STOP Teaching Setting

By John Kessel | Oct. 21, 2011, 2:46 p.m. (ET)

After the dialogue from my blog called “Stop Teaching Passing”  - I felt as this junior season starts up that it is important to give all you teachers of the game a few more titles to chew on. What in gosh sakes am I saying here, when I spent last season teaching my kids a 6-3 system, so half of my 14ers were learning how to set?  That a previous season “middle blocker” not only was one of those setters but also made the varsity team is part of the reason for this title, but there is lots more than that of course.

This time I am challenging you all to think on two large fronts – the first is to not allow your younger players to believe or even call themselves “a setter.”  We must remain true to the concept of teaching players to be all around players as juniors, good at all the skills – not just “setting.”  Decrease the pass-set-hit drills where just the “setters” on your team set the ball, and make EVERY player set for a part of practice. Have every player hit…THEN SET…then go get the ball. It is humorous how many repetitions it takes for a “hitter” to stop chasing the ball like some Pavlovian dog and instead hit, then set, THEN go get the ball. Equally important however in this concept is that we want “setters” to also think of themselves  as hard working, hustling diggers, and hitters, and if their height allows, blockers. Not all hitters can block, but all setters CAN and MUST hit. It is sad, and senseless to cross paths at training camps with kids who say they are only a setter, and have never hit.  Of course all setters must also be effective, aggressive, intimidating servers, regardless of their height. Other volleyball nations get  this well, with Canada implementing a LTAD – Long Term Athlete Development – model for many sports. This info has been shared by free webinar last season and will be woven more into our own IMPACT teaching this year.

The biggest part of the concept we must understand and teach is this – stop teaching setting and start teaching HOW TO RUN AN OFFENSE.

This is again NOT a play on words; it is a very important and not well understood part of teaching the GAME of volleyball, not the techniques of the game. With young players, you must start at the very beginning to teach them not just how to set, but what, where, when, what and why to set the other five teammates.

Even in the doubles games, these principles apply, as you set the only attacker you have, determining the best option of the five “Ws” that guide your teaching of setting an offense. Why five when there is only one teammate? As the “who” (or maybe mom would tell me to say “whom” here, but that does not fit the poem…) really in setting an offense might be the setter – dumping, shooting, or attacking on the second ball.

I have a sign in my office that I give to every new intern working for me over the last 25 years. It is a quote that fits into today’s blog, by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson again.

I have six friends

That serve me true

Their names are What, Where, Why,

How, When and Who.

I ask each intern to make sure these six friends have been checked with, before they turn a document or a request into me. We both save time and reduce errors when these friends are covered.

The same thing happens for learning HOW to set an offense – these five “W”s should to be checked at the start of each rally.

Where are the opponent’s best blockers and my best hitters in this rotation?

What are my front row hitters favorite or likely most successful set options.

Who is my safety valve hitter if passes go awry? Are they front row or is the best option back row for this rotation?  

When should I most likely set them in this rally, first ball side out attempt or in transition?

Who has the best match up, blocker vs my front/back row teammates? 

Why did they succeed in the last rotation(s), game, tourney, practices?

These decisions evolve from having to think about it, to being able to do it, and make the best choices, without as much thought, but with more art and game sense. It is no different from the evolution of a quarterback, who at younger levels runs a simpler offense, which gets more complex at high school, college and then the pro level. The main difference in volleyball and football is the speed and size of the players as you move up in age and level. Cody I just dropped off at Princeton for his frosh year – but this summer I got to spend some time with a classmate of his, Ryan, who will be the school’s varsity hockey goalie. I asked Ryan one time, what is the biggest difference for him as he has moved up the ranks to being a top level netminder. His answer was the same – speed and size. The principles do not change and the sooner you teach them to the kids seeking to run your offense as the setters, the better.  As teammates develop in their attacking skills over the season, the choices evolve, the playsets become more complex, the options more varied.

I will say again, we MUST start teaching our player at a far earlier age than we do now, to play on the right side of the court. We develop kids so long just hitting the left side, that when I do grills (aka gamelike drills) where players are choosing to attack zones four, three and two – only 10 percent of the kids will give zone two any time for spiking. That also means our setters have a vastly more limited offense to run – and we have athletes who cannot either set to zone two, or attack from that side of the court.  PLEASE start with more “front/back” grills so the players learn to attack BACK row first, from both the left side AND the right side.

Other guiding principles for running your offense need to be shared, especially that of “bettering the ball.”  This is a cornerstone concept for ALL who put up the second ball in the offense, whether they be the intended setter, or a teammate who answers the call of “HELP!” and then steps in to set.  Who, where, even how concepts need to be guide and taught – for it is better to set a hittable ball with a bump set, then to “set” a ball with one’s hands, only to see it not make it high and/or far enough in the air for a teammate to jump and crank on the ball. 

