Tag Archive for volleyball defense

Reader questions on approach, knee slides, and run-throughs

A reader submitted three questions.

  1. Do you prefer a 3 step or 4 step approach for young outside hitters
  2. Is it proper to teach a player to slide to both knees for short serve receive balls
  3. Your thoughts on “run throughs” when passing a ball versus getting a balanced base set?

Let me address them one-by-one.

Approach length

I personally don’t have a strong preference on 3-step or 4-step approach. I know some coaches favor one over the other, but I’m just not one of them. For me it’s more an individual basis sort of thing. Some players do very well with a 3-step, while for others the fourth one definitely helps them.

To my mind, the first major thing new players need to sort out is the last two steps. Those are by far the most important, especially since there are many situations where a player cannot make a full approach. It’s really important for a hitter to be able to use those two steps to open up. If not, they will end up hitting square, which is not good for the back or shoulder.

Slide to knees

I am not in favor of players going to both knees, really in any situation. When I coached the Exeter women I had a player who went straight from standing to both knees to play low balls. And this was one of my middles! I used to cringe every time I saw it. Ouch!

In contrast, one of the Exeter men was excellent at going to one knee to play a short ball in front of him. Think of it as basically a lunge lead step, with the trailing knee then sliding up to be tucked underneath.

My view is that we don’t need players’ knees hitting the floor if we can avoid it. Too easy to cause harm, and given how sweaty kneepads get, they’re bound to leave a wet spot on the floor in the middle of a rally.

The one possible exception to this is when the player is trying to take the ball with their hands. That’s a situation where the ball is perhaps too high for a platform dig or pass. Even there, though, you may argue in favor of a different technique.

Obviously, in emergency situations you have to do whatever it takes. If we’re talking about training techniques, though, I’d not be working on two-knee stuff.


A run-through is for balls you need to chase down, not for balls you can relatively easily get under. Generally speaking, you will have better platform angle control when you are stable than when running. Why add in the extra variable if you don’t need to?

Picking your libero

A coach thinking about team selection asked the following question about deciding which player should be the libero.

How do you decipher who would be your libero and who would be the defensive specialist?

Serve receive

First and foremost, you need to rate and rank your libero candidates by serve reception ability. I don’t mean you have to prioritize that, necessarily. You do, however, have to know how they all stack up. Reception, after all, is a big part of the libero’s job.

By the way, it’s best to rate players based on game passes. The scores you get from passes made in a scrimmage are a better indication of match performance than scores from a passing drill. A lot of elements contribute to this.

Now for the defensive considerations.

As a starting point, you may want to consider how you want to play defense. Do you play your libero in Position 5 or Position 6? If you know where you’ll place your libero, the decision process if fairly straightforward. You are looking for the best person to play that spot. It’s that simple.

Broadly speaking, you want someone mobile with good reading skills to play in Position 6. They tend to have more side-to-side responsibility and may have to chase balls down off the back of the court. In Position 5 you’re usually looking for someone quick and aggressive moving into the court. They have responsibility for setter dumps and tips, and when they do defend hit balls their area of responsibility is usually more narrow.

The above is how things usually go for a standard perimeter defense. Your system might vary from that, though, so think about each position’s requirements.

If you are more flexible with how you use your players, then the thinking is a bit different. Here you want to find the best available player, and then put them in the position that works best.

What’s your priority?

You’ve rated and ranked your libero prospects by their passing skills. You’ve also looked at who plays best in your defensive system, or ranked your players on their defense. Now you need to combine the two factors.

If your best defender is also your best passer, life it good. Easy decision. On to the next one!

If, however, you have a different top passer than top defender, you have a decision to make. Do you prioritize passing or defense higher? This should probably be based on which side of the game you think your libero will have the biggest impact. How you use them likely will factor into your evaluation here. Also, the abilities of the other players around them factor in here.

Think of the decision like this. Are you more comfortable with your libero being strong in serve reception, but weaker in defense? Or are you more comfortable if your libero is a strong defender, but not so strong in passing? And at what point does the weakness in the secondary skill become too big?

My own thinking

Personally, I will probably favor serve receive over defense when making a libero choice. I say that because it’s usually harder to hide a poor passer than a poor defender. Getting stuck in a rotation because your libero can’t pass the ball is worse than missing a few digs.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m only going to decide based on passing. If Player A has an average pass rating of 2.20 and Player B has a rating of 2.10, but is a much better defender, I’ll probably go with Player B. The small difference in passing quality is outweighed by the large difference in defensive capacity.

