A Year To Learn From College Coaching Royalty: Stop 1: Creighton Bluejays
Since this is the first “journey journal” in what will be a series of several, let me explain the point of view and purpose of these visits. These are not reports on the team. While I will comment on some aspects of strengths and areas for development, it is only in the context of why the practice is structured the way it is.
These pieces are also not meant to be evaluations or opinions of the training or philosophies that I observe. I’ll certainly point out things that I like but things that I don’t gravitate towards I’ll file away in case their wisdom dawns on me later. What I will focus upon is the practice structure, the philosophies, the training mix, teaching cues that stood out, and cultural items within each gym. In other words, these will be written for volleyball nerds and coaching junkies. I’m also going to risk looking dumb by admitting things that I didn’t know before or that I was doing wrong, so please have mercy!
Program and Coach Background: When describing Creighton volleyball to a non-volleyball friend of mine, I explained to him that they are kind of like the Gonzaga basketball of the volleyball world. While not a completely apt comparison, the idea I wanted to convey was that they are a non-Power Five conference program at a private catholic school that has a significant tradition of competing with and knocking off the big boys and is led by a coach who probably could have left for more prestigious positions multiple times. Their success over the past decade is even more significant when you consider that when head coach Kirstin Bernthal Booth took over, the team was coming off a 3-23 season. The respect she has earned for her program is universal in the volleyball community in part because she did it at a place without the resources of a large state school with football-fueled budgets. The other more important reason she and her program are so universally respected is that no matter her success, she is known as one of the most approachable and giving coaches in the game.
Current Team Situation: Creighton is coming off two of its best years in school history and expectations are pretty high as they return a lot of weapons while also adding a highly-ranked recruiting class. While replacing a starting setter is never easy and the lineup decisions are still pretty fluid, the talent and the culture within the program absolutely justify the lofty expectations.
Schedule Context: Understanding how the practice I observed fits into the bigger schedule of the season is a key factor to understanding the structure and makeup of the session. This practice took place late in the preseason just before Creighton was to leave on its opening trip to California. That the Bluejays have been in heavy preseason training and were preparing for a big opening weekend with three matches in two days meant that this practice would have more of “polishing up” feel than an intense, “get after it” feel. Limiting jumps, getting good technical ball control and serving reps, solidifying setter-hitter connections, and working on some situational strategic items for the weekend were the main points of emphasis.
The full team practice lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes and was immediately followed by a meditation session. I was very intrigued by this as it was just more evidence of what makes Coach Bernthal Booth so successful – her holistic approach to the betterment of her athletes!
Gym and Equipment Note: The only thing somewhat out of the ordinary to my eye about the two court set-up was the automatic inclusion of elastic bands spanning the net from antenna to antenna. I’ve never seen it the way they have it set up, running with the net rope down the poles and with holes in it that the antennas pass through. This seems to make it easier to adjust height wise and doesn’t pull the antennas inward the way tie-on ones do. The other interesting aspect of the elastic band set up was that it seemed like part of the every day set up, not something they add on occasionally. With the increased importance of aggressive serving over the past several years, this makes a lot of sense and is something I will certainly be looking at as more than a “once in a while” thing going forward!
The final piece of the practice environment that was worth nothing was the music. I’ve given some thoughts on music at practice in a previous blog post and I was interested to see that they were playing Top 40 and other popular hip hop at significant volume during the pre-practice reps.
Serve Receive and Pass Session: The first half hour was just passers and setters getting reps. The setters were on one court working on reps from a variety of toss locations. Assistant coach and recruiting director Craig Dyer worked with the setters while longtime assistant coach Angie Oxley was the primary coach on the serve receive court. It was interesting to see that not a lot of feedback was needed or given as the players knew the standards and seemed very engaged and self-aware. That’s not to say that they weren’t relaxed. With popular top 40 type music in the background, they went about their business in a balanced way of “loose but engaged.”
Passing Observations: The passers took turns serving and passing and the serving quickly became pretty impressive. They were not taking it easy on their passing teammates at all as clearly the standard was to go after it. Passers had high standards as well doing a quick consequence run to the net and to the end line before resetting if they passed two in a row badly. It did not feel like negative reinforcement at all and no one fought it or tried to get out of it. In fact, I thought some were probably tougher on themselves than they needed to be, but those no-nonsense standards were a constant theme that clearly is a building block of Creighton’s greatness…BIG cultural note to self!
Technique Note: I observed a lot of passing outside of midline, almost intentionally so. I confirmed later with the coaches that while they don’t think midline is wrong at all, with the pace of the game the naturally athletic move of creating angles is more realistic. I point this out because it’s clear through a few visits to different programs that the debate of midline versus non-midline passing exists, but not a ton of time is wasted on it. There are simply more important passing principles and doing what works is more important than dogmatic technique debates.
Setting Observations: The setting reps were pretty standard with coach tossing to various locations and then hitting balls for the one setter to dig out of right back with the other setter setting off the digs.
Technique Note: I was watching for systematic feedback and cues to tell me about Creighton’s thoughts on footwork, especially in terms of setting passes that are off the net and when jump setting. During my time watching it seemed that their setters have the freedom to use whichever style of footwork makes the most sense to them in the current situation. They did force some left-right behind the ball footwork on tosses off the net, but also used some inside pivots and single foot jump sets in similar circumstances. When jump setting, if there was time they tended towards the pre-jump balance hop move before jumping to meet the ball. It wasn’t all the time, but it was the clear preference and their rhythm was excellent when they did it.
