December 23, 2008

Outside or Middle Attacker - What to Position to Play?

I’ve heard from a couple sources with the huge demand for the OH position the MB/MH position is becoming harder to fill in the elite College programs and beyond, is this true? I have a 6’1 daughter with nearly a 10’ reach…who is incredible at outside however LOVES the middle position, and is equally good at that position. The obvious fact is 6’1 isn’t very tall for MB, or with bigger hops does it matter? To me I think the key is that she’s playing a position she loves. However, she does have college VB dreams as well so she wants to be realistic.

Loyal CollegeVolleyballCoach Fan

It took college coaches about 3 years after the rally score change to realize that the OH position is now dominant to the exclusion of other spots. With side out scoring, a team could win with dominant middles and average outsides - this is not the case any more; in fact, you could not win without a top setter who could spread the offense, now you just need someone who can set a high ball to left front.

To take from the most recent NCAA Championship, look at Penn State. For years, they were known for their dominant middles, top flight setting and solid outsides. By chance I had visited with Coach Rose about a tough loss they had in the post season after the change to rally score (did not get as far in the tournament as they were used too) and his comment was that he had a very good side-out team, but not a rally score team. When I asked him to elaborate, his answer was his outsides were not strong enough terminators. This has obviously changed with the two big outside hitters of these last two seasons, led by Hodge.
Like parents going after the prize toy during the Christmas season, college coaches have gone nuts to find outsides than might be terminating hitters and because of this, there is huge demand for tall outsides; which has the ramification of middle attackers looking at jumping position to the outside slot to be recruited. When club coaches get constantly asked about outsides, who could play outside, could this player be switched to an outside, etc., it is an easy jump for the club coaches to start shifting players into the outside position in club volleyball. When parents have invested tens of thousands of dollars into club volleyball, the outside hitting position looks attractive when the club coaches are relaying the questions they receive from college programs.

To answer one part of your question, yes, it is harder to get the elite level middles of year's past for all volleyball programs. Some schools are taking tall, very uncoordinated middles in hopes of training them to a Division I level by their upper classmen years, while others are taking much smaller than desired middles to have someone who brings exprience and comfort to the position. Too many prospective student athletes (PSA's) say they are outsides and jump clubs/teams just to get into the outside position for recruiting reasons, when they should be playing middle.

I think there is a bit of a backlash happening in some situations - just because you happen to be tall, does not mean you are a complete OH. In 25 point rally games, serving has become much more specific and college teams immediately target the OH that is the weakest passer. The switch to rally score made serving a premium (yet, I feel as if the servers are missing more serves than before?) and college programs are much more adept at breaking tape to target weak passers. If a player is not a true or comfortable outside hitter, then they will get served immediately and often.

In the club level volleyball, poorer passers are not as easily discovered and can hide effectively; the courts are significantly smaller so the servers don't serve as tough, and the skill level of the opposing players may not allow them to place their serves consistently. This is not the case in college - the courts are big so there is plenty of room to serve deep bombs or the fifty variations of jump serves and the opponents can all hit the serving zone repeatedly.

Just attacking from the outside does not mean a player is an outside hitter. The outside hitter is the power and the glue for the team - they must have the power to terminate, yet they must have the passing, defensive and blocking ability to keep the team cohesive and in rhythm. There are many club tournaments in which I happen to look my Palm (not my hand, but the device) to see where a certain 18's PSA is going off to school and too many times I am genuinely surprised where the PSA committed, because I don't see the skill sets that will allow them to be successful within the conference they will compete.

Some coaches feel that an athlete can be taught or trained to be an outside hitter - I don't believe so. I believe their outside hitting skill sets can be improved, but there are certain intangibles to this position. For me, a PSA either can pass or they can't, they can play defense or they can't, they take the proper approach and hit all angles or they don't. I do not feel that I have the ability to re-teach six to eight years of volleyball muscle memory and mechanics - Again, I can improve, tighten, polish, fine tune, etc., but I can't turn a Taurus into a Rolls.

I have learned the hard way to give up height/potential for talent. I would rather have a 5'10" outside with all the intangibles, than a 6'2" player who has potential to become an outside. Too many times, potential is never reached. Some could argue that with the twelve substitutions, then there are many times an outside does not need to pass or play defense, just to hit. This is true, but 25 points is a very quick time frame from which to bounce a key player in and out, thus taking them out of the rhythm of the game and letting them physically cool down.
With your daughter - She should play the position she likes the best. My belief is that college coaches will come back around a bit and realize while having a dominant OH is great, if the middles are not a threat and can't block, unless you have a Hodges outside, success will be limited. Maybe we have robbed Peter to pay Paul - college coaches are now re-evaluating the MB position.
Another mistake we may have made is falling in love with height - you hear stories that State U has a 6'5" MB and two 6'4" OH's, etc., but height does not make talent. Look at Hawaii's M1, she is not tall but very athletic - Speed and jump are as important as height. No matter how tall a player may be, no matter what the position, if the setter is sprinting 20 feet off the net to set the ball, this height is negated. The bad pass allows the defense to set up, and the angle of the set will force an adjustment in the timing/angle of the hitter's approach and takes away the attacker's advantage of height.

If a tall player can pass and likes the outside position, then that is the spot for them - If they cannot pass, but have height, then middle is the spot for their college future.