Small Group Practices
The era of Covid has proved a challenging time for many people, including volleyball coaches. Many things are different about volleyball in this time, but I'll focus on one in particular: having fewer players on the court. Running a practice with 10, 8, or even as few as 4 players is something that most volleyball coaches have to do at some point, we just don't expect it to be every practice! In this article, I'll share a few strategies I use when I know I'll have fewer than 12 players.
Advantages Of Small-Group Practices
Before we get to the challenges of a small-group practice, let's talk about the advantages.
Fewer players means more individual attention from coaches. We've all had to run a practice with 15 players on the court and just us as a coach. In that situation, it's really difficult to connect on an individual level with players. From a simple mathematical perspective, 15 players and 1 coach in a 2-hour practice means you're only giving about 8 minutes of individual attention per player. And that's if you're coaching every second of the practice! A small-group practice means you have relatively more time to spend on each player.
Fewer players means less time off. If you're running a 6v6 drill and you have 4 middles, half of them are sitting out at any given time. If you only have 2 middles in the gym, they are both getting a lot of reps!
Fewer players means more frequent contacts. A regulation volleyball matches produces between 12-16 contacts per minute. Halve the number of players in the gym and they can go from 1, maybe 2 contacts per minute to 2-4 contacts per minute. (And of course, we're doing a lot of drills at practice that are much faster-paced than a regulation match, right?)
In many ways, having fewer players at practice is a good thing! At GMS, we say that the only magic is, "reps and feedback." There's only so many reps and so much feedback to go around. Putting fewer players in the gym means those reps and that feedback is more concentrated.
Challenges Of Small-Group Practices
Before we get too excited, let's talk about some of the downsides.
Fewer players means less drill flexibility. Some drills require more players. In particular, we're talking about the ability to run 6v6. Since we need practice to prepare us for competition, the lack of ability to run the most gamelike drills is a significant disadvantage.
Fewer players means incomplete positional rosters. If you're planning on working on 4-person sideout attacking combinations against a server and 3 blockers, and you are only able to have 6 players on the court at a time, you're out of luck!
Fewer players means a different pace of practice. People create energy. The energy tends to be different in a crowded arena with lots of fans than it is at practice. It's easier to create an intense atmosphere with a full team in a gym than with a smaller group.
Many college coaches combine small-group and large-group settings into one larger practice structure. They take advantage of having 2-3 courts and multiple staff members. For example, they may break an 18-player roster down into 3 small groups, with one working on passing, another group working on blocking, and a third group of a few hitters working on timing with the setters. After getting some good small-group work in, they then consolidate the team onto one court for 6v6 training.
That's the ideal, but how do we make it work in a less-than-ideal setting?
Making Small Groups Work For Us
Let's talk about the practical realities of what many of us are faced with in the club setting: 8-10 players and 1 coach on 1 court. What can we do to have a great practice?
My first suggestion is to use a 1-way structure where you prioritize either offense or defense. Since you are limited to "6v4" at the high end of gamelike, you need to decide, "do I want my team that is siding out to have a full 6 players, or do I want my serving and defending side to have a full 6 players?" A 5v5 (or 4v4) drill offers an appealing middle ground, but then you wind up getting no specific reps for your middles. This might be okay for some teams (perhaps a U-13 team), but shouldn't be the foundation of a high school-aged team's practice.
If you are prioritizing offense, you can start the practice with small group drills that emphasize passing, then move to some offense work with hitters attacking off the setter. End with a 1-way sideout drill where your offensive team of 6 players sides out against a serving team of 4 players.
To even the odds, make the offensive team need to get 4 sideouts before the serving team earns 3 points, or use a "bonus wash" system where the offense gets a serve, and then 2 freeballs. If the offense wins all 3, they get the point. If they win 2/3, it's a wash and the defense serves again. If the defense wins 2/3 or all 3, they get the point. For many teams, siding out is hard enough against any sort of decent serve, so you may not need to handicap at all.
If you are prioritizing defense, you can start with individual digging and blocking work. These skills often feel time-inefficient in a full team practice, so small group practices are great opportunities to work on digging and blocking. Then get into some serving work, before moving to a drill like Ball-Setter-Ball-Hitter where your full defensive team of 6 players defends against a limited group of 2-4 players on offense. To make it fair, the offensive team can start with a freeball, downball, or other easy entry.
What have you been doing with your small group practices this summer and fall? Let us know in the comments!