Timing of the first tempo attack

The following was posted in the Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook by a member. Coincidentally, it relates to a discussion I had with one of the Svedala players I coached during my time in Sweden.

While semi-watching World Cup matches, the outcomes of 384 front 1 [also known as an A-quick] approaches were evaluated during 6 recent men’s World League matches to determine how the split-second timing of the approach affected the outcome. Front 1 approaches were classified “early” if the hitter’s feet left the floor before the ball left the setters hands, and “late” if the hitter’s feet were on the floor when the ball left the setters hands.

52% of the approaches were classified as early. 33% of the sets went to the quick hitter, 4.2% of which were blocked back into the hitter’s court on early approaches and 17% were blocked on late approaches. 67% of the sets went to other hitters. Of these, the opposing middle blocker was drawn to jump or was delayed 57% of the time on early approaches and only 21% of the time on late approaches. Clearly, at this level, there is an advantage to have the middle hitter in the air before the set leaves the setter’s hands on front 1’s. I’m interested to hear others’ ideas on how this would play out at lower levels.

The middles I’ve trained will tell you I often tell them to, “Beat the ball!” I want my hitters in the air by the time the ball reaches the setter’s hands (sometimes call zero tempo). That’s the “early” approach from the quote.

My philosophy is a simple one in this regard. If the quick attacker is in the air already then the opposing blocker is under enormous pressure. If they commit block, then they have to jump with the hitter. That creates a good situation for another attacker. If they read block, the quick set will beat them. They can’t react fast enough.

The figures above back up what I want to achieve. Early approaches lead to fewer blocked quick attacks. It also leads to more positive blocking match-ups for other hitters thanks to holding or delaying the opposing middle.

A good addition to the stats presented would have been some kind of hitting efficiency or kill %. After all, the bottom line is whether you score points.

Top level vs. lower levels

I’ve talked with coaches of professional teams about this. I feel that at the top echelon the middles are at such a high level and attack reach that you can practically go with a 2-ball. So long as they are able to attack at full extension and only face a single block they have a strong advantage. The broader question, however, is the full offensive efficiency. Is it markedly different depending on the speed of the front quick? The numbers above tend to suggest it is.

At the end of the quote above the author asks whether things are different at lower levels of play. Obviously, if you slide down the scale far enough blocking is simply not a major consideration. You don’t have to worry about it in these terms. That level is much like the one at the top level. A higher set to the middle can work well. The hitter still has the advantage and even for the outside sets the block tends to be fairly poor. In fact, going quick would likely lead to less offensive effectiveness. There will be an increased error rates from setter-hitter misconnections.

It’s in the middle band where I feel the speed of the front quick attack is of greatest importance. The middle blockers are big enough and fast enough to cause problems with slower middle attacks. They are also faster to close to the outside if not held by the threat of the quick attack.

A story

As a bit of evidence for this, I’ll share the story of the Exeter men from my first year. It was an undersized squad. I’m about 6’3″ myself (call it 190cm), and I think only two of the guys in the squad were my height or a little better. One was a middle and the other our OPP. We regularly faced teams bigger than us. We offset through our speed in the front quick to hold the opposing MB. This created seams in the block for our outside hitters. That saw us reach Final 8s for the first time in a long while (Exeter did win a national championship back in the 70s, but aside from that the records are pretty thin).

How fast do you really need to go?

I’ve had a discussion of how fast the front quick really needs to be to have effectiveness. I coach “beat the ball” but I know that most of the time we probably aren’t going to be fully to that standard. The bottom line is being fast enough to accomplish the two primary objectives – beat the block if it doesn’t commit and at least delay it closing on an outside set. If we do those two things it’s all good.

That’s not to say I won’t keep pushing the middles to go faster, though! 🙂

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.