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The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design: From Principles to Application

The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design: From Principles to Application

by Edward Spooner

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The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design seeks to provide volleyball coaches at all levels with the tools for developing and improving their ability to teach and train volleyball skills and tactics. This useful guide is divided into two sections:

  • practice development, design, and organization
  • drill design and


The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design seeks to provide volleyball coaches at all levels with the tools for developing and improving their ability to teach and train volleyball skills and tactics. This useful guide is divided into two sections:

  • practice development, design, and organization
  • drill design and organization, including drills developed to teach volleyball technical skills and tactics

Each section builds on the methods that scientific research in motor learning, sports psychology, and biomechanics indicates are the best ways to train athletic skills.

The practice development in section one contains a comprehensive analysis of the factors that can improve learning and training of motor skills, maximizing player and team performance. Section two incorporates the theories and principles for effective and efficient drill design, as well as development to teach the ability to execute competitive volleyball skills. This section also contains one hundred drills, organized into a format aimed at enabling coaches to work toward skill perfection and improve automatic skill execution.

Improve your players’ abilities to learn and perfect their volleyball skills with The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design.

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The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design

From Principles to Application
By Edward Spooner

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Spooner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4697-9159-3

Chapter One

How Players Learn and Acquire Motor Skills

"The average player moves until the breath in him is gone But the champion has a will of iron that makes him carry on."


Volleyball like tennis and a few other sports is a non-contact sport. Although size and strength are important, physical skill, fitness, mental strength, execution and training plays a big role in performance success. Unlike some sports, each volleyball player must be efficient in executing all the required skills of the game if team success is to occur. Being a game of many complexities both individually and as a team, volleyball is a difficult game to master. Although success is measured in wins and losses, success in volleyball should also include the ability to progress in the execution of the many diverse skills, phases and mental requirements of the game. Performance improvement and perfection is achieved by preparing each player for any situation that can occur during competition. This is best achieved through efficient practice organization, controlled drill procedures and routines that structure on the-court player movements while duplicating expected game behavior. Practice is a block of time scheduled to include a series of drills organized in a logical progression and based on predetermined performance goals formulated to achieve the chosen objectives. In turn, drills are an organized scheme designed to change player behavior patterns through a planned program (practice) that results in the desired mental and motor behavior. The main purpose of a drill or a series of drills is to assist the athlete in developing optimal physical, mental, technical and tactical efficiency that leads to habits of precision in skill execution. Effective practice and drill design enhances learning of new skills and tactics while reinforcing previously learned skills by providing continual review and consistent repetitions.

Performance in athletics is influenced by the level of basic motor abilities present in the individual. An individual's ultimate level of skill acquisition and ability to perform is largely dependent on personal talent (inherent physical ability) and the circumstances (activity choices) which one chooses to participate. Coordination (natural ability) is present in all humans, and the extent to which physical skills can be developed is contingent on the genetic endowment of an individual's skeletal structure, muscular composition, nervous system and the ability to control behavior. Thus, the highest level of skill performance that can be achieved physically is determined by: (1) how the nervous system senses and correlates sensory information; (2) how the skeletal structure is formed, (3) how the muscle fibers are developed and interact, and (4) how behavioral situations in the environment are perceived and reacted upon.

The science of motor learning (Schmidt) has been defined as the scientific investigation of performance associated with motor acts and the acquisition of motor skills, i.e., the study of finding the best ways for people to learn and perform physical skills. Motor learning is an invisible process or procedure through which an activity originates and behavior is changed irrespective of maturation, instinct or outside stimulants. Simply put, skill acquisition and performance are achieved through underlying biological and mechanical factors that result in observable changes in behavior thereby enabling muscles to move efficiently through a specific range of motion. Learned motor skills are a consequence of experience, education and training that interacts with the biological processes to achieve skill execution. In volleyball, as in all sports, learning motor skills consists of an interrelation of the internal neuromuscular process inherent in human motor responses (motor control) and the ability to efficiently reproduce motor movements (skill execution). To be most effective when instilling new skills or to change existing skills, motor learning requires a kinesthetic or muscle awareness, i.e., a sense of what the body is doing in relation to itself and in reaction to time and space. In additional to kinesthetic consideration, attention must also be given to the variables in learning: personality, cognitive ability, biological ability, and motivation, etc.

