The Hockey Error

A lot, or at least a few, sports count assists among their statistics.  That is, the pass that leads to a score.  In volleyball, at least in America, a set that leads to a spike point is an assist. In basketball, a pass that leads to a basket is an assist.  But in hockey, not only the pass that leads to a goal counts as an assist, but also the pass that leads to the pass that leads to a goal counts as an assist.  In some circles (i.e. Bill Simmons), that kind of assist is referred to a ‘hockey assist’.

In volleyball there are a lot of structural / organisational / communication errors where the fault seems to be obvious.

  • A tip falls in front of a defender.  The fault is obviously that the defender to not commit to defending the ball.  The obvious solution is to berate them for lack of effort and possibly some drill to encourage the player to change their habit.
  • A middle blocker has a chance to set a high ball but commits a ball handling error.  The obvious solution is to berate them for their lack of technical skill and possibly some drill to improve that technical ability.

You get the idea.  The wrong player receives the ball.  The wrong player sets the ball.  A player touches the net.  All simple errors with obvious solutions.

But what if things aren’t so simple.  What if there is such a thing as a ‘hockey error’.  I have written before that what looks like a lack of effort is most often actually a lack of readiness. In that example, the lack of effort is the error and the lack of readiness is the hockey error.  In the middle blocker setting example, the hockey error is probably not turning fast enough after landing from the block.  Many errors that are attributed to lack of calling, have as their hockey error a player moving towards the ball and then stopping.  Being in the wrong position is the hockey error in many different situations.

As a coach, focussing on the error can have some improvement on performance.  But focussing on the hockey error can have a profound effect on understanding of the game.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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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.

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.

Stuff We Used To Do…

…for reasons that today seem inexplicable.

Yesterday I saw a blocker warming up but jumping landing on one leg, stepping in the opposite direction, jumping landing on the opposite leg, etc etc.  It reminded me of my days as a young player when we were being taught blocking footwork.  This was before specialisation so we were all doing all the footwork from each position.  The most basic drill was to start from the middle, jump and then move outside.  The idea behind it was to practice moving after having (incorrectly) jumped with the first tempo.  Until very recently I would see this drill being done by professional players.  In the most extreme version, we would practice (incorrectly) jumping with the first tempo and then landing on the opposite foot to the direction we wanted to move to reduce the time we needed to get to the outside (more or less as I saw yesterday).  The idea behind it was that landing on one foot saved time in initiating the movement.

Inexplicably, I don’t remember a single instance of a coach teaching us a method to not incorrectly jump with the first tempo.  Or even mentioning it as a possibility.

Bad Drills

Practice is the central activity of a coach’s work.  It is the time and place where the game and its elements are taught.  Therefore, the coach’s training methodology is key to defining him and his coaching.  Like everything else, there is are debates about training methodology.  The science of motor learning seems to be pretty clear that distributed practice and specificity are key ideas.  Likewise differential learning has scientific underpinnings.  Tradition also strongly influences training methodology, especially in countries with a long and successful volleyball history.

Drills are the central activity of practice.  Drills should follow the coach’s training methodology and be logically sequenced to optimise the benefits of each drill and practice as a whole.  All drills must have a purpose, both primary and secondary.  And they must make sense with regards to the skills and techniques of volleyball and the game itself.

Every so often one comes across drills that are more or less inexplicable, that don’t follow any logic or obvious training methodology.  In short, they don’t make sense.  Last week I came across two such drills.

The first is a very famous warm up drill.  The video is short and explains it well.  The first part of the explanation I am happy to get on board with.  Performing volleyball specific movements in the warm up makes sense.  Sadly, after that the logic gets very imaginative indeed.  Rhythm is absolutely essential in volleyball.  But rhythm in volleyball is not all players doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time nor is it some kind of call and response activity.  Rhythm in volleyball is all players responding to the ball and each other at the appropriate moment, acting in concert rather than in unison.  Seen in this way, the efficacy of the drill for volleyball is far more questionable.  When performed by a team, it is doubtless an impressive feat of discipline*, but so are displays by North Korean schoolchildren.  Neither make you better at playing volleyball.

