Serving: Go for it or get it in?

The posting to the USA Volleyball blog a while back of a brief article related to serving stimulated a debate. Is an aggressive serving mentality better, or should one be more conservative and minimize errors? This is a subject I’ve written about before in Looking at Serving Risk and Reward. No doubt I’ll write about it again in the future as well. In any case, there are a couple of points worth making related to some of the comments I saw in the exchange.

One coach make the comment that on the male side of the sport you have to take an aggressive, let it rip mentality to have success. This is no doubt driven by the the relatively high sideout percentages seen in the men’s game. I coached men’s volleyball for a couple of years at Exeter. It’s certainly true that you need to put of the opposing offense off-balance. You don’t want them able to just ram the ball down your throat every time. The idea that you have to have your servers going back and being aggressive all the time is just wrong, in my mind. In fact, I would contend that it is a recipe for trouble.

As I wrote in When the Serve Needs to Be In, there are such things as bad misses. I had a team cost themselves a match and potentially three spots in the final standings of a championship tournament because of one string of bad serves. It happened in the middle of a set we were winning – in a match they looked to have in-hand. At the top levels the trade-off may most often favor bombing the serve. Where most of us operate, though, that isn’t always the case.

Actually, even at the top level a more conservative approach can be desirable. In a discussion in late 2014, USA women’s national team coach, Karch Kiraly, talked about a change they made between the Grand Prix and the World Championships that year. They switched all their jump spin servers to jump floats because they found the spin serves simply were not providing enough incremental benefit to outweigh the increased number of service errors. You can read Karch’s comments in this Volleyball Magazine article.

Having said that, it is possible to have too few service errors. At one point during a season in my time at Brown we realized the team was serving too tentatively. They were only making maybe 2 errors per set. This was back in the days of 30-point games, so this was a paltry number of points dropped. We figured at the time that 3-4 errors was probably indicative of being at an appropriate level of aggressiveness.

The bottom line is that you need to find a good balance between going for it and making sure to keep the ball in for your team and level of play. Don’t go simply by what you see or hear from those working at a very different level of competition. Also realize that sometimes match conditions will favor being either more or less aggressive.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

5 comments

  1. Kelly Daniels says:

    John,
    I love this topic to say the least. I’m on the side of staying aggressive though out the match. Take the good with the bad, sort of say. The reason is as follow:

    “Simply serving the ball in across the net isn’t good enough for teams who want to win championships. The serve is your first opportunity to break down your opponent and take the opposing players out of their rhythm. Both players and coaches can look for weak spots evident in opponents’ statistics, warm-ups, or performance in the early part of a match. A weakness might involve a specific player or a certain alignment. If it involves a specific player, serve to him or her until the coach puts in a sub or you win the game. It’s also important to designate the opponent’s top passer; sometimes, if you don’t serve to him or her for a good part of the match, the player loses concentration and passing touch. Then, if suddenly served to after a long drought, he or she may be caught by surprise and fail to pass a good ball. Another point to remember is that some teams and some players just don’t handle the jump serve very well; they’ll end up overpassing the ball or shanking it to the side.” – Pete Waite (Aggressive Volleyball) Former Head Coach, Wisconsin Volleyball.

    It has been my experience with all my teams whom I’ve coached at the junior club level and collegiately that taking the aggressive approach over the consistent put my teams at an advantage. I measure (stat) the serving game in a match and found out that when we do lose it never has anything to do with the serving by my teams.
    I agree that sometimes it’s more important to get the ball in than serve aggressive. Those times are then to serve the identified opponent’s weakest passer. We do this after a time out or extended delay in a match.
    Keep the info coming I love reading your experiences and coaching ideas and philosophies.

    Regards,
    Koach Kelly…

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      Kelly – I can’t help but wonder if the opposite of your findings is also true – that when you win it doesn’t have anything to do with your serve either.

      When I was at Brown we collected serving stats along the lines of the ones we were doing for serve receive (0-5 scale), but there was never any real systematic look at whether it related to our results.

  2. Kelly Daniels says:

    John,
    My correlation is that we’ve had many of our matches where we served in the high 90% and lost. Served in the 70% range and won. This data seems to be on a consistent basis. This is why I made the statement.
    I look at serving the same as attacking. I’m not going to tell my athletes to not take a big swing in fear of making a mistake. My feedback after a mistake if it’s not technique is keep swinging. If I see an opening in the defense then I instruct to attack that position(s). If the game plan is attack a specific area of the opponent that information is then provided. This is the same as I do with serving.
    I’ve seen coaches who take out athletes for making only attacking errors. I am not that kind of coach. Any longer that is, hehehehe. If passing, defense, blocking, and serving are productive I leave in that athlete(s). I do the same in the factor of serving being that defense, blocking, and attacking remains productive.

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      Kelly – I add a layer to it. I’m big on playing intelligently – avoiding “bad” mistakes. In the attack, that means if you get a crap set, mistimed your approach, or whatever then your odds of getting a kill are very low so don’t go up and smash the ball. At the same time, though, if you’re in a position to take a good swing then do it! I will never criticize a player for making a technical mistake, and often will cheer them on for being aggressive, but I’ll let them know when they made a mental one so they can make a better decision in the future.

  3. Kelly Daniels says:

    In this regard we both are really on the same page. My instruction in serving, ‘if you are not feeling it, then go ahead and serve to the opponent’s endline’.
    “Bad” mistakes do not help in what the team is trying to accomplish. So when they occur, my instructions are simple as to remind the athlete(s) to be conscience of the situation and do what will be a positive result. Even if it’s get the ball over the net with a freeball. We train aggressive freeball in this regard.
    We train out of system situations constantly, because the majority of the match, if the opponent is as good as our team, we will be out of system. Serving is our tool to put our opponent out of system if at all possible.
    Thank you for the conversation. It is very refreshing to have this type of conversation with you.

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