During the season at the U of MN, Mike Hebert received an email from a club coach of which he passed along to me. The club coach was concerned with devising an offense system for a team with very little height. The club coach was quick to point out that the team had three great liberos. Here is my reply with Mike’s blessing, it also gives some insight of things I learned at the U of MN:
I hope this email will help save some trees and save you some money from all the paper you are using trying to devise an offense. But let’s look at two things first: 1) Defense 2) Height, and then we can discuss offense.
Allow me to offer some perspective, this past weekend the U of MN played a great, yet grueling 5 set match against an aggressive, #17 ranked Illinois team. Their two “giant” middles combined for a total of 3 blocks out of Minnesota’s 177 total hitting attempts. Illinois dug 82 of those 177 total attempts. Let me ask you this question now, would you prefer to have two great middles or 3 great liberos? It sounds as if your team might be in better shape than you think. Its defense that wins championships.
As much as we would like our middles to block every ball or at least touch every ball hit, it is impossible. In your situation especially, the goal of the middle is to channel the ball, with a clear path, to the defense. It is best to design a defense, and your block, based on your backrow strengths.
Now let’s talk a little about height before we design a defense. Minnesota is recruiting a 5’11” middle blocker. How can she match-up against the giant 6’5″, 6″6″ girls of the Big Ten? Quickness and her ability to read the game. Her quickness and ability to read the game will enable her to get to the pins faster than most “giants”. She will be able to set-up an effective block that will enable our defense to dig more balls than our opponent.
So let’s set-up your defense based on some blocking strategies developed over the years from Paul Arrington and Jim Coleman. Conventional wisdom has been that one blocker is good, two or more must be better. After intense analysis of blocking (a well formed two person block, a poorly formed two person block – hole in block, bad timing, etc., and a one person block) the study found that a well formed two person block is best, but it was proven that a one person block is about two times as effective versus a poorly formed two person block. With this being the case, your three great defense players are now looking even more valuable.
So with this in mind, your middles (who are quick and already read the game well) can now ‘release’ to block an opponents strength, especially in two hitter rotations (when the setter is front row). Release means that the coach (or player) will determine before your serve (based on experience and statistics, if available) that the middle blocker will literally move to the outside or right-side to set up a well formed two person block (after reading/blocking a potential middle attack, or setter dump in two hitter rotations). In this strategy, your middle blocker will only be responsible for defending the middle (or setter in two hitter rotations) and one direction versus having to cover the entire net. You are now able to rely upon your
backrow to make an effective defensive movement against a well formed two person block or a single block (likely against a team’s weaker hitter).
After this block defense is implemented, your backrow will have good, clear looks at the set location and approach of the hitter. Thus the backrow will be able to better read the attack of the hitter resulting in more digs (and frustrating your opponent).
As for offense, let’s look at the statistics of our match against Illinois. Of 191 total attempts by Illinois hitters, only 29 were taken by their two middles resulting in 10 total kills. Did I mention that Illinois took Minnesota to five sets? Illinois uses their middles to attempt to spread the block in order to get the ball to their outside hitters (of which we often released to their outside hitters).
There is nothing harder for a team to defend than the 4 – 1 – 9 (high set to the outside, quick set to the middle, and high set to the rightside). So establish the 1 early in a match then use it as a decoy. I would then have your team run 31s in counter attack (transition). Most middles, especially at the junior level, will not track their middles in transition.
I would experiment with the height of the set to the pins, but as we learned this season, a high outside set, was more effective for our team than a faster tempo set to the outside. I would also experiment with the backrow attack. It is becoming much more prevalent and effective in the Olympic and college game, I assume it will trickle down to the junior level as well. Much of this will be based on the ability of your personnel.
Your offense does not have to be complex. Minnesota’s is not. Vary your sets to the outside (run a 4 and then a Rip or 32 set on occasion). Run the 1 with your middle on occasion to keep the middle blocker honest. Run slides with your middles if they are talented enough. Run a high back to your right side and occasionally bring her in for a back 2. The girls will have fun with the different options (make sure you have an excellent communication system in place) and take stats to learn what is most effective for your team.
The most important element of your offense is keeping the ball in play; for your hitters to make wise hitting decisions (read my earlier “What is IPE” post). It is important for them to go after it and rip the ball when its a great set versus making a smart hit into the court on a poor out of system set. In a 25 point set, USC Head Coach, Mick Haley discovered that a team achieves 16 points on kills. The second leading way for a team to achieve a point is on an opponent error (6 points per set). Thus your team needs to keep the ball in play (don’t give them more points than necessary)…let your three liberos win the match.
It is not the height of the players you have, but the confidence you instill in them as a coach. I highly recommend you never mention anything about their lack of height and push them to be their best. They will respect you for this and in turn, you will learn a lot from them and have great respect for them. Be patient, be positive, and good luck!
P.S. Geoff Carlston, Head Coach of Ohio State University and one time
Volunteer Assistant Coach at the University of Minnesota, under Coach Hebert, has a nice DVD out called “Winning Without Height”: http://www.championshipproductions.com/cgi-bin/champ/p/Volleyball/Intangibles-for-Success-Winning-Without-Height_VD-02677A.html Check it out.