Weighted pool format for volleyball tournaments

When you are a college volleyball coach you spend a lot of time at Juniors tournaments. Most of them have a pretty standard format. They feature four teams and the progression is such that the top seeds play the bottom seeds in the early rounds (see this 3 pools of 3 on 2 courts alternative format). This can make for some pretty lopsided matches. I’d love to see more of a weighted pool format for volleyball tournaments.

What do I mean by that?

In a standard tournament you use a zig-zag or serpentine to fill the pools. It looks like this for a 16-team tournament with four pools.

standard pool format

In this method the top ranked team (1) is the top seed in Pool 1, with the #2 team top of Pool 2, and so on. If you add up the rankings of all the teams for each pool you’ll notice it adds up to 34. That tells you they are about equally competitive – in theory.

There are a couple of problems with this structure, though.

First, the degree of theoretical competition for finishing spots in each pool vary considerably. For example, a 1 v 8 match to decide who wins Pool 1 (assuming other results go to plan) is generally not likely to be as competitive as the 4 v 5 match to decide Pool 4. You can flip that around for the competition for 2nd/3rd place in those pools. An 8 v 9 match is probably a tighter one than 5 v 12. Obviously, how widely split the teams are in terms of caliber has a lot to do with it.

The second issue is progression after pool. A lot of tournaments cross over the top two from each pool for the playoffs. In some cases the others are done, while in other tournaments all the 3rd place teams play each others, and the same with the 4th place finishers. What I see happen is teams end up having a hard time moving in the rankings once they are initially set because they are stuck playing the same competition all the time.

Probably the worst issue with this format is the that top teams might only get one decent match during pool play. Flipping that around, the bottom teams may get beat up in two out of their three pool matches. What’s the point of that? Don’t we want everyone playing as many competitive matches as possible?

The solution: a weighted pool format.

What do I mean by a weighted pool format? I mean instead of setting up the pools equally, as shown above, we weight the pools by rankings. The better teams are in the upper pools and the weaker teams are in the lower pools. The Tour of Texas follows this path based on its qualification procedure.

Here’s an example of what a weighted pool format could look like:

weighted pool format

In terms of playoffs, you could so something like have the top two teams in Pools 1 and 2 go into the gold bracket, the bottom two teams from Pools 1 and 2 join the top two teams from Pools 3 and 4 in silver, and the bottom two teams from Pools 3 and 4 be bronze. Of course there are other ways to work that, and there are other ways to set up the pools. The main idea is to 1) create more in-pool competition for all teams, and 2) get more information for team rankings by seeing teams play more against similar competition.

A weighted pool format may not be the way you want to go for a qualification tournament or something like that. For other events, though, it’s a good alternative to give teams a higher quality experience.

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.

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