Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

Thoughts on second contact when setter-out

A reader sent in a question about who should take the second ball when the setter makes first contact (setter-out).

I have a question about emergency setting. Up until this year, I’ve always used my right side player (in a 5-1) to take second ball whenever my setter (in right back) takes first ball. It has worked well enough since I’ve been lucky enough to have right sides with decent hands. The major downside, as far as I can tell, is that you take one potential hitter out of the equation, and the passing angle from RB to RF can be awkward at times. That said, it’s always worked well enough for me.

But now the trend seems to be to have the libero take second ball and to set to one of the pins, usually to the left. That also raises the question (for me anyway) as to whether it is more efficient to have the libero set out left back or middle back (not to mention worth worrying about the “finger action” rules that restrict the libero…)

It seems to me that a libero coming out of left back (especially in perimeter or even “middle middle” defense) is going to have a more favorable angle for a set to the right side pin, if the setter is passing high to the middle. It also seems like s/he will have an easier time getting to second ball.

But what if it is overall more sound defensively to have your libero in middle back? In that case, is it even worth having your libero as your emergency setter? Wouldn’t it be harder to get to second ball from middle back (or even middle middle)? Wouldn’t the angles be a little more awkward for setting to the pins?

Does anyone use their outside hitters (in left back) to take second ball? (It seems to me that that would mean you would have to train both of them which wouldn’t be as efficient as training just one person)

Just wondering what people do. And whether or not there is a consensus on what works best, with respect to emergency setting.

I previously addressed this topic from a different perspective. In that case a reader asked about moving the libero from left back to middle back. As such, I’ll leave out that element in my response here.

It is now definitely the preferred approach by most coaches to use the libero, playing in left back, to take the second ball in these situations. You see it at the national team level on down. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best solution for your particular team, though. Let me address it form a couple different angles.

Front row player

As the emailer suggests, one option for taking the second ball is the right front player. Usually, this is the Opposite. This was the favored approach for many years. I used it to good effect coaching the Exeter University women as my OPP had excellent hands and we didn’t run a fast offense.

The biggest question for me using the OPP is the middle attack. Can they actually set it? If not, then it really narrows the offensive options down considerably. For a lot of teams it means the ball can only be set to the Outside Hitter. Maybe you have a back row option as well. You don’t have a quick attack option, however, nor do you have a right side hitter, making the block’s job much easier.

If the OPP can set the middle, then it opens things up considerably. That only holds, though, if the ball is dug close enough to the net. If not, you’re in the same situation as if the OPP couldn’t set the middle attack. This is a real issue when teams are often coached to dig the ball to the 3m line.

An alternative to the OPP taking the second ball is the Middle Blocker doing so. This is actually the cornerstone of the standard 4-2 offensive system where the setter plays middle front. If you have an MB with good hands who can set both front and back, it can work. Since they can set both pins, the opposing blockers can’t stack up on just one.

The challenge for the MB, though, is that they usually are coming down from a block. They are programmed to get ready to attack, so setting is an adjustment. And if the dig is well off the net there just might not be time for them to get to it.

Back row player

As the reader notes, the player in middle back probably has the furthest to go to take a second ball. Also, their direction of approach can make the angles difficult, unless they have really good footwork.

That basically leaves left back as probably the best choice back row player to take the second ball in a setter-out situation. Whether that is the libero (or MB) or the OH is it’s own consideration.

Obviously, the libero has limitations when it comes to using their hands. That may not be as big a deal as you might think, though. First, if the OH isn’t a confident setter, they’ll probably bump set the ball anyway, just as the libero would. Second, libero’s can develop pretty good jump sets for use on balls just beyond the 3m line – in some cases, even quick sets. Finally, so many digs end up at the 3m line that situations where you really want a hand set (e.g. to set quick) are probably going to be limited.

All things considered

When you consider all the factors, you’ll see why so many teams have the left back person – mostly the libero – take the second ball. If the dig is close to the net, it might make more sense for a front row player to set the ball. If it’s not, though, then using the back row player allows for a larger number of attacking options.

So it really comes down to where your setter digs the ball.

