In all my years of coaching, I always felt that defense determines which team will win. You’ve probably 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 instead of only when you're serving), blocking and floor defense are even more critical to the outcome of a match. A key ingredient for your team’s success is the ability to execute great team defense – blocking and digging – versus just focusing on offense only.
Once in a while, a coach has the luxury of watching their team combine all the elements of great defense. I vividly remember the 1991 USA women’s team winning against the USSR (now Russia) with timely blocking, precise defensive positioning and a “never quit” attitude. And I can easily picture similar matches with my Ohio State men’s team and my University of Pacific women’s team in the 1970s and 80s.
The calling card of all outstanding teams is an outstanding defense. In this guide, I’ll break down everything you need to know about volleyball defense, including positions, strategies, systems and best practices for coaches and players.
What is Volleyball Defense?
Volleyball defense is defined as what a group of players does to prevent opponents from scoring or sliding out. Volleyball defense consists of both blocking and backcourt digging or contacting the ball.
Volleyball defense is a reaction to offense. A team plays volleyball defense from the moment their opponents contact or control the ball to the moment the ball crosses the plane of the net and returns to their side. A team would also play defense after a serve, attack or “down ball” or “free ball”.
The most important aspect of defense is “reading” the development of and the point of attack correctly.
Volleyball Defense Strategies for Players
Here are our top volleyball defense concepts that players need to know.
1. Proper Positioning
Backcourt defensive volleyball players should be on the balls of their feet, in medium or low body position with body forward and butt down. This ensures the arms will be between the ball and the floor. Defenders need to contact the ball, come up to meet the ball, and not go down with the ball.
Defensive players must position themselves between the flight of the ball and the half-court so they can either block or dig the ball, then convert the defense contact(s) to an offensive play by their team.
Correct defensive positioning will increase the probability of a successful block or dig against the opponent’s attack. Proper positioning occurs PRIOR to the attacker’s contact with the ball. No matter how skilled or quick your players are individually, they cannot become skilled defenders if they do not put themselves in the right position before contacting the ball.
2. Effective Movements
When a ball is in play, defenders must always follow it with their eyes. Defenders should be in a position where they can make a play when it comes to their area.
That said, defenders are responsible for a defensive area, not just one precise spot on the court. Players often ask “am I in the right spot”? My answer is always “if you can block, dig or get to the ball, you are in the right spot.”
Here’s a sample diagram of some backcourt 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”: Players should not congregate 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, and the deep players (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:
Important: 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.
3. Determined Mentality
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. Be aggressive, but under control.
Volleyball Defense Strategies for Coaches
Here are our top volleyball defense concepts that coaches need to know.
1. Goal Setting
First, a review of the fundamentals: a defense is designed to prevent the ball from being hit off your block out of bounds and from hitting the floor on your side of the net.
Your team’s defensive zone covers 900 square feet — it’s impossible to cover every inch of it. Therefore, there are two important questions that you should ask yourself:
- What are you trying to defend?
- What are you giving up?
As you answer these two questions, you can determine your goals: what zone of the net or area of the court you are willing to give up versus which zone or area you will protect and defend.
2. Competitor Analysis
You must consider not only the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, but also what your team is capable of doing. Again, ask yourself:
- How good is your team’s backcourt defense?
- How good is their 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
3. Team Response
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).
You must teach your team about where 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.
4. Building a Foundation & System
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 emphasize 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? Design your defensive scheme to allow blockers to 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 concepts? Are you teaching 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. You need to coordinate back-court positioning and movement sequences 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, and the player who is responsible for the tip. Cover the court area where the attacker most often hits the ball (main tendency).
Aldis Berzins, a former collegiate All-American and defensive star on the USA Men's team from 1983-86 often said that “the most important aspect of defense at the international level is attitude.”
Attitude and mentality 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, such as hard work, discipline, single focus (concentration), perseverance and desire.
6. Final Preparation
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 things to consider are 1) where did the attack come from and 2) what was the result (kill, error or 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 begin to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses in attacking and defending.
Volleyball Defense Positions
Positioning on the court involves a series of adjustments that are both mental and physical. No matter what defense you are playing, your team should know the four positions of defense.
Once you and your team master these four defense sequences, you’ll have a better understanding of how to read the opponent’s attack and deploy defensive formations and patterns.
1. Starting Position
Defense begins from the moment the ball crosses the net to your opponent’s side. In that instant, it is important that every player gets to their basic starting position.
GOAL = Ideally, the defenders are to be in this pre-defined (assigned) position PRIOR to the opponent’s first contact.
2. Read Position
This position determines the defender’s area of responsibility. Make sure that the defender is in a 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 should focus 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. Here are some things that the defender should be watching for or "reading":
- 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: 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 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.
- Court boundaries and antennae: 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.
3. Adjust Position
This position locates the exact spot that the defender needs to be to intercept the ball. After the attacker contacts the ball, 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), so players have very little time to react, let alone take a step or two. Thus, they must be in the right area (the correct read position) to be able to adjust a short distance in determining their exact spot.
4. 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.
Volleyball Defense Systems for Teams
Over the last sixty years, several different defense systems and patterns have changed the game of indoor volleyball. These volleyball defense systems can be categorized into four distinct types: perimeter defense, middle up defense, rotational defense and combined defensive systems.
1. Perimeter Defense
A defensive system where at least three defenders are on the court lines (sidelines and end line).
Other names for middle up defense include middle back, middle back-back, 6 back ("6" is the international designation of the middle back player) and white (Keller definition).
2. Middle Up Defense
A defensive system where one defender – usually the middle back or the setter – play defense behind the block on the 10-foot line (3-meter line).
Other names for middle up defense include middle up, middle back-up, 6 up, setter up (very often the "up" person is the back row setter) and red (Keller definition).
3. Rotation Defense
A defensive system where there is a predefined rotation (movement) of players during the read position based on set direction.
Other names for rotational defense include strong rotation, counter rotation, etc.
4. Combining Defensive Systems
Some defensive systems use one or two elements of the above three systems.
- In the Blue defensive system, the left front player on defense slides behind the block.
- In the Black defensive system (used with the USA Women’s Team in 1995-96), use a three-player block and a player up.
- In the Rover defensive system (similar to a “free safety” in football), a player can play up or back depending on their “read” of the situation.
Take your volleyball defense strategies to the next level
Once you understand and are able to teach the process of defense (the definitions, the concepts and strategies, and the four positions), you are ready to design and implement a specific defense system for your team. Additionally, practicing all hypothetical situations from your opponents is a great way to improve your defense.
Remember: your team defense is the summation of all your players’ physical abilities, skills and know-how, and mentality.
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