Lines and Push-Ups and Burpees, Oh My!

by Orest Stanko

Pretty much any coach with minimal experience and in any sport can prepare and run a physically demanding practice. In the sport of volleyball classic drills such as volley to your partner than run back and touch the wall or figure-eight passing drills around a set of cones were de rigueur when I was learning how to play. Needless to say, at the end of the day I was exhausted. So, given the amount of perspiration that poured off my body it must have been a good practice. I’m not exactly sure what it was I learned but I sure worked-up a good sweat!

However, and this represents an obvious observation, sweat and muscle weariness in and of themselves don’t necessarily denote a successful practice. As a coach I would rather that at the end of a two (2) hour training session my athletes be mentally fatigued. Achieving consistent success in volleyball is more a product of cue reading and associated information processing than being able to do 60 push-ups in 60 seconds. Although the latter is a notable achievement.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that coaches allocate sufficient attention or time to creating information processing situations in practices and especially at younger ages. The tendency is to focus on “touches”. The common belief is that the more “touches” an athlete is exposed to the more likely he/she will be able to master a skill. It’s the proverbial tenet of “quantity over quality”. And of course the associated adherence to the theory that learning will be enhanced and expedited if there are consequences for failure.

Far too many coaches resort to “punishment” as a means of reinforcing their expectations and underscoring their authority. If an athlete or a team fails to achieve a particular objective or if they do not measure-up to the anticipated level of effort, intensity or whatever else might come to mind, it’s “…give me10 burpees or 10 push-ups”. I can recall an assistant coach asking me prior to our first practice, what was my perspective on punishment or consequences. Really?? Rather than asking me about what the team objectives were for the season, or his responsibility during matches, or how I was planning to structure practices, etc., he was more concerned on my position regarding “punishment” or “consequences”.

Banner for Winter programs by Pakmen volleyball

On another occasion a coach invited me to a practice to help him evaluate his newly selected team. I was unable to provide him with any meaningful feedback since most of the practice was devoted to running lines and doing sit-ups when athletes failed to accomplish pre-established goals in particular drills.

I agree with the premise that if we are to simulate a live match environment including the associated intensity in a practice setting then we need to identify how to identify and embed consequences. I simply think that there are better motivational techniques then push-ups or burpees. How about the losing side in a team drill has to take down the net and store all of the equipment at the end of practice; assign water bottle filling duties or ball bag responsibility during a tournament. Be creative. And this is especially critical when coaching younger athletes. It is not clear to me how an aspiring 12 year old volleyball athlete benefits from performing push-ups because he/she failed to call “mine” when service receiving. How about designating 1 or 2 athletes as the official “mine” police. Their responsibility is remind/ensure that their teammates are calling “mine”. I’m sure you get the point. There are far more imaginative and instructive ways to motivate your athletes that also encompass many other important learnings.

And, no one should grow-up hating push-ups.