In all my years of coaching, I always felt that defense – individual player and “team” is the tactical area that will determine what team will ultimately win. No doubt, you have heard the coaching cliché – “Defense Wins Championships.” Good and great defense depend on the interplay and coordination of the block and the backcourt defense. My philosophy has always been “good defense begins with a good block.”
With the advent of “rally point scoring” (scoring a point after every rally), serving, blocking and floor defense will be even more critical to the outcome of a match. A key ingredient to your team’s success will be your ability to sell your team on the concept of great team defense – blocking and digging versus just being satisfied to be a good in the attacking team.
Once in a while, a coach has the luxury of watching his/her team put all the elements of great defense together at one time. I vividly remember a match in Stockton, California, on April 7, 1991, when the USA women’s team did just that against the USSR (now Russia). We continually thwarted the Soviet attack with timely blocking, precise defensive positioning and a “never quit” attitude. I can easily picture similar matches with my Ohio State men’s team (1974-76) and my University of Pacific women’s team (1976-84). The calling card of all outstanding teams is an outstanding defense.
Definitions of Defense
- Team defense is what a group of players does to keep the opponents from scoring or siding out.
- Defense is the action that a team takes from the time that the ball is contacted and/or controlled by its opponents until the ball crosses the plane of the net to your side of the net and is either stuff blocked back to your opponent or controlled for an offensive play by your team.
- You are on defense once the ball crosses the plane of the net to the opponent’s side of the net – after your serve, after your attack, after your “down ball” or “free ball.”
- Defense is made up of both blocking and backcourt digging/contacting the ball.
- Defense is a reaction to offense.
- Defense prevents the other team from “siding-out” and from “transition scoring.”
Defense Philosophy/Concepts – for the player
- Your objective as a player is to position yourself between the flight of the ball and your half-court so that you can either block or dig the ball and then to convert your defense contact (s) to an offensive play by your team.
- As a defender, you want to have the mentality that nothing will hit the floor at any time. Your pursuit of the ball should be relentless.
- When a ball is in play, always follow it with your eyes. Play with the philosophy that “every ball is coming to me” and be in a position where you can make the play when it comes to your specific area.
- Correct defensive positioning which will increase the probability of successfully blocking and/or digging the opponent’s attack occurs PRIOR to the attacker’s contact with the ball. The most important aspect of defense is “reading” the development of and the point of attack correctly (see pages 7-9).
- You are responsible for a defensive area, not just one precise spot on the court. A player always asks “am I in the right spot”? My answer has always been – “if you can block, dig or get to the ball you are in the right spot.” A sample diagram of some back-court responsibilities for a perimeter “middle back - back defense.”
- Starting from the perimeter – it is easier and much more efficient to move toward the center of the court than away from the center of the court.
Avoid the “theory of centrality” – every player congregating in the center of the court. Use the sideline and endline as your guide. Wing players (Left Back – LB and Right Back – RB) use the sidelines, Deep player (Middle Back – MB) use the endline
- Parallel movement – there should be a parallel movement between players that are digging in the back-court. For example:
- Defensive position requires the backcourt player to be on the balls of his/her feet; in medium or low body position; body forward; butt down (in order to contact the ball, come up to meet the ball and not go down with the ball) – this will insure that your arms will be between the ball and the floor.
- Do not fall to the floor if it is not necessary. You should never touch the floor before your arms make contact with the ball. Lunge, sprawl, roll or dive as a last resort.
- Be aggressive but under control.
Defense Philosophy/Concepts – for the coach
- A defense is designed to both prevent the ball from being hit off your block out of bounds and from hitting the floor on you side of the net.
- There are nine hundred square feet of court on your side of the net to defend. You cannot cover every inch of it. Therefore, there are two important questions that you should ask yourself. One: “What are you trying to defend”? Two: “What are you giving up”? As you answer these two questions, you will determine what zone (s) of the net or area (s) of the court you are willing to give up versus what zone (s) of the net, area (s) of the court you will protect and defend.
- You must consider not only the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, but also what your team is capable of doing. How good your team’s backcourt defense? How good is your block? What are the strengths of your opponent? From where (zone of the net or back row position) do they most often attack the ball? What area on your court do they hit the ball to? After you answer these questions, design your defense with the following points in mind (in rank order):
- Strengths of your players
- Areas where your opponents are most apt to attack – along the net and in your backcourt
- Weaknesses of your players - where can you “hide” a weak blocker or a weak back-court defender
- You must teach your team – where do most attackers (hitters) attack (hit)? Every attacker has a tendency. Most players hit the ball cross-court (angle) as a preference. In addition, using correct biomechanics, everyone hits the ball between their right and left shoulders.
