Jim Stone | USA Volleyball National Youth Team
The game is a race to 25 points. How can my team get there before the opponent? In pursuit of winning the set, coaches arrive armed with stats, matchups and razor-sharp coaching instincts. But I see a giant disconnect when I observe so many collegiate and club matches. Coaches routinely and without hesitation take their most proficient point-scorers off the court for 3 rotations in the back row – approximately 50 percent of the match.
Wait, I thought the object was to score points.
I was watching a college match last fall with teams that I don’t often see play, so I was unfamiliar with their talent level. Early in the match, a tall, gifted athlete served and, during the subsequent rally, was set a ball in right back that she crushed for a point. It was the most dynamic, exciting play of the entire match. Unfortunately, when she lost her serve, she was promptly replaced by a defensive specialist. I found myself yelling at the TV, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Yes, it’s possible that this particular player was weak on defense. OK, let’s work on that. But in the meantime, why not make that talented attacker a back-row threat to score points? After all, isn’t that the object of the game?
During my tenure as coach of the USA Youth National Team, one of the things I’ve observed is that urgency accelerates the learning process. The urgency comes when Paola Egonu from Italy is serving a ball at 55 to 60 mph and players have to find a way to receive it. Or Tijana Boskovic from Serbia is crushing balls out of the back row at unbelievable angles and we have to find a way to defend. The same is true for becoming competent in the back row. Players generally rise to the challenge.
I have observed countless YNT players who were routinely taken out in the back row at the club level but were significant point-scorers out of the back row for the YNT. The challenge for me as a coach was to improve their back-row skills. The challenge for me was not to find a back-row specialist to take her place.
Logic dictates that having 4 or 5 attackers lining up against 3 blockers improves the chances of scoring, and scoring is my sole concern. With point-scoring as a focus, I’m keeping my point scorers on the floor all the time. If my best attacker can score a point or two during each trip through the back row, that will be 1-3 points per set in addition to what she would normally get as a front-row attacker. There is also the fact that the block must pay attention to her, perhaps allowing other support players to be more effective.
Will there be times when my best point-scorer makes a mess of things in the back row? Absolutely! But I’ve seen back-row subs make a mess of things on occasion. If I’m going to sub out a front-row player in the back row, it will be a marginal point-scorer, not my best point-scorer.
I’m encouraging coaches to keep their top point-scorers on the court and pursue the concept of more attackers than blockers. Spend significant time on the back-row attack with all players. If your best point-scorer struggles with defense or passing, spend the time to help her improve. Taking a point-scorer off the floor should be a last resort.
Jim Stone coached the Ohio State women's volleyball team for 26 years and is currently the head coach of USA Volleyball's Youth National Team. He is a contributing editor at Art of Coaching.