Tag Archive for offensive strategy

Playing the court position game

In football (American) you often see teams play the field position game.

Basically, that means they attempt to put the opposition in a situation where they are close to their own goal line. Teams do this by punting when near the middle of the field because they don’t like the odds of going for it on fourth down. The hope is that this eventually results in a scoring opportunity because of a turnover or getting possession back with a short field.

There are similar strategies in rugby.

There is a parallel to this approach in volleyball. Admittedly, you probably see it more in the women’s game than in the men’s.

I’m talking about intentionally taking the other team out of system. You do this when you don’t have a good opportunity to get a kill yourself. Basically, it increases the odds you get another attack opportunity or that your opponent errs.

How is this done?

It is most easily accomplished by tipping or attacking at the setter. That is the most direct way to get a team out of system.

You can also try to get the opposing defenders on the floor. A tip to an undefended area will often do this. If you can force a front row attacker to play the ball, you decrease their chances of attacking aggressively in transition.

Alternatively, you can attack a part of the court that is hard to defend. A ball to one of the deep corners usually forces a defender to have to chase the ball. That often results in less than perfect digs.

As in the football example, the idea is to keep putting the opponent in a bad position so you increase the odds of winning the rally. It relates to the idea of playing conservatively to win. This is one of the things we need to train our players to be able to recognize and execute.

Trying to hide setter signals or make fake calls

Yesterday I addressed an email that came in on the subject of having hitters call their sets or call for the ball. One of the parts of the email I didn’t specifically address in that post is the idea of hiding play calls and/or otherwise trying to deceive the other team about what attack routes the hitters will be taking.

I certainly have no probably with the setter hiding the sets their indicating to their hitters. I’m a bit less enthusiastic about hitters yelling for one set and running for another, as the emailer described.

In all seriousness, does that sort of thing ever work?

If I’m a blocker I’m watching you make your run, not really listening to what you’re saying. If you call for a 51 (quick in front of the setter) and run a 31 (quick away from the setter), I’m not going to be faked out. The only real fake sort of thing I see working is one where you doing something like show a 51, but then step around the setter to hit a 71 (quick behind). And that sort of thing works because the blocker pretty much has to commit on the 51 to be able to stop it.

I’d actually go one step further. I’d contend that you could tell the other team exactly what each hitter will be run and it probably wouldn’t make a massive amount of difference. Look at the men’s game, especially at the upper levels. They all pretty much run the same thing. You don’t see a lot of variation. Doesn’t stop the offense from being highly effective.

I have often compared the setter in volleyball to a quarterback who runs the option in football. Every defense who plays against the option offense knows where the different players are going. It comes down to whether the quarterback (setter) can make the correct decision and select the right option based on how the defense (block) commits itself and how well both teams execute.

And of course there’s the broader question of whether the proper play calling is being done in the first place. If you’re getting your best hitter against the weakest point in the block then you’re probably going to have success, even if the other team knows exactly where the ball’s going.

Audible offense or setter play-calling

I received a question from a reader on the subject of offensive communication in volleyball. It’s a fairly complex subject which may actually require a string of posts to really fully explore. We can at least start on the subject here, though.

Here’s the email:

Hello Coach,

I really enjoy your blog! The recent post about team communication and gender differences got me thinking about an issue I have experienced with my team, and I was wondering if I could get your take on it, as someone who has coached high level women’s collegiate teams.

As a bit of background, last fall I got a job coaching an NCAA women’s DIII team after several seasons of coaching men’s collegiate club level teams. (I had coached girl’s junior club teams before, but this was my first experience coaching a women’s team at the collegiate level).

While I agree with your points about communication on defense and calling tips, rolls, etc, I was always taught that hitters should avoid calling for the ball whenever possible (4,5,1,2, hut, pipe, etc.) My coaches always emphasized the use of hand singles between hitter and setter, and having set plays in for certain situations in the match. Under this system the only time “calling the ball” is encouraged is for the MH when running 1s, 31s, and tandems, and even then the preferred method is for the MH to communicate discreetly with the setter before the start of the rally, whenever possible.

I had used this method of running an offense with my men’s teams, and it seemed to work well for them. I also emphasized that on long rallies when calling the ball may be necessary, that it should be mixed in with an equal amount of “decoy calls.” I.E. MH calls “31” and setter sets a shoot to the OH.

