Is offense or defense more important in volleyball?

Which do you think is more important to the success of a volleyball team – offense or defense?

Generally speaking, the answer could very well depend on whether you’re from the men’s or the women’s side of the sport. In my experience, women’s coaches tend to prioritize defense more than men’s coaches.

I probably would have been one of those women’s coaches who said “defense” once upon a time. I had a very clear demonstration of the limitations of that thinking, though.

The Exeter experience.

My first year coaching the Exeter women we had a pretty good defense. This was demonstrated in our playoff match against Loughborough, which was a good team at that time. We got into some really long rallies with them and constantly foiled their attackers. The problem was we couldn’t get kills going back the other way. Just didn’t have the fire power. We were good enough to compete, but not good enough to win.

That changed the following year. We had a major offensive upgrade. Now we could win those rallies we couldn’t the year before. The result was a trip to the national semifinal.

A more detailed example

In a moment I will share some figures with you. Let me first set the stage, though.

In the 2016 season, the Midwestern State (MSU) team I coached finished 8th in the Lone Star Conference, out of 11 teams. It was a meaningful improvement over the performance the year before (winless in conference). Our defense was really poor, though. We ranked 9th in opponent hitting efficiency (.221) and 10th in blocks/set (1.27).

Naturally, we made defense a big focus for improvement in the off-season. It paid off. In 2017 we moved up to 6th in opponent hitting efficiency (.183) and jump all the way to 4th in blocks/set (2.20). That means we moved up the standings, right?

Nope. In fact, we dropped a spot and finished 9th.

Were we more competitive? Absolutely! We took sets off teams in 2017 – including nationally ranked opponents – we didn’t get close to in 2016. We even had one more match win in conference.

What did not improve was our offense, and that made all the difference.

Here’s a look at the conference statistical rankings for key offensive and defensive areas.

Offense

We’ll start with the attacking side of things. Take note of how closely the final standing of each team matches its rank in terms of hitting efficiency. Only in the case of Kingsville and West Texas is there a variation. The two of them were reversed in terms of their offensive rank, though we can really say they tied. Kingsville had one more match victory than West Texas.

Of course hitting efficiency is calculated as (Kills – Errors)/Total Attempts. Thus, we can break it down and look at Kill % and Error % separately. Compare the Kill% and Error % ranks in the table above and you’ll notice something interesting.

Tarleton is clearly well ahead of everyone else with a Kill% about 39. Commerce and Angelo are very close in the 2 and 3 spots in the 37s. Then the next four teams are also very tightly bunched together in the 34s. After that you have a steady progression lower as you move down the ranks. Overall, there is about an 11% difference between top and bottom.

Things aren’t nearly so orderly when it comes to Error %. First of all, the spread from best (Commerce) to worst (Permian) is only about 4%. Most teams are in the 14%-15% range. The 10th worst team in terms of errors actually finished 7th in the standings.

When you see this it seems pretty clear that the kill side of things weighs more heavily on performance than the error side. That’s not to say errors don’t matter. Obviously, they do. But kills seem to matter more when it comes to winning and losing, and there’s a lot more variation.

Defense

Now let’s look at how teams did stopping their opposition from scoring. The opponent hitting efficiency gives us a general measure of that. The top three teams in the standings were also the top three teams in terms of defending. No doubt the strength of their offense is a factor there. After all, if you’re hitting is strong it makes for more difficult transition opportunities coming back the other way when you don’t get a kill.

Below the top three the rankings and the final standings position deviate quite a bit. MSU is a prime example. We had the 6th best opponent efficiency, but only finished 9th. Western New Mexico was four places below us in the defensive rankings, but won two more matches than we did.

Now compare the opponent Kill% rankings to those for the hitting efficiency ones. They are almost identical. That tells us that opponent hitting errors don’t really matter much. This really bears out when we look at the Block % figures. That’s the percentage of times that team blocked an opposing attack. They are all over the place! The bottom two blocking teams finished right in the middle of the standings, while the second best blocking side ended up 10th.

The edge to the offense

Based on the figures in the table above, it looks like offense correlates more closely to final league standings than defense. This, of course, is a narrow study. It features teams from one of the stronger conferences in NCAA Division II volleyball for just a single season. As such, it might not be fully representative. Even so, it at least gives us something to think about.

Here’s some further analysis along these lines.

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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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