Motor programs are developed as a result of motor learning that occurs through the instruction and experiences that take place during training. Linking a nonexistent skill with an already existing skill, or several separate skills into additional combinations, results in a new motor program that can be stored in long term memory to be recalled for future use. Motor program development is the consequence of a complex interaction between physical, psychological and communication skills. In order for learning to transfer to physio-motor development, an intellectual comprehension, awareness and knowledge of incorrect and correct skill execution must take place.

Skill execution becomes more coordinated as the individual develops a kinesthetic sensitivity or feeling of how the body action relates to the skills to be performed. Passers, for example, develop a sense of feel about how the arms must be placed on ball contact to direct it to the target area. This results in less reliance on verbal and visual cues and a greater emphasis on muscle sense to control body movement. Repetition, concentration, and cueing also play an important role at this stage of development. However, motor learning and technical development will only take place when proper execution can be maintained over time. Thus, the old adage "perfect practice makes for perfect performance" must be changed to "practice makes perfect only if practice is perfected over time."

What is being considered here is the acquisition of motor skills through the development of motor programs which provide a player with the capability to respond accurately and efficiently to situations that arise in the environment. Skills seem to be acquired through a series of biological processes based on practice and experiences that leads to relatively permanent and lasting changes in behavior. Retention and retrieval of existing motor programs play a crucial role in effective skill execution. In order for motor learning to occur and skill to be retained, it is necessary for an athlete to understand the goal or objectives to be achieved (knowledge of performance) and the outcome of the required movement (knowledge of results). When this is accomplished a plan of action can be developed that will lead to accurate execution. If feedback is based on the actual way the movement skill was executed (knowledge of performance), skill execution will become increasingly effective and gradually change in response to repeated attempts and subsequent evaluation and modifications."

MOTOR ACT. — A motor act is the resulting action of perception, selective attention, interpretation and the decision making required to successfully execute a motor skill. The ability to receive serve can be used to briefly outline how information processing works when executing a motor skill (motor act). A player who is positioned to receive serve perceives (reads) the movement-body action of the server in anticipation of the type, direction and force of the serve. Once the ball is served, the receiver perceives the location of the serves and assumes a ready position in anticipation of receiving serve. The body receptors sense information as a result of serve execution, i.e., the speed, location and trajectory of the ball, while pre-conditioning the body and its extremities for assuming the passing position and initiating the passing action (motor program).

A proper body position takes place in relation to the passers court position with regard to the location, speed and movement of the ball. The eyes follow the service toss, ball contact, the ball's trajectory and projected flight path. The ears listen to ball contact and information communicated by teammates. The inner ear registers balance as the receiver position his/her body and limbs in a position to pass the ball. On contact with the ball, sensory organs relay information on muscle tension and joint positioning in readiness for execution. Information conveyed by body sensors is stored momentarily in Short Term Sensory Storage (STSS) before being replaced by new data. Short Term Memory (STM) selects information from STSS and quickly interprets and compares this data with information retrieved from Long Term Memory (LTM). This combining of data received enables the player to select the correct motor response (decision) and triggers a motor program. Simply put, based on the sensory information selected and placed in STM, a motor program is selected from LTM to be used in initiating and completing the passing action (Schmidt-Young).

The motor program selected from LTM is determined by past observations, experiences, and the knowledge accumulated during practice and past performance. Based on this motor program, a standard of correctness is determined and a plan-of-action chosen allowing the player to assume the proper court and body position. A pass is then executed and the ball directed to the target area. The accuracy of the pass (standard of correctness) is based on the ability to efficiently select environmental stimuli, interpret this data and make the correct decisions in response to that data. A new motor program is assembled or an existing program reaffirmed and returned to LTM after execution. Continued practice will reinforce this new motor program in LTM.

Sports science (Schmidt) indicates that what is learned in practice is actually a motor program or an image of motor control. Motor programs are responsible for sequencing or patterning movement to execute the desired skill. The parameters that affect the performance of a motor program are speed (time), space and muscle selection. Motor programs appear to be structured in advance and are not reflective, i.e., once an attacker starts his arm swing to ball contact, very little can be done to stop or alter the arm swing. In other words, the nervous system has very little influence in controlling muscle contraction or extension once it has begun.

