Tag Archive for setting

Is blaming the hitters really the right call?

There was a post on the Volleywood website following the conclusion of the Women’s World Cup in which the author sought to explain why the US failed to finish in the top two. It’s something I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing the article, but PhD thesis work had me otherwise occupied.

Now I’ve got a chance, so here goes!

The author of the piece spends a lot of time talking about hitting errors and the team’s low hitting percentage in key matches. At the end, though, he also says the US had by far the best serve reception efficiency among the key contenders. While it’s easy to blame the hitters for poor hitting, I couldn’t help but think the problem was with poor decision-making and/or execution by the setters.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch any of the matches. However, when a team passes well and generally speaking has a pretty good collection of attackers, but hits poorly then my first question is whether the setter is getting the job done.

Setter considerations

Part of the USA Volleyball Coaches Accreditation Program Level II (CAP II) requirements is that coaches write an article for publication. One such article was posted on the USAV website titled Recipe for a Setter by Peggy Kane-Hopton. In it, Peggy presents what she considers the five key characteristics of a good setter.

  1. Athletic ability and touch
  2. Communication and leadership
  3. Mental toughness
  4. Game understanding
  5. Physical attributes

One might be inclined to merge #1 and #5, but I think pretty much they all capture the main elements. They basically match what I talked about in the post Picking a Setter.

In the first section Peggy says “The setter’s most important skill is the ability to get to the ball.” A quick touch is the next important thing. This reminds me of a question posed to me by a former teammate. He’s now a Division I head coach at our alma mater. A few years back he asked if I would rate good feet or good hands higher for a setter. I said feet, and thus agree with Peggy. He said hands.

In the last section there’s a line that I think is so key.

“The setter must be able to move quickly to beat the ball to the spot.”

Along with setters not actually getting to target, this an issue for many setters. Instead of beating the ball and getting in a good position to execute the set, they time it and arrive at the same time as the ball. This means a less stable setting platform and almost certainly lower set consistency.

The one comment I would have that might be to the contrary of Peggy’s article is that sometimes the mental side of things can offset physical short-comings. A setter’s leadership skills and/or ability to read the game my make up for being undersized, a bit slow, or something along those lines.

Who takes the second ball on a setter dig?

A volleyball coach posed a question about a decision they are making with respect to where to position their libero. In this case it is considered from the perspective of who takes the second ball if the setter plays the first.

I am toying with the idea of moving the Libero to middle back. This way my outside/ds can hand set the ball to a hitter while in front of the attack line. Has anyone made the switch who would like to report on their level of success with this? My biggest hesitation is the statistical fact that most outside hitters hit the ball cross court most of the time. Therefore, having the Libero in that position (left back) seems to make the most sense. Just weighing which would serve the team better.

If I were speaking to this coach on the subject, I would ask a few of questions.

  1. How many first balls do you expect the setter to take?
  2. How many of those setter digs end up in front of the 3m line?
  3. Are your OHs’ hands much better than your libero’s bump set?
  4. How much difference is there in the digging ability of your libero and your OHs?

Another consideration in here is the defensive strengths of the players involved. By that I mean certain types of players are more oriented toward playing forward. That tends to suit playing defense in 5. Other types of players are better moving laterally. This suits playing in 6 when in a standard perimeter defense system. See also the Libero in 5 or 6? post.

And of course there’s the question of offense. Would having the setter taking the second ball negatively impact the team’s ability to score in transition?

Coaching Log – Jul 31, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

I have to confess that I’ve actually done more relaxing and chilling out over the last week than actual work. That is particularly true of last weekend. After being really wound up in the lead up to the move out of Exeter, it was a much needed few days break. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting something to the blog, though I did put up a number of things to the Facebook and Twitter feeds.

There’s still lots for me to do, of course. Just yesterday I submitted a draft of my thesis to my PhD supervisor for review after a couple days working on it in the Svedala library. It’s less than 2 months to when we’re aiming to submit, so a bit of pressure there. I also have some other content type stuff on my to-do list and this little break in things is a good time to get it done.

