Archive for Volleyball Coaching Strategy

Slowing Down the Float Serve

I previously talked about how I saw the USC women’s volleyball team train to serve the ball 40mph (see Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important). While I was on my tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, I also witnessed some training that works in the other direction. By that I mean slowing down the serve. A couple of the players on the Long Beach State team were focused on just that while practicing their jump float serves. The reason for this probably requires a bit of explanation.

The main idea behind the float serve is to have the ball move in unexpected ways. This is true for both jump and standing versions. A spinning serve has a predictable trajectory. That make it easier to pass (assuming you can get in position). A float serve, though, has the potential to frustrate a receiver with a movement at the last moment.

Here’s the thing, though. As you increase the velocity of the serve you start to decrease its potential for that late movement. It’s like a putt in golf. You can strike hard enough to overcome the influence of the break which would normally happen because of the texture of the green. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind. A hard, flat serve that is well placed can produce positive results.

If, however, you want that unpredictable movement (and/or want to take some of the strain off your shoulder) you need to slow the serve down. When I coached at Brown and served at the team I called it a low velocity floater. It had a nasty habit of dropping quickly at the last instant as gravity rapidly overwhelmed forward momentum. At other times it curved to the side. A ball which started going toward one player ended up angling to the one next to her. It was fun to watch, but not so fun to pass. 🙂

The risk with a low velocity serve is if you don’t hit it just right it can be a problem. Too soft and it goes in the net. Not exactly dead center and it won’t float well. If you pick your targets properly, though, it can still be effective.

In the case of Long Beach, the coach was using this low velocity serve as part of a mixture of serving styles his team would employ to keep opposition players off balance. He had two jump topspin servers (one lefty, one righty), two players working on the slower jump-floater, and a couple players working on standing float serves they could hit either short or long. Hard to get comfortable as a passer when every server is doing something different.

The evolution of the libero position

It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the game of volleyball in the time I’ve been involved as a coach (and a player all those years ago), and across the gap when I was away from coaching volleyball. While on my 2013 tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, one thing I saw was a shift in libero use. It’s no surprise this happened. The position was only introduced at that level about 15 years ago. It was going to take time for coaches to find the best ways to make use of the position.

The early days of the libero

Back in the early days the libero was largely just a glorified defensive specialist. They didn’t do much more than any DS would have done. They just couldn’t serve at that point (which they can do in one rotation under US women’s collegiate rules). A team took their strongest defender and/or ball control player, gave them the off-colored jersey. They were told to go do what you normally do, but in 6 rotations rather than 3.

When I was at Brown, our basic strategy was to identify the place the ball was most likely to go given our blocking scheme (either position 5 or 6), and put the libero there on defense. We tried to get her central in the serve receive pattern as much as possible. Not a bad approach. You want your best ball-handling player getting as many first contact touches as possible.

Back then we gave no real thought to the libero taking the second ball. After all, the libero couldn’t take the ball with her hands in front of the 3m line. The strategy was instead for the OPP to step out from her RS position to take it. Most teams used a similar approach.

Current libero use

Things have shifted in the last few years, though. These days liberos are given responsibility for the second ball when the setter has to dig. It’s not the OPP anymore. I can think of a few related reasons this shift has taken place, in no particular order:

  • More teams are targeting the setter, causing them to play the ball defensively more often.
  • OPPs are a bigger part of the offense now – especially for college teams running a 6-2. Making them set takes them out of the attack. Further, OPPs rarely set the middle when taking the second ball, often meaning just one attacking option.
  • Coaches are more conservative with their digging target. They strongly favor digs to Target 2 (about 3m line in the middle of the court). This would require an OPP to have to come further off the net to play a ball, often after they just got down from blocking.

With the ball dug to Target 2, and them often playing in position 5, the libero becomes a more interesting secondary setter. On balls dug behind the 3m line they can use their hands. On those closer to the net they can bump set. Since they’re in the middle of the court, they can go to either pin with the ball. Back row is another choice.

Suddenly it makes sense to have the libero acting as the second setter. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be among the quicker players on the court. (By the way, MBs now get more responsibility for the second ball dug close to the net since they can set either way as well).

Implications for libero selection and training

What all this means is that the requirements for the libero position have evolved. It’s no longer enough to pass and or dig the ball well. They now also have to consistently put up a good hitable ball to both pins and the back row. At the top levels this has results in coaches recruiting experienced setters to play libero. It also means a lot of dedicated libero setting work, such as that done in the Second Ball Setting drill.

