Part of my job, a big part, is watching setters. During the season it is not an exaggeration to say that virtually every day I spend time trying to crack the code of a setter, To find the keys that I can give to my blockers to win the next game. In the recent past, however, I am finding that there is no code. In fact, almost all young setters that I come across could be described as open books. They simply lack the technical elements that I’ve always believed were the keys to being an actual setter. Things like moving efficiently to the ball, having a neutral body position, having a consistent contact point, being able to overhead pass are severely lacking. As an opposition coach, I find that wonderful. My work is reduced, my middles have an easy time and I can concentrate on something more fun. But as a coach, it has been so bad that I’ve got to wondering whether those things were taught anymore, or even necessary. With that in the front of my mind, I went to the World League Finals with the specific plan of watching the setters closely.
What I learnt was perhaps the least surprisingly thing in the world, but it was nice to learn it (again). The best setters have great technique. They move fast and efficiently. They have a neutral position. They have a (or perhaps more accurately, a series of) consistent hand positions. They can overhead pass. They can overhead pass efficiently and accurately. They can set. For me, the best three setters at World League Finals were clearly Grankin from Russia (although he got dragged in the final), Bruno from Brazil and De Cecco from Argentina. If I could explain the qualities that separated them from the others at this tournament it would look something like this:
Movement – Movement to the ball was fast, balanced, precise and neutral. The aim is to reach the ball as early as possible to get the offence fast and to give some chance of disguise (see Contact Point). Simple stuff really.
Contact Point – The contact point was not the same for every single set. But all three setters were great at disguising between two or three possibilities. Given the speed of the offences, that is more important than being exactly the same every time. In particular, the contact position for the pipe was in most cases exactly the same as for the first tempo. Some other first tempo / outside combinations were similarly linked.
Aggressive First Tempo – The ability to play the first tempo from a variety of positions up to 3m from the net is a prerequisite of being one of the best setters in the world. I doubt that there has ever been a setter who so often and so successfully sets a long quick behind as Bruno. It must be the most difficult set there is and he nails it nearly every time. In fact aggressiveness in general was a major characteristic. The three named setters were all aggressive in their movements and actions. There was nothing wishy washy with those three.
Changing Direction – By this I mean the ability to run in one direction and set in the other. This is especially noticeable when setting back. The best setters had a very, very good backsetting technique characterised by strong wrists and a very fast shoulder movement and therefore the ability to set back, fast, without requiring time to set themselves, or with their body movement still forwards. De Cecco’s backset is a thing of beauty, while Mikhaylov’s ability to accumulate points so fast and easily is very closely correlated to Grankin’s ability to get the ball to him fast from poor reception or in transition. Imagine the best spiker in the world hitting the majority of his attacks against a single block. You’d think other teams would have figured it out by now, but the move is so fast and precise it keeps beating middle blockers.
The other setters were all, of course, perfectly serviceable and sound. A middle blocker I once worked with once used an Italian word to describe an opposing setter that translates as ‘good’, but means ‘well behaved’. A ‘well behaved’ setter is a setter that is easy to read, who does nothing surprising. That is a pretty good description of most of the other setters on display. Not to mention the others I come across in my day job. While watching the games and thinking about this stuff, I was reminded of another Italian, the great setter Ferdinando De Giorgi who once presented a clinic on setting that I attended. For some reason the point that stuck with me the most, was that a setter must always be able to set the right set, not the set that he is comfortable with. And perhaps that is it in a nutshell.
So at the end, I was happy to discover that the art of setting has not been lost and even more happy that all the well behaved setters are still active in my league.