Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

Player rotation and substitution limits

A reader asked the following:

If a team wants to use ten players in its regular rotation that means substitutions for three positions. Would this cause a problem bumping into the substitution limit for a set?

I asked for clarification and this is what I received:

What I am thinking about is six hitters, one setter, one libero, two DS’s and one of the hitters setting when she is on the back row. That is ten total players with only one playing all the way around.

We’re talking about a modified 6-2 system here. One of the two setters plays all the way around while the other is replaced by a hitter in the front row. Presumably, the libero replaces the middles in the back row and defensive specialists replace the outside hitters. Of course it could be the other way around. It’s doesn’t really matter, though.

Quick note: This type of approach is not possible under FIVB rules because of the substitution limits (6 total, one in/out per player).

This adds up to a total of 6 substitutions per trip through the rotation. The emailer coaches high school volleyball. His state follows NFHS rules, which allow 12 subs per set (some states use NCAA rules, which currently allow 15). That means he will be out of subs after two times around.

So here is the big question. How many times around do teams go in typical high school matches? If it’s more than two then it’s a problem.

There is one way to stretch things out a little. You can start the back-row-only setter in Position 2. Alternatively, you can start the hitter who plays front row for the back-row-only setter in Position 5 and have the other setter set from the front row for that rotation. This is especially useful when you are in receive to start the set. Either one saves you one sub at the outset.

That only gets you a little further. If you only need an extra couple rotations, though, it could work.

Anyone in this kind of position must look hard at their options. If running out of subs is a real risk, maybe you have to allow one or more of your hitters to go all the way around for part of the set. An option to consider is to rotate the DS’s. One of them plays across the back row the first time, while the second does so the second time.

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

What’s the optimal player-coach ratio?

The following question came in from a reader:

Is there a recommended coach to player ratio? aka: 1:8 or 1:10 or 1:15?

In an ideal world there would be one coach for each player. That way the player gets lots of focused, consistent feedback. The coach also gets to concentrate on just one thing.

Alas, real life is less than idea.

My personal feeling is you want something below 1:6. A lot of club teams have 9-10 players and they have a head and assistant coach. That gets them to a ratio of about 1:5, or just under.

At the college level teams can have up to 4 coaches. That includes a head coach, two paid assistants, and a volunteer. Some also have a few other staffers, but let’s leave it as just coaches for the moment. Four coaches spread out over 20 players is 1:5. Most teams don’t carry that many players, though, so the ratio is lower.

Of course in many places teams don’t have four coaches. They might just have two. Unfortunately, oftentimes those programs also have lots of players. That moves the ratio into the 1:10 range. That isn’t ideal, but they manage it. Not like they have much choice!

Addressing player effort and quality differences

An email came in from a coach working with a group of players. It deals with the question of how to handle a situation where effort and playing caliber don’t match.

I have two young and two older experienced hitters. The older players don’t give their all. They do what they must, but without the involvement. When we have a match, they play very well, with very good effect, and they can win a point under pressure.

The young players don’t understand why they are a reserve players if they play the as well as the older ones in training (a lot of times better). Unfortunately, in matches the young players make more mistakes and don’t have stable form (sometimes they can play amazing volleyball, but sometimes they can do simple mistakes). They were the most important players in the youth club and they don’t understand that in the senior league it is different.

Have you ever had similar problem in your career? What would you do, if you were me?

I’ll summarize the situation this way. We have two experienced players who go through the motions in practice, but are clearly the best come match time. We then have two young players who work very hard in practice, but are not yet consistent performers in matches.

To my mind there is a question of priorities here. The reference at the end about “senior league” makes me think competition is the priority for this particular team. That means putting the best team on the court for each match is what it’s about.

To my mind there are two ways to try to handle this sort of situation.

The younger players

The first thing we have to do is to make sure the younger players who aren’t playing understand the team’s priority – winning. They further need to understand why the more experienced players are the starters – fewer errors, more consistent performance, etc. The younger players may not like the situation, but at least they will understand the logic.

Explaining things is not enough, though. You also need to provide those players with a path toward increased playing time. Where do they need to improve to push the experienced players? What do they need to do to make those improvements? Give them hope and steps they can take to move toward their goal.

