Coaching team strategy and tactics during a match

A long-time reader sent me the following question.

Being an avid reader of your publications I would like to hear your thoughts on coaching tactics during the match.

I understand collegiate and professional level coaches use tactics as part of their training and preparing for opponents. Most coaches that coach at the youth level do not seem to use tactics, or very little. I say this because I just spent 9 days of 10 at USAV Girls JrNat Championship and really realized how much coaches coach skills instead of tactics. Coaches seemed to only provide feedback when errors were made and during timeouts. I guess the only ‘tactics’ I did see were where to serve. Top level open coaches for the most part just sat or stood without providing feedback was disappointing.

Tactics vs Strategy

I should first clarify terminology here. Generally speaking, tactics are the things you do to execute a strategy. For example, you might decide you want to attack against the opposing team’s weakest blocker as much as possible. That would be the strategy. The tactics would be the offensive play(s) you run to make that happen.

Let’s say the other team’s setter is their weak blocker. You could run your middle on a quick to try to hold the opposing middle. That would give your outside hitter a 1-on-1 swing against the setter.

Pre-planned vs. On the fly

Strategy and tactics are often determined ahead of time as the result of scouting. When you have access to video or the ability to watch a team before playing them – or have played them before – this is the standard approach.

They can also develop out of something you see during the match, though. An example of this comes from when I coached the Exeter women. My second year we played Cardiff at the end of our league season. They had small setter who was not a realistic blocker. They had an athletic middle next to her. I noticed early on that they were basically having the middle try to block by herself on sets to Position 4. The problem was that usually meant she was late getting there and floating. So I instructed the team to attack there as often as possible when the setter was front row. It was highly effective.

Why not talk strategy and tactics during a match?

The core of the emailer’s question is why coaches – especially club coaches – don’t work more with their players on strategy and tactics during matches. I think there are a couple of possible reasons for this.

The first is taking a strictly developmental mindset. By that I mean they have opted to focus just on technique and player development. This may be a specific choice or the result of inexperience. I think a lot of newer coaches tend to go this route because they haven’t developed the ability to take a wider perspective as yet. That said, there are certainly times and situations where it makes sense to keep things simple and not worry about strategy and tactics.

The second way a coach could look at things is that they are just going to focus on their side of the court. There may be some tactical elements to this, but generally speaking they aren’t thinking about what’s happening with the other team. It’s more about playing the game that is immediately in front of them. In this case the coach is probably focused on things like block and defensive position, executing on offensive plays, and things like that. It can be hard for a solo coach to watch both sides of the net, so oftentimes just watching their own is the way they go.

That said ….

Having provided the reasons why a coach may not give much attention to strategy and tactics in a match, I think failing to incorporate it into the team discussion misses a teaching opportunity. Yes, of course, if you spot a weakness your team can take advantage of (per my Exeter example above), then that’s important as well. This is especially so if you coach in an environment where winning matters. I think there’s more to it, though.

As I’ve written previously, we can’t direct everything our team does. It’s just not possible in our sport. The players have to work things out for themselves on the court much of the time. That’s a skill they need to develop. If you don’t talk strategy and tactics with them you are effectively stunting their growth. Players need to learn how to both analyze the competitive situation and devise solutions to the challenges they face.

This is the sort of thing you work with them on during film, while scouting teams live, in practice, and during matches. It’s all part of raising their volleyball IQ.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John most recently coached for an NCAA Division II women's team. That followed 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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