## Thoughts on FIVB’s 7 sets to 15 proposal

As you may have heard, the FIVB is planning to experiment at the upcoming U23 World Championship (August for the men, September for the women) with a new match format. This was reported by Volleywood based on this article. Flo Volleyball also reported on it. The proposal is to play best-of-7 set matches, with all sets going to 15 points.

Not surprisingly, the news triggered a lot of opinion.

Mark Lebedew was very blunt in his response. He thinks it’s a stupid idea. That was his immediate response on Twitter, but he followed up with a more reasoned blog post. In it he talks about match time concerns.

I would love to see some stats on match times. Mark (and others) seem to think the expressed problem is matches lasting too long. Personally, I think match length variability is the real issue. You can have anything from a 3-set blowout lasting maybe an hour up to a 5-set battle going longer than 2 hours.

###### What’s the set breakdown for match length?

I went through all matches played in 2016 by Lone Star Conference (LSC) teams* to look at the breakdown. It added up to 236 matches, and here’s the outcome split.

3 sets: 122 (51.6%)
4 sets: 69 (29.2%)
5 sets: 45 (19.1%)

It occurred to me that conference matches might be more competitive than non-conference ones, so I broke them out. Here’s the split for just the conference matches, of which there were 118 (including the conference tournament).

3 sets: 67 (56.8%)
4 sets: 28 (23.7%)
5 sets: 23 (19.5%)

It’s interesting to observe that 5-set matches are basically the same. There is, however, a higher proportion of 3-set matches between conference foes. I can’t help but think that is a function of how coaches schedule non-conference matches.

###### Match time length

If we assume each 25-point set takes about 25 minutes to play, and a 15-point set is about 15 minutes, we get an indication of approximately how long matches take. That is about 75 minutes, 100 minutes, and 115 minutes respectively for 3, 4, and 5-set matches. Obviously, that’s a rough guide.How long a match goes is a function of how competitive it is, and whether it’s consistently competitive (tight sets rather than trading off lopsided scores).

Everyone talks about the 2-hour TV time block as being the sweet spot to make volleyball attractive to broadcasters. If every match lasted four sets things would work out pretty well for that. The problem is less than a third of matches, based on the numbers above, actually hit that mark. Roughly half fall well short, and about 20% potentially run too long.

This is why I say variability is probably the biggest issue.

And I’m not just talking about that in terms of TV. It also impacts the on-site spectator experience – and the one for players and coaches as well. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a real drag to travel hours for a match and have it last an hour. It’s very easy to wonder why you bother to make the trip.

###### Where does FIVB idea take us?

I don’t see going to a best-of-7 set format altering things much in terms of time variability. Yes, it most likely keeps matches under 2 hours if we continue to assume 15-minutes per set. Unfortunately, you still have the problem of a match only lasting an hour. That would be the case for a 4-setter.

This might be fine in the case of a big tournament like World Championships where teams play multiple matches and there are lots of them happening each day. As a stand-alone, though, all it would seem to do is solve the problem of matches running more than 2 hours. I personally don’t see that as being a major TV issue, as I’ve written about before.

###### More upsets?

There’s another side to this that I am really curious to see. That’s whether the 15-point sets lead to more set upsets. Generally speaking, the more points you play the more likely it is for the better team to win (same with playing more sets). Playing shorter sets means you have a greater influence of simple randomness. That could let to more instances of the weaker team winning sets than is currently the case. Presumably, the best-of-7 format would offset this, but I’ll be curious to see how it plays out.

###### Different mentality?

Also, there is the question of playing and coaching mentality. Is it different when only playing to 15 points? Making the high percentage play is probably the right strategy when you play a large number of points. When you play fewer points, though, there’s less time for the percentages to work out. How does that influence strategy and decision-making?

Also, what kind of impact does having to repeatedly get mentally up for the next game have on players? To an extent, with the longer sets players can play themselves into the action. They don’t have to worry too much about things not going well early. With the more sprint nature of shorter sets, though, that cushion goes away.

The bottom line is we have to see this new match structure in action to really gauge its implications.

Follow-up: John Kessel wrote the following about this format proposal. It matches much of what I noted above.

There are three things going on in these experiments.** 1. lengthening average matches. Currently world wide in best 3 of 5, 61% of the matches end 3-0, leaving fans going home “early” and TV having some 50 minutes of time left to “fill”; Junior play being best 2 of 3 means they fit in an hour time slot. By going to 4 of 7, and shortening the sets, then more upsets/longer matches still in the 2 hour window are more likely, see #2.. The move to rally meant shorter matches, but more upsets – and that is true statistically – refer to Finite Markov Chains for more on why this happens in all sports. The chance for upsets to occur means smaller nations/more nations might upset the top teams, and, as seen in soccer/futbal, that is a good thing to grow the game world wide.

