Tag Archives: Volleyball Practice

Are We Doing It Wrong?


There was a story a week or so ago about a computer program beating the world’s best Go players. Apparently Go is an ancient Chinese game that has more or less an infinite number of possible moves and is therefore considered to be the ultimate test of artificial intelligence (AI)*.  I know nothing about either Go or AI but apparently this is a big deal.  The original article is hidden behind a pay wall, but I was able to pull out a couple of quotes that sparked a spot of thinking.

“The (computer program) made moves that seemed foolish but inevitably led to victory over the world’s best players.”

This quote seems to suggest that the computer understood the game and played it in a completely different way to humans have been playing it.  On that theme the current world champion was quoted as saying,

“After humanity spent thousands of years improving tactics, computers tell us humans are completely wrong.  I would go as far as to say that not a single human has touched the edge of the truth of Go.”

As I am avowed questioner of conventional wisdom these thoughts really piqued my interest and obviously I thought about applying them to volleyball.  Like everything, there is a set of parameters about the game that are accepted as conventional wisdom.  For example, according to the rules a team is allowed only three contacts.  The conventional wisdom is that using all three contacts is the most effective way of playing.  But is it?  As I have written about earlier, Frenchman Earvin N’Gapeth has become famous for, among other things, not always using three contacts. Watching him live I was struck by how obvious those plays actually are. Once you accept that it is possible, his actions are the easiest and best solutions.  I would say that nearly everything we do In practice, is in some way based on conventional wisdom.  For some coaches more than others, but there is a lot of it there.

The computer who won in Go won by playing in a different way than people who were locked into a way of thinking going back thousands of years.  What would happen if that computer decided to try to play volleyball?  Would it use three contacts every time?  I think, deep down,  we already know the answer is no.  Would spikers jump off two feet?  Would there be such a thing as the underarm pass?  Would we train in the same way?  And if the answer to any of those questions is no, what would the alternative be?  How would the computer solve the problem of the game?

I don’t think any of us has touched the edge of the truth of volleyball.

The Coaching Is Not In The Interventions

There is a common quote applying to music that I first heard in a Phil Jackson book but have heard in varying forms many times since,

“Music is the space between the notes.”

The quote has been attributed among others to Claude Debussy, and it always makes me think about things like the interactions and relationships in the playing of whatever game is being talked about at the time.  A few days ago I read something that made me think of this idea directly in relation to coaching.

Most people think of coaching as being what the coach does during the game, the timeouts, the substitutions or if we want to go into real ‘depth’, the starting rotation.  Some smarter people understand that what happens in practice is equally important, the drills done, the feedback given, the time taken, the conduct of practice.

The moment I had was when it occurred to me that all of those things are interventions.  The notes, if you will.  But just as music is not in the notes, the coaching is not in the interventions.  The coaching is in the timing of the interventions.  It is choosing the moment when the feedback will have the greatest impact.  It is not giving any verbal feedback at all but allowing the player or team to learn the lesson by themselves.  It is allowing the errors that lead to learning.  It is not jumping up and down on the sideline berating players or the referee but trusting the team to carry out the vision of the game you have taught them in practice.

In short, the coaching is not in the interventions. The coaching is in the space between the interventions.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2

Training Goals

There is a lot of research that shows the best kind of practice the coach should do with his team.  The best kind of practice that a coach should do with his team is distributed practice.  Distributed practice provides the best conditions for learning and importantly the retention of the learning.  That is clear.  Everyone knows that*.  So it logically follows that distributed practice is always the best way to practice.  Or does it?

What if the goal of a particular practice session is NOT learning? What if the goal is team building? Or active recovery? Or providing feedback? Or developing a common language?  Or improving communication? If the goal of practice is not learning then is it necessary to use only distributed practice formats?

The practice below was originally recorded by Volleywood for a Facebook Live Event.  The goal of the practice activation.  The team had had two free days prior to this practice.  Contrary to popular belief, professional athletes are not better when they have had free time and tend to be fairly sluggish.  Sometimes practice can look like the players have never met each other, or a ball, before.  In such cases, to prevent practice being an essential dead loss, we can have a morning practice that activates the nervous system and muscles, in preparation for the days that follow.  In that case we want to have simple activities and movements that allow a player to get back in communication with his body and with the ball.

The video quality is not perfect, and it wasn’t recorded with the view of being a training aid, but you can get the idea.

*Sadly, not everyone knows that.  But they should.

Shooting Blind – A Life Without Feedback

This week my club president invited the team and staff for a casual get together / get to know you / team building activity at a local gun club.  If you think about it, it is a logical place to hold a team get together.  I mean what brings a group of men more enjoyment than shooting stuff?  Oh, you can think of a few things, eh? Well, anyway that is where we went.  After struggling for a few minutes with the personal morality of shooting a gun at all (particularly as I don’t want my son to have even a toy gun), I decided to join in.  It was an interesting experience.

The first problem I had was that I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  This wasn’t an issue about seeing the target, or not, but an issue of not being able to see what I hit.  I took careful aim at the target, carefully squeezed the trigger and off in the distance there was a cloud of dust.  I had no clue whether I had hit anything in between those events.  I was shooting blind.  I realised that without being able to see the target I had no feedback on what I was doing.  Between series I was able to see the target and eventually piece together some information.


