An Applied Approach to Using the Force-Velocity Curve in Beach Volleyball
By Ryan MacDonald
June 6, 2018
I came to Volleyball Canada’s Beach National Team in late 2013. At that point, my knowledge about Beach Volleyball – or Volleyball of any kind – was a not-so-stellar Grade 8 career at Prince of Wales Public School and a year of working with one of Canada’s up-and-coming athletes (who has now evolved to become one of the top players in the World). There are pros and cons to working within a sport that you did not grow up deeply involved in, but looking back, I feel coming in as a blank slate – without any pre-conceived biases of how the game should be played and a willingness to listen, observe, and ask questions has been an extremely valuable approach. Part of what makes sport exciting is that it is constantly evolving and I’m excited to be involved within the next evolution of Beach Volleyball as Canadian athletes are becoming evermore present on the podiums around the world.
Beach Volleyball: An Introduction
With any sport, or activity, context matters. So before discussing the “how” and “why” of Beach Volleyball, let’s first get a bit of context with “what” are the physical demands of training and competition. Beach Volleyball has a similar competition schedule to other international “tours” – double digit number of stops criss-crossing the globe between March & October (this year there are over 50 events total – 13 of which are considered major competitions for teams with Olympic aspirations). No athlete will (or can) compete in every event, but most Volleyball Canada athletes will easily exceed 10 competitions between March & September. A single Beach Volleyball match is comprised of a minimum of 2 sets where the winner must score 21 points and win by a minimum of 2 points (a third tiebreaker set will be played if needed). Unlike Indoor Volleyball, there are only 2 athletes on the sand – no coaches and no substitutions, so each player must have high levels of technical, tactical, and physical capacity to excel. From a physical perspective, during a match each athlete must be prepared to:
- compete for over 60 minutes in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius;
- jumping & landing more than 120 times (on average, 55 of which are near-maximal efforts);
- attacking up to 75 times;
- accelerating & decelerating 45 times;
- diving & getting up 40 times;
- performing activities that challenge ATP-CP, glycolytic, & oxidative energy systems.
All of the above are repeated 2–3 times per day, for 3–4 days in a row on their way to winning Gold, depending on specific tournament format (Volleyball Canada, 2018; Joao et al., 2014; Medeiros et al., 2014)
From a Sport Science / Sport Medicine perspective, this presents significant challenges that are not dissimilar to many other team sports:
- Maintain athlete availability to train & compete above 85% (Raysmith & Drew, 2016);
- Develop the speed & power necessary to move quickly;
- Develop the strength to support underlying speed & power qualities (Suchomel et al., 2016);
- Reduce risk of injuries in training and competition (Suchomel et al., 2016; Roe et al., 2017);
- Have a robust energy system profile to facilitate:
- Competing during a single point (8 – 12 seconds)
- Repeated bouts of high-intensity efforts (21 efforts before a structured rest)
- Maintain performance across a single match, a day, a tournament
- Necessary strength, stability & mobility of specific tissues to tolerate repetitive efforts;
- Recover during 3 days between tournament during international travel;
- Manage environmental challenges (e.g., heat, wind, rain, humidity, altitude, pollution, etc.).
As well as a litany of individual-specific medical, mental, and nutritional factors, that I am extremely fortunate to have monitored and addressed by Volleyball Canada’s Beach Integrated Support Team (“IST”).
Force-Velocity Considerations for Beach Volleyball
With the vast array of potential areas that would need to be covered to provide a comprehensive outline of how and why Beach Volleyball athletes’ physical preparation addresses each of the competition demands, this article will focus on how we have approached the Force-Velocity qualities of the sport. As with most Team Sports that involve tracking & reacting to opposing players as well as an external implement (in this case, the ball), expression of physical capacities is influenced by the tactics of timing the execution of a technical skill to gain an advantage. Although no skill or sport exists in a perfect vacuum, independent of external factors, the primary expressions of physical capacity have been laid out within a conceptual force-velocity curve.
Most of the capacities that occur during Beach Volleyball exist during high velocity / low force conditions, with the differentiating factors between the jumps being the inertia preceding the vertical displacement. During a delayed block jump, the blocker will squat and hold at the bottom position until the appropriate time comes to jump in order to perform a block. With this style of jump, the athlete loses all, or a portion, of the elastic energy stored as a function of their delay. A standard block jump is extremely similar to a countermovement jump, where the athlete performs a quick descent and rapidly converts that in to a vertical displacement. An attacking jump involves a quick horizontal acceleration prior to the vertical jump – based on the length / intensity of the approach, the force-velocity characteristics of their jump will vary.
