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Private Lessons


Are they necessary for your child’s development as a volleyball player?


As recent as the first couple of years of this century, very few volleyball players were taking private lessons. Private lessons (“privates”) were considered the territory visited by the privileged few gifted athletes whose talents were already so advanced that the private lesson was viewed by the masses as a way to further the gap between the best athletes and the rest of us.

The sport has changed as well as the paradigm of parents and athletes in regards to private lessons. When my oldest daughter was a senior DS on her varsity team, there was only one or two players who were taking private lessons. Now, it is not unusual for a majority of players on a high school varsity team to take private lessons or at least take a group private lesson[2] consisting of two to three players and one coach.

Over the years, I have had many concerned parents ask me questions concerning the benefits, costs and other issues that surround the realm of private lessons. The two most common questions are addressed in this article.

How early should I start my daughter in private lessons?

How early is too early? I really do not know. However, what I do know is what science is teaching us.

Scientific research has concluded that it takes eight-to-twelve years of training for a talented player/athlete to reach elite levels. This is called the ten-year or 10,000 hour rule, which translates to slightly more than three hours of practice daily for ten years (Ericsson, et al., 1993; Ericsson and Charness, 1994, Bloom, 1985; Salmela et al., 1998). Unfortunately, parents and coaches in many sports still approach training with an attitude best characterized as “peaking by Friday,” where a short-term approach is taken to training and performance with an over-emphasis on immediate results. We now know that a long-term commitment to practice and training is required to produce elite players/athletes in all sports.[3]

The above is a summary of what has been coined the “10,000 Hour of Practice Rule”. This concept has been adopted by many athletic organizations. The Government of Canada, through Athletics Canada, has developed a program called “Long Term Athletic Development” which incorporates the theories of the 10,000 Hour of Practice Rule. In its article (“LTAD”), Athletics Canada stated:

The US Olympic Committee (2001) surveyed US Olympic athletes from 1988 to 1996 and concluded that it took between 10 and 13 years of practice or training just to make the Olympic team and between 13 and 15 years for those athletes who won a medal.[4]

When the child is starting to play competitive sports is the proper time to consider whether or not to start the private lessons. Twelve years ago, it was very common on a middle school volleyball team for only one person to be taking private lessons. Now, it is common for half or all the players to have played on club teams and/or to have taken private lessons. The trend is for girls to start at younger ages. Many girls start playing volleyball between the ages of 10 – 12. The research reflects that athletes who reach the higher level of a sport have started their training at an early age.[5] Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer stated the following in their study, “Consistent with our hypothesis, we find that the higher the level of attained elite performance, the earlier the age of first exposure as well as the age of starting deliberate practice.” [6] As part of their conclusions, Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer stated:

  • The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

  • We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice.

  • Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout.

In their work, the authors also addressed the conduct and communication skills of the Master Coach:

To assure effective learning, subjects ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualized diagnosis of errors, informative feedback, and remedial part training. The instructor has to organize the sequence of appropriate training tasks and monitor improvement to decide when transitions to more complex and challenging tasks are appropriate. Although it is possible to generate curricula and use group instruction, it is generally recognized that individualized supervision by a teacher is superior. Research in education reviewed by Bloom (1984) shows that when students are randomly assigned to instruction by a tutor or to conventional teaching, tutoring yields better performance by two standard deviations—the average tutored student performed at the 98th percentile of students taught with the conventional method.[7]

What should Parents look for in a Volleyball Privates Coach

Two of the main factors to consider when selecting a privates coach for your child are: 1) whether or not the coach uses the concept of deep practice; and 2) the expertise of the coach. I think that both characteristics go hand in hand. Only a “Master Coach” as used by Daniel Coyle, would be aware of the concept of deep practices. Some coaches use it though they may not have heard of the Talent Code or the deep practice concept.

Deep Practice, as used by Daniel Coyle refers to deliberate, focused practice where the player learns from his/her mistakes and is coached by a Master Coach. Repetition for repetition’s sake is not allowed. I see this quite often in the volleyball world. Repeating a wrong movement only reinforces the poor technique. Sometimes, private coaches look at the result and not at the technique. Their theory is that, if the kid can hit to a spot one time, maybe they will do it again sometime. The coach is focusing on the result (whether or not the player and reproduce the same result on a consistent basis) and not on the technique that will allow the player to have a reproducible result – meaning that the result can be replicated whenever the player wants to hit to that spot or to make that set, or block or pass. I find this same issue in underdeveloped countries such as Kenya and many other countries in Africa; but that is a topic for another blog entry.

As I give a private lesson, I have the opportunity to glance at other coaches in the gym and to see what they are doing as they give private lessons. What I see sometimes saddens me. Here are some of the things that I have seen:

  1. Coaches teaching the whole movement of a skill to a 12 – 14 year old player who is a beginner (with younger players who are beginners, it is recommended that coaches teach by progressions and not the whole movement – meaning we breakdown the skill). Or, the opposite, coaches breaking a skill down into small incremental steps for an older player (when science has taught us that coaches should teach the whole movement to more experienced and older players).

