Tag Archive for volleyball defense

Master one defense, or develop familiarity with multiple

I came across the following coaching question.

What do you think is better when it comes to defense: running one defense and becoming great at, almost perfecting the one defense or running two or three defenses to be able to adjust to opponent tendencies but you’re never really perfecting one?

I get the idea behind this question, but I think it has built in some limited thinking.

Let me start by saying it is often beneficial to have defensive flexibility – at least when you get toward higher levels of play. You want to be able to adapt to the capabilities and tendencies of the opposition. To my mind, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to think in terms of multiple defensive systems.

I’ll explain.

One system, multiple adjustments

First, we absolutely want to start with the defensive system which is optimal for the majority of what we face. Call it “perimeter” or “rotational” or “middle up” or whatever. It’s the thing we have to spend most of our time developing and refining.

Here’s the important thing, though, to my mind. There is a strong tendency in coaches to teach defensive systems, meaning positioning, in a robotic fashion. They tell players where they should stand. I had a player when I coached in Sweden who HATED when players asked where they should stand on defense, and I agree. What coaches should be giving players is their areas of responsibility.

You might be thinking that’s the same thing, but it’s not. This is where reading comes in to play. Defenders can’t just go to a spot and hope the ball is hit right to them. To truly have an effective defense, each player must be able to use their on-going analysis of the developing play to determine the most likely sort of attack they will see within their area of responsibility. At the same time, players must have a strong understanding of seam responsibility and how it changes as they shift relative positions on the court.

Developing this reading ability and seam awareness actually means the players can essentially play different types of defenses without formalizing movement patterns. For example, a middle back who reads well can play a standard perimeter defense type of position (deep in 6), they could play more middle-middle (usually about 3m in from the end line), or they could even play off the back of the court depending on their read of the block, set location, hitter approach, etc.

Here’s another example. In many perimeter systems the defender in 1 releases up if they read tip. In essence, they are doing what they would do in a rotational defense where they’d move up behind the block. Often in this case the middle back person is told to cover the deep line when the right back moves up for tip defense. That means you have them playing a defacto rotational system.

My point in all this is that as coaches we don’t necessarily need to thinking of defensive flexibility as the ability to run multiple defined system. We can, instead, think of just one system with adjustments. It simplifies things for the players too.

Multiple systems

Now, there might be times when you want to run an entirely different system. My guess is this will be very infrequent, though. For example, when I coached at Brown our main defense was perimeter. Against Yale, though, we played a kind of rotational defense. The only time we ever worked on the rotational defense was before playing Yale. Other than that, we only trained perimeter.

How can you get away with that? Simple. If reading and seam responsibility are well developed, then shifting defensive responsibilities is not that difficult. The hardest part of it all is making sure the players remember which system they’re playing. That’s going to happen no matter how many different ones you train.

To block, or not to block

Hai-Binh Ly at thevolleyballanalyst asks the question, Is it Worth Blocking in Non-Elite Volleyball? In it he questions whether or not it’s even worth have players go up to block when they could pull back and play defense. In particular, he’s talking about smaller players effectively incapable of putting up a good block.

I’ve written previously on the question of how important is blocking? Once you reach a high enough level of attacker power and ability to hit the ball down into the court, blocking becomes important. If you can’t at least slow the attack down, or limit the space into which they can attack, you’re in trouble. Having an extra defender may not actually help all that much.

In this particular article a couple of ideas come up. I think they are worth addressing.

Blocking metrics

As his moniker suggests, Hai-Binh Ly (HBL) is analytically inclined. So naturally he developed a metric to attempt to capture individual blocker effectiveness. I have a couple problems with it, though.

First, HBL doesn’t include block touches which lead to dug balls on the defending side of the net. To my mind this is a major issue, as it speaks to preventing the opposing hitter from attacking the ball unopposed into our court. As noted above, that’s part of the purpose of blocking. It’s not just about blocking for points.

Second, HBL doesn’t use total player block attempts. Instead he uses block touches (except as just mentioned) to work out an efficiency. I think this leaves considerable information out, especially with regards to diagnostics.

Also, looking at blocking errors as the only negative blocking outcomes fails to capture the reality that poor blocking technique, timing, etc. often is the reason for an attacker being able to score off the block out of bounds (block out). That also speaks to diagnostics.

Why?

Using his blocking efficiency measure, HBL looks at the players on his team. He then makes a judgement as to which ones are worth having block and which aren’t. Putting aside my issues with the metric, I think we cannot just leave it as a simple block/don’t block judgement for each player.