Don’t forget personality

Keep in mind the libero is going to be on the court most of the time. You want them to have the type of personality that contributes to and/or supports the mentality you expect from your team overall. You might have a player who doesn’t come in tops in passing or defense, but who makes the team better on the court. If that’s the case, you probably need to make them the libero. Don’t leave this part out of your decision-making.

Where do attacks go?

A reader asked the following question related to where they should place their libero for defense.

Are there any statistical studies of the number of touches by position among defenders, particularly at the high school level? In other words, if the libero is the best defender and ball handler, then it makes sense that the coach would want to put her in position to handle as many balls as possible. I have my own opinion from watching games, but has anyone actually studied the number of balls handled by the left back vs. middle back position?

I don’t personally know of any broad statistical studies of where attacks go for high school players. Most of that sort of stuff I’ve seen was for a particular team. Think scouting report type stuff. I think this heat map probably is a good indication, though.

I think generally speaking the lower the level the more balls end up in the middle of the court. As attackers become more capable, you see the frequency of balls going away from the middle increase. I don’t have any figures to back that up, though. Maybe a reader does and will share them in the comments below.

General patterns aside, you have to consider your own defensive strategy here. If you tell your blockers to take line – thus funneling balls cross-court – then chances are more balls will go cross. If you block cross, then you expect more balls to go line. That factors into your positioning decision. The general information takes you only so far.

And there are other factors involved as well.

Tracking block and defense improvement

During the 2016 season, one of the things we focused on with the Midwestern State team as the Lone Star Conference season progressed was improvement in our block and defense. Our block timing was poor. That meant not only few blocks, but also few digs. Though we also needed improvement in defensive position and actual digging. We were bottom of the league standings in both categories at one point, I believe.

Per set figures

Toward the end of October I ran some numbers to gauge our progress. I first started with blocks/set and digs/set. Those are the commonly reported figures, so it made sense.

Through the first round of conference matches (10 total), we averaged 1.17 blocks and 11.16 digs per set. Over the course of the first five matches of the second half of the season we averaged 1.57 and 15.47 respectively. That’s pretty good.


A coaching friend suggested I look instead at block and dig percentages. Basically, that divides those figures by the total number of non-error attacks (blocked balls excluded from the error count). Since attack numbers can vary from match to match – and five set matches always mess with per set averages – the percentage approach is the better way to go.

For the first half of the season our block percentage was 4.5%. Our dig percentage was 42.1%. That adds up to a total “stop” percentage of 46.6%. For the first five matches of the second half the comparable percentages were 4.9%, 48.3%, and 53.2%. Again, gains across the board.

In each but one of the second half matches our block percentage was higher than against that same team the first time around. The same was true of the dig percentage (different match). Similarly, when looking at the total figure, only one match was worse the second time than the first.


While these comparisons tell us the team was more effective in defense for the first five matches of the second half of the conference season, there is a limit as to how far you can take the analysis. What happens on the other side of the net leading to an attack matters. If you do a better job putting a team in difficulty through tough serves and/or good attacks, you will likely find it easier to block or dig their attacks.

Also, ultimately what you want from your defense is it to generate point scoring. That means it’s worth extending the analysis of something like dig percentage to see how many swings you get from those digs and how efficiently they convert into points.

Game: Dig or Die Back Row Speedball

Synopsis:  This is a variation on the Speedball Winners idea as applied to a game with back row attacks only. The difference is that point scoring is collective and defensive intensity is highly encouraged.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 12+ players, full court

Execution: Players are split, with half on each side. Those teams are then split into at least two groups. One group from each side starts on the court, with one of them serving to begin the rally. Once the rally plays out – back row attacking only – the losing team rotates out, with a new group from that same side serving to the winners and coming on. Points are earned for rally wins, with each side being a single team on the score board. If a team lets a ball drop without a touch, they lose all their points and go back to zero.


  • For a higher tempo game you can start each play with a coach-initiated ball.
  • Depending on your numbers and training focus you can have fixed setters or not.
  • Again, depending on your level of play you can loosen up the must touch the ball requirement to must make a legitimate effort.

Additional Comments:

  • Playing multiple shorter games is probably better than playing one longer game. That way a single ball dropping isn’t quite so demoralizing (think being at 20 and going back to zero).

High school block and defense

This is the time of year when many coaches are problem-solving with there teams. Here’s one of them via a recent email.

