The Art of Beach Volleyball


For some reason last night I remembered an article I wrote about 17 years ago. I thought I'd post it unedited, below. This isn't for everyone - but you might enjoy it!

Introduction

The intention of the following article is introduce some ideas and concepts and relate them to Beach Volleyball. The ideas are not necessarily new, but the context may be different. The idea is to challenge the way we look at the sport.

Technique, Skill and Art

We often talk about Technique and Skill, but rarely about the Art of playing Beach Volleyball, and we only sometimes notice it when it occurs. Often it is too subtle to see clearly.

Point Scoring

There is a popular school of thought that, in Beach Volleyball, you have to Side-Out to win. Beach Volleyball is not a Side-Out game, it is a Point Scoring game. The winner earned their win by scoring more points than their opponent. You can win a match 15:0 with exactly the same number of Sides-Out as your opponent, just as you can lose a match 0:15 with exactly the same Sides-Out as your opponent. This is not to say Siding-Out is not important, but it must be looked at in context. “The most important thing in a (game) is victory, not persistence” (Sun Tzu, pg64).

Weapons

When you focus on scoring points you need a ‘Weapon’, a strength that can overpower your opponent. There are a variety of Weapons, including Blocking, Serving, and the ability to read the game to create situations that will lead to points. The ability to Side-Out very well is also a weapon.

Tendency v Philosophy

The key to creating point winning situations is in looking for the Offensive Tendency, as well as the Offensive Philosophy of an opponent. All players have tendencies that, no matter how much they are charted and analysed, are specific to the context in which they were executed. Therefore it is difficult to extrapolate too much from the tendency unless the context can be replicated. A player’s Offensive Philosophy is independent of the context, and therefore, if it can be determined, can be a much more powerful tool in creating points.

Technique, Skill and Art

We often describe players as skilful, but rarely as ‘artful’. ‘Artful’ plays are not usually the spectacular, more the mundane. They are created by reading the game and being in the right position at the right time rather than having to make a spectacular play. The basis of much of this article is in the distinctions among Technique, Skill and Art:
  • Technique – the use of specific movements and posture to achieve a specific goal in the context of the sport.
  • Skill – the ability to select and use an appropriate technique to achieve a specific goal in the context of the sport. ie: the selection between a Float Serve and a Jump Serve, or a Hand Set and a Bump Set. It also leads into the ability to modify a technique to achieve a specific goal. ie: modifying the spiking technique to hit a ball that has been blown from the optimal contact point.
  • Art – identifying and exploiting spatial and temporal relationships within the game. It incorporates concepts such as ‘intuition’ and ‘lateral thinking’.
An analogy is with Chess. The technique is the rules. It takes a certain amount of skill to use these rules in the context of the game. The art is in seeing many moves ahead, reading what your opponent is planning, developing and implementing strategies which will work on a variety of levels.

How Points are Won

The data from Table 1 (graphed in Chart 1) has been collected from the FIVB World Tour since 1997. The sample is nearly 3,000 points for the women (2,834) and more than 1,500 points for men (1,766). The data was extracted from a database that has over 70,000 records relating to the actions of the player during matches.

Table 1


Block Spike Serve Opp Err TOTAL
Women
251
1177
610
776
2,834
Women %
9%
42%
22%
27%

Men
326
692
278
467
1,766
Men %
18%
39%
16%
26%



As can be seen from both Table 1 and Chart 1 the way women win points is different from the way men win points. The main differences are Blocking Points – where the men score double the points of the women, and Serving Points – where women make more points directly from aces. Chart 1 Physiological reasons relating to men and women are usually used to explain these differences. “Men reach higher than women so they can block better.” “The net is lower for women so they can serve more aggressively.” Sometimes these are more excuses than reasons. At the risk of some huge and questionable generalisations:

Serving

The net is 19cm higher in men’s Beach Volleyball. Many men have 19cm greater reach than most of the women but are not better Float Servers. This is partially due to the focus on the power aspect of Men’s Beach Volleyball and partially due to the perception that a Float Serve is simply a way to the rally rather than a direct means to score points. Women choose to use the float serve (not just the jump serve) to score points, therefore it does!

