Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

Hitter coverage strategy

I had a reader email ask whether I had any 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.

Coverage4

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.

Coverage2-3

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.

Making starting rotation decisions

A recent thread in VolleyTalk motivated by a blog post written by Joe Trinsey, who is a member of the USA Women’s National team staff and was one of the presenters at the HP Coaches Clinic back in February, brings up the question of determining the starting rotation for your volleyball team. Joe’s post is very technical and focuses on serving and hitting percentage. Some of the folks on VT bring up the idea of match-ups, which I also mentioned might be points of consideration in this lineup selection post..

Starting rotation decision-making is something that’s come up in some of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Generally speaking, however, the feeling has been mainly against trying to do all that much matching up. Joe makes the point in his post that the other team could change things up and foul up the whole plan, above and beyond just looking at what the numbers say. Wizard Paulo Cunha, though, I think expressed things in the most straightforward fashion. He basically said it’s your team’s structure of play which is by far the biggest factor in its performance.

Importantly, match-ups don’t always matter nearly as much as we might think just going on intuition. A big example of this is trying to put a strong hitter against a smaller blocker. In one of the HP clinic presentations (it might have been Joe’s) it was shown that hitters don’t really change much in terms of how they attack when facing a smaller blocker. Mark Lebedew made a similar observation at the recent FIVB seminar I attended based on his analysis of German professional league play.

So before you start spinning the dial on your rotations, make sure you understand the realities underlying your decision-making process and aren’t just going based on what should theoretically be the case.

 

Player assessment in recruiting

The other day in my log entry talked about ranking prospective player signings by position. I didn’t so much as give them a 1, 2, 3, … type ranking, though. There was a bit of that, but mainly it was about putting them in to groups based on what I perceived as their comparative value.Notice I didn’t say their playing ability. That is obviously part of the equation, but isn’t always the only thing. In some cases, that might not even be the most important element.

Let me explain. In Sweden only three foreign players are permitted on the court at one time (foreign meaning non-Swedish). That being the case a club needs to get the absolute maximum value from each of those players. Generally speaking, that means getting three impact starters. If you bring in a foreign player who can’t crack the starting team then it’s kind of a waste of money.

That is unless the player provides valued to the team/club in some other way(s), which can be the case. For example, the foreign players at Svedala (and I assume other clubs) are expected to help coach at the youth level in the club. A foreign player may also act as a mentor to other players to help them in their development. They may be a leader on the team or really good for team chemistry. They may help the club in the community or in some other off-court function. If we were talking college volleyball, a player’s parents might donate money to the program (that may seem crass as a recruitment motive, but it happens).

My prospect ranking process
Returning to the discussion of ranking, I generally opt for a grouping approach whereby each group contains players of roughly equal perceived value. There might be some internal ranking by small degrees, but that’s about it. They are basically interchangeable.

Let’s call Group A the top one. For me, I look at this group as containing players any of which I would be happy to bring into the team. They may not all be at the same level in each of their key volleyball skills, but where a player lacks in one area comparatively they make up in another one.

The Group B players are generally not far behind those in Group A. They may just have one small short-coming on a comparative basis. For example, an OH in this group might be a little smaller or there may be questions about a specific aspect of a player’s game. Oftentimes that short-coming is something that can be corrected with a bit of work. An example of this could be a setter who likes to marvel at their sets rather than cover their hitter. There are ways we can fix that. ūüôā

When you get to Group C the issues are starting to add up. For example, I put a setter in this category who looked to have quite good setting skills but appeared to be undisciplined in other part of her game. That might have ordinarily just dropped her down to Group B, but she’s also from a country where the risk of cultural issues (with respect to living and playing in Sweden) are higher than for players from elsewhere (might have had language issues, struggles with the climate, etc.).

Group D is for those players who don’t really do much for me at all. In my context at Svedala they don’t necessarily stand out as clear starters. In another context, maybe it’s height or athletic ability or something which limits a players developmental prospects for the level of play in question. Or attitude issues.

Then there are the straight “No’s” who for whatever reason just won’t work. They aren’t to the right competitive standard. They don’t have the grades. They can’t speak the language if there is a need for them to do so (like coaching demands).

Of course the trick in this whole process is trying to land as many of your Group A players as you can, while keeping the Group B players in the mix for those inevitable times when you lose out on all the Group As. You know you’re probably in for a challenging year if you have to dip down in to Group C. And if you have to go lower … my condolences.