- Your six players on defense must respond as a unit, even though there is a separate coordination required among the first line of defense – the blockers and the second line of defense – the back row diggers.
- The block is the foundation of your defensive alignment (formation). Back row adjustments will be made based on the following blocking actions and principles:
- Attack (Stuff) versus area blocking
- Numbers of players blocking – one, two or three
- Positioning of your blocker (s) – Angle (cross court), line or straight on (blocking the ball) blocking
- Determine what blocking system you will be using. If you are area or zone blocking, you must emphasizes the following concept to your players: Let the opponent hit the ball anywhere they want – over and around our block, but they will not attack the ball through our block. Are you attack blocking? Thus, you have designed your defensive scheme to have your blockers aggressively go after each attack in order to intercept it before it breaks the plane of the net. Are you emphasizing a combination of these two philosophies/concepts? Do you teach One-on-one blocking or a two or three person blocking scheme?
- Once you determine your blocking system(s), you must then teach the on court defense starting positions and sequencing. Your back-court positioning and movement sequences will have to be coordinated with your blocking system. Here are some concepts, definitions and illustrations that are important to establish and teach before you work on the back-court movement and sequencing:
- Behind the block, inside the block, outside the block.
- Blocking straight on (the ball); blocking angle (cross court) and/or blocking line.
- In all defensive schemes, you must identify the following: your main blocker; your main digger; who is responsible for the tip. Have you covered the court area to which the attacker most often hits the ball (main tendency).
- Attitude – As Aldis Berzins – former collegiate All American and starter/defensive star on the great USA Men’s Teams 1983-86. has stated often – “The most important aspect of defense at the international level is attitude.” Really, attitude is important at all levels. It is the most difficult part of the game to teach because it involves intangibles that can’t be drawn on a chalkboard. These include: hard work, discipline, single focus (concentration), perseverance and desire.
- Final Preparation and Design your defense – preparation starts with the coach and carries over to the players. The worst thing that a coach can do is look at a diagram in a book and say, “Our players should be 12 feet away from the net just as the diagram shows.” Coaches need to determine their defenses based on all of the above points. Obviously, you must scout your opponent (live or on video) and chart their tendencies, play patterns, strengths, weaknesses, etc. The most important chart that you can produce – is where did the attack come from and what was the result (kill, error /out of bounds, in net, stuffed by block/, in play, etc.). This will determine what area of your net or court you need to defend. More importantly, do the same scouting analysis of your team in your own scrimmages or during your matches, so that you can really begin to know your strengths and weaknesses in both attacking and defending.
As mentioned above, the most important aspect of defense is “reading” the play correctly. Positioning on the court involves a series of adjustments that are both mental and physical. No matter what defense you are playing – middle back, middle (setter) up, rotation, etc., you should begin by teaching your team the FOUR POSITIONS of defense. Once you and your team master these four team defense sequences you will have a better understanding of how to read the opponent’s attack and what to do to counter it deploying your pre-assigned defensive formations and patterns.
- Starting Position
Defense begins from the moment the ball crosses the net to your opponent. At that instant, it is important that every player gets to his/her basic starting position.
GOAL = Ideally, the defenders are to be in this pre-defined (assigned) position PRIOR to the opponent’s first contact.
This position determines the defender’s area of responsibility. Make sure that the defender is in stationary position as the attacker contacts the ball. The defender must follow the ball from the moment it crosses the net to the opponent side (starting position) to the first, second and third contact of the opponent. The defender’s focus is on what is happening to the ball.
GOAL = Ideally, the defender is to be in their read position, PRIOR to the attacker’s take-off.
- Overpass – the opponent returns the ball right back to your court on the serve receive (pass) or dig.
- Setter Attack (tip or hit on the second contact) – great setters can become an offensive weapon when in the front row rotationally. They can disguise whether they are setting, tipping or hitting on their second contact. The key is for the defender to watch the ball and the setter’s body position. You can “read” correctly if you couple this with your scouting knowledge of the setter’s tendencies.
- Set Direction. In a normal three contact sequence, the set direction is essential to determining the defender’s area of responsibility. Once the ball has left the setter’s hands, the defender knows whether it’s going to go forward or back; high or low; tight or deep. Great setters can set the ball from many different body positions making set direction tougher to read. Again knowing the setter’s tendencies (in your scouting report) or “reading” the body position cues (arching the back on back sets; jump setting on quick sets, etc.) will help you to pinpoint your area of responsibility.
