Interview with Alex Porter

We have had the pleasure to talk to Alex Porter (Ex GB volleyball player and currently Head Coach of Essex Senior Academy) about pre-season training and its importance for the season ahead.

Alex provides us with ideas and tips about how to plan, execute and repeat a successful pre-season programme...

The Interview...

Q: How long have you been coaching?
A: Started when I was 19

Q: You currently coach University of Essex, how does this compare to your first coaching job at Sheffield?
A: When I started, I was coaching a team that didn’t actually have a programme or structure and we were very results orientated. Whereas the University of Essex is more about developing athletes, so making them able to perform at the highest level. When I started, I was very reactive as a coach and now everything is planned out months, if not years, in advance.

Q: Has your experience as a player changed the approach you take to your coaching?
A: I think because I played at the top, I understand the stresses and the strains that an athlete goes through. I also feel that I understand the mental side and the decision processes that athletes make through my past experience. No one obviously tries to make an error, you have 1/100th of a second to make a decision and sometimes you make the wrong decision. So, now as part of my coaching I talk about the decision process a lot and in my opinion if you get the decision process right then that’s more important than the actual skill execution.

Q: Pre-season, what are the differences from in season training, and why?
A: It takes a long time to re-build your physical fitness as well as your technique. So any time you have a break, it’s very important to get back up to speed quickly. In our programme, when we have an athlete come in, they are there for 36 months, so we have to plan more long term. Our end goal is development and then hopefully the results and victories follow as a by-product of that development and hard-work.

Our pre-season starts at the end of May and we only touch the ball once a week. At the beginning of June we have one court session a week and the athletes are in the gym 3-4 times a week. June to September period is when they will make their maximal physical gains, due to increased recovery time. In season, we need to be careful with managing fatigue due to increased physical demands of matches, so we adapt accordingly to not overload athletes too much.

Q: What do you as a coach do before the pre-season begins? How much planning goes into this?
A: At Easter we already start to plan the summer months, communicate heavily with our S&C guys to work out how much athletes will be jumping in sessions, to make sure that we aren’t overloading them. If there is a lot of jumping that week in pre-season in the gym, then we will stay on the floor a lot, doing more passing or working off boxes to practice hitting technique or defence.  Also at this point we are planning the season, so we know that when we get to September we are able to assess the players to make sure they are in the condition that we want them to be for the season. The key things that we take into consideration are fatigue and athlete availability as this enables me to manage the overload and court sessions accordingly.

Q: What sort of drills do you use to incorporate conditioning into your sessions?
A: Because the athletes are getting stronger, they need to be able to utilise that in training and on the court, so we incorporate a lot of medicine ball throwing into the sessions. Recently we have also been practicing a lot of jump serving. This is a skill that is transferrable to back court hitting and it is easy to incorporate conditioning into this. I don’t give out punishments upon error as such, instead I would set targets in the number of consecutive serves in the person has to get or even the number of ‘A’ serves and ‘B’ serves to go into court before completion. The targets that are usually set are physically demanding so there is no need for punishment to be put in place in order to provide conditioning work.

Q: What is your advice for coaches with a short pre-season?
A: To play matches well you need to practice playing matches, so I would focus more on wash drills at the very beginning of the season to get people up to speed. Focus on keeping the ball alive and focus on your successes more than your errors. Get your systems sorted, who stands where, who does what and when. You will find that players improve very quickly when you get your system in place, so that would be my tips.

Q: In your opinion, what is the best way to make most out of a 2 hour training slot most coaches have?
A: Volleyball is one of those sports where your touch is quite important. You want to touch the ball as much as possible and play as much 6v6. Get as many players involved in the drill as you can and if players are off the court not involved, then they could be doing some kind of physical work that’s going benefit them. It sounds simple but, to get better at match play… practice match play. Have a focus on what you want to achieve and don’t be reactive. Just because you lost a game at the weekend because your passing was bad, doesn’t mean your passing is bad all the time, people have off days.

Q: Where do you get your information and ideas on pre-season training?
A: At the beginning of every year we sit down and go through some goal setting with the athletes that is monitored as the season progresses. This allows me to plan the year in the areas that we want to try to improve. Also, this allows us to sit down at the end of the season and discuss what did work and what didn’t work to change the plans for the season after. So it crucial to gain the info from your players as well as the ideas from online sources!
I mainly find my other information through a number of sources for example, ‘The Art of Coaching’, John Foreman on, Mark Lebedew on ‘At home on the court’ for thought provoking ideas and for slowmo videos to really understand the top players.

Q: Finally, what are your tips for coaches taking on teams through pre-season for the 1st time?
A: 1. Create a system and get people buy into it ASAP 2.Don’t be reactive as a coach
If you’ve got people trying to do the system then the skills will come, if you have people not doing the system then it’s never going to work. You’ll be fighting a losing battle. You need identity as a team (speed, tempo, positioning etc). Stick to your plan because nothing will work if you keep on changing the system, it may not work every week, but it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.