Setter foot positioning

A reader of the blog asked the following question after reading the Setter Training: Weight Transfer post:

“Did I get it right, that you suggest that a young setter might have the front and back foot a little bit apart in order to execute the weight transfer? If so, what about back sets? Does the same back to front weight transfer help the arc in the spine? Or is it the opposite transfer front to back weight?”

Why feet apart?

First, the general recommendation for setters is that the foot closest to the net be somewhat forward of the other. In the indoor game, this basically means right foot forward. If you’re playing on the beach or otherwise in a situation where you’re setting from the left to the right (looking at the net), then your left foot would be closer to the net and thus should be the one slightly forward.

The main reason for this stance is that it keeps the shoulders turned slightly away from the net. This tends to mean mistakes are off the net rather than too tight or even to the other side. I’m not generally a fan of twist or turn setting or follow-through when it can be avoided. The reason is it tends to nullify the purpose of keeping your net-side foot forward. I accept the twist set’s value when forced to come well off the net, though.

Aside from that, you can’t really do a weight transfer through the set from back to front if you don’t have your feet staggered to some degree. Also, I find that setters who set with feet very close together tend to have a tighter overall posture. That is not beneficial to smooth setting, and by extension, accuracy.

What about back setting?

If the idea for the forward set is to transfer weight, what about setting backwards? Wouldn’t you want to do the same thing?

Actually, if you watch a lot of setters you’ll see them sort of do just that. What do they do when they are forced to move back to play the ball (e.g. passed too far toward the right-hand antenna)? They tend to back set in line with their backward weight transfer because it’s quite easy to do. Obviously, that means they aren’t well positioned to set other options, so it’s not what we’re really after.

The other thing you see setters do when they back set is actually take the ball slightly behind them. Essentially, this serves to put their weight behind the ball. That is where you want it in order to be able to push – just like for a front set. The problem there is everyone knows you’re going to set behind.

Using the same back-to-front weight transfer for back sets as the one I talked about for front sets actually makes more sense than you think when you consider the physiology of what’s happening. It’s not the same as when a setter pikes trying to front set. By that I mean their weight is all going in the opposite direction to the ball.

In a back set, in the back-to-front weight transfer you shift your body weight behind the desired path of the ball. At the same time, you are driving force from the legs through the hips, up the torso, and then along the arms. All the force of your body is going in the same direction. Much of that is upward in direction, but that’s fine because when you back set you are usually closer to your target than you are doing a front set to the antenna (shorter set = high arc). And if you need to set further you just alter the trajectory by arching your back more to create a less vertical line of force transfer.

Watch good setters and try it out for yourself to see what I mean.

Something to ponder: Using handicaps in volleyball

Consider this a “Something to think about” post. It’s just an idea that popped into my head recently. This article is basically a way for me the think through it in print, and maybe stimulate some thoughts.

What’s a handicap?

If you’re familiar with golf you probably know about handicaps. For the non-golfers out there (I’m not really one myself, but I know the game a bit), the handicap is basically a way of allowing players of different calibers to compete with each other on equal terms. To quote Wikipedia:

A handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability based on the tees played for a given course.

In stroke play, it is used to calculate a net score from the number of strokes actually played during a competition, thus allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on somewhat equal terms. In match play, the handicap difference between players is used to determine the number of strokes the high handicap player should receive from the low handicapper during the playing of their round.

Basically, it works like this. Let’s say you have a handicap of 4 and I have a handicap of 9. If we play together, your score after 18 holes should be 5 strokes fewer than mine (e.g. 76 vs. 81). If it’s less than that, then I performed better for that round that you. It’s it’s more, then you performed better than me.

Handicaps in volleyball?

In volleyball we sometimes give the losing team credit for keeping it close. One example of this is the 3-2-1-0 point system. That’s where teams get 3 points for winning in 3 or 4, but only 2 points for winning in 5. A team gets a point for a 2-3 loss. Another alternative is the system I’ve talked about being used in England. That’s one were in a timed game staying within 25% of the winning team’s score earns the losing team a point.

Now, in some cases these point systems penalize teams for not playing as well as they perhaps should have. They also reward teams for playing well. It’s not really the same as the handicap idea, though.

