The greatest defensive players have the ability to “read the opponent's attack” and position themselves in both a court and body position that allows one to track, pursue and play the ball. This means the defender must play a court position anticipating an attack, but a body position anticipating an off-speed shot and run it down.
For some players this ability is innate and for some it must be instilled and trained, but all players with this ability have one thing in common – they are driven individuals who have the mindset to spontaneously react and go after “every” ball, known by many as RELENTLESS PURSUIT of the ball. This positioning is heavily dependent on the placement of the opponent's set (off net or tight) and the formation of the team block (single, double, line and/or angle). A player who can anticipate and read the situation as it develops will have the jump on those that don’t, won’t or can’t.
Size Up Your Opponent
At all times before each serve or receive, look across the net to learn whether the setter is on the front row or back row and determine the number of front row hitters. Ask yourself some questions, like:
- Is there a dominate hitter on the front row that the setter is more likely to set?
- What is the most likely set that the hitter will get from the setter in this situation?
- Does your team have a dominant or weak block responsible for that hitter?
- Do the hitters have any tendencies on their shot selections from that position?
Next, watch how the ball is PASSED. The quality of the pass will more times than not give you huge clues as to what is likely to be set and to what area of the court or which hitter. If the ball is passed behind the 10-foot line, then the set to the front row will likely be at an angle to the Left Front or Right Front; thus, typically resulting in an angled attacked. Keep in mind that learning to “Read the Hitter” is a process of elimination.
Now, we are on to the actual SET. Your first focus is to watch the setter. You already know whether he/she is on the front or back row so it will be easier to figure out if he/she jumps whether it is a set or a possible attack. When he/she is front row, does the setter like to attack the second ball? It is harder to read a left-handed setter in this position than a right-handed setter. Some obvious signs of the setter readying to attack are:
- Does the setter’s body face the net?
- Is she jumping?
- Does she only jump when she is planning to attack (otherwise sets from the floor?
- Is she approaching the ball with one arm raised with an open hand that can tip, throw or hit?
Attackers’ Body Language
Once the set is not attacked by the Setter, turn your focus to the likely hitter. Watch the approach! An aggressive approach tends to lead to an aggressive attack and a slower approach tends to lead to some type of an off-speed shot (roll, soft, deep placement or a tip). So here is a big clue to watch out for - the lack of a full approach is a red alert that an off-speed shot is coming.
Where the attacker is going to hit the ball is typically given away by the spiker’s angle of approach and where their shoulders are facing. Let’s take, for instance, an attacker in the Left Front (position 4). If the attacker takes an approach angle from outside the court, she will typically attack at a cross-court angle. If the attacker starts the approach inside the sideline near the 10-foot line, then watch for the line shot or the middle zone of the court to be attacked. After determining the angle of approach, next look at the attacker’s shoulders and feet. If the shoulders and feet are pointing toward the net, you can expect a down the line shot. If they are angled to the net post expect a cross-court shot. An attacker’s ball tends to go in the direction in which their feet are set up. If an attack has to “adjust” their approach due to a set to far off or to tight to the net, the results is often a safe hit that the attacker just tries to keep in play, and by percentages this means cross court where there is more room to keep the ball in the court.
Next, watch the hitter’s armswing. The elbow and hand will give you even more clues to determine whether it will be a hard hit shot or an off-speed shot. If the elbow drops into a “shot put” position, it is a good guess that an off-speed attack is coming in the form of a tip or roll shot. Can you see the attacker’s hand? During a fast armswing that results in a hard attack, everything is fast and you probably cannot see the hand. If you can see the attacker’s hand, the arm is moving slower and you should expect the off-speed shot. One more clue can be taken from where the hitter’s palm is facing:
- Is her hand facing the line even if her body is facing cross court?
- Or vice versa?
- Is she having to reach across her body to contact the ball?
- Is she having to reach too far out to her hitting arm side to make contact?