Blocking

The block in Women’s Beach Volleyball is less of a factor than with men. Women tend to avoid the block more when they spike, choosing to take on the defender. Men’s shots tend to be flatter to prevent the defender chasing them down. This means that men’s shots travel closer to the block, providing more opportunities to touch the ball. Also, men choose to use the block as an attacking means to score points, therefore it does! It seems that a significant factor in the differences between men and women in Blocking and Serving is perception. Perception of what women can’t do (“women can’t block”) and what men can do (“men can jump serve hard so they don’t have to float serve hard”). Clearly these perceptions are false and the best players men’s and the women’s players in the world are examples of the fallacy.

Spiking and Opponent Errors – Match Plans

The most common way points are won are through Spiking, with Opponent Errors coming a fairly close second. It must be recognised that spiking for a point can only occur after a dig and a set have been made, and for digs to regularly be made there needs to be co-ordination between the blocker and the defender. This is the way most commonly focussed on when developing Match Plans before games. Much of the focus of a Match Plan usually goes on working out how to dig your opponent’s spikes or force them into error. The fact that there is no guarantee that you will hit a winner from the dig, nor Side-Out well enough to implement this Match Plan are often ignored.

Match Plan Myths #1

Match Plans often focus too much on the opponent’s tendencies. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” makes a point about this: “…if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.” (pg82). One of the problems often encountered is a team with great game plans who never win. Often so much time and effort is put into beating opponents that no effort is put into knowing your own game. You need to know your own game intimately before you can make plans to defeat others.

Match Plan Myths #2

Match Plans often attempt to cater for too many contingencies, have too many different components. Again, Sun Tzu comments on defending in this way: “Preparedness everywhere means lack everywhere.” (pg108). In other words, trying to defend everything gets you nowhere. It is important to be specific about what you are defending and what you are not. So, do not focus on this, just be sure of what you are attempting to do and do that well. The skill of designing the Match Plan is in ensuring that you cannot be beaten with what you do not focus on, ie: “knowing your opponent and yourself” (g82).

Five Ways to Score Points

There are 5 ways to score points in Beach Volleyball. They fall into the following categories:
  1. Serving Points
  2. Blocking Points
  3. Defensive Points – transition spiking
  4. Pressure Points – Side-Out to Win
  5. Creative Points – using a combination of skills to create a scoring opportunity

Serving Points

Skill - Some serves simply cannot be passed. The limitation of a human being’s reaction and movement times mean that it is not possible to pass the ball. It requires skill to serve these types of balls.
Art - The art of serving is to create movements or perceptions in the passer that in turn enable points to be scored, either from an ace or later in the rally. For example a drawing a player short in order to ace them deep in the future. Another way of looking at it is that part of the art of serving is ‘creating space’ for an ace or a difficult pass by creating movement from that space.

Table 2 shows the difference in success between Jump Serves and Float Serves. The sample sizes for each are over 2,500, extracted from the same source as Table 1. Aces are defined as serves that end the rally – they don’t have to directly hit the ground without the passer touching the ball. Efficiency is a commonly used statistic that is defined as the Aces minus the Errors expressed as a percentage of the total serves ((K-E)/Serves).

Jump Serving has a higher Ace % but also a higher Error %. This data reinforces the usual way of looking at serving – that you Jump Serve for aces but expect more errors.

Table 2

Serve Type
 Ace   
Ace %
Error
Error %
TOTAL
Efficiency (%)
Jump Serve
257
9%
458
16%
2,788
-7%
Float Serve
178
5%
319
9%
3,406
-4%
Total
435
7%
777
13%
6,194
-6%

The top women’s team over the past 2 years are considered by most to be the best serving team in the world. Charts 2 and 3 compare their serving with the rest of the world over the past 2 years.