Think about how many situations there are where we see meaningful mismatches in competitive level in matches. There are high seeds vs. low seeds early in tournaments. There are highly funded teams vs. low funded ones in professional leagues. As a result, there would seem to be at least some potential value exploring the handicap idea.

The question is how to actually get the handicaps determined in a fair and reasonable fashion. This is especially true when there isn’t a large playing sample from which to calculate them.


Coaching Log – Apr 18, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

This week’s Monday morning was a bit better than last week’s. At least the player didn’t seem to be a leg-weary as they were. The head coach did need to “remind them” that we don’t let balls drop uncontested in our gym early on when we had them playing some 2 v 2 2-touch games.

From there we split them up between serve reception on one court and more blocking work on the other. In the latter case the focus was block penetration, with use of an elastic.

Some target serving followed, working on deep corners. We then did the Hard Drill on each court to work on multiple elements – defense against back attacks, being intelligent in bad-ball situations, staying aggressive under pressure, etc.

The remainder of practice was 6 rotations worth of a 6-v-6 drill where the serving team had to register three straight points. We called serves missed long or wide as washes, but a serve in the net sent the team back to 0. Each team had a turn passing and serving. Afterwards we talked about amping the drill up a bit by may be making it first-to-3 so either team could “win”.

No practice sessions today. Instead we had two groups of player in to watch video from the weekend for about an hour. A lot of the focus ended up being on defensive positioning and movement. We also briefly met with the team at the end of the day before they did a group activity together. At that point we basically progressed the team chemistry development process in the direction of accountability.

Illness and injury had us down a couple of bodies in this session, then we lost another one as part of a collision during the first half to bring us down to only eight. It ended up being a challenging session from a frustration perspective. This was largely driven by a couple of cooperative drills where the team (or groups) had consecutive sequence targets.

The first was a simple 3-person over the net pepper. We gave them a target of 10 straight dig-set-hit sequences, allowing them to hold their count level if they couldn’t get a good sequence, but kept the ball in play. This was in 3 groups on one court. That obviously creates issues due to the small space, but the bigger issue was simple lack of clean execution. By the point when we called time, one group had managed 5 and the other two 4.

After doing some serving and passing, we did the other cooperative drill, which was basically an out-of-system focused activity. This one was a 4-corner set-up with players in 1, 2, 4, and 5 on each side. Balls had to be attacked cross-court. If the ball was dug by the back row player, the other back row player had to set the ball (to either pin hitter). If the front row player dug the ball, either back row player could set.

The goal was 8 consecutive good sequences. It took probably close to half and hour. At one point relatively early on when it was clear they were struggling I brought them in to get them thinking about how communication could make it better. Later on we had them take a team timeout.

At noon we had two players who couldn’t make the video sessions on Tuesday in for their own session.

We gave the team the morning off from lifting as a break from the early wake-ups and because there are a few banged-up bodies. For afternoon team practice we took them out on the sand court at a local school. Basically, they just played games. It was rough going at the start as some of them clearly had little to no sand experience. By the end, though, they were starting to have some pretty good rallies.

We tried a variation on volley tennis to start this practice. Basically, it was 2 people on court on each side, with one ball in play as opposed to the two balls from the Brazilian variation we did before. Instead we had one player on each side holding a ball which they had to pass to their partner if they were going to play the ball coming over from the other side. Some refer to this as “don’t drop the baby”. We found, though, that by the end both sides had adopted a strategy of one person holding the “baby” while the other ran around the court playing the ball. So it became pretty much 1 v 1. We decided that the next time we tried it we’d make it a 2-touch game rather than just 1-touch.

After that we had them to serving and passing triples as warm-up for then moving on to the servers vs passers game we’ve been playing.

We then had them do the hitters vs defense where the antenna is set up so the attacker can only go through a narrow channel dominated by a double block. Last time we had them hitting through 4. This time it was through 2.

Next up was Pin Magic, which is a 5 v 5 game. You have pin hitters in the front row and three back court players. Each rally is started with a bounced ball which acts as the first contact. That side’s player in 5 must set the ball, and the ally goes from there. Points are only scored on kills which are set by the player in 5 (on either side).

