This Entry provides a summary of tactics and techniques used in volleyball, notably in the progression from basic to elite level. Though specialist terms such as spike1 and setting2are kept to a minimum you can always look at the definitions Entry if you get confused.
To progress beyond a minimal knowledge of volleyball tactics you must first understand something about court positions or zones. There are six areas on each side of the net, three inside the three metre attack line and three outside. Players are only required to stand in these areas for the serve. After that they can leave, but only the front three can shoot from inside the attack line. After a point the six rotate clockwise.
- 1 - back right, where the player who has just served stands.
- 2 - front right.
- 3 - front middle.
- 4 - front left.
- 5 - back left.
- 6 - back middle.
When an inexperienced group of people first play volleyball they have no tactics and will happily just bat the ball from side to side. They don't care whether they use one, two or three touches. Keeping the ball off the ground and getting it back over the net are their only concern. Such teams can be quite successful when playing against teams that are trying to use, but have not yet mastered a strategy. For this reason some teams continue to play this way for many years.
The first main tactic that teams use is playing three touches before the ball goes back over the net. Three-touch volleyball usually takes the format:
- Touch 1 - the player receiving the ball tries to pass the ball to a predetermined place, usually near the middle of the net.
- Touch 2 - the player at the middle of the net attempts to volley it up nice and high towards one of the other front court players.
- Touch 3 - as the ball should now be above the height of the net, it is in a position to be hit downwards very hard (spiking), this gives the other team problems in returning the ball.
After a few weeks of playing this way, teams begin to find that only two or three players can hit the ball high and far enough as well as accurately enough for the hitters, so they then decide to specialise into setters3 and hitters4; four players are designated as hitters and the other two as setters - this is the 4-2 system.
Now that the team have a setter to take the second ball, this only leaves five other players to receive service. Previously all six would stand there trying to push the ball straight back over. A bit of organisation leads to the W+1 receive where the five receivers create a 'W' shape, when looked down on from above. All five concentrate on passing the ball to the front middle of the court.
With the two setters spaced equally apart in the court rotation, one of them will always be on the front court with the other on the back court. This presents a new problem when the setter is at position two or four - a ball passed to middle of court will go to a hitter. The solution is for the setter and hitter to change places as soon as service occurs - rotation only controls serving placement. For some unknown reason many beginner players find the concept of switching very difficult to comprehend, although maybe it is because they are still trying to master the playing skills.
At around the same time that players begin to specialise as setters or hitters, someone will realise that the defence could be improved. The first line of defence is the block5 which comes pretty naturally. Teams try to get two players blocking together at the net thereby creating a difficult obstacle to hit past.
Once past the block there are only defenders to stop the ball hitting the ground. Initially teams tend to play with a flat back 3 which is to say the players just stand in a line across the middle of the court as they wish. This leaves them very prone to balls pushed deep to the back of court. The solution is to assign each player an area of the court to cover, usually this is the 6-up system. Playing 6-up quite simply means that the player at 6 moves up to the three metre attack line and attempts to cover the space behind the block (wherever it is positioned). The other two back court players stand deep towards the service line and try to cover all the balls hit there.
So in summary: the team has a setter in the middle of court, a hitter near each post, a player covering the centre of the court and two other defenders covering the sidelines, all focusing on defence.
One of the problems created by having the setter in the middle of court is that they are expected to participate in all the blocking. Apart from being very tiring, the setter is also often the shortest player on the team so this can create problems. Much better to put a tall player in the middle. Therefore teams then progress to setting from 2 with players hitting through 3 and 4. Hitters now specialise as middle or outside players.
The introduction of middle hitters can also lead to another adjustment to service receive. With a ball set to the middle of the court, thereby travelling less distance, it becomes harder for the middle player to receive the hit. Therefore the middle player stops returning the serve and leaves it to the other players. This cup receive has two players at the front and two at the back in a sort of trapezium shape.
Switching has now become a little more complex on the front court and some teams decide to do the same on the back court, while others will leave the players to defend whatever part of court they are stood on for the rotation. Back court switching is actually pretty simple and means that players always switch to the same area of court whether they are front court or back court. That is to say that once play begins, a setter will move to stand on the right side of court, a middle will be in the middle(!) and the outside hitter will be on the left side. An advantage of back court switching is that each player only has to learn the play required in one area of court rather than all three.
Now teams will often introduce the 6-back or 6-deep system of defence, in preference to 6-up. This requires the 6 player to stay near the service line, while the other two back court players move up to the three metre line. It has no particular advantage over the 6-up system other than it moves the team towards the next tactic.
At this point if you were considering starting a volleyball team these are all the tactics and strategies you might need. Most teams playing below or up to a local league level are content with leaving it at that.
The advantage of the 6-deep system is that the back court setter, who should have switched to position 1, is now standing near the three metre line rather than eight metres further back at the service line. This allows them to become a penetrating setter. As the rules of volleyball allow only the front court players to hit, the systems described previously are only able to utilise two hitters (as one of the three front court players is the setter). Having a penetrating setter allows them a back court player to set the second ball, thereby freeing up the front court setter to become an extra hitter. This of course is only of use if they can hit!