One of the main purposes of statistics is to see what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well. They help us develop our training priorities. HBL’s numbers bring a couple of questions immediately to mind.

1) Have the smaller players been trained to soft block effectively?. That means intentionally trying to deflect the attack upward and into their own court so it can be dug. Unfortunately, even if they are, this would not be captured in the blocking efficiency metric.

2) Are some blockers’ efficiencies low due to poor timing and/or poor location? In my experience, less experienced female players especially are often late on their blocks. Both genders have problems setting their blocks in the right location. As a result, the low efficiency levels may not be about lack of size and or jump. If so, we can improve them.

Maybe, maybe not

I should note I’m not against HBL’s thinking that in some cases it might be best not to block. When I coached at Brown one match we ran out of subs and a defensive specialist ended up in the front row on the right side. Needless to say, she did not block. Instead,  she pulled back and played the tip. Conveniently, that’s exactly what the opposing hitter did! So sometimes that’s exactly the best approach.

My point in all this is that I would first be sure we’re measuring things appropriately and that the players are doing a good job trying to execute useful blocks before completely abandoning it. Even smaller blockers can prevent hitters from just teeing off on the ball. As such they at least take some pressure off the defense. As such, I might try to look at broader metrics like Kill % or Hitting Efficiency with and without the block before making a final judgement.

Reader questions on approach, knee slides, and run-throughs

A reader submitted three questions.

  1. Do you prefer a 3 step or 4 step approach for young outside hitters
  2. Is it proper to teach a player to slide to both knees for short serve receive balls
  3. Your thoughts on “run throughs” when passing a ball versus getting a balanced base set?

Let me address them one-by-one.

Approach length

I personally don’t have a strong preference on 3-step or 4-step approach. I know some coaches favor one over the other, but I’m just not one of them. For me it’s more an individual basis sort of thing. Some players do very well with a 3-step, while for others the fourth one definitely helps them.

To my mind, the first major thing new players need to sort out is the last two steps. Those are by far the most important, especially since there are many situations where a player cannot make a full approach. It’s really important for a hitter to be able to use those two steps to open up. If not, they will end up hitting square, which is not good for the back or shoulder.

Slide to knees

I am not in favor of players going to both knees, really in any situation. When I coached the Exeter women I had a player who went straight from standing to both knees to play low balls. And this was one of my middles! I used to cringe every time I saw it. Ouch!

In contrast, one of the Exeter men was excellent at going to one knee to play a short ball in front of him. Think of it as basically a lunge lead step, with the trailing knee then sliding up to be tucked underneath.

My view is that we don’t need players’ knees hitting the floor if we can avoid it. Too easy to cause harm, and given how sweaty kneepads get, they’re bound to leave a wet spot on the floor in the middle of a rally.

The one possible exception to this is when the player is trying to take the ball with their hands. That’s a situation where the ball is perhaps too high for a platform dig or pass. Even there, though, you may argue in favor of a different technique.

Obviously, in emergency situations you have to do whatever it takes. If we’re talking about training techniques, though, I’d not be working on two-knee stuff.

Run-throughs

A run-through is for balls you need to chase down, not for balls you can relatively easily get under. Generally speaking, you will have better platform angle control when you are stable than when running. Why add in the extra variable if you don’t need to?

Picking your libero

A coach thinking about team selection asked the following question about deciding which player should be the libero.

How do you decipher who would be your libero and who would be the defensive specialist?

Serve receive

First and foremost, you need to rate and rank your libero candidates by serve reception ability. I don’t mean you have to prioritize that, necessarily. You do, however, have to know how they all stack up. Reception, after all, is a big part of the libero’s job.

By the way, it’s best to rate players based on game passes. The scores you get from passes made in a scrimmage are a better indication of match performance than scores from a passing drill. A lot of elements contribute to this.

Now for the defensive considerations.

As a starting point, you may want to consider how you want to play defense. Do you play your libero in Position 5 or Position 6? If you know where you’ll place your libero, the decision process if fairly straightforward. You are looking for the best person to play that spot. It’s that simple.

Broadly speaking, you want someone mobile with good reading skills to play in Position 6. They tend to have more side-to-side responsibility and may have to chase balls down off the back of the court. In Position 5 you’re usually looking for someone quick and aggressive moving into the court. They have responsibility for setter dumps and tips, and when they do defend hit balls their area of responsibility is usually more narrow.

The above is how things usually go for a standard perimeter defense. Your system might vary from that, though, so think about each position’s requirements.

If you are more flexible with how you use your players, then the thinking is a bit different. Here you want to find the best available player, and then put them in the position that works best.

What’s your priority?

