Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

Play conservatively to win, redux

In the Playing to win vs. playing not to lose post I talk about the problems which can develop when teams get overly conservative. The players get fixated on not making mistakes. The result, ironically, is often that they end up making more mistakes instead of fewer. I brought up in that article the idea of playing conservatively to win. That means making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

We can extend this to your full strategy for a match. In some matches it simply makes more sense to dial things back a little and take a more conservative approach. That will actually increase the chances of a positive outcome. Let me offer a couple of examples.


Perhaps the most obvious situation for a conservative approach is when playing a team which does not receive serve well. If they rarely are in-system on even relatively easy serves, then you don’t really need to serve them aggressively. In fact, doing so may just make things worse for you. It probably won’t meaningfully change anything in terms of their first-ball attack success, and it could lead to giving them free points from missed serves unnecessarily.

This is not a suggestion to have your team simple go for 0 service errors. Even a poor passing team can have a good day if you’re just lolliping the ball over. Plus, the just-get-it-in approach could actually suck some of the general aggression out of your own team. Rather, maybe dial things back a notch and have the team focus more on hitting targets rather than going for the hard serve as they might do against a better passing team.


If you have a strong advantage in kill or hitting percentage – meaning your hitters are simply much more capable of scoring than are the other team’s attackers – then you can afford to have a slightly less aggressive attacking mentality then you might otherwise require. I do not mean that the hitters should be told to just get the ball in. That would actually reduce your scoring percentage and potentially narrow the gap, making for a much more even contest than should be the case.

What I’m talking about instead is adjusting the play calling and set selection. You could cut back on the types of attacks which tend to produce a higher percentage of errors than others. For example, your team may struggle to connect consistently on the 31 quick (see this set chart). It might be something you need to use against some teams to freeze the opposing MB when looking to back set, to attack a seam in the block, etc. Against a weaker foe, however, that set simply may not offer enough benefit for the risk being taken. That’s just one possible example. The idea would be to look at your offense and perhaps concentrate more on the lower error % sets/plays.

These are just a couple ways to think about operating more conservatively with an eye toward actually increasing your chances for success. There are others. This is something you should think about as you game-plan for an opponent.

Serving Strategy: Attacking Zone 1

volleyball serve

In the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA, Matt Sipes talks about serving in an interesting context. He drills down on using the serve to create out-of-system offensive situations for the opposition. It’s a more specific discussion of how you do that – beyond just being aggressive. In particular, Matt talks about things like interfering with the movement patterns of the setter and opposing hitters. Or forcing the front row OH to pass to put them under pressure. All of these things are important ideas when thinking about how you want your team to serve. That’s a key reason to work on players being able to serve all areas of the court.

I want to focus in particularly here on the idea of serving specifically to Zone 1. Matt brings this up from two potential perspectives. One is to serve the ball into the area where the setter is coming in serve receive. That is often the case when they are in Rotation 1. The other is to force the setter to have to look over their shoulder to track the ball coming in – meaning the ball is not coming at them from the front (Zones 5 and 6). He makes the case that setters are often not comfortable dealing with those balls and therefore can become very predictable when being forced to do so.

This is very true. It’s something you can pick out quite often if you pay attention. For example. some setters will set to Zone 2 or back row to Zone 1 more frequently when the pass is coming from Zone 1.

I’ll take it a step further and give you a very specific example of something I picked out back in my Brown coaching days. While scouting Yale one season I noticed their setter – who was quite good – set with a much faster tempo when passes were coming from Zone 5/6 than she did when the pass was coming from Zone 1. The latter sets tended to be markedly higher, giving the block more time to move to the point of attack.

So guess what we did the next time we played them?

Yup. We pounded Zone 1. I can’t recall whether we won that match or not, but we certainly slowed their offense down considerably.

When should you “Sub Six”?

I’ve written previously on the subject of the substitution decision. In this post I want to talk about a strategy I’ve seen employed at times in professional volleyball. I’ve also read about in My Profession – The Game. I don’t recall hearing talked about in any other context, though. It’s the idea of making subs not necessarily to try to elicit a better performance from your team in the present context, but with an eye toward the next set.

Let me lay out the scenario. It’s the third set of a match which is tied 1-1. Your team is struggling. The score is 17-8. You’ve called timeouts. You’d made the subs you thought might improve things, but it just hasn’t worked. What do you do?

A lot of coaches just simply don’t do anything. After all, what can they do? They have what should be their best team on the floor, but it’s just not getting the job done. It’s time to think about the next set. Maybe spin the rotation. Perhaps flip OHs.