The experienced players

It obviously isn’t any fun when some of those best players realize they will start no matter what and don’t bother to give full effort in training. The challenge is to find ways to motivate them to change that behavior. What is it they can target as a reason to push themselves in training?

Ideally, their motivation is simply to make the team the best it possibly can be. If the players are motivated by the collective good, then the coach’s job is to show them how better training by those players will help achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, some players have more selfish motivates. Maybe they want to earn some honors or recognition. Maybe they want a better contract or to move to a bigger club. You have to find out where their motivation is and try to appeal to that.

Short-term/long-term

Linked in with all of this is the time frame you are working in. Are you just concerned with this season? If so, then you are probably going to have keep picking the more experienced players for the starting lineup. If, however, you have the ability to think longer term, maybe you can find some opportunities to bench the experienced players from time to time. That would give the younger players valuable experience and show the experienced ones there are others looking to take their positions.

Those are some thoughts I had on the situation. I’d love to hear what others have done in a similar circumstance, or would do. Leave comment below and share your thoughts and/or experience.

What if you received after winning a rally instead of serving?

In an article on Volleyballmag.com, Russ Rose of Penn State responds to a question about changes he would make to the sport. The very first thing the legendary coach said was he would return to sideout scoring. That’s the old system where you can only score when you serve.

Rose is realistic, though. He doesn’t see a change from the current system happening. Even still, it brings up something to think about.

Under sideout scoring a team was rewarded for winning a rally with an opportunity to score a point on the next rally. Losing a rally meant you had no chance to win the next point because you didn’t serve.

In other words, a team gained an advantage by winning a rally. That’s above and beyond the point they scored if they served to start the rally in the first place.

These days, once you reach a certain level it is no longer an advantage to win a rally. Obviously, I mean aside from the point earned. You gain the serve. That’s actually a liability once sideout rates go above 50%.

I can think of two ways this changes things.

Longer runs of points

The first way is you get more strings of points by teams. Think of it in terms of flipping around the idea of being stuck in a rotation. That’s when you give up points in a row because you can’t pass and execute your offense well enough. Under this variation, though, the runs happen because your serve receive offense is effective.

It’s simple odds. Consider two teams who sideout at a rate of 60%. Under the current system, the odds of the team winning a second rally after winning a first one is only 40% (100% – 60% chance the other team sides out). If, however, winning a rally earns you the right to receive, your odds of winning that second rally go up to 60%.

As a result, you’ll increase the frequency of teams winning multiple points in a row. That means less times when teams just alternate scoring by repeatedly siding out. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Bigger premium on serving

Under the current system, the worst a poor server can do is lose you one point. If they miss their serve or serve so ineffectively that the other team can easily sideout, they just lose that rally. If you flip things around, though, poor serving would be a killer. Instead of earning strings of points when a very good server is back at the line, they would lose points in a row when a poor server is back there.

I’m not sure this would have much impact on serving strategy or aggressiveness. Teams would still try to put the receiving side under as much passing pressure as possible. I think it would more be a question of making sure less effective servers develop better skills.

Anything else?

I’m not sure how much the rest of the game would change, to be honest. I’d be interested to hear what others think would happen, especially in terms of coaching focus. My feeling, though, is that coaches would probably have a similar balance between offensive and defensive work as they do now.

Is a block a hitting error?

A reader asked me the following question about hitting and blocking statistics.

Is a won block counted as a hitting error for the corresponding hitter?

In U.S. volleyball the answer to that question is usually “Yes.” Elsewhere in the world, I think the answer is “No.”

I say that based on my experience as a coach in Sweden, and also from statistics in European leagues. The common practice there is to break out actual hitting errors from blocked balls. This might just be a function of DataVolley reporting, though.

Which is the right way? That is up to the statistics user.

From the perspective of reporting, the trend is to take a positive view. By that I mean they want to report players earning points rather than players giving up points. In that mindset a block is a positive thing for the defensive player. It is a negative for the hitter.

As coaches, however, we must decide which way to count them. It is about which approach provides the best information for us in the context of our own teams. There is definitely value in splitting errors and blocked balls, which standard NCAA box score reporting does not do.

Personally, I like including blocked balls for hitting efficiency [ (kills-errors)/total attempts ]. There is value in more granular reporting, though.