When a beginner executes a simple skill, such as the serve in volleyball, several motor programs are necessary. He or she has a separate motor program for the toss; arm swing and ball contact, and follow through. Scientists refer to these as closed skills in which movement is structured in advance. However, in order for this skill to be executed effectively, in game situations, these simple motor programs must be combined into a single less complicated generalized motor program that is executed automatically without unconscious thought. This generalized process becomes increasingly important when executing open skills. Open skill execution requires the development of generalized motor programs that simplifies performance. In other words, a generalized ability is necessary to execute effectively in an open skilled environment that is never the same and ever changing.

In order for practice to be effective at the highest level coaches and players must understand and form concepts about how players learn and acquire motor skills. The following segment is a brief description of how motor skills are learned and retained. In developing motor performance skills, there are several performance standards that should be considered. These performance procedures must focus on decision making, the sensory aspects required in performance, how movement is formed, and the accuracy of movement. When teaching these principles individual differences must always be given consideration.


Although genetic factors play a major role in athletic ability, many factors intertwine to affect performance success. There are several cognitive and physical processes that we can use in training that will enhance performance effectiveness. Knowledge, perception, selective attention, attention focus, memory, experience and decision making skills are informational and behavioral processing abilities that when maximized will improve motor learning and skill execution.

GENETICS. An individual's inherent physical skill (genetic disposition) is influenced by several underlying structural motor abilities whose excellence is genetically determined. The inherent/genetic motor abilities that have a major affect on performance are: (1) general coordination strength potential muscle type, (2) reaction time and speed capability, and (3) visual and auditory capacity. Recent research (Braden-Niednagel) indicates that there may be a fourth genetic factor, brain type, which may also significantly influence athletic ability. These genetic abilities are the encompassing factors in the ultimate level of motor ability and performance that can be achieved; they can be changed little by practice.

However, within the boundaries of an individual's inherent traits and characteristics, a motor performance act can be strengthened by improving motor skills through learned responses that perfect inherent physical ability. Ability to perform can also be enhanced by increasing physical proficiency through improved strength, flexibility and endurance. In other words, performance can be somewhat refined within given genetic capacities by improved muscular strength and endurance, without motor learning taking place. Although practice can produce improvement, the ability to execute at the highest level is a combination of genetics, fitness, activity choices, behavior and personality. The lack of innate ability to perform certain movements with control may explain why some athletes, who seem to have the required physical characteristics, never achieve high standards of performance. More importantly, perhaps they made the wrong activity choice. Because of a wrong activity choice many gifted athletes go unrecognized or fail to achieve to their potential.

THE COGNITIVE PROCESS. — Besides genetic physical characteristics, an athlete inherits an innate athletic IQ, i.e., (Schmidt-Braden) the ability to maximize and coordinate the mental process of performance with the physical process of skill execution will greatly affect performance outcome. In the execution of motor skills and performance in sports, there is a nonphysical or cognitive dimension consisting of perception, imagination, thought planning and decision making etc. This mental aspect of skill execution appears to be unidentifiable and observable only in its effects on performance. Hall of Fame basketball player Larry Bird is an example of an athlete who possesses an extremely high athletic IQ and uses it to maximize performance. Three time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly, on the other hand, posses both tremendous inherent genetic physical abilities and an exceptional innate athletic IQ.

By understanding the role played by the mind, the non-physical dimension in athletic performance, an athlete can use his/her built-in learning system, acquired values and the knowledge obtained through previous experiences, to gain control over performance, that is, to optimize genetic ability. The significance of this psychological process becomes increasingly important when one considers the influence of tactical demands on performance success in sports. Tactics require an understanding of how to use a wide range of technical skills that function in conjunction with teammates, the opponent and the ball, while reacting strategically to all the possible situations confronted in competition. Highly specialized movement cannot occur without benefit of thought at the highest level. The more complex a movement task becomes the more complicated the cognitive process.

Cognitive learning and skill development is based on the understanding of three components: (1) the basic movement requirements, (2) goal establishment and (3) knowledge of the rules of execution. In the early stages of learning, information is processed slowly and execution is usually characterized by performance inconsistency that leads to gross errors in movement. Execution can be further hindered by the lack of consistent augmented feedback (e.g. what the instructor tells the player about skill execution) and is a crucial factor in skill learning. The following description is an attempt to simplify very complex research and make it understandable.


Excerpted from The Science of Volleyball Practice Development and Drill Design by Edward Spooner Copyright © 2012 by Edward Spooner. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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