Fourteen minutes. That’s how long my first journey carried me to watch and learn from one of the best. Creighton University in downtown Omaha is just 14 minutes from my current coaching home at Bellevue University. This made for an awesome day of being in the gym in the morning with our team and then driving over to the beautiful facilities at CU for an afternoon with the Blue Jays.
Being as this is the first “journey journal” in what will be a series of several, I need to explain the point of view and purpose of these visits. These are not reports on the team. While I will comment on some aspects of strengths and areas for development, it is only in the context of why the practice is structured the way that it is. I may make some predictions but those are just for fun and I’m going to admit right now that I’ll be a huge homer for all of the teams and coaches that I visit! These pieces are also not meant to be evaluations or opinions of the training or philosophies that I observe. I’ll certainly point out things that I like, but when learning in an open-minded way, there is no judgement involved. Things that I don’t gravitate towards, I file away in case their wisdom dawns on me later. What I will focus upon is the practice structure, the philosophies, the training mix, any teaching cues that stood out, and some cultural items within each gym. In other words, these will be written for volleyball nerds and coaching junkies. I’m also going to be exposing some vulnerabilities in that I’m going to risk looking dumb by admitting things that I didn’t know before or that I was doing wrong. Anyone who knows coaches knows how hard that ego kick is for us, so please have mercy!
Program and Coach Background: When describing Creighton volleyball to a non-volleyball friend of mine, I explained to him that they are kind of like the Gonzaga basketball of the volleyball world. While not a completely apt comparison, the idea that they are a non-Power Five conference program at a private catholic school that has a significant tradition of competing with and knocking off the big boys and is led by a coach who probably could have left for more prestigious positions multiple times was the point I wanted to convey. Their success over the past decade is even more significant when you consider that when head coach Kirstin Bernthal Booth took over, the team was coming off a 3-23 season. Almost no one in the community remembers those days now 16 years into her tenure as she quickly built the Blue Jay program into a regular Top 25 ranked program. No one blinks an eye any more when top national recruits commit to the Catholic school in Omaha. The respect she has earned for her program is universal in the volleyball community in part because she did it at a place without the resources of a large state school with football fueled budgets. The other more important reason she and her program are so universally respected is that no matter her success, she is known as one of the most approachable and giving coaches in the game.
Current Team Situation: Creighton is coming off two of its best years in school history and expectations are pretty high as they return a lot of weapons while also adding a highly ranked recruiting class. While replacing a starting setter is never easy and the lineup decisions are still pretty fluid, the talent and the culture within the program absolutely justify the lofty expectations.
Schedule Context: Understanding how the current practice fits into the bigger schedule of the season is a key factor in understanding the structure and makeup of the session. This practice took place late in the preseason just before they were to leave on their opening trip to California where they will play Kentucky, Northern Iowa, and USC. That’s a brutal opening weekend with two national top 15’s and a traditionally very strong mid major with a history of big upsets. The fact that they have been in heavy preseason training and were preparing for a big opening weekend with three matches in two days meant that this practice would have more of “polishing up” feel than an intense, “get after it” feel. Limiting jumps, getting good technical ball control and serving reps, solidifying setter-hitter connections, and working on some situational strategic items for the weekend were the main points of emphasis.
Creighton moves their practice times around based on their schedule and the class times of the players. In general, they go in the later afternoon, but with travel and varying match schedules there’s probably no such thing as a “normal” week. Todays session began with passers and setters for a half hour before everyone else came in. This seems to be pretty standard amongst the programs that I’m visiting, and it makes sense as those type of rhythm reps are so important, but spending a half hour on them in a normal practice plan is tough. The full team practice lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes and was immediately followed by a meditation session. I was very intrigued by this as it was just more evidence of what makes Coach Bernthal Booth so successful – her wholistic approach to the betterment of her athletes!
