January 28, 2010

Volleyball Starting Rotations

Hi, I have an eighth grade daughter who's a middle hitter for a club team. It's apparent to all that she's the most consistent and strongest middle of 2, yet the coach starts her in the back row where she then switches out with libero. The weaker middle starts in front middle. Do you have an idea why the coach might be doing this? Thank you. K

In a 25 point rally score game, there are a finite number of times a team will rotate. This limited number of times a team will rotate, was part of the learning curve of moving to rally score for those coaches who began coaching in the side out scoring format (as my long time readers know, I miss the good old days of side out scoring when coaches actually got to coach during a match!).

I would think that a really smart staff somewhere, like at an Ivy League school, has come up with the statistical average number of rotations in a game (or set, or period, or semester, or the square root of pi, or whatever the unknowns have decreed we now call must call what used to be called a game). By my fuzzy off season memory, it seems like 12 to 15 rotations was about right for a typical game - Again, someone hopefully has mathematically figured out the average.

Because there are just a limited number of rotations, it is important for a coach to determine where to start certain effective hitters to ensure that they spend the larger percentage of their eligible rotations front row. Rally score has adjusted volleyball more towards an offensive orientation versus a defensive orientation. Back in the glorious past of Duran Duran and side out scoring, defensive/blocking match ups were given much more consideration than today.

Back to your question - Your daughter's coach is considering three options:

1) By starting your daughter back row, this will result in her being front row for a larger number of rotations during a typical match.

2) With rally score's finite rotation numbers and the overwhelming importance of the Outside Hitter (including the Opposite) and specifically the Outside 1 position, your coach may be starting this outside player left front or middle front, which would result in your daughter beginning back row (depending on which Middle position your daughter plays).

3) Many coaches simply start their setter right back, which normally translates into a Middle Blocker starting middle front and a Middle Blocker starting middle back. It also means the setter has three set options to start the first three rotations of the game.

If I had to choose among the three options, because of your daughter's age, I would say her beginning position in rotation is a result of the coach starting the setter right back. It is not a reflection or judgment upon upon your daughter's ability, it is just basic volleyball.

Allow me to explain some volleyball terminology and strategy with regards to how the 6 players are arranged on the the court.

1) Today, there are two offensive systems being employed in college and club volleyball; a traditional 5-1 (1 setter and 5 non-setters) or a front to back 6-2 (2 setters share the setting duties, but these setters only play back row, so they front row and back row with an Opposite Hitter).

2) In a 5-1 offense, there are two ways to arrange the players around the setter and the way these players are arranged around the setter dictates their positional name. Think visually about the setter being surrounded in rotation and either pushing the player ahead of her or pulling the player behind her in the rotation.

3) The traditional 5-1 rotation set up, in beginning the setter in the right back section (remember there are 6 sections of a volleyball rotation, much like a tic-tac-toe pattern). In the traditional rotation, an outside hitter would be right front and a middle blocker would be middle back. Thus, the setter is 'pushing' the middle and 'pulling the outside'. Because of the proximity of the middle and the outside to the setter, these two positions are called M1 and OH1. The player who is opposite the setter in rotation is called the Opposite (some international teams call this player Diagonal) or OP and would start in the left front position. The middle front position would be occupied by a Middle and since this player is not next to the setter, she would be designated as the M2. And, to finish the 6 spots, the remaining left back starting position would be filled by an outside hitter, designated as the OH2.

4) How a coach arranges their hitters around the setter also determines how many times an outside hitter and/or opposite attacks the ball on the right or left side of the court, along with how many times a middle blocker and/or outside hitter is front row with the setter, which dictates if the hitter is part of a two or three hitter (front row attackers) rotation. In a traditional 5-1 rotation; the OH1 attacks twice left and once right, along with being in the 2 hitter rotation twice and the 3 hitter rotation once; the OH2 attacks three times left side, along with being in the 2 hitter rotation once and the 3 hitter rotation twice; the OP player attacks one time left and two times right, along with being in the 3 hitter rotation three times; the M1 is in the 2 hitter rotation two times and 3 hitter rotation one time; the M2 is in the 2 hitter rotation once and the 3 hitter rotation two times. Coaches can make changes to this typical attack pattern by significantly shifting their serve receive formation, but the above example is the traditional way.

5) A non-traditional way of arranging the 5-1 rotation is to switch the order of the line-up by having the setter pull the M1 and push the OH1. So, a quick overview of the starting rotation is Setter right back, OH1 middle back, M2 left back, OP left front, OH2 middle front, M1 right front. Using this rotation system changes the number of times each outside position hits either right or left, but the number of times front row with the setter remain the same. The OH1 now hits 3 times left, the OH2 hits 1 time left and 2 times right, and the OP hits 2 times left and 1 time right. This type of pattern is typically used when you have a strong, tall OP player who can attack left side well, but may not be the best ball control player. Also, this arrangement allows for a strong passing/defensive OH2 player to be on the court, without having to attack a great number of balls on the left side; a coach can 'hide' this player in the attack options since more sets go to the left side zone, while taking advantage of her ball control.

6) In a front to back 6-2, either positioning rotation pattern can be used, with the OP coming out when it is her time to rotate to the back row and she is replaced by a setter. In a front to back 6-2, there are always three attackers and the setter is always back row. I am seeing more and more club teams use this option, and I believe it is a matter of allowing 2 extra players the opportunity to play during matches.

But K's question brings up a good point which players and parents must remember - That where your daughter may start on the court, should not be a reflection of her abilities or importance to the team. With the limited number of rotations, coaches are arranging positions based on statistical averages with regards to being offensive.

Hope this rather long answer to your short question helped!


  1. Another thought came to my mind (it's little, so be kind to me). Your daughter might start middle back because the coach wants a strong player to be on the front when the starting players rotate to the back.

    Let's say a coach starts their best hitter at position 2 (maybe they want to set the tempo of the match and get their best hitter a swing on the first point of the match?). For rotations 2, 3 & 4, the best hitter is on back row and will see limited swings. To combat that, the coach puts best middle hitter to rotate to the front for rotations 3,4 & 5. That means only rotation 2 will put the best middle & best hitter on the back row at the same time. Every other rotation will be such that the setter has a solid player to go to.

    This is all speculation, but I'd do what we all tell our kids and players: TALK

  2. Additionally, usually you will go through roughly 2 1/2 whole laps of the court. Usually this means your back row players are front row for points 20-26ish, so I try to end with my most consistent players in front.

    My comment to the parent though, is what are you teaching your daughter? Are you teaching her to focus on playing time for herself, or on doing what is best for the team?

  3. I have a question. My daughter is the best middle front blocker but she isn't the starter. Is this due to the 3,4,5 rotation that is mentioned above? So she is getting more play time due to the rotation as compared to if she had started?

  4. If the coach is starting in Rotation 1 (setter is serving or starting right back), then this is the reason your MB is not starting (if the team is using the Libero for the MB's). Playing time is a matter of how many rotations the typical game for the team is; you could easily count how many times during a game the team rotates and compare that with how many rotations your MB is front row. But, the MB1 position (the position your daughter is in) is usually occupied by the better/stronger MB who can normally runs the slide attack the best, because the MB1 is in the 2 hitter rotation 2 times.


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