* – The LSC is one of the stronger conferences in NCAA Division II women’s volleyball. In 2016 its top two teams finished the year in the Top-25 of the AVCA coaches poll.

** – The other “experiments” he is including are disallowing players to land in front of the service and attack (3m) lines on jump serves and back row attacks respectively.

## Seeing how things are done in different places

An advantage to coaching in a new country is learning the different ways they do things there. That also applies to the places you visit.

###### Different leagues, different rules

For example, when I coached in Sweden my Svedala team played at Holte in Denmark (outskirts of Copenhagen). The attendance was shockingly low. Just 16 people, and four of them were our supporters who drove over for the match (just about an hour away). After the match we had a conversation while waiting for the players to shower, etc. Our team manager told me the Danish teams work in a different type of system from the Swedish ones. Their local communities very heavily support the clubs. I don’t know what that means in terms of money, but Holte had 3 or 4 people on the bench, including a stat guy (commonly called a scoutman in Europe). We were just two.

###### Community support

What I find interesting is that although there’s big community funding, there’s no restriction on the number of foreign players allowed in the team. In Sweden we could play three. Holte had at least 5 – two from the US, two from Canada, and one from Scotland.

In Svedala we also had community support, but as I understand it, not quite to the same degree. One thing we did get is free use of the sport hall – at least for training. There was a wrinkle to that, though. We only got it so long as none of the players was over 25. If any were, then we had to pay 175 Swedish kronor (about \$20) per hour.

I definitely know of situations in other places where free/cheap gym time is tied in with age group or geographic considerations. For example, a high school gym is available for free for Juniors training so long as at least 50% of the players are from that town.

###### Other factors

Thinking a bit more broadly, in England there was in my time there a big general national level push for younger people (basically up through university ages) to be more physically active. That’s resulted in a lot of support for sports programs targeted at those age groups.

Interestingly, in Sweden there are major tax considerations which impact on the players clubs are incentivized to bring in. People over 25 pay a significantly higher tax rate than do younger ones. That directly factors into club budgets.

These sorts of higher level considerations are important to know. They can be a big factor in the general context in which certain types of policies and systems operate.

## Managing team cultural and language diversity

The topic of managing diversity came up in some of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. There are really two types of situation where this situation arises. One is the case where the coach is of a different nationality or cultural background from the players. An example of this is a national team where the head coach is not from that country. The other case is a team made up of players from multiple cultures. You see this a lot at the professional level where teams and staffs comprise players from potentially many  countries.

Both Paulo Cunha (Portugal) and Vital Heynen (Belgium/Germany) talked on this subject in their interviews. In particular, Vital shared one way he seeks to avoid cliques developing, which this clip speaks to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

At Exeter I didn’t have to deal with the language thing all that much. The players I coached generally spoke pretty good English. No surprise given we were in an English-speaking country. Also, the players were from so many different countries (like 25) that there wasn’t a lot of overlap. Often, developing their language skills was part of the motivation for the foreign players being in England. In my last season, though, there was a Spanish speaking group who tended to use that for conversations between themselves (in general terms, the Spanish players I coached were the ones who most struggled with English). Sometimes the Chinese players also used that language speaking together.

Also, when I was with German professional team SC Potsdam last year there were clear German and Italian language cliques (the coaching staff was Italian and spoke that between themselves). At TV Bühl, the other German team I visited with last year, the coaching staff spoke Spanish among themselves, but English was the clear team language.

## College volleyball is not the end of the line

At USA Volleyball they express a philosophy. They tell coaches in the various educational programs that we should never be a player’s last coach. In the context of youth volleyballers, that’s a pretty easy mentality to take. At its most altruistic, coaching at that level is about bringing kids into the volleyball tent and keeping them there. From what can sometimes be a more materialistic perspective, the focus is on developing players for collegiate recruitment – or in the case of much of the the world outside the U.S., progress up the club ranks in a professional structure. The problem comes when you reach what many people view as the pinnacle of the sport in America – the college game.

###### College volleyball is not the end

Yes, there is the national team. The vast majority of college coaches, though, don’t give much thought to even that. After all, only players from the top programs make it into the national program. Basically, they just expect their players to graduate and go get a job in the real world.

Here’s the thing, though. There’s a whole bunch of former US collegiate players who have gone on to play overseas after graduation. USA Volleyball reports that more than 300 American players file for international transfer certificates (required to play outside your own country). About 2/3rds of them are women.

For some of them it’s about continuing their education and using their volleyball skills to pay their way. I coached against a few of those players in my time coaching BUCS in England. Former Stetson University assistant coach Scott Tunnell is an example of this sort of player. A handful of universities in the UK activity recruit former US college players with Master’s degree scholarships. Not a bad way to continue your education and get an experience living and playing abroad.

Of course the headline players are the ones who go on to play in top foreign profession leagues. The New York Times has been the highest profile news outlet to pick up on the story. Volleyball Magazine had an article on the subject and I came across an interesting piece on Facebook as well. And Americans are not the only ones going this route. Canadians are in on the party as well.

