Setting Tactics

When we talk about setters and setting we often talk about setters’ creativity and their ‘hands’.  I have written before that I don’t even know what ‘creative’ means in the context of setting.  And I have seen plenty of middle blockers with better ‘hands’ than top level setters.  So what do great setters actually do?

According to Julio Velasco setters must “Play volleyball, not with the volleyball”.  To me, that means to use tactics to achieve the desired outcome (a spike point).  Simple tactics that setters can use include:

  • Set to the best spiker
  • Set against the worst blocker
  • Use time differential attacks.  This is, two or more spikers attack the same part of the net at slightly different times, the setter then sets one of those spikers, often incorporating individual technical tricks.
  • Use isolation. That is the first tempo runs in one part of the net so the opposing middle moves, the setters then sets in the opposite direction.
  • Individual technical tricks (including hand and body fakes)
  • Dozens of variations on the above
  • Any kind of combination of the above

Many setters sort of fake their way through do some of these things unconsciously, or sometimes consciously or falling back to number 1.  Sometimes you can see setters who have complete mastery of a match by their use of tactics.  One match that sticks out for me and that I have often shared with other coaches as an example of the highest level of tactical setter play was the final of CEV Champions League in 2011-12.  The match was played between Zenit Kazan and SKRA Belchatow.  The setter in question was Valerio Vermiglio playing in blue.  One of the coaches with whom I shared this video made an edit in which he added explanations along the way.  Thanks, Hugh.  I think it is worth sharing.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Champions League / Drinking Game – Official Rules


They say that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.  By following the same logic, when gives me a commentator who has never seen a volleyball match, and doesn’t even know the names of the players the only intelligent thing to do is to invent a drinking game.  Sadly I was unable to participate myself but for posterity here are the rules.

1 Drink

The commentator mispronounces a player or team name or .  For example, Juantanorana, Kureć, Ignastaczek, Yesky, Yeshov, Ashichev etc.  The list is shockingly long but somehow does not include Grebennikov or Podrascinin.

Optional – The first person to sing ‘Juantanorana’ to the tune of ‘Guantanamera‘ does not have to drink, and everyone else must drink twice.

Note – Participants must agree on acceptable pronunciations of difficult names. For example, ‘Dryzga’ could be an acceptable pronunciation of ‘Drzyzga’.

The commentator uses non volleyball terminology to describe a volleyball action.  For example, ‘takedown’, ‘reverse set’, ‘breaker’, ‘turnover on 2 etc.  I will never understand the logic that led to someone describe service reception as ‘takedown’.

The commentator does not recognise / notice a referee’s signal.  For example, talks about a spike being touched while the referee is clearly signalling in.

2 Drinks

The commentator does not recognise a referee’s signal AND therefore doesn’t understand what the video challenge has been called for and spends two minutes discussing what is not happening.  For example, the referee calls in but he is talking about the challenge for a block touch.

3 Drinks

The commentator completely fabricates a story about which he has no, or almost no, knowledge.  For example, “I do not know, who is Djuric, but Tsourits is wearing his shirt.” or “Born in Bosnia with Greek parents. So he can choose his surname.” I have heard that the most difficult thing for a human being to do is to admit to not knowing something.  Given that noone actually asked anything, silence would have been a viable alternative in this instance.

If there is anything I have missed, I will glad to add it.  And I look forward to hearing back all the outrageous stories of playing Champions League / Drinking Game

Playing To Win

Coaching volleyball, or indeed any sport, for a living is tough.  It is not only the work that is difficult but it can become all consuming to the extent that it affects your personal and family life, and even your personality.  It can change your perspective (a loss is a disaster and a win is merely the postponement of the next disaster).  It can change your sense of humour* (if you have sensitive players who take everything personally).  It can change your sense of reality (an officiating error against you is proof of cheating, while one your favour is proof of your quality).  And it can absolutely affect your sense of irony.  As you can imagine, with no perspective, humour or sense of reality, there can be no irony.