Having former setters as liberos also brings a leadership factor into play. Good setters are generally also good leaders. Liberos may not direct the team the same ways a setter does, but their attitude, communication, and intensity can certainly set the team’s standard. We had a libero captain one of my years at Brown who definitely set the tone for the team. I saw a similar thing at USC when I observed preseason training there.

As coaches looking to identify and/or train prospective liberos, these are thing we need to keep in mind.

When not to serve their weakest passer

Back in 2013, I took some time to attend a preseason tournament. It featured a group of area men’s teams preparing for the upcoming NVL season in England. The hosts were Exeter Storm.  That’s the club with which the Devon Ladies team I coached the prior season merged. I took advantage of the live match play to try out a couple of volleyball stat apps on my iPad with an eye toward finding a good one to use while coaching the upcoming season. I also wanted to be there in support of the club generally, though.

Storm was new to the NVL that year. The were newly accepted into Division 3 (the club itself is only a couple years old). In the final match of the day they played a team which won promotion to NVL1 in a playoff the prior season. Despite the difference in level, it was a tight match most of the way through. Though, to be fair, Storm had played that same team close previously.

The captain of the men’s team I coached at Exeter University the prior season was an OH for the club. At a certain point in the match I observed that he was targeting a specific player on the opposing team with his serves. This player was most definitely the weakest passer they had. He was also by far their best hitter – an absolute beast who proved virtually unstoppable all day long.

Normally, relentlessly serving the other team’s weak passer is a good strategy. This time, though, not so much.

You see, in this particular rotation the serve was down the line (1 to 5). The result was often a 1 or 2-pass which forced the setter to come toward area 4. Normally, that would be a good thing as it would make the offense predictable. In this case, however, it meant the setter was virtually assured of setting this big hammer of a hitter swinging outside. The sideout percentage was very high despite the poor passes. The setter may have still set the same player if the pass went somewhere else or came from a different direction. Personally, I’d have at least wanted to give him the option of making that (bad) decision, though.

Now, in this instance the player made the call on where he was going to serve. I know because I asked him after the match. In another instance it could have just as easily been the call of a coach thinking too much about the normal percentage play. The Storm coaches didn’t seem to normally call serving targets for the players, so I’m reluctant to suggest they fell victim of that mentality. I can easily see other coaches doing so in other situations, however.

Just goes to show that sometimes doing the right thing can be the wrong thing.

Problem Solving: Setting out of the middle

The first volleyball team I ever coached by myself was the Southeast Boys Scholastic team in the Massachusetts Bay State Games. You can think of the Games as an annual mini Olympic type of competition. The six regions of the state compete against each other in a wide array of sports. In volleyball it means running team tryouts, having weekly training sessions for a month or so, then competing in the 3-day tournament during the month of July.

I’d never even seen Bay State Games competition, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into from that perspective. I’d had enough exposure to high school boys volleyball to at least have a general idea of what to expect. I didn’t, however, know the specific level of play there would be among presumably the better players in the state. I did know that I had some talent on my team, though.

Then I heard my setter sprained his ankle the week before the tournament.

Forced to Re-Think the Setting Position

I had just one pure setter, so this forced me to have to rethink my whole line-up plan. Naturally, the big decision was who would take that role. I had two candidates. One was a kid named Josh who set and hit outside in a 6-2 system for his high school. The other was Greg, who was primarily a middle, but also set.

I only had two proper middles, but in the end I decided to have Greg set rather than Josh. Why? Because Josh was a real stud player who could potentially get two touches on the ball each time it was on our side of the net. If he set he’d only get one touch.

Of course, using Greg as setter in a 5-1 offense left me with only one viable middle. As a result, I had to rethink how to set my line-up. I decided to have him set out of the middle when he was front row. That way he could still perform the middle blocker function. While in the back row he played normal setter defense (right back), while my right side players played middle back defense.

Believe it or not, we won the gold medal with this line-up. Just goes to show, you can win with non-standard line-ups. This is why it’s so important for coaches to have a firm understanding of the different types of systems teams can play (see a book like Volleyball Systems & Strategies). It helps adapt to situations and be able to maximize the talents of the team.


When the Serve Needs to Be In

In volleyball coaching circles the idea of a “Commandments of Serving” has long been around. Even back in the days of sideout scoring when it didn’t hurt quite so much to miss a serve there was a list of times to make sure to get the ball in. Here’s the list I’ve put together, arranged in no particular order.

Please note that what I’m about to talk about needs to be viewed in conjunction with the decision you make on how aggressive you want your team to be from the service line.

