In a discussion about my post on teaching center-line (midline) passing vs. platform angle someone referenced this article. It’s about a study done on passers in the 2019 women’s World Championships. The author of the piece said the objective was to “…test the paradigm that serves in the women’s game are coming to passers so quickly that it is virtually impossible to get behind the ball to pass it effectively.”

I am all for research, of course. I also think, however, that we need to be cautious in our interpretations of the findings. Research almost always has limitations. Also, it’s easy to fall into confirmation bias and only take on that which supports or own prior beliefs.

The 2019 WC study came up when someone posted:

Here were there stats:
– 3,255 total serve-receive passes
– 70% of passes were “centerline”
– 30% of passes were “angle platform”

Centerline passing rating was 2.69
Angle Platform rating was 2.36

The study revealed two things –
1) 70% of the time, players at the highest levels of women’s volleyball, have enough time to get behind the ball (centerline)
2) when they receive serve and their passing rating was higher than those who receive via angle platform.

They didn’t link to the study, so I had to go search for it. Turns out it doesn’t have numbers on pass ratings. It simply says, “…when passers were able to get behind the ball, their passing average was higher compared to the times they were solely depending on their platform angle.” The poster admitted mashing together 3 different articles, though didn’t say what the other two are. I have seen at least one other article showing the pass rating stuff. Jim Stone has an image of passer ratings relative to midline based on a 2015 analysis. Regardless, I’m wiling to go along with the idea that passing on your midline generally produces the best results.

Getting back to the comment, though, I took issue with the first revealed thing. Passing the ball centerline doesn’t automatically imply movement. The ball can simply go straight to the passer. This is not to suggest that was the case in all of those passes, of course. But it’s definitely true of some fraction. The poster drew a conclusion not actually presented in the article.

Turning to the actual study

I did find the post about the study interesting, but with some issues.

They did find that 69% of passes came when the passer was “… able to get their bodies behind the ball to pass.” In the remaining cases, the passer was “… forced to play the ball where the ball had either moved outside of their body line or they had to turn away from the target.” Wearing my academic researcher hat, these are slightly vague definitions. And there is no discussion of platform vs. hand reception.

At the same time, there is a post from Marko Majstorovic on LinkedIn in which he talks about a similar type of analysis. It’s from the same time frame, and certainly is the same level (Women’s World Championships), so it could actually be from the same event. He said in that one they found that the “…percentage of passes that were midline was 52% and angled 43% (other 5% were passes when players had to fall down, or pass with one knee down).” So we appear to have a discrepancy, which could come down to the methodology for judging where passers take the ball.

The problem with both studies is something I brought up in my post Don’t just cite the research, actually read and understand it! We don’t actually know how much, if at all, the players moved to pass. Could they have moved? If so, would their passes have been better or worse if they used the technique opposite the one they did use? Mark Lebedew touches on this a bit.

One other thing

I also want to flag up something else from the study. The article says “Our theory is that an international player’s serve will be reaching the passers faster than at any other level of play.” Not an unreasonable assumption. But is that true?

They share stats from a sample they took that about half of all serves reach the passer in 1 second or less. For a ball struck at the service line and received by a player 6m from the net, that’s about 33.5mph. I know of college coaches – and those at lower levels – who target 40mph. It would be interesting to see if the internationals actually serve faster than college players.

But there’s another factor here. We would also expect international receivers to react to serves more quickly. That would tend to balance out any extra service pace, if it exists. And if it doesn’t exist, it suggests they are are better able to position themselves to pass.

Definitely room for some further research there!

And, of course, the men’s game is on a whole other level in terms of serve speed.

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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.

    1 Response to "Reacting to a study on serve reception"


      First, I love John’s posts. I have been in volleyball coaching since 1980, took 4 years off to watch my son in HS. So, with that utterly unimportant information, I feel that learning is always a good thing. I have coached middle school to varsity high school. In my opinion you have to keep hips behind the ball as it approaches the player. If the player makes contact with the ball behind their hips the angles are simply super tough on serve receive and the parents don’t appreciate getting hit in the face with shanked balls. In my opinion, at the younger age MS or lower, the speed of the game is such that the best passes are center line, and that is what I stress, as things get faster, learning to angle pass is needed. Do I think that is the best pass, nope. So, another thought. Do I want my players to make a pancake pass? Sure it is cool and all, and the save is great, but I for sure would rather have my player in position to make a nice forearm pass, I hope my players are reading the game and smart enough to be in position to make good passes, without throwing their bodies on the floor. Do we need to teach all possible passes? Sure, what works for one player may not work for another.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.