Putting It All Together: Training Beach Volleyball Athletes
With the volume of jumping & explosive movements that athletes perform during practices in a typical training week (our data indicates a given athlete will jump > 150 times during a single practice), the high velocity / low force capacities of the curve receive sufficient stimulus. We confirm this by performing a multi-faceted athlete diagnostic (Dynamic Strength Index + Load-Velocity Profile) throughout the year to evaluate athlete’s progress & adaptations along different areas of the curve. Based on the frequent exposure to low-load, high-velocity conditions, the emphasis of training is placed on other areas of the Force-Velocity curve during the Off-Season & Pre-Season to encourage an upward & rightward shift of each athlete’s profile (indicating they can move a heavier load at the same velocity or the same load at a faster velocity). In order to help increase the amount of feedback athletes receive, we use the bandwidths outlined by Dr. Bryan Mann (https://www.trainwithpush.com/blog/an-intro-to-velocity-based-training) to involve and educate athletes regarding load selection.
By including and educating athletes throughout the process, they develop the awareness and autonomy to self-select their training loads during extended periods of travel where they may not have access to daily supervised training session, or resources to accurately measure velocity. When discussing specific training interventions within our group, it is challenging to boil the specific work done by each of the 28 athletes in the National Program, but our programming largely follows a non-linear or concurrent model of periodization, where many capacities are addressed during a training cycle, however the degree to which different components (for example, absolute strength and speed-strength) are emphasized will vary over the course of the season. Given that Beach Volleyball athletes may only receive notice 21 days prior to competition, I believe this allows for a certain level of competition readiness to be maintained and provides a sufficient window to dial in the preparation pre-competition.
Through most of the Off-Season and into the early portions of our Pre-Season training blocks, the emphasis is placed on increasing the amount of force these athletes can generate. An increased capacity to generate force allows for increases in Rate of Force Development (Aagaard et al., 2002; Suchomel et al., 2016), improved jump kinetics & kinematics, and a reduced risk of injury over the course of the season (Suchomel et al., 2016). As we near our Competitive Season, we shift our focus towards areas of the Force-Velocity Curve and Ranges of Motion that are more like the competition demands that Beach Volleyball athletes experience. Selecting appropriate weightlifting derivatives during these phases has allowed us to continue to address specific areas of the force-velocity curve (Suchomel et al., 2017), while maintaining proficiency and familiarity with weightlifting movements and continuing to emphasize a maximum voluntary effort during every rep of each set.
Using velocity in our daily training environment as I’ve eluded to above, we have been incorporating Velocity-Based Training (VBT) into our training since late 2014. At first, it was purely a monitoring tool at key times through the year, but as we’ve evolved, it has become more and more present within our training structure. The primary role of VBT within our daily training is to allow for prescribed training loads to be adjusted based on daily variations of fitness and fatigue (Jidovtseff et al., 2009; Flannigan & Jovanovic, 2014). This method allows for us to have a progressive warm up for a given exercise as well an indication of an athlete’s strength on this particular day – allowing the prescribed loads to be more precise on a daily basis. Through having this information, we also have a built-in athlete monitoring / feedback loop to identify how an athlete is adapting across the different portions of a load-velocity profile. This information can be communicated to any relevant stakeholders: athletes, coaches, therapists, and other staff as a means of providing more regular feedback on how an athlete is doing. Granted, the limitation is that this method can only be implemented for exercises that have a Minimum Velocity Threshold. In the event of lifts that do not have such a threshold, using bandwidths of velocity based on the work of Bryan Mann allows for athletes to increase, decrease, or maintain their training loads based on where their reps fall within a prescribed bandwidth and feedback of effort during each repetition (Mann et al., 2015). Lastly, by measuring the athlete’s velocity during each repetition, it allows for the autoregulation of training loads to remain within a specific percentage of their first (or best) repetition – modulating the number of reps performed within a given set based on their neuromuscular fatigue (Sanchez-Medina & Gonzalez-Badillo, 2011).
Although VBT provides the opportunity to increase the amount of data collected during the daily training of athletes, the ability to know athletes and use data to complement your interactions as a Coach is where the true value comes to bear. By combining multiple inputs (athlete feedback, coach observations, therapy notes, support team comments) with the information that data provides, it allows for us to paint a clearer picture of how athletes are doing on a given day. Ultimately, incorporating VBT in to the daily training environment for Volleyball Canada’s Beach National Team has provided an additional perspective and unbiased benchmarks for our athletes as they have evolved their level of performance that we are currently seeing on the world stage – and hopefully in Tokyo!
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Turner, Tom. (2017). Velocity based training for maximal strength. www.strengthofscience.com
Ryan MacDonald has been the Physical Preparation Coach for Volleyball Canada’s Beach National Team since 2013, overseeing both the Men’s and Women’s Senior and Next Gen programs. Since joining the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario in 2014, his role has expanded as Integrated Support Team (IST) Lead to coordinate and drive the Sport Science and Sport Medicine network that supports Volleyball Canada’s Beach athletes.
Ryan holds an Honours BA in Kinesiology & Physical Education with his graduate work in Exercise Science and is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.