A reader wanted some help and sent me the following.

Hello, I am a first year head coach at a small high school in Indiana, but have coached at the high school and club level for almost a decade. This team has had a track record of not much success in recent years. I am trying to build a program as well as develop a culture based upon pursuing joy, giving joy, and working hard. I appreciate all your articles on culture, as that is a top priority of mine.

One aspect that I’m instilling in the team is to play fearlessly. Free of guilt from making mistakes, and just playing the game while having fun. Being bold is welcomed, as I am running a very aggressive offense. With this, it is a high risk, high reward situation. I don’t want them to play it safe, because in the past, playing it safe has not worked for them. I have the athletes to do it so I am not worried about their abilities.

However, I have not had the “W” category filling up. While I am not concerned about that (because I see growth in so many areas) I can tell it is wearing on the girls and one of my coaches. I know this process takes time and success is a journey. I am also battling the fact that I have raw talent but low volleyball IQ (as most don’t play club, thus have less experience than other teams).

With all of this being said, I have a question regarding my line up. I am currently running a 6-2 but one setter is not performing as well as the other. I am afraid that she is losing the confidence of the team. The easy switch would be to go to a 5-1, but I would miss out on the offensive prowess of the better setter when she is a hitter. Having no real third setter option, I must now decide if I stay the course and develop the under-performing setter, or go to a 5-1.

The fear is if I switch, I would only be losing games even worse as the better setter gets 10-16 kills a game. I also don’t want the team to think I am playing it safe as it go against the fearless mindset. I could just have the under-performing setter not try to run the fast offense, but that may be seen in her that I have lost confidence (which I haven’t). She is a sophomore and I know she will develop. I have a big decision to make that will impact the season and any insight that you have would be much appreciated. Thank you so much.

I should note this email came not long after my Turning around 4 years of losing post went up. That addresses a similar scenario to this one without the positional specifics.

Now, let me address a couple of different things.

About the winning

Any time you have a team that’s losing a lot, especially if that’s also the history, psyche is a risk. This coach sees improvement, so is not concerned. My question, though, is whether the players – and the other coach mentioned – also see that growth. This is really important. If the team can see the gains they are making they are likely to be more resilient.

The problem is they might not be able to see the improvement. It’s up to the coach to point out their progress on a regular basis. It also helps if there are some clear developmental goals the players can see they are reaching. That makes the improvement all the more obvious.

Addressing the low volleyball IQ

It gets a mention, but I don’t know where this coach ranks the need to improve the team’s volleyball IQ. If it’s the biggest thing holding them back, then it needs to go top of the priority list. I think I’ll go into more detail on the subject of developing volleyball IQ in a separate post. For now, though, I’ll say that means creating training situations which focus on specific areas of need.

Keep the system or change?

As far as keeping the 6-2 or switching to the 5-1, there seems to be one major question. Can you replace the kills you lose making the change? There are three ways that could happen.

  1. Improved overall setting sees the other hitters get more kills.
  2. The setter gets some kills when front row via setter dump.
  3. The setter still gets attacking opportunities on setter-out situations (or potentially on other customized plays).

These are things I’d definitely want to evaluate before making a change, from an offensive perspective.

There are also other considerations, though. What does the system change do to the defense? Does it have any impact on serve reception? Since you’d be using fewer subs, it might give you some opportunities to use back row specialists you didn’t have before.

And very importantly, what’s the effect on team chemistry? If it’s going to improve, that could also make up for some of the lost offense in other ways.

Dealing with the weaker setter

One way or another, it sounds like the second setter will require some focused attention. No matter what, there are clearly some developmental needs. I would look at how I could increase the time they spend in practice working on those skills. That doesn’t necessarily mean pulling them aside, though that could be part of it. What I’m thinking of is creating situations where they have extra opportunities within the normal training structure to work on those skills.

Let me use an example to explain. Running the fast offense is said to be problematic for this second setter. That likely includes a few different components. One of those is setting a faster ball to the pin. You could set up a game where the rules, or the scoring, favors doing more of those sets. It could be something as simple as saying the first ball of every rally has to be the fast set to the pin. Or maybe you give bonus points for kills on those types of sets. The idea is to increase the frequency of setter making those kinds of sets while maintaining the overall structure of play.

Technical improvement aside, the other thing in need of work is this setter’s mentality – especially if you decide to make the system switch. Working to build their confidence is important, particularly in the face of losing playing time. Part of that, though, comes from giving them a lot of coaching focus. If you make their development a part of the discussion about the change, and you back it up by clearly work with them to get better, it will make for a much better situation.

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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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