As a life-long Michigan fan who grew up a half hour from Ann Arbor, I feel a bit traitorous admitting that a sunny, 78 degree day during the first week of class on the campus of Ohio State was pretty special. Walking around the outside of St. John Arena and stopping to look at the famous horseshoe football stadium, I was giddy to be in this environment – one of the very best in all of college athletics. When my friends on the OSU staff invited me out to hang with the Buckeyes for a couple of days, I was more than a little excited to book my travel to Columbus!
Program Context: I, like many in the coaching community, have known OSU head coach Geoff Carlston for years. After building Concordia University, St. Paul from a winless program into a DII national powerhouse, Carlston quickly repeated that success at Ohio University. His Bobcat teams were regulars in the Top 25, while being the “mid-major” program no one wanted to face! It was a natural fit for him to move to Ohio State when the job opened in 2008 and in his 10 seasons at the helm, he’s guided the Buckeyes to five Sweet Sixteen’s. After an injury riddled 2017, the whole staff is hungry to return the Buckeyes to tourney success.
Season Context: I attended practice on Thursday afternoon just one day prior to OSU’s opening tournament of the season. They played three home matches over the next two days starting with the University of Albany the following night. Finishing up a long preseason and preparing to play three matches in just over 24 hours, the focus of practice was more about “rehearsal” and “vibe” than “get after it”. In speaking with Coach Carlston, he like many head coaches, is very cognizant of the number of jumps and swings his players are performing and is taking extra care in limiting wear and tear in practice.
Set Up: OSU plays and practices in St. John Arena, a historic place on campus that used to house just about every indoor sport. In the past several years, the athletic department has been consistently building new venues for various programs leaving the venerable digs of St. John to the men’s and women’s volleyball programs. While not the most modern facility, it has character and history behind it and updates to all of the support areas make it a fine facility for these programs. That being said, the Buckeyes will move into a brand-new facility in the spring and I can’t wait to see how that comes out!
For today’s practice, they had just the main court set up in close to match fashion with team benches and score/media tables out. With the focus of the session being rehearsal and vibe, doing the full match set up with only one court made a lot of sense even though it limited split out options later in the practice. Tech wise, they had a video set up on a cart and portable sound system playing popular music through most of the practice, but they also have a remote to stop it when they are teaching.
One of the most noticeable things about the set up at OSU is the number of people they have helping out! A full coaching staff including a volunteer assistant, a video/technical coordinator, an ops director, plus training staff as well as a several managers and practice players made for a pretty crowded court. None of it was a distraction though as the small army was very organized and clearly knew their roles. The level of efficiency and options afforded by this level of staffing is quite a luxury and I found myself envious to be honest!
Practice Plan: The plan was drawn up on a large white board for everyone to see. This seems to be more common than not the more gyms I visit. While all the drills are laid out, there are no time frames listed for anything allowing for flexibility if something is taking longer than expected or finishes early.
Practice began with Associate Head Coach Susan Halverson-Maloney running a short video session reviewing notes and rotations for the upcoming Albany match. While the coaches led the discussion, it was not a one-way conversation of coaches just giving a bunch of info to the players. It was interesting to see the level of delegation in that while the head coach clearly knew what was going on, his staff members were fully entrusted to take the lead various aspects of the game. It was also evident that most, if not all, of the players had done some study; they were clearly prepared to ask and answer questions.
After video, the players got up and went through a dynamic warm up run by the athletic training staff. This has been the case at every gym I’ve been in so far…nice to have full staffs of experts in various fields, lol.
Much like I saw at Creighton, on court activities began with a game that mixed fun and competition without being overly intense. It was game that required certain types of touches until the team reached a certain score. For example, all attacks had to be two handed until the team got to 5, then all attacks had to be down balls until they got to 10, etc. The players had fun with it without letting it get too goofy or sloppy and it set the tone for a fun but useful practice.
Following the warm up game, they went into what coach referred to as “rehearsal”. It was such a simple concept but intrigued me to the point that I have been using it in my gym ever since. On the “A” side of the net was a normal line up. On the “B” side was a passer, a setter and pin hitters at the net. A ball was entered to the “B” side passer who passed to the setter. If the pass was good the “A” side identified that and yelled “One” and prepped for the middle quick. The “B” side setter then set one pin or the other and everyone on the “A” side would yell “front” or “back” and preform the blocking footwork and base to read transition. The “B” side pin hitter, who got the set, would not hit but would tip back to the “B” side passer as the “A” side hustled back to base. This flow continued for 20-30 sets and players rotated through the “A” side, rehearsing their responsibilities and reactions over and over.
Cue Note: I liked the term they used for getting back to base to reset things. They refer to it as a “reboot”. The speed and urgency of reboots is in my opinion one of the biggest differences for players in the jump from high school to college.
Technique Note: OSU is pretty much full swing blocking and I was really intrigued by how often the middles would plant their close step to the pins BEHIND the inside foot of the pin blocker. That’s REALLY closed and makes sense in that it does avoid stepping on feet before the jump and keeping in mind that all of their blockers are in the 10-foot range. Sealing up top is a different ball game at that height and length!