Fast forward to my women’s team last season, who had been taught by their previous coach that hits should always be called, and that the setter should not set players who are not calling for the ball. This lead to some differences between my players understanding of an offensive system and some of the systems I was trying to implement, and eventually I just decided go with the system used by their previous coach and require all hitters call the ball.

My question to you is, is it common for collegiate women’s teams to run a system in which every hit is “called.” Do you think that as players move to a higher level of play, hitters should move away from calling each hit and let the setter run her offense, or should calling each hit still be a requirement? From watching other teams play and scouting our opponent’s matches, there is significantly more calling of hits then on the men’s side, but I have also observed several women’s collegiate teams and girl’s club teams that don’t use this method.

Since my team will have a lot of new players this upcoming season, my goal is to focus on developing an offense in which our setters and hitters are comfortable enough working with each other that calling for the ball can be minimized, but I wanted to get your take on this specific aspect of communication.

Thanks,

T.M.

There are probably a couple of overlapping topics here. Let me reply from the perspective of whether you run an offense which is audible focused or play call focused.

Audible offense or play-calling?

In my experience, using audibles runs on a spectrum in women’s college volleyball – and no doubt elsewhere too. On the one end everything is called in advance by the setter and/or coach. On the other end is the situation where everything is based on audibles. In terms of teams on the extreme ends, you’ll likely find more that are play-calling focused than those which are entirely audible focused. In any case, the vast majority are in the middle somewhere.

What you’ll see most – and not just at the college level – is the setter calling the serve receive ball, then everything after is audible-based. Some teams have set play calls for free balls. Some have set plays for transition as well.

At the lower levels, hitters calling for the ball is about telling the setter who’s available in transition. It’s not really about scheme. This was a major part of why we did it with my team at Exeter, especially my first year. It was also about making sure players were ready to be hitters. As the levels progress there’s less need for that. The setters become more aware of what’s happening on the court around them.

The primary attacker approach

Even then, though, you do see many teams use audible systems intentionally. In his book Insights & Strategies for Winning Volleyball Mike Hebert describes a primary attacker system in which one hitter – often an MB – calls the set they want. The other hitters follow behind and off of that. For example, the MB calls a 31 and the OPP calls a 2. The idea is to get into the space vacated by the opposing MB.

I think a lot of teams run offenses based on this idea. They don’t implement it the way it was intended, though. This often happens in the dissemination of ideas. The result is a bunch of hitters yelling for the ball all that same time. This was something we had to work on when I coached at Svedala. Executing this sort of offense well requires some pretty high volleyball IQ in the team. Each hitter needs to be very aware of what’s going on on both sides of the net.

Hitters calling for what they want

Like I said, we don’t see this type of offense really run all that much as designed. Instead you get hitters all calling for the set they want to hit. Usually that’s without much regard to whether it makes sense from an offensive scheme perspective. It puts a considerable amount of responsibility on us as coaches. We must teach our hitters how to attack what the opposing team presents them with in block and defense.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. It gives us the opportunity to help players develop their volleyball IQ. Philosophically, this is something that works well for me. I can understand, though, that having a more fixed play calling system – which takes the decision-making out of the hitters’ hands – can be a more effective one when it comes down to trying to win.

Setter processing

A consideration here is that some setters simply can’t process the audio input as well as others. If you have one of them you probably need to go with a more fixed play system. Turning that around, sometimes your setter is the weak link in the play-calling chain. In that case, it might be better to let the hitters call their sets.

I think at the end of the day as a coach you need to adapt your offense to the players you have. My offense with the Exeter women was pretty basic because that’s where those players were at in their development. They needed to get good at doing the simple things as a first requirement. In contrast, my offense at Svedala was very dynamic because I had the setter and hitters who could do that. The attackers could hit several different sets and the setter could get the ball to them in multiple ways.

So it comes down to where you want to place primary responsibility.

I made a coaching mistake the other day

In hindsight, I think I made a personnel mistake in one of my Svedala matches. Of course there’s no way of knowing what would have happened had I acted differently. I just think I missed an opportunity from a couple of different perspectives.

Here’s the scenario…

We were away to the team second from bottom in the league (we’re currently in first). It’s a team whose only victories have come against the bottom team. We beat them 3-0 at home on the first day of the season.

A big focus for us was getting a clean 3-0 win. This is for two reasons.

