There are two general offensive schemes in volleyball. One is to spread the attack out across the full width of the net. The other is to attempt to overload a particular zone with more attackers than the block can handle. In this post I’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages to both.

Minimizing the block

As a starting point, it’s worth thinking about the primary objective of an offensive scheme. That’s to create the best attacking opportunity possible. A big part of that is minimizing how many blockers the hitters face.

Obviously, we’d all love our hitters to face no block all the time. Unless, however, the other team has decided blocking isn’t important, that’s probably not going to happen with a high frequency. So what we’re really talking about is trying to reduce the number of blockers our hitters face and/or their effectiveness.

Spread offense

The basic principle of the spread offense is that you’re trying to force the opposing team’s block to cover the full width of the net. A very basic form of this is the standard 4-2 offense. There you have the setter in middle front (Zone 3), with pin hitters right and left. Basically, the offense there is either a set to Zone 4 or to Zone 2, which means the block has to cover the whole net. You could additionally have one or more back row attackers to create more options. That doesn’t really change the concept, though. The opposing blocks still has to cover the whole width of the net.

In the case of an international 4-2 system (setter in Zone 2), or the setter-up rotations of a 5-1 system, you don’t have a right side hitter in the front row. How then do you spread the offense from pin to pin? In the women’s game that is the purpose of the slide attack. In the men’s game it’s the back row attack out of Zone 1. A major issue with the slide, however, is that for many teams it’s not available on a pass/dig that pulls the setter off the net. This then takes the spread element out of the offense, which is why you see more women’s team starting to use the Zone 1 set.

The concept of the spread offense is meant to minimize the block by more or less ensuring the other team can’t bring all three blockers into the frame. That’s because the wing blockers have to respect the set into their zone, making it hard to get all the way over to block an attack at the opposite pin. This can hold true even in an out-of-system situation, so long as the other team respects your ability to set either pin.

What can we do to reduce the number of blockers and/or reduce the effectiveness of the double block?

Well, one thing is to go faster on those pin sets. That will mean less time for the middle blocker to close on the outside set.

The other thing you can do is run quick attacks in the middle. Those can force the opposing middle blocker to have to commit, leaving your pin hitters 1-on-1.

Overloading a zone

The idea of the overload strategy of offense is to put more attackers in a zone than blockers. This forces the block to decide which attacker to focus on. That can create the 1-on-none situations we’d all love to see from an attacking perspective.

The classic example of an overload strategy is to have a middle hitter run a quick, then have one of the pin hitters come in behind them in a slightly slower tempo (2-ball). The idea there was to get the opposing middle blocker to commit on the quick, leaving the 2-ball open. Or, if the middle blocker failed to commit on the quick, that hitter has no block.

Of course, blocking schemes adapted to those kinds of tactics. Teams started bunch blocking so teams could not overload the middle that way. How did offenses adjust? They added another attacker by bringing in the pipe. That made it 4 hitters vs. 3 blockers. As I show in Doing back row attacking right, the pipe hitter takes the place of the pin hitter coming inside to create a combination with the middle quick.

You can create overloads in other places than the middle, though. A common one these days is what’s sometimes referred to as the Gap-Go play. That combines a 31 set (see this setting diagram) to the middle hitter – the Gap – with a 2nd tempo set to the outside hitter – the Go. This play can work in two ways.

First, there’s the situation where the middle blocker stays central. That mean’s both the Gap and the Go are in the pin hitter’s zone. They thus have a decision to make. If they commit to help on the Gap it will leave the Go in a 1-on-none, while if they commit to the Go the Gap will be 1-on-none.

The other is the case where the opposing middle blocker goes with the Gap. Assuming the MB commits to the Gap, that means the pin blocker can either choose to commit to double block that set, they can take a middling position to try to help with the Gap, or they can commit to the Go. The first option obviously leaves the Go unblocked. In the second case they might be able to cover both, but they probably need to be both tall and quick to do so effectively. In the last option they are likely to be able to put up a solid block on the Go, though they will almost certainly be 1-on-1.

Of course all of this overload stuff tends to break down when the pass/dig isn’t good. It’s like in the case of the slide above.

Mixing spread and overload

It’s worth noting that using the pipe as an overload gives you both ways of attacking the other team at once. You can continue to have attackers at the pins (4 and 2 or 1) while also overloading the middle. Just having one pin hitter probably means you get 1-on-1s in the middle. Having both, though, increases the chances of getting 1-on-none.

The Gap-Go play can also be both spread and overload. All you need to have is a right side attack of some kind. That keeps the pin blocker over there from being able to simply commit to help in in the middle.

At the end of the day you have to decide which way you’re going to go based on the capability of your team and what you can expect to face.

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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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