One day at Midwestern State we took a break in the office and watched some old volleyball. After weeks of being able to watch World League and Gran Prix matches, we were feeling some volleyball withdrawal symptoms. We started with some footage from the 1964 Olympics FIVB has up on its YouTube channel.

In case you aren’t aware, ’64 is when volleyball made its first appearance in the Olympics. Japan hosted.

Here’s the first video we watched: the Soviet Union vs. Czechoslovakia on the men’s side.

Among the things you’ll notice:

  • The ball is white
  • Scoring is sideout
  • Block counts as a touch
  • W serve receive
  • VERY high sets
  • Serving only from behind Zone 1
  • No antennae
  • No libero
  • Players mostly playing all the way around
  • Roundhouse float serves by the Japanese players
  • Fast subs

We also watched Japan vs. the Soviet Union on the women’s side.

Even back then the rallies on the women’s side were longer than on the men’s side. 🙂

The last thing we watched was the official volleyball technical film from 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

You can see how much the sport evolved in just 12 years. The offensive schemes are much more sophisticated, thanks in large part to the innovations in developing the quick attack by the Japanese in the ’60s. You also see more sophisticated blocking and defensive schemes. Generally speaking, serve reception is more precise, which is a demand of the faster offenses.

There are still a number of differences between how the game was played in 1976 and the way it’s played today, but you can see a lot of the main concepts had developed by that point. Actually, in some ways the offenses then were more complex than offenses are today. They used crossing patterns in ways we don’t see much anymore. The back row attack did not feature yet, however, and the sets to the pin were not as fast as in modern volleyball.

Now have a look at this match between Cuba and the Netherlands from the World League in 1991.

By the way, #4 for Cuba in that match is Joel Despaigne. He was seen by many at the time as heir to Karch Kiraly as the world’s best indoor player. He was all of 6’3″ (191cm), but had a jump reach of 11’5″ (350cm).

On the women’s side, here’s Cuba v. Brazil in the 1991 World Cup.

At this point, there are fewer players in reception in the men’s game, largely influenced by the USA men in the 80s, though it doesn’t seem to be cut down as much for the women. There is some jump serving (Brazilian influence), but mostly it’s still standing float serves. The back row attack out of Zone 1 has developed by this point in the men’s game, but it really hasn’t taken hold on the women’s side because of the prevalence of the slide. Blocking is more sophisticated.

The ball is still white. It’s still sideout scoring. You still must serve from behind Zone 1. There’s no libero yet. Serve still can’t touch the net. Women are wearing briefs. Those things won’t change for a few more years.

Tracking the changes

I think you can make a pretty good case that the game didn’t change a ton between 1976 and 1991. There were changes, to be sure, but they were more like an evolution rather than a major jump like between 1964 and 1976.

We saw some serious developments in the 2000s, though. This followed a handful of changes which came together to create a shift. Those were rally scoring, the libero, the serving rule adjustments to allow net touches and service from anywhere behind the end line.

The latter two – at least the net touch one, anyway – let servers get more aggressive. This helped complete the progression from standing to jump serves (spin, then eventually also float) at the top level.

I think the libero probably accelerated the process of volleyball players getting bigger. That began in the 80s with teams growing more specialized in passing. The OPPs and MBs no longer needed to receive serve (though they still had to play defense). That let you bring in bigger players who were less skilled in ball-handling without being seriously exposed. With the libero, now the tall players don’t need to play defense anymore, for the most part.

That didn’t just impact the OPPs and MBs, however. Now, if you’re a tall player with ball-handling skills you can be an OH, instead of getting stuck in the middle because you’re tall. Thus, OHs get bigger.

Better skills?

Many old timers are heard grumbling about how the skill has come out of the game – especially with respect to how players can double on first contact these days. I think a case can be made, though, that modern players are actually more skillful.

I point specifically to two elements of play. First is serve reception. There can be no doubt that modern serving is far more aggressive than it used to be. That implies a higher level of skill required to pass serve well – unless you believe serve reception is less accurate today than in the past.

The other is setting. You can certainly make the case that setting has required considerable skill going back to the introduction of the quick attack in the 60s, and through the development of combination plays. Clearly, good setters were accurate and consistent. The case for modern setters than can be made is that they operate their offenses at a higher tempo than their predecessors.

I’ll leave you to debate that amongst yourselves, though. 🙂

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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