First, we hadn’t done that in a while – about four months. The team joked about how we always seemed to want to play extra. At the time we led the league in sets played. The not so funny part of that is the extra play does take its toll. We had a very small squad (just 8 at the time). With 11 matches between then and March 6th, and then playoffs to follow, limiting the pounding on the bodies could only help.

The second reason is you never know when it might come down to a set differential tie break.

We won the first set 25-20. The second set had a kind of ugly start, but we pulled away after the 9-9 point and won 25-17. In the third set we went up 11-5 and 13-7 before allowing them to slowly claw back. They got it to 19-19. We eventually went back out in front 23-20, but again let them back in and only managed to win 27-25.

It had been my hope to try to get my second setter some setting time during the match, rather than just being used as a defensive sub for our OPP. During the match, though, I was fixated on having her set while in for the OPP. That would see our starting setter hit, which she is perfectly capable of doing (it’s something I’ve thought about being an option should we have an injury issue).

Not thinking of doing a direct swap of setters was my big mistake. It led to two things I regret about how the match went. One is obviously not getting the second setter in to set – and not even getting in at all during the second set because of how things played out. The other is that I think we lost an opportunity to spread the ball around to more hitters.

It’s that second point that really got me thinking upon reflection that I’d goofed. Our starting setter didn’t spread the ball around as much as I’d have liked. I understand that the hitters who didn’t get the ball as much (OPP and M2) weren’t putting the ball away while the others were. From a “we want to win” perspective, which I’m sure the setter was thinking, that’s perfectly fine. From an offensive development perspective, though, we needed the ball spread around more.

I tend to believe the back-up setter would have done more of that. Actually, that can be something of a weakness in her game. She tends to be a bit more egalitarian in her set distribution. In this situation, though, that might have been beneficial.

In many ways I was looking at the match as a progression of the development work we did in training the prior week (see my log entry). Unfortunately, I was overly fixated on the match action and desired 3-0 outcome at the time, and overlooked my options.

Need to file that experience away to keep in mind for the future.

Coaching Log – Jan 4, 2016

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Although we didn’t have anything official going on between December 17th and 26th, that didn’t stop the organizational stuff. The Sport Director and I exchanged a number of messages about planning for Gran Prix, player stuff, and thoughts on training scheduling moving forward. As top seed for Gran Prix, our semifinal is second at 12:30 rather than at 10:00, which is probably a plus. We get 45 minutes on the court from 8:45.

Sunday
The team had coaching (in the case of the Americans) and organizational duties at the big youth tournament the club ran (it’s an annual event). Long day for all of us, made even longer by the fact that the day began before the sun came up (circa 8am) and ended well after darkness set in (around 4pm). Along the way, I found out that I probably won’t be moving into a new place any time soon. That’s fine from the perspective of it being a decent place to live, but it is problematic from a transportation perspective. I’m 6k out of town and there isn’t any regular public transit service.

Monday
We had to training in a different gym due to our normal Monday one having something else booked. We had 11 for the session – our 8 core players (now that we’ve lost our 3rd OH – though she’ll be with us next week), the sister of our American setter, a former teammate of our American OH (who happens to also have played in Sweden before), and one of the other coaches in the club who has become a regular at training to help with our lack of numbers.

My intention was that this would mainly be a fun, shake off any rust, reconnect with each other session after 10 days off. The two young players on the team actually played in Sunday’s tournament as part of the club’s U21 team – winning that age group. One of the others also got in some training at her old club while she was home for Christmas. The rest (hopefully) at least got in their workout program.

I had them start with volley tennis for something fun and competitive. After doing a bit of pepper and serving to get warmed-up, we then shifted to Player Winners. We had one group of 5 and one group of 6 for that. After about 5 minutes I had the top 3 from the 6 player court swap with the bottom 2 from the 5 player court, and ran it again. The games were played side-by-side on the same court – each going half width, full depth.

From there we moved up to another Winners variation. This time the setters were fixed. Since we had three MBs, I had them do their own winners rotation (losing MB went out, the one waiting came in). that left the rest of the group in 3 teams of 2 as the main rotation. We played on a slightly narrow court (about a meter in on each side). I liked this as it mixed the players around a lot.

We finished with two games of 5 v 6.

Tuesday
I had a team meeting before training. After warning them of consequences being forthcoming should tardiness continue (there were late arrivals), we moved on to talking about our path forward. That started with a discussion of our match against Brøndby two weeks back. We talked about our struggles in terms of dealing with the bigger block and getting our block-defense more integrated and effective.

