Nine Pillars of Designing a Team Defense

Last week I detailed the nine items I value when constructing an offensive system. This week, I will focus on the considerations when constructing my defense. There is more to the defensive game than what is listed. These items provide a foundation and roadmap for developing a better defensive team.

When looking at the game from a defensive perspective, you must include the serve. The serve might impact the options available for the offense, thereby influencing the movements of the blockers and defenders. For this article, I’ll focus on the concepts I implement when setting up the defense without regard to specific offensive or serving situations.

Listed below are my nine defensive pillars.

#1 – No off-speed shot can hit the floor

Defending the hard-driven attack is sufficiently challenging. Your defense will collapse if the offense can also score with tips and roll shots, which are naturally low error. Dealing successfully with an off-speed attack can take several forms. The coach can design defensive systems to defend against the off-speed attack, work very hard on recognizing the visual cues to assist in anticipating this attack, and develop defensive floor skills to expand the defensive range. Equally important is the competitive mentality on defense, where players are determined to keep the ball from hitting the floor. Defending the off-speed attack is essential because this type of attack will go in-bounds 99% of the time. If opponents can score with such a high percentage shot, there is no reason to hit the ball hard and risk making an attack error.

#2 – The Most Dangerous Hitter Receives The Most Attention by the Block

All attackers on the offensive side are rarely an equal threat to score. Despite this, it is the norm for the starting position of the block to give equal attention to all attackers. The blockers’ starting position should reflect the attackers’ abilities or where the ball will likely be set. With this philosophy, all blockers, primarily the middle blocker, should aggressively adjust the starting court position to shorten the distance to defend the best hitter.

#3 – All Blockers Should Be Comfortable with Shuffle and Crossover Footwork on the Block

Every attack situation will vary on the pass quality, the set’s quality, speed and direction, and the attacker’s approach. All blockers should be comfortable with various footwork as they move to the point of attack. It is a coaching mistake only to teach one form of blocking footwork. The distances a blocker needs to move, the speed of the opponent’s offense, and the abilities of the blockers mandate flexibility in how they move. Blockers should be skilled at the shuffle step, 5-step, 3-step, 2-step, and 1-step crossover footwork.

#4 – The block should funnel the attack to the best defenders

Just like all attackers are not of equal ability, not all defenders are uniformly skilled. Most attackers will hit toward the center back or crosscourt areas. Place the best defenders in these areas as much as possible. The block should take away other court areas and force the attacker to hit in the direction of the best defensive players.

#5 – All Players Should Develop Defensive Floor Skills

Too many players are taught to defend in a very upright and stationary posture. Such a restrictive posture limits court coverage. All players should have comfort putting their bodies to the floor to expand their court coverage. The more activities that include floor skills, the more the athlete will develop a comfort level of moving their feet to the ball and playing it in a low posture. Along with the posture modifications, I encourage players to initiate disciplined foot movement before the attack. It is easier to move quickly if the player is already moving.

#6 – Visual Cues For Blockers and Backcourt Defenders Are Essential

The ability to take the eyes off the ball and look for visual cues displayed by the offense will allow the blockers and backcourt defenders to be more effective. The eyes can only focus on one thing at a time. All blockers and defenders should have a grasp of the specific visual cues that merit their attention to allow them to anticipate plays as opposed to merely reacting to what has already occurred.

#7 – Overhead Digging Is An Underutilized Skill

Hand Position Overhead Dig

The ability to dig an attack using the hands will expand the area a defensive player can successfully defend. Players must understand that overhead digging is not setting. The attack has too much velocity for the defense to defend by attempting to set the ball. The hands are held together and cupped to allow directing the attack to the target area.

#8 – Since Most Sets Go to the Opponent’s Outside Hitters, The Blocking Posture Should Facilitate Lateral Movement

At many levels of play, easily 70% of the sets will go to one antenna or the other. Blockers should have a starting posture that facilitates lateral movement. I teach all blockers to drop their hands to chest height or lower, bend their knees and have their weight on the balls of their feet in preparation for fast lateral movement. I also encourage the blockers to load their legs using a stretch-reflex movement to facilitate a quick first step.

#9 – Teams Should Have Multiple Defensive Systems

Many teams only have one defensive system implemented without regard to the opponent. Teams must have flexibility regarding how to cover the court most effectively. Opposing offensive systems differ; individual attackers have tendencies, and your team has defensive strengths and weaknesses. The resourceful coach considers all these factors in designing multiple systems that can vary by the opponent’s rotation, the individual attacker, the point of attack, the score, etc.

Combining these pillars will involve many layers of technique, game knowledge, and implementation time. There is no question that an efficient sideout offense is essential to winning sets. However, a well-conceived defense will challenge the opponent to score with their sideout offense. A final thought, digs will not score points. Killing the ball scores points. As you work on your defensive system and techniques, include transition offense. A dig without an ensuing kill only provides your opponent an additional opportunity to score.