During the FIVB Outside Hitting/Serving seminar I attended back in 2015 there were a number of points of discussion. One in particular generated the most intense debate. That was the idea that the best way to go is to set the ball tight to the net. Instructor Mark Lebedew suggested this as the best option. Probably not too surprisingly, there was considerable disagreement.

It should be noted that while Mark has been known at times to say something controversial just to get a reaction, this wasn’t the case here. His three main arguments in favor of tight sets were that they give the hitter more court area into which they can attack, that the ball crosses the net more quickly (less distance to cover), and that it makes it easier for the hitter to use the block.

The US National Team coaches historically have gone the other way with this*. They want the ball off the net. I’m sure lots of others share that view. In fact, Sue Gozansky, who was running the parallel setting seminar at the same time was teaching those coaches that sets should be away from the net. That is certainly the more traditional view.

Tradition isn’t always right, though. So what say you? Tight sets or sets off the net? Tell us what you think and why?

* During the 2018 Volleyball Nations League Mark faced the USA as the Australian Men’s National Team coach. He observed that they were then setting balls tight, which produced difficult to stop attacks, so the philosophy seems to have changed. Later that year I asked one of the USA assistants about it. He denied this being the case.

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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.

    20 replies to "It’s best to set the ball tight. Debate!"

    • Ballverteiler

      Hm…fivb seems to be aligned in their principles:-)

      • markleb

        FIVB don’t have coaching principles per se. That isn’t their role.

    • Volker

      I teach off the net to beginners so they can swing away freely and don’t have to bother touching the net. Most girls don’t hit straight down anyway.
      In the men’s game I usually stay with setting off the net to avoid the opponent’s block.

    • Jeff Stephens

      I believe there are competing factors. Not getting blocked and putting the ball on the court. In the case of the block, the greater the distance from the block, the better. This is just geometry. This argues for sets off the net. In the case of putting the ball on the court, the closer the better because the court is only so wide and deep. The greater the distance off the net, the further left or further right the ball ends up based on the angle of attack. Neither of these consider the vertical and height of either attacker or blocker. Tight sets for short hitters are trap sets. Not so for taller or hitters with large verticals.

      • John Forman

        Jeff – One consideration in all this is the objective of the hitter. Mark noted in his presentation that as you move up the ladder of development there is an increasing emphasis on attacking the block rather than trying to avoid it. From the perspective of avoiding the block, you are correct that distance creates better angles. Once you consider trying to go at the block in certain ways, things begin to take on a different complexion.

        • markleb

          Again maybe semantics, but I don’t think there is less emphasis on hitting past the block rather than more openness to alternative solutions.

    • Ballverteiler

      “The longest metre in volleyball is a high ball set 2m from the net or 1m. The difference is your advantage or theirs. The difference is to be aggressive or passive.”
      Mark Lebedew

      • markleb

        2m from the net is passive / reactive.
        1m from the net is aggressive / active.

    • Oliver Wagner

      While I agree with Mark’s first two arguments, I’m not so sure that a tight set makes it easier for the hitter to use the block. I would be interested to hear the why.

      • John Forman

        Funnily, I have my questions about the first two in certain respects, but the easier to use the block one makes total sense to me as the hitter has a better view of the block and there will be less time from attack to potential block contact for the block to change position. This, of course, assumes a decent set.

        • Oliver Wagner

          Okay. Then probably I asked the wrong question: How tight is tight? How much centimeters off the net is tight? And what will be too tight?

          • John Forman

            In a separate discussion Mark said tight was 50cm.

            • markleb

              Actually to be more precise, I said the optimal distance was 50cm.
              The word ‘tight’ implies too close. Maybe that is one reason it is such an interesting debate.

    • Michael Borga

      As long as the ball does not enter the plane of the net, allowing the block to touch it first, I agree with Mark Lebedew! It is much easier to “tool” a block when the ball is close to the net as compared to trying to aim for the outside of their hands from 2 meters, 7 feet, away. Being closer is more likely to get you stuff blocked, but hitters should be able to recognize that fact and not just blast away when in the “closet.”

      Of course, the main caveat is, What is your hitter capable of and prefers?

    • Oliver Wagner

      Thanks for clarifying “tight”. My experience ist that this is what many players would call off the net, because tight means for them right above the net 🙂 But I agree that 50 cm (or some more) will give the attacker many options and the best chance for a score.

    • Ulrich Froehlich

      The Answer is yes. You are correct. Its both. I have coached boys and girls. USA national team is not the reference point you want to use when coaching or setting systems or expectations. At the height of the national team the net is still only 8 feet, everything is in play. My son 6’5″ with 11’6″ reach he hit a ten ball on the other ten foot line. His competitors are also reaching a foot plus over the net to block. Set off net helps in those situations. My daughter 5’7″ 24″ plus vert can hit most spots on court when ball is closer,and get kills however when the ball is off net she splits the block,hits off the hand, or hard deep, gets past the block but has less chance of a kill as you mentioned before. Most girls don’t penetrate the net very much so a little closer is not as dangerous. I think that is why they call it the art of coaching volleyball because there are so many variables to see and adapt to. Best is to teach them to be hitters and aim and be deceptive, so as not to just swing as hard as they can.. The more ATTACKING TOOLS they have the better.

    • Brad H

      The question is more about setting accuracy and percentages. There is the law of variability you have to factor into the set. This states that regardless of where a setter is aiming the set, they will miss their target a portion of the time. If a setter is aiming for 1m off the net and they miss by 50% either way, you are going to have half of the balls closer than 1m and half further away than 1m. The goal for the setter is to present as many hittable balls as possible. If they are aiming too close, this means that a portion of their balls will be unhittable. If we change the target back off the net, then the variability of the set will allow for a greater number of hits. This is very easy to test in your own gym: Have your setter aim for tighter sets and see what % are hittable, then aim further off the net and see what % are hittable. In games, stat the distance the set is off the net and the result of the corresponding hit. Don’t listen to the arguments on set location. Prove it to yourself. That is why the national team does what they do. They use science and math to support their training methods.

      • John Forman

        Not sure that’s a law Brad, but your point is well taken.

        You can extend the argument, though, by saying that as you increase in setting skill the variability decreases. In fact, that could be considered the exact definition of setting improvement. As variability declines, you can set increasingly closer to the net with the same odds of over-setting.

        • Brad H

          Good points John. The Law of Variability: Increasing variability always degrades the performance of production system.

          To your point, stats show there is a bell curve. The margin of error differs by age group and by setter. Charting various age groups and various setters in various situations will provide a pretty good heatmap showing where kills or “solid attacks” come from. However, to the points made by others above, I have never seen anyone’s chart suggest anything closer than 1 meter.

          • John Forman

            The one thing that always has to be factored in to the consideration of set distance from the net when doing any type of analysis of performance is hitter expectations. I think I brought this up with Carl McGown one time and he concurred. If the hitter expects the ball at 1m then naturally their effectiveness will be lower when it is 1.5m or .5m. Likewise, a 1m set will challenge a hitter looking for something at .5m. The hard part is finding a sample of attackers with varied set distance expectations that we know of in advance to do a proper study.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.