We finished up with a couple of rotations of 22 vs. 22. We used the variation where a first-ball kill in the initial rally earned that side a big point (no second ball).

Heading to HP try-outs

I’ll be having a new volleyball experience today. I’m working the USA Volleyball High Performance try-outs in Dallas this afternoon.

For those who don’t know, the High Performance program is USA Volleyball’s talent identification program. It’s been in place for more than a decade. Basically, during the course of each juniors season there are try-outs for the program run in conjunction with the national qualifier tournaments. They are used to select players for the HP program camps and programs which run during the Summer.

I actually helped out with a Volleyball England try-out one time. That was for their girls’ Cadet and Junior national teams, which is something like U16 and U18. That try-out was also meant to identify a group of players to bring in to future camps, but obviously on a much smaller scale than what we’re talking about here in the US.

Today’s try-outs are for U14s. Next week on Thursday there’s a second try-out for the older girls. I’ll likely be working that one as well. I’ll provide a report on the experience in a future post.

The travel is just a bit longer here

Back when I was coaching at the University of Exeter in England we griped a bit about some of the longer conference trips. We’re talking mainly about having to go to Bath and Bournemouth. In England if you’re going north/south you’re usually going to be able to do it on a major motorway. Going east/west isn’t quite the same. The roads are much smaller, making for much slower going.

Bournemouth isn’t actually that far from Exeter as the crow flies, but it was entirely east/west travel. That means 2.5 hours of 2-lane roads with frequent roundabouts. Not fun, though with some nice scenery. Bath does at least have part of the trip on the motorway, but the rest is on smaller roads with lots of speed changes (one year the players complained of being nauseous on the mini-bus trip there because of that). By comparison, Cardiff was an easy ride because it was all motorway, despite being further in distance.

When we got promoted from Western Division 1 to Southern Premier League for my third year at Exeter, the travel got extended – adding places like Sussex, Cambridge, and Warwick. The trips got up to maybe 5 or 6 hours. In terms of non-league play, we had to go to Edinburgh for 2014 Final 8s, which was about 10 hours (teams had to go there for playoff matches in 2015 and 2016 as well).

When I was at Svedala in Sweden most of the trips were less than 3 hours. All the ones into the Copenhagen area to play Danish teams were about an hour. The travel to the northern group of teams (only played once in the regular season) were 4-6 hours. We had about a 10 hour trip to Uppsala for Gran Prix, but weather made that longer than it would have otherwise been.

Now, here’s the map of where Midwestern State will play in 2016.


Texas A&M Kingsville is the most southern point (near Corpus Christi). Google tells me that’s about 8 hours drive from Wichita Falls (red X). That’s a conference match.

Topeka is our most northerly destination (Washburn University). It’s where we play a tournament the first weekend of the season. That’s like 6.5 hours. In terms of conference destinations, West Texas A&M in Canyon (near Amarillo) is the furthest north, but it’s more west in terms of distance.

The long trip is a new edition to our league – Western New Mexico in Silver City. That’s about 11 hours away. They are 6+ hours away from Eastern New Mexico, where we play on the same trip. That’s going to be no fun at all. So happy to have them!

Fortunately, at MSU we have charter buses. No player or parent – or coach – driving as was the case in my last two coaching stops. I’m going to have lots of time to listen to podcasts and read!

The value of personality testing with your team

As I mentioned in my recent coaching log post, last week the team did a session with a sports psychology specialist who took them through a basic DISC personality type analysis (Myers-Briggs is another popular one). This is part of a semester-long process of working with the team to improve chemistry and cohesion in the squad.

As is often the case, the findings of the tests were interesting. The gentleman who lead the session did a good job of not just providing information about what the different basic personality types represent, but also what they mean in terms of developing effective lines of communication across groups.

Obviously, this sort of testing isn’t meant to provide a detailed analysis of each player (and coach, in this case). And simply thinking in terms of individuals by their primary group would be a mistake. There’s a lot of overlap and nuance. Still, to my mind it’s a worthwhile exercise to streamline the process of figuring out the best ways to reach a given player and for players to communicate with each other.

