Serve first or receive first?

Your team wins the pre-match coin toss. Do you take serve? Or do you take receive?

At the upper levels of the sport the answer is very simple. You take receive. Why? Two reasons.

First, the sideout percentages are quite high for top level teams. Mark Lebedew shared some stats from the German men’s Bundesliga (top league) a while back which indicated that teams scored just about 2/3rds of the time when receiving serve. He’s since also provided data from Poland, France, Italy, and Russia. So from the perspective of getting on the board first, you don’t want to be serving.

Second, as Mark points out, the receiving team actually has less to do to win a set than the serving team:

“…in any given set, the number or sideouts is equal, give or take one.  What decides the set is the number of points the teams win on serve. The receiving team must win one more point on serve than its opponent to win the set. The serving team must win two more points on serve to win the set. Scoring a point on serve is more difficult than winning a point on reception. Therefore the team receiving first has an advantage.”

Of course the considerations are quite a bit different at the other end of the talent spectrum. There serving is much more dominant. If you’re coaching at a level where the sideout percentage is only about 1 in 3, then you’re going to want to have the first serve. The frequency at which points are scored on serve will tend to make what Mark outlines above irrelevant.

If you’re coaching in the middling zone where sideout rates are close to 50%, then other considerations may come into play.

Regardless, this is one area of coaching where knowing the relevant statistics can make for quite clear-cut decision-making. Of course, this might also tie in with how you decide your starting rotation.

USA Volleyball High Performance Clinic 2015

I mentioned a couple weeks ago on social media that I’d committed to attending this year’s USA Volleyball High Performance coaching clinic next month at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The clinic fee is extremely reasonable when you consider it comes with room and board. The big expense for me is the travel from England. Ouch!

Actually, it was the prospects of developing news contacts that ended up being the bigger factor in my decision to commit to the cost. The educational side of things is important, of course, but right now I’m in the middle of trying to get myself back into full-time coaching, as I’ve been documenting in my job hunt log. Contacts could come in quite handy in that respect. In fact, one of the head coaches whose assistant position I’ve put in for is a clinic presenter (though I would imagine she’ll have finished the search by then).

Anyway, the other day I got the schedule for the event, which covers an evening and two full days. It looks like this:

Thursday (Feb 5th)

18:00-18:40 Welcome and Opening Remarks
18:40-19:40 Flashback to Fourteen Women’s and Men’s national team staffs, Women’s Junior and Girls’ youth national team staffs
19:45-21:30 Welcome Social

Friday (Feb 6th)

8:00-9:10 What Does it mean to Play Well? Blocking Julio Velasco
9:15-10:15 First Things First: The Competitive Power of Serve Receive Laurent Tille
10:15-10:40 Small group topic discussions
10:45-12:15 Game On Steve Shenbaum
13:15-14:15 Promoting More Process: Bingo with the National Team Karch Kiraly
14:15-15:15 Getting the Most Out of Your Practice: Practice Planning and Motor Learning Jamie Morrisson
15:20-15:40 Small group topic discussions
15:55-16:40 Mindfulness and Performance Mark Aoyagi
16:45-17:40 Same Continent, Different Coaches: Playing for Team USA Over the Decades Stacy Sykora, Tracy (Stalls) Insalaco, Christa Dietzen, Kayla Barnworth

Saturday (Feb 7th)

8:00-9:05 Structure and Spirit in Defense Laurent Tille
9:10-10:10 High Performance Championship Team and Technique Training Rod Wilde and Shelton Collier
10:10-10:30 Small group topic discussions
10:45-11:30 A Legacy of Success – Program Development Across Cultures Julio Velasco
11:35-12:20 Volleyball Decision Making: Combining the Art and the Science Joe Trinsey, Nate Ngo, Jesse Tupac
12:25-13:10 Collegiate National Team Training Bill Neville
14:15-15:15 Scouting to Win: Developing Strategies in Match Preparation Jim Stone, Tom Hogan, Lindsey Devine, Brook Coulter, Erin Virtue
15:15-16:15 What Does it Mean to Play Well? Offense Julio Velasco
16:15-16:35 Small group topic discussions
16:45-17:25 The French Touch: Practice Organization the French Way Laurent Tille
17:25-18:10 Empowering Your Staff Karch Kiraly, Doug Beal, Jim Stone, Tom Hogan
19:30-23:30 Attendee Social

Pretty intense, eh?

