To Block or Not to Block

To Block or Not to Block
Gold Medal Squared Volleyball Camps and Volleyball Clinics

Blocking is an interesting skill to talk about.  I’ve often times wondered why blocking, and specifically swing blocking is such a hot topic.  There’s no question that its popularity has grown over the past 10 years, particularly in women’s volleyball.  However, that’s not what I want to discuss in this post.  We’ve had endless conversations comparing and contrasting different blocking styles.  Lets ignore that for now.  My objective is to make you think a little bit differently.  And, maybe even change how you view and talk about blocking in general.

We know that there’s a correlation between power and depth.  Another way to say this would be as abilities and power increase, so does the importance of blocking.  Or does it?  In 2012 the University of Oregon Women’s Volleyball Team was ranked #1 in the country at one point in the season.  They had multiple wins against talented, highly ranked teams (you can see their 2012 results by clicking here).  As you know, they ended up competing in the NCAA Championship match against Texas.  The University of Oregon was also dead last in blocks per game during the 2012 Pac-12 volleyball season.  So, how is it that the second best team in America can be dead last in blocks per game?

At Gold Medal Squared we have always said that blocking is one of the least correlated skills to winning, particularly in women’s volleyball.  The more we learn, the more we think this concept is even more effective at the high school and club levels.  Serving, passing, digging and scoring points in transition are the premier skills in women’s volleyball.  We know this because we’ve done the research (we talk about that research at our GMS Coaching Foundations Clinics.)

If you dig through box scores for collegiate women’s volleyball, you will find endless examples of winning teams with less blocks per game than their opponent.  In fact this was the norm for us at Arizona State during the 2012 season.  We spent an enormous amount of our time teaching our athletes to serve, pass, dig to the right places, and work like crazy in transition.  Very little practice time was spent on blocking.

What does all of this mean and what questions should we be asking?

If blocking isn’t highly correlated with winning in women’s volleyball, how much time should we spend teaching it in practice?

There’s only so many hours in the day.  For club volleyball coaches, your time in the gym with your kids is severely limited.  As a result, we have to organize efficient practice plans that give our kids the best bang for the buck.  In other words, you have to prioritize.  Rather than teaching blocking first, teach it last.  Teach your kids to become good at serving, passing, digging and managing their swings.  Once you feel that this is in place, introduce blocking.  Your kids will pick up the footwork and arm-work quickly.  Since we know that blocking becomes more important as power increases, it’s nice if we can teach the biomechanics to them at a young age.  This gives you, and the athletes plenty of time to refine their skills as time goes on.  Additionally, teaching players to learn to transition from blocking to attacking (with the correct footwork and eyework) is significantly more important than the skill of blocking in and of itself.  So, you have to spend some time in the right environments in order to teach transition effectively.

Does blocking helps is score or does it COST US POINTS?

This is an interesting question.  We know that at the high school, club, and college level back row swings in the women’s game are typically not effective (don’t take our word for it, take stats in your gym). There’s no doubt an elite group of women that can be effective from the back row, but that’s not the norm (statistically).  So, why do our 12s and 14s block back row swings?   Furthermore, why do our club kids block attackers that are 5 feet outside the pin with no approach?  It seems to me that we are helping our opponents by giving them hands at the net to work with.

The alternative is to teach your kids to see the game (volleyball is a visual motor game with an emphasis on the visual) and recognize situations where they “stay down” and play defense from the floor.  We think this is a powerful concept that when trained correctly it can create both substantially and qualitatively more opportunities for your teams in transition.  Personally, I don’t think this concept applies exclusively to the club and high school level.  This concept is being taught at the highest levels of the game.  In fact there are some specific times in men’s international volleyball when we want stay on the ground.  So, look for opportunities NOT TO BLOCK.

How do we train this?

It all comes down to our ability to see the game.  Your athletes will need to learn what sets to stay down on (show them video).  In our gym the athletes figured it out in a hurry.  It also depends on how aggressive you want to get.  If you have a really solid back row, maybe you can stay down on more balls?  As always, BUILD YOUR SYSTEMS AROUND THE ABILITY OF YOUR PLAYERS.  That’s an important concept to remember.  There’s no one perfect solution for every team.  The game of volleyball is too random.  That’s why we have principles that free us up to make informed and effective coaching decisions.

Summary:  It’s important that we teach our kids how to block when they’re young so they can be good when they’re older.  We are not advocating that coaches shouldn’t teach blocking.  We are trying to make you think about two primary concepts….

We suggest that you implement blocking systems and mechanics.  But, if blocking isn’t highly correlated to winning, how much time should you spend working on it given limited practice time?  However, transition is highly correlated to winning, so your players have to be great in that phase of the game.

Are there times when blocking hurts your team?  We think so.

Lastly, don’t take our word for it!  Learn about your team by gathering and evaluating sound information.  Your coaching decisions from team to team will change, but the process by which you make coaching decisions should be based on principles.

