Tips to Battling Early Specialization in Junior Volleyball

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If I told you that winning was not our top priority, most of you would probably give me an odd look or call me crazy. How could we not want to win at all costs? What are people going to think about us? It is an obsession that is infecting youth sports, and seems to be the #1 priority in junior volleyball. Parents and coaches drill it into players' heads that the score of the game is a direct reflection of each person's self worth. If you aren't doing every possible thing to win then you will not be as successful.

We may think that this is strengthening our children and players; however, the overwhelming question to me is... At what cost?

This question and subsequent answer have helped Illini Elite to establish the guiding principles of our youth program. Now don't get me wrong, we aren't anti-competition or against trying to help our players develop a competitive drive. We recognize the value of a win and we also recognize the value of a loss. However, the most important part is that we know where to prioritize both of these. For us, they will always rank below complete player development. This is why we tell our parents at our parent meeting before the season starts, "we do not care about how many wins our teams get." We make sure that they are aware of what they are signing up for and what they are getting themselves into. We think that this is a valuable lesson for both player and parent. Players get the opportunity to learn how to play the game the right way, while their parents get to enjoy watching their children play without having to stress about wins or losses.

One of the strategies that we employ with all of our 10U, 11U, and 12U teams is that everyone plays every position. This means that everyone gets to set, everyone gets to play in the back row, everyone gets a chance to hit, etc. We know going into each season that this strategy is going to lose us plenty of points and probably matches. We ALWAYS lose to the specialized teams at the beginning of the season. The 12U teams that are running 5-1's, de-prioritizing 3 contacts, overusing 1 or 2 players, and playing a cheap brand of volleyball in order to get wins. We completely accept the reality that we will lose to those teams all the time early on by finding solace in the fact that we will be much better off in the end because of what we do.

There are many reasons for this.

  • We will be able to limit the amount of overuse injuries that occur in our players. We don't have the one star player who is getting every set and taking tons of swings every match while everyone else watches.

  • When these players get older they will have had the opportunity to do everything. Every player will have served, hit a high ball, hit a quick, run an offense, passed in serve receive, played defense, etc. Now when they go back to their school seasons they will have a much better chance of making the team, earning playing time, and having the opportunity to develop even more.

  • There is no fool proof way to know exactly which players are going to develop, both in a skill and physical sense.
    • One example could be a kid who is 5'9 as a 12U player and gets stuck in the middle because she's the tallest kid. She only plays middle through her 15's or 16's year, but never ends up getting any taller. Then she's getting passed up by the taller kids, but now has no role on the teams because she's never passed, played defense, or hit on a pin. Now she's similar in size to most of the other kids, but is way behind them skill-wise. An inverse situation to this one is completely possible as well as everything in between.

  • Another strategy that we use is requiring all of our players through their 13's year to top spin serve. There's probably nothing that causes more parents to want to rip their hair out more, but could not be more beneficial. It is so incredibly valuable by giving a countless amount of additional repetitions for kids to work on their armswing mechanics, contact point, ability to frame the ball correctly, hand contact, etc. When they begin their 14's year we leave it up to the player if they would like to continue using a top spin serve or would like to learn a flat serve. By comparison, we believe that a top spin serve is much easier to learn. A wonky armswing, however, is way more difficult to change after a kid has been doing it repeatedly for years.
    • There are some exceptions to the rule. Plenty of our 10U players are just not strong enough to be able to do this. With these players we will usually have them try a top spin serve. If they miss that one they can do maybe 2 or 3 underhand serves and then try another top spin.
    • Ultimately, the thing that you will need to make yourself and your staff comfortable with is that your players will miss a TON of serves. And some of those serves are going to be at set and match point.

  • Lastly, we try and emphasize 3 contacts as much as we possibly can. We want everyone to get as much experience as they can in base to defense movements as well as transitioning. This is where we try to induce competition the most. As we've established already, the score of the game is basically irrelevant. However, the amount of possessions with 3 contacts is essentially the impromptu scoreboard for our teams.
    • We have our coaches track each set/match how many times the players had a possession with all 3 contacts. They regularly share these numbers with the players during timeouts or in between/after matches.
    • About halfway through the season you can already start to see the players not even looking at the scoreboard when a timeout is called. Usually they are running into the huddle to see if they are beating how many they had during the previous set.
    • When our 12's teams play each other they will often compare their numbers to one another to see who won as well. This is also something we emphasize in practice.
    • We do plenty of what we call exchange drills. We typically do this with 3 on 3, but any number will do. The players are only allowed to pass and set, must have 3 contacts, and are only allowed to switch with next group who is waiting when they send the ball over the net. You can make this cooperative and try to get the groups to get as many as they can in a row without letting a ball drop.
    • As skill level increases, the number of players can vary more and attacking can be added in. Not only do we believe that this is teaching players to play the game the right way, but it also gives as many opportunities for each player to pass, set, and hit as many balls as possible.

Your stance on this topic will vary greatly based off of the mission of your club. We understand that the market for players can be competitive. Wins mean success and success translates to numbers. Although it is a business as well, it is important to remember the reason that we are here. The dollars and trophies are great, but our main purpose should be to help players develop the best we can. What you'll usually find is that when you prioritize correctly, have a developed "big picture" view, and do what's best for your members most of that other stuff takes care of itself in the end.

For more education on coaching junior volleyball click here.

About the Author

Jimmy Jarmuth is the Associate Director at Illini Elite in Bloomington, IL. 


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