Monday, June 29, 2015

Four Areas to Maximize your Team's Practice Session

by Billy Ebel, Assistant Coach - Lipscomb University (2015 AVCA Thirty Under 30 Recipient)

As coaches begin to plan a practice, one of the first things we think about is how to manage our time efficiently. We'd like to think all of our practices are run with great precision and precise detail. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.  As I am designing drills to maximize our teams potential, I start with four very basic areas to cover over a 2-3 hour practice.  

First, I begin planning a practice starting with an educational/ tutoring session. This educational session can be used for skills, defense to offensive systems, or mental growth training. We begin practice by discussing the focus for the day and the areas in which we need to improve. This immediately puts the team’s goals in retrospect and they begin to believe it is achievable. I believe it is important to let the team know the “Focus of the Day”.  I have found that three main topics to cover in practice tend to be achievable in the certain about of time that we train our athletes. 

Second part of maximizing our time would involve positional work. As you gain the attention of your athletes at the beginning of the practice with the “Focus of the Day”, the positional and small group work can help with these. We typically go to a positional breakout at some point during the practice to identify specific areas of the game that need improvement. For example, we would group together our liberos and outsides and then setters and middles. Setters and middles focus of the day could be “transition attacking” or “block to transition”, etc. Outsides and liberos focus of the day could be “tilt/platform work” or “defensive positioning.” We want to identify specific areas that give them an end goal for improvement.

Lipscomb Athletics

Third part would involve small group training.  This part of practice planning in our gym is very valuable to our success. This would be a great time to add layers to certain skills. For example, in our gym at Lipscomb we work a lot on block coverage. We designed a drill with three boxes in left front, right front and middle front. Each coach is on a box with a blocking pad. Another coach enters balls from the service line to a team of six. The team of six then receives the ball, runs a play, the attackers now attack the ball into the coaches blocking pad and the defense is forced to cover. They continue to transition and attack into the blockers on boxes for two balls and the third ball they go for a clean kill. We believe this drill begins to create a flow amongst the players who are covering their attackers. We take an element of the game and control the success by breaking down the skills into layers. 

Last part of maximizing our teams practice would involve a full team competition. Frequently at Lipscomb we begin our practice with a competitive team drill and end with a competitive team drill. We love to gain their focus early to set the tone for practice and end the practice with a competition to leave them wanting more when they come back the next day. It is very important to design drills that are going to get your team to “THINK, PROCESS, and WIN”. We want to challenge them and put them in scenarios that are staying consistent to our focus of the day. For example, we use a drill in our gym called “4 v 6”. This drill puts emphasis on the six side. Their ultimate goal in the drill is defensive mind set. Every ball is given to the side with four (setter, middle, outside, right side), and we usually have libero over there to pass to target. The side of  four attacks the ball to the side of six, the side of six defends the ball, after the ball is dug, the send the second contact back over to the side of six. This would give the team of six a point. The side of four scores by getting a first ball kill.  You can put emphasis on either side, either first ball kill or defense. I find this drill to be successful and work on an array of skills. 

Lipscomb Athletics
Planning successful practices takes a lot of preparation depending on your teams needs. It is very important to plan practices that get your players to “THINK”. Remember the four areas of focus: Educational, Positional, Small Group and Team Competition. I feel these are four important areas that can help lead to a successful practice.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

Criticism is the Catalyst to Change

by Jeffrey Aucoin, Assistant Coach - Harvard University

Constructive criticism identifies areas of weakness and includes practical advice on ways to improve.  The person receiving the criticism should feel encouraged and motivated versus attacked and timid.  For example, if you lift with correct squatting form without bending excessively in your back, you will be less likely to become injured.  Constructive criticism should provide clarity in understanding the solutions to each individual weakness and allow growth by achieving specific, attainable goals. 

Effective criticism is useful for two reasons.  First, it allows the opportunity for new ideas and perspectives to be developed.  Second, it allows us to test the validity of our thoughts and ideas.  One statement that I base part of my coaching philosophy from is: "A genuine understanding and creativity will lead to a third alternative.  You must first seek to understand, then to be understood."

Effective criticism should be comprised of the following four components:

1.    Positivity and Motivational:  To grab the attention of a student-athlete, you must approach the individual in a positive manner to gain their trust and demonstrate their efforts will lead to a more successful outcome.  They must understand their efforts to change will be worthwhile for their personal successes and the success of their teammates. Stay brief with your suggestions and focus on the items of greatest importance first.  This perspective will allow athletes to stay motivated to not only understand their weaknesses, but drive them to make positive changes without becoming discouraged or overwhelmed.  Also, allow the athletes to provide you with their feedback or reasoning to reach a common ground for a solution to the situation. 

