In a follow-up email after the Jaylen Reyes Coaches Workshop, a participant asks:
Based on your experience on coaching at different levels of women’s volleyball, how big of a difference in player ability are there between International vs D1 vs D2?
I ask this because I had some good takeaways from this weekend but I am curious of what I need to take and put into the context of D2 volleyball?
This is a great question and one I’ve been asked a lot, so I thought it was worth making into a blog post and podcast.
Principles Don’t Change, But Applications Do
Laws of physics still apply at any level of the game. The court is still the same size. The players get bigger between D2, D1, and International, but not THAT much bigger. As players get better, they tend to automatize certain things, so they may focus more on other details, but those basic fundamentals are still critical to their success.
In many case, coaching less skilled players forces you to be tighter with your principles, because the nonsense doesn’t work and they will immediately fail. On the flip side, more elite players can appear to, “make it work…” at least until you play a team with similar skill level and get smashed.
Physical Differences Change Tactics
We can see this in blocking. At the high school level, you might not even want your smaller setter (for example) to bother blocking, because she’s not big enough to ever block a ball. She can help the team more by just pulling off and digging tips. At the NCAA level, this may transfer into something like, “do I keep my smaller setter in a bunch to help on the quick, or should she just leave and worry about the outside, because she isn’t physical enough to help and recover and still put up a good block on the outside?”
Keep in mind that the physical capability of your opponents also dictate your tactics. I coached fairly high level club volleyball, and almost never blocked against back row attacking. Even players who would go on to become NCAA All-Americans weren’t very effective attacking out of the back row against us. Coaching at the mid-major D1 level at LMU, we almost never blocked back row attacks, and back row attacks had less than 0.100 efficiency against us. But in the NCAA Final 4, we see players every year that can score well out of the back row. It would be suicide to not block Yossiana Pressley or Kat Plummer.
Physical differences can also dictate offensive tactics. International teams run 4th-step quicks almost exclusively. Many NCAA teams, even Division 1, would be more effective with slower 3rd-step, or even 2nd-step attacks out of the middle, because their hitters aren’t high enough and their setters aren’t good enough to consistently connect on 4th-step quicks, and their opposing blockers aren’t good enough to shut down slower quick attacks.
High Skill Opens Up More Options
This can be both good and bad, because coaches of highly-skilled athletes can start fixating on all the options they can run and neglect fundamentals. But it’s clear that, as the level of play raises, you have more cards in your hand as a coach. At the high school level most teams are best served to just set high sets across the board, because all that matters is taking a good approach and taking a good swing in the court.
At lower levels of volleyball, you’re not really playing against the other team. Both teams are playing against the net. The U-14 team who serves in and hits in more than their opponent will almost always win.
The higher the level, the more you’re playing against the other team, because there is a base level of fundamental skill mastery. The net is less of an issue.
In the 2019 NCAA Division 1 National Championship, Stanford and Wisconsin combined for just 12 unforced hitting errors on over 200 attempts.
In 2018, when BYU played Texas in the Regional Final, they had 9 unforced hitting errors, compared to 15 Texas stuff blocks. That’s making the other team have to beat you. This applies at the highest levels of D2 volleyball as well. In the 2019 D2 National Championship, CSUSB had 11 unforced errors and 11 times blocked and Nebraska-Kearney had 9 unforced errors and 12 times blocked. So in high-level D2 ball, you have to beat the other team; you can’t let them beat themselves.
In contrast, at the high school level, it’s common to see teams with 5 times as many unforced errors as times blocked. It’s common to see high school matches where the winning team scored more unearned points from opponent errors (service, attacking, ballhandling) than earned points from aces, kills, and blocks. At the U-13 level, it’s rare when this ISN’T the case. That’s beating yourself.
So as the level gets higher, tactics become relatively more important. This isn’t to say that fundamentals aren’t important. They always are. But maybe U-13 is 100% fundamentals and 0% tactics. Maybe high school is 90% fundamentals and 10% tactics. Maybe high-level D2 is 70% fundamentals and 30% tactics. Maybe high-level D1 is 60% fundamentals and 40% tactics and maybe International is approaching 50/50. I think fundamental execution is always #1, but tactics can be a tipping point as you go to a higher level.
These are my initial thoughts. I’ll have some more in Part 2 soon.