I came across the following coaching question.

What do you think is better when it comes to defense: running one defense and becoming great at, almost perfecting the one defense or running two or three defenses to be able to adjust to opponent tendencies but you’re never really perfecting one?

I get the idea behind this question, but I think it has built in some limited thinking.

Let me start by saying it is often beneficial to have defensive flexibility – at least when you get toward higher levels of play. You want to be able to adapt to the capabilities and tendencies of the opposition. To my mind, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to think in terms of multiple defensive systems.

I’ll explain.

One system, multiple adjustments

First, we absolutely want to start with the defensive system which is optimal for the majority of what we face (this post on scouting relates). Call it “perimeter” or “rotational” or “middle up” or whatever. It’s the thing we have to spend most of our time developing and refining.

Here’s the important thing, though, to my mind. There is a strong tendency in coaches to teach defensive systems, meaning positioning, in a robotic fashion. They tell players where they should stand. I had a player when I coached in Sweden who HATED when players asked where they should stand on defense, and I agree. What coaches should be giving players is their areas of responsibility.

You might be thinking that’s the same thing, but it’s not. This is where reading comes in to play. Defenders can’t just go to a spot and hope the ball is hit right to them. To truly have an effective defense, each player must be able to use their on-going analysis of the developing play to determine the most likely sort of attack they will see within their area of responsibility. At the same time, players must have a strong understanding of seam responsibility and how it changes as they shift relative positions on the court.

Developing this reading ability and seam awareness actually means the players can essentially play different types of defenses without formalizing movement patterns. For example, a middle back who reads well can play a standard perimeter defense type of position (deep in 6), they could play more middle-middle (usually about 3m in from the end line), or they could even play off the back of the court depending on their read of the block, set location, hitter approach, etc.

Here’s another example. In many perimeter systems the defender in 1 releases up if they read tip. In essence, they are doing what they would do in a rotational defense where they’d move up behind the block. Often in this case the middle back person is told to cover the deep line when the right back moves up for tip defense. That means you have them playing a defacto rotational system.

My point in all this is that as coaches we don’t necessarily need to think of defensive flexibility as the ability to run multiple defined system. We can, instead, think of just one system with adjustments. It simplifies things for the players too.

Multiple systems

Now, there might be times when you want to run an entirely different system. My guess is this will be very infrequent, though. For example, when I coached at Brown our main defense was perimeter. Against Yale, though, we played a kind of rotational defense. The only time we ever worked on the rotational defense was before playing Yale. Other than that, we only trained perimeter.

How can you get away with that? Simple. If reading and seam responsibility are well developed, then shifting defensive responsibilities is not that difficult. The hardest part of it all is making sure the players remember which system they’re playing. That’s going to happen no matter how many different ones you train.

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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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