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Volleyball: How to Defeat a Team That Has One Star Player

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I love the sport of volleyball and enjoy sharing strategies to help teams win.

Penn State's Alyssa D'Errico.

Penn State's Alyssa D'Errico.

In a USA Volleyball (Winter 2014–15) article titled "Ace in the Hole: Winning with One Dominant Player," my good friend Shawn Strege went over all the options of how to win with one dominant player at different positions. That article began with the idea to play devil's advocate with how to defeat a team that relies on one dominant player.

Passing in volleyball.

Passing in volleyball.

Dealing With the Perfect Passer

Occasionally, you will run up against teams that have one passer who just puts passes to target every single time. These are players with great footwork or naturally accurate platforms. They make their entire serve receive unit better by taking a little more court from their teammates and making their movement areas smaller.

So how to beat a team with a dominant passer?

Serve Away From Them

The first option is pretty easy: Serve away from them. Even the best can usually only cover half the court, but there will be the occasional rotation when their best passer is in zone six and will be able to cover a little bit more than that as they will take both side seams as well.

As a coach, you will want to put some perimeter serving drills into your practice. You will also need to add in some pressure serving drills where players need to hit the zone called in key moments. Ideally, you'll want your team to attack the seams (both short and deep) in the half away from the libero.

Attack the Seam Out of Range

As a second option, attack the seam just outside the libero's range and see if you can get them to be aggressive just outside their movement pattern. If a player is the dominant passer, they'll want to go as far as possible to get some action and make their mark on the match. See if you can exploit that.

Make Them the Primary Option

The last option, and riskiest, is to make them the primary option and see if you can get them thinking why. If they are not used to being served, giving them every single ball might make them begin to wonder why. If they are psychologically strong, this strategy will fail. If you're at home and have a crowd that can add some heckling, you might be able to get by the good form and break them down mentally.

Serving in volleyball.

Serving in volleyball.

Penn State's Micha Hancock.

Penn State's Micha Hancock.

Dealing With the Sensational Server

This player is vital to most matches in that they can run off bunches of points at a time. In the age of rally scoring, that can be huge. As a coaching staff, you need to figure out if the opposing team has one of these players and manage around them accordingly.

Use Your Best Passing Unit

The first strategy is to have your best passing unit available. If the opposing team has a dynamic server, your lineup might need your best passers and not necessarily your best hitters on the court. Perhaps using a defensive specialist for a weaker passer in that rotation may also modify your usual substitution patterns.

Squeeze With Your Passers

A second option is to track where the opposing server is aiming and look to squeeze those areas down by shifting your passers over. Perhaps squeezing the area around a weaker passer by giving your best passers more court to cover instead of even spaces.

Next, you can add more passers into the mix to try and shrink the available seams down to a more manageable size. If you have a passer that struggles, lending them help by taking some of their court away can make it that much harder to pinpoint them.

Use Your Top Options

Another thing to consider, as a coach, you will want to instruct your setters to use your top options and keep things simple in terms of their play calls. Running the middle on a 31 set so that there is more of an angle to get them the ball when the pass is off the net if the middle is the best hitter. Avoiding fancy combination plays during this server's rotation.

Lastly, remind the team to be smart and efficient during these points. There's nothing worse than when a team gets a solid pass, makes a great set, and then a hitter tries to do too much and allows their best server a second chance to get into a groove.

Blocking in volleyball.

Blocking in volleyball.

BYU's Jennifer Hamson (#19) and Nicole Warner (#15).

BYU's Jennifer Hamson (#19) and Nicole Warner (#15).

Dealing With the Big Blocker

This type of player can wreak havoc on your offense. They can make your hitters hit to places where they aren't used to having to go, they can turn your hitters into tippers, and make your setter doubt the choices they are going to make.

Run Your Offense Away From Them

The simplest way to beat a team with a dominant blocker is much like the serving strategy: Run your offense away from them. If it's a perimeter blocker like an outside or right side, run more offense to the opposite side. Most often, that dominant blocker is a middle though and they will be going side to side as well.

One of the things we do in practice is a four corners attacking drill. We award points for the four corners and it encourages a straight line shot, high seam shot, and sharp cut shot for our side players. This drill should help pin hitters get around the big blocking middle player.

Make Them Move

Everyone always says that when you've got a dominant middle player, make them move. Your offense should have the option to run 31's and slides for your middles to be able to get away from that dominant middle, or to at least get some side to side jump in her technique.

Hit the Block

Lastly, have your hitters train on using the block. We do a drill called hit the block where our hitters only score when they hit the block. Whichever team wins the point gets the next free ball and has the first chance to score, but teams must be able to locate the block to score. To encourage winning against that block, we award three points for a kill and a single point for hitting the block. No one wants their hitters getting soft blocked into the defense the entire match.

Setting in volleyball.

Setting in volleyball.

Calvin College's Megan Rietema.

Calvin College's Megan Rietema.

Dealing With the Heavenly Hands

When the opposing team has a dominant player who is a setter, they will put a lot of pressure on your defense. The opposing team will likely get a lot of attacks and there may end up being some additional attacks coming from the setter's position that your team normally doesn't see.

Win the Match With Other Attacks

When the opposing team has a strong setter, your team needs to be prepared to win the match with their blocking, defense, and transition attacking. They will save some shanked passes that would normally be aces and they will make good choices to get their hitters into advantageous positions.

Prepare Your Blockers

It will also be important to make sure your blockers know who has the responsibility of taking the setter. Does the opposing team run slides? Will your blockers need to switch? Where are you going to force the setter tips? Does that setter attack when they are back row? These are all questions you will need to address as a coach and as a defense.

Hitting in volleyball.

Hitting in volleyball.

Hope's Jenna Grasmeyer.

Hope's Jenna Grasmeyer.

Dealing With the Heavy Hitter

This one is pretty popular at the high school and college levels. Teams will have that one hitter that gets a ton of sets and has the skills to beat your defense. This one will force you to make some philosophical choices.

When combating a team with one dominant hitter, you will have three choices:

  1. Do you stay with your system and hope you can slow her down enough or outhit the other team with your own offense?
  2. Do you commit more resources to try and slow that one player down?
  3. Or do you let that player get theirs and try and stop the rest of the team?

When making those choices, it's important to assess the opposing team's stats. Are there any other contributors or is it solely the dominant player? How many sets and kills are they getting? How involved are they in the back court and how much do you need to train against that as well?

How to Design Your Defense

When designing a defense to stop the dominant hitter, you will need to know where they like to hit from, what types of offspeed shots they possess, and where they like to hit to. Once you have that information, then you can make a few important decisions.

  • What type of blocking matchup can you set up to slow that dominant player down?
  • What type of defense will work well with that block and take away that hitter's favorite attacks?
  • Who will be responsible for picking up any offspeed shots?

Another strategy is to try and make the dominant player receive more serves and have to work that much harder prior to the attack. Taking away a little bit of focus could help you in the long run or trying to get a fatigue factor into the mix. Most dominant attackers have a high motor though, so that's a long shot.

The dominant attacker will always get some kills. The goal will be to slow them down if you can.

Set Point

Whichever dominant player you come up against will require some additional coaching on your part. There will be situations that your team will encounter that require some extra preparation in your practices. There are definitely strategies you can employ to try and limit the amount of damage that they do during the match. But it's going to take a full team effort to defeat any team with a player that fits into one of the categories above.

Good luck!


Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 26, 2015:

When your up against one dominant player, strategy and team play become paramount.

Great read.