Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Setter Debate

I've stayed out of this debate on the other topic, mostly because I wasn't as familiar with the players as I felt I needed to be. It's an interesting debate, especially as it is partially a continuation of the JNT McGinnis v. Kehoe v. the world debate. It's obviously a topic that people are emotional about - at least the general tone of the thread is emotional.

How Not to Evaluate Setters

Winning a championship is an indicator of a good, possibly great setter, but it would be very dangerous to use championships alone to determine who the best setter is. Who is the best point guard in the NBA? Parker or Buillups? What about Nash? How about the NBA's best center? Is the NBA's best player on either the Spurs or the Pistons?

Post season accolades are another indicator, but are similarly bad as a sole criteria. The people who decide accolades often only see highlight reels of the players they are voting on, and sometimes they don't even see that! Evaluating players, and setters in particular, is much more subtle than watching a 5 minute highlight tape.

Walking into a game sitting down and enjoying a match can be similarly mis-leading. To paraphrase Dean Smith in one of his books, he found that his thoughts about the game in the locker room afterword, were usually wrong when he went back and watched the videotape! Fans and all-time great coaches alike watch a game unfolding live through a lens that distorts what is actually happening. Only when we watch the game without emotion, and with the aid of slow motion and instant replay ;), can we properly evaluate what went on.

Some Factors to Consider When Evaluating Setters

This is certainly not comprehensive. Even this is vastly oversimplified... If the international coaches and setters were to read this, they would probably have a lot of "but...'s." I was hoping to use NCAA teams in my examples, but I haven't been able to find any video of Hawai'i or Georgia Tech from 2004 - teams that I think play a different style from the other top teams. Since I haven't seen them, I don't want to use them as examples since they may not be what I think they might be... ;) In the examples below one [i]might[/i] substitute Stanford for USA, Washington for Brazil, and (working on hearsay here) Hawai'i for China. These are very loose connections which work in some ways, and don't work in others... Fwiw, I also think Minnesota's 6-2 is reasonably similar to Cuba's at least for some comparison's sake...

All setting jobs are not created equal. This may come as a surprise to some. The setting job for the USA was different from the setting job for Brazil and very very different from the setting job for China. The setters can only be evaluated based on what they were asked to do, and the USA's setters were asked to play very differently than China's setter. This is not to say that both jobs aren't difficult.

USA's plan was a to minimize risk in both receiving and setting. USA was perfectly happy passing the ball 1.5m away from the net, and a 'good miss' was away from the net and toward the zone one/two (1/2 looked like 'half') sideline. The USA's setter was going to set balls high enough to the antenna's that the hitters could always attack the ball with full force. The USA's setter was not to risk making a setting mistake where the hitter would be forced to attack at less than full force. The USA realized that their hitters would be facing strong blocks under this system, but believed that their hitters could win a high enough % of the time to make it work. The USA believed that setting players like Haneef, Phipps, Bown, Scott and Nnamani quicker sets to the antennas would lead to an unacceptably high number of mis-connections. The USA's setters main job was to set a high ball that gave the hitter the best chance to beat a well formed block. Decision making was less 'where can I get a one on one,' and more 'which of my hitters (that I can set well) has the best approach, and maybe a weaker blocker'. On passes near the net, the USA setter had a little more chance to create, but still worked under the principle of 'make sure it gets hit hard.'

China was put together differently. The Chinese trained together under the same coach for basically 3 years, 9-10 months a year. The Chinese staff was able to believe in their passers ability to pass the ball near the net without an unacceptable number of overpasses, and was also able to trust their setter and hitters to connect on quicker tempo sets. A 'good miss' for a Chinese receiver was at the net, and preferably in front of the setter (opposite of the USA's concept). The Chinese believed in their hitters ability to get to, and attack with force, a lower set that wasn't exactly where they were hoping it would be - something Haneef, Phipps, Bown, Scott and Nnamani couldn't do. The Chinese setter's job was more: understand the opponent's blocking scheme, anticipate it before the play started, call a play to exploit it, recognize the opponent's blocking scheme as the play develops, and set the hitter who has the best seam to hit through.