Two myths of Beach Volleyball are exposed here. Firstly, the myth that it is acceptable to make more errors with Jump Serving (note the difference between the Error % for Jump Serving for the two Charts), and secondly the myth that you jump serve to get aces then float serve when the ball has to go in (ie: after you have missed too many jump serves).

In Chart 2 the Error% for Jump Serving is the same as for Float Serving. The Ace% is slightly higher for Jump Serves and the Efficiency is nearly 0% (meaning that there are nearly as many Aces as Errors).

In Chart 3 the Error% for Jump Serving is nearly double that of Float Serving. The Ace% is nearly double that of Jump Serving, and the Efficiency is about -8% (meaning many more Errors than Aces). There are two main implications: that it is possible jump serve efficiently, and that Float serving can be a weapon.

Too often players are taught that they don’t have to Jump Serve efficiently. They are ‘allowed’ to make errors because it is assumed that they will score points, and they use the float serve to put the ball in play rather than attacking. Ace:Error ratios are often considered by coaches, ie: it is acceptable to make a certain number of errors if you make a certain number of aces. However, in some ways this can be self-defeating. The implications for the Ace:Error ratio is that by ‘allowing’ errors you are actually creating them. By not allowing errors and still demanding aces, you may well see vastly improved results.

The #1 Women’s Team demonstrate that it is possible to Jump Serve very efficiently, and that it is possible to Float Serve very aggressively.

Blocking Points

Skill

In this context we are discussing blocking points purely as points where the ball is stopped at the net. The skill is in selecting from the wide variety of techniques and strategies available.

Art

The art of blocking is selecting the appropriate combination of strategies, not just for that moment in isolation but appropriate in the context of the match. It is identifying the options and tendencies of the spiker and selecting an appropriate way to combat this.

A low percentage of points in Beach Volleyball come from blocking (see Table 1), although more come from the men. It is difficult to win points directly from the block because it is the only skill in volleyball where you can’t make decisions and movements based on the trajectory of the ball after the previous action. All decisions are based on actions before the spike – the set and the movements of the spiker. The time and distance that the blocker has after the spike is too small to be able to make any changes. The blocker is locked into any cues they read before the spiker made contact.

One of the challenges for the blocker is to maintain the relationship with the defender. Often the blockers start to ‘back themselves’ more and more the longer a match goes. This often leads to them covering the same area as the defender, leaving most of the court open for the spiker.

Defensive Points

Skill

Defensive Points are not related to a specific skill in the same way Blocking and Serving Points are. They are the interaction between the two players in the team. They include the skills of defence (digging), setting and spiking.

Art

The art is related to being in the right place at the right time for the dig, setting the ball that the defender needs, and beating the opposition with your offence. It can be made to sound simple, but requires an extremely high level of awareness to excel.

As discussed earlier, a Defensive Point is a point won through making a dig then winning the point in transition. Effectively this is a point that must be won with a spike, but the dig creates it. In both men and women this is the common way of scoring points (see Table 1).

One of the main differences in Point Scoring between the teams at the top of the World Rankings (Top 5) and the rest of the Top 20 is not more aces or more blocks or even their ability to get digs, it is their ability to hit winners after making a dig.

Defence Myth #1

It is a myth that good defensive players can win matches. A reasonable defensive player who is a very good transition spiker will always beat someone who is simply a good defender. It doesn’t matter how many digs you get if you can’t hit a winner. The good defender must be ‘artful’ – both in the movements and plays they make, and the offence they play after the dig.

Defence Myth #2

One way of teaching defence, or at least defensive intensity, is to insist that the athlete ALWAYS chase after the ball – even if it is too late to dig it. The common philosophy goes in three parts: first – you must chase the ball, then, because you always chase it, you will start touching the ball. Finally, after touching the ball for a while you will start to be able to control the ball.