One final thought

The emailer uses the term “emergency” to describe these situations where the setter takes the first ball. I don’t think that term applies, though. In the modern game, teams are out-of-system a large percentage of the time. That makes it a quite normal situation which should be trained in line with how often it happens.

The other thing I would add is that the situation where the setter has to play the first ball is not the only time a team is out-of-system. Sometimes the first contact is poor and the setter can’t get there. Or someone else is in a better position to put up a good set. For that reason, every player on the court should be able to step in and put up a hittable ball.

To block, or not to block

Hai-Binh Ly at thevolleyballanalyst asks the question, Is it Worth Blocking in Non-Elite Volleyball? In it he questions whether or not it’s even worth have players go up to block when they could pull back and play defense. In particular, he’s talking about smaller players effectively incapable of putting up a good block.

I’ve written previously on the question of how important is blocking? Once you reach a high enough level of attacker power and ability to hit the ball down into the court, blocking becomes important. If you can’t at least slow the attack down, or limit the space into which they can attack, you’re in trouble. Having an extra defender may not actually help all that much.

In this particular article a couple of ideas come up. I think they are worth addressing.

Blocking metrics

As his moniker suggests, Hai-Binh Ly (HBL) is analytically inclined. So naturally he developed a metric to attempt to capture individual blocker effectiveness. I have a couple problems with it, though.

First, HBL doesn’t include block touches which lead to dug balls on the defending side of the net. To my mind this is a major issue, as it speaks to preventing the opposing hitter from attacking the ball unopposed into our court. As noted above, that’s part of the purpose of blocking. It’s not just about blocking for points.

Second, HBL doesn’t use total player block attempts. Instead he uses block touches (except as just mentioned) to work out an efficiency. I think this leaves considerable information out, especially with regards to diagnostics.

Also, looking at blocking errors as the only negative blocking outcomes fails to capture the reality that poor blocking technique, timing, etc. often is the reason for an attacker being able to score off the block out of bounds (block out). That also speaks to diagnostics.

Why?

Using his blocking efficiency measure, HBL looks at the players on his team. He then makes a judgement as to which ones are worth having block and which aren’t. Putting aside my issues with the metric, I think we cannot just leave it as a simple block/don’t block judgement for each player.

One of the main purposes of statistics is to see what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. They help us develop our training priorities. HBL’s numbers bring a couple of questions immediately to mind.

1) Have the smaller players been trained to soft block effectively?. That means intentionally trying to deflect the attack upward and into their own court so it can be dug. Unfortunately, even if they are, this would not be captured in the blocking efficiency metric.

2) Are some blockers’ efficiencies low due to poor timing and/or poor location? In my experience, less experienced female players especially are often late on their blocks. Both genders have problems setting their blocks in the right location. As a result, the low efficiency levels may not be about lack of size and or jump. If so, we can improve them.

Maybe, maybe not

I should note I’m not against HBL’s thinking that in some cases it might be best not to block. When I coached at Brown one match we ran out of subs and a defensive specialist ended up in the front row on the right side. Needless to say, she did not block. Instead,  she pulled back and played the tip. Conveniently, that’s exactly what the opposing hitter did! So sometimes that’s exactly the best approach.

My point in all this is that I would first be sure we’re measuring things appropriately and that the players are doing a good job trying to execute useful blocks before completely abandoning it. Even smaller blockers can prevent hitters from just teeing off on the ball. As such they at least take some pressure off the defense. As such, I might try to look at broader metrics like Kill % or Hitting Efficiency with and without the block before making a final judgement.

Should you start with your strongest servers?

volleyball serve

You’re getting ready to write your starting line-up on the slip for submission to the scorekeepers. You have a decision to make. Do you set the rotation to start with your strongest server(s)? Or instead, do you have a different priority?

For me the answer is, “It depends.”

Level of play is a big part of the consideration here. If you are coaching a younger team, or at a lower experience level, where lots of points get scored directly from serve, then it definitely makes sense to lead with your best server(s). Think about a 12-and-under team. One strong server can run off bunches of aces, right?

At higher levels, though, you may want to go in a different direction. There are still strong servers, but it tends to be less about aces and more about putting the other team out-of-system. In that case, we’re talking more about scoring in transition. As a result, there might be some other considerations to think about.