I talked about how we’d like to push our kill % up a little bit higher as we remain a little lower than our competitors (though our error % is on par). Part of that – and dealing with bigger blocks – involved working on getting the OHs going faster. We all generally agreed that our tempo there had slowed down a bit as the season progressed, making things predictable for the opposition. We also talked about moving the OHs in and out more to make them harder to anticipate.

Blocking remains a focal point moving forward. There was a lot of talk about needing better communication between blockers and defenders and making adjustments more quickly. I mentioned my continued focus on wanting our blockers to improve on reading hitter approach angles and getting positioned appropriately.

Serving was another topic of discussion. We have done well, with an ace-to-error ratio of about 1 to 1.2, which is generally considered good. We lead the league in aces per set. I talked about working on improving our ability to take better tactical advantage in situations where we can put the other team in maximum pressure.

The other area of discussion was serve reception. Once again, the fact that we sideout very well (near 60%) despite not passing all that great came up. Statistically, we rank #6 in the league in that category (for that those numbers are worth). I told the team that we’re doing a good job communicating and making adjustments. We now need to work to improve on the technical side of things.

We had 10 for training. After prehap, I had them split into two groups. Setters and MBs in one, and the rest in the other. They did 1 v 1 2-touch pepper to warm-up. I then had the setters and middles working on block to transition attack on one court. The others I had do what was basically a 6-person pepper over the net (3 per side). The focus, though, was on the passing/digging side of things. They had a target of 50 perfect. Once they completed that, I had them do some proper serve receive, with the passer hitting a back row set so they were passing with hitting in mind.

After that, I brought the group together for some target serving. I had them working on serving 1 to 5 and 5 to 1.

The rest of training was working on transition play, 6 v 4. The 4 received a free ball to start each play. If there wasn’t a rally from there, I attacked a ball at the 6 so they could play one out. Only the initial ball counted toward the score, which we started 18-20 in favor of the 4. We went through all the rotations, and repeated rotation 4 twice more because we struggled there. I believe the 4 side won each game – or at least almost all of them – which is not overly surprising given the advantage of starting with a free ball. Doing it again I think I’ll start with a different score.

Wednesday
Believe it or not, we has 12 players for this session. The funny part is that 4 of them were middles and we only had 3 outsides. My main focus priorities for the session was working on the tempo for the outsides and blocking with the MB and RS players.

As generally is the case, the team had weight training before the session. We did partner over-the-net pepper (3-touch) for a couple minutes, then I shifted that to a 2 v 2 competitive 2-touch game (half court), which I rotated a couple of times.

From there I split things out. One of the setters and the OHs, plus the libero, went off on one court to work on speeding up the tempo of the outside sets. Basically, they did a pass-to-hit drill. The other setter and the rest of the players when on the other court to work on blocking. I wanted to focus particularly on blocking against the outside attack at the pin and on inside balls.

I’m not a huge fan of doing blocking work with hitters on boxes, but that’s what I decided to do in this case, largely because of what would be coming next. I had one of the box hitters at the pin and the other a bit inside. I stood behind the blockers (MB and right), and signaled the hitters which one to hit. We had the video delay set up so the blockers could look at themselves on the big screen. About halfway through, I had the setters switch.

I then brought the group back together. We did a kind of 5 v 6 game. On one side where the two OHs, the libero, a setter, and an RS attacker. The other side had six on the court, plus a server. Basically, the idea was to take advantage of having the extra size with the spare MBs (plus a male OH) to have the pin hitters working against the bigger blocks. The game started with the serve from the 6-person side and they played out the rally. The 5 continued to work on the set tempo and I instructed the setter to focus on getting more sets to the RS attacker, particularly in the back row, which is something that I’ve wanted to see more of to extend our width. On the 6 side the MBs and server rotated around each five balls.

From there we went into Bingo-Bango-Bongo to work on transition offensive in an effort to improve on the point scoring side of things. We did all 6 rotations (4-1-5-2-6-3). We actually had to move on from 2 because it was taking too long, so we circled back to it at the end. Still couldn’t finish it, but it was time to wrap things up. The players were clearly fatigued, which wasn’t surprising given the lifting they’d done beforehand.

Thursday
This was a morning session after a tough night one on Wednesday, so I kept it fairly low intensity. I even lightened up on the jumping aspect of the pre-hab exercises. I had them do some target serving at the beginning, then shifted in to pass and serve. A couple of the players did take a few swings during the process. From there we did some digging from hitters on boxes (line ball, cross ball). The last part was back row Winners 3.

