Like most clubs around the country, the last 12 months at Carolina Union Volleyball Club have provided almost daily tests in how to run a program during uncertain times. In Charlotte, a state that sits on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, we had the added challenge of having roughly a 50/50 split on kids who were playing high school volleyball during their normal fall season and those that had a delayed start time. South Carolina and NC Private Schools played in the fall, while NC public schools began their seasons in November and competed through the latter part of January.

In late July, we knew that the next six months weren’t going to be anything remotely close to normal. For the good of our athletes, we wanted our club to be a place where they could find rest from the stresses of online school, isolation, and loneliness.

From a volleyball perspective, our goal was to have as competitive of an environment as possible. However, on a daily basis we had no idea who was going to show up at training. As a result, we had to chuck the competitive formats we typically used and try something new.

Here are 3 drills we applied to maintain a competitive gym environment with unpredictable attendance:

1. Dog House

Dog House is a game in which Group A (a team of 6) receives a serve, and then gets two down balls from the challenging side. If the Group A wins all three of those points, they stay on the court, the challenge side is back in the “Dog House”, and a new group of challengers rolls in. If Group A loses any of the three points (we always play all three points), they go into the Dog House, and the challenge side moves over to the receiving side. You can modify the rules however you want to fit your gym, but the idea is that it allows a large group of players to get continuous action and forces players to compete for every point to stay on the court as long as possible. It also works when you have a practice in which, for example, the 18-1’s have 5 players, the 18-2’s have 7 players, the 17-1’s with 3 players, the 16-1’s with 9 players, and the 17-2’s have 4 players. Throw them all together on a court, and do the same for other sets of teams to make the format work!

2. Competitive Position Ladder

Also a great option when you aren’t sure what to expect from your attendance and have unbalanced teams. For example, Team A has 2 setters, 2 liberos, and 2 middles. Team B has 3 pins and 2 middles. Here are the steps to set up the drill:

  1. Group players by position.
  2. Evenly distribute each position on the number of courts you plan to use; usually we do this according to age group so groups are of similar skill at the start.
  3. Teams compete in 6’s in a “five-ball” format (i.e., teams alternate receiving down balls, five each way). In this format, teams simply wave through from Side A to Side B then off, with each position having its own entry line.
  4. At the end of the set amount of time (say, 7 minutes), a whistle is blown, and players in each position count up their points.
  5. The top couple will move up, the bottom will move down, and the middle will stay put.

Players who want to play with the best players have to earn that privilege!

3. Progressive Ladder Competitions

Most people are familiar with ladder competitions; you win you move up, you lose, you move down. One option is to make this a progressive building processes in how the games are formatted.

  1. Start with doubles and split courts in half.
  2. Teams compete for 2 minutes on their half court against another team of doubles.
  3. When the two minutes are up, winners move up and losers would move down.
  4. Repeat this process for 15-20 minutes, or at least until the teams at the bottom have a chance to work all the way to the top. Sometimes you may have enough athletes that this would be a “queens” competition on each half court (with 3 or 4 teams); if that is the case, teams in the middle would stay put.
  5. After the 20 minutes is up, progress to 3’s or 4’s on full courts, but the groupings had to be made up of the players that are currently together on a court at the end of the doubles ladder.
  6. After another 15-20 minutes of ladder competition, progress to 6’s. Again, the teams are made up of players from the court that you finished on. So the 8 on the top court would make a team. The 8 on the second court make a team and move to play the team on the top court.

The theme and purpose of the progressive ladder competition to send a message that they knew very well. If you want to play the best competition in practice, you have to win.

When we began implementing these drills in our gym, one of the most interesting observations was that there was a consistent group of athletes that ended up together at the top. It wasn’t always the “best” players either, there were several kids that were on a 2’s team and 3’s team that consistently work their way to the top because they are ballers and just want to win at all costs, all of the time. Those athletes help cultivate and grow our competitive environment in the gym.

Applying these competitive drills helped us survive a six month stretch where anything was possible from an attendance standpoint. It created an environment that was fun and competitive. And, it allowed the athletes in our gym to meet and compete with players they may not have gotten to know as well during a regular season. This helped us foster the gym culture we strive for; one that is competitive, supportive, loving, challenging, and fun. A place that feels like home. A place that reminds us #whywecuvc!

View coaching education for running a practice.

View coaching education for building culture.

View volleyball drills.

About the Author

John Brannon is in his ninth season as the Club Director of Carolina Union Volleyball Club in North Carolina, a JVA member club since 2011. Under his guidance, CUVC has opened it’s own training facility with a State-of-the-Art Orthopedic Subfloor, established an elite boys program, and has grown to 46 teams.