Hi, I coach a varsity high school team. We are not very good at blocking. I am wondering if there are drill to work specific timing, and/or what defense would you suggests for weak blockers?

There are a couple of elements involved here. Let me try to address each.

Not good at blocking

Saying you’re not very good at blocking is a little too broad. That could mean we’re a short team, or it could mean we have technical problems. The request for a drill to work on timing tends to suggest the latter is what this coach is worried about. Since I can’t really help a coach with a short team, I’ll talk training ideas.

Unfortunately, timing isn’t a mechanical issue. You can’t break it down into positioning or movement patterns. It’s basically a decision based on judgement of the hitter’s attack. As such, there isn’t a drill to fix it. Players have to develop timing by blocking against hitters, and any drill or game where that happens will do.

The real issue is feedback, which is where coaching comes in. You have to first make the blocker understand they are not jumping on time, and then work with them on reading the cues to improve that timing. For the former, video is a very good tool. Set up your camera (a tablet will do) and either record them or use one of the video delay apps.

Recognition of block mistiming might be enough to fixed the problem, but if it isn’t you have to train your blockers how to judge the timing. That means knowing the hitter’s hitting power, seeing how far they are off the net, and reading the play to know if the hitter is likely to attack aggressively or use a shot.

Defense behind a poor block

The point of back row defense is to have players where the ball is most likely going. It’s a probability game, plain and simple. Yes, there are read based adjustments, but those are based on starting points and general areas of responsibility. This basic idea does not change based on block quality.

What does change, however, is placement of defenders. The block takes away a certain part of the court – or at least it’s meant to do that. The defense then is positioned around it in the areas attacks are likely to go. If your block is ineffective, though, you need to shift your defenders.

So that leaves us with a question: At your level of play, if there were no block, where would the hitters most likely hit the ball?

Answer that question and you have the answer to how to arrange your defense.

Libero in 5 or 6?

Here’s question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another. Do you use your libero to play in Position 5 or Position 6. That generally means address the case of the libero playing back row for the two middles. It is part, however, of a broader question of how to maximize your back court, both offensively and defensively.

The decision involves three primary considerations.

Back row attack
Generally, if you want your back row OH as an attacking option then you probably want them in Position 6. Because that usually (but not always) involves them taking up a deeper position, it means they are better able to get a good approach for their attack. It also provides a bit more attacking flexibility. This is especially true when working in combination with a front row quick attack (e.g. running the bic or back row quick). Having them playing in 5 limits things.

Second ball setter out-of-system
In the situation where the setter has to take the first ball, who takes the second? I wrote about the setter-out setting question previously. If the player in 5 is expected to take the second ball then you have to think about whether a back row attack is desirable in your scheme. If so, then having your OH setting isn’t desirable. There is also the question as to who’s going to set better ball to the front row players, which is more of a personnel question than a system one.

Best defender
The other consideration has to do with how you’re setting up your defense. Will most balls tend to go to 6 or to 5 in your system? Is there a meaningful difference in the digging ability of your OHs vs. your libero? If so, you may want to favor one or the other defending in the zone where more balls go. But keep in mind the question of the purpose of defense.

Different situations, different schemes
When I was coaching the Exeter women in my second year we played a system where we left one MB in and only used the libero on the other with both playing in 6. My reasons were because I had OHs who were strong reacting forward into the court (good for playing in 5), but not strong moving laterally (needed in 6), and we didn’t use them much for attacking back row as the MB and setter or OPP could all take those swings. When I was at Svedala our OHs played in 6 for attacking reasons.

The bottom line is that you need to think about your team and your players and go with what maximizes the effectiveness of the personnel.

How do I make my team strong in defense?

The following question hit my email inbox one day:

I would like to make my team a strong defensive team. Are there any drills to help with that?

First, let me restate something I posted in the You don’t need a new drill post. It’s not really much about the drills, or games, you use. Yes, they need to include the skill or tactic or whatever you want to work on. Beyond that, though, it’s about where you focus your coaching. It’s about how you provide feedback and where you have your players concentrating their efforts.

Now to the question of developing a strong defense. I think you have to address this from multiple perspectives.