Friday
No training this day. We originally had a session scheduled, and nothing on Thursday, per our normal schedule. Our Sports Director moved things around to give everyone a chance to enjoy their New Years.

Saturday
We did a “player’s choice” session. One of the players had to work and another was having a bit of a knee niggle, so was refraining from jumping. That left us with 6 fully involved as unfortunately we didn’t have any guest players. After we did pre-hab, I gave the players a chance to decide what they wanted to do. Not surprisingly, they opted for serve & pass to start things off. After doing that for a while, they played a couple of back row games with fixed setters. The second string setter set for one side and one of the middles set the other side. The last part of the session was spent playing Winners 2s.

Thoughts, observations, and other stuff
While Wednesday’s session was at a really good intensity, and the first half of the week was generally decent, the lower intensity of the second half of the week (per force) was less than optimal. That means we’ll need to really get the competitive focus back up right away to start the new week’s training. We just have two sessions with the match on Wednesday and then the Gran Prix over the weekend, which we depart for on Friday.

Coaching Log – Dec 14, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

After a full set of fixtures last week – and then some – here’s how things stood in the Elitserie coming into the new week.

Elitserie-Dec0615

As of this point, we were the only team on the women’s side to have secured a spot in January’s Gran Prix. Our 22 points is enough to ensure at least a 3rd seed. Neither Örebro nor Engelholm could catch us. Lindesberg could pull level, which would see it come down to a tie break for position. Hylte is the only one that could finish with more points.

In terms of the Oresund Liga, our win over Gislaved last Thursday counted toward the standings. Also on Thursday, Holte defeated Engelholm 3-1 at home. The other match on the week was Amager hosting Holte on Sunday in a Danish league match that counted toward the cross-border league as well. The away side got the win there. Leaders Brøndby were inactive, so here’s that table.

Oresundliga-120615

Our upcoming match at Brøndby on the 15th is the only one left before the holiday break and will decide who leads the league to start the second half come January.

Monday
I was in England fulfilling a requirement of my PhD work, so there was no training. Given that we’d played two matches in three days, the timing for this was pretty good.

Tuesday
I got back to Svedala in the early afternoon and one of the club’s board members picked me up at the train station to take me to my new place. On the plus side, it’s an interesting place (old property that was formerly a cloister) that seem comfortable and has wifi. On the down side, it’s 6k outside town with no real transit options. People are going to have to shuttle me back and forth. I believe the club is look at this as a temporary situation and that they are looking for something more convenient to eventually put me in “permanently”.

At the start of training, we started talking a bit about the last match – which seemed a long time ago for everyone – and the one coming on Sunday. For my own part, I focused on our improvement in recent matches when having a lead and being in position to win and creating problems for the other team from a tactical perspective.

After pre-hab and some partner pepper, I split the team. On center court I had the MBs and Setters working on attacking after block-transition, which they told me they felt was very useful. On the side court I had the rest initially doing some cooperative 3 v 3 play which required each player on a side to get a contact, which I then shifted to an 11 point back row attack only game.

After doing some target serving, I had them play a bit of Winners with fixed setters and MBs..The rest of training was a 6 v 5 version of 22 v 22. I had the starting setter on the 6 side for her three back row rotations, then moved her to the 5 side for two front row rotations. I normally would probably have included some serve and pass, but in this case I wanted to maximize our time in game play and since 22 v 22 is serve reception focused we got plenty of passing in.

In the first part of training I had some concerns about focus. Things were a bit sloppy, which made me think there might be a bit of complacency about things given that qualification for Gran Prix was already assured. I told them heading into the game play that I wanted high intensity during that work since it was probably the only time this week we’d be able to do near full team play. There was some good play in that final phase.

Wednesday
After skipping the last two weeks – one for a match and one because I had them on “active rest” rather than doing a program – the team was back together for their weekly join weight training. At the end of last week I gave them a new lifting program running through to the end of the regular season. That’s 13 weeks. It starts of low intensity, higher reps through the holiday period, then picks up once we get back rolling again in January.

