The difference between victory and defeat often comes down to which team has more “thinking” players who do the right thing at the right time. To help you play more intelligent volleyball, we’ve compiled these tips from some of the game’s wisest players and coaches.

Todd Rogers: 2008 Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist

  • Beach: Non-thinking players try to go for a crazy cut shot on the beach on off sets and often miss because there’s only about a 2-foot by 2-foot window to hit into. Thinking players snap a 50-60 percent hit to the deep middle, which is a much bigger area of the court and can be difficult to defend because there’s often hesitancy on who will take the ball.

Don Shaw: former Stanford men’s and women’s head coach; member of the AVCA Hall of Fame

  • Indoor: Non-thinking players don’t carry out the game plan. Thinking players have given thought to the game plan and do their best to carry it out. For instance, as a coach you might say, ‘When you need to keep the ball in play, send it to this particular player.’ When that situation comes up, a lot of players will forget to do that. It’s one thing for players to do something basic – like taking line or cross from a hitter. But it’s another thing to do something a little different – like not just getting the ball to Area 1, but giving it to a certain player. Thinking players make that happen.

Marie Zidek: Assistant coach, University of San Diego women’s team

  • Indoor: Thinking teammates try to take off-speed shots, free balls and other reasonably soft opponent hits away from their setter on defense so the setter can stay in system with transition offense (i.e. set the ball to the hitter of his/her choice). Non-thinking players play a “spot” on defense, allowing the setter to take an easy first ball requiring a non-setter to facilitate a high-ball offense. Hence, the team doesn’t take advantage of an opponent’s non-aggressive shot.

Bill Neville: National commissioner for coaching education for USA Volleyball; founder of Nevillizms

  • Indoor: Non-thinking servers bounce the ball a few times, the whistle blows and then it’s a Pavlovian response – they start to drool, and they just toss it up and hit it in the general direction of the court. It may look like a good serve, but it will be dead center and go to the best passer. Thinking servers value every serve as a potential scoring opportunity – not an ace maybe, but a chance to put the other team in trouble. They’ll identify their target with a purpose and locate the ball so it goes to a weaker passer or to a spot where it will be harder to pass.

Andrew Fuller: Volunteer assistant coach, University of Southern California sand volleyball

  • Beach: Thinking players cut down the variables in live action by parsing through data in practice and video study, which helps competition become more free and simple. On defense, thinking players focus on the more likely actions of the attacker and become faster and more efficient in their movements. Offensively, thinking players simplify the pass and set to give themselves the most attacking options.

Hugh McCutcheon: Former U.S. Olympic Men’s and Women’s Teams head coach; current head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s team

  • Indoor: When thinking players get sets they’re not particularly enamored with, they’ll do something that gives them a tactical advantage relative to winning the point – like tapping it into the block so they can get it back, or chipping it off a hand or tipping it into the other team’s setter. Non-thinking players generally take a bad set and make it worse. They try to hit it hard. They hit it low. They hit it out. They don’t manage it. I think those little things have huge cumulative impacts on results.

Russ Rose: Head coach, Penn State’s women’s team

  • Thinking players don’t let an error or loss beat them twice.

Deitre Collins-Parker: Head coach, San Diego State University women’s team; 1988 U.S. Olympic Women’s Team

  • Indoor: The thinking player tries to stay ahead and simplify the game by being proactive and anticipating the next possible actions. The non-thinking player is often reactionary and makes playing the game more difficult.

John Kessel: USA Volleyball director of sport development

  • Indoor: Thinking players have a high volleyball IQ that has been enhanced by playing in game-like situations, not in good looking drills where you look good but don’t perform well. By doing deliberate, game-like reps in practice, you’re able to play in matches without thinking.

Nicole Welch: Head coach, UC Santa Barbara women’s team

  • Indoor: Thinking setters wait to see the entire situation and until the last possible second before deciding who they set (including noticing where they might have a mismatch or the opposition may have cheated to), where non-thinking setters tends to set in a pattern that becomes readable to the opposition.

John Hyden: 3-time Olympian (2 indoor, 1 beach)

  • Beach: Non-thinking beach players over train. They just go out there every day and play. The thinking volleyball player is very sports specific both on and off the court and doesn’t over train. For instance, thinking players focus on a particular skill by creating multiple reps in a short period of time that will transfer over into their game and allow them to perform skills without thinking. The goal is to get to a place where you rely on muscle memory during matches rather than having to think too much.

Tyler Hildebrand: Former U.S. Men’s National Team player; pro beach coach; setting consultant for U.S. Men

  • Beach: Non-thinking players think hand setting is something you are born with. Thinking players do not. So use your hands. The more you hand set, the better you’ll get – and the better your game will get.
  • Indoor: Non-thinking players dogmatically believe that swinging high and hard is the only way – or the best way – to score points. But with the trajectory of sets and the speed of today’s game, blockers are no longer able to identify the point where the attacker has to hit the ball from. They are being forced into making earlier choices and moves outside their body, which is opening up more options for the attacker. Thinking players use their arms at different speeds and hit with a wide variety of range that’s highly dependent on information they’re processing on any given attack.

Holly McPeak: 3-time beach Olympian; 2004 Olympic bronze medalist; USA beach coach

  • Beach: Non-thinking beach players don’t understand that it’s a small game and you have to position yourself in relation to your partner, especially on passes and digs. When a thinking player sprays a pass, he/she moves to within about eight feet of where his/her partner is playing the ball so they can connect for a good set-hit. Thinking beach players also understand that sets off a bad pass or off digs that don’t pop up straight need to be a little higher (but still pushed toward the net) to give the hitter time for an approach.

Kayla Banwarth: U.S. Women’s National Team Libero

  • Indoor: When it comes to defense, thinking players don’t think too much when it comes to matches. You’ve trained so much and you’re very mindful in practice, but when it gets to the match, you know you’ve done a million reps so you don’t have to think about it. You just do it. You just let go.

Marv Dunphy: Head coach, Pepperdine men’s team; coach of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Men’s gold medal team

  • Indoor: The non-thinking blocker tends to stay on the ball too long. The thinking blocker has the ability to leave the ball and get onto the player who is about to play the ball (either the setter or the hitter). While inexperienced blockers are enamored with the ball, experienced blockers are really good at identifying the direction, speed and location of the set and then catching what they can of the approach angle and the upper third of the attacker’s body. Blocking is eye work, arm- and hand-work. First things first. Get that eye work in place!

David Fischer: Head coach, University of North Carolina – Wilmington, beach volleyball

  • Beach: Sometimes non-thinking can be a good thing. The thinking defender knows when an attacker has hit the same shot three times in a row, and might decide to definitely take away that shot the next time. The non-thinker just reacts to every shot and goes after the ball. Which one digs the next ball? Answer: It depends on how smart the attacker is. The best players think and recognize trends, but they still allow themselves to react to the play at hand – they don’t over-think.