Tag Archives: Earvin N’Gapeth

A Team Of N’Gapeths

We have all watched the world of volleyball changing as young players break down some of the barriers of conventional wisdom.  The most prominent is of course Earvin N’Gapeth whose highlights (for example here) now take up a pretty large part of the internet. Apart from being a great player, he has become known for attacking from all kinds of strange situations and not just on the third contact.  Imagine a whole team of players like him.

Well, you don’t have to.  Until 1976 the block counted as the first contact. So once the ball touched the block, a team had to use the next (for us in 2017, first) contact to set up a spiker. The best to do this was the Polish team who won a World Championships and Olympic Gold Medal in the 1970s.  Below is a clip of what it looks like when there are six N’Gapeths on the court at once, when Poland played Japan at the 1976 Olympics.

If you want to watch the whole match from which this clip is culled, here it is.

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Are We Doing It Wrong?

go

There was a story a week or so ago about a computer program beating the world’s best Go players. Apparently Go is an ancient Chinese game that has more or less an infinite number of possible moves and is therefore considered to be the ultimate test of artificial intelligence (AI)*.  I know nothing about either Go or AI but apparently this is a big deal.  The original article is hidden behind a pay wall, but I was able to pull out a couple of quotes that sparked a spot of thinking.

“The (computer program) made moves that seemed foolish but inevitably led to victory over the world’s best players.”

This quote seems to suggest that the computer understood the game and played it in a completely different way to humans have been playing it.  On that theme the current world champion was quoted as saying,

“After humanity spent thousands of years improving tactics, computers tell us humans are completely wrong.  I would go as far as to say that not a single human has touched the edge of the truth of Go.”

As I am avowed questioner of conventional wisdom these thoughts really piqued my interest and obviously I thought about applying them to volleyball.  Like everything, there is a set of parameters about the game that are accepted as conventional wisdom.  For example, according to the rules a team is allowed only three contacts.  The conventional wisdom is that using all three contacts is the most effective way of playing.  But is it?  As I have written about earlier, Frenchman Earvin N’Gapeth has become famous for, among other things, not always using three contacts. Watching him live I was struck by how obvious those plays actually are. Once you accept that it is possible, his actions are the easiest and best solutions.  I would say that nearly everything we do In practice, is in some way based on conventional wisdom.  For some coaches more than others, but there is a lot of it there.

The computer who won in Go won by playing in a different way than people who were locked into a way of thinking going back thousands of years.  What would happen if that computer decided to try to play volleyball?  Would it use three contacts every time?  I think, deep down,  we already know the answer is no.  Would spikers jump off two feet?  Would there be such a thing as the underarm pass?  Would we train in the same way?  And if the answer to any of those questions is no, what would the alternative be?  How would the computer solve the problem of the game?

I don’t think any of us has touched the edge of the truth of volleyball.

Selling Volleyball

It is a widely agreed upon truism among volleyball people that volleyball deserves more respect and deserves wider media coverage.  I am not one of those volleyball people.  I think volleyball has the respect and coverage it deserves.  But don’t misunderstand me.  I love volleyball.  I think volleyball is the most spectacular ball sport in the world.  I think volleyball is perfect for TV.  Volleyball does not have wider respect and coverage because volleyball does an absolutely horrendous job of selling itself.  It is a theme of this blog that volleyball does not curate its history.  It is a theme of this blog (and the background the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project) that there is no volleyball literature.  With some obvious exceptions, volleyball has not properly educated even its own participants about the sport.

I have recently been making fun of the level of education and research by commentators employed by CEV and FIVB for their video platforms (here and here).  But behind the (attempted) humour the point is serious.  The live coverage should highlight the best play and the commentator should know the names of the players, volleyball terminology and be able to pass on to viewers a basic feeling of what is happened/just happened.  By this I do not mean a detailed tactical breakdown (although I would love that).  I mean the ability to give the viewer a sense that something is happening that is interesting and worthwhile.  While I am convinced that some of the commentators lack a certain level of professionalism (Juantanorena, ‘return of serve’ etc), the ultimate responsibility lies with those organising the broadcast, in this case the respective governing bodies, and with those who do not expect anything better, that is us.

The current World Olympic Qualification Tournament provides some examples.  The following video contains two actions.  In the first, the current most exciting player in the world, Earvin N’Gapeth, attacks the second contact and scores.  This is an unusual play which requires great awareness and timing (and going against years of training 🙂 ).  The commentator’s response is silence.  The director provides no replay.  A casual observer would think this is an every day event.  It is not.  In the second action, the libero defends a hard attack with one hand perfectly to the setter who sets first tempo against virtually no block.  Again this is an unusual play and insanely difficult.  This is the absolute highest level of volleyball.  The commentator belated makes an inane comment about the size of the middle blocker. The director provides no replay.  A casual observer would think this is an every day event.  It is not.

In this video, Earvin N’Gapeth makes one of his most famous plays, faking a spike and instead setting, and Kevin Tillie scores putting France up 2-0 against Poland.  In this case the commentator does his part to show that something of interest has happened.  But in the three minutes of dead time that followed there was not one replay of the action.

