Jim Iams | Former USA Assistant Coach and Former Head Coach at University of Georgia
I am so tired of hearing the same comment made by TV analysts before the start of every volleyball match. It goes something like this: “The serving/passing (S/P) game is going to play a big role in determining the outcome of this match.”
Let’s set the record straight. Hitting efficiency is a far better predictor of outcome than any other statistic. Bad S/P can lose you a game in a heartbeat, but superior S/P will only give you a marginally better chance of victory. If winning the S/P battle were the key, the Japanese women’s national team would dominate the international game.
So what role does S/P play in volleyball match? Jim Colman, the father of USA Volleyball statistics, claimed that “S/P determines the gym a team should be competing in.” What he meant was that a team’s S/P must be comparable to its opponent’s to have a reasonable chance of success. I acknowledge that “comparable” is a vague term, but I would venture a guess that, at a minimum, the top 25 college women’s teams fit into that category. (There is a way to examine this statistically, but that is for another day.)
The chance of a team winning a rally with a successful kill generally involves 3 things:
- The first contact.
- The quality of the set (location, decision and deception).
- The effectiveness of the attacker.
I would contend that the most important of the 3 is the hitter; only an attacker can turn a bad pass followed by a marginal set into a positive outcome. The set is next in line followed by the first contact. Remember, even a perfect pass does not guarantee a kill.
I know what you’re thinking –“It may not promise a kill, but the perfect pass sure improves your chances.” In most cases, I agree that there is a positive correlation, but how much different is it from the pass that is 3 feet off the net? More important, you shouldn’t look at one event but, rather, each game in its entirety. If, in the course of a single game, one team gets 5 more good passes, is that going to be “the” determining factor? A superior setter can make up for 2 of those on his/her own, and good attackers can clean up what is left while barely breaking a sweat. What would you want – 5 more perfect passes or 5 more kills?
One final point: The importance of S/P varies with the relative strength of your hitters and the style of offense you run. If your team is outside-hitter dominated (which many teams are), the need for a perfect pass is reduced. Teams that run a faster offense may benefit from better passing, but I caution against going too fast unless you have a great setter and you need speed to win.
A quick story from my time as Terry Liskevych’s assistant coach for the USA women’s national team (1985-88). The most dominant team at the time was Cuba. We, along with the rest of world, had a difficult time stopping them because their outside hitters, led by Mireya Luis (she of the 40-plus-inch vertical jump), could go over or around any block. We had our greatest success when we served easy because that put them “in system” and tempted them to run a faster offense. When they tried to run faster, they made more mistakes. There’s a lesson to be learned there.
To summarize, let me first say this: Don’t stop working on your S/P. It’s still important, even if not for the reason you may have thought. More to the point, make sure your attack system maximizes the strength of your hitters, and don’t count on an offense that requires better passing than your team can produce under pressure.
Jim Iams was an assistant coach to Terry Liskevych from 1985-88 for the U.S. women’s Olympic team and an advisor for the ’92 and ’96 teams. He was a head coach collegiately from 1989-99 at the University of Georgia, where he compiled a 242-118 record and led the Bulldogs to seven NCAA tournament appearances.