Along with the official socials and the small group discussions, there are the shared meals and Friday night to spend time with fellow attendees. Should be an interesting couple of days.

Naturally, I will provide a full report. 🙂

Back in Berlin

Taking a bit of a break from the job hunt work – which has practically become a full-time job! – to spend a bit more time with the pros. I’m back in Berlin hanging out with Mark Lebedew and the BR Volleys boys. Yesterday they had a big home match against their chief domestic rivals VfB Friedrichshafen, with the latter currently sitting atop the Bundesliga standings. Berlin won. Great crowd and atmoshphere – and a win for the home side. On Wednesday they host Budvanska Rivijera Budva from Montenegro in the CEV Champions League. A win will assure them of advancing out of the group stage.

It’s now been over a month since I was last on-court, so this trip is a bit of volleyball fix to ward off the withdrawal symptoms. Maybe I’ll be able to get some interesting video and/or audio to share after I get back on Thursday.

Anything in particular you’d like to see?

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Jan 16, 2015

Among the jobs I applied for that are now filled is UT Rio Grande Valley, which is a new merged University of Texas school (UT Pan American is the Division I program included). Never got a response to my application. Not a real surprise as they simply put the UT Brownsville (part of the merger) coach in the job. In other words, the posting was simply pro forma, which happens a lot. I’ve seen that CS Fullerton is also filled. No response at all there, yet. Also never got a response from Mississippi State either, which is also filled, not that I expected much there. That was a complete shot-in-the-dark application (one of several). Yesterday I commented on three other positions that I know for sure I won’t be getting.

Found out the head coach at one of the schools where I applied for an assistant coach vacancy resigned. That throws things up in the air! I’ve now applied for the head coach job, both online and by emailing the SWA (did that before the online posting went up).

I also applied for three more assistant jobs in the last week. Two were schools in middling conferences. One is an experienced head coach with a very inexperienced staff. The other is even more experienced, but seems to favor more experience assistants based on what I’ve seen. The other is quite high profile, in a stronger conference.

I also decided against applying for another assistant position at a school in a top conference. I am acquainted with the other assistant there, but right now it’s an all-male staff. I’m pretty sure they’ll be looking to bring in a female to fill that vacancy.

A potentially enticing assistant job was posted recently that has given me pause. It’s in a top conference for a very experienced and well-respected head coach. The problem is it’s a volunteer job. Hard to think about a year with no income given they want someone to start right away and make a 12-month commitment. Plus, as a volunteer you get no off-campus recruiting experience, which is a major consideration in going after other jobs. Actually, a couple of those sorts of jobs have now been listed.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Jan 15, 2015

It wasn’t my original intention to post a log entry today as I’ve got one lined up for tomorrow. I feel the need to let loose a bit of a rant, though, with regards to the behavior of a certain human resources group. Let me present you a comparative scenario.

I applied for assistant coach posted vacancies at both Minnesota and Georgetown, neither job of which I will be landing. You can make whatever case you like about my prospects, qualifications, etc. for either position. That’s not the point of this particular post. My focus here is in how I was treated as an applicant.

On I received the following from the Georgetown head coach:

Dear Mr. Forman:

We appreciate your interest in Georgetown University and the position of Assistant Volleyball Coach for which you applied. After reviewing the applications, yours was not selected for further consideration.

The selection committee appreciates the time you invested in your application. We wish you every personal and professional success with your job search and in the future. Thank you, again, for your interest in our company.