A team’s first line of defense is at the net. It’s blocking ability, or lack thereof, goes a long way in determining how effective the players in the back court can be in digging opposing attacks. Obviously, at the lower levels this isn’t a major factor because of player heights and/or weak hitting. Once you advance beyond that, though, blocking is important (see How important is blocking?). There are technical elements to blocking (footwork, swing vs. non-swing, hand penetration) which need to be developed. This is about teaching the techniques and focusing on them in your feedback while having the blockers working against hitters. There are also blocking strategies that need to be determined, which ties in with the next section.

Defensive System

Integrated with the blocking issue is the overall defensive system we’re employing. This is how we position our players to cover the court when the other team is attacking. The idea is to have players in position to defend the areas of the court most likely to be hit. A good resource for learning about different types of defensive systems and strategies is the book Volleyball Systems & Strategies. Once you decide on a system, you then put the team in situations where they face an attack and you focus your feedback on their positioning.


On the technical side of things, good defense requires players who can control balls hit at them. Having the perfect defensive system or strategy in place doesn’t mean anything if the defenders are shanking the ball all over the place. Training this often comes in the form of a coach banging balls at players, but there is a read element to good digging.  We can only develop that by defenders facing live hitters. Either way, it’s a matter of focusing your feedback on what you specifically want the players working on at the moment.

Attitude, intensity, etc.

The last element of defense is the mental part. That is readiness, a relentless approach, and full commitment. These are things which you don’t necessarily have to work on in a game-like fashion – or in some cases even in a volleyball context. That said, it makes sense to have things be as close to realistic as you can make them for optimal transfer to match performance. Again, it all comes down to the focal point of your feedback.

So the first question you have to answer when looking to making your team better on defense is which of the above areas you need to most work on. Establish your priorities, pick drills or games which include that facet of the game, and focus both your and your player’s attentions there.

Coaching Log – Jan 25, 2016

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

Along with our Saturday match, the weekend’s Elitserie fixtures included Hylte hosting RIG and Örebro hosting Lindesberg on Sunday. The latter match was the more interesting of the two as it was far more likely to have implications on playoff standings. With both teams virtually assured of 12 points from their four matches vs RIG and Sollentuna in the second half, if either Örebro or Lindesberg is able to win both of their matches against each other – especially if they are 3-point wins – it will put them in position to seriously challenge for a top-3 playoff seed.

We’d have liked to see Lindesberg win 3-2. Alas, after a tight first set, Örebro ran away with a fairly easy 3-0 victory. Hylte also won easily. Basically, that means the standings to start this week had the same order as they did to end the first half of the season. The only difference is that Örebro has played an extra match.

Our Monday practice gym was cold, so I made some adjustments to the session I had in mind to try to make sure the players stayed active and didn’t cool off between activities. We started talking a bit about Saturday’s match, and then a bit about Wednesday’s opponent, Hylte. I had observed that they did some different things with their line-up in their weekend match than they did at Gran Prix. They started the setter in the same position, but they swapped the position of their OHs and their MBs.

After the talk and warm-ups, we did some 3-person over-the-net pepper, followed by serving-and-passing 3s. That was followed by servers vs. passers, with an adjustment in the scoring to have the passers target 2.2 rather than 2.0 as an average.

After that, I had them down continuous cross-court digging. That was something I hadn’t planned, but inserted for the “keep warm” factor. After that, we did some hitting and blocking with pin hitters going 1 v 1 against pin blockers. After doing a bit of Winners 3s, we finished up with a few 7-point games of left side vs right side.

We had two extra players on-hand – ones I’m hoping will be a fixture on Tuesdays from now one. They’ve both been with us several times before, but not on a consistent basis. Having them will definitely help doing more full-team type work – especially on what will often be the training before a match in the weeks ahead.

We had an opportunity to look at some video from Hylte’s weekend match, so spent a bit of time talking scouting. It wasn’t a lot of new stuff, though. More a reminder, seeing as we’ve played them 3 times already this year.

After warm-ups and pre-hab, I split the group over two courts and had them do a 3 v 3 cooperative back court game. The first part was just a warm-up extension, but after a few minutes I made it competitive in that the first court to get to 10 consecutive good pass-set-hits won.

From there we had the pin hitters on one court working on their directional hitting. I had a couple of blockers in place for them to work around. On the other court, the MBs were working on their attacks.

I then brought the groups together to do hitters against blockers and defense. Basically, this was the same thing we did last week where the block and defense were working on their positioning and reading and the hitters were working on their audible calls. They did play out the rallies.