Once isn’t enough
That said, just doing the test once and thinking that’s all you need to do is not really sufficient if you really want to follow this path.

Obviously, if you’re a club coach or otherwise in a situation where you’re basically starting a new team each season, then you’d have to do a new analysis every time. If you’re coaching a school or professional team then you need to account for the fact that you have players (and coaches) regularly flowing in and out of the team. That means new testing requirements and constantly changing team composition.

On top of that, just doing the testing and having the conversation one time is almost assuredly not enough for the lessons to stick. They need to be reinforced on a regular basis over time, in some fashion or another. That might be something the coaching staff can handle, or it might require having an outside expert making regular appearances.

Cost – Benefit
And of course there is usually some kind of cost involved.

At a minimum, there is a time requirement. This is something which needs to be considered, especially where something like NCAA weekly hour limitations are involved.

If you bring in someone from outside, there’s probably a financial cost involved. That means making a decision on the prospective gains to be had from the personality testing, or any other type of psychology work. Is it worth the investment? For some the answer will be, “Yes.” For others, either because of other priorities or because of limit funds, it’s a different story.

I think it is very worth us coaches understanding these sports psychology principles. We may not use them explicitly at any given point in time, but it’s always good to know what tools are available to us to accomplish what needs doing when the priorities line up and the resources are available.

Properly professional or just participating?

Yesterday on his Facebook page, Mark Lebedew made the comment that, “Professional sport is not for clubs who want, but for clubs who can.” Mark told me that observation was made based on something a mutual friends of ours had to say combined with a bankruptcy issue in the top German league.

I was recently told there are four bankrupt teams in Bundesliga 1 on the women’s side. That is pretty amazing, especially when supposedly the women’s side of the game in Germany is stronger than the men’s (it was suggested to me that was because the women’s side is more cooperative). Might be even more amazing when you consider that you don’t tend to have spendthrift operations there.

Competition vs. Participation
Mark extended his comment by bringing up the idea that you’d be better off with fewer teams who are stronger than more teams just for the sake of having some defined number in the league. Basically, competition vs. participation. It’s something fledgling sports leagues definitely deal with.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is an example of this. In it’s early years the talent was spread very thin. Things have gotten better, obviously, but it took a while to get there. And the league has been expanding fairly steadily over the years, which tends to dilute the talent if players of a high enough caliber cannot be brought in to fill those squads.

Here’s the thing, though. MLS has a salary cap structure. It’s a bit fluid these days, but in the early-going it was very rigid. That served to keep teams on an even playing field, at least with respect to the player talent. This is something you don’t generally see in professional sports leagues around the world. In German volleyball, for example, two clubs dominate the men’s league as they have far more in the way of financial resources. Everyone else is playing for the scraps. I talk about this gulf in competitive level some in my Professional volleyball country league rankings post.

Mark may not have been specifically taking on that particular issue in professional volleyball (or other sports for that matter), but there is definitely the question of whether teams are legitimately there to try to compete or just there for the sake of being able to say they are.

I’d say in some respects it was the latter case for Svedala, where I coached in Sweden. Part of the club wanted to be legitimately competitive in the Elitserie, but part of it saw the focus of the club as being the youth teams with the pro team as just being a sort of marketing tool. Certainly, putting national youth academy teams in the first division – as happens in both Sweden and Germany – strikes me as being more about participation.

Making it sustainable
Personally, I would really like to see teams in our sport – be they professional or collegiate – reach a level where they can be self-sustained. What does that mean? To my mind in means bringing in revenue which is not heavily dependent on just one or two big sources – like major sponsors. What happens if those sponsors pull out? That’s at least some of the issue with clubs in Germany.

We’re a long way from being there, especially without the big television contracts enjoyed by other sports. It’s something we can work toward, though.

Coaching Log – Apr 11, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Not a great session overall. Whether it was simply a Monday morning issue or there was lingering fatigue from Saturday’s play, the team was a bit listless. Communication wasn’t where it needed to be and neither was focus.

Deep serves and serve reception were two of the focus points for this sessions, and they got threaded into things throughout.