Arlisa Williams

It’s a pretty standard rejection letter. The “our company” bit at the end gives the strong impression of a copy/paste job. No big deal, though. I may be disappointed, but I respect the fact that they let me know I was not going to be in the running.

Here’s an email I received today from a “Human Resources Generalist” at Minnesota:

Thank you for your application for the position of Assistant Women’s Volleyball Coach in the Athletics Department at the University of Minnesota.  Your interest in Gopher Athletics is appreciated.  We want to inform you that the position has been filled.

Best of luck in your future professional endeavors and thank you again for your interest in the University of Minnesota.

On the face of it, also a reasonable note. It doesn’t bother me that it didn’t come from Coach McCutcheon. Here’s what does bother me. The hiring of a new assistant coach was announced publicly more than a week ago!

Only slightly better was the automated email I got from Nevada, Reno with respect to the head coach position there:

Applications have been reviewed carefully and after considerable deliberation, the number of candidates has been narrowed. Unfortunately, your application was not one selected for further consideration at this time.  We appreciate your interest in employment at University of Nevada, Reno.

That one only came two days after the hiring announcement.

I honestly find this sort of thing insulting, and maybe unprofessional as well. If I’m taking the time to apply for the job – which is no instant thing – then I’m damn sure paying attention to developments related to this. Do you think I don’t know the job’s been filled? It would be one thing if this was still the days of printed letters and postal delivery. It’s not. You can send out rejection emails as soon as a decision is made.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse to hear nothing at all.

Am I being overly harsh here?

Calling plays from the bench

A conversation developed in response to my Hail the Setter! post on the subject of coach vs. player play calling. That actually stimulated Oliver at Volleyblog to put up his own post. It includes a comparison he did between volleyball and American football for his German coaching qualifications. I thought it was worth developing a deeper discussion of the play calling subject. That is the motivation for this article.

There are a couple of ways to think about play calling from a volleyball perspective. One is defining a basic offensive or defensive structure. The other is looking at things on a rally-by-rally, or even play-by-play perspective. The former deals with looking at broad patterns, both in terms of your own team’s strengths and weaknesses and the tendencies of the opposition. For example, you may generally play a perimeter defense, but go rotation against certain teams for better tip protection. Those are important considerations, but it’s the more micro level play-calling that’s the real subject here.

Is it worth calling plays?

Let’s face it. In some cases it makes little sense at all to think about play calling. If your players lack the technical ability or sophistication to run different plays, then play-calling accomplishes nothing. Beyond that, though, sometimes there’s really no need. A lot can be accomplished with a base play.

Think about it. In football terms a setter can be thought of as being a lot like an option quarterback. The setter knows the situation and their attacking options. As the ball comes to them they make a decision which option to select based on the quality of the pass, the disposition of the block, etc. Just as a well-executed option play in football is hard to defend, a setter who makes good decisions and puts their hitters in good situations is very hard to play against.

The point I’m trying to get at is oftentimes you’re better off just working on improving what you’ve got rather than trying to add lower competence level options

Making the call

Of course the idea behind having multiple plays is to try to create mismatches, exploit weaknesses in the other team’s block/defense, and the like. If your team has the quality to execute different plays then it makes sense to diversify your play. The question is who makes those play calls.

In football it used to be that quarterbacks called their own plays. These days that’s largely no longer the case. The exception would be audibles before the ball is snapped based on the opposing defense’s positioning. Nowadays plays are called from the sidelines by the coaching staff, sometimes in quite creative ways with hand signals, posters, and other visuals. With some team even the audibles are called from the sideline.

In volleyball the pattern has generally been the opposite. The setter is the one making the offensive play call, usually right before the serve. Sometimes the coach makes a play call in a specific situation. I can remember an instance when I was at Brown where I told the setter to give our OPP a back 2 in a serve receive play because the opposing OH was starting near the antenna and would struggle to get in on the faster set. It wasn’t a play, per se. It was just pointing out a specific mismatch.

