By Peggy Kane-Hopton

A good setter can make a weak team decent and a good team exceptional. A poor setter can do the opposite.

If you analyze the most successful teams, they usually have one thing in common: a quality setter. While each team will develop its own personality (some offensive oriented, some defensive and scrappy), one common thread is obvious at any level: the setter is the glue that keeps the team’s parts together.

Regardless of the team’s system (6-2, 5-1, 4-2), the successful teams will have at least one good setter. This article will focus on five key ingredients when choosing a setter as well as the Guiding Principles that apply for each: athletic ability and touch, communication and leadership, mental toughness, game understanding and physical attributes.

Athletic Ability and Touch
The setter is the quarterback of the team. Setters will (hopefully) touch the ball more often than any other player on the team. Setters should touch the ball on EVERY play. Therefore, you want the better athletes touching the most balls (Guiding Principle #1). The setter needs to be fast (speed in a straight line) and quick/agile (speed in changing direction). A setter who is fast, quick and agile will be able to beat the ball to the necessary spot from all areas of the court. A straight shuttle run from volleyball sideline to volleyball sideline is a good test to determine an athlete’s speed.

The setter's most important skill is the ability to get to the ball. However, once the setter gets to the ball and is ready to make contact, a quick touch is needed. This can be developed through repetitions emphasizing a quick release. The setter's mentality should be to deliver a hittable ball (Guiding Principle #2) to their hitters. Setters with a quick touch on the ball will be more consistently delivering a hittable ball to their hitters, especially when introducing and learning how to set first tempo, or quick, sets.

Communication and Leadership
Because good, experienced setters act as court coaches and are often court captains, it is imperative that they be good communicators. Setters are often the liaison between the coach (Guiding Principle #3) and the rest of the team. Setters need to direct the team’s offense by calling the plays. Before each serve, while the ball is not in play, the setter must communicate by either verbal calls and/or hand signals what set each hitter will attack.

Good setters will command their teammates’ attention and portray a calm, relaxed and confident attitude (even if they are not feeling it). Setters need to be poised under pressure, level-headed and willing to take the blame for possible mishaps, whether or not they are at fault. That’s what a good leader does.

Mental Toughness/Competitor
Athletes who are competitors and mentally tough demand the ball in pressure situations. Good players and good setters must compete on every play (Guiding Principle #4). Regardless of the score, how the team is performing, or how they themselves are performing, setters must play each point separately from every other. Each point is a game unto itself. The setter must have the mental ability to focus on each play, learn from previous successes and failures and then react and play to win each “mini-game."

Game Understanding
A good setter will be a coach on the court (Guiding Principle #3). It is not unusual for the setter to be the court captain. Setters should be able to direct changes in serve receive patterns, deliver the ball to the hot hitter (Guiding Principle #5), take advantage of mismatches at the net (priority hitter versus weak blocker) and change the tempo of the offense.

The setter should know the possible options in each rotation for both serve receive and the transition game. Of course, at the beginner levels this will not happen immediately. The setter needs to be a student of the game and learn by playing, by watching more experienced setters and even by watching and studying video tape of their own and others’ performances.

Physical Attributes
Ideally, setters should be tall, athletic, left-handed and possess a good vertical jump. Setters should be tall because they will usually play the right side position in the front court (position 2). This means that they will be blocking the opponent’s outside hitter who is probably one of the two best hitters on their team. Setters who can stop the opponent’s attack at the net by blocking effectively are that much more valuable to their team.

We’ve already mentioned that the setter must be a good athlete. The setter must be able to move quickly to beat the ball to the spot. When setters get to the ball quickly they will be more likely to better the ball (Guiding Principle #6). To “better the ball” means that the team is in a better (more offensive) position after the ball is played than before it was played. When setters are able to “better the ball," they will turn poor passes into hittable sets (Guiding Principle #2) and good passes into perfect sets. Setters who play with the mentality and ability to “better the ball” will elevate their team’s play.

Left-handed setters have an advantage over right-handed setters. In the transition game, setters move to the right front position (position 2) when in the front court and the right back position (position 1) when in the back court (in most offensive organizational systems). All else being equal, left-handed setters will be able to attack on the second contact easier since their hitting hand (left) is off the net when facing left front (position 4). Of course, it’s possible to train right-handed setters to attack (dump or hit) the ball with their left hand, but until setters become proficient at attacking with their left hand it may be a disadvantage to be right-handed.

Setters need to possess a good vertical jump to be a force at the net. This becomes a necessity when the team plays a 5-1 system. Setters in a 5-1 must play in the front court and must be able to defend (block) at the net. In a 6-2 system, since there is another setter in the backcourt, setters who rotate into the front court can either be utilized as a hitter if they have good jumping & blocking skills, or may be replaced by a better hitter/blocker.

In any recipe, there is significance to the order of ingredients. The first ingredient listed is what makes up the majority of the food product and the last ingredient makes up the smallest part of the food product. When deciding on your setter the decision will be easy if all of the “ingredients” are evident in the player.

Realistically, most setters - especially at the lower levels of play - will not possess all of the ingredients. In any case, the coach must decide on the most important ingredient for their setter and for their team’s success.

According to this author, the ingredients for a “recipe for a setter” are listed in priority order: athletic ability, communication and leadership, mental toughness, game understanding and physical attributes.

Possessing these ingredients will help the setter deliver the Guiding Principles for setting:

  • Better athletes will touch most balls
  • Deliver a hittable set
  • Setter is a coach on the court
  • Compete on every play
  • Deliver the ball to the hot hitter
  • Better the ball
Good luck with creating a successful recipe for your own team!