2.    Specific: Lay out the Xs and Os.  The more direct you can be with your explanations, the greater effect you will have on your athlete to achieve a specific skill. Eliminate any grey areas or ‘sugar coating’ within your descriptions to reduce the possibility of frustration occurring during this process.

Harvard Head Coach Jennifer Weiss directs her team during a timeout.

3.    Objective: One statement many of us in the profession use is “What is measurable is manageable.”  It is important to leave your feelings aside and provide athletes with objective information to allow them to evaluate their own progress.  This will allow your athlete to gain trust in your systems and will improve your credibility for future points of discussion.

4.    Constructive: Goal-setting is an essential part of this process.  Goals and objectives need to be meaningful to student-athletes.  Thus, it is important to use language that they are able to understand and relate to.  Begin by focusing on one change at a time until the goal has been met.  Throughout this process, have patience and allow the athlete to learn and make adjustments on their own.  It is important not to overwhelm the athlete with too much instruction.  Get to know your athletes to recognize their limits and use stories or examples that will enhance their understanding.

After all of your hard work, it is imperative to follow up with your athletes following this engagement.  The conversation should focus on the progress the athlete has made.  It should consist of a step-by-step analysis of the process the athlete has gone through with generous praise throughout to highlight their improvements and motivate them to continue pushing forward.   Your athletes should be excited and you can be confident your feedback was well received and will be welcomed again!

Effective criticism can change what people think and do.  As a result, criticism is the birthplace of change (Boundless Communications, 2014).  Positive relationships with players, coaches, families, and administration are critical in our profession.  Use the necessary tools and put forth a great effort to build a lasting impact and enhance the growth of these relationships.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Beal Blog: Match 1 vs. Iran an Incredible Experience

by Doug Beal, USA Volleyball CEO via USAV Media Relations

I have accompanied our USA men’s team on their historic trip to Tehran, Iran (The Islamic Republic of Iran), for their 2 World League matches this weekend. 

It is really a historic trip due to the obvious tensions that have existed between our 2 countries for the years since the Islamic revolution here and the US Embassy hostage taking, but also this is the 1st ever visit by a USA VB team to this country.  The fact that the Iran team has recently risen to the top of the Asian zone and is a serious medal threat in RIO only increases the significance of our team’s visit.  The looming deadline on the nuclear negotiations further has increased the interest here in our visit, as well as the huge popularity of the sport and the love the Iranian fans have for their team.  All in all……….an electric environment. 

Nothing about the hype and the buildup disappointed in the event tonight.  The arena has a 12,000 capacity; but there were probably over 15,000 packing every aisle, railing, nook and cranny!!  However, it was the noise level that made this a unique event.  I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything with the volume and the sustained decibel level of the crowd tonight.. It is a couple hours after the match and my hearing has not returned to anything close to normal.  The crowd arrived 4-5 hours before the start time and just never let up (except when Iran was serving).  It would be silly to say that the environment didn’t affect the USA team, it surely did, most obviously with the 21 service errors; but probably in other ways as well.  The Iran team played very well and beat the USA (1st loss for our team after a 6-0 WL start) 3-0; -19,-27, and -20!  Iran was better in every part of the match; out-blocking the US 9-1, hitting for a much higher efficiency 50% to our 35%, and clearly winning the serve-receive game. 

To say this is a difficult environment to play in would be a silly understatement. It’s daunting!!  I actually thought the refs did a very good job handling the match while really not at all able to hear anything on their head sets and using the challenge system as efficiently and as quickly as I have seen anywhere.  The USA tried lots of players and a different lineup in the 3rd set with very little difference.  This was Iran’s night and the crowd, the media, their Federation leaders all loved it.  

I don’t want to just talk about the match, as the trip itself is very interesting and our team and entire delegation have been treated with exceptional care and great attention.  The Iran VB Federation has bent over backwards to create a welcoming environment and structure conditions that are great for the team’s needs.  The team was taken on arrival at the airport into a VIP waiting area, with food, drinks and places to sit and relax while the baggage was collected and the passports and visas checked.  This was especially appreciated as the group arrived about 1:30am, on schedule.  The hotel is very comfortable, large rooms with the beds on a loft-like upper area in the rooms, good AC, the restaurant has been open whatever hours we need, the food is very good and all buffet style. The hotel is about 100 yds from the arena; hard to get a more perfect situation.  Everyone keeps asking if there is anything more they can do for us, are we in need of anything, how do we like our stay, what do we think of Iran, and on and on.  Really a very welcoming attitude. 