The second drill can be seen here**.

To summarise, it is a normal set of volleyball, except at the end of each point the server runs back to position and serve as soon as they are ready.  This is one of those drills that seams like a reasonable idea until you think about it for 15 or 20 seconds.  Anything longer than that and you have to ask yourself some serious questions.  For example, ‘how is this related to the game of volleyball?’  In volleyball, there is only one activity that is totally under the control of the player and occurs in the complete absence of time pressure.  This drill serves (no pun intended) to add time stress to a situation in which none exists.  Ever.  By all means add extra balls to shorten the breaks between rallies, but NOT with a serve.  All that does is practice serving badly***.

Just because a drill is used by a famous coach does not mean it is a good drill.  Just because a drill is complex or difficult or imaginative does not mean it is a good drill****.  A good drill helps players get better at playing volleyball.  And these two drills do nothing to achieve that goal.  When watching a training or a drill on YouTube, it is important for all coaches to ask why any drill is being used, does it follow an obvious training methodology and is it part of the game.  If the answer is no to these questions, then it is not a good drill. It is a bad drill.

* …and makes the coach feels like he has achieved something.

** I could easily have chosen the second drill shown in the facebook post as an example.

*** I have actually seen this drill performed with the instruction to serve as fast as possible. The team would have been better served by playing soccer for practice. At least then they wouldn’t have practiced anything actively counter productive.

**** In fact the more complicated the drill was, the more I would question it.

Practicing Crunch Time

I have never done a poll asking coaches whether ‘clutch  time’ is important.  I am going to assume that a majority of them do.  If you do not agree, then there is no point for you to read on from here.  Sorry to have wasted your time… For those still here, I have however done a poll asking for a definition of clutch time.  And the people have spoken.  32% of those people defined clutch time as being a score of 20 or over with a score differential of two or less.  That seems about right to me.  Although the phrase ‘clutch time’ doesn’t, so from here on in, I will refer to it as ‘crunch time’.

The question then is how to prepare for crunch time.  One reasonably common drill is to play sets starting at 20-20.  I have done this in the past.  My personal experience is that this kind of drill doesn’t work at all.  When I did it, I was hoping to replicate the stress and pressure of these crunch time situations.  What actually happened seemed to very closely resemble a three minute set to five points.  No pressure, no stress, and certainly none of the emotional consequences in the sense that I had planned.  So I did a review** of what it might have been that I was actually training.

In a normal set, when the score reaches 20-20 the players and teams have a certain physical and psychological fatigue as well as the normal stress that comes with a close set.  To win a set from 20-20, a team must overcome this fatigue and stress and maximise its technical and tactical performance in those decisive moments.

In practice, if you begin a set at 20-20, there may be some fatigue depending on the point of the training, but it is the same for both teams.  Much more important however, is that there is no psychological fatigue or stress.  So what I thought I was observing, a set to five points, is indeed what I was observing.

So if I want to practice crunch time, how do I do it?  Perhaps one possibility is to do some intense physical activity (sprints perhaps) to create fatigue, and then immediately play that set from 20-20.  Or have only one team perform the physical activity.  Or only half of each team.  I have never done that, but have often wondered about it.  But even then, would it really be replicating a real life clutch situation?  I suspect not.  In my practices, I have on occasions used ‘confirmation’ points, where a team that wins a mini point in a wash drill must either win a sideout or break point to ‘confirm’ that point otherwise it reverts to a wash.  I love how they increase the intensity of practice, but I can’t tell you if they are really practicing crunch time.

In reality I don’t really know the answer. I guess I just trust that the rest of our work means the team will be ready when the moment arises.