Play conservatively to win, redux

In the Playing to win vs. playing not to lose post I talked about the problems which can develop when teams get overly conservative. The players get fixated on not making mistakes. The result, ironically, is often that they end up making more mistakes instead of fewer. I brought up in that article the idea of playing conservatively to win – making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

We can extend this to your full strategy for a match. By that I mean in some matches it simply makes more sense to dial things back a little and take a more conservative approach as that will actually increase the chances of a positive outcome. Let me offer a couple of examples.

Serving
Perhaps the most obvious situation in which taking a more conservative approach is when you’re playing against a team which simply does not receive serve well. If they rarely are in-system on even relatively easy serves, then you don’t really need to serve them aggressively. In fact, doing so may just make things worse for you. It probably won’t meaningfully change anything in terms of their first-ball attack success and it could lead to giving them free points from missed serves unnecessarily.

This should not be taken as a suggestion to have your team simple go for 0 service errors. Even a poor passing team can have a good day if you’re just lolliping the ball over. Plus, the just-get-it-in approach could actually suck some of the general aggression out of your own team. Rather, maybe dial things back a notch and have the team focus more on hitting targets rather than going for the hard serve as they might do against a better passing team.

Offense
If you have a strong advantage in kill or hitting percentage – meaning your hitters are simply much more capable of scoring than are the other team’s attackers – then you can afford to have a slightly less aggressive attacking mentality then you might otherwise require. I do not mean that the hitters should be told to just get the ball in. That would actually reduce you scoring percentage and potentially narrow the gap, making for a much more even contest than should be the case.

What I’m talking about instead is adjusting the play calling and set selection. You could cut back on the types of attacks which tend to produce a higher percentage of errors than others. For example, your team may struggle to connect consistently on the 31 quick (see this set chart). It might be something you need to use against some teams to freeze the opposing MB when looking to back set, to attack a seam in the block, etc. Against a weaker foe, however, that set simply may not offer enough benefit for the risk being taken. That’s just one possible example. The idea would be to look at your offense and perhaps concentrate more on the lower error % sets/plays.

These are just a couple ways to think about operating more conservatively with an eye toward actually increasing your chances for success. There are others. This is something you should think about as you game-plan for an opponent.

Serving Strategy: Attacking Zone 1

volleyball serve

In the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA, Matt Sipes brings up the idea of using serving to not just to create out-of-system offensive situations for the opposition, but to get very specific in how you do that. In particular, Matt talks about things like interfering with the movement patterns of the setter and opposing hitters or forcing the front row OH to pass to put them under pressure. All of these things are important ideas when thinking about how you want your team to serve – and a key reason to work on players being able to serve all areas of the court.

I want to focus in particularly here on the idea of serving specifically to Zone 1. Matt brings this up from two potential perspectives. One is to serve the ball into the area where the setter is coming from if they are pushed back in serve receive – which is often the case when they are in Rotation 1. The other is to force the setter to have to look over their shoulder to track the ball coming in – meaning the ball is not coming at them from the front (Zones 5 and 6). He makes the case that setters are often not comfortable dealing with those balls and therefore can become very predictable when being forced to do so.

This is very true. It’s something you can pick out quite often if you pay attention. For example. some setters will set to Zone 2 or back row to Zone 1 more frequently when the pass is coming from Zone 1.

I’ll take it a step further and give you a very specific example of something I picked out back in my Brown coaching days. While scouting Yale one seasons I noticed their setter – who was quite good – set with a much faster tempo when passes were coming from Zone 5/6 than she did when the pass was coming from Zone 1. The latter sets tended to be markedly higher, giving the block more time to move to the point of attack.

So guess what we did the next time we played them?

Yup. We pounded Zone 1. I can’t recall whether we won that match or not, but we certainly slowed their offense down considerably.

When should you “Sub Six”?

I’ve written previously on the subject of the substitution decision. In this post I want to talk about a strategy I’ve seen employed at times in professional volleyball. I’ve also read about in My Profession ‚Äď The Game. I don’t recall hearing talked about in any other context, though. It’s the idea of making subs not necessarily to try to elicit a better performance from your team in the present context, but with an eye toward the next set.

Let me lay out the scenario. It’s the third set of a match which is tied 1-1. Your team is struggling. The score is 17-8. You’ve called timeouts. You’d made the subs you thought might improve things, but it just hasn’t worked. What do you do?

A lot of coaches just simply don’t do anything. After all, what can they do? They have what should be their best team on the floor, but it’s just not getting the job done. It’s time to think about the next set. Maybe spin the rotation. Perhaps flip OHs.