To learn more about these concepts, attend an upcoming Gold Medal Squared Coaching Foundations Clinic.  Click here to view our 2013 schedule.

Good luck!

Mike Wall
Gold Medal Squared Volleyball Camps & Volleyball Clinics

8 comments on To Block or Not to Block

  1. Deviny says:

    While winning might not be correlated directly to making points off the block, what about the importance of setting up the block to set up the defense behind the block? Is there research correlating a “good block” which sets up the defense up for a dig-to-kill conversion? While blocking might not be making points, don’t you think that it setting us up for more opportunities to kill?

  2. Seywright says:

    I agree with Deviny. I would like to see the impact on a well formed and timed block on the back row and the impact it plays on the ability to dig. I wonder if the digging percentages do down or the conversion rates (from dig to attack) change if your block is poorly formed or not in the correct places.
    I would also agree with Deviney that it “seems’ like a team that doesn’t get many blocks on paper may still be doing a great job of blocking if they are able to funnel hitters into defenders and are still digging at a high rate and creating swings of those digs at a high rate. I do write “seems” in quotations though because I have no numbers to support the hypothesis.

  3. mwall says:

    You both make great points, and I would agree that a well formed block clearly has an impact on the game. Remember, we aren’t saying don’t block. We are saying look for opportunities where blocking may hurt you and stay down on those.

    Blocks per game can be a deceiving statistic for the reasons you outline. You are spot on by saying teams that have low block numbers may still be doing a nice job of slowing down the offense (I’ve coached teams lik this before).

    One interesting statistic from this past year was opponent hitting efficiency out of the back row. We decided that we would stay down on all bics/pipes, regardless of who was hitting them. Over the course of the season, we gathered a significant amount of data. Back row hitters ended up hitting .05% against us, and that’s with no block at all. Our dig/create/concert percentage on these plays was very high (this is Pac-12 women’s volleyball). So, there’s some statistical data that tells us that back row players aren’t very effective, even with a clear net. This begs this question…. Are back row attackers MORE EFFECTIVE when they have hands to use? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a question worth exploring.

    Lastly, we know where most of the balls end up in women’s volleyball (the middle of the court) even with a block up. Some of these end up hitting the block, others come through clean. So, if you play the percentages, balls still go to the same areas of the court over and over again. I hope this helps!

    Mike

  4. Adam says:

    What about what the blocking stats don’t measure? Is there not a psychological component involved that doesn’t show up on the stats sheet for blocking? For example, I sometimes felt that a stuff block might be worth much more than a point. As discussed previously it might help my defense, but it might also get into a hitter’s head and make them less aggressive, create more errors from them etc. I am not in disagreement with what you are saying…but your are right discussions about blocking are interesting. I also sometimes wonder if it’s because we don’t teach blocking enough or correctly that it becomes statistically insignificant? I sometimes think that blocking gets a bad rap because we don’t measure it effectively?

  5. mwall says:

    We haven’t done any research on how the block gets in the way, so I can’t say definitively. It’s probably too hard a study to conduct since you’d have to try and see what would happen if you never attempted to block, attempted with one, with two, etc. Hard conditions for a controlled study.

    What I think the overriding issue with respect to “playing defense behind the block” comes down to is where the set takes the hitter and what they like to do with the ball. At higher levels, the block becomes a more significant factor since hitters can see it and make adjustments.

    But this question is hard to answer because they ask about the importance of setting up a good block. What’s the question here? We are ALWAYS trying to set up a good block if the conditions warrant blocking, right? It’s not like we are trying to set up a poorly formed block. That’s one of the hard parts about volleyball, is trying to set up a good block – it isn’t always easy, and the offense is trying to make it hard.

    So do we want to block if conditions warrant? Of course. Do we want it to be a really well-formed block? Of course. Does where the block forms make a big difference on where balls get hit? At all but the highest levels, not really. What matters is the set / tendencies / approach.

    Obviously if the hitter has a good look, having a block is better than not having a block, and it certainly makes it easier to dig if there is a block than if there isn’t. But if you think about the chain of events leading up to all the other skills it’s the same way: if you hit a good serve, it makes it easier to block. If you have a good block it makes it easier to dig. If you have a good pass, it makes it easier to set, have a good set, it’s easier to attack, etc. Clearly doing the prior skill well makes it easier to do the subsequent skill well. And I think that the studies that Gil and others have done take these correlations into account.

    Long answer, hope it makes sense?

    Chris McGown
    Gold Medal Squared

  6. Joe Trinsey says:

    A late reply to what Adam said…

    Hitter’s don’t appear to make unforced errors more frequently against a double-block than a single block, once you adjust for quality of pass. Balls are dug at a slightly higher rate behind a double block than a single block, but not nearly to the extent that you think.

    I’ve studied the concept of the block “funneling” the ball quite a bit and have yet to see evidence that it exists, in the “macro” sense. Meaning that, on an individual play, the block (and moreso: the set) can certainly influence a hitter into hitting certain shots, but if you take 5 different teams and chart every attack hit against them over the course of the season, the graphs will all look just about the same, even if the teams have different blocking abilities/systems.