It isn’t only the household name volleyball players going pro, though. A former player of mine from my Brown coaching days played on teams in Belgium, Holland, and England. Brown is hardly the sort of program anyone would expect to produce professional volleyballers, but she went on to have a great experience playing abroad.

###### It’s not just about going pro overseas

On top of the international opportunities, we cannot forget domestic beach volleyball, USA Volleyball indoor club play, and any potential pro league that might develop. The point is college coaches shouldn’t be looking at their programs as the final stop in their player’s coaching journey. We need to maintain that USA Volleyball philosophy of not being a player’s last coach.

One of the more rewarding experiences of my coaching at Exeter was having a Danish exchange student who spent a semester with the team tell me at the end she enjoyed her volleyball so much that she was going to try to find a way to keep playing when she got back home. We should all be aiming to have that kind of impact on our athletes. If nothing else, the better their experience with us the more likely they’ll be to support the program – and the sport in general – in the future!

## Volleyball England influencing university volleyball

Volleyball England a while back announced an extension of its Talent Pathway into the university arena. The Talent Pathway is the progression of volleyball athletes through the youth ranks toward senior national team selection. They call it a senior academy program. The expressed idea is that it will provide English players a way to continue their progression and development beyond the Juniors level. England brought back the senior national teams in 2015 after they were defunded following the Olympics.

The announcement relates to what I wrote about in regards to the conflict between the competitive needs of university clubs and the demands put on them in terms of growing volleyball participation. I am all for making university volleyball in the UK stronger. It benefits the sport overall, and it should eventually develop a player pipeline for the national team (as it does in the US). From that perspective, I approve of the move.

###### But …

Let’s be honest, though. University volleyball (BUCS) is simply not strong enough at the moment. It does not provide a meaningful developmental platform for prospective international and/or professional caliber players. Barring a massive influx of talented athletes, it won’t be any time soon. The reality of the situation is that this will be all about playing top level NVL volleyball. Specifically, that means Super 8s.

That’s all fine and good (if it works as intended). Let’s just not think this is something which will have a direct impact on university volleyball. All it will tend to do is create a very clear group teams far above the rest. If other schools are encouraged to better support volleyball to be more competitive, then great! I see just as much chance, though, of them looking at this and saying “Why bother?”.

## Is the US producing enough quality volleyball players?

There was a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. Criticism of the US soccer youth system triggered it. That was by one of the UK newspapers with respect to the system’s ability to produce world class talent. Naturally, someone wondered about the effectiveness of the US system for producing world class volleyball players.

For those not familiar with it, the US system essentially has three primary facets. At the top is collegiate volleyball. US national team players come almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools. At this level, players are virtually professionals. They exchange their athletic services for a potentially very costly education (but that’s a separate debate!). College players generally have a 3-4 month regular season. During that time they train 3-4 days per week and compete two others (single matches during the conference season, 1-2 matches during pre-conference play). During the off-season there is about a month where they can do daily team training. They also are allowed a small number of competition dates. Otherwise, the focus is primarily on strength & conditioning work. A couple hours a week of individual or small group training is mixed in.

Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball (and middle school volleyball in some regions). The high school season tends to be similar to the collegiate one in terms of length and gym time commitment. Club volleyball takes place in the school off-season. Teams will generally not train more than three times a week and the play is tournament focused. The top teams compete in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I college ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.

There is no proper pro league in the US at this point. Players who want to go that route have to catch on with a team abroad. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that have developed in soccer as the teams in MLS work to establish feeder systems. This makes them less reliant on the college system for players. That’s often been seen as a weak point in the chain, since college soccer is not at the level of training and competition players developing in the professional systems in other parts of the world get.

Actually, even where top level professional leagues exist in the US there isn’t an underlying youth academy system. Yes, MLS is going in that direction as it looks to the overseas model. Baseball and hockey both have minor league affiliates through which they can develop younger players, but many of them still come through the college ranks, and generally speaking a player won’t enter these systems until after high school. The NFL and NBA don’t really have the same kind of minor league structure. Football is essentially entirely reliant on college for players. In basketball you’ll occasionally get players like LeBron and Kobe who skip straight to the pros, but most will spend at least some time in college.

The US model therefore sees sports very much linked to education. In England, there’s an element of that in term of BUCS at the university level. The structure is different, though. The school doesn’t sponsor the teams. It’s not a varsity situation. Rather, clubs affiliate with the school. Even that isn’t something commonly seen in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.

The first big question which seems to be coming out of the debate on Volley Talk is whether in fact there’s a problem with the US developmental structure. Then, assuming one thinks that at least there is the potential for improvement, where are the problems and how can you address them.

Of course there is one big overarching question. Should the US volleyball system aim to produce elite international caliber players? Or should participation be the goal? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter.

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