You’ve rated and ranked your libero prospects by their passing skills. You’ve also looked at who plays best in your defensive system, or ranked your players on their defense. Now you need to combine the two factors.

If your best defender is also your best passer, life it good. Easy decision. On to the next one!

If, however, you have a different top passer than top defender, you have a decision to make. Do you prioritize passing or defense higher? This should probably be based on which side of the game you think your libero will have the biggest impact. How you use them likely will factor into your evaluation here. Also, the abilities of the other players around them factor in here.

Think of the decision like this. Are you more comfortable with your libero being strong in serve reception, but weaker in defense? Or are you more comfortable if your libero is a strong defender, but not so strong in passing? And at what point does the weakness in the secondary skill become too big?

My own thinking

Personally, I will probably favor serve receive over defense when making a libero choice. I say that because it’s usually harder to hide a poor passer than a poor defender. Getting stuck in a rotation because your libero can’t pass the ball is worse than missing a few digs.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m only going to decide based on passing. If Player A has an average pass rating of 2.20 and Player B has a rating of 2.10, but is a much better defender, I’ll probably go with Player B. The small difference in passing quality is outweighed by the large difference in defensive capacity.

Don’t forget personality

Keep in mind the libero is going to be on the court most of the time. You want them to have the type of personality that contributes to and/or supports the mentality you expect from your team overall. You might have a player who doesn’t come in tops in passing or defense, but who makes the team better on the court. If that’s the case, you probably need to make them the libero. Don’t leave this part out of your decision-making.

Where do attacks go?

A reader asked the following question related to where they should place their libero for defense.

Are there any statistical studies of the number of touches by position among defenders, particularly at the high school level? In other words, if the libero is the best defender and ball handler, then it makes sense that the coach would want to put her in position to handle as many balls as possible. I have my own opinion from watching games, but has anyone actually studied the number of balls handled by the left back vs. middle back position?

I don’t personally know of any broad statistical studies of where attacks go for high school players. Most of that sort of stuff I’ve seen was for a particular team. Think scouting report type stuff. I think this heat map probably is a good indication, though.

I think generally speaking the lower the level the more balls end up in the middle of the court. As attackers become more capable, you see the frequency of balls going away from the middle increase. I don’t have any figures to back that up, though. Maybe a reader does and will share them in the comments below.

General patterns aside, you have to consider your own defensive strategy here. If you tell your blockers to take line – thus funneling balls cross-court – then chances are more balls will go cross. If you block cross, then you expect more balls to go line. That factors into your positioning decision. The general information takes you only so far.

And there are other factors involved as well.

Tracking block and defense improvement

During the 2016 season, one of the things we focused on with the Midwestern State team as the Lone Star Conference season progressed was improvement in our block and defense. Our block timing was poor. That meant not only few blocks, but also few digs. Though we also needed improvement in defensive position and actual digging. We were bottom of the league standings in both categories at one point, I believe.

Per set figures

Toward the end of October I ran some numbers to gauge our progress. I first started with blocks/set and digs/set. Those are the commonly reported figures, so it made sense.

Through the first round of conference matches (10 total), we averaged 1.17 blocks and 11.16 digs per set. Over the course of the first five matches of the second half of the season we averaged 1.57 and 15.47 respectively. That’s pretty good.

Percentages

A coaching friend suggested I look instead at block and dig percentages. Basically, that divides those figures by the total number of non-error attacks (blocked balls excluded from the error count). Since attack numbers can vary from match to match – and five set matches always mess with per set averages – the percentage approach is the better way to go.

For the first half of the season our block percentage was 4.5%. Our dig percentage was 42.1%. That adds up to a total “stop” percentage of 46.6%. For the first five matches of the second half the comparable percentages were 4.9%, 48.3%, and 53.2%. Again, gains across the board.

In each but one of the second half matches our block percentage was higher than against that same team the first time around. The same was true of the dig percentage (different match). Similarly, when looking at the total figure, only one match was worse the second time than the first.

Limitations

While these comparisons tell us the team was more effective in defense for the first five matches of the second half of the conference season, there is a limit as to how far you can take the analysis. What happens on the other side of the net leading to an attack matters. If you do a better job putting a team in difficulty through tough serves and/or good attacks, you will likely find it easier to block or dig their attacks.

Also, ultimately what you want from your defense is it to generate point scoring. That means it’s worth extending the analysis of something like dig percentage to see how many swings you get from those digs and how efficiently they convert into points.

