Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

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.


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 (we’re not talking technical timeouts here).

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 think 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?

Looking at Serving Risk and Reward

There’s an article from 2013 which talks about the aggressive of the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team in their serving. In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of his team, the coach decided it was going to be important to not expose his relatively weak block to strong attacks. They would do that by trying to get teams out of system in serve receive attack through tough serving.

Aggressive serving is something that is talked about a fair bit in volleyball – especially at the higher levels. Offenses are so powerful that a side out is nearly automatic when teams pass well. Thus the desire to force teams to pass less than well, which requires good serving

There’s an obvious trade-off involved in aggressive serving, though. If a serve is missed it’s an automatic point for the other team. We can think of this in a mathematical way. The expected point value of a serve is a function of the probabilities of the various outcomes involved. Those outcomes include service errors, service aces, winning the rally and losing the rally. You can create a formula for the expected value of a serve (EVS) that looks like this:

EVS = PA – PE + (1-PA-PE) x (PRW – PRL)


PA = % chance of an ace (in decimal form – e.g. 10% = 0.10)
PE = % chance of an error
PRW = % chance of a rally win
PRL = % chance of a rally loss

Let’s put that in an example form. Say a given server gets and ace in 1 out of 20 serves (5%) and misses 2 out of 20 (10%). When the serve is in, the team wins the rally 60% of the time. The above formula would look like this:

EVS=0.05-0.10 + (1-0.05-0.10) x (0.60-0.40)
= 0.05 – 0.10 + 0.85 x 0.20
= -0.05 + 0.17
= 0.12

Thus, each time this particular player serves the team expects to score 0.12 points. If you play around with the numbers in different ways you can see how being more ore less aggressive could potentially impact that EVS value through the impact it has on ace and error percentages and the chances of winning the service rally.

We can translate the desire of the Wisconsin coach into a desire to increase service rally win % – PRW from the formula above. If the team is going to get more aggressive serving it should increase the PRW (and reduce the PRL) to improve the EVS, but it will also likely mean rising PE, which hurts the EVS. The question a coach needs to answer is whether the positive move in PRW more than offsets the rise in PE. If so, then it’s a good idea. If not, then there’s a problem.

In other words, serving tougher only makes sense if the increase in service rally wins at least offsets the rise in service errors.

Comments on serving strategy from a coach

volleyball serve

At the start of the 2013 US college volleyball season I visited Southern California. During that trip I went to Pepperdine for their match against Wisconsin. Despite several injured players, Wisconsin won. I wrote before that Wisconsin used a 2-person serve receive system. There was another development later.

During his press conference, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield talked about his team’s aggressive serving strategy. Here’s the link to the coverage of that presser. The main page provides some text and commentary and a link near the top (just below the picture). The part about serving is toward the end:

Basically, Sheffield said two things motivated the aggressive serving. One was the need to put the Pepperdine offense under pressure. They wanted to do that by forcing bad passes. The thinned Wisconsin ranks meant they were particularly weakened at the net in terms of their block. Thus, they couldn’t afford to have Pepperdine regularly running their full attack if there was to be any prospect of victory.

The secondary reasoning was based on the effectiveness of the Wisconsin serve receive attack. Using the old terminology, they had a very high sideout percentage. That means they could rely on getting the ball back quickly if they missed serves here and there.

It’s worth a listen. I would still contend, though, that there were times when they shouldn’t have missed a serve. But that’s just my view. 🙂

Problem Solving: Three middle triangle

I once wrote about an early coaching experience when I had to use one of my middles as a setter. It worked very well, helping the team I coached win a gold medal. Less than a year later I had another situation which required a bit of fancy line-up footwork.

This time I was coaching a girls’ 16-and-under Juniors team. I had three players who could legitimately play middle at the team’s competitive level of play. I wanted (needed) all three players in there for their net play. A couple, though, weren’t all that keen on playing the position. Can’t say I blamed them as I always hated playing it myself. What I did was come up with a compromise that let me get them all on the court.

I forget at this stage which player I put where, but the basics of it were this. I put the three girls in a triangle in the line-up. One of them was the OPP. The other two were in the spots generally dubbed O1 and M1. In a 5-1 offense one usually puts their strongest OH and MB next to the setter. Those are the O1 and M1 respectively. I then put a couple of smaller OH type players in the two remaining spots either side of the OPP.

