While at the 2019 AVCA Convention I attended a Coach-the-Coach session with Davide Mazzanti, the Italian Women’s National Team coach. These sessions were, I believe, new for that convention. You had to sign up for them in advance and had limited capacity. You could only sign up for one, so I can’t speak to the others that went on. The smaller, more intimate nature of this one, though, made for a more interactive session. I liked it quite a bit.

Anyway, this session by Davide was on blocking strategy. Basically, he outlined what he does with the Italian team, then did a lot of Q&A. I won’t go into the specifics of the Italy system (or some of the technique stuff he went into), as a lot of readers probably won’t relate to it, but I will talk here about some of the broader concepts involved.

Heat-mapping the net

A lot of coaches use heat maps to see where attacks go for defensive purposes. It’s the basis for the middle-middle defense espoused by Gold Medal Squared. How many coaches have done the same sort of thing with respect to where attacks cross the net, though? My guess is very few.

Davide talked about this. He breaks the net into 15 zones, each 60cm wide. That’s about a body width. He told us his analysis showed that Go’s (the fast set to the outside hitter) most frequently crossed the net in Zone 3. That’s 120cm to 180cm in from the left side antenna. This is something that can feed into block positioning, just as defensive heat-mapping can help with defender position.

Encourage the setter to go elsewhere

One of the principles Davide talked about is looking to encourage the setter to choose the lower probability option. His specific example was on a pass that took the setter toward position 4. If you believe a back set from there to the attacker in Position 2 (or 1) is a lower percentage option, then you can squeeze your block over toward 4 to encourage the back set. Similarly, you could shift your block toward 2 if the pass is more toward that side, encouraging the setter to choose the long option.

Judging hitter threat level

Often, blockers see all hitters as equally capable. I’m not talking here about each hitter being equally dangerous from the perspective of blocking strategy (e.g. commit blocking). Rather, I’m talking about all hitters being equally capable of aggressively attacking the ball in a given situation. This is not the case, obviously.

Consider this example. The OH goes to the floor to play a tip. What are the chances they can then get up and attack the ball aggressively enough for it to make sense to try to block them? Depends on the player, where they are on the court, and things like that. In other words, it’s a read situation for the blockers.

Block the attacker or take away space?

At one point, just to make sure things were clear, I asked Davide his approach in terms of blockers going for the block intentionally vs. simply trying to take away part of the court. His reply was that for in-system plays he wanted his blockers – who would generally end up 1-on-1 – to try to get their hands on the ball somehow. In other words, to go for the block. When the other team was out-of-system, however, particularly in a triple block situation, they take away court area.

So there’s a few things you might want to think about in terms of your team’s blocking strategy. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on these ideas. Feel free to share them in the comment area below.

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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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