Doesn't China sound like what we've read about in the volleyball text books? :) In the 2004 Olympics, only 3 womens teams played toward that end of the 'offensive style spectrum,' and some to a higher degree than others. In the NCAA no team that I saw (I didn't see Hawai'i or Georgia Tech, two teams that may have played close to that style) played the style to the extreme that China and Korea did. Of the teams I saw, Washington seemed to be making a good attempt under the circumstances, as well as Minnesota to a degree. Of course, it would seem foolish for a NCAA team to even attempt to play the style to the extreme China (and if you want to go even further, Brazil's men) did, because NCAA teams (and the USA National Team) don't have the training time available to reach mastery that the Chinese National Team does.

More was asked of the Chinese setter in terms of organization, but more was asked of the USA's setters in terms of absolute location. If the Chinese setter missed her location by 75cm her hitters were, by in large, quick enough to get there and hit it with power - even if only in one direction. If the Chinese setter made a good choice the ball might still beat the blockers, and diggers to the spot. If the American setter missed by 75cm on a high ball, her hitters might still get there, but the block and diggers would have much more time to get to the optimal spots to defend the attack. The American attackers relied to a large degree on 'tooling' the block, and a set to far inside or outside the antenna, or to close or far from the net, could reduce the chances of the attacker to effectively attack parts of the block.

If USA and China are extreme examples of the 'offensive style spectrum' most teams are somewhere near the middle. North American (including the bulk of the NCAA and what I've seen of Puerto Rico) and European teams would seem to congregate more to the USA side of center, most Asian and South American teams a little more to the China side of center...

Seeing the Block

When watched closely, the Chinese setter seems to be able to see the block during the play - she regularly chooses sets that exploit either the system of her opponent's block, or a mistake by one of the blockers. This is much talked about, but as far as I see, rarely demonstrated in womens volleyball. I have no doubt that on some good passes NCAA (and this extends to professional and Olympic teams also) setters see a blocker jump with the middle attacker, or step out a little early to cheat on closing, but as a rule setters aren't able to exploit this but a small percentage of the time. In the bulk of Europe and North America, the setters aren't [i]asked[/i] to exploit this except in setting a quick hitter when she can beat a blocker off the ground. On some teams the setter might be able to set a ball to the antenna fast enough to beat a blocker who commits to a quick hitter, but I think that is less common than most people think (and less common than I used to think it was).

In reality most setters are trained in what a block is [i]likely[/i] to do in a given situation. For example: on a pass that takes the setter away from the net and forward when we have 2 front row hitters, the block will probably...whatever. Or: when we pass a ball behind the setter when we have 3 hitters, the block will probably...whatever. In a surprising number of matches I watch, the opponents blocking system isn't even properly taken into account and setters presist in setting into a situation that is more advantagous to the block than the attack!

If you buy into this you might come to the conclusion, as I am starting to, that on most teams setters might be very replaceable. Take USA 2002. Ah Mow-Santos pregnancy develops faster than expected, and one month before the World Championships she is forced to stop playing. As far as I know, USAV tried to get at least: Cepero, and McNamee to join the team, but had to settle on Laura Davis. In 3 weeks of training, Davis beat out Fitzgerald (who had been training with the team all year) and led the USA to a silver medal (and with Phipps it likely would have been gold).

In NCAA terms: could Ohio St have been as good if you replaced Main with Kehoe? Could Stanford have been as good if you replaced Kehoe with Bowman? I think the answer to both is probably 'yes.' Now how about if you kept the setters where they are and replaced Gordon and Nnamani with Tomosovic, or Burdine? I think you might have very different results - and we're still talking about very very good hitters!

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Short Volleyball Player in the USA

A thread on VolleyTalk got on my nerves today, and it's something that has been eating at me for quite a while now. Paraphrasing the poster, basically he postulated that being 5'8" would make it almost impossible to compete at the top of the NCAA as an outside hitter. The poster was basically correct, but for the wrong reasons.