This line-up, of course, meant I had two of my quasi-MB players in the front row half the time and only one of them the other half. Obviously in the latter case that one girl played MB. In the other rotations, though, one would play MB and the other would play OH or RS, depending on whether the setter was up or back. Which one took the MB spot I often left to the players to decide, though sometimes I made the call if I saw something specific I wanted addressed.

The result was a pretty potent offense. It would have been a bit better with more experience in the setter position. It was sufficient for the team to finish 3rd in our regional championships, though.

The point is sometimes to get the most out of your team you have to do things in a non-standard fashion.

Slowing Down the Float Serve

I previously talked about how I saw the USC women’s volleyball team train to serve the ball 40mph (see Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important). While I was on my tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, I also witnessed some training that works in the other direction. By that I mean slowing down the serve. A couple of the players on the Long Beach State team were focused on just that while practicing their jump float serves. The reason for this probably requires a bit of explanation.

The main idea behind the float serve is to have the ball move in unexpected ways. This is true for both jump and standing versions. A spinning serve has a predictable trajectory. That make it easier to pass (assuming you can get in position). A float serve, though, has the potential to frustrate a receiver with a movement at the last moment.

Here’s the thing, though. As you increase the velocity of the serve you start to decrease its potential for that late movement. It’s like a putt in golf. You can strike hard enough to overcome the influence of the break which would normally happen because of the texture of the green. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind. A hard, flat serve that is well placed can produce positive results.

If, however, you want that unpredictable movement (and/or want to take some of the strain off your shoulder) you need to slow the serve down. When I coached at Brown and served at the team I called it a low velocity floater. It had a nasty habit of dropping quickly at the last instant as gravity rapidly overwhelmed forward momentum. At other times it curved to the side. A ball which started going toward one player ended up angling to the one next to her. It was fun to watch, but not so fun to pass. 🙂

The risk with a low velocity serve is if you don’t hit it just right it can be a problem. Too soft and it goes in the net. Not exactly dead center and it won’t float well. If you pick your targets properly, though, it can still be effective.

In the case of Long Beach, the coach was using this low velocity serve as part of a mixture of serving styles his team would employ to keep opposition players off balance. He had two jump topspin servers (one lefty, one righty), two players working on the slower jump-floater, and a couple players working on standing float serves they could hit either short or long. Hard to get comfortable as a passer when every server is doing something different.

The evolution of the libero position

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the game of volleyball in the time I’ve been involved as a coach (and a player all those years ago), and across the gap when I was away from coaching volleyball. While on my 2013 tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, one thing I saw was a shift in libero use. It’s no surprise this happened. The position was only introduced at that level about 15 years ago. It was going to take time for coaches to find the best ways to make use of the position.

The early days of the libero

Back in the early days the libero was largely just a glorified defensive specialist. They didn’t do much more than any DS would have done. They just couldn’t serve at that point (which they can do in one rotation under US women’s collegiate rules). A team took their strongest defender and/or ball control player, gave them the off-colored jersey. They were told to go do what you normally do, but in 6 rotations rather than 3.

When I was at Brown, our basic strategy was to identify the place the ball was most likely to go given our blocking scheme (either position 5 or 6), and put the libero there on defense. We tried to get her central in the serve receive pattern as much as possible. Not a bad approach. You want your best ball-handling player getting as many first contact touches as possible.

Back then we gave no real thought to the libero taking the second ball. After all, the libero couldn’t take the ball with her hands in front of the 3m line. The strategy was instead for the OPP to step out from her RS position to take it. Most teams used a similar approach.

Current libero use

Things have shifted in the last few years, though. These days liberos are given responsibility for the second ball when the setter has to dig. It’s not the OPP anymore. I can think of a few related reasons this shift has taken place, in no particular order:

  • More teams are targeting the setter, causing them to play the ball defensively more often.
  • OPPs are a bigger part of the offense now – especially for college teams running a 6-2. Making them set takes them out of the attack. Further, OPPs rarely set the middle when taking the second ball, often meaning just one attacking option.
  • Coaches are more conservative with their digging target. They strongly favor digs to Target 2 (about 3m line in the middle of the court). This would require an OPP to have to come further off the net to play a ball, often after they just got down from blocking.

With the ball dug to Target 2, and them often playing in position 5, the libero becomes a more interesting secondary setter. On balls dug behind the 3m line they can use their hands. On those closer to the net they can bump set. Since they’re in the middle of the court, they can go to either pin with the ball. Back row is another choice.

Suddenly it makes sense to have the libero acting as the second setter. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be among the quicker players on the court. (By the way, MBs now get more responsibility for the second ball dug close to the net since they can set either way as well).