I met with most of the club’s Board on Monday evening. Basically, it was just an opportunity for them to get to know me since they were not directly involved in my hiring. It was kind of like a group interview in a way. We talked about things like my coaching style and philosophy. The feedback I got afterwards was that they were impressed. Good way to start things off I guess. 🙂

I’ve been told some of the local players have begun doing a bit of training in our main practice gym. I’ll admit to being tempted to pop in on them at some point. I don’t want them to feel any kind of pressure having Coach watching, though. I will try to at least meet up with them at some point before I head off for Germany next weekend, though.

I’ve had both setters post their set terminology in the team’s Facebook group. Not surprisingly, they aren’t the same – and neither matches the sample set diagram I posted a while back. The one the Swedish setter outlined seems to have a mix of naming conventions. We’ll have to sit down and work out a single approach.

We’re still trying to land an OH to fill the third foreign player spot.

It’s best to set the ball tight. Debate!

During the FIVB Outside Hitting/Serving seminar I attended back in 2015 there were a number of points of discussion. One in particular generated the most intense debate. That was the idea that the best way to go is to set the ball tight to the net. Instructor Mark Lebedew suggested this as the best option. Probably not too surprisingly, there was considerable disagreement.

It should be noted that while Mark has been known at times to say something controversial just to get a reaction, this wasn’t the case here. His three main arguments in favor of tight sets were that they give the hitter more court area into which they can attack, that the ball crosses the net more quickly (less distance to cover), and that it makes it easier for the hitter to use the block.

The US National Team coaches definitely go the other way with this. They want the ball off the net. I’m sure lots of others share that view. In fact, Sue Gozansky, who was running the parallel setting seminar at the same time was teaching those coaches that sets should be away from the net. That is certainly the more traditional view.

Tradition isn’t always right, though. So what say you? Tight sets or sets off the net? Tell us what you think and why?

Drill: 3 v 3 All-Touch Transition & Attack

Synopsis: This is a good game-play exercise that gets every player lots of touches and works especially on transition hitting.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate and higher levels.

Requirements: 6+ players, a ball, a net, extra antennae

Execution: Attach the spare antennae to the net to create a channel for attacking in Zones 2 and 4 (similar to what’s discussed here). Place three players to a side, with one at the next in Zone 2 (opponent’s Zone 4), one as the OH, and one as back court defender. One side starts the attack with a set to 4. The opposing player at the net blocks line, so the two others defend the angle. If the back court player digs the ball, the blocker sets the OH in Zone 4. If the OH digs the ball, the back court player sets the blocker in Zone 2, in which case the OH hitter on the other side blocks and the other two play defense. In this case the pattern is same in that if the front court player digs the ball, the back court defender sets the blocker, otherwise the blocker sets the OH. In other words, every player touches the ball each play. Continue until the ball goes dead, then the players rotate.



  • This can be done cooperatively to encourage longer rallies.
  • The antennae can be adjusted to alter what the hitters have available to swing at around the block.

Additional Comments:

  • This drill is from England Junior National team coach Bertrand Olie and was posted as part of an interview with him on the Volleyball England website.
  • As a cooperative drill this could be used as a warm-up.

Should you run a 6-2 offense?

If you’ve followed NCAA volleyball for a while, you likely saw the increase in the use of 6-2 offensive systems since the rules changed to allow 15 subs. We’re not talking the old definition of 6-2. That’s where everyone plays all the way around and the setters are attackers in the front row. That was the system Karch Kiraly played in at UCLA when he set and hit. You still sometimes see it in NCAA men’s volleyball. These days on the women’s side, though, 6-2 usually means swapping Opposites and Setters every three rotations. The 15 subs makes this possible.

Obviously, the idea behind this system is to always have three front row attackers. You usually also have a bigger block against the opposing outside hitter. The question, though, is whether that actually makes your team better in practice, not just in theory. To my mind, if you’re thinking about running a 6-2 instead of a 5-1 then there are some things you need to consider first.

Leadership – For many teams the setter is the leader on the court. Leadership is something you want to be consistent. By definition, swapping your leaders in and out every three rotations works against that. This may not be a big deal if the two setters have very similar personalities or the primary leader on the court comes from another position.

Set Consistency – Hitters tend to do best when the sets they get are a consistent tempo and rhythm. This is the challenge of the 6-2 offense. You need to have two setters who set very similarly so hitters aren’t constantly adjusting. Also, are your setters consistent and accurate back-setting? If not, you won’t get much added benefit from the extra hitter in those three rotations.

