Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

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. The research challenges that mythology.

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. Confirmation bias is likely a factor here, 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. A researcher in a presentation at the 2016 AVCA convention also took on the subject of timeout effectiveness.

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?

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, though. 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 question about 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. See also the Libero in 5 or 6? post.

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 (about 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.

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.

Making starting rotation decisions

A thread in VolleyTalk brought up the question of determining the starting rotation for your volleyball team. Joe Trinsey, then a member of the USA Women’s National team staff, motivated folks with a blog post. He was also one of the presenters at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended in February 2015. Joe’s post is very technical and focuses on serving and hitting percentage. Some folks on VT brought up match-ups, which I also mentioned might be considerations in this lineup selection post.

Starting rotation decision-making comes 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. That’s 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. It came up in one of the HP clinic presentations (maybe Joe’s). The suggestion was 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. Don’t just go 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. 🙂

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 talk 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. That means making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

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


Perhaps the most obvious situation for a conservative approach is when playing a team which 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 is not 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.


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 your 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.