Location of the Set
The hitter’s shot selection is often limited by the location of the set. For an outside hitter a perfect set that is near the antenna and about 2-3 feet off the net gives the hitter the most selection and he/she will be in control with a whole arsenal of options. The tighter the set is, the more you should expect the ball to be driven down hard and shallow if no block is up and at a sharp angle if there is. The closer to the antenna the ball is the more you should expect a line shot. If the set is outside the antenna, expect a sharp cross court near the 10-foot line. If the ball is set off the net, expect a deep ball probably hit at an angle. If the ball is set behind the hitter, or the hitter approaches too far under the ball, an off-speed shot is highly likely. A low inside set ball will typically lead to an angled shot (think of a 31 or shoot). Slides typically come back to the RB if the set is outside the antenna, or if the hitter passes up the set.
Location of the Block
All defenders need to understand their team’s blocking strategy. If your team has a blocking strategy, then you generally have a plan on where you are trying to force the opponent to hit the ball - preferably to your strongest defenders – including you. Never stand directly behind your blockers because you cannot see the hitter. Seeing the attacker’s body language and approach (sometimes even their eyes) is key to determining where they are aiming. Make sure that there is a defender assigned to tip coverage for the over the block soft shots. Encourage your blockers to communicate if they are blocking line or angle, thus helping the defense behind them to be in a better position or expect possibly holes in the block if blocking both line and angle.
The first line of defense is the block. Blockers eyes should follow the pass to the setter then after the set focus on the attacker to determine approach angle, and then once they establish their position and jump, focus back on the ball. Blockers need to watch the attacker’s shoulders and arm plus make a quick mental note of the direction the attacker is facing as the hitter is jumping. It is key for the Blockers to learn to read the approach and front the hitter by lining up with the attackers hitting shoulder and where the ball is expected to cross the net. During warm-ups, it is important to notice if there are any left-handed hitters on the opposing team.
Technique of Defender
The Defender’s starting position is very important. The feet should be a little more than shoulder width apart and well balanced with weight leaning forward up on the toes (the body position for tip). One foot should be slightly in front of the other and the player is ready to move in any direction. The arms and hands should be in front of the player and apart leaving the player ready to run first then create the platform to dig. The player needs to soften a hard, driven dig by relaxing the arms back toward the body a little at contact, thus absorbing some of the ball’s force. The defender should always try to use two hands and stay on their feet whenever possible. If the ball is hit at the defenders face, he/she should use the overhand dig and push the ball straight up.
The Defender’s goal is to always get the ball up. Good technique and a never-say-die attitude are key to becoming a great defender. Ways of getting to the ball to get it up and playable include:
- Taking quick shuffle steps
Tracking down a far away shot starts with the right attitude – one that says “I can get it.” Charge the ball with two arms and try to contact the ball on the forearm by snapping the ball upward to lift it up. Strive to get the ball to the middle of the court so that a teammate can set the ball. Playing the ball low will allow more time to stay under the ball and create more control.
Attackers Ability, Tendencies & Performance
A great defender is also a great gatherer of information. Learn to read the hitters’ signs, gather the clues and identify any strengths and weaknesses. First, most hitters tend to hit where their body faces, and at most levels most balls are hit cross court. Tips are obvious because you can SEE the hitters hand due to the slower armswing.
During warm-ups one should learn to size up the attackers.
- What is an attacker’s natural ability?
- Are they tall verses short?
- Are they quick verses slow?
- Do they have average vs great vertical?
- Is the attacker a “good” hitter or a “great” hitter (can they make great attacks out of bad sets)?
Once you gather some information, you can start to formulate an educated guess as to the type of sets they will call; high sets verses quick tempo sets. A right-handed player that over rotates or is “goofy footed” will tend to hit a lot of balls down the line or into the block from the left front attacker position (reverse for a lefty in right front). A slower, shorter hitter will have to use more off-speed placement shots during a match so expect variety. A quick, tall, good leaping hitter is the hardest to read if the player possesses a variety of shots. Pay attention to the setter’s backsets. Many setters do not get the set all the way out to the attacker’s right hand (to the antenna) thus lining up the hitter to hit into the block or only leaving them the cross court angle.
