Tag Archive for volleyball strategy

Thoughts on second contact when setter-out

A reader sent in a question about who should take the second ball when the setter makes first contact (setter-out).

I have a question about emergency setting. Up until this year, I’ve always used my right side player (in a 5-1) to take second ball whenever my setter (in right back) takes first ball. It has worked well enough since I’ve been lucky enough to have right sides with decent hands. The major downside, as far as I can tell, is that you take one potential hitter out of the equation, and the passing angle from RB to RF can be awkward at times. That said, it’s always worked well enough for me.

But now the trend seems to be to have the libero take second ball and to set to one of the pins, usually to the left. That also raises the question (for me anyway) as to whether it is more efficient to have the libero set out left back or middle back (not to mention worth worrying about the “finger action” rules that restrict the libero…)

It seems to me that a libero coming out of left back (especially in perimeter or even “middle middle” defense) is going to have a more favorable angle for a set to the right side pin, if the setter is passing high to the middle. It also seems like s/he will have an easier time getting to second ball.

But what if it is overall more sound defensively to have your libero in middle back? In that case, is it even worth having your libero as your emergency setter? Wouldn’t it be harder to get to second ball from middle back (or even middle middle)? Wouldn’t the angles be a little more awkward for setting to the pins?

Does anyone use their outside hitters (in left back) to take second ball? (It seems to me that that would mean you would have to train both of them which wouldn’t be as efficient as training just one person)

Just wondering what people do. And whether or not there is a consensus on what works best, with respect to emergency setting.

I previously addressed this topic from a different perspective. In that case a reader asked about moving the libero from left back to middle back. As such, I’ll leave out that element in my response here.

It is now definitely the preferred approach by most coaches to use the libero, playing in left back, to take the second ball in these situations. You see it at the national team level on down. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best solution for your particular team, though. Let me address it form a couple different angles.

Front row player

As the emailer suggests, one option for taking the second ball is the right front player. Usually, this is the Opposite. This was the favored approach for many years. I used it to good effect coaching the Exeter University women as my OPP had excellent hands and we didn’t run a fast offense.

The biggest question for me using the OPP is the middle attack. Can they actually set it? If not, then it really narrows the offensive options down considerably. For a lot of teams it means the ball can only be set to the Outside Hitter. Maybe you have a back row option as well. You don’t have a quick attack option, however, nor do you have a right side hitter, making the block’s job much easier.

If the OPP can set the middle, then it opens things up considerably. That only holds, though, if the ball is dug close enough to the net. If not, you’re in the same situation as if the OPP couldn’t set the middle attack. This is a real issue when teams are often coached to dig the ball to the 3m line.

An alternative to the OPP taking the second ball is the Middle Blocker doing so. This is actually the cornerstone of the standard 4-2 offensive system where the setter plays middle front. If you have an MB with good hands who can set both front and back, it can work. Since they can set both pins, the opposing blockers can’t stack up on just one.

The challenge for the MB, though, is that they usually are coming down from a block. They are programmed to get ready to attack, so setting is an adjustment. And if the dig is well off the net there just might not be time for them to get to it.

Back row player

As the reader notes, the player in middle back probably has the furthest to go to take a second ball. Also, their direction of approach can make the angles difficult, unless they have really good footwork.

That basically leaves left back as probably the best choice back row player to take the second ball in a setter-out situation. Whether that is the libero (or MB) or the OH is it’s own consideration.

Obviously, the libero has limitations when it comes to using their hands. That may not be as big a deal as you might think, though. First, if the OH isn’t a confident setter, they’ll probably bump set the ball anyway, just as the libero would. Second, libero’s can develop pretty good jump sets for use on balls just beyond the 3m line – in some cases, even quick sets. Finally, so many digs end up at the 3m line that situations where you really want a hand set (e.g. to set quick) are probably going to be limited.

All things considered

When you consider all the factors, you’ll see why so many teams have the left back person – mostly the libero – take the second ball. If the dig is close to the net, it might make more sense for a front row player to set the ball. If it’s not, though, then using the back row player allows for a larger number of attacking options.

So it really comes down to where your setter digs the ball.