Playing multiple matches a day question

I had an interesting conversation with the assistant men’s soccer coach. He and the guys on that team watched the first of our matches on Saturday before they left for their own. Naturally, that was our weakest performance of the tournament. :-/

He made the observation, though, that the team is different this year. In particular, he talked about how the team bounced back from losing a set. It’s something teams in prior years have not done well. The players have made that sort of resilience a part of their team focus for the year. They want to be the team that looks the same, no matter the score.

Recovering between matches

The question the soccer coach asked me had to do with how players handle playing multiple matches in a day. As he noted, soccer players in the US don’t play more than one match a day after about the age of 12. He was curious what was the biggest challenge for players when playing two matches. Is it the physical? Is it the mental?

I’m curious to hear what you think. Leave a comment below.

For my own part, I think it’s probably more mental than physical. Yes, there is definitely a physical element, especially for players who jump a lot. There’s a ton of mental energy exerted in especially a competitive match. Even as a coach I find myself wanting a nap after an intense match!

To be fair, though, volleyball players are used to multiple matches per day. That’s the deal for Juniors volleyball, after all. College players usually come from clubs that play in 2-3 day tournaments, and pool play rounds feature generally three matches a day. Obviously, those matches aren’t at the same level as a college match, and they are usually only best-of-3 rather than best-of-5. But the players are used to having to “get up” for a match multiple times a day.

High school block and defense

This is the time of year when many coaches are problem-solving with there teams. Here’s one of them via a recent email.

Hi, I coach a varsity high school team. We are not very good at blocking. I am wondering if there are drill to work specific timing, and/or what defense would you suggests for weak blockers?

There are a couple of elements involved here. Let me try to address each.

Not good at blocking

Saying you’re not very good at blocking is a little too broad. That could mean we’re a short team, or it could mean we have technical problems. The request for a drill to work on timing tends to suggest the latter is what this coach is worried about. Since I can’t really help a coach with a short team, I’ll talk training ideas.

Unfortunately, timing isn’t a mechanical issue. You can’t break it down into positioning or movement patterns. It’s basically a decision based on judgement of the hitter’s attack. As such, there isn’t a drill to fix it. Players have to develop timing by blocking against hitters, and any drill or game where that happens will do.

The real issue is feedback, which is where coaching comes in. You have to first make the blocker understand they are not jumping on time, and then work with them on reading the cues to improve that timing. For the former, video is a very good tool. Set up your camera (a tablet will do) and either record them or use one of the video delay apps.

Recognition of block mistiming might be enough to fixed the problem, but if it isn’t you have to train your blockers how to judge the timing. That means knowing the hitter’s hitting power, seeing how far they are off the net, and reading the play to know if the hitter is likely to attack aggressively or use a shot.

Defense behind a poor block

The point of back row defense is to have players where the ball is most likely going. It’s a probability game, plain and simple. Yes, there are read based adjustments, but those are based on starting points and general areas of responsibility. This basic idea does not change based on block quality.

What does change, however, is placement of defenders. The block takes away a certain part of the court – or at least it’s meant to do that. The defense then is positioned around it in the areas attacks are likely to go. If your block is ineffective, though, you need to shift your defenders.

So that leaves us with a question: At your level of play, if there were no block, where would the hitters most likely hit the ball?

Answer that question and you have the answer to how to arrange your defense.

Kill percentage off perfect pass

The following question came in from a reader:

What percent of kills should we expect on a perfect pass? Serve receive or free balls?

The answer to this is reliant very much on level of play. High school girls probably do not score at the same rate as college men, for example. Unfortunately, the mailer didn’t tell me what level they are at.

I honestly don’t have a specific answer in any case. I reached out to Mark Lebedew from At Home on the Court to see what he had to say, and he told me in the men’s PlusLiga in Poland (the top professional division) it’s a 62% kills rate, with a 47% hitting efficiency. This struck me as low, but that just goes to show that personal impressions aren’t always (or even often?) right. 🙂

Mark went on to say the PlusLiga sideout rate off perfect passes is 72%.

My analysis from the 2017 Midwestern State suggested our perfect pass kill rate was below 40%, which was definitely sub-optimal.

I’m curious to hear what folks with good figures say about kill % and sideout rates at their level. If you have any data, please share via a comment below.