There are a number of problems with this philosophy. The two main ones are, firstly, that it makes the assumption that the player will go from touching the ball to controlling the ball without actually being taught how to control it. Secondly, the most important part of defence is timing – timing your move to the ball – your interception of the ball, which is a vital component of learning to control the ball. This method does nothing to teach this component of the skill. Skill has been defined earlier as the use of a technique to achieve a specific goal in the context of the game. By having a goal to chase, then touch, then control, you are, effectively teaching 3 different skills: the skill to run after a ball (and throw yourself to the ground), the skill to touch a ball before it hits the ground, and the skill to control the ball and put it in the optimal position. The problem occurs when, by making the assumption that people will start controlling the ball after touching it for a while, you are not really teaching someone to control the ball at all. In the context of Beach Volleyball the goal of defence must be to play the ball to an optimal place to enable your partner to make a successful play. Therefore this is the skill you need to teach. Success is difficult, but it is the only way to develop.

Pressure Points

Skill

Pressure points are related to skill rather than art. The philosophy of “Side-Out to Win” requires the team to have extremely solid skills. The idea being that the skills of one team will eventually overcome the skills of another.

The “Side-Out to Win” concept requires consistent Siding-Out to build up pressure on your opponent, who may ‘crack’ in the future. This is true, but the following is also true: Your opponent is building up pressure on you and you may ‘crack’!

When using this tactic, one player from the opposition is usually selected to pressure. The following considerations should be included when selecting this player:
  • who will crack?
  • will it affect the other aspects of the game (some players serve better when they are hitting all the time, some serve worse)?
  • will it affect their partner (some players can’t deal with not getting the ball and will make rash plays)?
One of the problems with relying too heavily on Pressure Points to score is that you can alleviate any pressure being built up on you by scoring points, and you are also gaining an advantage on the scoreboard. So, scoring points is not just the way to win the game from a pure, simplistic point of view. It is also a means of alleviating pressure being created by your opponent.

Creative Points

Art

Creative Points are the essence of the Art of Beach Volleyball. It is about the interaction among the skills used in the game, and the players on the court.

Ultimately what the Point Scoring team is attempting to do is to create a situation on the other side of the net that can be exploited. In it’s basic form it is trying to serve aces, to get blocks, to dig a ball and hit a winner in transition. But ultimately the more skilled the team, the deeper you can go.

Creative points require players to be patient and have high levels of concentration. They need long term planning and recollection of events from the game, and previous times they have played the same opponent (or watched the same opponent). And, most importantly, they need to be able to draw on this information when appropriate.

The examples of tactics that can be used are limitless. You can serve in a specific way to a specific zone of the court in order to exploit an offensive tendency previously identified. You can block a particular area to force a spiker to hit to a defender or hit out. You can pull off the net at a particular stage of the match when the spiker is likely to hit at you.

Basically, the Point Scoring team must be prepared in advance, know what their opponent’s tendencies are, then, during the match, be creative within the flow of the match and identify situations that can be exploited. They must be ‘artful’.

The ability to formulate and execute plans at the right time in matches can be a significant advantage. By doing this, the skills themselves don’t have to be as overpowering in themselves. You don’t have to be able to serve aces, just to serve accurately, consistently and with variety. You don’t have to be the biggest most dominating blocker, you just have to have good timing and positioning. You don’t have to be the fastest defender, you just need to be able to control the ball you receive. You still have to be a very good transition spiker though.

A fabulous and simple example of creative play at work was in the last NBA Final playoff match in 1998. Michael Jordan spent most of the last quarter driving to the basket to score. The winning shot of the match he started to drive and, once his opponent had committed, pulled back and shot the winning points. He spent the whole quarter setting up the Championship winning shot.