Gym and Equipment Set Up: Today’s practice is not in their home gym of Sokol Arena, but no one seems miffed and I can see why. They are in the Champions Center which is a beautiful and large facility right across the pedestrian walkway designed primarily for basketball with large murals of current NBA players who were former Creighton stars. The facility easily converts to a two-court volleyball setup with taped lines on the floor. Everything is high quality with plenty of new official game balls and carts and very solidly built platforms for hitting and blocking work. The only thing somewhat out of the ordinary to my eye was the automatic inclusion of elastic bands spanning the net from antenna to antenna. While I’ve certainly used this type of thing, I’ve never seen it the way they have it set up, running with the net rope down the poles and with holes in it that the antennas pass through. This seems to make it easier to adjust height wise and doesn’t pull the antennas inward the way tie on ones do. The other interesting aspect of the elastic band set up was that it seemed like part of the every day set up, not something they add on occasionally. With the increased importance of aggressive serving over the past several years, this makes a lot of sense and is something I will certainly be looking at as more than a “once in a while” thing going forward!
The final piece of the practice environment that was worth nothing was the music. I’ve given some thoughts on music at practice in a previous blog post and I was interested to see that they were playing Top 40 and other popular hip hop at significant volume during the pre-practice reps. It didn’t seem to be a distraction at all and certainly added to the “vibe” in the gym. Once regular practice began, the music was turned off and I think it remained off, but to be honest, I can’t remember now looking back on it.
Serve Receive and Pass Session: As stated before, the first half hour was just passers and setters getting reps. The setters were on one court working on reps from a variety of toss locations. Assistant coach and Coach and recruiting director Craig Dyer, who is new to the program this year, worked with the setters while longtime assistant coach Angie Oxley Behrens was the primary coach on the serve receive court. It was interesting to see that not a lot of feedback was needed or given as the players knew the standards and seemed very engaged and self-aware. That’s not to say that they weren’t relaxed. With popular top 40 type music in the background, they went about their business in an impressively balanced way of loose but engaged.
Passing Observations: I was surprised how much 2-person serve receive they were doing during the reps. I was curious if they were planning on running a lot of their receive patterns that way, so I’ll have to watch some matches to find out I guess! The passers took turns serving and passing and the serving quickly become pretty impressive. They were not taking it easy on their passing teammates at all as clearly the standard was to go after it at the serve line. Passers had high standards as well doing a quick consequence run to the net and to the end line before resetting if they passed two in a row badly. It did not feel like negative reinforcement at all and no one fought it or tried to get out of it. In fact, I thought some were probably tougher on themselves than they needed to be, but those no-nonsense standards were a constant theme that clearly is a building block of their greatness…BIG cultural note to self!
Technique Note: I observed a lot of passing outside of midline, almost intentionally so. I found this intriguing as it’s still such a debate amongst coaches and one that I changed my mind on a couple years back. I confirmed later with the coaches that while they don’t think midline is wrong at all, with the pace of the game, the naturally athletic move of creating angles is more realistic. That being said, they did point out that their libero, who I think is one of the best in the country, forces midline more than most. I point this out because it’s clear through a few visits to different programs, the debate of midline versus non-midline passing exists, but not a ton of time is wasted on it. There are simply more important passing principles and doing what works is more important than dogmatic technique debates.
Setting Observations: The setting reps were pretty standard with coach tossing to various locations and then hitting balls for the one setter to dig out of right back with the other setter setting off the digs.
Technique Note: I was watching for systematic feedback and cues to tell me about Creighton’s thoughts about footwork especially in terms of setting passes that are off the net and when jump setting. During my time watching, it seemed that their setters have the freedom to use whichever style of footwork makes the most sense to them in the current situation. They did force some left-right behind the ball footwork on tosses off the net, but also used some inside pivots and single foot jump sets in similar circumstances. When jump setting, if there was time they tended towards the pre-jump balance hop move before jumping to meet the ball. It wasn’t all the time, but it was the clear preference and their rhythm was excellent when they had the time to perform it before jumping for the set.
