Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

Playing the court position game

In football (American) you often see teams play the field position game.

Basically, that means they attempt to put the opposition in a situation where they are close to their own goal line. Teams do this by punting when near the middle of the field because they don’t like the odds of going for it on fourth down. The hope is that this eventually results in a scoring opportunity because of a turnover or getting possession back with a short field.

There are similar strategies in rugby.

There is a parallel to this approach in volleyball. Admittedly, you probably see it more in the women’s game than in the men’s.

I’m talking about intentionally taking the other team out of system. You do this when you don’t have a good opportunity to get a kill yourself. Basically, it increases the odds you get another attack opportunity or that your opponent errs.

How is this done?

It is most easily accomplished by tipping or attacking at the setter. That is the most direct way to get a team out of system.

You can also try to get the opposing defenders on the floor. A tip to an undefended area will often do this. If you can force a front row attacker to play the ball, you decrease their chances of attacking aggressively in transition.

Alternatively, you can attack a part of the court that is hard to defend. A ball to one of the deep corners usually forces a defender to have to chase the ball. That often results in less than perfect digs.

As in the football example, the idea is to keep putting the opponent in a bad position so you increase the odds of winning the rally. It relates to the idea of playing conservatively to win. This is one of the things we need to train our players to be able to recognize and execute.

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, that OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

This is the sort of trade-off Alan talked about with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season in his post. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

Libero in 5 or 6?

A question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another – oftentimes on a regular basis – is whether we will use our libero to play in Zone 5 or Zone 6. That generally is meant to be addressing the case of the libero playing back row for the two middles. It is part, however, of a broader question of how to maximize your back court, both offensively and defensively.

There are three primary considerations involved in answering this question.

Back row attack
Generally speaking, if you want your back row OH to be an attacking option then you probably want to position them in 6. Because that usually (but not always) involves them taking up a deeper position, it means they are better able to get a good approach for their attack. It also provides a bit more attacking flexibility, especially when working in combination with a front row quick attack (e.g. running the bic or back row quick). Having them playing in 5 limits things.

Second ball setter out-of-system
In the situation where the setter has to take the first ball, who takes the second? I wrote about the setter-out setting question previously. If the player in 5 is expected to take the second ball then you have to think about whether a back row attack is desirable in your scheme. If so, then having your OH setting isn’t desirable. There is also the question as to who’s going to set better ball to the front row players, which is more of a personnel question than a system one.

Best digger
The other consideration has to do with how you’re setting up your defense. Will most balls tend to go to 6 or to 5 in your system. Is there a meaningful difference in the digging ability of your OHs vs. your libero? If so, you may want to favor one or the other defending in the zone where more balls go. But keep in mind the question of the purpose of defense.

Different situations, different schemes
When I was coaching the Exeter women in my second year we played a system where we left one MB in and only used the libero on the other with both playing in 6. My reasons were because I had OHs who were strong reacting forward into the court (good for playing in 5), but not strong moving laterally (needed in 6), and we didn’t use them much for attacking back row as the MB and setter or OPP could all take those swings. When I was at Svedala our OHs played in 6 for attacking reasons.

The bottom line is that you need to think about your team and your players and go with what maximizes the effectiveness of the personnel.

Possible paths for volleyball research

The subject of the influence of a coach’s decisions on match outcomes is now a talking point in coaching circles. That wasn’t always the case in the past. For many years the assumption was that coaching interventions (timeouts, subs, etc.) without doubt influence outcomes. This is the coaching mythology. That mythology is being challenged by the research.

Examples of this come from Mark Lebedew. He did a basic study based on the question of whether timeouts in any way influence the likelihood of the server missing their serve. In other words, are servers more likely to miss after a timeout. This is believed by many coaches. It very likely is influenced by confirmation bias, though.

A while back Mark also wrote about some research into whether timeouts impact the next point. That piece was was based on some findings from basketball which suggest they are actually counterproductive. Not content to stop there, Mark followed up with additional posts here, here, here, here, here, and here. The timeout subject was also tackled by a researcher in a presentation at the 2016 AVCA convention.

This research is definitely a good start. That’s all it is for the moment, though. I’d like to go down some other research paths with respect to volleyball. What do you think? What question(s) do you have that can be addressed by analyzing available data?

Thinking on the subject of calling serve zones

volleyball serve

Jason at Court and Classroom wrote a laugh out loud post on calling service zones for our players. It’s worth a read, mainly because so much of it is in the “sad,but true” category.

For example, with respect to calling for a serve to Zone 3:

Area 3: This serve will turn into an absurdly easy lollipop serve to area 6, allowing the opposing team to violently impose their will upon us, and ensure that we don’t call ever call for a short serve again (until the next match).

Comic relief aside, serving strategy is often on my mind. As I wrote in To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets, I’m not generally a zone caller. This is a change. When I coached at Brown I called them all the time. Things are different now.

