Practicing Crunch Time

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I have never done a poll asking coaches whether ‘clutch  time’ is important.  I am going to assume that a majority of them do.  If you do not agree, then there is no point for you to read on from here.  Sorry to have wasted your time… For those still here, I have however done a poll asking for a definition of clutch time.  And the people have spoken.  32% of those people defined clutch time as being a score of 20 or over with a score differential of two or less.  That seems about right to me.  Although the phrase ‘clutch time’ doesn’t, so from here on in, I will refer to it as ‘crunch time’.

The question then is how to prepare for crunch time.  One reasonably common drill is to play sets starting at 20-20.  I have done this in the past.  My personal experience is that this kind of drill doesn’t work at all.  When I did it, I was hoping to replicate the stress and pressure of these crunch time situations.  What actually happened seemed to very closely resemble a three minute set to five points.  No pressure, no stress, and certainly none of the emotional consequences in the sense that I had planned.  So I did a review** of what it might have been that I was actually training.

In a normal set, when the score reaches 20-20 the players and teams have a certain physical and psychological fatigue as well as the normal stress that comes with a close set.  To win a set from 20-20, a team must overcome this fatigue and stress and maximise its technical and tactical performance in those decisive moments.

In practice, if you begin a set at 20-20, there may be some fatigue depending on the point of the training, but it is the same for both teams.  Much more important however, is that there is no psychological fatigue or stress.  So what I thought I was observing, a set to five points, is indeed what I was observing.

So if I want to practice crunch time, how do I do it?  Perhaps one possibility is to do some intense physical activity (sprints perhaps) to create fatigue, and then immediately play that set from 20-20.  Or have only one team perform the physical activity.  Or only half of each team.  I have never done that, but have often wondered about it.  But even then, would it really be replicating a real life clutch situation?  I suspect not.  In my practices, I have on occasions used ‘confirmation’ points, where a team that wins a mini point in a wash drill must either win a sideout or break point to ‘confirm’ that point otherwise it reverts to a wash.  I love how they increase the intensity of practice, but I can’t tell you if they are really practicing crunch time.

In reality I don’t really know the answer. I guess I just trust that the rest of our work means the team will be ready when the moment arises.


** By the way, I call this review process ‘The Volleyball Test’.  I should write about that one day.


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  1. It’s a good question Mark. I’ve pondered that myself from time to time. I suppose one way to go about it is to put those kinds of game at the end of training when players are physically and mentally fatigued. Adding the wash element certainly would ratchet up the pressure.


  2. At the end of the day, there is nothing on earth exactly like a good, close, competitive volleyball match – in every sense. Less pathetic and more to the point, I’d like to add two remarks: First, as your recent post shows, “crunch time” is something that primarely exists in the head of the players (and the coach). It surely is more connected to some scores (like 23:23) and less connected to others (like 20:5), yet this connection is a contingent matter and in my experience depends from individual to individual. My hypothesis is that the better the player, the less he feels being in crunch time or if he feels that way, he experiences it as something positive. If there is a causality in this matter, I’m not sure, wether it goes both ways or just one way and if so, which direction it has. But I think an example to the point has been recently mentioned here:
    Second, in addition to let my players play a tie-break set at the end of training session (including change of sides, using a scoring table etc.) I experimented with playing a sound file at full volume which featured an outragous spectator crowd.That wasn’t to great a success, but it had some effect in annoying the players when for example somebody on the tape started booing, when the players served etc.


  3. When we play matches at the end of training it tends to be pretty close, even when it’s our seniors playing our under-16 team, but especially when the seniors are winning our coach will flip-flop the scores to keep us fighting to win, and we put a fair bit of pressure on ourselves (because lets face it, we don’t want to lose to the younger team!) and I think that helps us to keep our heads during “crunch time”.


  4. Another point along this line is motivation. I think there is more mental and physical elation and satisfaction in winning the “crunch” game or set. Years later you will hear the story of how “we beat the top team” but never “yes we thrashed the bottom team”. So is there stronger motivation in achieving the greater reward or in the greater threat. At the end of the day your practise is intended to help ensure you win the crunch game perhaps increasing the reward at training may also help achieve this . I like the comment about playing a sound file loudly. That’s thinking outside the square.


  5. Fatigue is certainly part of it, but I bet a player who gets subbed onto the court at 23:23 will be feeling the ‘crunch time’ even though he isn’t fatigued.

    Motivation is the key component for me. The point has to mean something, and practice doesn’t meant the same as competition. The best option I can think of is playing for ‘something’. I always play for something at the end of practice, where the loser has to pack up the equipment (which no one ever likes doing).

    The score doesn’t matter (starting a set at 20:20 is meaningless), its the points that have to matter. If you play a game starting at 0:0, which is won when a team has a 2 point advantage, and where the loser has to pack up all the equipment, I think you can sometimes get some level of ‘crunch time’ practice.


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