Avoiding Aching Bones and Developing Court IQ
- Rachel Sovka
Each training year is divided into three sections for Erin Smith and her Saint Mary’s volleyball team:
Core gains: The toughest training happens in the summer, to build muscle and strength during the pre-season. It usually involves heavy lifting training sessions with the team trainers.
In-season maintenance /smaller gains: Before the season begins and practices start up, team captains lead a few practices before coaches are allowed to train the team for the official season. After that, it’s all-in for the rest of the season. The girls manage plenty of team and personal training with practices and games throughout the year.
Injury prevention: Nearing the season’s end, the team works with athletic therapists who educate players on safe body maintenance and rehab.
Erin says a lot of progress is made during the off-season when teams goes hard in training.
It’s often more realistic for student athletes to focus on training and big gain improvements before classes and commitments begin.
During that time, Erin’s favourite workout is always leg day. As a self-described quad dominant person, she says she loves to crush back squats, front squats, box jumps, broad jumps, and deadlifts; anything in the lower body gives her a rush.
“There was a phase earlier in the year where we did back squats paired with box jumps, single-leg deadlifts and single-leg box jumps together,” Erin says, “those were my favourite supersets and I would leave the workout feeling great. I could see the progression as the weeks went on and it was amazing. It didn’t feel like a chore to go to the gym.”
Because volleyball is very lower body dominant, a lot of the team’s training involves jumping, lateral movement, and speed. Different phases focus on making gains in strength and explosiveness, while others are for strengthening and keeping the athletes in one piece.
“What I’ve learned in school is that everybody is different, even within the team,” Erin explains, “training for each position is different. For me, as a middle blocker, it’s a lot of lateral speed work and explosive jumps, but for other positions it’s other things.”
Upper body, for example, is tougher for Erin, who has dislocated her shoulders many times. Her challenge is to work on pull-ups and push-ups, and be patient with herself in the process.
“Sometimes you can feel the difference pretty quick, but most of the time it takes time. Some teammates are thinking ‘I just did a leg day, why can’t I now jump 5 inches higher?’”, Erin laughs, “it is a rewarding process and pays off eventually when it finally comes together, but it’s never immediate.”
Erin has been working at this for a long time, she’s in her fourth year at SMU and notes that training starts to look different over time.
“I can feel the wear and tear of four years of playing university sport beginning to make itself known. Waking up in the morning and sounding like a box of Rice Krispies isn’t uncommon now,” Erin says, but as much as she occasionally complains about sore muscles, sprains and strained tendons, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.
Staying in the league for so long has also helped Erin realize that talent only carries you so far.
“As I’ve gotten older, the same tricks that worked for me in the previous season are no longer as effective”
“It’s an exercise in dedication and practice to learn new angles to use during a game, and I find myself struggling to break old habits to adopt new ones.”
“You know they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in your fourth year, you have to work to become a more unpredictable player,” Erin says, “the opposing team knows what to expect so I have to think about ways to score points in a different way.”
It’s usually the same six teams that face off against each other all season, so they’re familiar with what they see across the net. Especially now with the use of an app called Vidswap to analyzes game videos. You can filter certain players or types of points scored to develop court awareness, or what Erin calls “volleyball IQ”, increasing accountability and preparedness.
But even in a perfect game of volleyball, mistakes are still made, and players have to learn to play to their strengths. That’s why the more time you can put into training, and the more touches you can get on a volleyball, the better.
With that in mind, this is what Erin’s typical training schedule looks like:
Monday – off day or workout day with our trainer, based on our game schedule
Tuesday – workout with trainer or practice
Wednesday – workout and practice
Thursday – workout and practice
Friday – game or practice
Saturday – game or practice
Sunday – game or off day
Erin says training often depends on the game schedule; if there are multiple games in a shorter timeframe, they spend less time in the weight room. But on lighter weekends they do two or three workouts plus cardio. Remember, that’s all in addition to sessions with the team trainer and any cross training they do on their own time.
Weight programs are divided into phases depending on season progress. Some days are weight-intensive, while others are more to do with bodyweight-based exercises.
Since volleyball games are comprised of periods of maximum output, athletes rely on endurance to get through long rallies and cardio to maintain muscular explosiveness.
Erin says that although physical fitness is essential, most of the struggle lies in mental execution.
“As much as our sport is physically demanding, it is also highly mentally taxing and requires a great deal of ‘sport IQ’ to succeed,”
“I overthink many aspects of my training as well as my game play,” she explains further, “I second-guess myself and am often disappointed when I don’t meet whatever goals I’ve set.”
She adds that there are times when all the hours spent training her body and mind come together for an amazing game. That’s when she’s most able to see long term improvements.
“I find myself capable of doing more, both in the gym and on the court. I find my mental strength improving as well, giving me a confidence in my abilities and knowledge of my limitations.”
Every year, the team does physical testing to measure progress. In it, a vertical component is divided into spike / attack touch and block touch, both of which are recorded and evaluated relative to height and standing reach. There’s also a push-up test for upper body strength and a lateral drill to evaluate speed and agility.
All of this is administered by a head coach, position-specific coaches, athletic therapists, trainers (often kinesiology students), and a team trainer.
Each person fills a different role; coaches share responsibilities like tweaking athlete form or execution during practice. Athletic therapists work with athletes and oversee student trainers, liaising with the team trainer and coaching staff. Even during games, they all have different things to say, but most of the direction in practice and game play comes from the head coach.
With so many people working together to ensure the team is at its best, Erin knows she’s in good hands. But insists that through all the different training, the only one who can really do the work is you.