Serving and the Learning Principle of Distributed Practice

James Sneddon, Volleyball Canada, Domestic Development Director. James grew up playing volleyball in Manitoba and later in BC. James is a Douglas College and York University Volleyball alumni where he completed a BA in Sociology. After graduating, James played professionally with HIK Aalborg in the Danish Elite Division. He worked 5 years as a teaching assistant at the Vancouver School Board while head coaching the Capilano University Men's Volleyball where he was named CCAA coach of the year in 2008. In 2006 he was the assistant coach of Canada's Youth National Team. For 3 years, James was a Human Kinetics Instructor at Capilano University and is a former High Performance Director for Volleyball BC. James is an NCCP Level 3 Certified Coach.

By James Sneddon

When I was asked to write a blog on serving, a personal story immediately came to mind. 

I was playing for a European team and it was late in the season and we were preparing for playoffs.   In our most recent match our serving was particularly poor and our opponents seemed to have their way on offence.  Our coach correctly identified that we made too many serving errors and the balls going in the court, for the most part, were shoved back down our throats. 

So for the next week in practice we worked on serving… over and over and over, often for continuous periods of 30 minutes or more.  For our next big match the team was motivated and prepared to serve tough and in… we were pumped.  

 Two hours later, we all sat in the dressing room frustrated, disappointed and confused as to why each of us, without exception, had our worst serving match of the season and ended up losing.   Questions started to pop up.   Were we mentally weak in this area?  Were we simply a poor serving team?   Players began to blame and point fingers.  It was ugly. 

Why had we served so poorly after all this practice?

After I came back to Canada and started coaching at the college level, I began to seriously look at how to train serving.   It was then that I discovered one of several important motor learning principles: Distributed practice.  

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Top Ten Serving Secrets

Since 1985 John has been working for the National Governing Body of the sport, USA Volleyball (USAV), now as Managing Director of Region Services. He serves as the staff liaison for Disabled Programs, USA Deaflympic Teams, Starlings USA, National Parks and Recreation Assoc., the YMCA and over 30 other Affiliated Organizations working with USAV. He was Team Leader for the 2000 USA Olympic Beach Volleyball Teams in Sydney, which brought home one gold medal. In 1995, Volleyball Magazine’s special Centennial issue named him one of the 50 most important people in the sport in the past 100 years.

By John Kessel

So I spent the last four nights in Hartford, Connecticut. My last morning a coach from CAP said his girls were serving at about a 33 percent success rate and what could he do to help them. My thoughts shared with him seemed to be of value to share here with all reading this blog, so here are what we talked about…

  1. The most important skill in serving is giving yourself a consistent ball to strike.  The vast majority of errors made by all levels of servers are due to the server given themselves a toss that is not the same – resulting in having to change the swing, contact and ball flight. Indeed, just the word “toss” makes players too often put the ball too high – so I often say “place the ball” to get the desired ball arc  – which is to put the ball to the height where when it starts to fall back down, it is struck.  So placement should go up and down at a VERY low height, so consistently it would fall back into your tossing hand should you not contact it
  2. Get your contact hand back behind your head before starting to serve. A core principle in being a great player is to simplify the movement you make in each skill. For serving, this means you should simply TOSS-STRIKE, with the toss being low and consistent, and the arm swinging to strike the ball with a fast arm. There is no step – would you teach free throw shooting with a step? I doubt it, and many volleyball coaches are surprised when I note in the gyms of the world how there is a nail or large dot in the middle of the free throw line, placed to allow the hoopsters to shoot from the same spot that is the lined up to the center of the basket.
  3. Show the skill with your program’s best and meanest server. Your players will learn faster when they see a peer or near their age player who can do the serve (or any skill) you want all to emulate.  For my team, we watch Erin, state volleyball champion whose serve is one that nobody likes to receive. She is simple in motion and strikes a ball that floats every time. This float, by the way is NOT due to “punching” or stopping your arm when you swing. It is learned by each individual determining where on the sphere he or she need to hit the ball on the true center of the sphere including the intended ball flight. If you see it spin at all left to right, for example, you need to strike it a few millimeters more to the right, still in line with your ball flight. This deliberate practice reading of the ball spin should be done on every serve, as the player also moves into the court to play, or simulate getting to base. Too often coaches have the players just serve and watch, not serve and run to base, thus they are not teaching the whole skill.
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Time Management – Essential Life Skill For an Athlete

