One of the most exciting parts of being a coach is when you finally see a concept “click” for your players. Younger teams who are used to just rotating around the court and playing the position they are standing in always seem to take FOREVER to understand the concept of playing defense at the net in the front row, and then transitioning off to play defense for a freeball. Setters, too, will often hang out in backrow for too long before they realize that they should be moving up into the setter position in order to set at the first hint of a freeball. Although the concept seems simple to the experienced coach, this is one area that teams need to practice in a game-like drill in order to comprehend what is actually being asked of them.
No matter what age your players are, you have probably realized by now that they have short attention spans.
This drill keeps all players engaged, gets them moving, and quickly teaches the concept of dropping off the net for a freeball. Not only does it improve their defensive mentality, but it puts them in a position where they need to have a good pass in order to hit the ball. Players will work hard for that!
Have three players line up at the net in the opposite (right side), middle, and outside hitter base positions. They will start at the net in a position with their hands up prepared to block, and knees bent ready to jump or move off the net. You will have a setter in the right back base position (at the 10’ line positioned between the right side and middle hitters) who begins the drill standing in ready position.
Depending on the number of players you have, you could form lines for these positions (best with smaller numbers in my experience) and run the drill in one segment. You could also have two groups go, with one group shagging until it is their turn. You may still have a few people in lines for this setup.
How to Run the Drill:
A coach will be on the opposite side of the net and will slap the ball to indicate a freeball is coming over. The players in the drill will all yell “free” and will transition off the net, to about the 10’ line. The setter will run to the net to prepare to set the ball and get out of the way of the passers.
The coach will then toss the ball across the net. You can either toss in front of the players so they use their platform to pass the ball, or a little further back to encourage taking the first ball with their hands. The pass should go to the setter, who then sets the person that passed the ball. This player will then attack the ball. Depending on your numbers, they will either shag the ball and get back in line, or stay at the net and get in ready position to do it again.
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The coach then initiates the drill again, tossing to a new player each time. The group will constantly be moving on and off the net, giving them a good workout and lots of practice.
This drill should last between 10-20 minutes, depending on if you are rotating groups or not, and how long it takes to explain the concepts. It would also last longer if you decided to try one of the variations listed below after running through the initial drill. If you start to see players getting bored, you've gone too long. Wrap it up.
Once your players understand the flow of the drill, you can incorporate an actual pass coming over the net from a teammate. This works especially well if your numbers don’t match up for even time in the drill. You can have one or two players who you toss the ball to, and they work on their ball control and passing the ball to different players across the net. This will add a random element to the drill, since these passes will not be as predictable as a toss from the coach. It will also train your team to see that a pass is coming over the net, and this is when to yell “free” and transition off the net.
You could also do a variation which included the coach possibly tossing the ball close to the net and having the players work on reading the ball to determine whether they need to transition or stay on the net to block or swipe the ball down. Surprise is key (and makes it fun). Toss more balls that need to be passed.
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Another variation would be to have your setter set the ball to someone other than the person who passed it. This is probably the best decision a setter could make in an actual game, so this is actually one of my favorite variations. Passers may be off balance or not in a position where they can take their full approach after passing the ball, so you want your other hitters to be trained to be ready to hit the ball and for your setter to understand they need to move the ball around as well. This also creates a more natural back set, which is harder in the original drill.
A final variation I will recommend is to have the entire team on the court, with some freeballs going to backrow as well. These players also need to move, and it helps front row players learn to judge whether they should pass a ball, or let it go back to the backrow player. This slows the drill down a little bit, but is definitely good game-like practice.