Archive for Volleyball Coaching Q&A

What type of defense do you run?

I was asked by a reader what type of defense I use with my team and my thoughts on the subject.

Generally speaking, my starting point is the perimeter defense. This is a structure where the back row defenders play toward the edges of the court. That’s where most of the hard attacked balls go when there’s a decent block. Some also call this a middle-back defense. I start there because it’s something most players have played and understand well.

From there, though, I think about things in two ways.


There are certain player requirements to play a perimeter defense (or any other, for that matter). For example, the defender in 6 needs to be a good reader and able to move well laterally. Not every player is suited to that role. For example, I had an Exeter player who was very aggressive in attacking the ball played in front of her. She did not, however, move laterally well. That mandated she play defense in 5 rather than 6.

You’re also thinking about things like your block and potential back row attack. When I coached at Brown in the libero’s early days, we didn’t do much by way of back row attacking. We generally played our OHs in 5 and our Libero in 6. The idea there was that the OHs were basically specialists in digging cross-court balls. We made a change, though, because our block channeled balls cross-court and we wanted our best digger – our libero – in position to play them.


Sometimes you want to change things up to better defend against certain teams or types of attacks. The rotation defense in which the defender in 1 one covers tips, and the defender in 6 rotates toward the line, can be used to defend against teams that play a lot of shots. We did this at Exeter against weaker teams at times. At Brown we actually used a type of rotation defense against teams that liked to attack line to have a better digger in that position. At Svedala we looked to use a rotation defense when we had our smaller second string setter playing to have more line defense when she was front row.

Of course you have to consider all the implications. Using a rotation defense tends to get your front row OH out of having to play balls way into the court – which makes it hard for them to then attack. At the same time, though, it likely means your setter having to play more first balls.

The bottom line

At the end of the day you want to put your players in the positions they are best suited to play within the context of a general block-defensive philosophy related to what you expect to see from the teams you play. Consider how you view the objective of defense and position your players accordingly.

Philosophy on 2-person serve receive

I had a question come in from a reader recently on the subject of serve receive. Here it is:

Do you have any thoughts, articles, philosophies about 2 person serve receive?  I am coaching a good 16s juniors team and would like to think outside the box some.

I have actually used a 2-man reception with a team myself. It was a boy’s team back in 1998 for a state tournament. I had two clearly strong passers – one an OH and one a RS. It worked out pretty well. We won the gold. 🙂

At that point, though, the serving in the boys’ game wasn’t as tough as it’s become. We didn’t face any jump servers that I can recall. As a result, it was much easier for two players to cover the court than it likely would be today. It would be a challenge to go with only 2 passers in the women’s game because they physically don’t cover as much space as men and the flatter trajectory of the serves already makes them very challenging to pass.

I can still see value in a 2-person reception focus, though. By that I mean having two players take most of the court with one or more others having smaller, defined areas of coverage. You can actually see this sort of thing at work when a team wants to limit how much passing a front row attacker has to do. They push them toward the side line and let the libero and back row attacker take like 80% of the court.

Personally, I think there are always opportunities to put your best passers in position to take the most balls. You need to consider what sort of serves you’ll be facing and look at your rotations. There may be ways you can position non-primary passers to take certain balls. For example, a MB taking short serves in their zone. It’s all about maximizing what you have.

Line-up and substitution strategies for a 12s team

I received the following email from a reader who is struggling with a personnel use strategy for her young team and wants some help.

My husband and I are new coaches to 12u club volleyball team in Missouri. One thing that we struggle with is the substitution rules and rotation strategies. We have been running a 5-1 for ease, but would like to introduce the 6-2. We have 8 players. Do you sub a player for position only? Can libero only go in for any player in the back row only? Do most setters play all around or come out when on the back row?

My immediate response in this case is to suggest that 12s is too early for positional specialization. This is something I talked about in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players (the comment by Rich is very worth reading). There should be no libero, and there shouldn’t be players who are only setters. Instead, every player should be playing in all positions. Plenty of time for specialization later.

With these young players the focus is 100% on development in all facets of play. I know this is the stance of USA Volleyball. Volleyball England has expressed the same view, and I’m sure there are other national federations who agree.

It’s not about winning on the scoreboard. It’s about winning in terms of development. Sally Kus talks in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully about using alternative scoring methods to have the kids focused on playing the game properly, not simply trying to win.

From that perspective, the preferred system is a 6-6 where everyone sets and everyone hits. Substitution strategy is then down to appropriately sharing out playing time.

