Sep 15, 2017
Dynamic Practices

When volleyball players at St. James Academy in Lenexa, Kan., walk into practice, they know they’d better have their game faces on. That’s because Head Coach Nancy Dorsey specializes in creating practices that are as demanding, intense, and competitive as matches. And that strategy has clearly paid off — Dorsey’s teams have won seven state titles in the past nine years and she was named the 2015 American Volleyball Coaches Association National High School Coach of the Year.

The first element to planning a dynamic practice, she explains, is to pick up the pace. “I want to see players in constant motion,” says Dorsey, a former outside hitter for the University of Kansas who has been at St. James since it opened in 2005. “This has an added benefit — almost all of our conditioning happens inside our drills.”

One way Dorsey creates a fast pace is by adding a time component to activities. “Instead of doing a drill until we reach a certain number of kills, I tell them they need to get a certain number of kills within a specific length of time,” she says. “Otherwise, we do it again.”

Next, she reshapes drills to make them match the energy of competition. “The idea is to take something you already do to train a certain skill and add a game-like element to it,” Dorsey says. “That increases both the pace and the intensity.

“I always explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is important for gaining the players’ trust,” she adds. “Especially when I have newer players, I spend a lot of time explaining why I am asking them for this level of intensity.”

One example of an energized drill is the Five-Minute Pass, in which players are continuously running, passing, and serving for five minutes. “As a result, when we are playing the sixth match of a tournament,” she says, “the players have already experienced the challenges of getting their body to work with their brain when they are fatigued.”

A third component of St. James’ practices is attaching a goal to everything the players do. “Setting the right goal for each drill is key,” Dorsey says. “It has to be hard but attainable, and you have to be willing to change the goal if you realize you set it too high.

One thing you won’t see, however, during the team’s practices, is traditional scrimmaging. “Playing against the same people every day in practice becomes very predictable,” Dorsey says. “It’s hard to build intensity with that.”

Instead, she uses drills that create more intense scrimmage situations, often by changing the scoring method. One of her favorites is Dig or Die. “We play to seven, and if the ball hits the floor, that team loses all its points,” she says. “The intensity is incredible, compared to just going six on six and running through a rotation. The idea that they can lose all their points puts an emphasis on defensive urgency.”

Dorsey believes that planning dynamic practices also requires constant assessment and modification. “In the first week of this season, I adjusted five of the drills that we normally do,” she says. “My team this year is pretty small and we don’t have a lot of powerful hitters, so I reworked some drills to address that.”

Practice time at St. James is not only dynamic and effective, it is also fun, which Dorsey says may be the most important element of all. “There is no question that my players think practices are hard. But what I hear most often from them is that doing it this way makes it fun,” she says. “If players aren’t having fun, they aren’t getting better. Unless they love what we’re doing, they are not going to improve.”

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