Of course coaches can also call the play – one at a time for serve receive, or in terms of signaling the free ball/transition play. One season we devised a 2-digit play-calling system. One digit was for the MB and one for the OH. When the OPP was in the front row her set was based on the MB digit. The setter still made the play-calling decision most of the time, but when we wanted something specific this was a simple thing to use from the bench to tell the setter what to run rather than having to explicitly say “Suzy 4, Becky 1, Jane 5.”

Defensive play-calling

Most of the time the determination of blocking and defensive schemes are done pre-match. This is either driven by team personnel or based on scouting information. It is, of course, possible to change schemes during a match, like shifting from a perimeter to a rotation defense, Those tend to be permanent calls by the coach, however, as opposed to the play-by-play calls made by the setter.

That said, there are situations where short-term adjustments are a good idea. For example, it might be desirable to commit block on a certain hitter in a given situation. In that case, again the call generally comes from the bench. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent an experienced middle blocker making that call. Similarly, a libero may be given authority to change the base floor defense as they see fit.

In-rally play-calling

While it’s fairly easy to understand how offensive and defensive play calls can be made pre-serve, the more challenging issue is making calls mid-rally. You do hear variations on this sort of thing happening. I don’t recall many instances of coaches calling offensive plays from the bench during play – at least beyond yelling “Set Jamie!” or something like that. I have, though, seen more of it defensively. Even there, though, it’s more a question of pointing things out rather than actually calling a play.

For example, there was UCLA match I saw in I think the 2013 season during which assistant coach Stein Metzger was calling the opposing team’s offensive play. They had clearly seen a tendency to run a specific play when they showed a certain court position configuration coming off serve receive. When Stein saw it he called out “Slide-2.” That’s more about recognition than defensive play-calling, but if UCLA had worked out a specific way to deal with that play, then he was basically signalling the use of that strategy to the team.

If you call it, will they run it?

While volleyball, like football, has specific stoppages during which plays can be called by the coach, things get tricky after the first exchange when play shifts into transition. There are two major hinderances to play-calling in transition. The first is whether the players will even hear you yelling from the sidelines. A lot of players say they don’t hear anything from outside the court – the coach, the spectators, their teammates on the bench – and it’s not like you want them to break their focus on the running play to pay attention to you.

Even if the players do hear you, there is the concern about speed of transmission. It will take you a certain amount of time to process what you’re seeing, turn that into a play, and shout that to the players. They then have to receive the instruction and process it. During fast-moving play, the decision-making lag introduced by the coach could be quite problematic.

To call, or not to call

I personally am not a huge fan of coaches calling plays – at least in a non-professional or national team type of environment. I consider developing good decision-making in my players to be one of my jobs. Hard to do when you don’t actually let the players make decisions. Plus, volleyball is such a dynamic sport that players need to be able to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. We hinder that by making play calls.

Do I sometimes call plays? Sure. But when I do I try to make it a learning experience and not just a “Do as I say” sort of thing.

As a side note, Mark Lebedew brought up the idea of “scripting” the first X number of offensive plays. This is an idea developed by legendary football coach Bill Walsh (Mark highlighted this book). At least part of the idea of scripting is to be able to get a read on the other team’s defense and/or to set up later plays). It’s conceptually interesting to think about. Actually executing, however, is tricky as you cannot predict pass quality.

Recognizing players for good training

Player recognition for their performance in matches tends not to be something which needs all that much coaching focus. Those who do well in competition tend to get plenty of praise for it from all different corners. Though sometimes we do need to point out good play which is not so obvious to those outside the team.

Training is a different story. Some rare circumstances aside, practice is only attended by the team, so there is no external source of recognition. That means it has to come from within the group. If there’s a good team dynamic, players will tend to provide on-the-spot recognition for each other during the session. That covers one aspect of it. You, as coach, are responsible for the rest.