Defense – Let’s face it. Setters don’t always play the best defense. They tend to think about setting first. That can mean they cheat a bit, leave balls to others they should play, etc. Running a 6-2 means always having that little bit of softness in the back court defense. Importantly, it also means there is always a target for the opposing team to attack to take your offense out of system. Of course you may not be any better off with an OPP playing back there, though you could use a defensive specialist.

Blocking – How much of a benefit do you really get from a bigger blocker in Position 2? That’s supposed to be part of the reason for going with the 6-2. Does it actually hold up, though? Setters, despite their smaller stature, can be quite effective blockers. They may not get as many stuffs, but they can get useful touches. They also tend to be smart in terms of being able to position their block correctly. Then there is the question as to whether the opposition can actually take advantage of the smaller blocker, which simply isn’t the case at many levels.

Offense – Do you actually gain an advantage from having the extra front row attacker? If you have a good middle slide and/or back row attack, then you may find that there is no real extra benefit from always having three hitters across the net – especially if there is any set consistency issue, as discussed above.

The point of all this is that you actually should be looking for tangible evidence that one system is better than the other. It’s not enough to go on the theoretical. Find ways you can objectively measure the differences and get to it!

Interested in exploring different offensive – and defensive -systems? If so, there’s a good book on the subject.

Calling plays from the bench

A conversation developed in response to my Hail the Setter! post on the subject of coach vs. player play calling. That actually stimulated Oliver at Volleyblog to put up his own post. It includes a comparison he did between volleyball and American football for his German coaching qualifications. I thought it was worth developing a deeper discussion of the play calling subject. That is the motivation for this article.

There are a couple of ways to think about play calling from a volleyball perspective. One is defining a basic offensive or defensive structure. The other is looking at things on a rally-by-rally, or even play-by-play perspective. The former deals with looking at broad patterns, both in terms of your own team’s strengths and weaknesses and the tendencies of the opposition. For example, you may generally play a perimeter defense, but go rotation against certain teams for better tip protection. Those are important considerations, but it’s the more micro level play-calling that’s the real subject here.

Is it worth calling plays?

Let’s face it. In some cases it makes little sense at all to think about play calling. If your players lack the technical ability or sophistication to run different plays, then play-calling accomplishes nothing. Beyond that, though, sometimes there’s really no need. A lot can be accomplished with a base play.

Think about it. In football terms a setter can be thought of as being a lot like an option quarterback. The setter knows the situation and their attacking options. As the ball comes to them they make a decision which option to select based on the quality of the pass, the disposition of the block, etc. Just as a well-executed option play in football is hard to defend, a setter who makes good decisions and puts their hitters in good situations is very hard to play against.

The point I’m trying to get at is oftentimes you’re better off just working on improving what you’ve got rather than trying to add lower competence level options

Making the call

Of course the idea behind having multiple plays is to try to create mismatches, exploit weaknesses in the other team’s block/defense, and the like. If your team has the quality to execute different plays then it makes sense to diversify your play. The question is who makes those play calls.

In football it used to be that quarterbacks called their own plays. These days that’s largely no longer the case. The exception would be audibles before the ball is snapped based on the opposing defense’s positioning. Nowadays plays are called from the sidelines by the coaching staff, sometimes in quite creative ways with hand signals, posters, and other visuals. With some team even the audibles are called from the sideline.

In volleyball the pattern has generally been the opposite. The setter is the one making the offensive play call, usually right before the serve. Sometimes the coach makes a play call in a specific situation. I can remember an instance when I was at Brown where I told the setter to give our OPP a back 2 in a serve receive play because the opposing OH was starting near the antenna and would struggle to get in on the faster set. It wasn’t a play, per se. It was just pointing out a specific mismatch.

Of course coaches can also call the play – one at a time for serve receive, or in terms of signaling the free ball/transition play. One season we devised a 2-digit play-calling system. One digit was for the MB and one for the OH. When the OPP was in the front row her set was based on the MB digit. The setter still made the play-calling decision most of the time, but when we wanted something specific this was a simple thing to use from the bench to tell the setter what to run rather than having to explicitly say “Suzy 4, Becky 1, Jane 5.”