In the picture on the right you can see the 8 and 6 below the bullseye were in my 3rd series.  The 10, 9 and 8 were in my 4th series.  With feedback, I could quickly improve.

Oddly, considering how many millions of times I have seen it, I am much better able to ‘see’ where a ball lands after having spent a season working with the video challenge system in the Polish League.  For the first time in my over 30 year involvement with volleyball I have had actual feedback on where a ball has landed.  It turns out that is important too.  Who would have thought.

The lesson is, as always, there is no learning without feedback.

Competitor Or Deflector?

If we have spent any time at all around volleyball gyms we feel pretty confident that we can pick out the great competitors among any group.  The great competitors are often the centre of attention.  They play aggressively on every play.  They are always pushing their teammates.  They question every call, even in a non important drill on a Tuesday afternoon, because winning is an every day thing.  They are great competitors.

I see a lot of things differently than most people see them.  Or maybe more accurately, I link things differently together than others. For example, where many coaches see lack of effort, I see lack of readiness.  And so it was when I was involved with coaching one of those great competitors.  Others saw an obvious and enormous will to win.  But I noticed that our ‘competitor’ only pushed his teammates to track down his errant plays (and berated them if they didn’t succeed).  He only questioned (and argued) the calls that would have prevented his mistakes.  Sure he was always aggressive, but most of what he did that stood out from the crowd had the effect (intended or otherwise) of deflecting our attention away from his mistakes.  He was not a competitor.  He was a deflector.

How is it in your gym?

The legendary Platonov, now on iTunes.


Blocked Practice Is Priming

None of the following is based strictly speaking on any actual research.  On that basis, it is purely speculation on my behalf.  I will defend myself however by writing that I am taking research results from different areas and putting them together, so I am not just making stuff up.  But it is just a collection of thoughts that might not in reality fit together.

Blocked practice has been shown, as reported here for example, to produce some positive short term learning effect but overall less retention of the learned activity than random / distributed practice.  For learning it is therefore clear that random practice is essential.  But at different moments during the course of the season, the goal of the coach may not necessarily be learning.  Sometimes the goal of the coach is a short term improvement in some particular area for a specific match.  In this situation blocked practice might be a perfect solution.

As I wrote previously the content of practice is in itself a form of communication with the team.  By choosing to practice a particular area in any way at all, even in a way that does not directly lead to long term learning, informs the team of its importance and draws their attention to it.  In this case blocked practice can lead to on court success by priming the team for certain skills and situations.

If I take the train of thought further and add a few more speculations on top…

Although blocked practice does not lead to long term learning, coaches persist with using it.  Obviously no coach wants his team to be worse, so one can only conclude that the coach ‘sees’ improvement in his team after blocked practice, particularly intra session improvement.  In seems likely / possible that what he is actually seeing is just the priming effect of the drill and not actual learning.  Hence the confusion.

It’s just a thought.

Priming And Coaching


Most people (rightly) contend that communication is one of the key skills in coaching and for coaches.  However, the biggest focus in those discussions is on verbal communication.  Yet there are studies that show only 7% of actual communication is through words, and those studies focus only on the face.  Body language is another important method of communication for a coach, but only one of many.

One method of communication that I pay great attention to is the content of practice and the drills.  The game areas you choose to work on, the drills you choose to work on them, the feedback you give, and the rules of the games you play all convey information to the team about their current level and possible areas of improvement.  If you work on a particular skill  every day, the team very quickly understands that it is important.  And vice versa.

There are other more subtle communication effects also at work.  One, I am sure, is related to to psychological concept of priming.  This is basically the idea that giving some stimulus to someone, makes a particular response more likely.  The first time I heard of this concept, I instantly thought of the scouting information that we always used to receive about a setter who always tipped straight after the opponent tipped*.  This seems to be a fairly classic case of priming.  Although I could be wrong.

I have had many experiences that I am sure are related to priming.  In one team, I spent a large amount of time practicing playing first tempo from poor reception.  When we got to the competition, we never played first tempo from poor reception.  But we did play it often, and effectively, from good reception.  I am sure that we played it a lot more than if I had just told the setter to set it.  This year I have had two interesting experiences with it.

Watching international matches during the summer, I noticed the frequency and effectiveness of one handed defensive actions.  I wondered how I could practice that.  I rather half heartedly did a couple of pairs drills using one handed defence, but I only did it twice for about three minutes each time and forgot about it.  Strangely, in the sessions that followed our defence and especially our one handed defence was noticeably better.  Later in the season, we played a warmup game in which I completely arbitrarily decided that only two handed contacts were allowed.  The next few days in training I noticed players diving for balls with two hands where they had previously been pancaking.  Mmm… priming?

Now whether or not this is actually priming (or confirmation bias from my perspective**) doesn’t really matter.  The point is that the content of your practice is at least as important as anything you say.  Everything you do communicates something to your team, your fans, your management.

The lesson is, as always, coaching is hard.

* I actually think this is possibly a very fertile area for scouting.  How does a setter / spiker / blocker respond to what the other team just did?

** If it is just confirmation bias, then the coach is getting feedback that his practice is effective and feels better about himself.  Which is important too.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2