I came across the following question in a coaching group on the subject of picking the team’s starting setter.

How do you rank/rate setters when trying to decide a starter? Seems like a lot of what they do is based on what others do on the court. We have four above average setters, but no great standout, so basing some numbers on who’s the best would be great.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to speak in terms of picking a single starting setter. The ideas I present, though, apply to picking starters in a multiple setter system (4-2, 6-2, etc.).

Also, I’m assuming we’re talking about a competitive situation where you want to put the best team on the court. The alternative is a more developmental situation where you’re not so concerned about winning and losing. In that case other considerations dominate.

I’m going to exclude from this discussion non-playing aspects. That is stuff like attitude, effort, etc. At least in so much as they are not reflected in on-court performance. For example, you could have a setter who is a better performer than others, but whose attitude is not something you want to reward with playing time.

The first thing I would say is that you want to do all of your evaluations in game play situations. By that I mean I would not consider drill performance, as setters often don’t have to perform the fullness of their positional requirements. You want to evaluate the complete package. There are a lot of things setters have to do. You can’t pick a starter based on only looking at one or two of them.

By the way, when I say “game play” there are levels to it. You will get the best, most comprehensive view of a setter’s abilities in a 6 v 6 situation since that is what they are in come match day. However, you can use small-sided games to good effect as well. You just need to understand the limitations any given game has with respect to the setter position.

Who’s the winner?

I believe it was in Insights that Mike Hebert talked about the different personality roles players can take within a team. I don’t recall all of them, but I remember Winner being one of them. Mike made the observation that high performing teams have setters who are Winners.

In American Football the quarterback is often judged on the basis of winning and losing. The setting position in volleyball has a lot of parallels to quarterback (and then some), and as such winning is one of the ways we can evaluate them. A good setter does the things they need to do to help their team win.

With that in mind, one way to help determine the starting setter is to see who wins most often. This was something we did at Midwestern State in the 2017 season. We kept track of the winners of games for all positions, though in our analysis it was most influential on the setter evaluations. We had a senior who started the year before going up against a sophomore who had some physical and other advantages in her favor. It was the senior, though, who won far more often in the games we played the first couple weeks of practice. That strongly favored her for the starting job.

I should note, we had a conversation with the sophomore about things. In it we specifically mentioned the differential in winning. It was something she took to heart, and we noticed a rapid improvement from that point on. So you can not only use these sorts of evaluations to make a starting choice, but also direct the development of the non-starter(s).

Who runs the best offense?

Another good way to evaluate your setters with with offensive statistics. To put it simply, what is the team hitting percentage – or whatever your preferred metric – for each setter? This is obviously a bit more labor intensive to track than wins, but is can provide a number of useful insights. That’s above and beyond simply figuring out which setter puts up the best numbers.

For example, if you track the hitting stats for each setter you can drill down on things. You might find one setter runs the middles better, while the other is stronger when setting the pins. Aside from giving you developmental areas of focus for each, that sort of information could feed into decisions with respect to your opposition. Maybe you play a team that struggles in the middle, so you want to really feature that in your offense when playing them. This could see you favor the setter who is better with the middles even if overall the other setter is stronger.

Along a similar offensive line of thinking, you could also use some kind of set rating system. It’s a concept similar to ones used for serving and passing. I haven’t come across any that are commonly used, because rating a set is quite complex. Here’s one idea, though.

Non-offensive considerations

As noted above, setters have several other things to do aside from running the offense. They have to play defense, serve, block (some at least), and communicate with their teammates on the court in the right way. If they are doing these things well it will probably reflect in how often they win the games you put them in.

Where things get interesting is when you have a situation where a setter is good in the offensive category, but not great in the other areas – or vice versa. In this case it’s possible your own biases could lead you to a decision. For example, I worked with a coach with a strong defensive focus. She always favored the stronger defensive player if there wasn’t some other really strong factor in play. This is why I like looking at winning. It’s pretty objective.

And if you look at offensive and non-offensive factors alongside the winning aspect you can gain a lot of useful insights. On the one hand, you might be able to see why a setter struggles to win. On the other hand, you could see how a winning setter might get even better.

Video analysis

It’s sometimes not practical to collect the kind of stats we’d like in practice. This is particularly true if you coach by yourself. What almost all of us can do, though, is record things on video. That’s gives you a chance to go back and stat things, for one. But even if you can’t do that, you can use the video to see which setter does the things you want to see them doing most often.

Know what’s important

A big factor in all of this is knowing what’s important. There are many things you can look at when evaluating setters. They simply don’t weight equally when it comes to which setter will do the best job for your team, however. Most of us would put running a good offense at or near the top of the list, but what’s next? And what’s after that? Having a tiebreak system is important. You might have some ideas, but make sure they are based on observation and evidence, not just impressions. Different teams and levels of play have different considerations in this regard.

So when comparing setters make sure the games you put them in put the decision factors strongly in focus. And make the situations the setters are in as comparable as possible. It would not be fair to base your starter decision, for example, on stats collected when one setter was playing with a strong team around her and the other had a weak team. You need to balance that out.

6 Steps to Better Practices - Free Guide

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter today and get this free guide to making your practices the best, along with loads more coaching tips and information.

No spam ever. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

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.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.