Defensive play-calling

Most of the time the determination of blocking and defensive schemes are done pre-match. This is either driven by team personnel or based on scouting information. It is, of course, possible to change schemes during a match, like shifting from a perimeter to a rotation defense, Those tend to be permanent calls by the coach, however, as opposed to the play-by-play calls made by the setter.

That said, there are situations where short-term adjustments are a good idea. For example, it might be desirable to commit block on a certain hitter in a given situation. In that case, again the call generally comes from the bench. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent an experienced middle blocker making that call. Similarly, a libero may be given authority to change the base floor defense as they see fit.

In-rally play-calling

While it’s fairly easy to understand how offensive and defensive play calls can be made pre-serve, the more challenging issue is making calls mid-rally. You do hear variations on this sort of thing happening. I don’t recall many instances of coaches calling offensive plays from the bench during play – at least beyond yelling “Set Jamie!” or something like that. I have, though, seen more of it defensively. Even there, though, it’s more a question of pointing things out rather than actually calling a play.

For example, there was UCLA match I saw in I think the 2013 season during which assistant coach Stein Metzger was calling the opposing team’s offensive play. They had clearly seen a tendency to run a specific play when they showed a certain court position configuration coming off serve receive. When Stein saw it he called out “Slide-2.” That’s more about recognition than defensive play-calling, but if UCLA had worked out a specific way to deal with that play, then he was basically signalling the use of that strategy to the team.

If you call it, will they run it?

While volleyball, like football, has specific stoppages during which plays can be called by the coach, things get tricky after the first exchange when play shifts into transition. There are two major hinderances to play-calling in transition. The first is whether the players will even hear you yelling from the sidelines. A lot of players say they don’t hear anything from outside the court – the coach, the spectators, their teammates on the bench – and it’s not like you want them to break their focus on the running play to pay attention to you.

Even if the players do hear you, there is the concern about speed of transmission. It will take you a certain amount of time to process what you’re seeing, turn that into a play, and shout that to the players. They then have to receive the instruction and process it. During fast-moving play, the decision-making lag introduced by the coach could be quite problematic.

To call, or not to call

I personally am not a huge fan of coaches calling plays – at least in a non-professional or national team type of environment. I consider developing good decision-making in my players to be one of my jobs. Hard to do when you don’t actually let the players make decisions. Plus, volleyball is such a dynamic sport that players need to be able to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. We hinder that by making play calls.

Do I sometimes call plays? Sure. But when I do I try to make it a learning experience and not just a “Do as I say” sort of thing.

As a side note, Mark Lebedew brought up the idea of “scripting” the first X number of offensive plays. This is an idea developed by legendary football coach Bill Walsh (Mark highlighted this book). At least part of the idea of scripting is to be able to get a read on the other team’s defense and/or to set up later plays). It’s conceptually interesting to think about. Actually executing, however, is tricky as you cannot predict pass quality.

Hail the Setter!

A while back Mark Lebedew tweaked some comments from legendary football coach Bill Walsh. He turned them into a post about the characteristics of the ideal setter. It reminded me of an experience I had a few years prior. I was watching a college football bowl game (2010 Sun Bowl, I believe). Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Bob Griese was the analyst. He made a comment that really bothered me. He called the football quarterback the only position in sports where the individual is coordinates, plays, and leads their team.

Ummm….hello! Setter!

Compared to the volleyball setter, the football quarterback has it easy. Granted, setters don’t usually have to deal with 300lb defenders trying to smash them. They do sometimes, however, to have to contend with big goon middles who won’t get out of the way!

Put the risk of a pile of big, sweaty guys burying you aside and consider these points.

  • Setters often must chase the ball down. Quarterbacks get it placed basically right in their hands.
  • The quarterback only runs one offensive play at a time. The setter often runs multiple plays in a single rally.
  • A quarterback rarely plays defense, while a setter plays it constantly.
  • Most quarterbacks get their plays called into them from the coach. Most setters call their own plays.
  • Setters often improvise on the fly, while quarterbacks usually get to run the play they called.

Setters are also leaders, of course.

Football and volleyball are very similar sports (even Brett Favre says so). Maybe we should use that to help elevate the profile of the sport – at least in the US where football is king.

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