The following was posted in the Volleyball Coaches & Trainers group on Facebook by a member. Coincidentally, it relates to a discussion I had with one of the Svedala players I coached during my time in Sweden.

While semi-watching World Cup matches, the outcomes of 384 front 1 [also known as an A-quick] approaches were evaluated during 6 recent men’s World League matches to determine how the split-second timing of the approach affected the outcome. Front 1 approaches were classified “early” if the hitter’s feet left the floor before the ball left the setters hands, and “late” if the hitter’s feet were on the floor when the ball left the setters hands.

52% of the approaches were classified as early. 33% of the sets went to the quick hitter, 4.2% of which were blocked back into the hitter’s court on early approaches and 17% were blocked on late approaches. 67% of the sets went to other hitters. Of these, the opposing middle blocker was drawn to jump or was delayed 57% of the time on early approaches and only 21% of the time on late approaches. Clearly, at this level, there is an advantage to have the middle hitter in the air before the set leaves the setter’s hands on front 1’s. I’m interested to hear others’ ideas on how this would play out at lower levels.

The middles I’ve trained will tell you I often tell them to, “Beat the ball!” I want my hitters in the air by the time the ball reaches the setter’s hands (sometimes called zero tempo). That’s the “early” approach from the quote.

My philosophy is a simple one in this regard. If the quick attacker is in the air already then the opposing blocker is under enormous pressure. If they commit block, then they have to jump with the hitter. That creates a good situation for another attacker. If they read block, the quick set will beat them. They can’t react fast enough.

The figures above back up what I want to achieve. Early approaches lead to fewer blocked quick attacks. It also leads to more positive blocking match-ups for other hitters thanks to holding or delaying the opposing middle.

A good addition to the stats presented would have been some kind of hitting efficiency or kill %. After all, the bottom line is whether you score points.

Top level vs. lower levels

I’ve talked with coaches of professional teams about this. I feel that at the top echelon the middles are at such a high level and attack reach that you can practically go with a 2-ball. So long as they are able to attack at full extension and only face a single block they have a strong advantage. The broader question, however, is the full offensive efficiency. Is it markedly different depending on the speed of the front quick? The numbers above tend to suggest it is.

At the end of the quote above the author asks whether things are different at lower levels of play. Obviously, if you slide down the scale far enough blocking is simply not a major consideration. You don’t have to worry about it in these terms. That level is much like the one at the top level. A higher set to the middle can work well. The hitter still has the advantage and even for the outside sets the block tends to be fairly poor. In fact, going quick would likely lead to less offensive effectiveness. There will be an increased error rate from setter-hitter misconnections.

It’s in the middle band where I feel the speed of the front quick attack is of greatest importance. The middle blockers are big enough and fast enough to cause problems with slower middle attacks. They are also faster to close to the outside if not held by the threat of the quick attack.

A story

As a bit of evidence for this, I’ll share the story of the Exeter men from my first year. It was an undersized squad. I’m about 6’3″ myself (call it 190cm), and I think only two of the guys in the squad were my height or a little better. One was a middle and the other our OPP. We regularly faced teams bigger than us. We offset through our speed in the front quick to hold the opposing MB. This created seams in the block for our outside hitters. That saw us reach Final 8s for the first time in a long while (Exeter did win a national championship back in the 70s, but aside from that the records are pretty thin).

How fast do you really need to go?

I’ve had a discussion of how fast the front quick really needs to be to have effectiveness. I coach “beat the ball” but I know that most of the time we probably aren’t going to be fully to that standard. The bottom line is being fast enough to accomplish the two primary objectives – beat the block if it doesn’t commit and at least delay it closing on an outside set. If we do those two things it’s all good.

That’s not to say I won’t keep pushing the middles to go faster, though! 🙂

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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.

    10 replies to "Timing of the first tempo attack"

    • Martin

      Very interesting! Can you share a more complete link to the data from the facebook-group? I would be interested in the original study/paper/

      • John Forman

        Unfortunately, I don’t believe there was anything more from that group post than what’s in the quote above.

    • Morty

      Isn’t there a correlation between the approach speed and the quality of the reception/situation? I think with perfect reception, most middle attackers will approach earlier than if the setter has to play from the 3m line. If this is true, the big difference in efficiency might not be caused by the timing of the approach, but rather this timing itself could be caused to a certain extent by the same variables that caused the differnce in efficiency.

      So unless this already happened, you would have to separate the data into groups where the situations are similar.

      • John Forman

        It depends on where the hitter runs those attacks. If the offense is one where the MB always goes to the setter, no matter the distance from the net, then there’s no correlation of the sort you’re suggesting. If, however, the MB runs the set away from the setter in these cases – either by still going to the same spot on the net or by going wider – then you would expect such a correlation just because of the time required for the set to get there. It might not be a big difference, though. Some setters really zip those sets.

        • Coach Jess

          John, do you have any thoughts on teaching that the 1 is always to the setter 1, with an automatic default to a 3 if the setter’s off the net.

          I guess my question is whether we call it a 1 or 3 because of where the hitter is located on the court. I always called it a 1/3 based on my proximity to the setter (because then it gives the setter guidance on the loft and distance of the ball).


          • John Forman

            I would ask an initial question of how far off the net you mean by “off the net”?

            Back in September I ran a middle offense workshop for Volleyball England. In it I talked about a concept some coaches use for working out the spacing when the setter comes off the net. Basically, for each step away from the net the setter is, the MB goes a step wider than the normal 1. Or you could think of it as for each 1m off the MB is 1m wider such that by the time the setter is out at the 3m (10′) line the MB is running a 3, as you call it.

            But that’s not the only way you could go.

    • Coach Jess

      What fortuitous timing to find this post. I coach in Northern Virginia, and everyone here runs what I think of as a beyond late one tempo attack. I was taught, and try to teach, beat the ball. But they’re running something that’s more like a 1.5 tempo. Ball reaches peak and is on the way down before most of these kids are making contact. I really appreciate the stats on what I think is a true quick tempo – it will help me explain to my middles the advantage gained by being on time. Great post!

      • John Forman

        Jess, I’m with you on the beat the ball thing, but keep in mind that there’s a trade-off. There are a number of coaches these days running slower in the middle because it cuts down on errors and keeps their MBs more involved in the attack. It’s something each coach needs to evaluate for their team and competitive level.

    • Simon Tribelnig

      thanks for these stats John!
      do you already have stats for top-level?
      What teams played at these analyzed World League games (in 2019?) ?

      • John Forman

        Hi Simon. Unfortunately, what you see here is the limit of what was presented in what I read. I haven’t done any of this sort of research myself, but it would certainly be something interesting to study in a broader way than what was done in this case.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.