How To Practice

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In the late 1970’s in the United States a project started that would have a profound effect on the way volleyball would be played and practiced in the future.  While they had limited resources in terms of money, infrastructure and players, the group (led by Doug Beal) had maximum resources in terms of motivation, imagination and education.  After quickly realising that they would never be able to compete effectively against the best nations in the world by preparing and playing in a traditional way (mostly due to their limited resources), they essentially decided to start from scratch using scientific methods.  The playing side is well documented.  To learn how to prepare better they studied the available literature on motor learning and developed a (to that time) unique training program.  The principles on which this training were developed were the use of the whole method of learning and of random practice.  The most notable outcome was of course the wash drill, which is now used by virtually every coach in the world.  In the intervening years, motor learning research has continued and continually confirmed the findings over the last 40+ years that the whole method of learning and random practice are superior.

Despite (normally) overwhelming scientific evidence and the incredible success of the US team, these principles are not universally accepted within the volleyball coaching community, even in the US.  About three months ago, I read an article in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Journal (April-May 2010) promoting the exactly the opposite training regime (link here, the article begins on page 9).  The ‘highlight’ for me was a long, detailed description of how a particular club coach teaches spiking (page 11 of the article).  The first four progressions have the learners standing on a table spiking a handkerchief!  There followed two more progressions with a ball, before the learner was allowed to attempt a spike with a jump.  I was (and continue to be) astonished by two things in the article.  Firstly, how a coach could actually come up with such a progression, and secondly how motivated the players must be to voluntarily go through that process without losing all the interest they have in the sport.

I had been planning to write something about it for a while, but yesterday on the Goldmedalsquared blog they posted a rebuttal of that article which addresses the scientific background to the discussion.  The link in the article is no longer active, but you can access the original article here. I think all coaches should read the article.  Today.

One further note, the comments sections of the blog post is also an interesting read including some correspondence directly from Steve Bain in response to one of the comments.  In it he makes the immortal quote, applicable to so many fields;

“As a scientist, I find it rather ironic that in the whole vs. part debate, opinions seem to carry as much weight as fact.”


  1. I must admit, i still sometimes do stuff that is “part” training with my teams. For juniors and beginners, you still have to teach them where their platform is and get some basics about spiking right. I’m sometimes even surprised at the number of senior players at clubs that don’t have a platform or a half-decent armswing mechanic and have to do a few minutes of this stuff with them once or twice at the beginning of pre-season. I find this with women’s teams that have “middle blockers” – they get taken off for the libero, and since their teams can’t play in-system they never hit.

    But I agree that trainings should be “whole” and “randomised” as soon as people can do the basics (even if they do them badly).

    I saw an instructional DVD for coaches recently titled “Improving Coach Initiated Drills” – which i would say takes a lot of the “randomness” out of training.

    Thanks Mark, the paper was a great read


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