A Year To Learn From College Coaching Royalty: Stop 4 – University of Wisconsin
Madison, you won me over! I had always heard good things about the capital city of Wisconsin, but I had never actually been there until I was able to spend three days in town hanging out with Wisconsin Badger Volleyball and exploring the city. I’ve been lucky to know Coach Kelly Sheffield for several years, dating back to our mutual time in Ohio when he recruited a few of my high school athletes while building his powerhouse at Dayton. A mentor that we both share told me years ago that I should get into his gym at some point because she thought we were a lot alike. After being in their gym for a few days, I can see the similarities, but I’ve got a long way to go to make her comparison apt! It was an honor to learn from Kelly and his staff and I was blown away by their welcome and openness with me. Everything about my trip, from the interactions with the coaches, to drinks on the terrace overlooking the lake, my trek down State Street, and the match day experience at the Fieldhouse, more than exceeded my expectations. I’ll try to give you a glimpse in the next few pages, but as they say so often around here; when you say “Wisconsin” you’ve said it all!
Season Context: When I visited Madison, the team was coming off a conference opening win over Ohio State and was preparing for a Saturday home match against Rutgers. They had an impressive 7-1 start to the season including a statement win over Texas and the only blemish being a road loss versus a hot Baylor team. Coach Sheffield is in his sixth season with the Badgers and has quickly returned them to national prominence. While 2017 was considered a bit of rebuilding year (9-7 in the best conference in the country is considered a rebuild year around here…), they made some noise with their young squad by reaching the Sweet Sixteen even though they entered the tourney unseeded.
Expectations were high this year as the Badgers returned a ton of talent and the early win over Texas made a lot of people take notice. This is nothing new, though, as Wisconsin has reached at least the Sweet Sixteen every year under Coach Sheffield. The program is hungry for more and, as of this writing, the team is 20-6 and ranked #8 in the country. Look for the Badgers to be a major factor come NCAA Tourney time!
Schedule and Health: I arrived for practice on Thursday following their Wednesday home match vs. Ohio State. While they won pretty significantly on the scoreboard, the match was much more stressful on the body than the score would indicate. Thus, Thursday would be a pretty light day training wise. Friday would include game planning for Saturday’s match vs. Rutgers and a full training session. Beyond an injury that has one player sidelined, the team is overall healthy during my visit and everyone else is training at full go. In my talks with Kelly, I found that like many other big programs, Wisconsin is doing a lot with tracking jumps and swings and various stresses on the body and adjusting their training times and intensities accordingly.
Practice Set Up: Wisconsin Volleyball is housed in the venerable Wisconsin Fieldhouse, which is attached to their famous Camp Randall football stadium. The Fieldhouse is one of those old-style brick university buildings that just has a certain nostalgic and classic feel about it. The athletic department has done a great job of refitting the old structure to bring some modern amenities to the venue, and the various displays of Badger Volleyball history throughout the corridors are an interesting and informative touch!
For both practices that I attended, they had their main court set up and a side court right next to it. They have a ton of extra equipment and training aids at the ready, including 4 large platforms, 2 passing/setting targets, a couple of ball machines, 3 video carts with large screen TVs for video delay feedback, and a table set up with clock and scoreboard controls. The practice plan was written out in detail on two huge white boards for everyone to see.
Warm up was a series of dynamic movements led by a member of their training staff followed by a series of out-of-system setting reps with a lot of movement to get heart rates going. I was really intrigued (and impressed) by how much attention was paid to EVERYONE, even middles and primary hitters, being able to put up a hittable ball from various angles with hands and with platforms. The drill designs had good flow as players followed their sets to become targets then tossers. They did it from game-like angles with balls being entered way off the net, so the players had to produce an accurate pin-hitting opportunity.
Cue Note: With these out-of-system setting reps, they were very focused on players getting their bodies facing their target. They also talked a lot about getting elbows up high and early. This is an interesting cue in that most of the time, when setting, we talk about hand position, but the elbows thing makes a lot of sense as often hands can be in the right shape but too low. By concentrating on elbows, you create a good, centered frame and you can’t be lazy with low hands.
Culture Note: On one of the change overs the players had to form new groups and get the next progression of the drill organized and moving. It was a bit sloppy and inefficient with uneven groups. They were called out on it immediately and worked some crunches in to reinforce the point. No complaining or excuses followed, and they fixed the issue right away. This level of structure and expectation of efficiency was an impressive theme that I picked up on throughout my visit. While it was coach-led, it was clear that the players had bought into it and desired that level of accountability.
The next thing they worked on was more out-of-system reps, but this time it was just their setters getting to the out-of-system balls. The coaches entered down balls to defenders and the defenders were instructed to intentionally pass off the net and mix it up for the setters. In the past, I had been a bit leery of having passers intentionally pass off target, but the logic is that good passers should have a feel for putting the ball anywhere they want. After thinking it over, I’m in agreement with that logic as I’ve always been one to trust athletes to be athletes, not robots!
