I’ve had a few epiphanic moments in volleyball. One came the day I watched a particular player playing, or rather attempting to play, defence in a drill. His effort was unquestionable. His attention was narrow. He was afraid of neither the floor nor the ball. He touched every single ball. He never keep the ball alive. Never. He touched it, it flew off somewhere, he swore loudly and tried again. For some reason while I was watching him it occurred to me that he wasn’t actually trying to dig the ball. So I asked him. I was right. He was trying to touch the ball. That made sense. At the time, the feedback provided to players was to try to touch every ball. It would them follow that if many balls were touched, players would eventually develop the control to keep all of those touched balls alive. Anyway, for some reason at that moment, I offerred the advice to the player that he attempt to dig every ball. To my, at the time, mild surprise he did in fact dig every subsequent ball. The epiphany was that players respond to the goal that is provided. If the goal is to touch the ball, then that is what players will do. If the goal is to dig the ball, then that is what players will do.
Another epiphanic moment came the day we were doing an attack warmup exercise with some simple goals. We had done a simple plus / minus drill using the court as the target. We then added small targets on the court, with the same plus / minus rules and the same required number of successes. To my, at the time, mild surprise, despite increasing the difficulty of the drill, the time that it took to complete remained more or less constant. I have repeated this exercise, in different forms, with the same results many times since. The ephiphany was that players concentrate exactly at the level that is required of them to complete the drill. If the drill is easy, concentration is low. If the drill is more difficult, concentration rises appropriately. The same applies to court targets. If the reception / defence target is small, concentration is high, and players will hit THAT target. If the reception / defence target is big, concentration is low, and players will hit THAT target. The success rate ends up being about the same. I recall discussing this topic with a coach who counted a successful defence as one in which the ball stayed alive, regardless of whether an attack was possible or not. He provided a long detailed description about needing to set achievable goals. Given that we were talking about professional players I didn’t think it was unreasonable to set high goals. We agreed to disagree.
Of course no epiphanies should have been required. Both principles are fairly basic learning principles and are central elements of deliberate practice.
And what does Pelé have to say about service reception? When I was young, I was a football / soccer fan and read an autobiography of Pelé (I think this one). One story has stuck in my mind. I can’t guarantee the actual quote but the gist of it was that difference between him and other players was that while a good striker aims to put the ball to the left of the goalkeeper, Pelé aimed for an exact spot to the left of the goalkeeper, just inside the post, about 50cm above the ground. Where others had a broad goal and a vague target, he had a specific goal and a clear target. If you want to be a great receiver the solution is clear.
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