Here’s a question I came across in a volleyball coaching group.

How should we/ do we as coaches take height into consideration when conducting a tryout? Should height be a deciding factor for who makes the team and who doesn’t?

EDIT: how much better does a shorter player have to be to make up for the height difference when comparing them to taller players?

First, let me address the question from the EDIT.

A shorter athlete being a better player doesn’t make up for a height difference. They are just a better player. You don’t say the shorter player must be some amount better to make up for the height difference. If they are better, clearly whatever advantage the taller player had from their height has already been overcome. If you’re picking the best team right now, you take the better player, regardless of size.

Now, most of the time we aren’t doing tryouts for immediate performance. We have some thought to player development. The same is true in the case of recruiting. That means we must include upside in our decision-making, and greater height tends to mean greater upside potential.

There are positional considerations here, though.

Middles

Obviously, when we think of height we tend first to think of middles. In the days of slower offenses you often saw teams put their tallest player there for blocking purposes. Even if they were slow-footed, they could usually still get outside to help block.

These days, though, with the faster offenses, speed has greater importance. Height remains important, of course, but a slow-footed middle is problematic. You’re better off giving away some height for the sake of speed if it means a more effective blocker – and hitter.

The critical factor for any middle is how quickly they can get into effective position. That means not just the right spot on the floor, but also the right height above the net.

The problem shorter middles have is they cannot get to the effective position as fast as the taller ones, even if they are much quicker and more explosive. That’s because it takes them longer to go from floor to attack/block point. A 5’10” middle might have the exact same jump reach as a 6’2″ middle, but it will take them longer to get to that reach point because they have further to jump.

This is not a problem during something like serve receive offense when they have time to get the right approach. In fast transition, though, it’s a problem, as often they simply cannot maximize their jump with a full approach. Same when trying to block a quick middle attack. This why you don’t see many short (relatively), but explosive players in the middle at the higher levels of play.

Opposites

As the demands for speed increased for middles, we started to see more of the taller, slower players move to the right side. There the lack of speed is less of an issue. They present a big block that can cover more area than a smaller player, and often match up well offensively against smaller outside hitters.

Even at opposite, though, you don’t simply want tall for the sake of tall. You have to consider the other demands of the position based on your system. If they play six rotations, for example, they’ll have to play some defense – and maybe even receive serve. And in all cases they need to be quick enough to get a good transition to be able to attack effectively.

Outside hitters

Generally speaking, outside hitters have much more responsibility in terms of first contact ball-handling than do the other front row players – sometimes in quite low positions. It also means they have larger movement patterns. This creates a higher need for speed and quickness than in the other position. Put that all together and you have a tendency for the position to feature somewhat shorter players – but the ones with the biggest verticals.

Height in this position is certainly beneficial to the extent that it creates higher attack and blocking reach. Whereas speed to effective position is a critical issue for shorter middles, though, it’s not as big a deal for outsides. This is because they generally have more time. They don’t have to react as quickly in most cases. As a result, they can do more full attack approaches and block jumps (think swing blocking).

The bottom line for this position is the balance between being quick enough to handle the floor-based responsibilities (passing, defense) while playing high enough above the net to be an effective hitter (and, ideally, blocker).

Setters

Height is definitely lower on the list of requirements for setters. Technical skills (putting up a hittable ball), decision-making, and leadership ability tend to occupy the top three places. You can also add quickness in there.

Yes, there are advantages to being taller. It makes things easier when dealing with passes tight to the net and means you can run a slightly faster middle attack. Obviously, if the setter is front row, then it’s handy for blocking, and possible attacking. There are lots of really good setters who aren’t particularly tall, though, so height isn’t a huge deal.

Personally, if I’m looking at a setter who will play front row I’ll really just check to see that they block high enough to be a reasonable attack obstacle at that level of play. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Liberos

Obviously, the libero is the player where height is the least factor. Yes, there is definitely an advantage to being taller as it means greater reach, all else equal. At the end of the day, though, the libero is about technical ball-handling ability and the quickness to cover their area of responsibility. The only time I tend to think about libero height is if they can’t get certain balls.

Bottom line

All else being equal, for all positions you’d favor a taller player. That’s the simple reality of playing a game with fixed spacial considerations (e.g. the net). There are different considerations across the playing positions, though, which factor into the equation.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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