – John will respond that random practice is absolutely easy to design – just let them play!). But, what I would offer is that you can introduce variation "thematically" if it helps you manage time. What I mean by this is that even if the coach insists on staying with blocked practices (e.g., serving balls to passers; hitting over the net to defenders) - which I am in no way advocating - he can still introduce huge variance into blocked drills by varying speed, location, trajectory, etc. Collectively, as long as players understand what is expected of them, this is still best done with a wholly variable/random practice that mimics game play (explicitly meaning the coach never enters a ball). Kess may roll his eyes as he reads, but introducing elements like this is simply one way to get the proverbial foot in the door if it is currently closed.    

I concede that random/variable practice will look messier. And, according to all scientific accounts will cause decrements in practice "performance". However, it is unequivocally superior in terms of facilitating motor, cognitive, and perceptual learning – when it matters most. Who CARES if performance in practice is good if it all falls apart in game play? So, it IS a leap of faith to adopt these ideas, but I have yet to encounter a circumstance where it hasn't worked out. And, just for a good dose of irony, athletes tend to like variable practice way more than blocked practices anyway.

Hope it helps. Good luck!


My response was shorter but contains some new reads only shared in my twitter account (@JohnKesselUSAV)

It is not that the half of practice has no transfer, it is just so little, that they are only getting good at the other half when they play games, in increasing their VB IQ.

1. Buy Faster, Higher, Stronger – by Mark McCluskey, just out. solid stuff.

2. Have him visit www.trainugly.com  this is where I am helping Trevor impact hoops and beyond, who have the same mentality.

3. Have him read any of my “STOP Teaching ::___” in my blog.

4. Carl’s article “The Superiority of Whole Training over Blocked” impacts this area too – tho it is focused on whole, the random research is woven into it clearly. Hard to refute.  (note, for a copy, email me a [email protected])

5. Read this blog too, just out – small sample size but some remarkable results on injury reduction through gamelike training.