The session started with some short court play based on balls in/near the net – including jousts. We had them play a trio of 3 v 3 games to 7 with a coach initiating a ball to start each rally. After that we progressed them to simple target serving. They had to put 10 balls into about the last meter or so of the court.

This was followed by 3s games. That brought serve reception in. We used Tennis Serving to encourage the players to keep working on the hard deep serves. Also, because we wanted to keep working on block positioning and penetration over the net, we put them on a narrow court and allowed front court attacks. That encouraged them to have someone at the net blocking.

From there we moved to full court back row Winners 4s. This was mainly about working on defense against back court attacks and getting hitters to do more transitioning ahead of their attacks. We used fixed MBs at the net (so three teams of three with a MB joining each team on-court), which let them work more on blocking. Tennis serving remained in place.

After that we did a hitter transition exercise. It was 4 v 6 with the 4 side having two hitters in their positions (e.g. two OHs – one front row, one back row), plus a defensive player and the setter. The 4s side defended one half of the court and received a down ball from over the net to start each rally. They then played out the rally. If a hitter failed to transition properly, the 6 team received a point. Otherwise it was normal scoring for a fixed time. We did one round each of OHs, OPPs, and then MBs. We then did a second round where we pair an OH and an OPP attacking through Zone 4.

From there we moved on to a first ball kill drill. One side received every serve until they got three first ball kills (otherwise the rally was played out). We started with Rotation 4, which was our weakest side out rotation on Saturday. After that we progressed through a couple of others that also had some struggles.

We finished up with a couple rounds of Scramble. That was included to work on calming down the more panicky stuff we were seeing.

Although there were a couple of lapses, the group was probably most focused during Scramble. That was probably the general best segment of the session. We were happy, though, with what we saw in the serving. In contrast to Saturday where many of our misses were in the net, in this case the misses in this practice during the game play were main long, which is definitely the more desirable.

This was an off day. NCAA rules require that players be given at least 2 days off each week during Spring training. Since were playing on Saturday we had to give the team a day off during the week. Tuesday is normally group sessions rather than team, so it made sense for this to be the day chosen.

The two major things we worked on today was serve and pass and hitters working on scoring against a well-formed block. In the case of the former, we played games of servers vs passers where we gave the passers a point for a 3 or 2 pass, and a point to the servers for aces or 1 passes. We didn’t penalize servers for missed serves unless they were in the net or were back-to-back. In those cases we gave a point to the passers. We played games to 10-12 points. They ended up being pretty competitive in terms of the scores.

For the hitting we did something motivated what I saw at the 2015 USA Volleyball HP Coaches Clinic. It features a narrow pin hitting zone defined by antennae put about 6′ (2m) apart. We had two hitters alternating swings against a double block with a pair of defenders playing behind them. The hitter’s side had a setter and two others to cover them.

The goal for each hitter was to get 5 points. If a ball was blocked, covered, and then was killed, they got 2 points. Otherwise, kills were worth a point. Errors were not counted to encourage aggressive swings. When a hitter reached 5 points they were replaced with another hitter.

Team practice was replaced with a session with a sports psychologist. He took the team (and staff) through a basic DISC analysis. It was interesting to see the distribution. Of the 10 players on-hand (one is off to a SAAC conference), 2 were D’s, 2 were I’s, 2 were S’s, and the other 4 C’s. Interestingly, the coaching staff was evenly divided between I’s and C’s. Want to guess which category I fell into?

We introduced the team to two new games today. The first was the “Brazilian” 2-ball volleyball tennis game we played regularly when I was coaching at Svedala. Not surprisingly, they had fun with it. The second was the Belly Drill. Maybe that one wasn’t quite as fun – at least not in the same way. 😉

The rest of practice was primarily comprised of the servers vs. passers game we played on Wednesday and the first ball kill drill we did on Monday. In the case of the latter, we went through all six rotations to get ready for Saturday’s home tournament.

We hosted a Spring tournament. We were supposed to play four matches, but one team needed to turn up late, so we sacrificed our first match to allow their opponent to still have a match in the early time slot. Probably for the best. We did a lot of player rotation, but it would have probably been too much as we’ve got a few players who are banged up one way or another.

