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.
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.
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.