How to Improve the Vertical Jump and Agility of a High School Volleyball Player: Initial Assessment+Screening

Given that volleyball players make up a striking percentage of our student-athletes, I'm inevitably faced (and rightfully so) with questions from parents and coaches regarding our approach to "assessing" them when they first walk in our doors. They are often surprised - sometimes skeptical or even borderline enraged - that we don't have them perform a vertical jump test, speed-agility test, and/or arm swing test on Day 1.

Furthermore, it appears that, for the most part, we're simply running them through a normal session during their first day, as opposed to putting them on a table for forty-five minutes, breaking out the goniometer, and measuring every single joint ROM.

What gives?

The Assessment

While, to the outside eye, it may look like we're just running the players through a normal strength session, here is what we're actually assessing as we take them through their "Day One" workout.

- Jumping Mechanics (both the technicalities of the movement along with strength+neural control) - Closed-chain Ankle Dorsiflexion - Gross hip stability, including upper gluteus maximus and gluteus medius function - Extensibility of the posterior aspect of the lower extremity, along with hip flexor strength - Valgus collapse (or lack thereof) in the knees when jumping and squatting, and bounding - Thoracic Spine range of motion (specifically, in extension and rotation) - Glenohumeral (shoulder) range of motion - Squat pattern (gives a lot of feedback regarding flexor length, latissimus length, core strength, along with ankle and hip range of motion) - Hip hinge patterning (the foundation for all athletic movement) - Lunge pattern (brings potential asymmetries to light, along with providing us another "angle" for assessing their glute strength/function) - Global movements and strength levels (gives us a much more *realistic* picture of how they'll move in a game-like scenario)

Will we do more "table assessments" as needed, too? Yes. But as you can see, there's a deep well of information one can draw up, simply from analyzing the athlete in the context of movement, and I didn't even list everything we look at!

This is a win-win for both the athlete and the coach. The athlete gets to have fun moving around on their first day (rather than spending the majority of their time on a table), while we as coaches are able to assess the athlete at the same time.

One final note on this front: every session is an assessment. I constantly find myself discussing our clients and their programs with my fellow coaches at SAPT, fine-tuning and tweaking what we do with them. This makes sense as the human body can be very amoeba-like; what was true on Day 1 may not be true on Day 30.

The Vertical Jump and Speed-Agility Test

Regarding these two sacred cows, here are the reasons we don't test them on Day 1 with the majority of our high school volleyball players.

1) We don't feel they are appropriate tests for initial assessment.

To put it simply, 99.99% of people who enter our facility can not jump or change direction correctly. As such, we do not feel it is an accurate -  or, more importantly, safe - action to take with them on their first day. Nearly all of them possess the motor control of a ham sandwich, as they allow their ankles, knees, and hips to collapse like crazy upon jumping, bounding, and/or changing directions. Naturally, this will:

A) Negatively affect their jump height/running mechanics, and, more importantly B) Place their lower extremity (knees and passive restraints) at risk. To have them perform a maximal jump, multiple times in a row, or an agility test for that matter, is downright foolish in our eyes. While many of the girls that walk through our doors are certainly great athletes and possess many strong qualities, very few of them are unable to leap, bound, and change direction without their ankles and knees collapsing in.

This being the case, we find it irresponsible, on our end, to force them into change-of-direction tests or standing vertical tests. While we certainly can't "bulletproof" our training sessions to make them completely 100% incident free, we do our absolute best to make it at least as close to this as possible. We haven't had any athletes seriously hurt themselves under our watch, or have them undergo a non-contact injury to date (knock on wood!), and we'd like to keep this track record going.

The safety of the athletes under our watch is, without question, our top priority when we design and implement our training sessions. While we do understand that these girls may be asked, on numerous occasions, by their club/high school coaches to perform agility drills and various vertical tests, we don't wish to play ANY role in putting their health at risk until they're taught (with our aid) how to perform these drills safely. It may not be common to take (what some would call) a "conservative" approach like this, but then again the injury rates of adolescent and high school athletes have never been higher....so we're doing our best to lower that statistic.