Which brings us to the above video.  Although I certainly have my lapses, I think that I have done a reasonable job of avoiding the pitfalls described above.  The point in the video is from the bronze medal match from the 2015 CEV Champions League.  It shows my team (Berlin Recycling Volleys) create a great opportunity to win the match, and then make a ‘simple’, ‘unforced’ error.  My reaction is a rueful smile and a silent expletive.  The reason for the smile is at that exact moment of time I remembered a moment at training about a week before in which I implored my team (again) to always force the high ball set close to the net and further emphasised my point by saying ‘I would rather make one direct error and nine perfect sets than ten ‘okay’ sets’.  I never thought those words would come back to bite us at quite that moment**.   Luckily my sense of irony has not yet been destroyed by my lack of perspective.

During the recent World League Finals tournament it became something of a bugbear of the commentator when teams made similar errors in setting high balls.  His mantra was that in those situations the player should always set the ball on the 10 feet from the net to be safe.  Fair enough, although it could have been the players were trying to set 10 feet from the net but didn’t know where that was.  But I digress.  My problem was that he did comment that the dozens and dozens of great sets were still not the safe option, just ‘luckily’ not errors.  On those occasions he always praised the attacker who made the point and simply didn’t mention the set or setter who made it possible.

There are two important points here.

Firstly, you must be absolutely consistent in your demands of the players.  If you demand aggression, you cannot fault errors that result from what you demand.  Conversely if you demand conservatism, you should fault aggression, even if it results in a successful action.

Secondly, the key concept that led to the errors that so annoyed the commentator was that the current generation of players / teams / coaches is playing to win.  Previous generations’ first instinct was conservative, to play not to lose.  Playing to win means searching for solutions that lead directly to points which in turn means that errors can occur.  Playing not to lose means searching for solutions that give your opponent the chance to make errors.  This leads to what I saw in the 2012 Olympics which was teams who often seemed to be playing ‘with’ each other in a kind of choreographed dance.  It can certainly be annoying at times to see a service error at set point or spike aimed at the top joint of the middle blockers finger land untouched in a spectators lap but those errors arise from exactly the kind of thinking that also leads to the countless successful actions that make modern volleyball such an astonishingly spectacular sport.  You can’t have one without the other.

*Doing anything in the absence of humour is, not surprisingly, an incredible painful experience.

**To keep perspective, we might have made five such errors over the course of the season and I am almost certain the player in question made only that one, including nine months worth of training and dozens of more difficult ones.

Champions League Review… Of Sorts


I am on the record as saying that the European Champions League Final Four is the best event on the volleyball calendar.  I am also on record as saying that my career goal is to participant in the Champions League Final Four.  Having achieved my goal, I can confirm to you that my belief is correct.  And having achieved my goal, and confirmed my belief, there is no conceivable way that I can write about the event with any kind of objectivity.  Plus I hardly saw any of it.  However, I do have two observations that might be worth sharing.

The best organised and structured team I have ever seen was the Trentino Volley team from about 2010 to 2012 with Raphael, Kaziyski and Juantorena.  They were so perfectly structured that you could predict what they would do at any time and their block / defence structure seemed suffocate their opponents.  I once made that comment to a colleague who worked in Italy and saw them play a lot.  He replied, “You’re observations are correct, but if you watch them a lot you will be surprised to find that as good as they are, they actually win a lot of their matches because Juantorena gets a service series at a key moment.”  In other words, as good as they were as a team, their team play was not enough. And Juantorena was so good that even in a champion team he stood out and was decisive.  Which brings me to Wilfredo Leon.  The Zenit Kazan team has arguably the world’s best setter, the world’s best opposite and one of the world’s best outside hitters, plus the starting outside hitters from the last European Champion team sitting on the bench**.  But Leon is another level completely.  At the biggest event in Europe, among probably ten of the best twenty players in the world he was the dominant player and difference maker.  Choosing him as MVP was probably the most obvious award in volleyball history.

The second observation is about volleyball itself.  In a setting like the one in the photo, volleyball is the most spectacular sport in the world.  And frankly, it is not even close.