Plan Notes: The head coach had a written plan but if the rest of the staff did, I did not see them referring to it. My impression was that they were all on the same page about the plan and had probably met prior to practice to go over the format for the day. They also did not post the practice agenda as many teams do on a white board. Perhaps this was due to being in their secondary facility, but it could be normal as well.
Beginning of Practice: Since most of the players had already been doing reps and the ones who were not had arrived and been doing warm up on their own, there wasn’t a formal warm up for the team. On court activities began with a fun game. It was a game with two balls active at the same time and to win a point a side had to have both balls dead at the same time in their favor. There was no jumping to attack and each side had 7 or 8 players on the court at once with no one off. While there was certainly some awareness, strategy, and communication work going on, it was clearly meant to be a fun energetic way to get things going. There were tons of laughs from players and staff and the natural competitiveness of athletes at this level was the only push they needed to balance the goofy with the serious. This was also a theme throughout the day in their gym; the balance of goofy/fun with getting your work done in an intentional manner!
Drills and Reps: They transitioned immediately into what was probably the most intense “get after it” drill of the day. It was a team digging drill with hits coming from coaches on boxes across the net. Each group of 3 diggers had to get 5 good digs to cycle out for a new group. They had front row pin blockers just putting up hands to give the diggers a visual for more game like reading. This style of drill gets a lot of reps in a more game like feel than standard ball and partner work. I also liked having the blockers line up to give the defenders reads – this is a nice addition as long as the box hitters don’t hit right over the blockers who are staying on the floor!
After a quick drink break, it was on to serve work. The coaches had raised the elastic bands forming the “window” they wanted them to serve through. They also laid out target cones. This simple point of doing both pace of serve (below the elastic) AND zones at the same time was a real “DUH” moment for me as I’ve always focused on one or the other in my serve drills. One of the coaches was giving speed gun feedback and there was the standard consequence run for two misses in a row.
Technique Note: As far as I noticed, EVERY player was working on a jump float. Most of them were using a high elbow, raised arm prior to approach style and it seems to be working for them.
Following the serve work, they moved into serve receive reps with non-passers serving. These reps were in 3-person serve receive patterns and stats were kept. Both courts were going and there was a competition between the two courts of passers and the consequence runs were there again.
Culture Note: It’s interesting that the players really seemed to embrace the runs as a chance to hit the reset button before their next rep.
During the serve receive competition, setters were getting reps and middles rotated from serving to making reads on the setters and performing blocking footwork patterns. Everyone was doing something; no one was standing around!
After another drink break, they ran some hitting line reps to get a feel for timing and tempo vs. a full defense that was getting quality, real time block and defense work. Again, I was impressed at the intentionality of it even though it wasn’t super intense. Just focused athletes polishing up their stuff.
Game Planning: From there, they moved into some scenario work for the weekend matches. One of the scenarios they worked on was putting in a triple block option for out-of-system balls that would obviously go to the outside hitter. They also worked on the thought process of predicting who, for their opponent, might get the ball in crunch time and how they might commit or shade extra blockers that way.
Culture Note: Throughout the day, but especially during this time, I was struck by how collaborative the environment was. Players were engaged in the strategy side of things, asking questions, processing the situation, and giving each other feedback. This stands in stark contrast to so many gyms in which players are not engaged enough to think things through for themselves or have been trained to just do what coach says without trying to truly understand it. It would be my prediction that this team has several future coaches on it!
Technique Note: It was during this time that I really watched the blocking techniques and eyes, especially the middles. Their base position had arms much further in front than I have traditionally taught and they seem to mildly reach or lead with arms in the direction they were going to move. The other thing that struck me was that the middles were not looking at their close at all. It was more of a look at the hitter while feeling the close with your pin blocker. They certainly had no issues reaching into hitting lanes rather than focusing on straight up and down or “clean lines”. This really got me thinking about the difference in having a team of long armed blockers that all touch over 10 feet versus a team of 5’10 athletes that are probably blocking in the 9’4 range.
Scrimmage Time: The last on court thing Creighton did was a full speed competitive wash game. It was a pretty simple one with sides staying in the same rotation until 3 big points were scored. A big point was won by getting an ace or by winning the serve rally followed by an odd ball rally. An odd ball is a term I use to describe a way of entering a ball into play off a bounce with the team that receives the odd ball having two touches left. After a team got to 3 big points, the teams were changed, and the game was started again. Play was intense and lively and went for 20-30 minutes.
Culture Note: I commented on how loud the teams were in terms of constant communication, calling for the ball, and celebrating points. Funny enough, Coach Booth thought they were a little less energetic than usual today.
End Notes: Practice ended with a team stretch followed by meditation. During this time I was able to pick Coach’s brain about how much feedback the players give and take from each other and how that can be a awesome but also carries some risks. She also mentioned how much they are paying attention to limiting jump and swing reps to try to keep players healthy.
The Big Question: After observing, processing and writing it all out, what do I think makes Coach Bernthal Booth great? I think the answer in its most simple form is that the program has truly taken on her personality. It balances fun with a no-nonsense mindset. She truly cares about all aspects of the lives of her players. In just my 2.5 hours in the gym she showed concern for their academic lives, their physical wellbeing, their performance, and their mental health/stress level. She didn’t do this as a checklist; it was just her being real. The players are engaged in being great for themselves and for each other. Mistakes have consequences but not in a negative or angry manner. The balance they have forged in this program tells me that Creighton is going to be a factor on the national stage for years to come.
Scott Mattera runs the training company and blog; www.innovationvb.com. An even more detailed write up for the true volleyball coaching junkies will be available on his blog in the future. He welcomes your comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.