Implications for libero selection and training

What all this means is that the requirements for the libero position have evolved. It’s no longer enough to pass and or dig the ball well. They now also have to consistently put up a good hitable ball to both pins and the back row. At the top levels this has results in coaches recruiting experienced setters to play libero. It also means a lot of dedicated libero setting work, such as that done in the Second Ball Setting drill.

Having former setters as liberos also brings a leadership factor into play. Good setters are generally also good leaders. Liberos may not direct the team the same ways a setter does, but their attitude, communication, and intensity can certainly set the team’s standard. We had a libero captain one of my years at Brown who definitely set the tone for the team. I saw a similar thing at USC when I observed preseason training there.

As coaches looking to identify and/or train prospective liberos, these are thing we need to keep in mind.

When not to serve their weakest passer

I recently took some time to attend a preseason tournament featuring a group of area men’s teams getting ready for the upcoming NVL season here in England. The hosts were Exeter Storm, the club with which the Devon women’s team I coached last year has now merged. I was taking advantage of the live match play to try out a couple of volleyball stat apps on my iPad with an eye toward finding a good one to use while coaching this season (more on that in a later post), but also wanted to be there in support of the club generally.

Storm will be new to the NVL this year, having just been accepted into Division 3 (the club itself is only a couple years old). In the final match of the day they played a team which last year won promotion to NVL1 in a playoff. Despite the difference in level, it was a tight match most of the way through (though, to be fair, Storm has played that same team close previously).

The captain of the men’s team I coached at the university last season is an OH for the club. At a certain point in the match I observed that he was targeting a specific player on the opposing team with his serves. This player was most definitely the weakest passer they had. He was also by far their best hitter – an absolute beast who proved virtually unstoppable all day long.

Normally, relentlessly serving the other team’s weak passer is a good strategy. This time, though, not so much.

You see, in this particular rotation the ball was being served down the line. While the result was often a 1 or 2-pass which forced the setter to come toward area 4, which normally would be a good thing as it would make the offense predictable, in this case it mean the setter was virtually assured of setting this big hammer of a hitter swinging outside. The sideout percentage was very high despite the poor passes. The setter may have still set the same player if the pass went somewhere else or came from a different direction, but I’d have at least wanted to give him the option of making that (bad) decision.

Now in this instance the player was the one making the call on where he was going to serve (I asked him after the match), but in another instance it could have just as easily been the call of a coach thinking too much about the normal percentage play. The Storm coaches didn’t seem to normally call serving targets for the players, so I’m reluctant to suggest they fell victim of that mentality, but I can easily see other coaches doing so in other situations.

Just goes to show that sometimes doing the right thing can be the wrong thing.

Problem Solving: Setting out of the middle

The first volleyball team I ever coached by myself was the Southeast Boys Scholastic team in the Massachusetts Bay State Games. You can think of the Games as an annual mini Olympic type of competition. The six regions of the state compete against each other in a wide array of sports. In volleyball it means running team tryouts, having weekly training sessions for a month or so, then competing in the 3-day tournament during the month of July.

I’d never even seen Bay State Games competition, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into from that perspective. I’d had enough exposure to high school boys volleyball to at least have a general idea of what to expect. I didn’t, however, know the specific level of play there would be among presumably the better players in the state. I did know that I had some talent on my team, though.

Then I heard my setter sprained his ankle the week before the tournament.

Forced to Re-Think the Setting Position

I had just one pure setter, so this forced me to have to rethink my whole line-up plan. Naturally, the big decision was who would take that role. I had two candidates. One was a kid named Josh who set and hit outside in a 6-2 system for his high school. The other was Greg, who was primarily a middle, but also set.

I only had two proper middles, but in the end I decided to have Greg set rather than Josh. Why? Because Josh was a real stud player who could potentially get two touches on the ball each time it was on our side of the net. If he set he’d only get one touch.

Of course, using Greg as setter in a 5-1 offense left me with only one viable middle. As a result, I had to rethink how to set my line-up. I decided to have him set out of the middle when he was front row. That way he could still perform the middle blocker function. While in the back row he played normal setter defense (right back), while my right side players played middle back defense.

Believe it or not, we won the gold medal with this line-up. Just goes to show, you can win with non-standard line-ups. This is why it’s so important for coaches to have a firm understanding of the different types of systems teams can play (see a book like Volleyball Systems & Strategies). It helps adapt to situations and be able to maximize the talents of the team.