There is a conventional wisdom among NCAA coaches that all other things being equal, taller players have the advantage over shorter players. At first glance this makes a lot of sense - I subscribed to this notion for several years. However, the more volleyball I watch the more problems I have with the maxim.

In the United States the highest level of volleyball we see on a regular basis is NCAA D1. We can go to games live, and we can find a match on tv nearly whenever we want (if we have a satillite dish at least). With CSTV's Sunday Night Spikes, FSN's Pac-10 and Big-12 Game of the week being televised nationally we are finally seeing volleyball on TV in the quantities that many have believed it deserved for years. The problem is that when the NCAA is the only volleyball we see, we tend to start taking what we see and hear there as the sports gospel truth. It's understandable that the VT poster in the opening belives what he stated because that is the feedback he hears from those he talks to, and it coincides with what he sees with his own eyes.

So why am I so bothered? When I watch the Olympics I saw a team with four pin players between 5'7" and 5'10" win the bronze medal. When I watched the Grand Prix I saw a team with a 5'11" middle blocker win the gold medal. When I watched the Italian championship I saw a 5'10" opposite put her team on her back and win the trophy. All of these teams would make a mess of the best NCAA teams in history. Why is the NCAA so special that you can't win with a sub 6' hitter?

Actually I know why: skills.

The USA has one of the best infrastructures of a country it's size in the world. We have hundreds of thousands of kids playing volleyball, and a great and growing number of very good coaches to go with them. How in the world can skills be the problem?

Libero AND 12 subs. 15 in college. 18 in high school.

Practice time is a scarce resourse for most, and good coaches use that time in the most effecient way possible. If you have lots of subs, you can have the tall kids practice hitting and blocking and the smaller kids practice passing and digging and it's a very good use of time. Would Stacey Gordon have been developed this way if she was an American?

Before the libero high schools, JOV and the NCAA chose 12 subs in order for more kids to be able to play, and also to give shorter athletes more of a chance. It worked reasonably well. With 12 subs coaches could sub out their tall middles, but the 4 pin players (or whatever combination) had to stay on the court. Long Beach won championships with Romero, Adams and Burton on the court full time. Sometimes LBSU's tall middles became some of their better back row players (Weaver, Dillard). Most of the top teams had at least one sub 6' full time player besides the setter.

Since the NCAA added the libero position teams have gone from having to keep 4 players on the court full time to only having to keep 2 on the court full time. This year the NCAA is increasing subs from 12 to 15 which will likely make even more players specialists and keep the well rounded players in strict roles. The NCAA gets its players from the USAV which has been using libero + 12 for several years now - creating speciallists.

On a Side Note:
Today 5'10" kids are outside hitters in club, but get switched to liberos or DS's in college. One of the reasons for having 12 subs, or the libero (taken seperately), was to create oppertunities for smaller people to play volleyball. When put together, however, they are pushing small people out of the sport. I'm not as concerned with this as I am with creating speciallists though.

The NCAA has correctly stated that they don't want to be governed by the idea that they are the stepping stone to the USA National Team. I don't believe that they should be governed that way - the NCAA is an educational/participatory institution and should be governed as such. However, the USAV is the stepping stone to the National Team and I believe they could improve the quality of players they supply to our National Teams, as well as the NCAA by making "open" level JOV play under the 1-6 sub rules. "Club" level JOV can remain 12 sub because it is more participatory in nature.