One final thought

The emailer uses the term “emergency” to describe these situations where the setter takes the first ball. I don’t think that term applies, though. In the modern game, teams are out-of-system a large percentage of the time. That makes it a quite normal situation which should be trained in line with how often it happens.

The other thing I would add is that the situation where the setter has to play the first ball is not the only time a team is out-of-system. Sometimes the first contact is poor and the setter can’t get there. Or someone else is in a better position to put up a good set. For that reason, every player on the court should be able to step in and put up a hittable ball.

Playing the court position game

In football (American) you often see teams play the field position game.

Basically, that means they attempt to put the opposition in a situation where they are close to their own goal line. Teams do this by punting when near the middle of the field because they don’t like the odds of going for it on fourth down. The hope is that this eventually results in a scoring opportunity because of a turnover or getting possession back with a short field.

There are similar strategies in rugby.

There is a parallel to this approach in volleyball. Admittedly, you probably see it more in the women’s game than in the men’s.

I’m talking about intentionally taking the other team out of system. You do this when you don’t have a good opportunity to get a kill yourself. Basically, it increases the odds you get another attack opportunity or that your opponent errs.

How is this done?

It is most easily accomplished by tipping or attacking at the setter. That is the most direct way to get a team out of system.

You can also try to get the opposing defenders on the floor. A tip to an undefended area will often do this. If you can force a front row attacker to play the ball, you decrease their chances of attacking aggressively in transition.

Alternatively, you can attack a part of the court that is hard to defend. A ball to one of the deep corners usually forces a defender to have to chase the ball. That often results in less than perfect digs.

As in the football example, the idea is to keep putting the opponent in a bad position so you increase the odds of winning the rally. It relates to the idea of playing conservatively to win. This is one of the things we need to train our players to be able to recognize and execute.

Trying to hide setter signals or make fake calls

In another post I addressed an email on the subject of hitters calling their sets or calling for the ball. One part of the email I didn’t specifically address in that post is the idea of hiding play calls and/or otherwise trying to deceive the other team about what attack routes the hitters will be taking.

I certainly have no problem with the setter hiding their signals. I’m a bit less enthusiastic about hitters yelling for one set and running for another, as the emailer described.

In all seriousness, does that sort of thing ever work?

If I’m a blocker I’m watching you make your run, not really listening to what you’re saying. If you call for a 51 (quick in front of the setter) and run a 31 (quick away from the setter), I won’t be faked out. There is only one real fake I think might work. That is one where you do something like show a 51, but then step around the setter to hit a 71 (quick behind). This can work because the blocker pretty much has to commit on the 51 to be able to stop it. At least if you’re on the right tempo.

I’d actually go one step further. I contend that you can tell the other team exactly what each hitter will run and it wouldn’t make a massive amount of difference. Look at the men’s game, especially at the upper levels. They all pretty much run the same thing. You don’t see a lot of variation. Doesn’t stop the offense from being highly effective.

I have often compared the setter in volleyball to a quarterback who runs the option in football. Every defense who plays against the option offense knows where the different players are going. It comes down to whether the quarterback (setter) can make the correct decision. They need to select the right option based on how the defense (block) commits itself and how well both teams execute.

And of course there’s the broader question of whether the proper play calling is being done in the first place. Is your best hitter against the weakest point in the block? If so, then you’ll probably have success. That’s true even if the other team knows exactly where the ball’s going.

What’s the objective of defense in volleyball?

Previously, I introduced a debate related to set tightness. That came out of an FIVB Outside Hitter seminar I attended in 2015. It certainly generated some intense exchanges. What I want to talk about in this post is another idea Mark Lebedew brought up during the seminar. It might change the way you think about some aspects of what you do with your team.

Mark said the objective of defense is to score points.

Think about that for a second. Chances are up to now you thought the objective of defense is to keep the opposition from scoring a point.

The distinction is important. Mark told the story of the USA men several years ago when they made a decision to use their libero in 6 rather than in 5 to get more digs. It worked. They got loads of digs. Unfortunately, they scored fewer points in the process. Presumably it was because they didn’t have the pipe/bic available in the offense as effectively.