What about simply taking all your starters out – or at least those remaining – and putting your bench on to play out the rest of the set? My guess is you’ve probably not really thought about doing that (though you may have fantasized about it). There are a couple of reasons for actually doing so, however:

Starter Reset

Putting your starters on the bench for an extended break gives them a chance to reset. They get to step back from whatever troubles they were having on the court and break any negative feedback loops that were going on. Time on the bench gives them a chance to watch the other team from outside for a bit. They also get to rest up a little ahead of the next set.

Opposition Psychology

When you have your second team out on the court, naturally the general level of play is likely to be lower. This has a couple of potential of potential positive outcomes for you. First, if the subs do play at that level then the opposition players may start to coast, which could pay dividends in the next set. Second, if your subs play above themselves and actually make things competitive, it could rattle the confidence of the other team.¬†The opposing coach is going to be hesitant to make radical changes for fear of risking losing the set. That means in either case you could gain a psychological edge to start when you have your starters back in next set. And of course if your subs somehow managed to pull out the win you’d be in the driver’s seat!

Playing time

While perhaps not a great situation in terms of putting your players in with an opportunity to succeed, a runaway set like this does give you a chance to get your bench players some court time. The nice thing, though, is they’ve got nothing to lose. They can go out and play loose.

I should note here that this cannot be something the starters will interpret as being punitive. I’ve heard stories about coaches who subbed out the entire starting six basically out of disgust at how they were playing. That sort of thing isn’t going to accomplish much. It will probably be harmful, in fact. Instead, it must be clear to the players coming out that this is a strategic device and that they should see it as an opportunity to regroup to start the next set.

If you want to try this out some time you have to think about the timing of it in advance and have a plan because my guess is you won’t automatically think about it in the heat of battle. Our inclination as coaches tends to be to try to fix things now – or failing that, think about what we’re going to do next set. This substition ploy works in the gap between the two, so you simply might forget about it as an option. If you actually plan it out – maybe talk it over with the team – you might be more inclined to remember. Failing that, you could give someone else the task of reminding you.

Reader Question – Developing a 3-Middle Hitter Scheme

I had an email come in the other day from a reader.

How would you defend against a three middle offense?  Currently we are running a three middle offense, but are concentrating on being in the right position and running effective plays.  I think we need to change our thinking.  Switch to how someone defends against it, then exploit any expected weakness.

I asked for clarification on what was meant by 3-middle. How they would be employed? I got the following:

We have three players who would normally play middle. 

The starting rotation:

Middle, Outside, Middle

Outside, Middle, Setter

3 rotations have only one middle in the front … 3 rotations have 2 middles in front.¬† Depending on the pair of middles, one will switch to OH, while one plays Middle … or one will switch to Right Side, while one plays Middle.

Since one of our Middles is left handed, offensively we can run double slides.  We can also run a quick with one middle at the pin hitting a high outside.

I actually used a very similar type of system with a 16-and-under girls Juniors team a number of years back. I described it in the post Problem Solving: Three middle triangle. By posting this up here I hope to encourage some discussion. I’ll start it off with some thoughts of my own.

The right line-up?

I have an immediate question about a rotation where both outside hitters are in the front row together. It means you also have two middles in the back row with the setter in the same rotation. I don’t know how strong a right side attacker and/or blocker the team has with one of those OHs. I also don’t know the passing/defense talents of the MB not being replaced by the libero – or whether a DS is being subbed in on them in the back row. It strikes me that could be a sticky rotation if the personnel aren’t right.

With a lefty in the mix, I would very seriously consider playing with them at OPP. That said, a lefty hitting OH definitely causes issues for opposing blockers. Having them in the middle can be a bit trickier because the setter needs to change the placement of quick sets. It’s not impossible, just will take time to develop.

Opposition Defense

Let’s switching back to the question of about how the other teams might defend against a 3-middle team. I think quite a bit is depends on the opposition. Some teams will play the same defensive structure regardless of what the other team is doing. Either they feel they have their best possible configuration in place, or they just don’t know any different.

If I were an opposing coach able to scout your team (and with the players able to use such information), I would look at the tendencies of your team in certain types of situations and of your players in terms of where they like to hit. I would then try to make you work away from your strengths. There really isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent me trying to do that beyond not letting me see you play. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can stop you, though. If your team executes, there may not be much I can do to stop it even if I have my team optimally positioned to do so.

