Pelé On Service Reception

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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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  1. Been a while since I’ve stopped by your site and lots of great stuff to catch up on.

    I am a big believer in the effect that being specific can have. A great example is seeing someone kick for goals in afl. When you are aiming to ‘kick a goal’ you have a broad target and missing results in a point. If you pick out the guy in the 5th row in the top tier and try and kick the ball to knock his hat off then it’s a completely different experience.

    My dad told me the same story about Pele. His version was that Pele used to pick a square in the netting that makes up the goal and try to put the ball through it.


  2. Learning to tie your shoelaces is pretty difficult for a while. Then once you get the hang of it you don’t really think of it anymore. But what if you didn’t just practice tying your laces JUST to stop your shoes falling off, but you practiced getting exactly the same sized loops every time, and you practiced doing it in wet conditions, or with one hand, or the other, or with your eyes closed, or against the clock. In the end you would be much better at tying your shoelaces in any situation. Do you really need to be ‘great’ at tying your shoelaces? Probably not, but you’re not going to be if all you ever want to do is stop your shoes from falling off when you walk.

    Specific targets and high goals are essential to be ‘great’ at something, as opposed to competent. I always remember a story of a team who would be doing spiking practice. They would end up trying to hit roof balls, but the goal was to hit a roof ball after bouncing the ball on a particular spot on the court. Now, I don’t want to discuss the relevance of hitting roof balls, but by adding that ‘small’ extra rule what was once a mindless ‘power’ drill, became a very technical power drill. And that team became very good at hitting!

    My suspicion is that, to some extent, the satisfaction of achievement is higher the more difficult the task, but the emotional consequence of ‘failing’ is the same with an easy or hard task. To me the issue here is ‘fear of failure’, and there are two ways to manage this. 1 – ensure that the drill is designed so that success is possible/easy. 2 – set high goals and concurrently teach the athletes how to deal (mentally and emotionally) with failure.


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