Following the usual Wednesday warm-up routine, I had the players do a 5-person version of over-the-net 2-touch shuttle. I then had them play a series of 10 point games of 5 v 5 back court. There was a setter and middle at the net, with three in the back court with all attacks going through 1 and 6. I wanted to do this to work both on defense against something we’ll see in Sunday’s match (at least in terms of the pipe), but also to work on improving our own attack. Unfortunately, one of my changes meant my OH1 ended up being the only attacker on her team, so she got every ball. Good for working on that attack and for the defense training on the other side, but not optimal in general terms.

From there we did some serve & pass, with a bit of hitting mixed in. That was followed by target serving.

The last part of training was some 5 v 5. I wanted to keep working on our blocking, particularly in terms of dealing with attackers who like to go block-out. We struggled with that last time we played Hylte. The game had play start with a serve and the first set was required to go to the OH. After that the setter could go where ever she wanted. If the serve did not produce a rally (ace, hitting error, block) then I initiated a ball to the serving side – though I only counted the first ball toward the score. We played several games, rotating players around.

After I finished some players did a bit of work on specific things of their own. Our OPP worked with our OH1 on digging line attacks. The two MBs worked on blocking balls when they have to close fast to the pin.

Friday
Last real training before the Christmas break. I had to have a few words with the team at the start about being on time. There’s been a slow drift toward tardiness as the season’s progressed. It’s not that players are turning up late – at least not without a good reason – but we’ve been pushing things in terms of getting started on time and I’ve been on the verge of saying something about it. In this case, the net didn’t get fully up until 5 minutes or more after our start time, which gave me a very clear thing to point to as representing a problem.

After pre-hab I had the team do 21 to see where they were at in terms of focus. From there it was a bit of target serving focused on deep and short serves, which is the sort of thing that could come in handy against Hylte.

Along the same vein, the next exercise was back row attack Winners 3s. I saw some really good stuff both in terms of our attacking and our defending. Hopefully that translates to our play. I’d really like to see us get our OPP more involved in the offense when she’s back row.

The last two exercises were also game play. The first was a 5 v 5 game where I initiated an attacked ball to each side in turn and let them play out the rally. The idea there was to get some work in on our transition game, which has been up and down of late. The last thing we did was to run through the rotations in 6 vs 4 fashion, with the 4 serving and also getting a free ball if there was no subsequent rally. I tried to have the rotations go quickly, but wanted to make sure there were at least 3 good attacks from serve receive in each one.

For the last 2 rotations I specifically set my O1 up to be hitting when my OPP was playing defense to keep the latter working on her defensive game. She’s come a long way, and has become really adapt at picking up tips, but she continues to have her struggles handling harder driven balls well.

Sunday
Our second away match against Hylte was played at their other gym.

2015-12-13 12.55.47

In what was generally a back and forth affair, we won 3-2. Set scores were 25-23, 18-25, 25-22, 21-25, 15-12. Once again, our inability to put up a solid block at the pins gave us issues – both at the net and in defense. Looked like we just wanted it more when it counted in the last set as we just outscrapped them.

Our sideout game was very strong – near men’s levels of efficiency around 66%. Unfortunately, so was the other team’s. We also dramatically improved our ace/error ratio and I think generally did a better job of putting them under pressure despite our inability to stop them from siding out.

Other stuff
My OH2 twisted her ankle late in the 5th. She fought through it to finish out the last few points, but there’s a good chance she’ll miss Tuesday’s match.

The two points we got assured us of a top 2 seed for Gran Prix. Hylte, though, can match our point total if they win their remaining match before the break 3-0 or 3-1 they’ll. If so, they would take first on the basis of a better set differential.

Coaching Log – Oct 12, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Based on the stats from the first match, there were a couple of areas of focus I had in mind for this week’s training. One was hitting. Our kill % from the Örebro match was only 30%, and we probably need to be at 40% or better. Also, our hitting error % was right around 18% (not counting blocked attacks), which is too high. It probably needs to be around 10%. These targets are based on last year’s statistics. A big part of this is increasing our effectiveness out of the middle. We only had 6 kills on 30 swings, which is way too low for that position.

By comparison, the official passing numbers look quite good, with a nearly 50% perfect rating. Our bench numbers have it at less than 40%, though, but one match with the vast majority of balls going to one player isn’t really enough to go on. That will remain an area of focus regardless.

The flip side of that is serving. We could be doing better there in terms of focusing on our targets, hitting seams, etc. Örebro is listed as having a 55% perfect rate, which no doubt is at least as inflated as our own, but still goes to show that we could put more pressure on the opposition.