Of course you do similar scouting of the opposition defense. Your goal should be to maximize the frequency with which your team can match it’s strength up against the other team’s weakness. For example, you could decide to have one of your nominal middles (is a middle who plays outside really a middle?) hit OH in one match to go up against a short setter. They could hit OPP in another match to attack a short outside hitter. Another example is to spread the offense out against teams that tend to pinch/bunch their block. Alternatively, you can run a narrow offense against teams who tend to put their wing blockers near the pins.

Playing to your strengths

It’s always hard to provide advice in a situation like this. You don’t know the level of competition. You don’t know the type of players involved, team priorities, coaching philosophy, etc. There is a compelling line of reasoning, not just in coaching but generally in life, that you should play to your strengths. Really work on developing them to a superior level and applying them as much as possible. That topic is better left for a separate discussion in its own right. It has some value in this context as a point of consideration, though.

If this team’s strength is its three player who can play MB, then it makes sense to identify the ways they are most effective. Then you set the team up to put them in those positions as frequently as possible. For example, if two of the MBs are excellent slide hitters, figure out how to configure the line-up to give them lots of opportunities to hit the slide. In this sort of situation you’re not really thinking a great deal about what the other team is doing. Instead you’re creating players able to take advantage of whatever the situation offers. Continuing with the slide example. work with the hitters on their ability to attack with a variety of shots – line and cross, tip and/or roll shot, block-out and high hands – and in different positions relative to the setter and at different tempos.

In other words, figure out what’s generally your strongest line-up and style of play. Then relentlessly work on getting better at it.

To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets

When I was coaching collegiately in the States it was regular practice for myself or one of the other assistants on staff to give target zone signals to our servers before each ball. These targets were selected based on a combination of scouting the opposition in advance and watching developments during the match. As a head coach, though, I have very rarely given serving signals.

Why?

It’s a developmental thing, really. I want my players learning to think and act for themselves when it comes to identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent. I don’t want robot players relying on me for instruction all that time. Even if I were the type to be a controlling coach, volleyball just doesn’t allow for that sort of thing. There is very little time between rallies to communicate with the players from the bench and obviously I can do almost nothing to influence what happens while the ball is in play. The players need to be able make judgements and decisions for themselves.

Does this mean I never provide guidance? Of course not!

There are occasions when I do give a server specific instructions. Usually it’s as a reminder of a game plan we’ve discussed before the match, between sets, or during a timeout. Sometimes it’s as a result of my having noticed something. In the latter case, rather than just giving the server a specific target, I try to get the player to recognize what I’ve seen, which helps them develop their volleyball IQ.

Even still, there is a situational element to the question of providing service targets. Some players just don’t have the accuracy, and asking them to hit a specific zone serves very little purpose. There are also times in matches when it’s best to just let a player do a comfortable serve rather than putting the pressure of hitting a certain target on their shoulders. And sometimes you just simply don’t want to break a player’s concentration by yelling at them to get their attention.

That said, some players prefer to be told where to serve. For them they want serving to be just about executing a skill and nothing more. I don’t care for that view myself because I want players to always be engaging their court vision, but I understand it. Sometimes we just have to deal with things as they are and carry on.

When to call a timeout

Mark Lebedew did a couple of posts on the subject of taking timeouts. In them he referenced research indicating that calling a timeout has no net effect on odds of winning the next rally. Basically, they stay the same whether the timeout is taken or not. There was a fair bit of discussion about probabilities in the comments. Of course the idea of momentum came up.

I think most coaches think in terms of trying to break the other team’s momentum (or keep them from getting it) when taking a timeout. This isn’t to say there aren’t other reasons, of course. You may pick up on something you want to tell the team, for example. The vast majority of the time, however, momentum is the deciding factor. We look at our players struggling and want to try to give them a chance for a mental reset.

To that end, I want to see stats on something with a little bit longer time span. For example, the next five rallies. Does calling timeout improve a team’s performance when addressing things from that perspective? To my mind, that is really what we’re after (or should be) when we call for a team huddle.

I do see some ridiculous timeouts, by the way. Like the coach whose team is getting soundly thrashed calling time out at set point. What does he really thing he’s going to accomplish?

Sometimes you just need to let the players sort it out for themselves. In a developmental circumstance I will oftentimes not call timeout when the team is struggling. I want to see if they can fight through and overcome the adversity on their own. Better if they can develop that ability than if they have to rely on me all the time.

So what about you? What’s your timeout philosophy?