“It’s a pass and serve game.”
Three-time Olympian and 1988 gold medalist Bob Ctvrtlik has been saying this for years, but his oldest son, Joe, 20, a sophomore setter at Stanford, only recently gave the coveted “Hey Dad, you’re right!” on the point.
Bob’s youngest son, Matt, plays with my 17-year-old son on both his club and high school teams. Hearing that anecdote leavened my frustration that, after four years watching the sport, I was still missing the subtle aspects of why a play went well or horribly. The fact that an Olympian’s college-aged son is still having epiphanies provided a relief-filled realization that understanding volleyball’s nuances is an evolving process, especially for parents like me who’ve never played beyond the backyard picnic level.
The realization inspired me to set aside my pride, pose my “stupid” questions to Bob, and begin my quest to become a savvier spectator. His explanations have helped me enjoy and appreciate the game much more, and I hope they’ll help fellow parents do the same. What follows is by no means a comprehensive parental primer, but it’s a good start.
A Libero’s Wheelhouse: Passing & Defense
I’m a sucker for high flying, powerful spikes, and it turns out, I’m not the only one. “The most common misconception is people focusing on the attack,” Bob said. “Hitting is very important. You need somebody to culminate the play, but volleyball is a percentage game. The more often you can put the odds in your favor, the more times you’ll have a good outcome. That’s why the things that happen before the hit are critical.”
The pass is the first of those things. It falls to the libero to receive the majority of serves, but passing is a skill in which Bob believes every player can and must excel.
(Read Bob's 1998 article on passing tough serves.)
A good pass is not so much about where it goes, but how it goes. “Does it give the setter time to get to the ball? If the setter is a little late, will the trajectory of the pass make the ball fly over the net?” Bob queried. The ideal location for the pass varies according to the situation, but generally it will be slightly to the right of the net’s midpoint, inside the 10-foot line, and will, as Bob put it, “drop like a piece of manna without too much spin.”
Consistency is critical in passing because the pass dictates the nature and pace of the resulting attack. If the ball arrives where the setter expects, it creates ideal odds for setting whichever hitter will face the weakest defense. That perfect pass can even enable the middle to jump before the setter has touched the ball, knowing “the quick” is coming before the opponents have time to set a block against it. Even better, if the pass enables the setter to jump set, his or her high point of contact shaves nanoseconds off the ball’s travel time to the hitter, increasing the odds of catching the defense unprepared.
To achieve that coveted consistency, the libero receives the serve and all other incoming missiles whenever possible. The position requires excellent ball control. As a defense-only player, the libero’s version of a kill is the dig: getting to the well-placed, hard-hit balls and getting them up to where they’re playable. “The easier the attack, the more precise the expectations for where [the libero] places the ball,” Bob explained. “On a very hard hit ball or a difficult scramble play, it is great to just keep the ball in play. On relatively easy attempts, liberos need to have pinpoint accuracy.”
On the Offensive: Hitting & Setting
Having effective serve receive and defense means the team can move on to focusing on their offense.
“The basic strategy is that you want to get the ball to your strongest attackers against the other team’s weakest blockers,” Bob explained. Statistically, middle blockers often have the highest hitting percentages. In large part this is because they usually are attacking against one blocker and the quick pace of most plays out of the middle makes it difficult for the other side’s defense to set up properly. If the passing and setting are working well, middle blockers can have a big night.
The middle position requires a very high level of fitness and a “never say die” mentality. The squad that can successfully set the middle in the fifth game is the team to place your bets on, Bob advised. “That’s when everybody is a bit nervous. But if a team is setting the middle, they’re controlling the ball with solid serve receive, passing, and setting, and, odds are, they’ll win.”
But a team can’t start feeding their middle without a strong, smart setter. Setting ranks with passing as an unsung essential to a winning team. “It’s the most underrated yet most important position on the court,” said Bob. “When a setter is really good, people often take it for granted until they’re gone. A good setter can make all five other players on [the court] better.”
Noting how often a team’s hitters are up against a single block is a good way to evaluate a setter’s abilities. The hitter’s approach is also telling. If the hitter can remain in a fluid rhythm and take a full and natural approach, that signals a good set, but if they have to bunny hop or constantly adjust to where the ball is, that’s a sign of inconsistent setting.
Above all, consistency of pace and location are the keys. “If the set is a bit inside each time, the hitters learn to adjust to that, and it’s ok so long as it’s consistent,” said Bob.
Even with the best of setters, however, the outside hitter, swinging from the left side of the court, should expect to “get all the junk,” as Bob, who played that position himself, put it. When a pass arrives 12 feet off the net, the setter’s options are typically reduced to a high set to the hitters on either side, the outside and opposite. This slower sequence of events allows the blockers across the net to easily predict where the set is going and form a solid wall in front of the hitter. “People sometimes watch that scenario and say, ‘Oh, the hitter didn’t put the ball down, he’s having a bad day,’” said Bob. “When, in reality, it might have been the setter or the passer’s fault.”
The outside hitter’s job can also be glamorous. A good pass and set can lead to a long approach, a big jump, and an awe-inducing pummeling, but the position requires hustle and well-rounded abilities. In most offenses, the outside must receive serve in addition to blocking, hitting, and playing defense. They’re often the go-to player for retrieving balls off the block and for making something out of a last-resort set against a solid block.
