I came to a realization last week that upset me. My team that I am currently coaching has been struggling this year to master foundational skills. They are an older team who should have stronger passing skills, and the group's weakness in this area has led to weaknesses in all areas. If you can't pass, you have a hard time setting, and with off sets, it's hard to work on hitting.
Struggling hitters do not challenge blockers or defensive systems, and you can see the snowball effect the weakness in passing has had on my team. So when my team asked if we could start running plays (only the club players had experience with plays at this point) I’m going to guess that you know what my answer was. It was a firm, strong, "No." Not only did I tell them no, I told them, "You're not ready for that." This was about two weeks ago.
Then over the weekend, I was thinking about the other teams I had coached and how successful they had been, and how easy they had been to teach advanced skills to. I also remembered a team where I was the assistant coach for a high school varsity team, and the girls did not run any plays. Confused, I asked them why they didn't know how to run plays. They replied that the head coach had told them that they weren't ready. Now, this is a team that ended up making it to the state tournament. They were good.
I remembered thinking to myself that these players were PAST being ready to run plays. How could they be denied the opportunity to even learn plays at this level?
And that's when I realized something important about my team, who I had so recently dubbed "not ready" to run plays. If they don't learn now, when will they really ever "be ready to learn?
READ MORE: Pre-Made Practice Plan: Introducing Plays
One awesome thing I learned from coaching younger teams in the past, was that when you teach them more than they are ready for, it pushes them to develop the basic skills. When you teach them to run plays, they quickly learn that they can’t run a play off of a bad set. And a good set will only come from a good pass. This creates a sort of “peer pressure” to pass better, since the whole team (typically) wants to run plays.
Another aspect of teaching skills which are above the team's current level is the challenge it creates for the players to get better and push themselves. While it can be easy to get caught up in running the same drills over and over, it is important to teach new skills so that your players are internally motivated, rather than externally motivated. Challenge keeps them engaged in drills, whereas repetitive drills tend to get boring over time. This presents its own challenge to coaches, who are often working other jobs and have limited time to plan practices or research new drills.
Despite these challenges, it is worth it to take the time to step back and consider this: are you withholding skills from your team because of your perception that they aren't ready yet? Is this helping or hurting you?
The same can be said about jump serving. This is a skill that is often difficult to teach in a full practice setting when it can even be unsafe to practice jumping while at the service line due to all of the balls rolling around. But if your team doesn't learn with you, they're going to go into their next season without the skill, and then they will likely be behind other girls who played on teams who chose to challenge their players.
I will usually teach jump serving to a few players after practice and let them use their jump serve in a game if they score three points in a row. This enforces a solid execution of the fundamental skills, while also allowing players to test their skills in a game setting.
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The same goes for plays. I will ask my setters to have a planned play if the pass is perfect, and allow them to run the play when they're ready. They're in charge, and can make the decision to test themselves in ideal situations. This creates a safe space for learning, and encourages a certain kind of team bonding when executed properly. Success at this stage leads to more risks, and more risks lead to more growth in the future. Once Jamie sees Cara jump serve successfully in a game, she stays after practice the next day and practices extra hard. Once Terra sees both Cara and Jamie jump serving, she too wants to learn. Your leaders will push the envelope, and then the rest of your team will follow suit.
To summarize, give yourself a nice long look in the mirror. It's still early enough in the season to make changes which can have an impact on your team or program. Are you holding off on teaching a skill because your team needs to learn other skills first? Or are they stuck in a rut and uninspired to get better? If you have a valid reason for not teaching plays, jump serves, or any other advanced skill, then it is fine to hold off for now and teach a skill later. However, if you are not teaching your players something just because you're upset that they can't master the basics (as I was), reevaluate and make a plan to transition into the new skill.
Pancakers: What other skills do you hold off on teaching? Are there skills you avoid (pancakes, rolling) because there is little immediate reward? Or do you view the more advanced skills as a "reward" for mastering the basics?