Be More Aggressive Yet Make Fewer Mistakes

The following post is courtesy of Coach Tom Houser.  

Coach Houser is a regular contributor to the Volleyball Toolbox. He is currently sixth all-time in career coaching victories in Virginia with a career record of 267-47. He has been coaching travel volleyball since 1991, and his teams have qualified for Jr Nationals 4 of the past 11 years. He is the owner of STAR Volleyball Services LLC which conducts numerous clinics around the country.  Click the link to gain access to more valuable coaching tools. You can also contact Coach Houser at

In this post Coach Houser is replying to  a question from another coach.  The following is his response to a question everyone would like an answer to.

Coach Houser:

Every time I see your team play, I don’t understand how your kids are more aggressive than your opponents, yet make fewer errors.  That’s not normal.  Can you share some of your thoughts?  

I assure you that it hasn’t always been this way.  Helping my players learn simple and effective skills took watching the game for tens of thousands of hours over three decades.  Until I was about 45, I still had holes in my coaching ability.  My teachings were like swiss cheese as I tried help my athletes remove all the inefficiencies and complications in their skills.  I was “holy” because:

(a) I was young.  Can’t fix that.  I also was never an assistant coach, so I didn’t have a season with a mentor;

(b) the books and videos were only slightly helpful because they were written by Olympic coaches and top level D1 college coaches; so, the drills were nearly useless for my factory town athletes, and;

(c) the older coaches whom I watched closely were using the old phrases that I’d heard all my life, but was discovering were practically useless in fixing players’ issues: “get low,” or “snap,” or “move your feet,” or “call the ball”.   Sound familiar?   

Intently watching and studying the game from the bleachers, the sidelines, etc. allowed me to determine what works for the typical volleyball teen athletes and what doesn’t, what’s easy to learn and what’s difficult to learn, what hit/serve/set is effective and what’s not.

Furthermore, the coaches I observed were almost never identifying the root cause of players’ issues and/or the advice they gave the athletes almost never addressed the issue.  Now I know why they said the phrases they said.  They didn’t know what else to say.  I’ve been there!

You say we’re aggressive:  We have to be.  How will we beat a good team without being aggressive?  
Then you say we make less errors.  Do you mean:

  1. a) errors that are bonehead?  I hope we make fewer of those, because we sure do practice on getting rid of them.  Or you may mean;
  2. b) fewer poor passes, fewer poor hits, fewer poor sets and fewer poor serves than most teams?  This is definitely because I teach my players to ditch the complications they’ve developed in the execution of their skills, and we concentrate on making those skills as simple to perform as possible; thus, they can be mastered quicker; thus, errors are diminished.

So actually, we aren’t overachieving.  We are maximizing our abilities because we are executing our skills as efficiently, easily and correctly as is possible.  

I thought about creating some drills for you that encourage aggression.  But all the drills that you currently use can be Aggression Drills (ADs).  All you have to do is ask your players to perform the drill WITHOUT punishment/consequences/eye-rolls for making a mistake performing the skill.  

  1. Do you want your players to tip better?  More aggressively?  Then you announce “The first team to get x kills by tip by z different players wins the drill.”  
  2. Do you want your players to learn to 2-ball opponents?  Then announce, “The first team to get x kills 2-balling by z different players wins the drill.”  
  3. Do you want your players to HIT into the 1 and/or 5 zones? Then announce, “The first team to get x kills in the 1 zone and z kills in the 5 zone wins.  No girl can get more than y kills.”  

    Each drill can be initiated by a serve, a free ball from a coach/player, a down ball from a coach, etc.  

This is how I get my teams to do anything I want.  In 2013, my 16s team had 2 new MB’s.  We’d been practicing a month, and the lack of sets was making my MB’s impatient.  Sure, I could have said, “Setters:  SET MIDDLE,” but I chose the following.  At practice after practice I would announce something like, “3 points for a kill by your MB.  1 point for any other kill.  First team to 15 wins.”  Aggressive?  HECK YEAH!  

Warning:  Your players will make mistakes.  But if you want your tennis player to hit a passing shot with their backhand during a match, then the player must be allowed to make mistakes at practice.  Yes, in both practice AND in matches.  No doubt.  If you want your basketball player to shoot 3s in games, then the player must be allowed to make mistakes at practice.  And she will make mistakes in games.  Promise.   

Finally:  I said “snap” above was nearly useless?  I heard some gasps.  Coaches:  there are probably 10 different reasons why a volleyball girl’s hit goes out beyond the end line.  Nine of those have nothing do with snapping.  Yet, I hear that from coaches, parents and/or players at every match I attend.  

About once a year, a parent beside me will say, “How is my daughter not snapping?  She’s been told to snap by her coaches for 5 years! Why can’t she fix it?”  I’ll answer, “The error had nothing to do with snap.  The fact that her hit had nice topspin is proof that the problem is something else,” and I proceed to tell the parent what the real reason was.   

Coaches:  You can’t wave a magic wand over yourself and get those 20,000 hours and three decades.  But you can watch, study, ask, and learn what helps athletes achieve.  Meanwhile, try to ditch the “you have to want it!!” and try to learn how to help your athletes reach their potential.  It’s really hard; but, it’s very much worth it!

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