That’s my view, anyway. I’m happy to hear other opinions.

Recommendations to help improve the serve toss

Improving a team’s serving is something that coaches of especially younger teams are always looking to do. Even when I coached at Exeter, I spent a fair amount of time focused on serving, to good benefit. Invariably, once raw strength is sufficient to get the ball over the net overhand, the biggest factor is serving performance is a consistent toss. The following question from a reader highlights this.

I coach a HS JV team. Each player has the potential to have great serves: they are strong and when the connect properly, their serves are rockets. However, they are inconsistent due to their toss. Their toss will sometime either be too low or to the side which creates a serve into the net or out.

What are your recommendations to help improve a perfect toss?

There are a couple of things I can suggest to help players with their toss.


Record your players serving from either directly behind them or directly in front (behind is probably safer!). This will show quite clearly where players are tossing the ball, which is probably all over the place. Show them an example of a good toss, and then show them where there own tosses are in comparison (see the sandwich idea).

Short Serves

A lot of screwy mechanical things can come into play when players serve full-court because they are thinking about power. Have them serve from mid-court where power is not a concern. That way they can focus on consistent tosses and good ball contact.

When I was at Exeter, nearly every training with the women’s team featured what I called a serving warm-up. It was players serving back and forth in pairs starting just about the 3m line and gradually backing up to the end line. This both served to warm-up their shoulders and to give them time to work on their mechanics. I would do this with any team where developing good serving technique is a priority.

I should note that even coaching professional players as I did at Svedala there are toss-related issues (saw them when working with the TV Bühl guys as well). They aren’t usually as dramatic, and take on a different character, but they can be equally influential.

See also How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

Volleyball hitter coverage strategy

I had a reader email asked whether I had any volleyball hitter coverage diagrams for both the 5-1 and 6-2 offensive systems.

My personal philosophy on hitter coverage is that the three players closest to the attacker should be the ones doing the close coverage. The two players furthest away have deep cover. Normally, for a set to the left front attacker hitting in Position 4, that is going to look like the diagrams below. The one on the left is for when the setter is front row. The one on the right is for when the setter is back row. Really, though, they are both pretty much the same.

Volleyball hitter coverage for pin attack

The above assumes the middle hitter is running a 1st tempo (quick) in front of the setter. Since the middle is already at the net, the setter moves off the net to fill the area between them. The left back then comes in to cover behind the outside hitter (OH). If the middle is running a slower tempo (i.e. a 2 ball), then the setter goes along the net and the middle and setter coverages are reversed. In both cases, the middle back player and the remaining right side player would split the rest of the court between them in deep positions.

The trick comes when the middle runs something behind the setter – especially the slide. In that case, they are likely to be one of the furthest away from the attacker. That means someone else needs to move in to provide close coverage. The right back player is an option, depending on how close they are to the net.

The diagrams below show the ideal coverages for middle and right side attack. In the former case, it’s quite a bit like defense for a middle attack. In the latter case, it looks like a mirror of what is shown above for an attack through Position 4. There’s one catch, though. Because the setter has vacated right back, the middle back player has to get over to provide the third person in close coverage.

Volleyball hitter coverage for middle attack

All of the above is ideal scenario. Realistically, though, unless you’re playing a relatively slow offense (lots of high sets) you probably won’t see exactly these sorts of configurations happening very often. That’s why I said at the beginning the general idea is for the three players closest to the attack – whoever they may be – to find a good position near the hitter and handle the tight cover, leaving the other two for the deeper areas of the court.

The place where this tends to break down most frequently is with whichever attacker ends up in Zone 2. That could be it the right front player or the middle running the side. For whatever reason, they often get lazy about getting into the coverage.

Another tricky situation is on the middle slide. The setter is, as usual, going to turn and follow their set. The right back comes up to cover close behind. That leaves the left front, left back, and middle back players. One of them needs to try to take the short, with the other two staying deep. If there’s a libero on the court, they will likely be the choice. If you run a pipe attack it factors in to things as well, though.

As for back row attacks, generally speaking I like the front row player closest to where the ball will cross the net to be directly under the block. This is especially true at lower levels where the attack power isn’t that great.

Creating a platform for a season plan

I had an interesting question come from a volleyball coach in New Zealand named Leanne. Here are the salient points:

I was looking to help ‘shortcut’ in a way, creating a platform for a season plan.