Teams that learn to use a penetrating setter rapidly move to the one setter system or 5-1 system as it is known. The main advantage of the one setter system is that it only requires one person to have the good handling skills required in setting. In training this player can get all the repetitions and therefore the chance of hitters receiving consistent, well trained, sets is increased. The player taking the place of the second setter now concentrates on being a hitter and is termed an opposite or off-setter.
By this time teams have reduced the service defence to three players, sometimes only two. While the two or three players have more court to cover, communication is easier and the other players do not need to be able to receive serve to be part of the team, they can just be good hitters, blockers and defenders.
As the team now have only one setter, half the time they have three hitters on front court. However when the setter is on front court they only have two. Many teams therefore choose to use back court hitters either hitting from 6 or 1 or even both. As long as the player takes off behind the three metre line they are allowed to hit the ball above the height of the net6. Many international players have jumps that take them well into the three metre area and therefore allow them to hit almost as if they were on front court.
Another way that teams can avoid only having two front court hitters is to play the 6-2 system where all six players hit and there are two setters. Whichever setter is on back court will penetrate thereby always ensuring three front court hitters. The successful Cuban women's team of the 1990s are one of the few international teams to have used this system.
At this point there are few, if any, renowned systems left to describe that can be played in volleyball. To recap you will have:
A hitting system:
- 4-2 - 4 hitters, 2 setters - setting from either middle or 2.
- 5-1 - 5 hitters, 1 setter - setting from 2.
- 6-2 - 6 hitters, 2 setters - with back court setter penetrating whenever possible to set the ball.
- Backcourt hitters - incorporated in any of the systems once you have setters able to set a ball that back court hitters are able to hit.
A service receive system:
- W+1 - 5 receivers with a setter at the net.
- Cup - 4 receivers with a setter and middle hitter at the net.
- Two/Three Receivers - two or three people stood on the back court are responsible for receiving the serve. These are sometimes the outside hitters, but probably whichever players are best able to pass. The others are responsible for the counter-attack.
A defensive system:
- 6 up - the 6 player covers behind the block near the three metre line, while the 1 and 5 players cover deep.
- 6 deep - the 6 player covers deep while the 1 and 5 players cover near the three metre line.
Setting tactics are based around the principles of the four dimensions of space-time!: height, width along the net, distance away from the net and time (the speed of the set). The setter has to take into account all these things with three (or even more) other things. The ball, the setter, the hitter and even the opposition must be taken into account to decide how to set the ball.
The Hand Set7 - as the player sets the ball they extend their hands and whole body. Follow through while pushing the ball to ensure it follows the correct route. Differences such as the height of the hitter and how high they can jump must be taken into account.
The Back Set - when back setting, the setter will arch their back backwards and hit the ball from behind them. Very difficult to learn with any accuracy, it is made worse since the longer any movement can be delayed the harder it becomes for the other side to know what will happen. Obviously communication8 is vital here, both setter and hitter must know what to do, and quickly.
The Quick Set - this is where the setter passes the ball to one of the blockers, normally the nearer one. In effect a short pass, it generally uses just the finger tips. With less of a lob movement and more of a simple shove through the air, the hitter can strike far quicker, preventing an effective block being set up.
Hitting tactics usually evolve once the setter has mastered a variety of sets. Typically they involve trying to confuse the defence (especially blockers) by having hitters approach the net in unexpected ways. Some common plays include:
- Tandem - where two attackers approach to attack at the same area of net (perhaps only a metre apart). The blocker has to decide which player to block (unless they have long arms) in which case the setter can set the open player.
- Crossover - also know as an 'X' play. Similar to a tandem except that the attackers 'cross over' to attack from the opposite side of court that they approached from. Hence on a chalkboard it looks like an 'X'.
- Piston - where two players attack at the same part of the net, but in front and behind each other. As they arrive at different times hopefully the blocker jumps (and lands) with the front player leaving the behind player an open hit.
- Slide - a player approaches in front of the setter but then jumps so that they travel behind (and parallel to the net). This means the blocker is committed to one place, but the attacker has now moved to somewhere else.
The libero is a defensive player, designed to let the rest of the team concentrate on attacking - they are banned from hitting the ball above the net. As the libero position is relatively new, the full extent of tactics that this position creates are still unexplored. To have the libero playing at position 5 seems to be the most sensible as it still allows for back court hitting from position 1 and 6 - the majority of attacks will be hit in this direction at levels of play below the international scene. Some of the possible tactics for using a libero include:
- to replace a player who has poor back court defence.
- to give players an opportunity to rest.
- as a primary part of the service receive unit.
- to change the defensive set-up without having to use a recorded substitution. (Libero substitutions are unlimited).
Choosing a System
Ultimately a good coach will look at the players they have available and find a system that works best for them. If they have two very capable but short setters, a 4-2 system may be better than a 5-1, while for a team with two tall capable setters, the 6-2 may be better than trying to play a 5-1 with one of them having to become purely a hitter. Like anything else, each of the tactics and strategies described here has advantages and disadvantages. The coach needs to find the system best suited to their players, this may even be an unorthodox strategy that no other team plays.