As another club season winds down, I like to take a look back and analyze areas in which I need to improve. While the club season does not allow for many scouting opportunities, the few that I had could have been more productive. There are several teams in my region that I know I would be butting heads with numerous times. I always try to explain to my team that even when you are working a match of a rival, be studying and learning their tendencies. They should be focused on the match anyway, so why not learn from the game history right in front of us. Coaches and players spend countless hours in skill work, strategy and tactics, pressure drills, game-like scrimmages, mental toughness training, and conditioning. We need to spend a good amount of time studying and preparing for our opponents, as this can be a distinct advantage over a team that does not prepare.
No matter if you coach at the high school, club, or college level, the ability to scout your opponent, and design and implement a solid game plan is critical to a team’s success. As a coach, you owe it to your team to provide them the best opportunity to win, just as they owe you their best efforts on the court. Gathering and presenting this information can take many forms, some of which I hope to detail for you.
Gathering information on an opponent prior to playing them can be done by video of a prior match or being a spectator at one of their matches. The obvious advantages of video are the ability to watch repetitively to pick up tendencies and weaknesses. There are several things to look for on video that may not become apparent the first time you watch. Sometimes, a specific weakness in a middle blocker’s footwork, or a serve receive formation, are not apparent the first time you watch. The more you study, the clearer the picture becomes on how to game plan for a certain opponent. They include:
- Starting Rotations: Do we need to match up with their starting rotation, or just go with our best point scoring rotation first? Start with our best server? Match-up with their MH, or get our OPP matched up with their O1?
- Passer tendencies: Does the front-row OH bail early? Do they pass better moving left/right/forward/backward? Do they recover quickly from an error? How well do they pass with their hands versus their platform? Where do they set-up on a float/jump-float/jump serve? What are the passers’ stats for each type of serve? Are there any seam vulnerabilities? All of this can be used in formulating a serving game plan for your team, and coordinating that information with the coach responsible for implementing the serving tactics during the match.
- Offensive tendencies: What tempo offense do they like to run in system? Out-of-system? What sets do they hit in each rotation? Does the hitter take line when the set reaches the pin? How well do the middles transition? Who gets the majority of the sets in each rotation? Are their middle hitter’s good enough that we need to commit? Do they like to overload a certain zone with offensive options? What are the specific play-sets or favorite plays they run in each rotation? Do they utilize a second serve receive formation if they are in trouble? Coaches can design the team’s blocking schemes around this information, as well as plotting a shot chart for each attacker. Shot charts are something that I feel your team should be involved in creating, as it will help them have a better understanding of how to stop an attacker.
- Defensive formations and abilities: Do they play a perimeter/rotation/middle-up/rover defense? What areas are vulnerable due to a defender with sub-par abilities? How well do they transition for free/down balls? Do players fulfill their dual responsibilities? (Front-row transitions to pass then hit, or get into their attack patterns too early). How well do their blockers read and set-up? Is the middle blocker late on the “go” set outside? Does the middle blocker drop their hands after the pass, or keep them high? Do they triple block an out-of-system pass? Are they in a bunch/spread/read/trap formation pre-serve? Depending on their initial set-up, what can we do offensively to take advantage of it? Is their base defense set-up in a right back load/left back load/normal base position? What are they gearing up to take away defensively from similar opponents? Providing this information to your players can definitely help in their attack decisions, set selection, and out-of-system strategies. Specifically, your setter should be reading their block and defensive alignments in order to design her offense effectively.
- Setter tendencies: Who is the go-to hitter when in trouble? Does the setter set a hitter the next ball after an error/block? Do they set the middles from a higher posture than the outsides or opposite? Does the setter reverse flow well, or does the set die? Who gets the majority of the sets in system/out-of-system? Is the setter a legitimate offensive threat? If so, what type of setter attacks should our defense be prepared for? Once again, this aids in designing your defensive strategies and blocking schemes. If the setter is a legitimate offensive threat due to an ability to turn on a ball, or they are left handed, we may have to commit our left side blocker and adjust our base defense. If the setter always runs a hut outside or “A” (left side back-row) when out of system, our blockers should be able to get a solid triple block up.
- Serving tendencies: Do they attack specific zones more than others? Where on the court do the serves of each player finish? Short, middle, long? How can we set up our serve receive to attack their serves with great first ball kill consistency? Do they have a mix of different serves we will be seeing, such as standing float, jump-float, jump serve? How will we set-up in serve receive for each type of serve? Do we have passers who are better at a certain type of serve? If so, do they have primary responsibilities and a green light to cross seams? The more knowledge your players have pre-serve, the better they can communicate their intentions effectively and side-out with more regularity.
Presenting the data to the team
Now that you have the information, how you present it to your team is important. How much information and what information you provide are the most important factors. Too much information can become too cumbersome and hard to digest for your team. One of the best ways to help your team absorb the information is to involve your team in the process of building the scouting report. By allowing them to watch video, create the shot charts, see the weaknesses in their opponent’s defense or serve receive, and be involved in a game plan to compete helps them to understand the game plan quicker. A simple one page sheet, front and back, is all that should be necessary at many levels, with Division I and International competition requiring much more in-depth analysis. First, identify the main players and give a strengths and weaknesses breakdown, along with ways to defend and/or attack them. For example, “#9 is a 6’2” O1, hits line/seam when on the left-side, hits away from body on the right. Quick arm swing, we need to be quick of the floor with our block. Poor blocker, and leaves early on free-balls to get into her attack lane. Attack them in transition with either a tight or wide.” Additionally, a simple rotation wheel for each rotation is an easy way to show set percentages. Placing the percentage of sets to each front-row player in the rotation wheel is a quick way to determine possible set direction. Having this information can help you decide if you want to go to a spread or trap block scheme to slow down a big OH. The use of court diagrams with serve receive formations, players to attack in serve receive, transition attack patterns, and defensive formations, are the best ways to convey information quickly to your team. Again, having the players draw in the attack patterns of the opponent during video sessions will help them to own the information. If the scouting report becomes too cumbersome, the data you are attempting to present will become lost. Remember, you are dealing with a generation that feels a 30-second phone call is a waste of time when you can text someone, and be on to the next text in about 5 seconds. Keep the scouting report thorough, but effortless, so your team can comprehend it.
Scouting your opponent is one of the easiest ways to gain a competitive advantage over your competition. Creating an effective scouting report and an accompanying game plan for your team will better prepare your team for what they can expect. Additionally, by having them participate in the creation of the report, they will have a better understanding of the team they are about to face, and be in a more advantageous position to make mid-game adjustments. Remember to keep in mind the audience you are creating your scouting report for. If this is for a high school or club team, focus on what you think your team will be able to understand or digest in a very limited preparation time. If for a collegiate program, you have more time on your hands to develop a more in-depth scouting report and game plan. That being said, keep in mind the old Business 101 adage of “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” I send my best to your programs and future scouting efforts.