Setter start position and the passing target

I saw the following question asked.

Should we have our setters start at the net, slightly offset from middle in the traditional target position (net zone 6 in the old USA Volleyball numbering system)? Or should we should allow them to go to a spot a bit further off the net.

The latter reflects a shift to have passes which aren’t as close to the net. This idea has gained traction, at least partly thanks to the spread of the Gold Medal Squared philosophy. I think the setter start position and the passing target are issues which deserve separate attention.

Passing Target

To my mind, where you have your passing target depends on a number of factors. Level of play is obviously a big factor. You don’t want to try to force a high level of accuracy on players lacking the technical skills. Also, if your setter basically just sets high balls it really doesn’t matter too much if the ball is off the net. At the same time there’s greater margin for error at the top end of the sport. The skill of setters and hitters there allow for less precision. The result is that teams in the middling levels are the ones who require the highest degree of passing accuracy to run a quick offense in the middle.

Coaches have begun setting their teams’ passing target a bit off the net to reduce the risk of overpasses. It’s similar to having your target for digs being middle of the court around the 3m line. Keep the ball on your side of the net and give your team a chance to get a swing.

I understand the motivation, and certainly do a lot of work with my own teams to avoid overpasses. There’s a trade-off which must be considered, though. It’s akin to the one we make when considering how aggressively we should have our teams serve. At a certain point more risk is required to be competitive. We have to consider the effectiveness of our pin hitters when deciding on a passing target. If they are able to consistently score (or at least put the opposition under pressure) then the more conservative passing approach is reasonable. If, however, our OHs and OPPs struggle to score, then we need more precise passing. That brings our middles into the equation and gives our pin hitters swings in better situations.

Setter Start Position

My personal philosophy is that the setter should always start at the net. They then react from there to move off the net if the pass requires. My reason for this is setters quite often get themselves into trouble when they try to move toward the net on a ball passed close. We’ve all seen it. After coming off the net the setter loses their sense of position. They then end up having to try to play the ball while moving toward the net. This tends to result in net touches, center line violations, ball-handling errors, or simply bad decisions. The mistake I tell my setters they cannot make is to mess things up by being out of position when one of their teammates gave them a perfect pass.

Now, that said, there are times when it might make sense for the setter to start slightly off the net. At the lower end of the playing ability scale, if you have a slower setter and the vast majority of balls are being passed off the net then a start position a few steps into the court makes sense. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have an athletic left-handed setter who can attack the ball effectively, having them start a bit off the net to be able to get a short approach can make sense.

As always, what we coach our team to do should depend on the specific circumstance of that group of players and the opposition we face.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows 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.

8 comments

  1. Kelly Daniels says:

    I am surprised no one has responded. This was a popular topic in Volleyball Coach Trainers group in Facebook.
    All I say is that I concur with everything you stated. My experience lead me to the position that having a middle attack as part of the offense puts defensive teams guessing. Especially if the middle is effective. I think Penn St. has been so effective with repeated back to back championships is because they have the most effective middles. Stanford as well has a really effective middles and they tend to lead the NCAA DI Volleyball year after year. Passing is the key to effective middle attackers! Passing off the net diminishes the opportunity to have effective middle attackers.
    Great post!

  2. Jeff Zimmerman says:

    I hope I am responding correctly to your article. I have always coached at the high school/middle school levels (grades 7-12 and club 12U-14U). I want my setter 1 step off the net. I work daily with the setters on foot work patterns and we work on going 1 step for balls that look to be close to the net. My belief is that if the setter doesn’t have to tell themselves what to do (the foot work is ingrained in muscle memory) then they can just concentrate on what type of set is best to make and which hitter is the best person to set. I also will work specifically on jump setting in order to attempt to get the pass before it gets to the net (yes, not an easy skill to learn).

    The biggest problem I have is to convince the setter on how important it is to move to the setting spot quickly and then go for the ball. I tell them that they can get a short break then they can move quickly to the ball. They can actually get to more balls if they get to the setter spot and get a quick breather then constantly running throughout the play. If the passes are consistently near the 10 foot (10 meter) line I have noticed that setters will drift out to where the passes have been during the match and then be out of place when a perfect pass is delivered. It is nearly impossible for the setter to get back and set. I preach (as you mentioned) that I want my setter moving one direction; and that is in to the court. We rarely have the talent to use the middle hitter for a quick attack so I have my setter at the middle of position 6 and then have the middle hitter adjust to the setter. Depending on the skill level of the setter, or how long they have worked with me, I will allow them a little latitude as to where to set up depending on the different rotations of hitters, and blockers.

    At the lower levels I tell the players that a perfect pass is one that is above the setters forehead and 1 step in either direction, or into the court. I will use two ball carts that approximate the area of a perfect pass and set up a piece of plywood that forces the players to make passes that are high enough so that the setter is able to set The next progression is to use the same format but have a line of hitters waiting to attack. If the pass is not perfect (I take the ball carts away but leave the plywood up) it becomes clear why the passes have to get to the setter that allows her/him to set the hitter. At any level I constantly remind the players to understand that if they can not get the passes to the setter then the likelihood of the setter giving the hitter a ball to hit decreases dramatically. To summarize, the biggest factor regarding setter position is the consistency of your team’s hitters.