What about simply taking all your starters out – or at least those remaining – and putting your bench on to play out the rest of the set? My guess is you’ve probably not really thought about doing that (though you may have fantasized about it). There are a couple of reasons for actually doing so, however:

Starter Reset

Putting your starters on the bench for an extended break gives them a chance to reset. They get to step back from whatever troubles they were having on the court and break any negative feedback loops that were going on. Time on the bench gives them a chance to watch the other team from outside for a bit. They also get to rest up a little ahead of the next set.

Opposition Psychology

When you have your second team out on the court, naturally the general level of play is likely to be lower. This has a couple of potential of potential positive outcomes for you. First, if the subs do play at that level then the opposition players may start to coast, which could pay dividends in the next set. Second, if your subs play above themselves and actually make things competitive, it could rattle the confidence of the other team. The opposing coach is going to be hesitant to make radical changes for fear of risking losing the set. That means in either case you could gain a psychological edge to start when you have your starters back in next set. And of course if your subs somehow managed to pull out the win you’d be in the driver’s seat!

Playing time

While perhaps not a great situation in terms of putting your players in with an opportunity to succeed, a runaway set like this does give you a chance to get your bench players some court time. The nice thing, though, is they’ve got nothing to lose. They can go out and play loose.

I should note here that this cannot be something the starters will interpret as being punitive. I’ve heard stories about coaches who subbed out the entire starting six basically out of disgust at how they were playing. That sort of thing isn’t going to accomplish much. It will probably be harmful, in fact. Instead, it must be clear to the players coming out that this is a strategic device and that they should see it as an opportunity to regroup to start the next set.

If you want to try this out some time you have to think about the timing of it in advance and have a plan because my guess is you won’t automatically think about it in the heat of battle. Our inclination as coaches tends to be to try to fix things now – or failing that, think about what we’re going to do next set. This substitution ploy works in the gap between the two, so you simply might forget about it as an option. If you actually plan it out – maybe talk it over with the team – you might be more inclined to remember. Failing that, you could give someone else the task of reminding you.

Reader Question – Developing a 3-Middle Hitter Scheme

I had an email come in the other day from a reader.

How would you defend against a three middle offense?  Currently we are running a three middle offense, but are concentrating on being in the right position and running effective plays.  I think we need to change our thinking.  Switch to how someone defends against it, then exploit any expected weakness.

I asked for clarification on what was meant by 3-middle. How they would be employed? I got the following:

We have three players who would normally play middle. 

The starting rotation:

Middle, Outside, Middle

Outside, Middle, Setter

3 rotations have only one middle in the front … 3 rotations have 2 middles in front.  Depending on the pair of middles, one will switch to OH, while one plays Middle … or one will switch to Right Side, while one plays Middle.

Since one of our Middles is left handed, offensively we can run double slides.  We can also run a quick with one middle at the pin hitting a high outside.

I actually used a very similar type of system with a 16-and-under girls Juniors team a number of years back. I described it in the post Problem Solving: Three middle triangle. By posting this up here I hope to encourage some discussion. I’ll start it off with some thoughts of my own.

The right line-up?

I have an immediate question about a rotation where both outside hitters are in the front row together. It means you also have two middles in the back row with the setter in the same rotation. I don’t know how strong a right side attacker and/or blocker the team has with one of those OHs. I also don’t know the passing/defense talents of the MB not being replaced by the libero – or whether a DS is being subbed in on them in the back row. It strikes me that could be a sticky rotation if the personnel aren’t right.

With a lefty in the mix, I would very seriously consider playing with them at OPP. That said, a lefty hitting OH definitely causes issues for opposing blockers. Having them in the middle can be a bit trickier because the setter needs to change the placement of quick sets. It’s not impossible, just will take time to develop.

Opposition Defense

Let’s switching back to the question of about how the other teams might defend against a 3-middle team. I think quite a bit is depends on the opposition. Some teams will play the same defensive structure regardless of what the other team is doing. Either they feel they have their best possible configuration in place, or they just don’t know any different.

If I were an opposing coach able to scout your team (and with the players able to use such information), I would look at the tendencies of your team in certain types of situations and of your players in terms of where they like to hit. I would then try to make you work away from your strengths. There really isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent me trying to do that beyond not letting me see you play. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can stop you, though. If your team executes, there may not be much I can do to stop it even if I have my team optimally positioned to do so.

