Can Women’s Volleyball Be Positionless?

I am an unabashed fan of March Madness for collegiate men’s and women’s basketball. Watching the various teams play, I am fascinated by how collegiate basketball has changed in recent years. Gone are the days of the “motion” offense of the Bobby Knight era, when the focus was a big man close to the basket and constant movement and screening away from the ball. The current emphasis is the big man being away from the basket, screening the on-ball defender, and forcing challenging matchups for the defense. By matchups, the screens force defenders to switch who they guard and often force a bigger offensive player to be guarded by a smaller defender. Or, a smaller, quicker offensive player matched up on a taller and potentially slower defender.

Along with the “on-ball” screens forcing matchup challenges for the defense, teams are implementing the “five-out offense,” which focuses on all five players spreading the court and creating open space for players to attack the basket or pass the ball to a teammate on the perimeter. Creating matchups in basketball intrigues me, and, as with many concepts from different sports, I wonder about the potential crossover to volleyball.

Brad Underwood, the successful basketball coach at the University of Illinois, felt the need to revamp his offensive and defensive philosophy and approach to recruiting to successfully deal with matchups defensively and take advantage of matchups when on offense. Underwood decided the best way to take advantage of mismatches offensively while avoiding defensive mismatches was to bring in players at least 6’6″ or taller who are capable of playing multiple positions both offensively and defensively. He also has his 6’11” center operate on the perimeter as a passer and shooter.

“We started recruiting bigger wings,” he said. We’ve got a small guard or two in our program, but we understood that versatility was more key than having a 7-footer.” By having a lineup consisting of relatively tall players who can play multiple positions, they avoid defensive mismatches while also creating offensive mismatches. Currently, in volleyball, coaches often go in the opposite direction, emphasizing height while sacrificing versatility.

The move to the five-out offense and ball screens are not, by themselves, a creation of coaches. The three-point line and analytics have also impacted the game by encouraging more shots to come from behind the three-point line and, by default, open up the floor for the offense to attack the basket.

Players, especially tall ones, don’t start learning ball control and shooting when they arrive on the collegiate campus or go to the NBA. The youth programs in basketball are encouraging all-around skills.

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg says, “You look into the grassroots programs, a lot of these younger kids now, they’re really working on their multi-skill set to be able to play all five positions,” Hoiberg says. “Because where our game is going is positionless basketball, especially in the NBA.

“Nearly every team these days has like four guys on the floor that can shoot it, and a lot have five,” says Ken Pomeroy, college basketball’s foremost authority on analytics. “Ten years ago, that was pretty rare, and 20 years ago that was almost unheard of.”

Can basketball teams still be successful with the traditional tall center that plays close to the basket? For sure, look at Purdue this season. However, those teams and systems are dwindling in favor of the tall, multi-skilled athlete who can pass, handle the ball, and shoot. An example of a 7-foot center who can shoot the three, handle the ball, and pass would be NBA player Nikola Jokic.

How might this transformation of positionless basketball cross into volleyball? My vision is that five players, the setter excluded, who can attack the entirety of the net at different tempos from both the front and back row, possess ball control skills that promote a fast attack and can defend the opponent’s attack. A pipedream? Perhaps, but thirty years ago, one player, Magic Johnson, was tall (6’9″) and positionless. Now, there are easily fifty players who can play any position on the court at the top collegiate levels.

Are age-group coaches the most significant impediment to this transition into a more exciting and diversified level of play in our sport? Coaches of younger players are very quick to put players into a “position box” that inhibits their all-around skill development. Tall players are forced to play the middle position and are taken out in the backrow. Players learn to hit only one type of set. Some players learn to receive a serve, while others do not. Only one or two learn how to set their teammates. Because of this position-specific training at younger ages, collegiate coaches have become too dependent on fifteen subs to mask skill deficiencies while stifling offensive creativity.

What would positionless volleyball look like? To a degree, the men’s game is already there. They still have designated middles, opposites, etc., but the emphasis on six-rotation players at the younger ages makes the men’s game much more creative offensively than the women’s game.

For a volleyball team to be positionless, you must have tall, multi-skilled athletes adept at front and back-row play and hitting and blocking anywhere in the front row. The first concept is that attackers must be capable of hitting multiple sets at various tempos. The second requirement is more attackers than blockers, so the backrow attack is essential. Next, similar to basketball mismatches, you put your best attacker or multiple attackers against weaker blockers in volleyball. So, my best hitter will be capable of hitting right-side, left-side, quick out of the middle, or out of the backrow.

The video below shows how the OSU Men’s team used overload and isolation concepts and multiple hitters to attack their opponent. These concepts are similar to the matchup approach taken by basketball.

OSU Men’s Offensive Concepts

Remember, there are no middle or right-side hitters in positionless volleyball, per se, only hitters capable of hitting all the sets at any point along the net. Think of how much fun that offense would be to both play and coach! Conversely, think of the defensive challenges that would exist. The Final Four team I coached at Ohio State in 1991 had some of these attributes. The team played at a fast tempo and was composed of 5’10” players who could play multiple positions. The game’s physical nature has changed since then, but the concepts have not.

Our sport is increasing in spectator appeal because of an increasing number of tall, athletic players capable of doing wonderful things on the court. The next challenge is for coaches to develop the all-around skills of players to prepare them for advancements in offense and defense. Coaches need to commit to this player development philosophy, understanding that not all players will develop at a similar rate. Sometimes, tall players develop their skills at a different rate than those of smaller stature. The emphasis on winning at the youth level cannot take precedence over skill development and the long-term success of the players.