The reason is I coach across a range of age groups and experience. All Men’s teams – high school start up group (first time volleyballers 12-17yr olds); senior high school (playing minimum of 3 years, competitive athletes, a range of schools, clubs, rep players 15-18yr olds); club men (a range in age of 17-50yr, competitive athletes, choosing volleyball as their preferred sport of choice; national team (U17 Men age group). So my time is always stretched. I do place emphasis on my planning season, breaking this down to segments working towards small and large goals – both player and coaching staff initiated.

I am always seeking ways to help be more proficient and efficient and I think in my season planning area I could improve on with a ‘base’ platform that asks questions to remind me on aspects of hard and soft skills.

Is there anything that you have come across?

I can’t think of any specific coaching tool available which deals with this sort of thing (though I’d love to hear it if you have). Something like Microsoft Project in terms of a project management software package might be of use. They can be handy for plotting out when you want to work on certain things during the season time line. The price tag for those types of packages tend to be high because business types are the target market. I think for practical purposes a spreadsheet should suffice in most cases.

Regardless of the tool being used to lay out the plan, however, there are a couple of important things which need to be in place.


I’ve written before on the importance of knowing your priorities. No season plan is going to be worth anything if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. Leanne is working across a pretty diverse group of players and teams. Each has a different set of priorities to be defined and developed as the foundation of the season plan. For example, the high school start-up group is very likely to be mainly focused on skill development while the other teams probably have a greater focus on competitive performance.

Broad Objectives

Within the context of the defined priorities, then next question is what exactly you’re looking to accomplish, and in what time frame. These should be objective and measurable as much as possible. We aren’t talking about winning and losing here. Yes, that is conveniently easy and precise to measure, but it’s based on outcomes which include a lot of variables outside a coach’s control.

An example of a well-defined objective comes from the US Men’s National Team. It was repeated a number of times during the latter stages of the 2015 World League coverage (see the match videos here) that the team was looking to attack about 35% out of the middle – either quick attacks from the Middle Hitter or Pipe/Bic attacks out of the back row – during match play. This is something clear and measurable.


You can think of milestones as mini objectives. They are the stepping-stone goals you need to achieve along the way which then build into achieving the higher level outcome desired. Consider the 35% middle attack example above. What might the milestones be along the way to that? At the most basic level it would involve developing the ability to run middle quicks and fast back row attacks. It would also involve a certain degree of passing accuracy. Perhaps at the next level comes the ability to execute in both serve reception and transition situations.

Progress and Evaluation

The real value of the milestones is that they give you specific points of reference. They tell you what you should be working on now based on your objectives. They are also the basis for evaluating your progress. Making rapid progress? Maybe you can shift your focus to another priority. Making slow progress? Maybe you need to allocate more time to certain things.

This is a dynamic process. As much as it might be nice to define a specific time frame in which something will happen, allowing you to then move on to the next milestone or objective, it’s rarely that straightforward. Teams and players progress at different rates, so chances are you will find yourself constantly evaluating where you are at relative to where you want to be.

The advantage of having defined objectives and milestones, though, is that no matter where you are you know what you need to be working on. And to Leanne’s point, this applies to both the physical and mental aspects of things.

Actual points of reference

At the end of the day, what I think Leanne is after is something which will provide reminders of key things to focus on relative to the defined objectives and milestones. That’s a tricky one as it strikes me as being potentially quite coach-specific. What I say are the key points of consideration when developing a 35% rate of attack out of the middle may be quite different from what you think, and of course are likely to vary from team to team. I’m going to give the idea of consistent points of focus some thought from my own perspective, though.

Ways to help players put errors behind them

A reader asked this question, “How can a coach help girls with the mental part if the game?” The term “mental” can relate to a lot of different things. That being the case, I asked for specifics. In response, the reader said, “Not being able to let go of a mistake.”

Except at perhaps the upper levels, volleyball is a game of errors. As such, it’s a game which can be very tough to handle emotionally. This is especially true when so often a mistake leads directly to an opponent point. The ability to overcome errors is therefore a major part of any player’s development. There are two ways I approach helping players do that.

Training Environment

If you want your players to accept that mistakes are part of the game and be able to overcome them, then they need to be in a training environment which encourages this in a couple of ways. The first is to make sure it is understood that errors are part of the learning process. As I discussed in my post about the target number of good vs. bad repetitions, it isn’t actually desirable to have a very low error rate. If that’s the case then you’re not pushing enough. You’re not taking enough chances or trying new things. That’s what training is for. You have to be accepting of the fact that errors will be the natural result.

