Play conservatively to win, redux

In the Playing to win vs. playing not to lose post I talk about the problems which can develop when teams get overly conservative. The players get fixated on not making mistakes. The result, ironically, is often that they end up making more mistakes instead of fewer. I brought up in that article the idea of playing conservatively to win. That means making the smart play rather than simply going for the score every time.

We can extend this to your full strategy for a match. In some matches it simply makes more sense to dial things back a little and take a more conservative approach. That will actually increase the chances of a positive outcome. Let me offer a couple of examples.

Serving

Perhaps the most obvious situation for a conservative approach is when playing a team which does not receive serve well. If they rarely are in-system on even relatively easy serves, then you don’t really need to serve them aggressively. In fact, doing so may just make things worse for you. It probably won’t meaningfully change anything in terms of their first-ball attack success, and it could lead to giving them free points from missed serves unnecessarily.

This is not a suggestion to have your team simple go for 0 service errors. Even a poor passing team can have a good day if you’re just lolliping the ball over. Plus, the just-get-it-in approach could actually suck some of the general aggression out of your own team. Rather, maybe dial things back a notch and have the team focus more on hitting targets rather than going for the hard serve as they might do against a better passing team.

Offense

If you have a strong advantage in kill or hitting percentage – meaning your hitters are simply much more capable of scoring than are the other team’s attackers – then you can afford to have a slightly less aggressive attacking mentality then you might otherwise require. I do not mean that the hitters should be told to just get the ball in. That would actually reduce your scoring percentage and potentially narrow the gap, making for a much more even contest than should be the case.

What I’m talking about instead is adjusting the play calling and set selection. You could cut back on the types of attacks which tend to produce a higher percentage of errors than others. For example, your team may struggle to connect consistently on the 31 quick (see this set chart). It might be something you need to use against some teams to freeze the opposing MB when looking to back set, to attack a seam in the block, etc. Against a weaker foe, however, that set simply may not offer enough benefit for the risk being taken. That’s just one possible example. The idea would be to look at your offense and perhaps concentrate more on the lower error % sets/plays.

These are just a couple ways to think about operating more conservatively with an eye toward actually increasing your chances for success. There are others. This is something you should think about as you game-plan for an opponent.

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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.

2 comments

  1. grutzbo says:

    Making the most aggressive play available doesn’t necessarily mean ‘swing harder’ at every ball. It means taking what is available and what they can control – sometimes a big swing, sometimes a free ball and usually something in between. I like to have a Team Serving strategy that balances the risks and rewards with the skills of each of my players. Playing aggressively t includes Out of System shot selection, and understanding of the value of keeping an opponent out of system. This is similar to tennis, baseball pitching, and American football field position strategies. Reading individual players for being either too timid or too reckless is a subjective component that is a real factor.

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      Totally agree. Sometimes being aggressive is about picking the option with the highest probability of producing a positive outcome rather than “just get it over”. I try to coach that as playing with intention, which is something discussed pretty well in Aggressive Volleyball.

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