Looking at Serving Risk and Reward

There’s an article from 2013 which talks about the aggressive of the University of Wisconsin women’s volleyball team in their serving. In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of his team, the coach decided it was going to be important to not expose his relatively weak block to strong attacks. They would do that by trying to get teams out of system in serve receive attack through tough serving.

Aggressive serving is something that is talked about a fair bit in volleyball – especially at the higher levels. Offenses are so powerful that a side out is nearly automatic when teams pass well. Thus the desire to force teams to pass less than well, which requires good serving.

There’s an obvious trade-off involved in aggressive serving, though. If a serve is missed it’s an automatic point for the other team. We can think of this in a mathematical way. The expected point value of a serve is a function of the probabilities of the various outcomes involved. Those outcomes include service errors, service aces, winning the rally and losing the rally. You can create a formula for the expected value of a serve (EVS) that looks like this:

EVS = PA – PE + (1-PA-PE) x (PRW – PRL)

Where…

PA = % chance of an ace (in decimal form – e.g. 10% = 0.10)
PE = % chance of an error
PRW = % chance of a rally win
PRL = % chance of a rally loss

Let’s put that in an example form. Say a given server gets and ace in 1 out of 20 serves (5%) and misses 2 out of 20 (10%). When the serve is in, the team wins the rally 60% of the time. The above formula would look like this:

EVS=0.05-0.10 + (1-0.05-0.10) x (0.60-0.40)
= 0.05 – 0.10 + 0.85 x 0.20
= -0.05 + 0.17
= 0.12

Thus, each time this particular player serves the team expects to score 0.12 points. If you play around with the numbers in different ways you can see how being more ore less aggressive could potentially impact that EVS value through the impact it has on ace and error percentages and the chances of winning the service rally.

We can translate the desire of the Wisconsin coach into a desire to increase service rally win % – PRW from the formula above. If the team is going to get more aggressive serving it should increase the PRW (and reduce the PRL) to improve the EVS, but it will also likely mean rising PE, which hurts the EVS. The question a coach needs to answer is whether the positive move in PRW more than offsets the rise in PE. If so, then it’s a good idea. If not, then there’s a problem.

In other words, serving tougher only makes sense if the increase in service rally wins at least offsets the rise in service errors.

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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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