These days, in a developmental situation, I like to work with players to be more aggressive with their “comfortable” serve. Then we work on expanding their repertoire. I find in competitive situations, players are often more likely to produce successful results with their “best” serves to a non-optimal zone than their weaker serve to a better target.

That said, I understand the value of a coach calling serve zones. It reinforces a stated plan and allows the coach to adapt to what they’re seeing in the match. I just don’t want robot players. I want ones who think for themselves and can create their own solutions.

While at Svedala I didn’t call signals, aside from sometimes giving a player a specific instruction (normally something like “first serve is good”) or a reminder of which passer we’re after. My focus instead was on keeping our serving focus in huddles on the target(s) we pointed out in our scouting – or a target which has turned out to be particularly good for us in that match.

That said, I can see how I might look to signals as target and strategy reinforcement options for some teams.

Too much thinking about the opponent

There was an article a while back about the concept of Big Game Syndrome. It focuses on football, but the idea applies to any sport.

The article describes Big Game Syndrome as a situation where a team or coaching staff feels they must do even more work and be even more uptight than usual when facing a perceived important game or match. The prime example provided was football teams facing the New England Patriots. The view is that they need to do something extra special to outsmart Bill Belichick. The result is decision-making which goes down poor paths.

While coaching in Sweden once, I found myself wondering if I’d succumb to a version of Big Game Syndrome with respect to my team’s matches. We spent the better part of a week talking about that match. In particular, we focused on the other team’s big attacker. The result was that we were probably too focused on the other team and not focused enough on us.

Of course there are times when looking for any possible edge you can find to win is important. To my mind, though, I felt afterwards like I made the mistake of doing that sort of thing at a time when our focus should have been the development of our game.

On the face of it, the fact we went up 2-0 suggests I was wrong. Maybe we spent the right amount of time on scouting and game planning. The fact of the matter is, though, we won those sets despite not playing very well. This was especially in the first set. We didn’t get a kill until our 10th attack. The other team kept us in it by missing a bunch of serves.

The over-thinking element came into play later in the match. We felt the pressure of trying to fend the other team off when we had late leads. It made us hesitant and cautious and led to some poor decisions.

Who takes the second ball on a setter dig?

A volleyball coach posed a decision they are making with respect to where to position their libero. In this case it is considered from the perspective of who takes the second ball if the setter plays the first.

I am toying with the idea of moving the Libero to middle back. This way my outside/ds can hand set the ball to a hitter while in front of the attack line. Has anyone made the switch who would like to report on their level of success with this? My biggest hesitation is the statistical fact that most outside hitters hit the ball cross court most of the time. Therefore, having the Libero in that position (left back) seems to make the most sense. Just weighing which would serve the team better.

If I were speaking to this coach on the subject, I would ask a few of questions.

  1. How many first balls do you expect the setter to take?
  2. How many of those setter digs end up in front of the 3m line?
  3. Are your OHs’ hands much better than your libero’s bump set?
  4. How much difference is there in the digging ability of your libero and your OHs?

Another consideration in here is the defensive strengths of the players involved. By that I mean certain types of players are more oriented toward playing forward. That tends to suit playing defense in 5. Other types of players are better moving laterally. This suits playing in 6 when in a standard perimeter defense system.

And of course there’s the question of offense. Would having the setter taking the second ball negatively impact the team’s ability to score in transition?

Sample volleyball team playing guide

After taking up coaching duties for the Exeter University Volleyball Club in 2012, I realized the need to put together a sort of playing guide. I was dealing with a lot of relatively inexperienced players. I was also working with players from an array of different countries (something like 25 all together). The guide was something to give everyone the basic structure in which we’d be playing. With only a couple of training sessions each week, and not much time between the conclusion of tryouts and the start of competition to get things done, it was a way to speed up the process of developing team play.

The guide goes over a few primary areas of focus:

  • Rotation-by-rotation set up for a 5-1 system.
  • Rotation-by-rotation primary serve reception formation (with notes and observations)
  • Rotation-by-rotation secondary serve reception formation (with notes and additional ideas)
  • Additional points of emphasis for serve reception.
  • Diagrams for base defense and notes
  • Diagrams for perimeter (middle back) defense against for attacks through zones 4, 3, and 2
  • Notes and thoughts on defense implementation
  • Free ball and down ball defense

Overall the guide is 9 pages long. Depending on the your team and players, you might find it useful in helping introducing the 5-1 offense and/or the basic ideas of the perimeter defensive system. I think it’s a pretty comprehensive look at things, but because it was written for a specific situation there may be things which are more or less applicable for you and your own team/program.

If you want a copy, fill out the form below.

Hitter coverage strategy

I had a reader email ask whether I had any diagrams showing hitter coverage for both the 5-1 and 6-2 offensive systems. That led me to realize that I actually didn’t have anything on the subject posted here. Let me now remedy that!

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.


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 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.


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.