** By the way, I call this review process ‘The Volleyball Test’.  I should write about that one day.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Individual Reception?

murilo receptionPhoto –

The words technique and skill are often used interchangeably or at the very least the distinction between the two is unclear. At my university they were very clear on the distinction.  They taught that a technique exists in isolation. Essentially it is the mechanics of a particular action. On the other hand, skill is a technique performed during competition. It is technique in context. This neat and elegant distinction explains many of our observations, and explains why it is that players who can execute good technique in isolation can be poor in competition and vice versa.
The way I personally understand this distinction is that skill = technique + decision making. This formula is important for planning and developing practice. Technique is important* but if we are practicing to play, we cannot separate technique from decision making**. In even the simplest drills we can include a level of decision making which allows us to practice the skill alongside the technique, rather then separately. Which brings us to service reception.
Often, ‘service reception’ is practiced individually; one server with one passer. Often, when practicing ‘service reception’ a server will deliberately serve to a single receiver when the other is not ready. Often, when practicing ‘service reception’ servers will serve to only one part of the court. I would suggest that in none of these cases is the team actually practicing the skill of service reception. A very significant part of service reception is the decision making between players. It should be clear that each additional player added to the service reception formation adds an exponential level of complexity. Therefore, I would go on to suggest that the decisions on who should play which ball and when, are more important in determining the quality of a team’s service reception than the cumulative technical proficiency.
In short anything less than practicing ‘reception’ with all players on court is not really service reception. In a game technique cannot exist in isolation from skill.
In short, there is no such thing as individual reception.

* Technique is ALWAYS important.

** Except obviously for the very short periods of time when we must practice the mechanics.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Motivation, Rewards And Scoring Drills

There are many, many ways to score drills, especially wash drills.  You can make big points, small points, points in a row, points only if certain conditions are met, minus points, x out of y attempts, etc, etc, etc.  However, the two principles that should always hold are that a scoring system must motivate in the correct way and reward (or punish) undesirable behaviours or outcomes.  But like everything the coach must pay attention to the what is actually being rewarded and not what he/she thinks or expects is being rewarded.

There are a couple of examples that come to mind.  The first is related to wash drills.  When a team wins (or loses) a point the situation is normally clear.  What happens after a ‘wash’ is not always so clear.  Often the winner of the first rally takes the serve, or the serve alternates.  But it isn’t always clear that the team right team is rewarded.  I recently started to give the serve to the team that lost the free ball.  As the receiving team has an advantage, a team should not be able to benefit from losing a free ball opportunity.  So if you lose a free ball, you have to serve.

The other example is the classical serve and reception drill.  Under the most typical scoring system, the receivers accumulate good receptions and the servers are punished for too many errors by the giving up an extra point to the receivers.  Except are they really being punished?  The answer is a very emphatic NO!  Giving the receivers a point for service errors is the worst possible scoring system.  The servers have no incentive not to make errors because every extra point for the receivers brings the end of the drill closer.  By not concentrating on the serve, servers miss practice opportunities and receivers getting extra points without earning them means they have also missed a practice opportunity.  It is just a terrible scoring system.  To provide the proper motivation and reward, service errors should result in the loss of a point to the receiving team.  Lack of concentration is no longer rewarded.  Watch the level of focus change instantly.

Motivations and rewards are an important part of the training environment.  Be sure they are actually motivating and rewarding what you want them to do.

Shifting Paradigms: Practice and Specificity of Conditioning

Continuing the topic of Shifting Paradigms, and returning to my pet subject, Practice, I recently read a blog post (and the linked article) about an college American football team touching on how they practice.  This is a general topic that I’ve heard of often before, that the best conditioning is to practice at a faster pace than you would play.  As a sport, volleyball was a pioneer of this principle.  What is a wash drill if not volleyball specific interval training?  But still I have questions about what I ‘do’ for the ‘aerobic base’.  Oddly the answer ‘there is no aerobic base, only volleyball conditioning’ gets very quizzical looks.  I once put heart rate monitors on players playing 1 v 1 and discovered that a five minute game produced heart rates of 170+ BPM.  That seems like a pretty good training level, although even with this ‘proof” that coach still did sprint interval training as conditioning but I digress…  I’ve also done some basic studies on a simple 1+1 wash drill that showed roughly the same number of jumps (a pretty good guide to intensity) in one hour of training as in a two hour, five set match.

Train faster.  Scientific theory will eventually catch up.

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