Importantly, a big part of “the rest” is setting and maintaining expectations. You want praise and recognition parceled out when it’s deserved and it’s the result of doing things the right way. Training is when that right way is being established and developed. That makes it a key time for recognition, and for warranted constructive criticism (handled in the right way, of course).

The question is how to dole out that recognition.

The Exeter women’s team I coached had I think a quite good way to recognize players for a good practice. At the end of each session I brought them together to talk about how things went. That’s when I reinforced what we were working on, go over any administrative details, etc. We would then do the team cheer to conclude. Then I selected a player who stood out in my mind as doing well that training to lead the cheer.

I did not initiate the procedure myself, as it was basically already in place when I started working with the team. I definitely found it worthwhile, though. Not only did it allow me to recognize someone for having a good session – by their own standards – at times I could also use it to recognize a player who perhaps hadn’t received much in the way of specific notice or otherwise I thought could benefit from being at the center of attention for a moment.

A side effect of using this team cheer leading is that it sometimes led to moments of levity. I surprised a lot of players by picking them, which led to some funny responses like monetarily forgetting how to start the cheer. One season I had two players whose names I always flipped for some reason. I would look at one of them in the cheer huddle, meaning for her to take the lead, but say the other one’s name.

Funny moments aside, one of the things I like about this particular recognition procedure is that it serves the desired purpose of giving a deserved pat on the back. It does so in a low key fashion, though. You want to avoid making a player uncomfortable by singling them out for praise. Also, you don’t want the team resentful of someone who gets individual praise. Those sorts of things can have severe effects on team chemistry.

The cheer approach represents one sort of recognition – that is for doing well over a period of time, in this case a practice. There should also be recognition of a more immediate nature when a player (or group) does something deserving of it. We call this positive feedback. 🙂

Putting together a starting line-up

There are a lot of questions which come to mind when considering a starting line-up. This isn’t just for inexperienced coaches. It’s something we think about for basically every team, and often from match to match. The decision of what to put on the line-up slip comes in two parts. First is the placement of players on the court relative to each other. Second is in which rotation they start the set.

When it comes to the order of placement of the players on the court, two factors generally dominate the considerations.


The first thing you absolutely need to look to do is create as balanced a line-up as you possibly can. You won’t come up with something where all six rotations are equally strong. You definitely want to keep any one rotation from being excessively weak, though. That’s a guarantee of finding yourself stuck giving up points in bunches. As much as it might sound great to have one really strong rotation to try to score runs of points, that rarely works out. Just too many ways to give up the sideout that ends the string. This is why most line-ups put stronger players next to weaker ones and away from each other.

For example, the classic 5-1 line-up puts the strongest MB and the strongest OH next to the setter. It ensures one of the strongest hitters is always front row with the setter. In multi-setter line-ups (6-2, 4-2, etc.) you create balance by matching stronger hitters with weaker setters.

Not that offense is the only focus. Blocking, defense and passing can also come into the equation as well.

Serve Reception

While balance is generally a question of which players are either next to our away from each other, serve reception considerations often come down to the order in which the players are placed on the court. This is where the question of whether the MB leads the setter (serves immediately before) or follows (serves immediately after in the rotation. Coaches generally favor the MB leads pattern when running 5-1 and 6-2 offenses. It allows the setter to push up toward the net more easily and offers some additional positional options. That doesn’t mean it’s always the best option, though.

Once you have your players positioned relative to each other it’s time to think about the starting rotation. Here a number of things need to be considered. Generally speaking, the idea is to give your strongest point scoring rotation out first, but that’s not necessarily a simple thing. Here are some potential ways to look at it.

Strong/Weak Servers

Particularly in the younger age groups where serving can dominate, it can make a lot of sense to have your strongest server be the first one back at the line. That means you start them in Position 1 if you have serve to start the set, or Position 2 if the other team serves first. Another way to think of this is in terms of clusters of good servers. If you have two or three next to each other in the rotation, you could have them be the first ones to hit the service line, even if there is one player who is individually stronger than any of those in the cluster.

