Tag Archives: FIVB

Can You Believe Your Eyes?



The simple answer to this question is, of course not.  There are dozens of cognitive biases that get in between what we see and what we understand, neatly categorised in this article.  But for once that is not what I am getting at.

I am sure everyone agrees that the Video Challenge System has been a wonderful addition to volleyball at the highest level.  Certainly everyone who believes in fairness agrees.  In another forum I might also argue that it adds to the drama of the game, but not this forum.

One thing that the Video Challenge System really shows is how bad humans are at seeing things that happen in a volleyball game.  This article written at the end of the last Polish season reviewing the figures for challenges showed that the best coach in the league was wrong in his challenges 61% of the time*.  This article released by FIVB this week showed that over the men’s and women’s tournaments coaches were wrong, on average, 60% of the time.

When interpreting those numbers it is important to consider a couple of issues.  One, is that most of the time the coach is not making the challenge.  The players inform the coach of an issue and he/she then ‘decides’ whether to utilise one of the finite number of challenges.  So it is not entirely fair to attribute success and failure purely to the coach**.  Two, not all challenges are made with the expectation of having a point overturned.  Some are quasi timeouts and some are speculative ‘nothing to lose’ challenges when a team is way ahead or behind.

That having been said, it is always remarkable to me to see how bad human beings at seeing those lines and various touches of things.  It turns the mind back to occasions in the past in which I, and other coaches, have jumped up and down like a lunatic on the sideline, absolutely convinced something happened differently to the views of the officials***.  Conversely, with the backup provided by the video it is quietly astonishing how good referees and linesmen are at picking those things up.  The number of challenges at the Olympics of tiny block touches that were shown to have been correctly seen by the officials was frankly astonishing.

So chapeau to the inventors of the technologies, and the governing bodies for implementing them.

The only step left is to have a permanent video official who makes those calls in real time without the need for challenges at all.  Tokyo?

*And I was wrong 71% of the time.  Good enough for 6th best (or 8th worst) coach in the league.

**I guess like everything to do with sport 😀

***And hilariously, there are still coaches who are convinced despite all conceivable evidence that they, and only they, see things correctly.

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.

Honour And Respect

One of the most common everyday challenges for a coach is his / her team playing at the level of the opponent. Against a better opponent it is rarely a problem, except that the coach often wistfully wishes the team always played like that. Against weaker teams it is a huge frustration, as ‘unnecessary’ sets or even matches are lost. To complicate matters further, in some places (mostly the United States) ethical pressures are placed on the coach to restrict the team’s performance so as not to risk ‘running up the score’ and therefore ‘disrespecting’ an opponent. In extreme cases coaches can be censured, suspended or even fired for winning by too much.

This is not a mindset that I can easily comprehend. As a competitor the most disrespected I have ever felt was when an opponent did not take my team seriously and therefore gave less than their best effort. Big losses never discouraged me, rather they inspired me to work harder, to work smarter, to get better. As a coach I have felt the disappointment from our opponents when they realised we would not be playing our strongest lineup in that match, and I understood their point of view. We were not taking them as seriously as they felt they deserved to be. These matches always make me much more nervous than any championship playoff.

Recently the topic has come up twice in a volleyball context. During a Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview, top Scottish coach Simon Loftus stated that “the best thing you can do to a team is beat them 25-0”. In other words, you don’t mess about, or ‘take the mickey, but play with as much concentration and focus as you would for a championship match (see below for the clip). At the currently being held FIVB Women’s World Cup in Japan, USA defeated Algeria by the set scores of 25-7, 25-2, 25-5. While such a score would lead to many of his colleagues fearing for his job, USA coach Karch Kiraly, as a player one of the greatest competitors of all time in any sport, put it in into perspective in the post match press conference.

“It doesn’t matter who’s across the net; we honour our opponents, we honour our sport, and we honour our programme and team. I like what we did today.”

I agree wholeheartedly.  Honour and respect means playing at the maximum of your ability.

World League Finals – Statistical Review – Part 2

Following on the ‘success’ of the World Championships Review articles, the author of the original, Michael Mattes and I decided to do something similar for the World League Finals.  In this case, he has provided the statistical analysis to which I will add my thoughts.  As an experiment, I have included links to interactive infograms at the end of each paragraph where you can have a look at some of the data in more detail.  I would welcome feedback on them.