The competition in our first two matches wasn’t great, though one of the teams did put us under a fair bit of pressure in serve receive. The last match was against Lone Start Conference rivals Cameron. They didn’t serve particularly tough, so we passed well. We did get stuck in rotations a couple of times.

The other two assistants stepped up the stat-keeping by doing in-rally work using Rotate 123, so we have some hitting figures beyond the kills and errors. We hit .260 in our first match, which wasn’t a great performance. Things got better in the second one where we hit .462. In the Cameron match we hit a respectable .315.

That last match was very closely contested. We should have won both the full sets as we had late leads, but lost by 2 in both cases. It was similar to the second set in our final match the week before. The offense clearly did well. We just needed to a be better on defense and exhibit some higher Volleyball IQ. In the first set we actually put three free balls we had to send over out of bounds.

So, some good stuff with plenty of room for improvement.

Three of our incoming players were at the tournament, plus a likely transfer was there playing for one of the other teams. After play ended we did a little clinic for some youngsters, then went out to the football stadium for the Spring Game festivities.

Advice to foreign coaches on getting a job in the US

I received an email from a coach in England. This person asked how someone like him can coach in the States. It’s something I wrote about a while back. Here’s his query, though:

I am just wondering how I go about getting into coach in a programme in America. It is my dream one day to coach out there and I am only 28 so I have a lot of time however I would like guidance on how to get there. Any thing you could help me with that would be great

I will be honest. It’s hard for foreign coaches to get jobs in the US. There are three main reasons.

  1. Visa sponsorship – Many schools simply won’t sponsor and pay the cost of a foreign coach’s visa to work in the US. Frankly, there are usually more than enough domestic applicants. They need not bother look abroad. And even if they are willing, it may not last. One of my U.K. coaching contacts ran into this issue. He got a job coaching at a college in the States. During the year the school said it would not renew his visa for a second year, though.
  2. Recruiting experience – Recruiting is a HUGE part of college volleyball coaching in the US. Foreign coaches simply don’t have any experience with this. That’s both in terms of the American youth volleyball system and the rules which govern recruitment.
  3. Cultural differences – There are some meaningful differences between how things operate in US volleyball and how they work elsewhere in the world. The social interaction between coaches and players – or lack thereof – is top of that list.

Now, some of this stuff is overcome with experience. One can learn about recruiting and the cultural of college athletics (not just volleyball) by getting an opportunity to actually be part of a program in the US. There are two ways a foreigner can get their foot in the door that potentially get around the visa problem.

  • Graduate Assistant (GA) – I’ll admit I don’t know a ton about the grad assistant hiring process. Most colleges and universities, though, deal with international students all the time. They have established policies and procedures to sort them out with visas and the like. It is much easier to get a student visa than a standard working one in most cases. That makes this a potential route into US college coaching.
  • Volunteer Assistant – If you’re not an actual employee you don’t need to have a work visa. That makes a volunteer coaching position a viable option for non-citizen. You need to investigate how long you can stay in the States as a tourist, though. I think it’s 90 days, but I haven’t looked it up. It may depend on your nationality.

Obviously, the advantage to the GA position is it’s paid. Plus, you earn a degree that is often sought after for head coach hirings in the US. If you volunteer you have to pay your own way, though there may be some opportunities to earn a bit of money.

The NCAA website is one place to look for postings. There is also an annual job posting thread on the Volley Talk forum (Men/Women) where you can find postings for GA and volunteer positions. For those who don’t know, there are WAY more jobs in women’s volleyball than in the men’s game in the US.

Of course it’s always a good idea to network as much as possible.

The tricky bit in all this is that if you do actually land a GA or volunteer position you have the issue of still needing a work visa to stay on once your time there is done. You will probably need to find a pretty well-funded program to get sustained visa support to the point where you can get your green card.

All that said, for someone from an EU country it is probably far easier to look for coaching work in one of the professional leagues in Europe. Admittedly, though, there probably aren’t as many full-time positions as in the US. Then again, there also aren’t as many folks not needing visa support competing for those jobs either.