Flipping around, you could also think in terms of putting your weakest server(s) toward the back of the service order. This limits how often they serve, and by extension any negative influences from them doing so poorly.

I personally tend not to favor my best server going first – all else being equal. I’ve just found that the first serve of a set is subject to negative influences. As a result, putting your best server first often works like them going last in terms of their actual influence. I have absolutely no problem putting a weak server last, though!

Hide the Small/Feature the Big Front Row Player

If you run a 5-1 system where the setter has to play front row where they may be a blocking liability, it might make sense to start them in Position 1. That minimizes the amount of time they spend in the front row. This can apply to any position really. For example, a smaller OH could be started in the back row.

The reverse of this is maximizing the time a particularly strong front row player is at the net. That means starting them in Position 4, or perhaps Position 5.

This sort of thing also tends to limit the time you’re in a weak rotation and/or increase the time in your strongest one.


In some cases you may want to consider creating a favorable match-up against the opposition by starting in a certain rotation. Put your best blocker against their best hitter, your strongest OH against a small blocking S, a strong server against a weak serve receive rotation, etc. Or you could set the rotation to avoid certain match-ups.

A bit of caution is needed here, though. Just as balance is generally desirable to avoid getting stuck in a bad rotation, the same thing should be considered when looking at match-ups. It could be that trying to pit your best attacker against the opponent’s weakest blocker also creates the opposite situation. You want to make sure you keep from ending up with you having a weak rotation against the other team’s strong one.

Then again, chasing match-ups may not be the best idea.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Jan 9, 2015

Had a piece of news yesterday which potentially changes things. I found out that barring an administrative overrule by my department my PhD funding, which is what I’m living on, will halt once I do my initial thesis submission. The path to the degree is 1) initial submission, 2) viva (defense) which must happen within three months, then 3) final submission, the timing of which depends on the feedback from the viva. In other words, there can still be a fair bit of time between initial submission and final.

I will speak with my supervisor about this, but if initial thesis submission means the end of my funding then it changes the timeline I’m working on. The basic plan I had in mind was to go after NCAA coaching jobs now (and moving forward), to explore professional jobs come March/April when that season ends if nothing has come up already on the NCAA front, and should I still be without a position heading into the summer I could either look for something outside coaching or pursue a volunteer position for the Fall season.

Definitely some stuff to think about. I could potentially drag the PhD thesis submission process out for a few months, but probably no longer than late Spring. We shall see.

Bringing things back to the present …

The first of the positions I applied for that has been filled (as far as I’ve seen) is the Minnesota assistant job. No real argument with the hire in terms of apparent credentials. I was never contacted.

I asked a contact of mine about a head coach job I put in for. He gave me some local intelligence on where the program and funding are at, frustrations of the last coach (who resigned), etc. He also said he thought they were looking to hire a female coach. Common story. Might be a bit more intelligence forthcoming.

An assistant coach job was posted recently that had me debating whether to apply. It’s in a good conference, so from that perspective I’d probably be otherwise inclined to give it a shot. My concern, however, is the nature of the school and its values. I’m not saying it’s bad or anything. It’s just different from my own and I have serious doubts as to how well I would fit in.

Also heard about another assistant position. Small conference, very low ranked team, but in a geographically desirable area. I reached out directly to the coach to see if they would consider me a candidate. He’s asked me to send a resume. If it’s the right fit I’d definitely consider it.

Another assistant position has also been indicated as open in Division II. Also in a good area geography-wise. It’s a combined role, but the pay only falls in the low $20s. Hard to justify taking something in that low a range for a job at a lower level that isn’t likely to offer the sort of longer-term career benefits I would seek from an assistant job.

Rumors are swirling about some of the higher profile head coach jobs having been filled, or nearly so. That will start some dominos tumbling in the weeks ahead.