** Respectively… Marouf, Mikhaylov, Anderson, Sivozhelez, Spiridonov. I said arguably.

Praise For Tetyukhin

photo from
photo from

On the 24th March episode of the volleyball podcast The Net Live sometime host Reid Priddy contributed a review of the Champions League Final Four (which I wrote about here and here).  He focused review on tournament MVP Sergey Tetyukhin. It occurred to me that if volleyball were a proper media sport, and a comparable event had occurred (ie an aging star dominating a tournament), Tetyukhin would have been widely feted with Priddy’s comments being just a few of many.  Given that volleyball is not a proper media sport, and a podcast is somehow a transient media form, I decided to report those comments for posterity.

At the age of 39, his record is unparalleled.  He has won ten domestic championships (for comparison co-Player of the 20th Century, Lorenzo Bernardi won nine), four Champions League titles (Bernardi won three), four Olympic medals (from five participations) and among many other individual awards, was chosen in 2012 as the Russian Sportsman of the Year.  That is, in an Olympic year, he was chosen as the best from all sports.

But in a sense, those things are incidental.  Priddy went on to describe him in quite some wonderment as “…one of those players who, win or lose, it doesn’t change his life.  That’s what fascinates me about him.  As an athlete he doesn’t have his identity or pride or ego wrapped up in the results.”  He went on that in addition to being ‘fun to watch’, “… he’s a team player.  That’s what I loved most about playing with him.  He’s going to go hard and he’s going to try his best and he’s ubercompetitive, crazy athletic but a loss doesn’t change his life.  He doesn’t sulk.  He doesn’t feel less about himself.  I think that’s what separates him.”

Priddy is not alone, his gold medal winning teammate Lloy Ball has also publicly referred to Tetyukhin as one of two greatest players he ever played with and a real clutch performer.  Lloy puts it in his own words at the beginning of this clip.

On the occasion of his Russian Sportsman of the Year award, Russian television produced a documentary.  I am sure it is a must for all Russian speakers 🙂


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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The Anatomy Of A Brain Fart

Or How To Cheat The Video Challenge System

A few days ago I wrote about the CEV Champions League Final Four and commented on a specific decision made using the Video Challenge System.  To summarise, Tetyukhin spiked a ball down the line that was called out.  He immediately challenged the call which was sustained. There were two strange things that happened in relation to the situation.  Firstly, after all other challenges they showed a photo of the ball landing as evidence of the call.  In this single case they did not.  Secondly, the TV replays showed that the ball was very far inside both the sideline and the baseline.

cl point 1vlcsnap-2014-03-26-14h42m27s142 I described the decision as a brain fart. But there must be some reasonable explanation.

I was having a conversation with someone about how it could be possible when I suddenly remembered the Cyclops system that was used for many years in tennis.  This system used infrared beams to cover the area just outside the service line. When the beams were broken, the serve must have landed out. The system had a weakness though. If the ball was 50cm out, the beams were not broken and occasionally, if noone noticed, a serve that was clearly out was called in.

I have a suspicion that might be what happened in Ankara last weekend. The camera is so close to the line that the operator did not have the ball in his picture.  As the linesman had called out, they assumed the ball was not in picture because it was so far out.  And they didn’t show the photo on the broadcast because the ball wasn’t in the frame, ie there was nothing to see.

So the lesson is, if you are a line judge and want to cheat the video challenge system, don’t try it on close calls, but on ridiculous ones.  If the referee doesn’t directly overrule, you are home free.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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2014 Champions League Final Four – Part Two

It turned out that I had more observations from Champions League Final Four than I think were reasonably digestible in a single sitting, so I decided to break it up into two posts.  Part one is here.

