I received a question from a reader on the subject of offensive communication in volleyball. It’s a fairly complex subject which may actually require a string of posts to really fully explore. We can at least start on the subject here, though.

Here’s the email:

Hello Coach,

I really enjoy your blog! The recent post about team communication and gender differences got me thinking about an issue I have experienced with my team, and I was wondering if I could get your take on it, as someone who has coached high level women’s collegiate teams.

As a bit of background, last fall I got a job coaching an NCAA women’s DIII team after several seasons of coaching men’s collegiate club level teams. (I had coached girl’s junior club teams before, but this was my first experience coaching a women’s team at the collegiate level).

While I agree with your points about communication on defense and calling tips, rolls, etc, I was always taught that hitters should avoid calling for the ball whenever possible (4,5,1,2, hut, pipe, etc.) My coaches always emphasized the use of hand singles between hitter and setter, and having set plays in for certain situations in the match. Under this system the only time “calling the ball” is encouraged is for the MH when running 1s, 31s, and tandems, and even then the preferred method is for the MH to communicate discreetly with the setter before the start of the rally, whenever possible.

I had used this method of running an offense with my men’s teams, and it seemed to work well for them. I also emphasized that on long rallies when calling the ball may be necessary, that it should be mixed in with an equal amount of “decoy calls.” I.E. MH calls “31” and setter sets a shoot to the OH.

Fast forward to my women’s team last season, who had been taught by their previous coach that hits should always be called, and that the setter should not set players who are not calling for the ball. This lead to some differences between my players understanding of an offensive system and some of the systems I was trying to implement, and eventually I just decided go with the system used by their previous coach and require all hitters call the ball.

My question to you is, is it common for collegiate women’s teams to run a system in which every hit is “called.” Do you think that as players move to a higher level of play, hitters should move away from calling each hit and let the setter run her offense, or should calling each hit still be a requirement? From watching other teams play and scouting our opponent’s matches, there is significantly more calling of hits then on the men’s side, but I have also observed several women’s collegiate teams and girl’s club teams that don’t use this method.

Since my team will have a lot of new players this upcoming season, my goal is to focus on developing an offense in which our setters and hitters are comfortable enough working with each other that calling for the ball can be minimized, but I wanted to get your take on this specific aspect of communication.

Thanks,

T.M.

There are probably a couple of overlapping topics here. Let me reply from the perspective of whether you run an audible focused or play call focused offense.

Audible offense or play-calling?

In my experience, using audibles runs on a spectrum in women’s college volleyball – and no doubt elsewhere too. On the one end the setter and/or coach calls everything in advance. On the other end is the situation where everything is based on audibles. In terms of teams on the extreme ends, you’ll likely find more that are play-calling focused than those entirely audible focused. In any case, the vast majority are in the middle somewhere.

What you’ll see most – and not just at the college level – is the setter calling the serve receive ball, then audibles for everything afterwards. Some teams have set play calls for free balls. Some have set plays for transition as well.

At the lower levels, hitters calling for the ball is about telling the setter who’s available in transition. It’s not really about scheme. This was a major part of why we did it with my team at Exeter, especially my first year. It was also about making sure players were ready to be hitters. As the levels progress there’s less need for that. The setters become more aware of what’s happening on the court around them.

The primary attacker approach

Even then, though, you do see many teams use audible systems intentionally. In his book Insights & Strategies for Winning Volleyball Mike Hebert describes a primary attacker system in which one hitter – often an MB – calls the set they want. The other hitters follow behind and off of that. For example, the MB calls a 31 and the OPP calls a 2. The idea is to get into the space vacated by the opposing MB.

I think a lot of teams run offenses based on this idea. They don’t implement it the intended way, though. This often happens in the dissemination of ideas. The result is a bunch of hitters yelling for the ball all that same time. This was something we had to work on when I coached at Svedala. Executing this sort of offense well requires some pretty high volleyball IQ in the team. Each hitter needs to be very aware of what’s going on on both sides of the net.

Hitters calling for what they want

Like I said, we don’t see this type of offense really run all that much as designed. Instead you get hitters all calling for the set they want to hit. Usually that’s without much regard to whether it makes sense from an offensive scheme perspective. It puts a considerable amount of responsibility on us as coaches. We must teach our hitters how to attack what the opposing team presents them with in block and defense.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. It gives us the opportunity to help players develop their volleyball IQ. Philosophically, this is something that works well for me. I can understand, though, that having a more fixed play calling system – which takes the decision-making out of the hitters’ hands – can be a more effective one when it comes down to trying to win.

Setter processing

A consideration here is that some setters simply can’t process the audio input as well as others. If you have one of them you probably need to go with a more fixed play system. Turning that around, sometimes your setter is the weak link in the play-calling chain. In that case, it might be better to let the hitters call their sets.

I think at the end of the day as a coach you need to adapt your offense to the players you have. My offense with the Exeter women was pretty basic because that’s where those players were at in their development. They needed to get good at doing the simple things as a first requirement. In contrast, my offense at Svedala was very dynamic because I had the setter and hitters who could do that. The attackers could hit several different sets and the setter could get the ball to them in multiple ways.

So it comes down to where you want to place primary responsibility.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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