    Jeff Zimmerman
    Junior Varsity Coach
    St. Joseph Michigan Lutheran High School
    St. Joseph, MI

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      Hi Jeff – I see setter target drift in two ways. One is when a setter starts where you want them to start (usually in serve receive), then automatically steps away from the net. This year’s women’s team setter (a converted OPP) does that, which means she ends up running little U-shaped patterns when the passes are good. The other is when the setter never actually bothers to go anywhere near the net and just drifts toward the 3m line. That one can be quite insidious as it can lead the passers to start shifting their passing target outward.

      • jzimm says:

        John,

        I agree that it is sort of a “chicken or egg” situation. Are the passes short at the start of the match and the setter starts to line up where the passes have been landing; or if the setter moves out to get short passes do the passers adjust to the setter and pass short. At my level the passes are all over the court because they have not had enough repetitions to accurately pass to the setting spot. That is why coaches at clinics emphasize spending so much time, with different drills, on improving passing. This year was the first time I used a three person serve receive pattern with my 11-12 year olds. My setter was always starting near the net so we worked on planting the right foot and pivot to face the passers. Where my setters have problems is when they transition from position 1 on defense to the setting spot. They seem to more concerned about judging where the dig, or free ball, will land rather than go to the setter spot quickly and then go for the ball. You are correct when you have a setter moving to the 10 foot line and then stopping. If it happens with a young setter then you have time to provide enough repetitions to correct the problem before it gets ingrained into their mindset.

        Thank you for your reply to my post. I enjoy reading your web posts when they arrive.

        Jeff Zimmerman

        • John Forman John Forman says:

          “They seem to more concerned about judging where the dig, or free ball, will land rather than go to the setter spot quickly and then go for the ball.”

          That’s the setter as spectator problem. Instead of breaking toward target as soon as they know the ball isn’t coming their way, they don’t start moving until they see the balled played. Naturally, that means they are going to move toward the ball – and often time their arrival with the dig/pass rather than beating the ball to the spot.

          • Jeff Zimmerman says:

            “Being a spectator” is a good way to put it. This can said about any player who is not moving or adjusting to ball on the other side of the net.

            I try to use drills, or tossing from a back row serve reception spot, to demonstrate the efficiency, and extended range by getting to setting spot versus trying to judge where the ball will land. I also try to convince them that they have more setting options (more hitters available) by beating the ball to the spot.

            I’d be interested in your opinion regarding telling my setters that they are not responsible for a bad pass. If they can set a hitable ball then they have demonstrated great effort and have accomplished more than what a coach would expect. If they can not get to the ball than it is passers responsibility to get the ball to setters in a spot where each hitter is able to attack. It is sort of like the theory of “making each contact better than the last contact.” I believe that setters are good at judging where the ball will land, so I think it is a question of changing the belief pattern of what is the best method to get to the ball.

            I wonder if setters hang back at the 10′ (10 meter line) as a result of having to call for help when starting at the setting spot and therefore they think they are not doing their job. Then they try to cut down the distance between them and a bad pass and the get to ball instead of needing help from a teammate. I wonder if the success at waiting for the ball further out in the court reinforces this behavior.

            I tell my setters that another advantage to getting to the setting spot gives them a few seconds of rest before moving to the ball. I tell them that at a tournament with multiple matches that these few seconds of rest will make a big difference by the time the last match begins. Do you think this is credible or a non-factor in getting setters to move to the setting spot?

            Thank you for wading through my questions and comments. I appreciate your comments.

            Jeff Zimmerman

          • John Forman John Forman says:

            Jeff – I must have missed this last reply of yours when you posted – now 3 years ago!

            I suspect the rest thing doesn’t really factor in to the kids’ thinking at all. Consciously or unconsciously, I think what they are thinking is, “How can I get to the ball quickest?” That leads to short cuts, like going to a spot away from their ideal starting point.

            I do agree with telling the setter they are not responsible for bad passes. Each player has to do their own job as best they can. If they try to do other people’s jobs (after a fashion in this case), then things fall apart. In this case, the passers won’t develop their skills sufficiently well.

  3. Ray Fox says:

    I enjoy the discussion on setter positioning. Having coached VB for many years and with junior and senior skilled teams of both genders I came to the conclusion that the setter’s position and readiness should never be a compromise.
    As the target for first ball passing, perfect passes should allways be the goal. Why have your setter move toward the net for an ideal pass?
    Moving your setter off the net sets her up for net faults and poor management of great passes.
    Every setter will need to move quickly for poor passes. Have them moving away from the net to do it.
    A few more reasons for setters to start at the net with right foot forward in the same spot everytime provides a consistent passing target and allows the setter to develop an accurate sense of his location if and when he moves to take a poor pass. Position at the net is the best spot to intercept overpasses or block if the setter is front row.
    When training setters I always have a piece of tape on the floor indicating the right foot position and for back row setter penetration the foot work is ” right-left-right” landing on the piece of tape.

    I have tried off the net positions when teams were poor passers. It created more net faults on good passes and over passes. It sends a messages to passers that perfect was away from the net but more noteworthy was the lack of passing improvement.

    I feel that good passing and great setting win tournaments.
    Ray

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