The story of the match is told in P1 In top level men’s volleyball the most vulnerable rotation is normally with the setter in position 1.  That is because it is the one rotation where the opposite must hit in position 4 and one of the receivers must hit in position 2, the relative weaker position for each of those players.  It happens very often that it is exactly in P1 (the Italian designation, P = paleggiatore/setter) that the biggest and most decisive series occur.  I submit the fourth set of the final as Exhibit A.  Belgorod had the perfect match up with its smartest server serving against Halbank’s P1.  When Tetyukhin came up to serve at 18-22 in the fourth, the set was over and preparations for the fifth had begun.  His own coach had even subbed out the setter and opposite.  When he finished serving, it was 23-22 and everything was live again.  One rotation later Halbank subbed on a float server to serve to Belgorod’s P1, therefore reducing the likelihood of a direct error and forcing Belgorod to play their way out of it.  They did and that was more or less that.

Team of the Tournament

Just for the fun of it, here is my best 7 for the final weekend. I have tried to make it based just on those performances, but I have my little biases that I can’t easily let go.

Setter I don’t think it was a great weekend for the setters.  All of them had problems with their accuracy at times, especially to position 4.  On paper, Raphael from Halbank should be the best setter of this group, but I think Travica played a little better in the final and was able to give his best weapons enough opportunity to win the match.

Opposite All of the opposites had good matches over the two days.  For Lasko, his better match was unfortunately in the bronze medal match and Mikhaylov played half of the time as a receiver.  Which leaves Djuric and Grozer.  Djuric had a good final, but I give my casting (only) vote to Grozer.  Released from the pressure of being ‘the guy’ he was able to simply play great. And scoring the last two points counts for something.

Receivers This is really a packed field. Two years ago, Juantorena was considered the best player in the world and had a pretty good weekend, at least in attack.  Five years ago, Kaziyski was considered the best player in the world, and played better than I have seen him play for a couple of years.  But both were overshadowed by a guy who played his first Olympics when they were still kids. Tetyukhin was the tournament MVP, and starts on my team.  For the second receiver, I pick Kubiak.  Maybe Anderson (not to mention Juantorena and Kaziyski) is a better player and had a good, if not great, tournament, but Kubiak is the most important player on his team and I just love the way he plays.  If you take your eyes off the game for a minute there is a chance you will miss something that you have never seen before (or at least since the 80’s).

Middle Blockers We don’t need to talk about Musersky.  Let’s just write that one straight in.  For the second, I can’t say that any of the other middle blockers really grabbed my attention.  Admittedly they are in direct comparison with Musersky and are bound to look bad in that context.  A little bit by default, I will go with Volkov for the last starting spot.  He didn’t always get a chance to show his greatest strengths, but it wasn’t his fault Kazan didn’t achieve what they wanted to.

Libero I am sad to say that I don’t always notice the impact liberos have on the match when I am just watching on TV, so I will have to go a little on reputation here and take Verbov.  I can say that the reception stats for the four matches back me up, so I feel mildly confident in making that choice.

So to summarise my team: Travica – Grozer; Tetyukhin – Kubiak; Musersky – Volkov; Verbov (lib).  Four players from Belgorod feels about right.  I think we would have a chance against most teams and I am certain we would be fun to watch.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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2014 Champions League Final Four – Part One

I am on record over the years of saying the Champions League Final Four is the best weekend of the volleyball year.  The reasons are partly obvious, the best club teams in Europe gather to play the highest level volleyball, and partly behind the scenes, it is a gathering of all the movers and shakers of European volleyball.  And of course when people gather to celebrate volleyball, there is a little party atmosphere going on too.

Sadly (only a little bit because it means I am still playing in my own league) I couldn’t attend in person this year, so the following observations are only the sporting ones, courtesy of  In no particular order…

Serving is really, really important.  The ability to serve aces is the cornerstone of Russian, and therefore world, volleyball right now and the number of errors that accompany that kind of service pressure often seems incidental, if not totally unimportant.  The Belgorod team of Travica, Ilinykh, Grozer, Musersky and Tetyukhin was akin to a murderers row of servers.  Even if the first four made errors, you still couldn’t relax when the fifth one came up to serve.