Monday
I got the player’s impressions on Saturday’s match and shared my own at the start of training. We also walked through the 6 serve reception rotations to look at ways we can change things up if needed, and took a look at the rotation defense. That’s something we’ll probably do some work on in the future to have available in case we want to use it.

The talking and walk-through ate up some time in an already shorter session (Monday’s are 2 hours). I wasn’t worried about it, though, as I wouldn’t have wanted to go very long anyway since my plan was to put a heavy focus on the MBs.

After warm-ups I had them play the Amoeba serving game to work a bit on serving accuracy and to get the competitive juices flowing. That resulted in a discussion about over-thinking things because they were making assumptions about rules that were never stated or intended, which came back around later in training in a different context.

I had them play Winners after that, but with a new wrinkle. This time I had both the setters and middles be fixed. The rest of them were split up into teams of 2, so the final result was that they played 4s. I also had them run it on a narrow court to encourage rallies and to force the hitters to find more ways of scoring. About midway through I had the MBs switch to work with the other setter.

From there we progressed to a 5 v 5 playing 3 up and 2 back (Zone 6 was designated as out of bounds). In this game only the MBs could score. They got a point by either getting a kill or a block, or by the other MB making an error. If someone other than the MB scored, that team earned the right to receive serve. The first game had the setters in 1 for the purposes of serve reception.

What I ended up observing was that balls were being forced to the MB in positions where their chances of getting a kill were virtually nil. Again, the players were over-thinking as I never said only the MBs could attack. We talked about the decision-making and how sometimes the better play was to not go for the point. After that, I moved the setters to 4 for serve reception and had the MBs switch teams. The second set ended up being much more competitive.

I had them do some target serving to finish training.

I didn’t take any stats on it, but I felt like the focus on running the middle attack had the passers more locked in. It also served to force a bit more creativity and invention in the attack, and might have provided a few ideas for use in matches. That was the point, so good outcome from that perspective.

Tuesday
We had a couple of guest players for training to bring our number up to 12, so I took the opportunity to work in some 6 v 6 activities. After warming-up and doing some ball-handling I had them play Speedball. As with Monday, though, I had the setters and MBs fixed, so it was 4 teams of two playing with them.

We then moved on to a combination of games. The primary one was Baseball, which we played through all 6 rotations. That was to work on transition play. Because I only have two MBs and they would have to play front row all the time, after each inning I pulled them out to serve for a 3 point wash-game. It featured alternating serves to get a bit more serve reception work, with the winner of the initial rally getting a second ball. If they won that rally as well, they got the point. I saw a lot of good defense in those games.

After doing some target serving, I finished up with a couple rounds of Scramble to work on staying focused on the job at hand (letting mistakes go) and developing more calm during scrappy periods in matches.

Wednesday
Back to the core group. After a physically demanding session on Tuesday, and having weight training beforehand, this was a somewhat lower intensity practice. It actually started with a discussion about the stats from Saturday’s match. They were substantially adjusted at the league level. Our team hitting efficiency jumped up to .268 with a near 40% kill rate. Although the numbers for our middle attack were better, they still weren’t where they need to be, so I wasn’t operating under a false evaluation in my earlier sessions.

On the flip side, our passing numbers went totally the other way. Our perfect pass percentage was 11%. The thing about passing numbers, though, is they are heavily reliant on the characteristics of the setter. My suspicion is that the revised figures were strict interpretation rather than reality based. Regardless, we’ll be focusing on our own bench stats for consistency’s sake.

After our usual warm-up game, we did some positional digging in pairs. That was followed by serving and passing with setters and MBs getting some work on their connections. From there we went to back court attack winners 3s, and then Speedball with fixed setters. The remainder of the session was 5 v 5 play using a wash game. We played 3 front, 2 back. One side had defenders in 5 and 6 and the other had them in 1 and 5. The empty spaces were declared out. I rotated players around so they were attacking and defending in both ways.

Friday
We had a guest male player to get us up to 11 for this training, which actually was in our Monday gym because of a community event in our main hall.  After warm-ups, we did Continuous Cross-Court Digging to keep working on digging technique and general defensive mentality. I’ve seen definite improvements in both areas of late, particularly in the mentality.

To carry the defensive stuff over into game play while also starting to prepare for game play later, we next played back court attack Winners 3s with fixed setters. That then shifted to narrow court Winners 4s with fixed setters and middles to continue the week’s work on developing our middle offense.