Thinking about match-ups might be part of that equation. Or perhaps you’re running a 6-2 system and want to delay the first sub as long as possible. As a result, you start your setter in Position 1. Similarly, you might want to keep a small blocker out of the front row as much as possible, so you start them in Position 1. Or flipping that around, have your dominant attacker in the front row as much as possible. That probably means you want to start them in Position 4.

As you move up the experience and skill levels, line-up decisions tend to become more multidimensional, and nuanced. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is trying to be in your best scoring rotation(s) as much as possible. That means starting there – or at least close to there.

A college coach’s recruiting conundrum

Here’s an interesting situation presented by a college coach.

I’m in year one of a three year old program at a small Christian NAIA school. I’ve been told it’s my program as long as I get my roster number and run it clean and have good kids who are graduating and making strides in the community.

There’s a current group of juniors who have endured a couple of really bad seasons (this season should be our best in program history). As I’m reviewing my recruiting and commitments to the team next year, some player will lose significant playing time to newcomers. My question: do you recruit to replace your current players, add depth, get warm bodies, etc? I love for depth and people to compete for their time at this level but don’t want to make this first large class of seniors last year a bench warming experience. Thoughts?

This is from a Facebook group and got some interesting responses. One of them was, “Your job is to recruit better players than the ones you currently have. Full stop.”

I have a couple problems with that statement, but I’ll focus on the one related to priorities.

First, the priority

Review what the posting coach said the priorities are for their program. Make the roster number (some minimum squad size). Run a clean program. Have good student-athletes who graduate on time and are active in the community. I didn’t see anything about winning, or even being competitive, in there. Did you?

By the way, this type of attitude from the administration is not uncommon at the college level. There are many schools where competitiveness is not a priority. Some blame that on volleyball being a second tier (or lower) sport, which is certainly often true. There are colleges, however, that simply see athletics as part of the student experience – across all sports. Winning for them is just not that important.

It’s all fine and good to want to win. If, however, your boss doesn’t care about wins and losses, you have other priorities to consider. If you think you want to move on some day, you may think the winning and losing will matter to future employers. That’s probably true, but who is going to be on top of your list of references for future jobs. Your current boss (Athletic Director), right? If you don’t do the job they want, do you think they’ll give you a good reference? That’s assuming you don’t simply get fired.

So, for this coach the first recruiting priority is bringing enough players in to make the number. They need to be good students, as well as good citizens.

Of course, I’m not saying you can’t recruit good players and fulfill the above criteria. It’s just that when it comes to favoring one side or the other, the bias has to be toward the above.

Team chemistry

While it’s not specifically on the priority list outlined, you know at least a reasonably positive team chemistry is desirable. No Athletic Director wants to hear about disharmony in a team, especially if it means players (and perhaps parents) calling them to complain. Having a bunch of upperclassmen riding the pine is a quick way to having serious chemistry issues.

That is unless those seniors buy in.

Some times you get players who have suffered so long with the losing and poor performance they just want to be part of something good. They might be willing to sacrifice their own playing time for better overall team performance.

Of course sometimes they say that, then don’t actually live up to it.

So the question is whether you think you can keep those players “recruited over” reasonably happy. They won’t get the playing time, but are there other ways they can still have a role in the team that’s meaningful to them?

One way to go

If you think lack of playing time for upperclassmen is going to cause problems, maybe the best approach is to gradually trickle in higher quality athletes. Instead of bringing in five new players who could start, maybe you bring in 1-2 this year and then build things up over time. That also lets you build toward the type of team culture you want.

The bottom line is it isn’t always good to just go out and recruit the best players you can find.

Setting up your starting rotation: 5-1

How should I set my line-up?

I’ve addressed this in broad strokes in the Putting together a starting line-up post. Here, though, I want to drill down. I’m going to look specifically at how you place the players on the court by position.

Here’s the most common way teams line-up when playing a 5-1 system.

Let me explain the abbreviations.

S = Setter
M1 = Stronger Middle
M2 = Weaker Middle
O1 = Stronger Outside Hitter
O2 = Weaker Outside Hitter
OPP = Opposite

So, if someone (like me) talks about their O2 or M1, you know they are referring to positions relative to the setter. The 1’s are next to the setter.

