In volleyball the clear objective of any given rally is to score a point. That wasn’t always the case, but under rally scoring rules things are pretty black and white. When the whistle blows at the end of the rally you have either won the point or your opponent has.

Here’s where the nuance comes in.

It is not the objective of every play in volleyball to score a point.

For the sake of clarity, I am defining “play” as any singular action of one player or a combination of actions by a team which results either in the ball being played over the net or preventing the opposition from doing so (block). Thus, a play can mean anything from a serve, block, or attacked overpass in terms of a single-player play up to a 3-contact sequence resulting in an attacked ball in terms of a team play.

The distinction between rally and play is important. The former always results in a point scored. The latter may or may not result in a point. In fact, many plays are not inherently intended to score a point directly themselves. For example:

  • Serving to put the opposition under pressure vs. serving for an ace
  • Blocking to take away an area of the court vs. going for a stuff block
  • Placing an attack strategically (such as tipping the setter) vs. going for a kill.

One the most important skills in volleyball is knowing which play provides the greatest odds of winning the rally. Sometimes that’s going for the point on the current play. Sometimes it’s the more strategic option.

This consideration commonly comes up in the discussion of serving and whether to serve aggressively or not. You must seek to identify the level of service aggression which does not produce too many errors but at the same time is not so conservative that the other team is always in-system in serve receive and ramming the ball down your throat each time.

In some respects this means playing conservatively to win. In other ways, though, it means thinking more broadly than we might otherwise do.

This came sharply into focus in the discussion which developed around the question of the objective of defense. The immediate thought is that defense is mainly about keeping the opposition from scoring. Blocks and digs for a point are a relatively infrequent occurrence, after all.

Think about it in the context of the rally, though. Your team’s objective is to win the rally. From that perspective, defense isn’t then just about stopping the other team from scoring. That’s certainly part of it since the other team wins if you can’t keep the ball off the floor. More completely, though, it’s about giving your team the best possible chance to turn the opposition attack into a rally win for you.

What are the implications of this?

If you’re coaching at a level where the offenses aren’t particularly potent and/or consistent it may be that simply maximizing digs is what gives you the best chance of winning a rally. As you face more potent attacks, however, it becomes more important for you to turn defense into offense in your own regard. That means you have to start thinking not just about getting digs, but about the offensive options and prospects for winning the rally those digs offer. Not all digs are created equal from that perspective. A dig which leaves your OH flat on the floor and unavailable to attack is probably less likely to result in a rally win than one where the OH has the opportunity to transition and get a good approach. That sort of thing has to factor into how you structure your defense.

This sort of thinking must be applied to all aspects of the game. The volleyball text books and seminars are good at giving you systems and structures that work in theory. What you need to find as a coach is what works in practice – what gives your team at your level of competition it’s best chance of winning each rally.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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