“You have to be able to see the ball, the blockers, and know the defense,” said Bob, “and if you can’t, be smart enough to hit a shot that puts the other team in difficulty or causes the ball to bounce off the blockers’ hands back to your side, rather than just hitting it as hard as you can into the block.” Long Beach State’s Taylor Crabb is one of those savvy hitters. In a recent match against Stanford, Crabb hit 58 balls with zero errors, utilizing his vision and ability to find the open court or hit the best available shot. His hitting prowess helped lead his team to a 3-1 victory. “If the hitter can put the ball down against those odds, they’ve set themselves apart from the pack,” Bob noted.
First Line of Defense: Blocking
Blocking is another crucial skill. “Of course, a straight down ‘stuff’ is optimal, but parents should watch how often the blocker deflects the ball,” Bob encouraged. “A ‘soft block’ allows the defenders to retrieve the ball.”
A well-formed block also allows the defense to have much higher odds of scoring a dig by taking away some of the open court. Next to a stuff block, funneling the hitter's attack to the defense is the second-best outcome.
What you don’t want to see is blockers flying out of control and being a target for hitters. “I made a career out of hitting the hands of blockers who weren’t in good position,” said Bob.
The middle is in charge of orchestrating the block on defense. “They’re watching the pass and making a split-second decision on every play,” said Bob. “Are the opponents going right, left, or jumping in the middle?”
Height is a great asset for blockers, but those who don’t have it can try to make up for it with speed and work ethic. “Watch how often a middle blocker anticipates correctly where the set is going and sets up a well-formed block and you can gauge the skill of the middle blocker,” said Bob.
Placement over Power: Serving Secrets
“The tendency today is to hit the heck out of a jump serve,” Bob observed. “Again, what do people think is a good serve? What do they notice? The ace! But sometimes the strategically-placed jump float or a [standing] float can be equally effective. The best serve is the one that puts the other team in the most difficulty, which leads to a good block opportunity.”
Serve placement is often dictated by the coach based on findings from scouting reports and video. The coach will try to pit his or her team’s strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses, calling out serving spots prior to each serve. Targeting the opponent’s weakest passer or serving short to mess up a hitter’s approach are common serving strategies. “It’s important to take statistics on how effective each type of serve is,” Bob said. “Some servers score points jump serving and some make too many errors for the few points they score.”
Coaches typically have two or three options for each rotation, so servers should be able to mix it up. “One thing that drives me crazy is that so many kids are hit-or-miss now,” Bob observed. “There are times in a match, say on game point, where you don’t need your ace serve. You need a good, strong serve. I used to call it my 70-percent serve. It wasn’t my toughest serve, but if I had to get it in and still cause a bit of difficulty on the other side, I could.”
Break It Up: Manipulating Momentum
Momentum and emotion are influential intangibles on any team. “It’s amazing the almost miraculous plays that will happen when there’s a good feeling out there,” Bob said. “Other times, is seems like all six players can’t tie their shoes!”
Parents in the stands might wonder why coaches call time-outs and make what look like bizarre substitutions, like putting a player in for just one rotation.
“Again, it’s always about putting the odds in your favor,” said Bob. “When things are going well, as a coach or a player, you really want to capitalize on that.” Alternately, when the other team is on a roll, coaches will do anything to break the momentum: take time-outs, mop up mysterious puddles of water on the court, and make player substitutions. “That can be very frustrating for a parent when their child gets put in for one rotation,” Bob admitted. “They wonder what their kid did wrong to get taken out so fast. Often the coach is trying to break or, at least, slow down the opponent’s momentum.”
Respect the Game: The Parental Position
Having played the game at the highest international level and now watching his sons’ college and high school careers, Bob has an unusual perspective on the sport. “On one level it’s a simple game, but on another level, there’s a whole game going on before the hit even happens. There are many moves and countermoves.”
Simple or complex, it’s a beautiful game. “There’s so many positive things that happen. In every play, there’s opportunity for a good pass, a good set, and a good hit, so that’s three people getting positive reinforcement. There are also many, many errors made during the course of a game. The best players don’t dwell on the errors and have the ability to move on to the next play. More than anything, I think the positive reinforcement is why it is so fun for people to play.”
Throughout our chats, Bob offered only one piece of parental advice. “Don’t yell out instructions from the sidelines unless the coach has asked for your help,” he said. “It is confusing for the players and it is usually counterproductive. After playing over 500 international matches for Team USA, I still ask my boys, ‘Do you want any feedback or should I just be a positive parent?’ Let the coaches do the coaching.”
Fast Facts About Bob Ctvrtlik
- NCAA national champion and MVP at Pepperdine in 1985
- Three-time Olympian, gold medalist in 1988
- Captain of indoor national team from 1994-1996
- Known for excellent serve receive and defense
- Member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame and Pepperdine Hall of Fame
- Competed on the Bud Light 4-Man Beach Tour
- Served on the IOC Athletes Commission and was USOC Vice President
- Founding board member of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
- Married to Cosette and has three sons: Josef, Erik, and Matthew
Originally published in May 2014