Part 1 is here.

photo - FIVB.com


I sometimes hear that to win in volleyball you have to win the ‘serve – pass battle’.  In the broader sense that serving and reception are the foundation elements of the break point and sideout phases respectively, I could not agree more.  In the literal sense that you need to serve and receive better than your opponents, I am far less certain.  The figures from World League tend to back up my thoughts.  Winners France ranked 3rd in ace percentage, 4th in serve efficiency (aces – errors) and 3rd in reception efficiency (in system receptions – errors).  Bronze medallists USA on the other hand ranked 1st, 3rd and 2nd in the same categories.  Brazil’s poor finish (if you can call it that looking at the actual matches) could however easily be explained by rankings of 6th, 6th, and 5th.

Interestingly, there were two statistics in this area in which the French were the best.  They conceded the least number of aces and they had the best ace : aced ratio.  Given that they were by the far best at siding out out of system, not conceding aces seems to be a important component of their success.

WL FINALS – SERVE / RECEPTION | Create infographics


I consider this statement similar to the other statements I’ve quoted here.  It is an interesting guide and way of thinking about the game, but can’t be considered a hard and fast rule.  After all for the vast majority of the game, the object is to win points.  Back in the day, I did a very brief analysis of errors from the top 8 of the 2002 World Championships and found that the gold and silver medallists made the most errors, followed by the teams ranked 7th and 8th.  Like everything, error rate mustn’t necessarily be low, but in balance.  That is supported by the error rates from these World League finals.  The teams with the least number of errors per set were Serbia and Italy.  The highest error rate was from bronze medallist USA, while France was had the 3rd highest.  A low error rate does not necessarily lead to more success, at least not by itself.

WL FINALS – ERROR RATE | Create infographics


Looking through the rankings in the different skill areas it is not immediately clear why France won, even though watching the matches live I thought they were the best team.  They weren’t the best serving OR receiving team, although they had a positive balance in that area.  They weren’t the best spiking team, although they were great at scoring out of system.  They weren’t the best blocking team (in terms of percentage of opponent’s attacks blocked), in fact they were the worst.  They weren’t the best at minimising errors.  They were the best in point differential after 21, which seems like it should be important somehow.  They were the best at forcing the other teams into errors.  Although in neither area were they the best by so much that it would seem to be decisive.

My best guess is that they were the best at putting all the technical and tactical components together in a package that optimised their individual and group strengths.  And they had the best intangibles, which you could see even on TV.  Sadly we don’t have a useful stat for either of those things.

Maybe one day.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2

World League Finals – Statistical Review – Part 1

Following up the ‘success’ of the World Championships Review articles, the author of the original, Michael Mattes and I decided to do something similar for the World League Finals.  In this case, he has provided the statistical analysis to which I will add my thoughts.  As an experiment, I have included links to interactive infograms at the end of each paragraph where you can have a look at some of the data in more detail.  I would welcome feedback on them.

photo - FIVB.com

photo – FIVB.com

Before I begin, I should note that due to the nature of the tournament, only 10 matches, none of the figures are useful in the true statistical sense.  But that will, of course, not stop me from making observations.  Furthermore, the tournament was a little unusual in that all the teams present won at least one match.  That will also have some effect on the values and how they could / should be interpreted.


Gold Medal Squared talk about the ‘2% Rule’.  This says a small improvement in the sideout percentage (the number of sideouts won as a percentage of the opponents serve), in this case 2%, will lead to a much greater chance of winning.  This is sometimes used as evidence that the sideout phase is where practice should be focused.  As sideouts and breakpoints are perfectly correlated, it must hold a 2% improvement in break point percentage (the percentage of points won on service) should also improve winning percentage by the same amount.  So in men’s volleyball, which is more important; sideout or break point?

It turns out that teams sideout at 67%, which is essentially the same as last year’s World Championships (67.6%).  Intuition, and the facts, tell us that break point percentage is therefore 33%. In both cases, four of the teams were above average, with Brazil the best siding out team, and USA, the best break point scoring team.  Champions France were second in both, good in sideout AND break point scoring.



In this tournament, it turns out neither.  It is a truism that spiking is the most important skill in volleyball and there is a lot of research that suggests that attack efficiency is the single statistic most correlated with winning.  As I noted above the small sample size means the statistics are not valid, but it is surprising that France were worse than all other teams, except last placed Italy, in kills, errors, blocks and efficiency.  It is clear you don’t need to be the best spiking to win, but surely you can’t get away with being the worst.  Maybe they are the best blocking team.

It turns out the best blocking team was Italy, with France again 5th, which supports some research that says blocking is irrelevant.  Breaking down attack percentages a little bit more, France was the best at one thing: out of system attack (when there is no first tempo available to the setter after reception).  In fact, they were better at attacking out of system than from good reception.  That may be a testament to their individual flair, or it may be a complete coincidence.

WL FINALS – ATTACK/BLOCK | Create infographics

Part 2 to follow

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…

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.