Afterwards they did a quick arm warm up of simple slams with a partner in preparation for serve work. The way OSU did their serve work has also stuck with me and is quickly becoming a fixture in my own gym. Like Creighton, they combined both pace and zone work, but OSU added a few things that I really liked on reflection. First off, they set up a line of 5 chairs each in zones one and five. The point was to knock a chair over or keep the ball in play but OVER the chairs. This really reinforced the idea of driving the serves hard and deep, rather than just landing a serve in a zone on the floor. They too used an elastic cord between antennas to form a hitting window. The players served from various areas along the end line for five minutes of running clock, yet it wasn’t hap hazard. A coach would whistle about every 5-8 seconds and players would prep and serve at game speed after a whistle. At first, I thought this to be a bit unnecessary, but the more I watched and now having done it in our gym, I absolutely see how much more intentional the serve reps are when coming after a whistle with a specific pace and zone goal. At the end of the drill, three players were put on the spot for the whole team. At least two out of the three had to hit the zone at pace or there was a consequence. I love the fact that players were volunteering to step up to be one of the three on the spot!
Technique Note: The Buckeyes do not have a uniform serve style in terms of set up and arm swing. While most are driving jump floats, there were some staying on the floor and arm swings were unique to the individual. There was a focus for several on broad jumping into the court which moves body weight through the ball adding power while also shortening the distance to the passers so that the ball gets on them faster.
Cue Note: When the players were working on short serves, the coaches were teaching them to slow the arm not the approach. It made a lot of sense in terms of deception.
After a drink break, players split out by position for some individual skill work. The passers were off the back of the court doing some simple rhythm reps off a coach’s toss. They worked from straight on to side to side and increasing pace with a focus on rhythm and platform holds.
Cue Note: The passers would hold platform after contact then count out loud “Two-Three” clearly reinforcing and even exaggerating the hold.
While one of their hitters worked the setters on some out of system stuff they had discovered on film, the blockers gathered on the end line for more footwork followed by some reps focusing on sealing. The blockers took turns standing up on platforms while coach swung from the floor up into their hands. The focus was on the feel of pressing and reaching into the swing to seal. Most was done single arm;
Cue Note: When blocking, they were really pushing to “go get it” not just put up a wall and hope the ball hits it.
Culture Note: “Attitude” as a blocker was also joked about but highly encouraged, lol!
Next up was more “rehearsal” but this time for serve receive offense. Both sides had a full line up on the court with managers ready to serve from each end line. They went through each serve receive pattern several times as the serving side alternated, and the offense ran the play until the hitters could approach to a catch. I liked having a full offense on both sides taking turns running their patterns as the pace stayed high but also allowed the side that just ran their play to intentionally huddle after each run.
Technique Note: Their setters had great rhythm when they force the balancing “pre-hop” before jump setting.
Cue Note: Coach Spurlock focused his feedback to his slide hitters on “put that left foot in the ground”. I’ve always focused on the right knee drive but focusing on the left foot going down hard really makes you think about the momentum transfer and your right knee kind of naturally goes up when you do that!
Culture Note: It’s noticeable how often they begin reps or scrimmage points with a whistle. Again, the focus on practice being a rehearsal for matches.
I was really intrigued to see that next up was intentional practice time set aside for working on culture and intangibles. Today’s focus was on how you respond after a point. Are you coming to the huddle to celebrate success? Are you coming to the huddle showing accountability and confidence after a failure? After discussion, they played some points and actually worked on their huddles on the court between points. I LOVED seeing this as so many coaches spend so much time talking about it, but we don’t really teach or practice it!
After rehearsing the huddles, it was time to rehearse the defense and block positioning. One side received a down ball and ran their offense. The hitter took a full approach, but rather than swing, they caught it and the defense and block froze and analyzed their positioning. The hitter then threw the ball over to continue the rehearsal. Some good flow work took place during this and the engagement of the players with each other about positioning was impressive.
The last on court activity of the session was a neat scrimmage in which points were awarded for quality culture behavior. After each point the players and all off court observers had the opportunity to point out individual culture positives that they saw during the rally and points were awarded. Things identified included; relentless pursuit, talking early in serve receive, feedback after a set, extra hustle in transition, quality huddle behavior, etc. I was blown away by how much everyone OFF the court really got into identifying great culture stuff and it snowballed into great energy and play!
Culture Note: Coaches put an interesting responsibility on their setters to know their teammates personality types and how best to get them out of a funk.
Practice ended with a team stretch. Some used foam rollers, some used bands, but it was intentional and clearly an everyday part of the recovery process.
Culture Note: Coach Carlston walked around during post practice stretching and gave a fist bump, high five, or pat on the back and had a short conversation with every player. It wasn’t based on their performance, it was just a simple connecting point that I found poignant.
So after watching practice at Ohio State, what do I think makes Coach Carlston great? I think it’s his attention to detail and appreciation for the little things that make a big difference. The idea of “rehearsal” is one that has truly stuck with me and made me rethink practice. His intentionality about teaching, practicing, and rewarding quality culture-based behavior was so awesome to see.
Personal note: I can’t thank the staff enough for their welcome and openness. Coach Spurlock toured me around the offices and answered numerous questions. Coach Carlston gave me tons of inside info and let me sit in on the post practice staff debrief. Coach Halverson was so friendly and open and gave the best restaurant recommendations…This level of access is never expected but so appreciated. I was introduced to the team and even the video coordinator and volunteer assistant spent significant time chatting and making me feel welcome.
I was able to stay the next night for their opening match. Watching them play after getting an inside look at their practice and prep made for a fantastic experience. All in all, I’ll never forget my two days in their gym and it has truly made me a better coach!