Tag Archive for match strategy

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

Alan talked about this sort of trade-off in his post with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

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.


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.


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.

Serving Strategy: Attacking Zone 1

volleyball serve

In the Fall 2014 edition of Volleyball USA, Matt Sipes talks about serving in an interesting context. He drills down on using the serve to create out-of-system offensive situations for the opposition. It’s a more specific discussion of how you do that – beyond just being aggressive. In particular, Matt talks about things like interfering with the movement patterns of the setter and opposing hitters. Or forcing the front row OH to pass to put them under pressure. All of these things are important ideas when thinking about how you want your team to serve. That’s a key reason to work on players being able to serve all areas of the court.

I want to focus in particularly here on the idea of serving specifically to Zone 1. Matt brings this up from two potential perspectives. One is to serve the ball into the area where the setter is coming in serve receive. That is often the case when they are in Rotation 1. The other is to force the setter to have to look over their shoulder to track the ball coming in – meaning the ball is not coming at them from the front (Zones 5 and 6). He makes the case that setters are often not comfortable dealing with those balls and therefore can become very predictable when being forced to do so.

This is very true. It’s something you can pick out quite often if you pay attention. For example. some setters will set to Zone 2 or back row to Zone 1 more frequently when the pass is coming from Zone 1.

I’ll take it a step further and give you a very specific example of something I picked out back in my Brown coaching days. While scouting Yale one season I noticed their setter – who was quite good – set with a much faster tempo when passes were coming from Zone 5/6 than she did when the pass was coming from Zone 1. The latter sets tended to be markedly higher, giving the block more time to move to the point of attack.

So guess what we did the next time we played them?

Yup. We pounded Zone 1. I can’t recall whether we won that match or not, but we certainly slowed their offense down considerably.

Sometimes you just do what you can

In a prior post I talked about the luck of the Exeter men’s team I coached getting a walk-over in the BUCS round of 16 match during the 2013-14 season. That gave us easy passage on through to Final 8s. We had a bit of a reversal of fortunes shortly thereafter.

Both the men’s and women’s second teams played Conference Cup quarterfinal matches. The draw actually worked out such that the same university was the opposition, and the host, for both matches. For the guys we fielded a nearly full-strength team. We lacked a libero, which did hurt, but otherwise we had a full compliment. It was an ugly match – especially since the refs made no ball-handling calls at all. We had a bad start, but with a few on the fly adjustments we were able to claw back from 0-2 down to win. That saw the guys on to the semifinals two weeks later, where we hosted.

The tough luck came on the women’s side. Because of exams only two of our regular players were available. There was also a young lady who started training with us just the week prior. We had to bring in three players from the club’s Intermediates group. One of them did some fill-in duty the prior term for South West league play when we were thin. The other two were completely new to the group, though. They were literally asked to fill out the team the night before!

Needless to say, you don’t go into a match in a situation like that with very high expectations – particularly against a team that had been playing together all season long, on their home court, and after they had won their first round match 3-0. On top of that, we had no middles!

So what to do?

I ended up putting the two regular BUCS players and the one who started training with us last week in a triangle to balance out the skill and experience. I put our tall BUCS outside hitter opposite the setter and had them both operate out of the middle when front row. The OH played 6 when back row, but the setter played her normal 1 position. The rest of the players just filled in around the other two.

That’s about the best I could do having never seen half the team play before. Whether it was the system or the players or what, we ended up doing surprisingly well. I’d expected a quick 0-3, and I got the impression the ladies were kind of expecting that as well. Instead it was a tight affair throughout. I think we never scored less than 21 and we actually won the 3rd set! Under the circumstances, a 3-1 loss of that nature was practically a victory.

The guy who reffed (one of the men who played in the match against our guys) made me laugh. He complimented the team on being really well coached. Hah! 🙂

When to call a timeout

Mark Lebedew did a couple of posts on the subject of taking timeouts. In them he referenced research indicating that calling a timeout has no net effect on odds of winning the next rally. Basically, they stay the same whether the timeout is taken or not. There was a fair bit of discussion about probabilities in the comments. Of course the idea of momentum came up (we’re not talking technical timeouts here).

I think most coaches think in terms of trying to break the other team’s momentum (or keep them from getting it) when taking a timeout. This isn’t to say there aren’t other reasons, of course. You may pick up on something you want to tell the team, for example. The vast majority of the time, however, momentum is the deciding factor. We look at our players struggling and want to try to give them a chance for a mental reset.

To that end, I want to see stats on something with a little bit longer time span. For example, the next five rallies. Does calling timeout improve a team’s performance when addressing things from that perspective? To my mind, that is really what we’re after (or should be) when we call for a team huddle.

I do see some ridiculous timeouts, by the way. Like the coach whose team is getting soundly thrashed calling time out at set point. What does he really think he’s going to accomplish?

Sometimes you just need to let the players sort it out for themselves. In a developmental circumstance I will oftentimes not call timeout when the team is struggling. I want to see if they can fight through and overcome the adversity on their own. Better if they can develop that ability than if they have to rely on me all the time.

So what about you? What’s your timeout philosophy?

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