From there we progressed to 6 v 6 play. I made about even teams and we played a variation on the 2-in-2 game. Instead of it being 2 serves and a point scored only if a team wins both rallies, otherwise it was a wash, we did alternating serves until a team won two in a row. That sees points scored more quickly. I had the games be to 4 and we went through four rotations.

Lastly, we played a regular 25 point game. This was A team vs B team, so to speak. It ended up being 25-15. There were some good rallies, but I think I probably won’t do that again. Just too lopsided.

I was really happy with what I saw of our defensive play. That facet of our game has really come along lately.

Let’s just say this wasn’t our best performance. During the first two sets we both served and passed serve poorly. The third set was much improved in both respects, but through the whole match we were constantly playing from behind. It was a tight affair, with no more than a 3 point margin in any given set, but we lost 0-3. That’s our first home league loss and the first time we didn’t get at least a point.

In the final analysis we came out ahead in terms of blocking, we had more aces, and we passed better. Our kill % was at the 40% level we’ve been working toward reaching. Our sideout percentage was high, but there’s was just a little higher. We simply made too many mistakes – particularly in the areas of attack and serve. In the case of the latter, not only did we miss nearly 20% of our serves, but they often came at bad times. The fact that we saw a similar issue against Sollentuna, I’m worried that we’ve fallen back into old habits.

Our O1 didn’t have her best match, which hurt us. We are heavily reliant on her scoring for us. This is something I feel like we need to remedy. We’re predictable. That’s fine against lesser teams, but against the better ones it means we’re constantly facing a bigger, better formed block. It’s going to take some of our other hitters stepping up to ease that pressure – and some better sets.

One player was missing because she needed to work. We also had a shortened time slot for training due to a floor ball match being played immediately afterwards. Given the early start and long ride for Saturday’s match this probably wasn’t a bad situation.

After warm-ups and prehab, I had them do some serving. We then did a cooperative cross-court team pepper. I made a few adjustments, though. In this case, the setters and the defenders were fixed. I had the two OHs and MBs rotate between front row and back row. One of my MBs defends in 6, while the other defends in 5. The OH played in the same position as the MB when in the back row. I allowed for both attacks through 4 and in the back row in this variation.

From there we went through the rotations. Because my OPP was missing, I had my back-up setter play in her position. The team received serve and attacked, then defended and transitioned against an attacked ball through 4 from me on a box. Not something I normally like doing, but I had to deal with the constraints.

We finished with back row Winners 3s.

We were on the road at about 6:40 for our trip up to Örebro.

2016-01-23 14.09.03

The team was in pretty good spirits and energy going into the match. Unfortunately, the serving issues we’ve been having of late showed themselves again. We missed 11 serves in the first two sets, which prevented us from really taking hold of the match at certain times. We won the first set 21-25, but lost the second 25-19.

Serving improved in the third set, but our passing started to break down as that game when along. We jumped out to a big early lead – 14-4, I believe – but got stuck at a couple of points and ended up letting them back in. A combination of poor reception and not taking key chances eventually saw us lose that one 31-29.

The four set started of badly. I think we went down 6-0 based mainly on bad passing. We eventually recovered and were level on 8-8, but never could quite get on top of them. They ended up winning 25-19.

As noted, we started off serving poorly, but we passed pretty well – 2.00 and 2.14 in the first two sets. Serving was improved in the latter two sets – at least in terms of misses, but passing plummeted – 1.55 and 1.57. Basically, our Libero and O2 completely lost the plot. They combined for 9 aces or overpasses and recorded 22 1-passes.

Not that this was our only issue. A big problem was a lack of kills from our attackers. The setter did a pretty good job distributing the ball and getting lots of 1-on-1 situations, but we couldn’t put the ball away. Our O2, OPP, and M2 had kill percentages of 17%, 18%, and 7% respectively. This is a major issue. We need at least one of them to step up and produce because otherwise our O1 and M1 are just going to face bigger and more well-formed blocks, making them less and less effective.

This was a recove

Thoughts, observations, and other stuff
On Tuesday, Engelholm won 3-1 over Amager in the Oresund Liga. That drew them level with us on 13 points, but into second on set differential. Here’s the current table:


There isn’t another Liga match until we host Amager the first week of February. That same week, Brøndby will host Engelholm in a match with major championship implications.

In the Elitserie, RIG also hosted Sollentuna on Wednesday in a battle of the bottom two teams. As was the case in the first half, Sollentuna came away with the win. Sollentuna was also in action on Saturday, making a trip down to Gislaved. As expected, the home team won 3-0.