Tag Archive for volleyball serving strategy

Looking at scoring streaks, odds, and service strategy

I like to engage with other coaching bloggers when I can. It’s a form of networking, which is never a bad idea. It also helps to foster communication and the exchange of ideas in our coaching community.

To that end, I want to address a post I came across. The author is Jim Dietz, though his name isn’t actually anywhere on the site (at least as I write this). Jim coaches at the junior college and club levels in the US. Like me, he’s also a book author.

In Jim’s post he takes on the subject of scoring points in streaks in volleyball, having looked at some numbers about bunch scoring in baseball. The conclusion that the post eventually leads to is that once you’ve scored two points in a row there’s an argument to be made for focusing on getting the next serve in to sustain the streak.

Baseball first

A quick thought on the baseball comparison Jim makes before shifting to volleyball. My immediate question about teams scoring in bunches being more successful is whether it’s a function of getting more players on base. I don’t know the statistics, but that’s the first thing I’d want to look at. If that’s the case, it means they are giving themselves more opportunities to score in general. As such, it’s not a case of winning because of scoring in bunches, but rather scoring in bunches because that’s what happens when you get a lot of runners on base, which produces more runs generally.

Scoring streaks required

Now, let me address the volleyball side of scoring streaks.

First, you simply cannot win a set in volleyball without scoring points in a row. This is the no-brainer aspect of Jim’s analysis. At the end of the day, points scored when you serve are what decides the game. In order to score a service point – aside from when you have the first serve of the set – you must first side out. That’s two points in a row – a mini streak.

If teams could only score at most one point from serve, then the team that had the greater number of mini streaks would win the set. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Teams can run off multiple points when they have serve.

But with regards to Jim’s analysis, there’s a major causality question – as there could be in the case of the baseball stats. Does a team win because they score in bunches? Or does the better team just tend to score in bunches?

Looking at the odds

Jim’s analysis of randomly generated scores are actually very predictable. Even when you have something like a coin toss you will get streaks. Given enough tosses, it’s guaranteed. And when a streak does happen, the odds aren’t in favor of a comeback, so to speak.

Let me drill down on that. Say it’s 15-15 and one side has a 3-point streak to get it to 18-15. If the odds of siding out are 50% for both teams, then you’d expect them to score basically the same number of service points over the rest of the set. That would mean something like a 25-22 score line. Is there a chance that the losing team gets a streak, or even more than one? Yes, but it’s just as likely the leading time does so. That means the odds of the leading team winning are quite high.

The above provides a good basis for going along with what Jim says about trying to go for streaks. The problem, though, is that this is all based on the idea that point scoring is entirely a random process with fixed odds. If that’s the case, then nothing we do really changes things. But do we really believe the odds are fixed? Maybe when looking at large numbers of observations. At the set level, though, there are a lot of factors that can alter the odds.

Impact on serving strategy

And that brings up the big point I want to make.

Jim talks about not being as aggressive on your 2nd serve as on your 1st to increase the odds of getting that 3-point streak (counting the original side out). There’s a major flaw in Jim’s thinking, though. In theory, if you dial down the aggressiveness on your serve you lower your chances of scoring. Jim speaks as if doing so increases the odds of scoring. If that were the case, wouldn’t you just use that less aggressive serve all the time?

That said, I do think it can be the case that you want to focus on getting your serve in in certain circumstances. These, though, are situations where you believe the odds have shifted more in your favor – going back to the earlier point of odds changing. For example, the other team is looking error prone and you don’t want to let them off the hook by making your own. Again, though, if you believe that’s the case already then your 1st service strategy should already reflect this view.

Should you start with your strongest servers?

volleyball serve

You’re getting ready to write your starting line-up on the slip for submission to the scorekeepers. You have a decision to make. Do you set the rotation to start with your strongest server(s)? Or instead, do you have a different priority?

For me the answer is, “It depends.”

Level of play is a big part of the consideration here. If you are coaching a younger team, or at a lower experience level, where lots of points get scored directly from serve, then it definitely makes sense to lead with your best server(s). Think about a 12-and-under team. One strong server can run off bunches of aces, right?

At higher levels, though, you may want to go in a different direction. There are still strong servers, but it tends to be less about aces and more about putting the other team out-of-system. In that case, we’re talking more about scoring in transition. As a result, there might be some other considerations to think about.

Thinking about match-ups might be part of that equation. Or perhaps you’re running a 6-2 system and want to delay the first sub as long as possible. As a result, you start your setter in Position 1. Similarly, you might want to keep a small blocker out of the front row as much as possible, so you start them in Position 1. Or flipping that around, have your dominant attacker in the front row as much as possible. That probably means you want to start them in Position 4.

As you move up the experience and skill levels, line-up decisions tend to become more multidimensional, and nuanced. At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is trying to be in your best scoring rotation(s) as much as possible. That means starting there – or at least close to there.

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

Alan talked about this sort of trade-off in his post with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

Thinking on the subject of calling serve zones

volleyball serve

Jason at Court and Classroom wrote a laugh out loud post on calling service zones for our players. It’s worth a read, mainly because so much of it is in the “sad,but true” category.

For example, with respect to calling for a serve to Zone 3:

Area 3: This serve will turn into an absurdly easy lollipop serve to area 6, allowing the opposing team to violently impose their will upon us, and ensure that we don’t call ever call for a short serve again (until the next match).

Comic relief aside, serving strategy is often on my mind. As I wrote in To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets, I’m not generally a zone caller. This is a change. When I coached at Brown I called them all the time. Things are different now.

These days, in a developmental situation, I like to work with players to be more aggressive with their “comfortable” serve. Then we work on expanding their repertoire. I find in competitive situations, players are often more likely to produce successful results with their “best” serves to a non-optimal zone than their weaker serve to a better target.

That said, I understand the value of a coach calling serve zones. It reinforces a stated plan and allows the coach to adapt to what they’re seeing in the match. I just don’t want robot players, though. I want ones who think for themselves and can create their own solutions.

While at Svedala I didn’t call signals, aside from sometimes giving a player a specific instruction (normally something like “first serve is good”) or a reminder of which passer we’re after. My focus instead was on keeping our serving focus in huddles on the target(s) we pointed out in our scouting – or a target which has turned out to be particularly good for us in that match.

That said, I can see how I might look to signals as target and strategy reinforcement options for some teams.