Pierre Tranchemontagne is a second year assistant coach with the Mavericks. In his first year, he helped coach the 16U High Performance girls team. He is currently coaching with the 18U High Performance girls team and has the added role of the Academic Advisor for the team. Pierre is an Ontario Certified Teacher and has coached various school teams in the past. Through competitive team sports, he believes in not only improving the technical skills of young athletes but also in developping their personal ideals such as integrity, respect, discipline, and determination.

By Pierre Tranchemontagne

Time Management Schedule

Job. Sports. Extracurricular activities.  School. Boyfriend/girlfriend. Social life.  Welcome to the life of the teenager.  With thoughts of Justin Bieber and Kesha running through their heads, how does this teenager prioritize and organize their busy life?  Answer: time management.  This little taught life skill is essential, especially if our young adult is considering pursuing higher education and volleyball at the same time.  Later in their « academic career » the school workload will be ramped up as will the training time and commitment to an organized volleyball program.  As teachers, coaches, parents, etc., we need to support our athletes at a young age so that they don’t crash and burn upon entry to « life without boundaries » (i.e. – mom and dad), or as it is more commonly referred to, university and college.  A physically strong and technically proficient athlete won’t help any team if they can’t even meet the basic academic requirements of their school because they can’t properly manage their busy schedule.  What to do?  As already mentioned, the key is for our athletes to develop their time management skills at an early age so that it becomes second nature to properly plan school work, personal time, family activities, work, and a social life. 

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Training Young Setters

Patrick Corriveau is the founder of Big Bounce Beach Volleyball located in Ottawa. He was a setter at both the University of Manitoba and Ryerson University He currently is coaching the Fusion Ottawa 18U boys team.

By Patrick Corriveau:  The setter in volleyball is often compared to the quarterback in football.  With the responsibility for making all the decisions for offensive distribution, there is no position on the team that is more influential on the outcome of the game than the setter.

With all this responsibility, setters must make sure that their technical skills do not break down during a match, so that their focus can remain on tactics.  There is no secret formula to forming superior technical skills.  The only way a setter can ensure they have a stable volley is through a high number of repetitions on a daily basis.  A rule of thumb I tell my setters is they should volley the ball a minimum of 500 times every day. 

As a coach, I give each setter at least 250 reps during every practice throughout the season.  They are responsible for making up the extra volume on their own time.

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Using Offensive Systems to Develop Players

Jason reading is notes before a match

Jason Trepannier, Ontario Volleyball Association, Technical Director, Jason grew up in Ottawa where he began playing volleyball. He went to Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and graduated in 1999 with a degree in Economics. He was a member of Team Canada from 1999 to 2000, (bronze medallist at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg) and played for various Professional Clubs in Europe from 1999 to 2006. Prior to holding his current position as the Technical Director, Jason worked as the OVA’s Performance Enhancement Program’s Head Coach.

By Jason Trepanier   

I was recently at a volleyball conference and watched a presentation on the relatively unheard of 6-3 offensive system. As the session went on I started to realize that it wasn’t being presented as the offensive system that would win you the next tournament, but rather, as a system that would give your young players what they needed, a broad skill set. This was because the 6-3 isn’t an overly specialized system; everyone plays multiple positions on the court and learns to use a wide variety of techniques. I thought this line of thinking would make our National Team coaches happy because they’re always looking for players who are great at a couple of things and good at everything else.

As the presentation went on, I wondered whether or not there is a sensible progression of offensive systems that a school or club could use as their athletes get older, a progression that would maximize not only the number of players the club would be able to place in college or university, but also the number of matches their 18U or senior teams could win. There probably isn’t an exact formula, but from an athlete development perspective, there would certainly be some systems that would be better than others at each level. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ve described a few offensive systems below with their advantages, disadvantages, and a recommendation for the age group with which they’d work best, all from an athlete development point of view.

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