Of course you do similar scouting of the opposition defense. Your goal should be to maximize the frequency with which your team can match it’s strength up against the other team’s weakness. For example, you could decide to have one of your nominal middles (is a middle who plays outside really a middle?) hit OH in one match to go up against a short setter. They could hit OPP in another match to attack a short outside hitter. Another example is to spread the offense out against teams that tend to pinch/bunch their block. Alternatively, you can run a narrow offense against teams who tend to put their wing blockers near the pins.

Playing to your strengths

It’s always hard to provide advice in a situation like this. You don’t know the level of competition. You don’t know the type of players involved, team priorities, coaching philosophy, etc. There is a compelling line of reasoning, not just in coaching but generally in life, that you should play to your strengths. Really work on developing them to a superior level and applying them as much as possible. That topic is better left for a separate discussion in its own right. It has some value in this context as a point of consideration, though.

If this team’s strength is its three player who can play MB, then it makes sense to identify the ways they are most effective. Then you set the team up to put them in those positions as frequently as possible. For example, if two of the MBs are excellent slide hitters, figure out how to configure the line-up to give them lots of opportunities to hit the slide. In this sort of situation you’re not really thinking a great deal about what the other team is doing. Instead you’re creating players able to take advantage of whatever the situation offers. Continuing with the slide example. work with the hitters on their ability to attack with a variety of shots – line and cross, tip and/or roll shot, block-out and high hands – and in different positions relative to the setter and at different tempos.

In other words, figure out what’s generally your strongest line-up and style of play. Then relentlessly work on getting better at it.

To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets

When I was coaching collegiately in the States it was regular practice for myself or one of the other assistants on staff to give target zone signals to our servers before each ball. These targets were selected based on a combination of scouting the opposition in advance and watching developments during the match. As a head coach, though, I have very rarely given serving signals.


It’s a developmental thing, really. I want my players learning to think and act for themselves when it comes to identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent. I don’t want robot players relying on me for instruction all that time. Even if I were the type to be a controlling coach, volleyball just doesn’t allow for that sort of thing. There is very little time between rallies to communicate with the players from the bench and obviously I can do almost nothing to influence what happens while the ball is in play. The players need to be able make judgements and decisions for themselves.

Does this mean I never provide guidance? Of course not!

There are occasions when I do give a server specific instructions. Usually it’s as a reminder of a game plan we’ve discussed before the match, between sets, or during a timeout. Sometimes it’s as a result of my having noticed something. In the latter case, rather than just giving the server a specific target, I try to get the player to recognize what I’ve seen, which helps them develop their volleyball IQ.

Even still, there is a situational element to the question of providing service targets. Some players just don’t have the accuracy, and asking them to hit a specific zone serves very little purpose. There are also times in matches when it’s best to just let a player do a comfortable serve rather than putting the pressure of hitting a certain target on their shoulders. And sometimes you just simply don’t want to break a player’s concentration by yelling at them to get their attention.

That said, some players prefer to be told where to serve. For them they want serving to be just about executing a skill and nothing more. I don’t care for that view myself because I want players to always be engaging their court vision, but I understand it. Sometimes we just have to deal with things as they are and carry on.

When to call a timeout

Mark Lebedew did a couple of posts on the subject of taking timeouts. In them he referenced research indicating that calling a timeout has no net effect on odds of winning the next rally. Basically, they stay the same whether the timeout is taken or not. There was a fair bit of discussion about probabilities in the comments. Of course the idea of momentum came up (we’re not talking technical timeouts here).

I think most coaches think in terms of trying to break the other team’s momentum (or keep them from getting it) when taking a timeout. This isn’t to say there aren’t other reasons, of course. You may pick up on something you want to tell the team, for example. The vast majority of the time, however, momentum is the deciding factor. We look at our players struggling and want to try to give them a chance for a mental reset.

To that end, I want to see stats on something with a little bit longer time span. For example, the next five rallies. Does calling timeout improve a team’s performance when addressing things from that perspective? To my mind, that is really what we’re after (or should be) when we call for a team huddle.

I do see some ridiculous timeouts, by the way. Like the coach whose team is getting soundly thrashed calling time out at set point. What does he really think he’s going to accomplish?

Sometimes you just need to let the players sort it out for themselves. In a developmental circumstance I will oftentimes not call timeout when the team is struggling. I want to see if they can fight through and overcome the adversity on their own. Better if they can develop that ability than if they have to rely on me all the time.

So what about you? What’s your timeout philosophy?

Looking at Serving Risk and Reward

There’s an article from 2013 which talks about the aggressive of the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team in their serving. In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of his team, the coach decided it was going to be important to not expose his relatively weak block to strong attacks. They would do that by trying to get teams out of system in serve receive attack through tough serving.

