Since the brief introduction to motor learning and the debate between random vs. blocked practice is complete, it is now time to move on to a few of the “must-haves” for a well-designed practice.
• Have a goal – basically, have a big “why” for everything you do. Design your drills and practice around your whys and make sure you know your outcome. Always ask, “How can we best accomplish the outcome we hope to achieve?”
• Be true to your word, consistent, organized and most of all, be flexible.
• Have something to write on. Keep a chalkboard, white board or paper visible to athletes and keep it detailed.
• Set the example. Convey to your team you came prepared – and so should they!
• Keep talking to a minimum. Reduce the information given and increase the quality contacts. Always give feedback to rein- force desired behaviors.
• Keep score, stats, goals and time.
Guidelines for Designing Drills
• Make sure they are fun! Why else do we play?
• Create solutions to problems. What are we trying to improve, emphasize or change?
• Clearly state goals, objectives and/or emphasis.
• Always keep score, have a goal or set a time. Usually, 20-25 minutes will allow for a natural conclusion to any drill. Every drill should also have a goal and a winner.
• Always give a consequence or a reward, thereby creating pressure situations similar to those found during a match. As the coach, you must decide whether to use positive or negative reinforcement. Rarely use punishment.
• Make sure there is a high number of quality, gamelike contacts.
The Evolution of the Best Drills
Ultimately, there is a tried and true success formula when it comes to the creation of the best volleyball drills. Basically, there are four components to the formula:
1. Know your outcome.
2. Have a big enough “why.”
3. Ask yourself, “Is it working?”
4. Change your approach, if necessary.
Once these four components have been checked, if a drill is still not working to your satisfaction, check yourself as the coach. Sometimes it is not the drill, but the person running it. Check what your attitude, as the coach, is and what dynamics you are contributing to each drill scenario.
Bill Neville, storied men’s and women’s volleyball coach and still one of the most brilliant minds in the game today, says it all when he admonishes, “It is more important to know how to design drills than to be able to copy them.” In other words, there is no “fix-all.” What worked great for last year’s team will not necessarily be the most effective for this year’s group of players. As a coach, you must know your team’s strengths and weaknesses, manipulate drills daily to emphasize different needs, focus on the problems that need to be corrected or the strengths that need to be developed. Do not rely simply on one-size-fits-all, “canned” drills.
Keep in mind, meeting the criteria of a gamelike practice for an elite team is going to differ greatly from that of a non-elite team. For example, a team that is winning 80 to 90 percent of its matches has to be challenged more in practice than by its competition. A team that is winning 50 percent of its matches needs to be challenged as well, but not at the same level as the 90 percent team.
Considerations for Drill Manipulation
One of the most important aspects of designing a good drill for practice is deciding what to measure. Each of the items below could be included in building or manipulating a drill:
• Successful reps (in a row)
• Timed block with successful reps
• Score (standard, wash, bonus points, handicaps, +/-, rotations)
• Stats (errors).
In other words, decide what to emphasize in each drill being performed during a routine practice. For example, for younger groups you may want to emphasize three contacts or just proper transition. You could count how many successful reps they have and then to add intensity, give them an extra point every time they finish their three contacts with a swing.
For more advanced teams you could run a game where you emphasize blocking. For example, you could ask the following questions of the blockers: “Are the blockers closing?”, “Are the blockers reaching over?”, “Are the blockers getting three up on a high outside set?” Reward or give them consequences accordingly. Then, to add to the intensity of the drill, give bonus points for every stuff block. Reward the big picture. Chances are, if the participants are getting stuff blocks, they are also closing, reaching over and setting a triple block, if it is required. At this point, the motions will come naturally.
Manuel de la Torre, in his book Understanding the Golf Swing, explains the concept nicely.
“You do not have to think about keeping your left arm straight, keeping your head down, consciously shifting your weight on the forward swing, keeping your elbow close to your body, pulling down with your left hand to start the forward swing, snapping your wrist to generate power as the club nears the ball. If you produce a true swinging motion with the golf club, body positions so often described and emphasized will happen naturally.”
Good luck taking some old drills and making them fresh or creating new ones that focus on what your teams greatest needs are and where you most want to see improvement. Most athletes will aim to please and will compete hard to get those extra points, then you can take a step back and see how your team has improved in the overall big picture.