Set point

It’s pretty obvious why you don’t want to miss a serve when it’s set point against you. No need to give the other team the win on a platter. If you have set point you want to make the other team fight it off, not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously, it’s different when your team is well up on points, but even still you’d like to avoid given the other team any hope of a comeback.

After a stoppage

There are four types of stoppage in volleyball:

  • Before sets start
  • Team Timeouts
  • Substitutions
  • Officials’ timeouts/delays

You don’t want to miss the first serve of a set for obvious reasons. No sense giving the other team the first point without a fight. Even more, you don’t want to blunt a team’s enthusiasm coming out of the break with an error right away.

In the case of timeouts and subs, this is especially about not letting the other team break your momentum. They are often both used to “ice” the server. You’d rather not make the other coach look good by missing then (though it doesn’t work as much as you might think).

As to the officials’ timeouts, that’s mainly having to do with contested calls, scoring issues, and the like. The energy can flag during these breaks and the other team may be distracted (and/or angry that the call went against them). Missing the serve lets them off the hook.

Consecutive Misses

The following types of missed serves are the ones that give coaches grey hair and high blood pressure:

  • When you missed your last serve
  • After your teammate missed a serve
  • When the other team just missed a serve

The first entry here has more to do with the individual than the team. A player who misses straight serves, especially if the first miss did not follow a string of service points, risks putting them in a negative head space. It could not just negatively impact future serves, but their overall play. Even if there was a string of points scored before the first miss, there are reasons not to want to see consecutive errors which I will get into below.

In terms of missing after the player before missed (teammate or opposition), this is about not giving the other team a chance to build momentum. If they miss a serve and then you miss one, not only don’t you punish them for doing so, you give the initiative right back. And if you miss after your teammate misses you kill any chance you might have to develop momentum and probably give it to the other team.

A really painful example of this came when I was coaching the EUVC Men in the 2013 BUCS Super 8s. We were playing Cambridge in the last match of pool play. We’d won the first set without too much strain and were ahead in the second. Then we missed a string of I think four serves in a row (maybe 4 out of 5). It was the turning point of the match. It let Cambridge catch us and we never got the momentum back, going on to lose that set and then the decider. Even worse, the team wasn’t able to recover from the reversal and played poorly in the crossover match which followed.

Emotional turning points

There are a few emotionally sensitive points in a match where one should avoid service errors:

  • After a long rally
  • Following a great play
  • When the other team has just scored a string of points

The first two are situations similar to when someone makes a great up on defense or chases a ball down off the court. The last thing you want to see in those cases is someone then putting the ball into the net. It wipes out all the good feelings the prior play generated. A missed serve after a hard-fought rally does the same thing.

In the case of when the other team has scored a string of points, the situation is a bit reversed. There is usually some sense of relief to breaking their serve (particularly if it was a long string). A missed serve at that point tends to create a “Here we go again” sort of feeling. At least try to give your team a chance to shake off the recent struggles.

Unfavorable match-ups

From a tactical perspective it makes sense to try to delay as long as possible situations where the other team can bring their strongest players to bear. You thus would want to avoid missed serves when:

  • The next server for the opposition is a strong one
  • The other team’s best front row player will rotate out of the back row

Obviously, if you’re playing a balanced team this sort of consideration won’t come to mind. However, if they have an absolute stud hitter, for example, you probably don’t want to accelerate their return to the front row by missing serves.

When you’re much better

In the instance where your team is the markedly better of the two, missed serves are hard to justify. You don’t need to be aggressive to win (see this post). The one excuse is that perhaps you want some players to work on their more challenging serves. Even still, you have to be cautious because several missed serves can suddenly make a match uncomfortable.

This happened with the Devon Ladies during the 2013 South West Championships. During the round-robin part of the event we were playing a team of lower quality, but one good enough to put up a fight. At one point four of our serves were missed in a row, allowing the other team to claw back into a potentially threatening position. As soon as we got back to making our serves we pulled away, but for a while we gave the other team some hope, which can be a dangerous thing.

It’s mainly about the momentum

You may have observed in my comments above that a lot of the reason for not missing serves at certain times comes down to grabbing or maintaining momentum. We all know how important momentum and psychology are in volleyball. It needs to be encouraged and cultivated in any way we can. Make this your focal point when looking at serving, and other parts of the game as well.

Now train it!

It’s not enough to think about when a serve needs to go in during matches. The mentality needs to be integrated into player’s minds during training. Make sure there are consequences during drills and games for missing serves at bad times. That will reduce (though I very much doubt totally eliminate) bad misses during matches and make your life on game day just a little less stressful.

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