From there we did a pair of alternating games. First was Bingo-Bango-Bongo to work on transition play. Because of the strain that puts on the MBs, though, after each round of that we shifted the MBs into a serving and defense roll and played a wash game of 5 v 5 with no middle blockers. The session finished with a regular game of 5 v 6.

Sunday
Our match was at 15:00, after the second team played theirs. It was against Sollentuna, which is another one of the northern teams in the league. My review of their match from last weekend pointed to struggles in serve reception and a very shallow defense which made them vulnerable to deep attacks. The feeling was that the main focus should be on serving effectively and putting up a good block against their strong OH.

Unfortunately for the home crowd, it didn’t turn out to be the most exciting match. Aside from a couple of tricky patches, we were the dominant side in a 3-0 win. As expected, Sollentuna struggled in serve reception, which resulted in a lot of high outside sets. Our block was a bit off to start, but adjusted and forced their best hitter into quite a few errors.

Thoughts and observations
We continue to get overly excited in our play. It’s getting better, but we’re still making errors of the over-aggression type – like wanting to win the match with a single swing. Need to keep working on that.

Defense generally showed good improvement over the week, especially in the commitment perspective. I’d like to see more 2-armed digging efforts, though, to improve ball control.

I’d like to see us do a little more bettering the ball at times.

Other stuff
I finished up with initial individual meetings this week, which I think went pretty well. I could see immediate effects from some of the discussions in training during the week.

The second team coach asked to use two of our non-starters in their match, which was before ours. Both got a lot of playing time, especially since the match went 5.

Is blaming the hitters really the right call?

There was a post on the Volleywood website following the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup in which the author sought to explain why the US failed to finish in the top two. It’s something I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing the article, but PhD thesis work had me otherwise occupied.

Now I’ve got a chance, so here goes!

The author of the piece spends a lot of time talking about hitting errors and the team’s low hitting percentage in key matches. At the end, though, he also says the US had by far the best serve reception efficiency among the key contenders. While it’s easy to blame the hitters for poor hitting, I couldn’t help but think the problem was with poor decision-making and/or execution by the setters.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch any of the matches. However, when a team passes well and generally speaking has a pretty good collection of attackers, but hits poorly then my first question is whether the setter is getting the job done.

Play conservatively to win, redux

In the Playing to win vs. playing not to lose post I talked about the problems which can develop when teams get overly conservative. The players get fixated on not making mistakes. The result, ironically, is often that they end up making more mistakes instead of fewer. I brought up in that article the idea of playing conservatively to win – making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

We can extend this to your full strategy for a match. By that I mean in some matches it simply makes more sense to dial things back a little and take a more conservative approach as that will actually increase the chances of a positive outcome. Let me offer a couple of examples.

Serving
Perhaps the most obvious situation in which taking a more conservative approach is when you’re playing against a team which simply does not receive serve well. If they rarely are in-system on even relatively easy serves, then you don’t really need to serve them aggressively. In fact, doing so may just make things worse for you. It probably won’t meaningfully change anything in terms of their first-ball attack success and it could lead to giving them free points from missed serves unnecessarily.

This should not be taken as a suggestion to have your team simple go for 0 service errors. Even a poor passing team can have a good day if you’re just lolliping the ball over. Plus, the just-get-it-in approach could actually suck some of the general aggression out of your own team. Rather, maybe dial things back a notch and have the team focus more on hitting targets rather than going for the hard serve as they might do against a better passing team.

Offense
If you have a strong advantage in kill or hitting percentage – meaning your hitters are simply much more capable of scoring than are the other team’s attackers – then you can afford to have a slightly less aggressive attacking mentality then you might otherwise require. I do not mean that the hitters should be told to just get the ball in. That would actually reduce you scoring percentage and potentially narrow the gap, making for a much more even contest than should be the case.

What I’m talking about instead is adjusting the play calling and set selection. You could cut back on the types of attacks which tend to produce a higher percentage of errors than others. For example, your team may struggle to connect consistently on the 31 quick (see this set chart). It might be something you need to use against some teams to freeze the opposing MB when looking to back set, to attack a seam in the block, etc. Against a weaker foe, however, that set simply may not offer enough benefit for the risk being taken. That’s just one possible example. The idea would be to look at your offense and perhaps concentrate more on the lower error % sets/plays.

These are just a couple ways to think about operating more conservatively with an eye toward actually increasing your chances for success. There are others. This is something you should think about as you game-plan for an opponent.