Weapons

Weapons win Points - Points win Matches. If you think about the 5 ways of scoring points, each are the team’s weapons exploiting their opponent. Without a weapon, you cannot exploit.
  • Serving can be a weapon. Aces are easy points.
  • Blocking can be a weapon. Again, easy points can be won.
  • Digging can be a weapon, but only if it is combined with excellent transition spiking.
  • Ability to build Pressure in order to score points can be a weapon. To win through building Pressure, the weapons are mental strength and skill consistency.
  • Ability to Create points by combining serving/blocking/digging can be a weapon, but a much more subtle one.

Diagram 1 is a simplistic example of a situation that occurs among many groups of teams. Some teams ‘match up’ well against particular opponents – ie: their weapons can exploit some teams but not others. In this example the side-out team is able to beat the blocking team – their vision and precision with spiking cannot be countered (Pressure is the Weapon). The blocking team can beat the serving team – by having pressure on their spiking they lose confidence with their serving (Blocking is the Weapon). The serving team can beat the siding-out team simply by acing them (Serving is the Weapon).

To a large extent, the ‘Side-Out to Win’ philosophy is accepting that you will struggle to win points from your opponent. It is taking the emphasis away from Point Scoring. Going into a game with this state of mind is not necessarily desirable. “A victorious (team) first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated (team) first battles then seeks victory.” (Sun Tzu, pg91). The battle is the ‘Siding-Out War’ that can start a game. This is not the way to be victorious. Firstly you need to defeat your opponent, then, only if you have not, settling into the ‘battle’.

One very important aspect of Weapons that is often ignored is the understanding of exactly what the risks and downsides are when focussing on winning in a particular way. Sun Tzu mentions that “those who are not thoroughly aware of the disadvantages in the use of arms cannot be thoroughly aware of the advantages in the use of arms” (pg59). You need an understanding of your own game and your own weapons before you can effectively use them. You need to know both how they can be effective for you and how they can disadvantage you – often because you rely on them at the exclusion of other aspects of your game.

Offensive Tendencies V Offensive Philosophies

Much time and effort can be (and is) spent on identifying opponents’ tendencies but care needs to be taken that the tendencies you are identifying are in context. It is in understanding your opponents and knowing not just their tendencies, but also their offensive philosophies, that an advantage can be gained.

For example, through scouting you may determine that a player shoots line over the block on a wide set. That is the tendency. However the philosophy of the player (whether they realise it or not) may be to shoot over the block on a wide set because they assume the defender will not be covering behind the block. If your tactic is to block them cross court and dig the line shot you may end up being very frustrated when your opponent simply shoots over the cross court blocker instead of playing the line shot.

Scouting must be very clear in focussing on both aspects of the game: Point Scoring and Siding-Out. Sun Tzu says that “to unfailingly take what you attack, attack where there is no defence. For unfailingly secure defence, defend where there is no attack” (pg103). There are two aspects to this. The first sentence talks about Attack. It sounds simple, to attack where there is no defence, but the real art is in discovering where there is no defence, or, what is more likely, creating an area of no defence. The second aspect talks about Defence. The implication is twofold. Firstly you can read that you need to force your opponent to only attack where they are unskilled, hence you can defend where there is no attack. Secondly, if you cannot force your opponent into this, you must accept that they will attack successfully at times. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. In fact you can use this against your opponent. Allowing them to use what they know has been successful before taking it away at a later stage.

In identifying Offensive Philosophies you must take into account the context of the action. Including as many aspects as possible. For example, when analysing where someone is likely to spike you can take into account information such as:
  • What type of serve they received and where it came from,
  • Where they passed from and what type of pass,
  • How accurate the pass was,
  • What the stage of the game was (close, towards the end of the match, losing, etc),
  • What their previous actions were.
Effectively analysing all this information can help you set up long term strategies to win ‘Creative Points’.

Closing

The basis of this article has been to look at success in Beach Volleyball in terms of winning points. To help explain this we made defined the terms Technique, Skill and Art in terms of successful Beach Volleyball.

I’ll leave you with the one of my underlying philosophies, which comes from Vyacheslav Platonov: "A point won with the head is worth twice its face value."

(Photo Credit)

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