That’s one way of looking at things.

Another is to consider defensive positioning at a player level. In this case it’s the difference between simply digging the ball and putting up a ball that produces a legitimate attack. There are certain positions a player can be in defensively which increase the likelihood of producing settable digs, even though they might reduce the overall number of digs made.

Does that change how you think about your defensive system?

Putting together a starting line-up

There are a lot of questions which come to mind when considering a starting line-up. This isn’t just for inexperienced coaches. It’s something we think about for basically every team, and often from match to match. The decision of what to put on the line-up slip comes in two parts. First is the placement of players on the court relative to each other. Second is in which rotation they start the set.

When it comes to the order of placement of the players on the court, two factors generally dominate the considerations.


The first thing you absolutely need to look to do is create as balanced a line-up as you possibly can. You won’t come up with something where all six rotations are equally strong. You definitely want to keep any one rotation from being excessively weak, though. That’s a guarantee of finding yourself stuck giving up points in bunches. As much as it might sound great to have one really strong rotation to try to score runs of points, that rarely works out. Just too many ways to give up the sideout that ends the string. This is why most line-ups put stronger players next to weaker ones and away from each other.

For example, the classic 5-1 line-up puts the strongest MB and the strongest OH next to the setter. It ensures one of the strongest hitters is always front row with the setter. In multi-setter line-ups (6-2, 4-2, etc.) you create balance by matching stronger hitters with weaker setters.

Not that offense is the only focus. Blocking, defense and passing can also come into the equation as well.

Serve Reception

While balance is generally a question of which players are either next to our away from each other, serve reception considerations often come down to the order in which the players are placed on the court. This is where the question of whether the MB leads the setter (serves immediately before) or follows (serves immediately after in the rotation. Coaches generally favor the MB leads pattern when running 5-1 and 6-2 offenses. It allows the setter to push up toward the net more easily and offers some additional positional options. That doesn’t mean it’s always the best option, though.

Once you have your players positioned relative to each other it’s time to think about the starting rotation. Here a number of things need to be considered. Generally speaking, the idea is to give your strongest point scoring rotation out first, but that’s not necessarily a simple thing. Here are some potential ways to look at it.

Strong/Weak Servers

Particularly in the younger age groups where serving can dominate, it can make a lot of sense to have your strongest server be the first one back at the line. That means you start them in Position 1 if you have serve to start the set, or Position 2 if the other team serves first. Another way to think of this is in terms of clusters of good servers. If you have two or three next to each other in the rotation, you could have them be the first ones to hit the service line, even if there is one player who is individually stronger than any of those in the cluster.

Flipping around, you could also think in terms of putting your weakest server(s) toward the back of the service order. This limits how often they serve, and by extension any negative influences from them doing so poorly.

I personally tend not to favor my best server going first – all else being equal. I’ve just found that the first serve of a set is subject to negative influences. As a result, putting your best server first often works like them going last in terms of their actual influence. I have absolutely no problem putting a weak server last, though!

Hide the Small/Feature the Big Front Row Player

If you run a 5-1 system where the setter has to play front row where they may be a blocking liability, it might make sense to start them in Position 1. That minimizes the amount of time they spend in the front row. This can apply to any position really. For example, a smaller OH could be started in the back row.

The reverse of this is maximizing the time a particularly strong front row player is at the net. That means starting them in Position 4, or perhaps Position 5.

This sort of thing also tends to limit the time you’re in a weak rotation and/or increase the time in your strongest one.


In some cases you may want to consider creating a favorable match-up against the opposition by starting in a certain rotation. Put your best blocker against their best hitter, your strongest OH against a small blocking S, a strong server against a weak serve receive rotation, etc. Or you could set the rotation to avoid certain match-ups.

A bit of caution is needed here, though. Just as balance is generally desirable to avoid getting stuck in a bad rotation, the same thing should be considered when looking at match-ups. It could be that trying to pit your best attacker against the opponent’s weakest blocker also creates the opposite situation. You want to make sure you keep from ending up with you having a weak rotation against the other team’s strong one.

Then again, chasing match-ups may not be the best idea.

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