Thoughts On Defense In Volleyball

By John Kessel, USA Volleyball Director of Sport Development
Adapted from an article by George Sheenan

"There are days when you can't get the ball to hit the floor, no matter how hard you try," my volleyball coach once told me. "But there is no excuse for not playing good defense."

I’ve known those days when every attack is a fight; every idea manufactured. There are days when invention and smoothness and originality disappear; when nothing is new or bright or wonderful. The air is the same. In those days, I start to press and everything gets that much more difficult. The feel of offense is gone; and with it, the power, the ease, the brilliance that play brings.

The offense is play. The defense is work. When I attack, I create my own world. I act out the drama the setter has begun. Offense is exuberant, freewheeling, multifaceted deception played high in the air, often unrehearsed. Offense is an excitement that provides its own excitement; its own compulsion; its own driving force. From the hardest spike straight down to the slow-falling tip shot, it generates its own energy.

Offense then, is an art. It cannot be forced. It is the spontaneous joyful unification of body and mind and the team. There are days it won’t happen. The circuits of the brain won’t open. The playful right hemisphere remains inaccessible. The jump seems less or mistimed.

Defense needs none of this. It is plodding attention to duty, grit and determination and perseverance. It requires an act of will and risk. All you need is the decision to put out and give 100 percent.

On defense, I am another person, the real person. Offense is a showplace for talent and even genius. What defense discloses is character. There, effort and energy are a matter of will. There, l am asked, “Will I or won’t I have it so?”

Defense is a matter of pride. The determination to be the person I am. The decision to give my word of honor; to take an oath that what has to be done will be done.

I try not to be proud of my offense. My attack with the setter is a gift freely given and perhaps just as readily taken away. How many poets have turned to drink in an effort to restore that childlike way of looking at things? One has to be superstitious of such feats.

I enjoy my play, enjoy attacking the ball, but I know my talent is something I carry. The real test comes when that is absent. When I am filled with fatigue and boredom and the desire to be off on a vacation. We all know this and react differently. In a U.S. Army survey, 63 males, 22 years of age, rode exercise bicycles at 55 percent of their maximum oxygen capacity. They were told to ride until it became so discomforting that they felt it necessary to stop. They stopped at times varying from 1.5 to 98 minutes.

Defense narrows down to character the ability to persist in the direction of greatest resistance. There are teams – successful ones – that no longer look solely on talent. They recruit on character. It is a long season. Expecting every play to keep the ball off the floor, no matter what it takes, can be fatiguing.

There are days on end of giving yourself and talent is not enough. Only character can fix my will to the idea that anything less than my best is unworthy of me and the game and my teammates. Only character can take defense and make it worth every iota of my mental and physical energy. Only character can make me function when my existence seems to be, as Emerson said, a defensive war.

I know all that, as I suspect you do. But I still play defense like almost everyone else; knowing that eventually there will be a dig and I will get the ball. I dream of suddenly seeing that new idea plain, like being in the air with no block. Knowing that when the ball leaves the setter’s hands, like an idea not yet written, it will hit nothing by floor. But dreams are not the stuff defense is made of. Nor are the athletes for that matter.