Note: The fact that the setter in the diagram is in Position 1 isn’t meant to suggest that’s the best place to start them. There are a number of factors which figure in to whether you start there or in a different rotation.

Balance

The basic idea with the ordering of the player positions this way is balance. That’s how the above diagram came to be. The better middle is next to the setter and the weaker outside. Likewise, the stronger outside is also next to the setter as well as the weaker middle. Further, when the O2 and M2 are both in the front row, the opposite is also in the front row, providing three attackers, rather than just two.

Now, how you judge your stronger/weaker middles and outside hitters can vary. The initial thought may be balancing things offensively, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For example, if your setter is not a good blocker, you may put your better blocking middle at M1 to create more balance from that perspective.If your middles have similar attacking abilities, then looking at their blocking can be very useful.

Serve reception is another way you may try to balance things. I once saw a coaching friend of mine put his strongest outside hitter at O2 rather than O1. When I asked him why he told me it was about passing. In his system the O1 passed in the middle of the formation more often than the O2, but his stronger attacker was not his strongest passer. Moving him to O2 reduced his exposure in serve receive, helping to balance things out in that way.

Middle leads, or outside leads?

You will notice in the formation above that the M1 leads the setter in the rotation. We refer to this as a “middle leads” arrangement. Though it’s not as frequently seen, some teams do use an “outside leads” set-up.

Why is the middle leads system generally favored?

It comes down to serve receive. The system where the outside leads can create some awkward reception formations, and fewer options. The middle leads approach tends to offer more flexibility.

The above, though, assumes you’re mainly using your outsides and libero to pass. Most teams do this, of course, but you may find yourself in a situation where you can pull someone else in to pass. Maybe your opposite is a good passer, or even one of your middles. In that case, you may find it better to use an outside leads approach.

I definitely recommend that you take some time to write out each of your rotations. Map out a primary reception pattern and also look at alternatives. If nothing else, it’s good to know what your options could be if you need to change things up. Make sure you know how the overlap rules work and how they can actually be used.

Too many setters! What do I do?

A high school coach emailed me with a roster issue.

My question is how to handle a situation where I have three setters who all played on varsity last year returning. To start the season last year we had planned on using our number one setter (upcoming junior) to run a 5-1, she got injured and missed all but the final two matches. Our number 2 and 3 setters (upcoming sophomore and freshman) had to be moved up to varsity and play the entire season there.

This season our number 1 is healthy and is currently much stronger than the other two. We plan on running a 5-1 at this point. My question is what to do or how to handle the other two possibly moving down to play on JV this year as they would likely (if there is no injury) never see playing time in any meaningful matches. Neither are truly varsity level players yet and cannot play another position. Any suggestions on how to make this as easy as possible?

To my mind, this coach answered their own question at the end. They said neither of the two setters is really varsity level. That means they should play junior varsity. Pretty simple from a roster decision, really.

The difficult part of this situation is how to handle it with the two players in question. They were varsity starters last year. No doubt being JV this year will be a blow to their egos. Generally speaking, I feel being honest and straightforward is best. Right now they are well behind the #1 setter. The team runs a 5-1, so they probably won’t play much, if at all. Putting them on the JV team will let them play regularly. This will be better for their development. You have to make them think longer-term to get past the immediate disappointment.

That said, there is the question of having a second (and maybe third) varsity setter for practice. If you need someone to fill that role, then one or both of these setters will have to train with the varsity.

Beyond having enough players in the position to run drills and scrimmage, there are a couple other considerations. Should the #1 setter get hurt again, you’ll need a back-up. Preferably, that is someone who is already familiar to the team. At the same time, though, the setters need to practice with the JV team. They will, after all, play with them in matches. You can’t just throw them in to run the offense without practicing with the team.

Do you train those two setters with varsity and with JV? Do you rotate the two setters such that one of them practices with varsity and one with JV?

These are questions in need of answers before you address the players.

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, 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.

Alan talked about this sort of trade-off in his post with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season. 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?

Here’s question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another. Do you use your libero to play in Position 5 or Position 6. That generally means address 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.

The decision involves three primary considerations.

Back row attack
Generally, if you want your back row OH as an attacking option then you probably want them in Position 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. This is especially true 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 defender
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.