September 10, 2008

Re-Value your Middle Attacker

One of the unforeseen results of the switch to rally score has been the de-valuation of the middle blocker/attacker position. Back in the distant past of side out scoring, the middle blocker played a central role in the success of a college volleyball team. Offensive and defensive systems were based upon how talented your middles were; if you had very good middles, they were the first option on any side out or scoring situation. Conversely, if they were of limited abilities, then offense and transition focused more on the outsides and used the middle attackers to keep the opposing defense 'honest'.

While this post may not be read by many, if any, college volleyball coaches, I feel that the following discourse may provide useful to those high school and club programs that are able to use the middle attack position consistently.

With college coaches coming to the realization that rally score has changed the dynamics of how each position affects success, we are seeing more and more emphasis placed on the outside hitter with recruiting and team training. I remember visiting with a well known coach a number of seasons ago, who made the comment after getting bounced out in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament, that he had very good side out scoring team, but not a good rally score team - translation was that his team was weak on the outside and strong in the middle. This same program rapidly changed its recruiting emphasis and now enjoys possibly the dominant outside attacker in the country.

Yet with all this focus on the outside position, we have to be able to keep the middles as a viable option on serve receive and transition. In my casual observation of the USA Women's Volleyball team at the Olympics, they utilized the middles more than I had remembered in past tournaments. With the middles being the first attack option, it allowed more opportunities for the outside hitting positions to exploit seams and single blocks on their attacks.

While we all know that the ability to maximize the middle attack depends on quality passing and talented setters, yet by using the various attack routes and tempos, teams can still value this position. I believe the middle position allows for many more attack options than the outside position.

There are 4 standard attack routes for middle attackers - the front quick, the back quick, the shoot quick and the slide. In my offensive system, we designate these as an A, a B, a C and a Slide. Each of these attacks can be run fast or slow, so we can easily determine 10 attack options for the middles. Within each of the 4 standard routes, there are variations of each route - a few that I have seen are the A step out (standard A approach but hop step to the left just before jumping), the B step out (two footed B approach, then step out to the right with your left foot to attack the set), the C step in (standard C approach but when you plant your feet to jump, pivot and step in with your left foot to hit the ball), along with the inside or outside slide (set is either quick to the antennae or a few ball lengths inside the antennae). Granted these are high level attack options, but not difficult to practice and possibly use in competition.

Poor passing will not allow any team to do much other than hit high outside sets and way too many down ball/free balls. Yet even with average passes that are nearer to the 3 meter line than the net, a setter can still set the middles who are running a C or a Slide. Remember the geometry of such an attack - since the middle is physically away from the setter there is 'room' for the attack to occur. An A set from off the net is difficult because of the spacing (setter, middle and net) and a B is almost impossible because of the angle in which the ball must travel from setter to attacker. Yet, the C and the Slide can be relatively easy to run by simply lobbing the set or adding a bit more height, than when the pass is near the net.

If your team does not enjoy a top flight setter, you can still run the traditionally quicker A and B sets by making them higher and have the middle approach a bit later than normal. I have seen a number of college teams run this 'second tempo' quick attack or a slow A/B with great success. These slower quick sets really throw off the timing of the opposing middle blocker and disrupt the normal defensive positioning of the opponents (the back row has a tendency to creep or move out of position in anticipation of an attack, rather than the actual hit).

By and large, the poorer your passing or the less talented your setter, the slower your middle attack tempo should be (and that is at just about every level) - but, you still can have a valid middle attack option. Don't try and force players beyond what their gifts are - yes, do train them to become better and push the envelope of their skills, but don't force a system upon a team that can't handle it. I am sure that each of us would like our attack speed to look like the Japanese National team, but Cuba and Brazil run a much slower middle attack and are among the top 3 in the world.