Embrace the Give and Take of Lineups and Systems

All teams are composed of imperfect players. These imperfect players are the framework of imperfect systems. You will have tall players, short players, fast ones, some not as fast, etc. From this melting pot of physical and technical abilities, you try to cobble together a lineup and offensive and defensive systems that will allow for a competitive team. Coaches face the never-ending challenge of enhancing a positive while accepting the possibility of an unfavorable by-product. This tug-of-war of giving up one aspect of the game with the desire to be compensated elsewhere comprises the daily decisions that coaches must make. There is always something to be given up in return for something gained.

Coach Kelly Sheffield at the University of Wisconsin has been second-guessed for two seasons about using a 6-2 offensive system and substituting his two setters in the front row. Without question, on most teams, there will be increased consistency of sets and offensive rhythm if only one setter is touching every second ball. If the USA National Team suddenly started running a 6-2 offense with Jordyn Poulter and Lauren Carlini setting, there would most likely be some consistency challenges. As talented as Jordyn and Lauren are, no two setters will set the same; hence, there will be challenges with consistency regardless of who the setters might be.

Carolyn Crawford, Anna Smrek, Sarah Franklin

However, here are some considerations that Coach Sheffield might be pondering. If he runs a 5-1 offense, he trades the increased offensive consistency of a one-setter system with putting one of his best point scorers on the bench. You have Anna Smrek (39% attack efficiency and 1.08 blocks/set), Devyn Robinson (33% efficiency and .63 blocks/set), and Carolyn Crawford (30% efficiency and 1.29 blocks/set). Using the generous NCAA substitution rules, by running a 6-2 offense, the team benefits from all three players to the point where manageable inconsistencies with the two setters become an acceptable by-product. While sacrificing the consistency of a one-setter system, the payoff is having all his point scorers on the floor. Welcome to “give and take.”

Japanese Setter, Yoshie Takeshita

I sat with former USA Assistant Coach Jamie Morrison at the FIVB Grand Prix tournament in China a few years back. We watched Japanese setter Yoshie Takeshita put on a setting clinic against some unfortunate opponent. She was a setting maestro, as each set was accurate, intelligent, and deceptive. I commented to Jamie that if she were doing the same at a club tournament in America, there would be a lot of college coaches that would not recruit Takeshita due to her 5’3″ height. This would be an example of a coach’s unwillingness to embrace “give and take” for the long-term betterment of the team. I’ll take the fantastic setting, defense, and leadership and give up blocking liabilities. In the long run, the team will end up on the positive side of the point-scoring ledger. It is worth noting that Japan won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics with Takeshita as their setter.

Another example of “give and take” is what we often see with front-row/back-row substitutions. Coaches take the big point scorer off the floor in the back row for a smaller defensive specialist. The substitution may be a good move; however, the coach must be comfortable with the benefits weighed against possible losses. You might be getting improved passing and defense. However, you might be losing the ability to score points with the backrow attack. Is this a favorable tradeoff? The only way to determine this is to allow your point scorer to play backrow, develop a backrow attack, and check the data. Suppose you have point-scoring challenges when your best attacker is subbed out in the back row. In that case, you should consider keeping that player on the floor and accept the prospect of losing some points from a defensive perspective but off-setting those losses with the kills she provides as a backrow attacker. I’m giving up some defensive skills of a backrow substitute, but I’m receiving the point-scoring abilities from my big hitter.

From a more skill-related perspective, many coaches teach blocking posture somewhat non-traditionally. Historically, the blocker’s starting posture entails the hands at shoulder height or higher. Now, blockers are taught to have their hands at chest height or lower. The rationale for the change? Since around 70% of the opponent sets will go to the antennas, let’s start our blockers in a posture to facilitate lateral movement. Hence, the hands are in a lower position to promote lateral movement. For outside blockers, this might be an insignificant adjustment. For middle blockers, the immediate thought is, will the lower hand position impact the ability to block a quick attack? Perhaps, but this is another example of “give and take.” We might be giving up micro-seconds in blocking a quick attack, but we are taking the ability to get to the outside faster.

Since all teams and players are flawed, coaches must make many give-and-take choices. The goal is to accentuate either team or individual strengths while trying to mask weaknesses. It is also important to note that not all skills are created equal. Some aspects of the game are more important than others. For example, a team’s ability to sideout effectively will correlate more to winning points than the ability to dig a lot of balls. Make sure your lineup or system choices reflect what has the most correlation to winning points. Finally, make every effort to fight the inherent bias all humans possess that will impact your lineup and system choices. These biases might impact your willingness to have that 5’3″ setter on the floor for six rotations, running a 6-2 offense, or taking your big point scorer off the floor in the backrow.