Staff and Plan Notes: Creighton has a full staff of head coach, two full time assistants, and a volunteer assistant. They also have a video coordinator who does some video in practice and also stats various drills. They did not have student managers or practice players at this practice, but their trainer and student assistant trainers were present along with some SID staff taking pictures and chatting.
As for a practice plan, the head coach had a written plan but if the rest of the staff did, I did not see them referring to it. My impression was that they were all on the same page about the plan and had probably met prior to practice to go over the format for the day. I should have asked if that was the case and if this was how they normally operate. They also did not post the practice agenda as many teams do on a white board. Perhaps this was due to being in their secondary facility, but it could be normal as well. I very rarely posted mine as there are plusses and minuses to showing the whole plan up front.
Beginning of Practice: Since most of the players had already been doing reps and the ones who were not had arrived and been doing warm up on their own, there wasn’t a formal warm up for the team. They were ready to go. After some housekeeping items detailing travel plans and a practice schedule issue in relation to classes, on court activities began with a fun game. It was a game with two balls active at the same time and to win a point a side had to have both balls dead at the same time in their favor. There was no jumping to attack and each side had 7 or 8 players on the court at once with no one off. While there was certainly some awareness, strategy, and communication work going on, it was clearly meant to be a fun energetic way to get things going. There were tons of laughs from players and staff and the natural competitiveness of athletes at this level was the only push they needed to balance the goofy with the serious. This was also a theme throughout the day in their gym; the balance of goofy/fun with getting your work done in an intentional manner!
Drills and Reps: Following the fun game, they transitioned immediately into what was probably the most intense “get after” drill of the day. It was a team digging drill with hits coming from coaches on boxes across the net. Each group of 3 diggers had to get 5 good digs to cycle out for a new group. They had front row pin blockers just putting up hands to give the diggers a visual for more game like reading and positional set up. Intensity was solid, and they got through it with good energy in a reasonable amount of time. This one hit me in that I tend to probably do too much ball and partner stuff when it comes to digging and this style of drill gets a lot of reps in a more game like feel. I also liked having the blockers line up to give the defenders reads – this is a nice addition as long as the box hitters don’t just hit right over the blockers who are staying on the floor!
After a quick drink break (everyone brings water bottles to practice as standard procedure) the players came back to the courts for some serve work. The coaches had raised the elastic bands forming the window they wanted them to serve through. They also laid out cones to form the zones they want to target. This simple point of doing both pace of serve (below the elastic) AND zones at the same time is something I don’t think I’ve ever done…a real DUH moment for me! One of the coaches was walking around with a speed gun giving pace numbers and the others were observing, shagging, and giving feedback. There was the run to the net and back penalty for two misses in a row and it was done without anyone having to remind or call anyone out.
Technique Note: As far as I noticed, EVERY player in the gym was working on a jump float. I found this intriguing as normally you’ve got at least a few standing or toying with a top spin jumper. Most of them were using a high elbow, raised arm prior to approach style and it seems to be working for them as it certainly maximizes contact point height and simplifies the movements.
Following the serve work, they moved into serve receive reps with non-passers serving. These reps were similar to the ones before practice, but they were in primarily 3-person serve receive patterns in combinations of players set out by the coaches. Stats were also kept on these reps for comparison later. Both courts were going and there was a competition between the two courts of passers. Again, there was the standard net/end line run for shanks and missed serves.
Culture Note: Another interesting note about the consequence runs was that the players really seemed to embrace the run as a chance to hit the reset button before their next rep.
During the serve receive competition, setters were getting reps and middles rotated from serving to making reads on the setters and performing blocking footwork patterns. I was struck by how no one found an excuse to stand around. Everyone was doing something during a portion of practice that can easily become too routine.
After another short drink break, they worked on timing between hitters and setters. It was just simple hitting lines on one side versus a full block and defense on the other. Down balls were entered to a DS on the hitting line side and from there, hitters basically hit until they felt good about things. It was super relaxed as they simply did some reps to get a feel for timing and tempo vs. a full defense who was getting quality real time block and defense reps. Again, I was impressed at the intentionality of it even though it wasn’t super intense. Just focused athletes getting their work done and polishing up their stuff.