In order to learn an opponent’s tendencies, you need to learn to scout the opponent. This can be done by watching video ahead of time, catching one of their matches during your off time at a tournament and/or asking a common opponent. A great tool is charting every attack by a player for a full set as this will show where the majority of their attacks are being directed. Things to determine include:
- Where and when does the hitter like to swing hard?
- What is the hitter’s favorite shot?
- Is the attacker a power or a finesse hitter?
- Does the hitter follow-up with an off-speed shot after an error or being blocked?
Mindset of the Great Defender
First of all, a great defender must become a great reader and want and expect the ball at all times. One must possess the attitude that they can and WILL get to any ball and will show relentless pursuit in going after the ball. The key thought is to expect every ball to be hit hard your way and to not be caught by surprise! Focus first on the hard attack (so get into good court position for a hard hit ball) and second on the off-speed shot (so be in a low-ready body position to react to the tip). Always be ready to move striving to beat the ball to its destination. Have the goal of getting in the attacker’s head and frustrating them by getting every ball up. Control an attacker’s best shot by popping it up.
There are three main elements to good defense, which are study, discipline and patience. Study the opponent. Discipline yourself to learn the clues and go with the odds. Have the patience to cover your area and trust your teammates to do the same. Some of the main tactics and strategies include:
- Staying in the angle and challenging the heat
- Using variety in hiding your defense to make the attacker guess
- Charging the ball
- Listening to the opponent’s calls (line and/or hole) for their hitter
Training the Defender
Start with some basic drills with a few initial reps with a coach or hitter up on a box in Left Front and a digger in Left Back across the net. The hitter can allow the defender to read body, armswing and hand contact clues by hitting a series of hard, then soft, then tip and roll shots to the digger. As soon as the digger “gets it”, start to mix-up the different attacks. Remember to have the digger in different positions as well as move the coach or hitter around to Middle and Right Front. The key is to try to “duplicate” a hitter’s motion as closely as possible, which includes tossing the ball at a realistic, game-like height.
As soon as possible add a live hitter that self tosses and attacks from about five feet off the net. Repeat the above to allow the defender to read an approach and time the attacker’s jump and swing. Add a second hitter with one in Left Front and the other in Right Front. Finish by alternating the hitters and attacks.
Hit & Dig - Repeat the above from a live set with two diggers and two hitters on the court – now the defenders have to communicate and make decisions on who is getting the set, where the attacker will hit and who is to play the ball. Let each attacker take 10 attacks and count how many balls the two diggers get up to the middle of the court. Challenge the diggers’ range by using just one digger and two hitters.
No Blocking Drills - Trying doing some of your normal wash drills with no blocking and work on setting the ball five feet off the net. This will push your defense to really read the hitters, plus work the hitters on practicing an out of system attack. However, unless your team never blocks, make sure you do most drills WITH Blockers at the net to give your defenders much more game-like situations that they will see in the match!
When training to become a great reader you must learn to develop great court sense. There is no better way to learn than by playing the game. The art of great defense calls for good positioning. Anticipation is the first step followed by the ability to read. Reading the hitter calls for studying the hitter to determine their shots, watching the attacker’s approach line, watching the attacker’s body language and the armswing. Attitude is everything and great defenders always want the ball!
Hints & Clues:
- Straight Approach = will most likely hit down the line.
- Angle Approach = sharp and off the court means most likely an angled shot.
- Set Outside Antenna = attackers tend to hit a sharp angle.
- Set Off the Net = attackers tend to hit the angle.
- Perfect Set = if next to the antenna, players tend to hit the line shot; if tight, line is likely.
- Late Blocker = smart attackers will try to “tool” the block.
- Majority Angle = majority of attacks are hit at an angle as it is an easier shot.
- Off Balanced = will try to tool or use the block or hit off-speed shots.
- Set Low & Inside = most likely hit at an angle.