We take a very progressive and methodical approach to teaching sound jumping mechanics; all the way from showing them how to swing their arms/move their hips to strengthening them via resistance training. Once the girls make headway in these areas (the time frame is different for each individual), then we can administer these tests.

2) To help our athletes mentally.

Given that the Vertec tends to be the "bane of existence" for volleyball athletes, we don't want to throw them under the thing on Day 1 at SAPT. Our aim is that it will help promote a more positive environment for them, and a haven if you will, from the usual demands of volleyball.

Does this mean we don't push them, and refuse to help them strive to perform better? Absolutely not. However, we've found that having them learn to conquer challenging drills other than the ones they typically perform outside the SAPT walls, gives them a break mentally, and, ultimately, improves their performance on the court.

We will certainly have them test their vertical as they get further along in training (and after we've helped them with sound+safe jumping mechanics), but it's not something we'd like them to experience the first day they are in with us. We've found it crazy how the simple removal of the Vertec, yet still having them jump and leap appropriately, makes a HUGE difference with the experience they personally receive from SAPT - and ultimately, their skills on the court improving.

3) Performing an closed-loop (predictable) test is an extremely inaccurate indicator of how the athlete will perform during their actual event (an unpredictable, "open-loop" environment).

Our end and ultimate goal is to improve their performance on the Volleyball court. Not to obsess over a particular test. Sometimes I feel we forget to keep the goal, well....the goal.

For example, currently, in High School Football, there is a player who is ranked Top 10 on the East Coast for the high school football combine testing battery (obviously a HUGE accomplishment). However, you know what's surprising? He doesn't even start for his own team! He can slam dunk the tests and knock thousands of other players out of the park when it comes to the combine tests, yet his on-the-field performance is lacking.

The sad truth is that many people place superfluous emphasis on the testing protocols, yet often fail to acknowledge the "intangible" skills the athlete possesses (spatial awareness, court/field awareness, adaptability, quick decision making, etc.) that, in the end are what will help an athlete make a college (or high school, or professional) team and actually get to play during the games.

4) Their "strength numbers" (quantifiable), along with their biomechanics/motor control (less hard to quantify in numbers/metrics) are the primary scale we use to monitor improvement.

Why? Rather than reinvent the wheel, here's a quote from strength coach Tony Gentilcore that I hope will elucidate this concept:

Maximal strength is the foundation for every other quality imaginable.

In terms of any plyometric and/or jump training – it comes down to strength.  Simply put: you can’t have things like agility, power, endurance, strength endurance, and the like without first having a base of strength to pull those other qualities from.  Strength is the basis of everything.  Without it, you can perform all the ladder drills, sprinting drills, jumping drills, and agility training you want, but it’s not really going to mount to much until there is a strength foundation.

It would be akin to giving your 1994 Honda Civic (as an example) a sweet paint job, some spoilers, Mag tires, and a sound system that causes your ears to bleed in the hopes that, by doing so, it will win the Daytona 500.   Unless you actually do something about increasing the horsepower of the car, you can add all the bells and whistles you want, but winning that Daytona 500 won't happen until the horsepower/engine of the car is improved.

And this is especially true with the high school athlete population.

'Nuff said there.

Arm Speed Tests

I'll be blunt: this is something that we don't measure, and it would pretty idiotic to do so.

Coach Sarah is also the strength coach for the Division I women's volleyball teams over at George Mason, and she doesn't even have them do an arm swing speed test. Frankly, it would be insanely dangerous to the shoulder joint (to put it mildly) to have them perform a maximal swing like that, without having anything (ex. a ball) to slow their arm down. The girls swing speed will improve as they strengthen the structural integrity of the shoulder girdle, maintain mobility in that region, and continue to practice sport-specific skill.

And that's a wrap.