In a previous post I discussed blocking the back row attack. In this post I want to flip things around and talk about things from the offensive perspective. Part my motivation comes from a question I got from a Swiss coach during my 2019 European travels. He asked me if I’d ever seen a potent back row attack in the women’s game.

I’ll give you a second to think about what your answer would be.

OK. Time’s up!

Your answer depends quite a bit on the level of play you’ve mostly observed, of course. In my case, in the week or so before getting that question I had, in fact, seen a meaningful amount of successful back row attacking among women’s teams. There was a commonality, though, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

The challenge

The video below is a good example of the challenge when it comes to the back row attack. It comes from the Netherlands-Bulgaria match during the European zonal Olympic qualification tournament. It’s one rally which features three attacks out of the pipe by the Dutch.

Did you notice what happened in defense on each of those back row swings?

If you were paying attention, you noticed how on each one of those attacks the defenders had time to get back into a good position. Also, at least two blockers got up each time.

That’s the challenge of the standard back row attack, especially out of the pipe. It develops somewhat slowly and there isn’t anything to hold the attention of the defense and/or block.

You’ll notice in the example above there was no other middle attack on any of the swings. The middle was set up to hit on the right side each time. As a result, the defense didn’t have to honor the quick in their blocking or positioning. If the pipe had been at a faster tempo, things might have been different. In that case the defense would have struggled to get deeper to properly defend it.

The ideal situation

Now look at this example and notice the difference. You may have to replay it a couple times or pause it to get everything as it goes fairly fast.

There are two things to notice from this example.

The first is speed. The Japanese hitter above is a step further into her approach than the Dutch player is at setter contact. That makes a difference in terms of the ability of defenders to adjust. Unlike in the first example, in this one the defense makes little or no adjustment for the pipe. Now, you might argue that’s because she’s a Middle Blocker playing defense (fair enough), but it doesn’t look like there’s much adjustment from the other two either when the camera zooms out.

The second thing is how there’s a middle quick to occupy the block. Basically, the back row hitter was unlikely to have to face more than a single block. As it was, she didn’t have any because the left side blocker was rather foolishly bailing out to cover the right side attacker when she wasn’t a realistic option.

You can see a lot of examples of this kind of play in this video of the USA Men, who are among the best at the pipe (bic) attack.

Sometimes, though…

With mere mortal players, as noted, it’s hard to score from a slower back row attack. Their odds increase dramatically when you can occupy the block and run fast enough to keep the defense from being able to adjust. With enough power, though, it doesn’t matter.

Here are some examples of that. Actually, the first clip is from a play similar to the one the Dutch ran in the first video above. The difference here, though, is that the middle starts to move toward the slide attack rather than staying central. That leaves a wide open lane for the pipe.

And from 1 and 5?

Back row attacks from the more pin positions (zones 1 and 5) you really have to treat a lot like front row attacks to those parts of the court. The timing is usually roughly similar. It becomes a question of whether the hitter has sufficient power to make up for being further off the net, and has the technique to place the ball from further away and/or use the block.

Of course there is the possibility of running front row/back row combinations like the quick/pipe shown above. You’d just have to look at the capabilities of your hitters and setter and, if it looks doable, train it a lot.

Thinking about the considerations

The bottom line of any offensive decision-making is trying to create opportunities with the best chance of a positive outcome. So how can the back row attack do that for you?

In the men’s game the quick/pipe combination is highly successful because it’s really hard to stop defensively. You’re basically running 4 attackers against 3 blockers overall, and potentially creating 2-on-1 situations in the middle. You can do this in the women’s game as well, as the Japanese example above shows – at least when the setter is back row.

What about when the setter is front row in the women’s game? Well, if you have a potent attacker in position 1 you can still do it, just as the men do. If you’re running the slide as your right side attack instead, then you don’t have the 4 v 3 situation. This isn’t to say you can’t make it work, though. You just have do work a bit harder at it. Specifically, the opposition needs to see the slide as a threat so as to reduce blocking potential in the middle. And you need to keep the tempo up to keep the defense stuck in base.

Out of system

The biggest problem for the back row attack, especially in the women’s game where there isn’t as much raw power, is out-of-system situations. Unless you have a real hammer you’re probably going to see a very low success rate for high ball back row sets.

The problem is it’s an easy bail out ball for your setter. Sometimes that’s the best option. Many times, though, it’s just the safe option rather than the best one.

Here’s an example from my own experience.

When I coached the Devon Ladies in England our setter definitely had a tendency to set the pipe when she got pulled off the net. It was her comfort set. Unfortunately, we never scored on those sets. I had to tell her to set to 4 where we had outside hitters who could score even on not so great sets. In other words, setting outside was a much better percentage play than setting the back row.

This is something you’re going to have to pay attention to both in terms of what your setters down and your own mentality. Don’t fall into the trap of having your team just do the safe thing when there’s a better choice.

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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.

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