    The vast majority of the value in blocking comes from stuffing the ball and not getting tooled.

    Mike and Chris: great article and discussion!

  7. Tristan Burton says:

    A question for Joe regarding “funneling” …

    How could you do a study on block “funneling” and take into account the different hitting tendencies and associated blocking strategies? Each team I play has hitters with different strengths and weaknesses so I adjust my block accordingly to try to force cross court hitters to hit closer to the line and line hitters to take the ball cross-court. So if I average all that out over a season I will see no evidence of “funneling” as you point out, but this tells me nothing about whether my strategy helped me win individual sets and matches against opponents with specific hitting tendencies that I was able to counteract with a blocking strategy I chose specifically for that opponent.

  8. Joe Trinsey says:

    Tristan,

    Good comments and my apologies for the delay in response: Team USA just finished a pretty grueling 3-week stretch at the World Grand Prix. With now a break week before the final round, your exact question is actually really relevant because we are preparing to rematch in the 6-team final round with 3 teams we have already played: Brazil, Serbia, and Japan. So it’s a pretty important question for us to try to evaluate our blocking strategies from the previous matches against various hitters and see how they worked and what, if anything, we should change for the next time we play.

    I guess my first thought on the subject is that: “How well did I ‘funnel’ a hitter?” and “How well did I block that hitter?” are two different questions. If I’m blocking crosscourt and the hitter then scores at will down the line I have surely funneled her and surely failed as a blocker. So (and I’m sure I’m starting the obvious here), the main thing I would look at is how many times we stuffed that attacker, as a % of attempts.

    If I stuff an attacker 3 times on 20 swings, I would say we did a pretty good job, and if we manged to do that while getting tooled 3 times or less, then I’d say our block did about as good a job as we could hope for- Actually, we use a more sophisticated blocking metric, but it stuff and tool% gets you most of the way there.

    Now if I want to look at how my blocked worked in terms of funneling the hitter or how the block worked in stopping an attacker from hitting to different areas of the court, I would just look at the hitter’s effectiveness by where they attacked to. If you are familiar with DataVolley, there is a “cone” code that you can add to each attack. There are 7 cones with “Cone 1” being right down the line to “Cone 4” being attacked to the middle of the court, to “Cone 7” being a very sharp cross-court attack. And then I could compare how that hitter attacked in the cones I was trying to take away vs the other cones. So maybe I would look at effectiveness in Cones 1-3 vs Cones 5-7 to look at line vs crosscourt. This is something we do when building a scouting report, but we could also use it as a post-match evaluation.

    However, it can be tricky when you import that into real-world application. Here’s an example from our recent Grand Prix match vs Bulgaria:

    Bulgaria has a very nice outside hitter named Elitsa Vasileva who has a very impressive crosscourt attack. I am quite positive we were not the only team in the tournament that was lining up “right hand on the ball” to try to stop this shot. So, how did we do?

    Well, the first bit of analysis would be that she ended the match with a 39% attack efficiency and we only stuffed her once on 33 attempts. And specifically from the left, she was 13 for 26 with 2 errors and only that one stuff. So I would have to say that our blocking strategy didn’t work very well.

    Now, let’s look at any funneling effect that went on and look at her efficiency by different shots, all from the left:

    Line (Cones 1-3): 6 for 7, 0 errors/stuffs…
    Middle (Cone 4): 3 for 5, 1 error
    Cross (Cones 5-7): 1 for 4, 1 error
    Tips or Balls not attacked hard: 3 for 10, 1 stuff

    Good news: we definitely stopped her crosscourt attack! Unfortunately, her 86% efficiency down the line kind of made up for that.

    So that leaves our analysis in a bit of an interesting spot. We certainly “funneled” her away from her favorite shot, but she had no problem terminating in the other direction. Indeed, 12 of her first 15 attempts were kills. Fortunately we made an adjustment and she only was able to score on one of her last 10.

    I’m not sure I can come to any conclusive answers, because there’s a lot of compounding factors (like the fact that they passed 70% in-system in the first two games, where she picked up 10 of those 12 kills, but then they dropped under 50% the rest of the way through) besides our blocking lineup. In fact, I would say that our blocking lineup would probably be fairly far down on the list of items influencing her success, after their quality of pass, quality of set, her quality of approach and timing, etc.

    So ultimately, I guess I would say that you are for sure going to see some in-game funneling effects. I picked this example because it was pretty drastic, she went from a hitter who hit about 50% of her shots crosscourt to only hitting 25% (4 of 16) of them in this particular match. The majority of hitters don’t change much, which is why their tendencies stay pretty consistent over the course of a season and even a career, despite the fact that teams are scouting them and lining up to stop their favorite shot.

    It also is up to you how you determine what makes a successful block: the ability to funnel the ball or the ability to stop the attacker.

    Hope this was helpful, although I fear I probably raised more questions than I answered.

    -Joe

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