How to Develop the Volleyball Athlete: Focus Changes with Age and Stage

Editors’s note: Please welcome Niel Curley from here to discuss developing the volleyball athlete. He brings a ton of experience coaching and training youth players and some important perspective on the approach which has best served his youth players.

While it can be tempting to identify young athlete’s potential to specialize in certain positions on the volleyball court, I like to focus on developing all-around skills and abilities while developing players that are good teammates and who have a love for the game.

In order to do this, I turn to the stages of child development to understand the mental, physical, and social/emotional development stages my young athletes are going through. Then I build my practices and determine my approach based on their development stage.

What should the focus of player development be with young athletes from age 4 to 7? 

Children in this age range are developing rapidly, especially mentally, and the speed of processing is rapidly increasing along with memory and problem solving.  Most children have basic coordination and are able to hop, stand on one foot, kick and throw a ball at the beginning of this age range. By 6 or 7, their coordination has developed to perform basic athletic movements that require multiple parts of the body.  

Socially they are also developing rapidly by learning to share, take turns, and show empathy toward others.  They are using speech to develop social relationships through basic communication and less egocentric speech.  At times they can have difficulty understanding rules of a game and tend to do better with simple do’s and don’ts imposed by authority. However, this begins to change near the end of this age range.

Young athletes in this age range are playing a sport to have fun, and their burgeoning social skills make being part of a team exciting, and a lot of enjoyment (sometimes anguish) stems from making new friends.  

Player development for the 4-7 year old should focus on:

  • Building friendships through fun games that are very simple.
  • Games, not drills, to develop basic skills in a fun and engaging way.
  • Planting the seeds for a love of the game.

Players should look forward to practice and enjoy building friendships with their teammates. As players mature the focus will slightly alter, but still include large elements of encouraging social interaction, teamwork, and having fun while learning how to play volleyball.

What should the focus of player development be with athletes from age 8 to 12? 

volleyball 1Athletes in this age range have developed basic dexterity, coordination, language, and social skills, and they are eager to practice and refine them through challenges.  Physically, their movements are more graceful and coordinated with good hand-eye coordination. They are building the foundations and habits that will carry through into the adolescent years.  

Because of the activity in higher brain “control” centers, children increase in levels of attention and ability to inhibit impulses. They are more organized by logical thought with the ability to perform multiple classification tasks and order objects in a logical sequence. Thinking becomes less egocentric and they are capable of concrete problem-solving.

These athletes now have the coordination needed to learn how to properly perform movements such as serving, hitting, setting, and passing.  

During these years, player development should focus on:

  • Teaching proper form and technique for sport specific movements.  (Taking the time to form good habits now is so much better than trying to break a bad habit or repair poor technique later.)
  • Continuing to develop a love for the game through fun games that allow players to perform their newly learned techniques.
  • Introducing basic team concepts, as players this age have the mental capacity to understand teamwork and how to be a good teammate.

During the 8-12 years, players will begin to distinguish themselves and develop their unique strengths. Even as these emerge, coaches must continue to develop other skills and abilities and allow players to play multiple positions in order to experience different situations on the court.  

It is important to remember that these players have not completely developed physically, and their strengths may shift as they grow and mature. For instance, an early bloomer who has always been the tallest player on the team may and have only played middle blocker can be at a disadvantage if everyone else catches or surpasses them in height during their adolescent years. For this reason, coaches should focus on developing a player’s all-around game and avoid having them specialize in one or two positions.  

As athletes enter the later stages of this age range they begin to become more competitive and more concerned with results, but the good coach continues to focus on player development, having fun, and introducing basic team concepts.

What should the focus of player development be with adolescent athletes from age 13 to 18?

volleyball 2When athletes reach the teen years their speed and thought-efficiency increases, spatial working memory improves, emotional regulation becomes greater, planning and problem solving skills increase, and scientific reasoning and ability to understand one’s own thinking develops.  Physically, they will experience bone growth resulting in changes in height, muscle growth and strengthening, and continue refining motor skills and coordination.

This maturation lends itself to focusing on these areas of player development:

  • Learning the tactical and strategic side of the game. Players are developing the mental ability to run different rotations and understand how to gain an advantage over their opponent, and they have the physical capability to execute the team’s strategy.  They are also able to read their opponent and identify strengths and weaknesses in both their team and the opposing team.
  • Continuing to develop players’ all-around game, giving opportunities to play in different positions. This can be difficult with this age group as the pressure to win is increased, especially with club teams.  However, giving players opportunities at different positions will benefit the team and the individual players in the long run.  Unexpected injuries, absences from tournaments, and rapid changes in physical development will not derail your team if every player has developed the skills to play multiple positions. 

Only a very small fraction of volleyball players will go on to play volleyball in college and beyond.  According to the most recent NCAA Probability of Competing in College Athletics study only 3.3% of high school boy- and 3.9% of girl-volleyball players will go on to play in college. Once they reach the later years in high school they can begin to specialize, and college volleyball coaches will recruit players they think will best fit into their style of play. However, college teams also experience injuries and unexpected situations that may provide an opportunity for a player who is well-rounded and has the ability to excel in any position.  

If, as youth coaches, we focus on developing players with skill in all aspects of the game and instill in them a drive to compete, they’ll discover the will to do what is needed to help the team.

Niel Curley coaches multiple youth sports ranging from ages six to high school aged athletes and has served as the league director for youth sports leagues. He is currently a member of the team at and provides coaching insights to youth volleyball coaches.

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