After the out-of-system work, they spent some time going through some changes they were making in their rotations and serve-receive patterns. The way they did this reminded me a bit of some of the rehearsal style stuff that Ohio State did. The way the Badgers did it though was something that I’ve absolutely made a regular part of match prep in my gym. On the “A” side was their normal starting rotation 1 set up for serve receive. The “B” side was the same set up with back ups and off players. Coaches were on each end line ready to serve. A serve was entered to the “A” side and they passed it and ran their pattern through the set with the hitter approaching and jumping to catch the set. As they came together to discuss any issues and get reset in their receive pattern, a serve was then entered to the “B” side, so they could run the same pattern. By having both sides in serve receive, alternating the serve, and running the offensive pattern all the way to the jump and catch, both sides were able to get some great timing and flow work done. They did about 10 balls each way in each rotation working out kinks in the patterns and trying out different set combinations.
System Note: They were toying with a really cool middle approach pattern in which the middle loads for her approach in line with the 31 zone but then runs to the setter taking off on one foot. This “front slide” can be nasty and is a creative option to add for middles that are great off one foot.
Cue Note: With a right-handed right side, they made a point to have her adjust her approach so that she would be facing the 1/6 zone split. This angle would make deep cross her most natural shot but allow for easy adjustments to cut harder cross if needed or open shoulders for more line.
Cue Note: They were focusing heavily with their passers on passing hard-driven deep serves. They wanted shoulder levels to stay even without bouncing while they opened up to “get out of the way.” They had been struggling with hard-driven deep float serves as the passers would try to keep the ball centered and back pedal which results in a lot of “hand cuff” passes that tend to go straight up.
System Note: During the serve-receive rehearsal, while the hitters ran their patterns and approached to a catch, the others were filling in on hitter coverage. They stopped for a significant discussion of hitter coverage in which they reinforced the idea of coverage positions being “in the gaps” not behind anyone else. I really liked this as too often coverage is taught as a system rather than a principle. The principle of “get in a gap” covers way more situations than any memorized system could address.
Thursday’s practice was overall pretty light coming off the match the night before. Kelly explained that they planned to go a bit harder on Friday in prep for their Saturday match and invited me to sit in on their scouting and game planning session before practice. We spent some time discussing what I had seen in the other gyms I had visited, and I was again so impressed by how curious these high-level coaches are about what their peers are doing. We also talked about the culture they have built in the community that has produced a following that is nothing short of special. Wisconsin now ranks #2 in the country in attendance with just over 7,000 fans packing the Fieldhouse for each match.
While Thursday was a quick session, I picked up a lot. Now it was time to take the advice of the coaches and head off to The Terrance, which overlooks the lake for a beautiful sunset and a relaxing drink at this Madison landmark!
Friday Pre-Practice Reps
Friday’s work began with passers and setters coming early for reps. This is something that almost every program I’ve visited has done and will be something I try to do with my programs going forward; ball control simply requires extra work to develop the feel and the habits.
As they were on Thursday, the passers were working primarily on the deep serve that pushes them back. Not popping up on the first move was the focus and they really did a good job of being intentional about the change. The setters were working on various sets along the net both from tosses and off digs with some of the digs being intentionally imperfect.
Hidden under the Fieldhouse bleachers, the Badgers have built out a really neat team area including a theater style meeting room.
As the players filed in to discuss their opponent, I found out that they all have iPads and that the scouting reports are prepared and loaded into them. Paper copies were also available, and they were gracious enough to let me have one to see how they break things down. Each opposing player was analyzed using stats and shot charts, and strategy cues were given including how they wanted to line up the block against each.
Cue Note: Wisconsin uses the acronyms HOB and NOB to describe how they want their block to line up. HOB means “hand on ball” and NOB means “nose on ball.” Which way they wanted to line up varied from hitter to hitter to counteract their tendencies.
System Note: It was discussed that their opponent on Saturday would be running a slower tempo, higher set to the outside. Their blocking plan was to be patient and hold, then make a violent swing block move late. Some programs prefer that the block get set up early against a higher set, but the Badgers want to wait and make a more dynamic move. This totally makes sense for the type of athletes they have and the type of mindset they want.
Friday Practice Session
After the film session and a dynamic warm up, the players looked at the practice plan on the board and split out for blocking and defending reps. The blockers were working on blocking out-of-system attacks focusing on pausing then making a big swing move. Managers, who also play on the men’s club team, were doing the attacking to save the wear and tear on the players. Meanwhile the defenders were on the side court working on sprawl moves. They really got after it and their energy encouraging each other to push past their comfort zone was great to watch!
Culture Note: When the split out time was done, the coach simply blew a whistle and they moved to the next item on the white board. It was super-efficient and clearly everyone was on the same page with the structure; no wasted time in discussion!
