Sometimes the wheels just come off

Once, when I coached at Exeter, I witnessed one of those seemingly inexplicable events which sometimes happen in volleyball. The university men I coached took on the defending league champions (and odds-on favorites that season) in a home match. The opposition was depleted by injuries and were a bit ragged to start the match. We were able to jump on them and take a relatively comfortable first set win (best of three).

Then the wheels absolutely came off.

The second set saw us make just about every error imaginable. Free balls were sent out of bounds. Hitters tipped the ball straight out of the court. Lack of communication caused defensive errors. The setter dumped a ball wide. Hitters tried to power balls low through double blocks, with predictable results. At one point, during a timeout, I told the guys it was like there was a force field on the other side of the court the way the balls we were playing over were flying long or wide.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Once, as coach of a 16-and-under girls team in the Regional Championship Juniors tournament during the pre-rally days we were 4-0 in pool play (played 2 sets against each other team) and were facing the other top team. We proceeded to lose the first set 15-0. Then, we turned around and won the second set fairly comfortably. Why did this happen? The girls were totally stressed out in the first set. They were thinking about winning the pool and it got them all tight. After that I focused almost 100% on keeping them loose and having fun. That team progressed to the semifinals, losing to the eventual champions.

In fact, even in the prior season the Exeter guys had a similar scenario against this same competition. Neither team was at full strength and in an ugly match we went up 1-0, then had a horrible second set. That pretty much did them in, as they lost 1-2.

Now, before I get on to what happened in the third set of this particular match, I should talk a bit about the line-up. I actually goofed before the first set and put the line-up in 3 rotations off from what I’d intended. Simple mistake of writing the numbers in with the wrong net orientation. We’ve all made silly mistakes like that at one time or another. Going into the second set I corrected things to the originally intended line-up. The idea there was to put our bigger MB along the front when their best OH was at the net. Clearly, it didn’t accomplish anything, so for the deciding set I switched back.

We actually got off to a good start and were up 10-6 or 10-7. Then things got tough again. At one point we had consecutive tentative errors in a the form of a serve into the net and a ball hit long. They allowed the other team’s best server to get back on the line and rip off a string of hard jump servers that did us in. We battled and were at 14-14, but couldn’t finish it off.

So what happened?

Fear took over. Simple as that. A clear indication of that is the change in our serving. In the first set we were putting them under pressure but in the latter parts of the match the serves became less aggressive. I’m not saying this was the only thing. We needed to do a long list of things better. That underlying psychology was the biggest factor, though.

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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.

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