The other aspect of having the right training environment is ensuring the reaction to errors is never negative. No player should be made to feel bad about making a mistake – either from a coach or from a teammate. This is easier to do if everyone has bought into the learning mentality mentioned above.

Focus on “What’s next?”

The other way I approach things in terms of encouraging players to get over mistakes is to force them to be constantly thinking about their next responsibility. I do this by reducing the amount of time a player has to fixate on their last play. That can serve to short-circuit the self-recrimination that would otherwise happen.

This “overspeed” idea can be accomplished by immediately putting in a new ball after the error was made. That could be in the form of something like Second Chance where the player repeats what they just failed at. There is the chance this sort of thing could result in a player going further into the tank as the result of repeated errors. If your overall environment is a good one and you maintain a positive demeanor through it all, though, you may find that players are actually eager to “fix” their mistake in this fashion.

Another form of this is a wash drill or game where you’ve got rallies in clusters such that there may be one or more additional balls to be played in quick succession after the initial rally before there’s a chance for players to think about things. Another option is a game like Scramble where a new ball is fed in at the end of each rally for some set period of time. Either way, the idea is that players are forced to immediately shift focus on the next play.

On an individual basis, drills where players have to execute a sequence of actions can serve a similar role. For example, a drill which requires an outside hitter to passer, attack, block, attack, cover a tip, and attack one final time forces the player always to be thinking about what they have to do next.

Consider what you are saying, and how

On top of all the “game” elements featured in these suggestions is your communication as coach. You should be constantly having your players thinking about what they should be doing next, whether there are errors involved or not. This has the benefit of improving focus on things like hitter coverage which notoriously suffer from a lack of focus. 🙂

Opportunities in Irish volleyball coaching?

I had the following email hit my inbox. It’s not something I have a lot of information about, so I’m posting it here in hopes that maybe some folks out there better informed than myself can offer their suggestions, insights, etc.


I have enjoyed your Job Search Log. While our personal needs and goals are  quite different, I am hoping you have run across things that might help.

As an Irish American on both sides I am curious to know if there are any opportunities to coach in Ireland? I am about to retire from a career at the Boeing Company with a pretty good Pension and Retirement Fund. So while a pure volunteer position wouldn’t work, I don’t require a full time living wage. 

I have coached 3rd through 12th graders at schools, Boys and Girls Clubs and USAV Clubs. I would be interested in coaching teams at any of those levels or working with camps or clinics.

Do you have any ideas about how to start looking?



Teams from universities in Northern Ireland sometimes compete in the U.K. BUCS championships. My first season coaching the Exeter guys saw us play one of them (would have been another my second season, but that one forfeit). That team had a coach, but I don’t know his status. My guess is the Irish universities across the whole island are similar in structure to the ones in England, which probably means not much in the way of resources for things like paid coaching in most cases.

As for other levels, I have zero knowledge. If it’s like England then there are a number of Juniors clubs, though coaching those teams probably pays little, if anything. School volleyball the way Americans think of it probably doesn’t exist at all, though there may be certain competitions.

As I said at the start, though, hopefully someone much better informed than myself can give Jim some proper answers.

Coming up with new topic ideas

What’s one of the big challenges of being a volleyball coaching blogger?

It’s remembering to write about subjects that may not currently be of much specific interest to you. Specifically, topics which others out there are very much interested in learning about and/or discussing. I sometimes have to make a conscious effort.

There are times when I churn out post after post, article after article. That’s usually motivated by one of two things. The first is the challenges I’m actually experiencing as a coach myself at the time. This is really easy stuff to write about. It also tends to be on topics a great many readers can easily relate to because we all tend to have a fairly comment set of issues we deal with regularly. This is something I wrote about in Being reminded of the coaching similarities.

The second thing that helps stimulate lots of blog posts is coaching education. The HP clinic I attended in February 2015 was a fantastic source of motivation and inspiration (and lots of readership!). There are also things like the books I reviewed, and the Volleyball England certification I did.

Of course the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews I do provide all sorts of thoughts and ideas..

Sometimes it’s a bit of a grind to come up with ideas, though. As writers do, once in a while I hit a bit of a dry patch. That’s when I need other sources of ideas and inspiration. Reader questions help a lot in those times, though the nature of things is they tend to come in during the season when ideas are easiest to generate.

Still, from time to time I need to remember what it was like to be a developing coach and bring back subjects that I haven’t thought about personally in a while. If I forget to do that, don’t hesitate to give me a poke. 🙂