Game Planning: From there, they moved into some scenario work for the weekend matches. Match preparation is a hard thing for opening weekend as no one has a real read on their opponents going in. There’s no video to review and the only predictions you can make are based on who they have returning from the previous season. With that in mind, one of the scenarios they worked on was putting in a triple block option for out of system balls that would obviously go to the outside hitter. They also worked on the thought process of predicting who, for their opponent, might get the ball in crunch time and how they might commit or shade extra blockers that way.
Culture Note: Throughout the day, but especially during this time, I was struck by how collaborative the environment was. Players were engaged in the strategy side of things, asking question, processing the situation, and giving each other feedback. This stands in stark contrast to so many gyms in which players are not engaged enough to think things through for themselves or have been trained to just do what coach says without trying to truly understand it. It would be my prediction that this team has several future coaches on it!
Technique Note: It was during this time that I really watched the blocking techniques and eyes, especially the middles. Their base position had arms much further in front than I have traditionally taught and they seem to mildly reach or lead with arms in the direction they were going to move. The other thing that struck me was that the middles were not looking at their close at all. It was more of a look at the hitter while feeling the close with your pin blocker. They certainly had no issues reaching into hitting lanes rather than focusing on straight up and down or “clean lines”. This really got me thinking about the difference in having a team of long armed blockers that all touch over 10 feet versus a team of 5’10 athletes that are probably blocking in the 9’4 range. How much difference should there be in technique and philosophy? That’s going to keep me up at night…and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer!
Scrimmage Time: After the situational work, the players grabbed a drink and came back for a full speed competitive wash game. It was a pretty simple one with sides staying in the same rotation until 3 big points were scored. A big point was won by getting an ace or by winning the serve rally followed by an odd ball rally. An odd ball is a term I use to describe a way of entering a ball into play off a bounce with the team that receives the odd ball having two touches left. After a team got to 3 big points, the teams were changed, and the game was started again. Play was intense and lively and went for 20-30 minutes.
Culture Note: I commented on how loud the teams were in terms of constant communication, calling for the ball, and celebrating points. Funny enough, Coach Booth thought they were a little less energetic than usual today. If that’s LESS than usual, wow! We also discussed the idea of well defined “A” team vs. “B” team and off players during scrimmages. Some coaches like to evenly mix the teams sometimes, but Creighton clearly prefers to have an “A” side. With the talent level in the gym, the scrimmages are still ultra-competitive as the margin between starters and non-starters in very thin. Often, the non-starters feel freed up to play loose and are competing to get to the “A” side which can be a psychological advantage for the “B” side during practice.
End Notes: Practice ended with a team stretch before heading over to the meditation time that I mentioned earlier. During this stretch time I had a great conversation with Coach about various observations. We talked about how much feedback the players give and take from each other and how that can be a huge blessing but also carries some risks. She also mentioned how much they are paying attention to limiting jump and swing reps to try to keep players healthy. This is a recurring theme that is playing out all over the country as the athletes at this level come in having played year-round for multiple years. Bodies are prone to breaking down after so many reps for so long and now extra care has to be taken to keep them available to perform!
So there it is, nearly 4000 words to describe my two and a half hours in the Creighton University practice gym. After observing, processing and writing it all out, what do I think makes Coach Bernthal Booth great? I think the answer in its most simple form is that the program has truly taken on her personality. It balances fun with a no-nonsense mindset. She truly cares about all aspects of the lives of her players. In just my 2.5 hours in the gym she showed concern for their academic lives, their physical wellbeing, their performance, and their mental health/stress level. She didn’t do this as a checklist, it was just a natural thing of her being real and it comes out in so many ways. The players are engaged in being great for themselves and for each other. Mistakes have consequences but not in a negative or angry manner. The balance they have forged in this program tells me that Creighton is going to be a factor on the national stage for years to come.