Aggressive serving is something that is talked about a fair bit in volleyball – especially at the higher levels. Offenses are so powerful that a side out is nearly automatic when teams pass well. Thus the desire to force teams to pass less than well, which requires good serving.

There’s an obvious trade-off involved in aggressive serving, though. If a serve is missed it’s an automatic point for the other team. We can think of this in a mathematical way. The expected point value of a serve is a function of the probabilities of the various outcomes involved. Those outcomes include service errors, service aces, winning the rally and losing the rally. You can create a formula for the expected value of a serve (EVS) that looks like this:

EVS = PA – PE + (1-PA-PE) x (PRW – PRL)


PA = % chance of an ace (in decimal form – e.g. 10% = 0.10)
PE = % chance of an error
PRW = % chance of a rally win
PRL = % chance of a rally loss

Let’s put that in an example form. Say a given server gets and ace in 1 out of 20 serves (5%) and misses 2 out of 20 (10%). When the serve is in, the team wins the rally 60% of the time. The above formula would look like this:

EVS=0.05-0.10 + (1-0.05-0.10) x (0.60-0.40)
= 0.05 – 0.10 + 0.85 x 0.20
= -0.05 + 0.17
= 0.12

Thus, each time this particular player serves the team expects to score 0.12 points. If you play around with the numbers in different ways you can see how being more ore less aggressive could potentially impact that EVS value through the impact it has on ace and error percentages and the chances of winning the service rally.

We can translate the desire of the Wisconsin coach into a desire to increase service rally win % – PRW from the formula above. If the team is going to get more aggressive serving it should increase the PRW (and reduce the PRL) to improve the EVS, but it will also likely mean rising PE, which hurts the EVS. The question a coach needs to answer is whether the positive move in PRW more than offsets the rise in PE. If so, then it’s a good idea. If not, then there’s a problem.

In other words, serving tougher only makes sense if the increase in service rally wins at least offsets the rise in service errors.

Comments on serving strategy from a coach

volleyball serve

At the start of the 2013 US college volleyball season I visited Southern California. During that trip I went to Pepperdine for their match against Wisconsin. Despite several injured players, Wisconsin won. I wrote before that Wisconsin used a 2-person serve receive system. There was another development later.

During his press conference, Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield talked about his team’s aggressive serving strategy. Here’s the link to the coverage of that presser. The main page provides some text and commentary and a link near the top (just below the picture). The part about serving is toward the end:

Basically, Sheffield said two things motivated the aggressive serving. One was the need to put the Pepperdine offense under pressure. They wanted to do that by forcing bad passes. The thinned Wisconsin ranks meant they were particularly weakened at the net in terms of their block. Thus, they couldn’t afford to have Pepperdine regularly running their full attack if there was to be any prospect of victory.

The secondary reasoning was based on the effectiveness of the Wisconsin serve receive attack. Using the old terminology, they had a very high sideout percentage. That means they could rely on getting the ball back quickly if they missed serves here and there.

It’s worth a listen. I would still contend, though, that there were times when they shouldn’t have missed a serve. But that’s just my view. 🙂

Problem Solving: Three middle triangle

I once wrote about an early coaching experience when I had to use one of my middles as a setter. It worked very well, helping the team I coached win a gold medal. Less than a year later I had another situation which required a bit of fancy line-up footwork.

This time I was coaching a girls’ 16-and-under Juniors team. I had three players who could legitimately play middle at the team’s competitive level of play. I wanted (needed) all three players in there for their net play. A couple, though, weren’t all that keen on playing the position. Can’t say I blamed them as I always hated playing it myself. What I did was come up with a compromise that let me get them all on the court.

I forget at this stage which player I put where, but the basics of it were this. I put the three girls in a triangle in the line-up. One of them was the OPP. The other two were in the spots generally dubbed O1 and M1. In a 5-1 offense one usually puts their strongest OH and MB next to the setter. Those are the O1 and M1 respectively. I then put a couple of smaller OH type players in the two remaining spots either side of the OPP.

This line-up, of course, meant I had two of my quasi-MB players in the front row half the time and only one of them the other half. Obviously in the latter case that one girl played MB. In the other rotations, though, one would play MB and the other would play OH or RS, depending on whether the setter was up or back. Which one took the MB spot I often left to the players to decide, though sometimes I made the call if I saw something specific I wanted addressed.

The result was a pretty potent offense. It would have been a bit better with more experience in the setter position. It was sufficient for the team to finish 3rd in our regional championships, though.

The point is sometimes to get the most out of your team you have to do things in a non-standard fashion.

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