The person running the offense must first put up a hittable ball. Nothing is more important. Secondly, it should go to the best hitter for the options available – considering factors such as where the ball is passed to and the positions of the opponent’s best blockers in that specific rotation, etc. If a hittable ball can be set to more than one option – then the setter can become “tricky,” but not without the first two concepts being achievable.

The person(s) running the offense are key to any team’s success, as they touch every second ball. They should be good athletes, able to pursue and improve any pass. They must be creative, not patterned by some blocked drill to look good in warm up but unable to set anything that is out of system. Remember, for the majority of teams, your offensive system is likely to be more “out of system” than “in system” – as your players grow in their serve reception and defensive system skill sets. While covered before, the ability of every player to set, and to jump and attack from any part on or off the court, is vital, and best learned in random training, not blocked. I find most players in the world are able to run their offense to zone four must more successfully than to zone two – not because it is harder to set behind, but simply due to the fact that about 85% of the training is done towards zone four, only infrequently backset/trained behind. 

So ask your team this question at the next practice…who delivered the gold medal point set in Bejing for the USA men?  I doubt they, and even maybe you reading this, know that it was Ryan Millar, the middle blocker for the team and the setter on the cover of our free USAV Minivolley book. Lloy Ball ran the team offense, wonderfully well in his fourth Olympics, but in the end, the final set choice was properly made by a person who also knew both the skill of setting, and more importantly, how to run the offense at that moment. So learning to be on the offensive, even after a bad reception where the “setter” must call for help, your players all should know the right setting options within varying levels of play.

Lately there has been more attention to Brazil’s training. I suggest some of you take advantage of the information shared half a decade ago, in the 2007 Volleyball in the Schools Symposium.  There, three experts came in – Toyoda from Japan, Ivstan on LTAD from Canada, and yours truly.  Then many federations, led off by Brazil’s presentation followed… Brazil  understands well  the importance of all around players, and they put their words into action by requiring ALL teams playing 6 vs 6 nationally and below, to run a 6-6, from the ages of under 15. Each player sets from either zones 1,2 or 3. Imagine what a gift we would give our own junior’s player development to have our own national championships to be played with mandatory 6-6 offense. I think it is worth implementing at your club level, even if you feel you can’t at the scholastic level for various reasons.

I would like to thank Laurel Brassey Iverson, who remains a dear friend, for her help over our years together in getting me understand how to run an offense.  As a member of both the 1980 boycott Olympic team, and the 1988 Olympic women's team, she put up ball after hittable ball, no matter how challenging the pass came in, and lead the team with her spirit and saavy. welcome your comments and thoughts below, or directly at on this edition of “STOP Teaching __________”  Next up ? I will look at serving… 

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On November 03, 2011 Dr Jim Newman wrote

Nice article and I am glad to see someone at USA volleyball realize that each player must know how to perform all skills, something I have been teaching for many years. Jim Newman Head Coach Amarillo Young Guns

On January 29, 2012 Chris wrote

In the link from 2007, there is a DVD referenced in your presentation on "skills and drills for kids". Is that available? I am a parent coach of a great group of kids playing in a U12 rec league and think that is a fantastic resource. Thanks

On January 30, 2012 John Kessel wrote

Chris - Send a stamped ($1.00 is the shipping cost for USPS), self addressed 9x13 envelope to USA Volleyball, Attn Region Services 715 South Circle Drive, Colorado Springs CO 80910 until March 15th, then - for those reading this after the ides of March, send to 4065 Sinton Road, Colorado Springs, CO 80907. Also, check with your USAV Region (RVA) Chris, as most (just not all) offer the new FREE USAV membership for 8 and under athletes and the lower cost in-Region only 11& under membership for $15 or less, for annual memberships. We want you to succeed with the info in this blog and the others, and for the younger kids to get a very inexpensive start to being a USAV member! John

On February 13, 2012 David wrote

John, Here's another quote for your collection: "...I am a terrible blocker. I've never been a good blocker, no matter how hard I worked on it. It's a hard skill and just wasn't good at it. Pick a guy or girl that can set your team, who puts hittable balls up and knows how to run an offense, who keeps your team in rythmn even when the passing is bad, who knows how to streak hitters, knows how to quick set off the net. It doesn't matter if they are 5'8" or 6'8". You know, we have this thing where we have to be a great blocker, you have to be a great server, she has to play good defense. All that doesn't make any difference if you can't side out. Once I really worked on that and learned about strategy and how to stay one step ahead of the middle blockers and how to set an offense - that is the biggest thing. - Loy Ball - The Net Live 4/11/2011

On February 13, 2012 David wrote

Sorry about the repeats, my browser and your website weren't getting a long there...

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