Jim Iams | Former USA Assistant Coach and Former Head Coach at University of Georgia
It was Sunday morning, and 3 volleyball coaches were meeting at the local coffee shop for their weekly discussion. Seven days earlier, they had agreed that the 5-1 was the system they wanted to use. However, they all faced the same dilemma. How to pick a starting setter? They were unable to solve their collective problem and decided to spend the following week finding the answer.
As the 3 sipped their lattes, each was pretty sure they had come up with the best solution and was eager to make their case. Sally was the first to speak up.
“As I observed practice, it became abundantly clear that Mary had to be on the court,” she said. “She is a natural leader and the hardest worker on the team. Her teammates love and respect her, and I’m sure they’d follow her to the ends of the earth. Mary’s leadership gives the team the best chance for success.”
Howard spoke next.
“Good points, Sally, but I came to a much different conclusion in picking Paula as my starter,” he said. “She is quick as a cat and seemingly gets to every second contact. The ball comes out of her hands with no spin, and her decision-making is flawless. She is a “Hoover” in the back row, digging everything in sight. To top things off, her volleyball IQ is off the chart. Having Paula out there is like having a coach on the floor.”
Pat, the cockiest of the 3, chimed in with his opinion.
“You both make compelling cases, but my solution trumps them both,” he said. “I chose Karen. She is the best athlete on the team and close to 6 feet tall. And she’s left-handed. Karen is a good setter who blocks everything and becomes a third attacker when in the front row. I rest my case.”
In spite of Pat’s bravado, Sally and Howard weren’t convinced. The coaches continued their discussion, going back and forth, unable to agree.
Before long, they were distracted by a customer who entered the coffee shop, got a mug of Kona Blend and made his way to an empty table. Spreading out a stack of papers, he pulled out a calculator and started punching numbers.
“Isn’t that Joe, the most successful coach in the district?” Sally asked. “Let’s ask him what he thinks.”
Howard and Pat nodded in agreement, and they headed over to the table. Joe was more than happy to help, if he could. He listened patiently as each coach explained their decision-making process.
Joe appeared mildly amused by the reasoning of his coaching colleagues. When he spoke, he said, “I don’t pay any attention to all that crap. In fact, I don’t even make the decision myself. The numbers tell me who should start.”
Joe knew he needed to explain himself, so he continued.
“For me, the most important job of the setter is to get the most out of the hitters, and that’s best measured by hitting efficiency. Last week, I ended each practice with two games. The lineups stayed the same – except for the setters, who switched sides. I kept team hitting stats on each setter for the entire week. The setter with the higher number was my starter.”
Anticipating their questions, Joe added a final thought.
“If leadership, quickness or front-row attacking makes a setter’s numbers improve, it will show up in the final tally. If blocking or defense is a factor, it will be reflected by lowering the other team’s hitting efficiency, thus lowering the numbers for the other team’s setter.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some numbers to crunch.”
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.