- Set Placement/Position – height, depth, zone of the net. The further away from the net the ball is, the closer it will be to the top of the net when it goes over and the longer it will take to get to the defender. The lower the ball is set to the top of the net, the quicker the attack. A ball that is set right on the net is the blocker’s responsibility to defend.
- Attacker Approach – angle or straight; early or late. To have the option of hitting the ball in any direction, the attacker must be right on time. In addition, the approach angle of the hitter will determine an angle (cross court) or line attack. The closer to a 45 degree angle (to the net) in the approach, chances are that the attacker is hitting angle or cross-court. The more perpendicular or straight in (90 degree angle), the more chance that the attacker will hit line. An attacker who is late or early is probably just going to get the ball in. A blocker defending an early attack must jump earlier, while being patient and waiting longer for a later attack.
- Attacker Tendencies – line, cross court, deep, sharp, seam, off hands, straight down, off-speed, roll, tip, wipe, etc. Only the “world class” attackers have the ability to effectively hit all of the shots mentioned above. Often, a hitter doesn’t have good roll, wipe or tip shots. For example, the Cuban great, Mireya Luis, hits as hard as anybody in the world, and she also has a very good tip and a good off-speed shot. But she doesn’t hit the ball off the block (wipe) very often. With Luis, like most great hitters, the defenders must touch the ball on the block. If the block doesn’t touch Mireya’s hits, she’s probably going to score on 80 percent of them. Hitter tendencies also come into play at the lower levels, where the best hitters are likely to have favorite shots that have been successful for them.
- In high school or college volleyball, one thing you can be sure of – there will not be as many line shots, because it is much easier to hit angle (cross-court). Knowing the tendencies of a player will help you make your read.
- Use of Antennae and Court to Your Advantage. If the ball is set outside the sideline, you know that the attacker will not be able to hit the line. The farther outside the ball is, the more angle (cross-court) the attacker will hit.
- Adjust Position
This position locates the exact spot that the defender needs to be to intercept the ball. It occurs after the attacker contacts the ball – then the defender can move (adjust) within a range of a few feet (one to three). Remember the ball is traveling at 50 to 90 MPH (depending on the level of play) – you have very little time to react, let alone take a step or two. Thus, you must be in the right area (the correct read position) to be able to adjust a short distance in determining your exact spot.
- Emergency position
This is the pursuit phase where you must move more than three feet to intercept a ball that has changed direction after a block deflection, an errant dig or a mis-hit by the attacker.
TEAM DEFENSE SYSTEMS/PATTERNS
During the last sixty years, indoor volleyball has evolved several different defense systems/patterns. These can be put into four distinct categories:
- PERIMETER – defense where at least three defenders are on the court lines (sidelines and endline). Commonly called middle back; middle back-back; 6 back (“6” = the international nomenclature/designation of the middle back player in the rotation); white defense (the name “white” was first used by Val Keller in Point, Game, Match, Hollywood, CA: Creative Sports Books, 1968).
- UP – defense where one defender – usually the middle back or the setter go to the 10 foot line (3 meter line) behind the block. Commonly called middle up; middle back-up; 6 up; setter up (very often the “up” person is the back row setter); red (Keller definition).
- ROTATION – defense where there is a pre-defined rotation (movement) of players during the read position based on set direction. There are many variations, through the years, I have called some of the variations: strong rotation; counter rotation; etc.
- MISCELLANEOUS – defenses that use one or two elements of the above three systems/patterns. Three are depicted below. The first is where the left front player on defense slides behind the block – blue by Keller’s definition. The second is one that we used with the USA Women’s Team in 1995-96 called black where we used a three-player block and a player up. The third is called rover (similar to a “free safety” in football) where a player can play up or back depending on her/his “read” of the situation.
I firmly believe that once you understand and are able to teach the PROCESS of defense – the definitions; the philosophy/concepts for both player and coach and the four positions, you are then ready to design and implement a specific defense system/pattern for your team.
Above all else, remember the importance of learning to “READ” the situation on the other side of the net. Defense has to be played before your opponent contacts the ball.
Practicing all the situations that your opponent might put you in is the best way to improve your defense. Couple this concept with adequate individual defensive skills and the proper teaching of all of the points in this chapter you and your team will be well on your way to become a “great” defensive team.
Just remember, no matter how skilled your players are in individual defense techniques and/or how quick they are, if they do not put themselves in the right position before contacting the ball they will not be able to become above average and outstanding defenders. Your team defense is the summation of all of your players’ abilities – physical innate talent, proper volleyball skills, and perhaps, most important, the cognitive/mental understanding of the concepts and the “way to play the game.”