  2. Coaches giving high repetitions to a player or allowing a player to have high repetitions of a movement which is wrong and more importantly, may cause injury to the child as the child gets older.

  3. A Coach has told me that he knows when he is giving a good private lesson because the player is showing sweat down the middle of the back of her shirt. I do not know how this is used as a measure of the effectiveness of the private lesson.

When a player performs a skill the wrong way and does so repeatedly, all that is improving is the muscle memory of doing a skill the wrong way. Some coaches look to the moment and not to the big picture. An example of this is when a coach tells a young player to stand sideways to the court before serving the ball. The concept is that the young player can then use a throwing motion and swing their hips to get the ball over the net. Many times, I have had to correct this in players. It is unfortunate because the player and I have to spend many private sessions to breakdown the (myelin [a/k/a muscle memory]) in order to then work on the proper movements for a serve. I recommend that a child learn the proper method from the beginning. It is not a major catastrophe if, at 12 years of age, your daughter cannot serve the ball over the net. It will come with time and proper instruction.

A Skilled Coach. (Daniel Coyle refers to them as Master Coaches). Too many people hold themselves out as coaches who are not qualified to be a privates coach. A privates coach is someone who is patient, understands the proper training techniques, loves the sport and relates to each player on an individual basis and does not teach each player using the same generic methods. The coach should have skilled eyes to be able to breakdown the techniques and form of the player and to have the ability to properly convey to the athlete the finer points of the techniques of each skill. A skilled coach is not necessarily the very best volleyball player that you have ever encountered. Here are some of the myths of what many people believe are the characteristics of a skilled coach:

  1. The Yelling Coach: I have actually heard this from a dad, “She is a great coach because she gets right into their faces and yells at them.” That is exactly what this dad said. The setting was a volleyball match in the great football state of Texas, where football is king and 99.9% of the football players are boys.

  2. The Former Collegiate Volleyball Player Coach. Many of the better coaches roll their eyes at this belief. Why does playing volleyball in college make someone a great coach? If so, why isn’t every NFL, NBA, or MLB coach not already in the Hall of Fame as a player? Yes, a former player is in a position to relate to certain movements that the younger player is learning but that is about it. Many of the best coaches I know have played volleyball but are not former collegiate scholarship players. They may not even be that good but they are most of all humble, and are great communicators, have a passion for teaching, and an eye for detail.

  3. College Coaches are the best Club Coaches and Privates Coaches. This has a little more credibility to it but not always. I work and have worked with many players during the summer who are disappointed in the volleyball knowledge of their college coaches. I know some excellent college coaches who are coaching for all the right reasons and who are considered experts in the sport. However, the fact alone that they are a college coach or were a college coach does not guarantee that they are a good privates coach. Also, many college coaches have only coached at the college level and are not able (or willing) to change their methods to adjust to the younger ages.

The best way to find out who is a good privates coach is to do a little research. Search for their name on the Internet and see what you find. One of the best sources of information are the parents that you see whose children are taking lessons from the coach. Find out where the coach conducts the private lessons and go watch. See how the coach conducts the private lesson. Find out the credentials of the coach, including the certifications that the coach has. In addition, ask the coach for several references. Obviously, he/she will give you references of people who like the coach but maybe someone has some insights that you might pick up on while talking to the parents, that will help you in your decision.


In answer to the subtitle of this article, the best answer is, it depends. If your child is interested in volleyball as a way to remain in the social circles of her friends, then there is no need for private lessons. If your child shows that she has a strong interest in the sport and she likes playing volleyball, then I recommend private lessons and the earlier the better. It is important, that at the early ages, the player learns all the skills and does not focus on just one skill. How does a 14 or 15 year old know exactly what they are capable of when they are still growing? Too many times, a young player will say that he/she is a hitter or a setter or a defensive specialist when they are still in the learning stages of the sport. What we like to see is a player who is very good at all positions and excellent in one.

Over the span of years, parents can spend a lot of money on private lessons. However, it is an investment in the future of their child and can be well worth the money.


[1] Stephen Hutcheson, Hutch Volleyball, LLC, 2012. USAV CAP III, High Performance Coach, IMPACT Clinician.

[2] For purposes of this article, we will focus the discussion on a private lesson that consists of one coach and one player.


Windows of Opportunity, Optimal Trainability By Istvan Balyi, Ph.D., National Coaching Institute British Columbia, Canada and Ann Hamilton, MPE Advanced Training and Performance Ltd. Victoria, B.C., Canada

[4] Athletics Canada, Long Term Athletic Development, Canadian Sport Centres LTAD expert Group, 2011.

[5] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Psychological Review 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406 Copyright 1993 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

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