January 28, 2009

Switching Positions in Club Volleyball

One of our readers asked a good question about his daughter possibly switching positions and I think many parents/players may be faced with a similar situation:

My apologies if you have answered this already somewhere else, but changing positions is an issue that has recently come up for my daughter. A junior in high school who has been playing MB for her entire career (who is also agile enough to play back row most of the time) has been identified by her new club team as someone with “beautiful hands” and who could and should play at the setter and right side position to maximize her possible college options. She is 6’0” tall and can jump well.
While the change may be the best in the long run, the timing is not great in light of college recruiting timelines and how she may or may not get noticed learning this new position this coming club season.
So what kind of things should be considered?
  1. Is there some preferred time when a change like this should be made, i.e. in terms of what year of high school – I assume it would have been better for this to be noticed in her freshman year(?); and what time of the calendar year – is it better after club is over? or do you “just do it” and hope that some college coach will see the potential and assess her skills the same as the club coaches have.
  2. Is there a preferred way to transition to the new position – maybe alternate her position and play every second game as MB and the other as setter/RS? That way she can ease into it, and still get “noticed” in the MB position.
I have heard college players sometimes still switch positions – even at top level programs – so maybe this is not as thorny an issue as I am making out of it. Thanks! Eric

Eric has quite the dilemma - a 6' setter with nice hands will receive plenty of attention just because of height alone. A 6' middle does not stand out as much as a 6' setter to college coaches, and I would think this is part of the rationale of the new club team.

What would concern me is that the setting position is not an easy one to learn. Anyone can set, but becoming a setter takes time and experience, especially if trying to reach the Division I level. A few years ago, college volleyball coaches were in love with height in the setting position - the thought process was that they could take a tall person who sets and make them into a setter. I think there has been a bit of a backlash, because the result was a slew of tall setters who were not very mobile and made game time setting choices which were incorrect.

If we look at the setters today, they really are not as proportionately tall as the hitters are becoming. Was Stanford's setter in 2008 tall? How about the UCLA setter? Even the Silver Medal USA Olympic setter was not a tall player. Of course there are many examples of taller setters playing with quality teams, but I do feel the setting position is 'smaller' than most folks anticipate.

When we step back to examine the logic behind using slightly smaller than anticipated setters in some top flight programs, it is the result of wanting to make sure the big time hitters are getting quality sets and attacking against solo blockers. College coaches instantly know when a setter has made a bad choice and understand how this poor choice placed the team into a poor position to be successful. If you were to sit in on a college team's practice when they are training a freshman setter for the season, you would notice a lot of strategy evaluation and feedback. Coaches are asking the setters why they made a certain choice in a certain situation and then providing feedback about the results.

Successful college setting is making the correct choice and providing a quality set to the hitter. Many players that set can make a quality set, but is it to the correct hitter? A setter making the incorrect choice will drive a coach nuts. Hitters getting blocked we can understand, a libero shanking a serve we can accept, but coaches are not very lenient when it comes to a setter not making the right decision.

In terms of switching positions, the switch from middle blocker to setter is possibly the most demanding. The easiest switch is middle to right side attacker. Middle blockers have defined their worlds within a triangle that goes from just inside each antennae to just past the 10 foot line in the middle of the court. Everything thing middles do happen within this triangle - attack, block, cover, transition, slide, etc. As a setter, the whole court is important because of all the responsibilities of fulfilling the demands of the position.

The earlier a player switches position the better. For a middle to setter transition, I would expect this to happen no later than the 16's year of club and if possible, the 15's year would be better. This new setter needs as much time as possible to make the physical and mental switch - this includes the high school season, summer camps, invite teams, club teams, etc.

As for the actual transition, it has to be 'all in' for it to work, especially doing it in the 17's club season. The 17's club season is the deciding year for college volleyball coaches as they assemble their recruiting classes. Remember, 16's club is when we identify talent, 17's is when we commit talent, and 18's is when we babysit talent. If a player is going to switch, they need to be playing full time in the position and the club team/coach needs to be 100 percent supportive of this commitment.

It can't be a set one game and then play middle the next situation. Yes, you can play two positions and maybe look attractive in both, but college coaches are not going to have you do this at their schools. We want to see what you can play in college, and then see you develop this ability so when you arrive on campus, your skills are as far along as possible.

Eric, what I suggest is that you sit down with your daughter and try to determine exactly what her goals are about college volleyball. Does she want to play for a Top 25 team? Does she want to stay close to family and you are located in an area dominated by Division II teams? Does she enjoy the physical challenge of the middle blocker position? Does she want the mental pressure of running an offense and telling the hitters exactly what to do? Is she going to be comfortable playing right back defense? Does she want to play immediately or is she willing to sit for a few years while she fine tunes her abilities? What is most enjoyable for her to play?

After you have had a chance to work through these, and many other questions, then you can make a better decision about switching from the middle to setter position. If she wants to play right away, then stay in the middle. If she wants to play at a high DI level and does not mind honing her skills for a few years, then make the switch to setter and aggressively promote her to the appropriate elite Division I schools.

Good luck!