Today we have to send our national team players overseas for 3-5 years before they become good enough to be serious medal contenders in international tournaments. Therefore we're only really competitive internationally every 8 years. I wonder how many medals all these subs are really costing us at the international level?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Why This Exists

One day several years ago, I got to thinking that when I was a growing up learning to play baseball and football I had a lot of fun and learned a lot by immitating the pros I saw on tv. I used a super crouched batting stance like Rod Carew and Rickey Henderson for years! My friends and I loved diving into the endzone over the offensive line like we saw Walter Payton do on the highlight reels. I remember learning to do a 360 layup (like I can dunk...) from the free throw line like they did in the slam dunk contests. As I grew up the immitation became more complex. I learned to run a baseball game from behind the plate like Tony Pena. I tried to learn to scan the field, pick out the correct reciever, and make easy throws like Joe Montana. When I got into volleyball and became a setter, I heard Chris Marlowe on the 1988 Olympic broadcasts talking about how Jeff Stork and Valeri Lossev saw the block when they were setting the ball. It became something I taught myself to do over the next few years, and I belive it allowed me to compete at a level far higher than my 5'3" body should have been able. I never would have known it was possible if I hadn't heard Marlowe that day.

High School, club and college basketball, football and baseball coaches in this country can look to the professional ranks and learn what those amazing teams and players are doing and add bits and pieces to what they teach their athletes. This is obvious in football. Championship college football teams like USC, Nebraska and Alabama used to operate on the "4 yards and a cloud of dust" principle. Today championship college football teams often use a "pro style," or even "west coast" offense barrowed from the NFL that is far more complex than their predecessors. I'm sure the same is true to varying degrees in the other sports as well.

I realized that volleyball players and coaches had no one to look up to like that. The college teams were the best we have the opportunity to see regularly. I thought the college teams were great, but even back then as a novice I could see a big difference in skill from the college teams to the Olympic teams. It bothered me that in the USA we would only get the chance to watch the top players in the world once every four years. When NBC presented the Triplecast in 1992 I was determined to not let the chance pass. I was one of the 13 people who ordered the ill fated pay-per-view channels, and I kept two VCR's running full time to make sure I didn't miss a single volleyball match. I was careful to catch the odd World League or Grand Prix match that would air on a FOX Sports affiliate in the '90s and built a fairly large video library. Surely one of the larger libraries outside of the USAV.

NBC's coverage of Olympic volleyball has improved since the low point of 1996. I was excited to catch pool play matches that didn't involve the USA in 2004. Thanks NBC! Still, most in the USA only get to see high level volleyball once every four years, and sadly few take advantage of the oppertunity. I've enjoyed watching and learning from different teams styles over the years. I've enjoyed watching the Cuban style change in the transition from Carvajal and Torres, to Barros and Carrillo. I've loved watching Brazil become so skilled that they could regularly go toe to toe with Cuba despite their inferior jump touches. I've loved watching Karpol tweak his master system to take advantage of strengths and weekness' of new players entering the squad. I've learned about volleyball from all of this and I use it in creating a vision for the teams I coach.

After hearing rumors for years of these volleyball "pro leagues" around the world, I decided to go check it out in 2002. I spent 3 weeks in Italy, Slovenia and back to the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans. I saw 11 european matches in 13 days. It was eye opening! I had the good fortune to bump into Tim Kelly from www.bringitusa.com in Slovenia (he may be regreting it now :) ) and he was good enough to spend several hours educating me on eurovolley. In some ways I was surprised at the lack of innovation there - lots of 4-1-5 offenses for example. However, I was amazed in other ways, like the angles the players hit and the speed of the ball. I was also surprised at the physical makeup of the players - there were the super tall freaks of nature that I expected, but there were a surprising number of more normal sized players. It was a regular thing to have 6' middle blockers and 5'8" setters. I knew that those players existed at the highest levels, but they were more common than I had thought. In europe skill was at least as valued as size.

The internet has allowed me to learn even more about volleyball around the world. You can even watch matches live on the internet now if you know where to look! Friends that I've made around the world teach me more and more about how the sport works in their countries and others.

All of this has led me to develop some takes on volleball in the US that are rather awkward to most people I meet here. It has led me to ask questions that most people in the USA are not equipped to answer, or at least those who are don't want to go into it on a message board. I'll probably post some of those ideas, and ask some questions here in the future. Comments and debate will be appreciated. I don't know if anyone will ever find this though :)