Defense is possibly the most difficult team system to coach. It requires the knowledge of different systems as well as the understanding and know-how to implement the various strategies that best suit a team’s style and strengths. The question then becomes – should defense simply be modeled on a basic system or should it be coached based on the understanding of technique, skill, strengths and timing? I believe it is both. Players cannot execute an effective defensive system without a deeper understanding of what defense truly is, why each player on the court must be involved and the importance of playing as one unit.

At the beginning of each season, every coach ponders what type of defense his/her team is going to play. While we may favor one defensive system, we may have a team with defensive needs that differ from what we prefer.

Choosing a Defense

There are a few factors that need to be considered to determine the type of defense that works best for the team:

  1. Does the team present a formidable block with several power players?
  2. Are we an offensively or defensively focused team?
  3. How athletic is the setter and can he/she get to a tough out-of-system ball?
Whether rotational, perimeter or hybrid system, coaches should teach players flexibility to adapt to the chosen style of play.
After assessing the defensive needs of my team, the challenge then becomes educating players who are unfamiliar with this system. I have found that less experienced players tend to assume that defense starts when the setter releases the ball or when a hitter attacks. In either case, players have a delayed reaction to the opposing offense and are not implementing the non-physical volleyball skill of reading.

“Reading” is a key factor in developing overall defensive skill and notably, one of the more challenging. Teaching less experienced players to read enables them to anticipate their opponent’s next move rather than making an uneducated guess. Anticipating gives us the opportunity to transition and position ourselves in the best possible spot on the court. This, in turn, leads our team to effectively respond to the offensive action.

My coaching style teaches players that defense starts as soon as the ball is passed by the opposing team. Players will need to evaluate the quality of the pass and position themselves accordingly to counter.

By assessing the quality of the pass, players can determine the offense the opponent can execute. If the pass is in system, our team needs to consider a quick set to the middle blocker or opposite. If the pass is out of system, we should look for the ball to be set outside. Again, by reading the play, blockers can accurately anticipate the placement of the ball and set the block accordingly.

This type of evaluation is also beneficial in determining the "trends" of the offense. Every player has an offensive tendency, a preferred angle or corner to hit resulting in a set way to run the team’s offense. Understanding those tendencies can help our anticipation of the play and allow us to play defense more effectively.

As soon as the setter releases the ball, it is important to see all the players on the court moving as one unit: blockers and back row players transitioning to their assigned positions. Caution must be noted though as younger players often have the tendency to misinterpret this move as the final position necessary to execute a dig. Defensive systems are designed to give them a guideline to follow, but they must also make a read on the play.

Systems do not dig balls, and coaches do not play defense - players do. To execute the system properly, players need to complete the evolution of base defensive posture to transitioning and fronting the hitter. As you drive (small movements forward, weight shifted to toes) toward the hitter, players must read and evaluate the relative positions of the ball, the block and the body of the attacker.

In certain scenarios, we see players defensively transition, make the read but then wait for the ball to come to them. What we should see from our players is a more aggressive forward position concentrating on the hitter. Hitters will often position their shoulders and look at the angle they are aiming for.

In the Back

Back row defenders should also consider their positioning in relation to their blockers. Making this read will determine if the block is sealed or has a seam. If the defenders are in the shadow of the block it creates openings in the defense for the opposing team to score.

It is crucial for defenders to either stay in the seam of the blockers or transition just outside of the block. Younger players may gain a better understanding of playing around the block through illustration, showing them exactly where they should be defensively. Coupling visualization and verbalization will provide any player with the necessary resources to fully understand the concepts you are trying to teach.

When the ball is set, I encourage my back row players to transition and drive forward assuming a lower, more aggressive position ready to read the hitters. When the attacker hits the ball, defensive players must stop their feet then, get ready to dig, dive and do anything necessary to keep the ball alive. To alleviate the stress of an already difficult job, I prefer my players to dig high and to the center of the 10-foot line. Ideally, we would want our passers to direct all digs towards the setter zone but, with younger teams this can lead to overpasses and net violations.

There are many factors in determining what type of defense to play. Therefore, as coaches, it is imperative that we understand the principles of playing defense before implementing the defensive system. The first part of my season is spent on training passing and defense. These are always the first concepts I introduce to players – it’s not just a mechanical event but rather, an evolution of understanding framed in a system to help the players gain precision and strength in their overall technique.

My defensive strategy is rarely the same. Instead, I cater it to my players. The principles remain the same but the framework changes. Students are not taught to memorize algebra; they are taught to understand the concepts associated with it. The same can be said about defense - once the players understand the process, the outcome will be positive and rewarding.