Middle-Middle 2.0

The first time I heard of Carl McGown, I thought he was a fool. I read an article about how most balls go to the middle of court, and most of them landed at least 10’ in from the end line. Fortunately for me, I knew this to be nonsense. Your middle-back player was supposed to stand just about on the end line and charge forward into the play. Remember: “everything above your waist is out!” Since I knew this to be true, I sent an email to this McGown guy letting him know that he couldn’t possibly be right.

His response: “make your own damn chart!”

I got three matches in before I realized that Carl might just be on to something and that I needed to get to a Gold Medal Squared clinic to figure out what this middle-middle thing was all about.

*The first time I ever charted attacks it didn’t look quite this pretty.  However, the results I found were almost the same.

middle middle defense heat map

That first interaction with Carl and GMS made a very strong impression on me. So much so that “charting” became a bit of an obsession of mine. As a club coach that time, I started charting opposing teams (and my own) whenever I had some downtime. Now, years later, only one thing has changed: the amount of data I have has increased by several orders of magnitude. As an assistant coach with the USA Women’s National Team, I feel confident in saying that I’ve charted more attacks than anybody else in the world.

At GMS clinics, we learn that the most important part of designing a defensive system is:

Put your best defenders where the most balls go (principles are liberating).

At USA we’re kind of obsessed with learning where balls go. Last year alone, I charted over 10,000 attacks, recording where every ball went and where to best position a defender for that attack.

Over these past few years, I’ve come to know two things:

  1. Middle-middle is a really good place to stand against 90, maybe 95% of attackers.
  2. The other 5-10% of hitters can be REALLY frustrating to defend.

Both of these hitters are excellent players, but pose problems in slightly different ways. A defense can set up in a fairly predictable way against the hitter on the left. The middle-back defender can stay “middle-middle”, the left-back can read, the left-front can come to 10 x 10, and the right-back defender can just look like she’s ready while her teammates make all the digs.

Player (2), however, is a slightly different story. This player because she has an excellent sharp angle shot AND an excellent deep corner shot. In this case, the left-back player is stressed quite a bit. She must read “can she hit at me” very quickly and make a decision on whether to stay on the sharp angle, or get in line with the deep corner shot. The middle-back player will get quite a few balls in middle-middle, but will also need to help with the deep corner shot as well. In this case, the ability to read and play balls overhead will be critical.

And finally, we have Hitter (3)

As we can see, this hitter is going to cause some serious dilemmas for a team that is used to playing “middle-middle.” I kept the gridlines to show that this hitters is hitting at least half of her attacks within 10’ of the baseline, which is unusual for a female player.

Clearly this player has range, with attacks going sharp cross, toward the corner, and even a fair amount of tip. However, her predominant shot is in the high 1/6 seam, and in the last 10’ of the court.

It’s these situations that require us as coaches to make some tough decisions.

How would you defend this hitter?

Would you shade the middle-back defender over or bring the right-back defender way off the line? Would you play for the tips or let them go and hope you can read and react?  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

As a reminder, “put your best defensive players where most of the balls go” doesn’t necessarily mean “put your libero in middle middle.”  For many of us, our outsides or event middles (yes, in club ball there’s some pretty good middles) may be our best defensive players.  This is a great example of what we mean by “principles are liberating.”  They allow coaches the flexibility to make sound decisions based on the ability of their players.

Joe Trinsey – USA Women’s Volleyball Technical Coordinator

 

3 comments on Middle-Middle 2.0

  1. Yes…the Middle-Middle concept really needed an upgrade. Most coaches following GM2 thinking park their best passer (usually their libero) 10′-12′ from the baseline and exactly between the sidelines. However (and there’s always a ‘however’), that position is due to the average placement of all attacks from all players in every rotation from every match. You said you charted over 10,000 hits. While your adjustments for the different types of hitters is appropriate for analysis and possible adjustments to base position, shouldn’t there be data for each hitter, in each rotation, from every team you face?

    Carl has stated that the 2X2 and middle middle are starting points that can be moved towards the net with slower, off-speed teams or moved deeper for harder hitting teams. At the high school level, our resources are limited in the collection of data that clarify trends of all hitters. However (didn’t I say earlier there’s always a ‘however), we do know that strong high school level teams will have one, maybe two hitters who receive a large percentage of balls. With a few recorded games, it is easy to track those players and adjust our positions to key on them. When we play 40+ matches in a span of time less than three months it also helps ease the information overload on players when we adjust for just the top hitters on the top teams in our state.

    On a side note: As GM2 continues expanding its reach to coaches of all levels, I hope to see high level high school coaches share their findings just as the elite college and USA coaches currently share. There are unique challenges we must face that are specific to the high school scene alone.

    Thanks for the progressive 2.0 thinking.

    Jeremy

  2. admin says:

    Jeremy,

    Great stuff! Thanks for posting. I have replied in-line below…

    “While your adjustments for the different types of hitters is appropriate for analysis and possible adjustments to base position, shouldn’t there be data for each hitter, in each rotation, from every team you face?”

    If you have the resources to gather this information absolutely. Most college and international teams have in depth analysis of each player. However, it can be tough at the high school and club level to gather this information.

    “When we play 40+ matches in a span of time less than three months it also helps ease the information overload on players when we adjust for just the top hitters on the top teams in our state.”

    Simplifying the amount of information we give our athletes during a match is really important. Again, you have to build your systems not only around the ability of your players, but also the ability of your opponents, along with the resources that you have available. It’s absolutely OK to move players out of middle-middle or 2 by 2 if you can find strong tendencies. We have a client in Arizona who has won multiple state championships playing her right back defender at 1 by 1 because that’s where balls are going in her league.

    “On a side note: As GM2 continues expanding its reach to coaches of all levels, I hope to see high level high school coaches share their findings just as the elite college and USA coaches currently share. There are unique challenges we must face that are specific to the high school scene alone.”

    We are working with volleymetrics on gathering more high school and club data as we speak! Personally I think the game is relative at all levels, but like you said it would be great to have some more concrete evidence at those levels.

    Thanks again for posting!

    Mike Wall
    Gold Medal Squared

  3. Michael Taylor says:

    I tried the middle-middle this season with my boys JV team. We’re 12 and 3 so far and that is due largely to solid defense. While I can’t prove a cause-effect relationship between this system and our success, I am sold on continuing with it in the Fall with my girls JV team.

    I did make one modification. I moved my libero to LB because he is a good emergency setter and I found that he was most comfortable setting our right side hitter from the LB position when the setter took first ball out of a RB base. The angles were just more conducive for making that set.

    So that meant that my outside hitters played in the “middle middle” position. I honestly didn’t notice any drop of in efficiency with putting the libero in the LB. And of course the OH in the “middle middle” slot opened up the bic as an attacking option.

    I’m not saying this was a statistically “sound” move on my part; it just worked for our personnel. That said, I am wondering if anyone has studied the “optimal” position for emergency setting. I am thinking of trying my female libero as my emergency setter out of the middle-middle, but am still skeptical as to whether she would be able get to second ball on time. Any advice/insights would be much appreciated.

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