A while back I wrote a post sharing my philosophy on calling service targets. In it I focus mainly on the player development side of things. In this post I want to look at things from a different perspective. Is it actually even worth doing?

Picking targets – Method 1

There tend to be two primary ways coaches go about picking service targets. One is based on passer proficiency. That’s taking a look at each likely passer the other team has and assessing them relative to their pass rating. Whichever one is lowest is your target. The idea is pretty straightforward. You’re targeting the player most likely to get aced or produce a lower quality pass.

That’s all fine and good, but consider this. What if that passer is currently passing in your server’s weakest target area? Does it still make sense to serve them? Unless that passer is very weak compared to their teammates, there’s a good chance the answer to that question is “No”.

The point is that in many cases, because there isn’t a huge difference between passer skill, you probably get the best result from simply letting your server go with their best serve. Chances are, it’s also their most confident one. That means a higher likelihood of producing what you’re after in a pressure moment.

Picking targets – Method 2

The other way coaches think about picking serving targets is tactical. Maybe they’ve seen something in the scouting. Or maybe they just want to focus on a particular strategy that tends to work generally.

An example of the former comes from the 2021 NCAA Women’s Semifinals. Pitt noted that Nebraska hit at an efficiency 100 points lower when the pass came from Zone 1. So they targeted that area relentlessly throughout the match. I had something similar come up back when I coached at Brown. I noticed their setter set significantly faster sets – especially to 4 – when the pass/dig came from in front of her than when it came from behind. Our strategy was thus to pound Zone 1 in every possible situation.

An example of a more general idea is something like serving deep in Zone 5 to try to take the front row OH out of the play. Similarly, a short ball to Zone 2 in certain rotations can create problems getting the MB in to the attack.

As useful as these serving tactics can be, though, you still have to consider your server’s skill and confidence. If they just aren’t good at putting a solid serve in that area – and doing it when you really need them to – then no matter what the scouting report says, you probably want to let them go elsewhere.

Some things to think about before you put those figures down behind your clipboard.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    2 replies to "Is calling service targets beneficial?"

    • JaK

      I thought I was the only one who thought this. I’m glad to hear I’m not crazy.

      When I started coaching high school, spot serving and calling serves was on my to-do list. My first year, we had so many other problems that spot serving never the list of things to practice. But during that season, I noted that often the opposing coach would call for a serve to go to a certain zone and the server would make an error or give us a really easy free ball. Thanks!

      Why would I not want my players to use their best serve? If I am calling serves, that means I expect my servers to have a few different serves (which takes more practice time) and I’m also raising their risk of making a mistake. Why not have your players perfect one killer serve and just have them fire away? I do encourage my girls to aim for the inside seams but mostly we are just thumping rockets into the middle of the court.

      In the 2020 season, my high school team made 91.7% of their serves and averaged 11.2 aces per match. In 2021, it was similar—we made 90.8% and had 11.7 aces per match. Is that good? Our opponents served 85.5% and averaged 8.5 aces against us in 2021. I’m not sure my fire-away mindset would work with higher level teams. Maybe I just happen to have a good bunch of arms. All I know is that keeping serving simple and aggressive has worked for us.

      But I started feeling like I was missing out on an obvious advantage and was actually thinking about starting to call serves next year. I dunno.

    • Arnie Rosenbaum

      I feel in high school the two skills that mean the most are serving and passing and they usually dictate the game. So I feel working on serving, all types of serves (short deep, cross court etc.) are important and will give you the ability to serve spots and hopefully score points.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.