This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 publication of Coaching Volleyball. For this article I wanted to explore how we communicate to the young players in our gym. Coaches have come up with a wide variety of cute little quips to try and teach volleyball. My challenge here is to stick with biomechanics and not make up new terms for how to play.
Cute little volleyball quips seem to be all the rage in coaching 12s … at least in my few years of working this age group. Instead of telling our kids what they should be doing with their bodies to execute an approach (for example), we tell them … in an excited voice so we can keep their attention:
“An approach in volleyball is simple … all you need to do is step with your left foot, then superman forwards, superman backwards, superman upwards, your last two step are like you’re on a trampoline, once you are in the air, do the backwards banana-forward banana, arms like a bow and arrow, take the cookie from the cookie jar, and finish by buckling your seatbelt.” And we wonder why our little ones develop bad habits.
Why is it that we have to create gimmick after gimmick to teach young kids the sport? Do we feel like it’s the only way they will understand? Do we sell ourselves short as coaches to think that we cannot simply just tell them what their bodies need to be doing in order to teach correct form? I don’t know.
In my previous article, I explained my journey from Division I coaching to coaching 12-yearolds. When asked to take that task, I was honest that I wasn’t going to learn a bunch of new gimmicks, or an expansive set of drills teaching the kids to chase butterflies. I believe, and have experienced, that our 12-year-olds have a very high capacity for learning, understanding and executing the game at a level that would surprise many. We just need to challenge them.
Don’t get me wrong, I modify things extensively from their original form so that high level drills can be performed at developmental stages. But my expectation is the same, that I expect them to learn and perform challenging tasks. So I make it applicable to them, but I don’t change the wording and how I communicate with them. I keep my focus on the game of volleyball, and if I use a cross-sport example, I always bring it back to volleyball.
My challenge for you is to see if you can communicate the game of volleyball and keep your focus on volleyball and what you are trying to get them to do. Let’s put away: superman, our bow and arrow, trampolines, cookie jars and the infamous banana. If I want a kid to get their hand above their head for a serve, I’m not going to tell them to flip their hair back, I’m going to simply say, “Put your hand above your head.” At this point, most of them should be able to tell you what is their hand, and what is their head. By now they can distinguish between above and below.
I know that in execution they always go back to doing things instinctually, but be persistent in what you are trying to have them accomplish. They will get it. We coach 12s. They are not yet refined athletes. It’s our job to set them down the path of correct fundamental volleyball. To give them three or four different things to think about in correcting one problem adds a level of complexity that I don’t think they need at this age, or I would argue at any age. I tell them “Hand above head,” and I stick to it. That way, when I go back to it, they always know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ll give you a little key at the end that I have found to be wildly successful.
The point here isn’t to tell you what to teach. It is to ask you to consider how you teach. I tend to steer clear of the coaches who bring me the latest gimmick in coaching younger kids. I gravitate towards the ones who are teaching kids how to use their bodies to perform the many complicated tasks in volleyball. Another alternative to the “bow and arrow” that I heard in our gym was to “make your shoulder blades touch.” The effect was great. Kids were instantly opening up their frame to the max. If this is the desired effect, then great, we accomplished it quickly and without trying to recreate a scene from Robin Hood.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a key to communicating with 12s that I have been using a lot lately. It can be used with almost any technical aspect you are trying to accomplish. I use it most with the idea of hand contact. To hone in on a big problem with my 12s, it would be consistent hand contact. They just struggle to get a good topspin swing that is controlled and, if lucky, goes where they intended it to. I learned the art of asking questions from a mentor in my early college coaching days. He would ask players all the time to analyze themselves and we had a lot of success with it.
So my challenge to them is for them to tell me when they make good hand contact. This assumes that we have gone through enough time of me coaching them that they know exactly what I am looking for. So I toss the ball and they hit. They don’t tell me what they did wrong, or when it is bad contact … they only tell me when it is good contact. It becomes a challenge to them. I give them five balls, and they have to tell me how many were good. I don’t say anything during those five swings. After they get done and tell me the good ones, I agree or disagree and we discuss from there. This can be used in so many ways, – “Tell me if your hand is above your head before you serve,” “Tell me when you swing your arms way back on your approach,” “Tell me when you gave all out hustle on a play,” “Tell me … (fill in the blank).”
I encourage you to take upon yourself the task of analyzing how you communicate with the little ones. Coaching 12s is not the easiest thing in the world but we can be effective if we consider how we talk to our little sponges. So put away our cookie jars and arrows … they’re dangerous anyway. Use your time to communicate effectively with them now, and their future coaches will come back and thank you.