We toured a very impressive TV tower on Wednesday, that is the 6th tallest tower in the world. It gives a fabulous view of the city in every direction, has historical exhibits of the Persian culture and artifacts from the region and the Iranian history.  This city is famous for it’s size, traffic, pollution and unique geography as a high desert, ringed by 16,000 ft mountains (snow covered much of the year.  I was struck by the amount of green and really beautiful landscaping all over the city as we drove around.  Our hosts took us to a traditional lunch of “kabob” that was in a lush outdoor setting and really special. 

We established a very positive relationship with the Iranian VB Federation after their visit to California last summer and playing the WL matches earlier in June at USC, and now our visit here.  In addition, we will be hosting the Iran Junior Men’s team in early September on its way to the World Championship in Mexico.  It’s a great partnership and furthers the understanding with a wonderful sporting country that will surely be very good in VB for the forseeable future.  Now we just have to make some adjustments and try to leave here with a split of our 2 matches and keep on track to reach the WL Finals in RIO in mid July.  One more interesting item; the Ramadan holiday just started in the Islamic world, and so the matches are starting at 9 local time----the daily fast ends at sundown and this gives the population time to get to the stadium, get their voices warmed up and be ready to celebrate more than just the VB match. 

I’ll try to get another report after the Sunday match---though all of us are likely to have to hustle to the airport to make our early morning flights out (the team on to Russia, and some of us back to the USA); all leaving about 3-4am!!   Quite the experience.   DB

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Professional Volleyball in America

by Aaron Smith, Assistant Coach - University of Virginia

There is now an opportunity to continue playing the sport we all love beyond college ball…in the USA!  The Premier Volleyball League (PVL), sanctioned by USA Volleyball, has hosted a league championship annually since 2012.  Each year the league has grown.  Before long, the USA will have a professional indoor volleyball league for both men and women.

On average, Americans start playing volleyball (boy or girl) between the ages of 12-15.  We often start playing for a middle or high school team and those that love the game get involved with a local volleyball club.  Many have the desire to play in college, and whether they seek a scholarship or not, playing at the college level is a very realistic opportunity (DI, DII, DIII, NAIA, NCCAA, Two-Year College, Club, and more). 

What opportunities are there to play after college in the USA? 

Many graduates have a desire to pursue a professional volleyball career, however the most common opportunities to play are in Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and Puerto Rico.  When given the opportunity, the idea of playing overseas seems like a no-brainer – get paid to play the sport you love, see the world, and experience different cultures.  After talking with many professional volleyball players, there are also drawbacks to this profession:  1) Living far from home.  2) Having too much downtime between practice, strength and conditioning, and matches.  3) Rarely seeing family or a significant other that may still be back in America.  Many of those that decide to play overseas are done after their first season or they decide not to pursue the opportunity at all.

Photo courtesy Michael Gomez

The mission of the PVL is to create a successful and sustainable indoor professional volleyball league for both men and women in the USA.  There have been leagues before in the USA that have failed, but the PVL has a long-term plan and continues to gain traction year after year.  USA Volleyball splits North America into 40 regions and allows each region to sponsor a men’s and women’s team.  Since 2012, the PVL has held a four-day League Championship Tournament for women, and added a men’s championship a year later (2013).  This year’s tournament was held over Memorial Day weekend, May 23-26, in conjunction with the USA Volleyball Open National Championships.  Seventeen of the forty regions sponsored teams – 14 women’s teams and 15 men’s teams.  Most teams are compiled of regional players, however, like any professional league, players want to play for the gold, so many teams add players from outside their region to help create the best team possible.

Many of you probably noticed PVL teams competing at Junior’s National Qualifiers this club season.  I witnessed a few PVL matches at Chicago’s Windy City Qualifier.  The bleachers were full, and with an additional five rows of standing spectators, you can expect more seating at future events.  It is a goal of the PVL to make professional volleyball more accessible to the fans by hosting PVL matches at large USAV events.  After the successful turnouts at these JNQs, you can expect to see more matches in the coming years.  Regions look to promote their teams and generate more interest in the PVL.

Curious as to who won the 2015 PVL Championship?

Women - North Texas defeated Western Empire (3-2)
Men - Hoosier Team Pineapple defeated Great Lakes Lightning (3-2)

Each winning team took home $10,000.  The money is great incentive but if you ask anyone involved with the event – it is about growing the game in the USA and making the PVL a sustainable league.

Want more information on the PVL?  Visit