After spending a few minutes getting arms loose with some single hand toss swings to a partner and some basic 2-person pepper, everyone was brought together on the main court for a digging drill. The drill set up had three coaches on platforms ripping balls across the net at defenders in left, right, and middle back. The group of defenders was on until they “won” by getting nine balls up. The pace was very high with the next ball coming in fast after the previous one. The energy was great as the off players both counted the ups in unison and encouraged their teammates. The intensity was only ratcheted up higher by the standard that any play seen as lazy got the individual kicked out of the group and sent to the back of the line. There is nothing that fires up an elite level competitor more than being removed for lack of effort and every single one that got booted came back tougher the next time through.
Cue Note: I struggled not to laugh at one of the cues they kept using when a player went to the floor in a less than intentional way. “That’s not a sprawl – you’re just falling down!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve now used this in my gym, lol.
After the team digging drill, they went back to the out-of-system setting that they did on Thursday, but this time they set out-of-system balls to both pins.
Following a quick water break, it was time for “Attack School,” which clearly was a popular and regular part of practices as the players kind of celebrated upon reading it on the white board and moving off to their courts. The middles were with the setters on the main court running slides versus a single block by a guy on the other side. It was so cool to hear the feedback between the setters and the slide hitters after EVERY ball.
Culture Note: The level of communication between the setters and the hitters and listening to them collectively try to figure things out struck me big time. It was NOT a one-way conversation as they all discussed the speed and location of their connections. Coaches were there for input, but the players were the driving force of the talk. This is something I took back to my gym – getting the players to self-analyze and talk through things together!
Pin hitters were on the other court working on out-of-system swings off a dug down ball. “Attack School” didn’t keep a score and there were no penalties for mistakes; it was just a time to work on connections and develop different shots.
Next up on the board was more work on the serve-receive rotations. They used the same drill set up as Thursday, but this time they played all the way through the first swing. After several runs in all six rotations, they moved on to some serve work. Like many other gyms, an elastic band was strung between the pins to form a serving window, and carpets were placed in zones on the court to indicate their targets.
After another drink break, it was time to visualize what they would see the next day in their match. The “B” side was given pinnies with numbers that were accurate to their opponent’s jersey numbers. They then walked through each of their opponent’s rotations so that the team could see and visualize what they would be facing. I had never seen this done with pinnies this way, but it made so much sense when you want your players to know tendencies based on jersey numbers. I can absolutely see myself investing in a set for my gym.
Practice ended with a team huddle discussing the schedule for the following match day, including a really neat thing they were doing with some local kids before the match. A few passers stayed after to work a bit more on passing deep serves, and a setter wanted some extra connection reps with some hitters. It was both comical and inspiring that the coaches eventually had to make the players stop and go home – the players just wanted to keep going!
After everyone had taken off, Kelly and I discussed my observations and I was able to pick his brain on several items. It was such a cool experience and I was able to glean so much about their program and about his philosophies. The game day experience on Saturday afternoon was truly special as well – they sold out again despite it being a Saturday afternoon match against an unranked opponent. They’ve really got something special going in Madison.
So after spending three days in Madison with the Badgers, what do I think makes Coach Sheffield and the Wisconsin program great? I believe it’s their mix of structured training, shared standards and trust.
Structured Training: The Wisconsin practice sessions showed a great deal of structure. The players moved efficiently from one drill to the next and were very intentional in everything they did. The “vibe” in their gym was intense and detail oriented. It was all about getting better and it’s evident that Kelly and his staff never lose focus on technical skill development even while balancing it with system work, match prep and the other things that go into making a successful team.
Shared Standards: The Badgers strive to be great and it’s not just the coaches pushing for this. It’s obvious that the type of player that is attracted to this program is one who wants to be pushed to be the best she can be. Players wanting to stay after, insisting on one more rep after a bad one, and reacting with positive resilience to tough feedback shows how much everyone is on the same page about getting better.
Trust: It’s easy to see that everyone in the program trusts each other. You can see the trust in the way that they still have fun together in the midst of their structure and high standards. From Coach’s Ferris Bueller jokes that no one gets to their fantastic social media videos about the tripping scandal (look it up if you haven’t seen it!), this team is clearly comfortable with each other. This trust that they’ve built along with their shared standards allows them to be pushed beyond their comfort zone.
Coach Sheffield has done a masterful job of identifying and recruiting the type of elite athletes with the right personalities for his structure and style. He has also built a staff that play well off each other and that share his standards. When you put the right people in the right structure and they all hold themselves and each other to high standards, you get the kind of elite results that the Badger Volleyball Program produces!
I had such a blast in Madison and I am so grateful for the welcome and openness from their staff. Early on in my visit, I was good naturedly chided by assistant coach Brittany Dildine for being sheepish and trying to stay out of the way; “Just get in here, make yourself at home, we’re all friends here!” Assistant coach Gary White was also friendly and curious about my other visits and I spent a lot of time on his court as he worked with their setters. Even their volunteer assistant, Angel Agu, who might literally be the nicest person on the planet, went out of her way to talk to me and made sure I had a ticket to the sold-out match. I can’t thank Kelly enough for opening the doors to me and for taking so much time to talk shop with me before and after each session. I learned a ton that I have brought back to my players and I’m definitely a better coach for having visited his gym.