Volleyball is coming into the 21st Century A lot of the volleyball at the 2012 Olympics was boring and predictable, with reducing errors the primary concern. Since then there has been a massive generational change and younger, more athletic players are being allowed to be more aggressive by their coaches.  This ‘movement’ was exemplified at this tournament by Jastrzębski Węgiel, in particular by Michal Kubiak and setter Michal Masny. The play is getting faster and riskier and in the bronze medal playoff was rewarded. I especially liked seeing an outside hitter hitting first tempo in transition.

Tetyukhin was rightly awarded the MVP trophy, not just for his service series that turned the fourth set in the final and won the match.  He has been a great player for a long, long time now but it seems that he has only started to receive due recognition in the last couple of years. In this tournament he was a player in complete command of himself and the game and a master of the little plays and big moments.  I think it is completely fair at this point to put him in the conversation with Karch Kiraly and Lorenzo Bernardi as the greatest player in history.   The conversation is a short one because the answer is Karch, but it is a bit longer than it was.

Musersky We should enjoy the best player in history conversations as much as we can while it is still possible.  Musersky showed again, without even being at his best, that he is ‘on pace’ to take Karch’s title. No player in history has had such an effect on the game in every phase. He is the best server, best attacker and best blocker. He can play defence when required and sets fast balls in transition. He is a joy to watch, not least because there is joy in his play.

Video Challenge System is (thankfully) here to stay, although what it’s final form will be is still unclear. In this tournament they used the Italian version which only allows in and out reviews and some net touches. The Polish system allows for reviews of nearly everything and is therefore better, but also more cumbersome.  The number of successful challenges against the home team, particularly on the far sideline from the TV perspective, showed its value in improving the fairness of the games, which must be the ultimate judge.  The system is not (yet) infallible.  I don’t know what brain fart (human or technological) resulted in not overturning the line judge at 2-1 in the fourth, but overall it is very positive.

Part two here.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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The End Of Specialisation? : Part 2 – Cuneo

Last week’s Champions League Playoff 6 was notable for a couple of reasons.  Polish club Kedzierzyn Kozle beat last season’s Final Four performers Izmir to reach the last stage for the first time in nearly ten years.  Zenit Kazan celebrated the knocking out of perennial finallists Trento by crushing fellow Russians Dynamo Moscow.  And Italian powers Macerata and Cuneo faced off against each other.  The Italian match up was the closest, with Cuneo reaching their first ever Final Four in the golden set, but it was also interesting as neither team played with a ‘traditional’ lineup.

Due to personnel problems Cuneo have been using a lineup with one setter, two receivers (who played in the standard manner), one middle (who plays in the standard manner) and two opposites, as seen below.

Cuneo Lineup
Cuneo Lineup

Grbic is the setter, N’Gapeth and Wijsmanns the receivers, Kohut the middle blocker, Sokolov is nominally the other middle blocker and Antonov is nominally the opposite.  Antonov plays as the opposite across the front row and with the setter in position 4.  Sokolov, who is their best opposite, plays middle across the front row and as the opposite with the setter in position 3 and 2.


Sokolov in position 3 plays as a middle.  In the alternative version, a middle is subsituted for Antonov and Sokolov spikes from position 4.



Standard, with Sokolov playing as a middle blocker.  In the alternative version, where a middle is subsituted for Antonov, Sokolov spikes from position 2.



Completely standard.  Sokolov takes a break… most of the time (see video below).



Sokolov reenters for the serve, and the libero comes in for Antonov.  When the two are on the court at the same time (ie during the serve), Sokolov plays in position 1.



As P4, with Sokolov as opposite and the libero on for Antonov.



Another standard rotation.  Antonov playing as opposite and Sokolov in the frontrow as middle blocker.


I don’t think this lineup will become a new paradigm, but it is interesting to see another situation where a team has chosen to play a player ‘out of position’ in order to have the best six players on the court rather than the players who best fit into the individual ‘slots’.  Truly creating a system to fit the players.

However, when you do something new sometimes wires get crossed.  In this particular case, sometimes you end up with seven players on the court.  And they still couldn’t get the ball over the net…

Part 1 on Macerata

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