I love volleyball.  I think volleyball is the most spectacular ball sport in the world.  I think it is an incredibly difficult sport to master and yet these amazing athletes make it look simple.  So simple that people seem to think it is.  I think volleyball is perfect for TV.  The action is concentrated in a small area and nearly every player can be seen at the all times.  The game has built in breaks of play that allow for every interesting action to be replayed more or less instantly.  We have an incredible opportunity to create a place for ourselves but not until we demand higher standards of ourselves in selling volleyball.  FIVB and CEV should set the example, but we should demand it of them.

When Breaking Rules Is Good

All (good) coaches have a set of rules they use to simplify and clarify game situations for their teams.  Which player should play the first ball and in which situations.  Which player should play the second ball and in which situations.  The best solutions for high ball attacks.  When to block with a double and triple block.  You get the idea.  If you are reading this blog, you are a good coach, so you probably have some more that I haven’t even written.

Most coaches have rules regarding giving free balls to the opponent.  Incredibly, not all coaches do and even today watching the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament I was stunned to see free balls played mindlessly into the middle of the opponent’s court.  But I digress.  The most common free ball rule is to play the ball short to position 2/1.  Obviously, this reason is to either make the setter play the first ball, or draw the opposite out of position to take it.  All teams are ready for that and have tactics to solve this problem.

So if good coaches have rules of play, AND solutions to those rules then REALLY a good coach has to relax those rules.  Up to a certain level increased structure improves the level of play.  Beyond a certain level decreased structure increases the level of play.  Example number one is any number of things that France does.  Example number two is this play from Canada’s TJ Sanders.  Watch the play, see how it unfolds, play the ball.

 

Earvin N’Gapeth – Master Of The Simple

Earvin N’Gapeth has rightly become an internet sensation (or at least as sensational as a volleyballer can become) for his spectacular actions.  The most famous one is when he is the backrow he fakes attacking the second contact and instead sets to an outside spiker.  For example, this action.

This is just one of the many great actions in all phases of the game.  So I was excited to get the chance to watch him (and all his French teammates) at the European Olympic Qualification Tournament in Berlin in January.  I don’t know exactly what my expectations were, but what I saw really surprised me.  On video it looks like he chooses particular solutions to be spectacular or high risk.  Live in the stadium, in looks different.  To see the game in context, i.e. the whole court and all the players simultaneous, the solutions he chose were actually obvious and simple and only minimally risky.  He never spiked a ball for the sake of spiking it or that he wasn’t in position for.  But importantly he never set on the second contact just because the convention dictates it.  Simply, if the ball was on his approach he hit it, or was prepared to hit it.  If not, he did something else.

There is nowhere in volleyball rules that say how the game should be played, or how many contacts you must use.  It only says you may not use more than three.  The convention of always using three contacts is exactly that – a convention.  Admittedly it is a widely accepted convention and every coach and player risks ridicule or worse by not following it.  But ultimately conventions are not rules.  The greatest risk N’Gapeth is taking is not following conventional wisdom.  On the court, he is just doing is the simplest thing possible.

Here are some highlights from said European Olympic Qualification Tournament.


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Inspiring Juniors And Loving Volleyball

When I was just a lad, and before it was even remotely fashionable, I loved soccer and lapped up everything I could on the subject. So when ‘Escape to Victory‘ came out, starring Sylvester Stallone no less, I rushed off to the cinema to see it.  Among the many action packed and exciting scenes in the movie, (I have never seen it again, so in my mind it remains the great movie my 14 year old self loved) was this one starring Argentinian player Osvaldo Ardiles.

I can’t really describe how inspiring this scene and the trick was.  Along with all of my friends, I rushed off to the playground and endlessly tried to replicate it.  Our lack of success didn’t deter us because we were having fun and learning something new that we had never seen before.  And we loved soccer a little bit more.  As is very often the case, the imagination to invent a new move, or technique is harder than the technique itself.  Once something is conceived as possible, it quickly becomes normal and eventually easy.  35 years later every one of my current volleyball players can do that trick, most of them much better than Ardiles himself.  It turns out it is not actually that difficult.  But thinking of it was.

Last week France won the European Volleyball Championships for the first time.  The final point was scored by French star Earvin N’Gapeth in this manner…

Volleyball fans all over the world went wild and the video went viral.  As it should have.  The sobering note was sounded by a reader of my Facebook page who cautioned ‘… just don’t let my U17s see it.’  As a coach I instantly understood his point.  I have heard and said many similar things over the years about coaches who don’t want their players to see such and such a team or player so they don’t learn ‘bad’ habits and undo all of the coach’s work in teaching volleyball ‘properly’.

But after a moment or two, I started to think about it in another way.  Maybe the best solution would be to provide some time in practice for the players to try that move.  For that ten, fifteen, twenty minutes you can guarantee that the players will be fully committed and engaged. They might not able to master what N’Gapeth did, but mabye they will find something else new and they will probably understand more about their bodies.

But one thing is certain, they will definitely love volleyball a little bit more than they did yesterday.

I almost did it with my guys… 😉

 

Why I Love Volleyball

I could also have titled this ‘Volleyball in the 21st Century’.  This is a great example of the latest evolution of volleyball and why I think it is the most dynamic, spectacular and exciting sport in the world.

And one specific point… I have written often enough about how volleyball has changed in the last two or three years.  This rally contains nine net crosses and not one high ball.  As recently as 2012, at least one of the teams would have tried to slow the game by setting a high, high ball, which in all probability the spiker would have tipped short to position 1.  Now, they are always attacking, always looking for a place they can attack the block and defence.

Anyway, enjoy…