Game: Dig or Die Back Row Speedball

Synopsis:  This is a variation on the Speedball Winners idea as applied to a game with back row attacks only. The difference is that point scoring is collective and defensive intensity is highly encouraged.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 12+ players, full court

Execution: Players are split, with half on each side. Those teams are then split into at least two groups. One group from each side starts on the court, with one of them serving to begin the rally. Once the rally plays out – back row attacking only – the losing team rotates out, with a new group from that same side serving to the winners and coming on. Points are earned for rally wins, with each side being a single team on the score board. If a team lets a ball drop without a touch, they lose all their points and go back to zero.

Variations:

  • For a higher tempo game you can start each play with a coach-initiated ball.
  • Depending on your numbers and training focus you can have fixed setters or not.
  • Again, depending on your level of play you can loosen up the must touch the ball requirement to must make a legitimate effort.

Additional Comments:

  • Playing multiple shorter games is probably better than playing one longer game. That way a single ball dropping isn’t quite so demoralizing (think being at 20 and going back to zero).

High school block and defense

This is the time of year when many coaches are problem-solving with there teams. Here’s one of them via a recent email.

Hi, I coach a varsity high school team. We are not very good at blocking. I am wondering if there are drill to work specific timing, and/or what defense would you suggests for weak blockers?

There are a couple of elements involved here. Let me try to address each.

Not good at blocking

Saying you’re not very good at blocking is a little too broad. That could mean we’re a short team, or it could mean we have technical problems. The request for a drill to work on timing tends to suggest the latter is what this coach is worried about. Since I can’t really help a coach with a short team, I’ll talk training ideas.

Unfortunately, timing isn’t a mechanical issue. You can’t break it down into positioning or movement patterns. It’s basically a decision based on judgement of the hitter’s attack. As such, there isn’t a drill to fix it. Players have to develop timing by blocking against hitters, and any drill or game where that happens will do.

The real issue is feedback, which is where coaching comes in. You have to first make the blocker understand they are not jumping on time, and then work with them on reading the cues to improve that timing. For the former, video is a very good tool. Set up your camera (a tablet will do) and either record them or use one of the video delay apps.

Recognition of block mistiming might be enough to fixed the problem, but if it isn’t you have to train your blockers how to judge the timing. That means knowing the hitter’s hitting power, seeing how far they are off the net, and reading the play to know if the hitter is likely to attack aggressively or use a shot.

Defense behind a poor block

The point of back row defense is to have players where the ball is most likely going. It’s a probability game, plain and simple. Yes, there are read based adjustments, but those are based on starting points and general areas of responsibility. This basic idea does not change based on block quality.

What does change, however, is placement of defenders. The block takes away a certain part of the court – or at least it’s meant to do that. The defense then is positioned around it in the areas attacks are likely to go. If your block is ineffective, though, you need to shift your defenders.

So that leaves us with a question: At your level of play, if there were no block, where would the hitters most likely hit the ball?

Answer that question and you have the answer to how to arrange your defense.

Libero in 5 or 6?

Here’s question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another. Do you use your libero to play in Position 5 or Position 6. That generally means address the case of the libero playing back row for the two middles. It is part, however, of a broader question of how to maximize your back court, both offensively and defensively.

The decision involves three primary considerations.

Back row attack
Generally, if you want your back row OH as an attacking option then you probably want them in Position 6. Because that usually (but not always) involves them taking up a deeper position, it means they are better able to get a good approach for their attack. It also provides a bit more attacking flexibility. This is especially true when working in combination with a front row quick attack (e.g. running the bic or back row quick). Having them playing in 5 limits things.

Second ball setter out-of-system
In the situation where the setter has to take the first ball, who takes the second? I wrote about the setter-out setting question previously. If the player in 5 is expected to take the second ball then you have to think about whether a back row attack is desirable in your scheme. If so, then having your OH setting isn’t desirable. There is also the question as to who’s going to set better ball to the front row players, which is more of a personnel question than a system one.

Best defender
The other consideration has to do with how you’re setting up your defense. Will most balls tend to go to 6 or to 5 in your system? Is there a meaningful difference in the digging ability of your OHs vs. your libero? If so, you may want to favor one or the other defending in the zone where more balls go. But keep in mind the question of the purpose of defense.

Different situations, different schemes
When I was coaching the Exeter women in my second year we played a system where we left one MB in and only used the libero on the other with both playing in 6. My reasons were because I had OHs who were strong reacting forward into the court (good for playing in 5), but not strong moving laterally (needed in 6), and we didn’t use them much for attacking back row as the MB and setter or OPP could all take those swings. When I was at Svedala our OHs played in 6 for attacking reasons.

The bottom line is that you need to think about your team and your players and go with what maximizes the effectiveness of the personnel.

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