Incorporating If/Then Into Volleyball Skills

One of the most underutilized skills in volleyball is vision. The ability for a player to take in visual information and implement it into their game is not a point of emphasis for either coaches or players, but it should be. With serving being the possible exception, volleyball skills are a reaction to what a player sees. The ability to focus on visual keys is a learned skill and is essential at every age. The more advanced the player, the more sophisticated the keys might be.

“In cluttered scenes, the ability to perceive any individual item is severely impaired by the presence of those nearby, as summarized in a study published last year in Psychological Review. The effect is known as visual crowding. Our brains can perceive just one object at a time, whether furniture, faces, or fish.” -Nick Chater

For the volleyball player, if you focus on everything, your brain processes nothing. Coaches need to instill visual keys for each skill that becomes a habit for the player.

Ben Josephson, a highly successful coach of the men’s team at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, uses the concept of If/Then to emphasize the importance of gathering visual information as a component of skill execution. A simple explanation of the If/Then approach is implementing visual keys to impact decision making.  If a player sees action by the opponent, then they will respond in a specific manner. Somewhat of a volleyball twist on Newton’s Third Law, which states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

With the USA U-18 team this past summer at the FIVB World Championships, I put the If/Then concept into many of our skills. Even with limited training time, players were able to execute this at a reasonably high level. The video below will demonstrate the basics of how we ran a backrow attack with our middle back player this past summer at the U-18 World Championships.

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The key takeaway is we ran the pipe set to the setter. Doing so allowed each set to be the same. Regardless of the court location, the setter wanted the attacker to be in line with the left shoulder.

From that point, the hitter had three options as to where they wanted the point of attack to be. Visual keys determined which option they called. The If/Then concept came into play.

In the examples below, we will look at the options available and keys the center back attacker used to assist in hitting the desired set.

Four Gaps in the Blocking System

Generally, I want to attack gaps in the blocking system. In the picture above, I put down a typical blocking system. The “gaps” in the block are in red. I will focus on how the middle attacker and pipe hitter will work together to attack available gaps. An important aspect of this is the responsibility of the setter to recognize movements and set the appropriate attacker. All will use the concept of If/Then in their decision making

Pipe Options for Middle Back

In the picture above, I’ve detailed the attack options for middle back, based upon what the middle hitter does along with the position of the block. The focus is on attacking “gaps.” A pipe set is immediately off the setter’s left shoulder, a “J” set is pushed away from the setter and leads the attacker to right back. An “X” set is behind the setter and leads the attacker to left back.

Middle Block on 31

In the example above, the MH is running a 31, the block responds by moving out to block that set. This move will open a gap in the middle part of the court. The setter must recognize this blocking move (IF) and (THEN) set the pipe to the middle back.

In the schematic above, the LF block is pinching in because of the front row setter. So, the gaps may change. IF the LF pinches, the MH can run a slide attacking the gap at the antennae. Then the CB will hit a “J”. Conversely, IF the MH runs a 31, THEN the CB hits an “X”.

Without putting up more situational pictures, both the MH and the CB make offensive judgments based upon what they see. The takeaway is both the middle hitter and the CB attacker use visual cues to decide the type and direction of the attack. This takes time to develop, for sure.

In the video below, you will see Morgan Hentz operate in a similar IF/THEN manner. Morgan bases her movements in the backrow based upon what she sees from both the block and the attacker.

This is another case of If/Then. When Morgan saw the hitter facing the angle (IF) and the block not in a great position, she THEN moved into a defensive court position to defend the most likely shot.

The concept of IF/THEN will assist the players in incorporating vision into their skill set. In every skill, the coach can implement visual keys into decision making. Coaches have two duties. First, establish what the visual keys are for the player. Second, be willing to ask the player, “what did you see” as a component of the feedback loop. Player execution might be rough at first, but in the long run, the benefits will be significant. Feel free to contact me if you need some suggestions in this regard.

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