To Block or Not to Block?

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By Mike Wall with Gold Medal Squared Volleyball Camps & Volleyball Clinics

Blocking is an interesting skill to talk about. I've often times wondered why blocking, and specifically swing blocking is such a hot topic. There's no question that its popularity has grown over the past 10 years, particularly in women's volleyball. However, that's not what I want to discuss in this post. We've had endless conversations comparing and contrasting different blocking styles. Lets ignore that for now. My objective is to make you think a little bit differently. And, maybe even change how you view and talk about blocking in general.We know that there's a correlation between power and depth. Another way to say this would be as abilities and power increase, so does the importance of blocking. Or does it? In 2012 the University of Oregon Women's Volleyball Team was ranked #1 in the country at one point in the season. They had multiple wins against talented, highly ranked teams (you can see their 2012 results by clicking here). As you know, they ended up competing in the NCAA Championship match against Texas. The University of Oregon was also dead last in blocks per game during the 2012 Pac-12 volleyball season. So, how is it that the second best team in America can be dead last in blocks per game?

At Gold Medal Squared we have always said that blocking is one of the least correlated skills to winning, particularly in women's volleyball. The more we learn, the more we think this concept is even more effective at the high school and club levels. Serving, passing, digging and scoring points in transition are the premier skills in women's volleyball. We know this because we've done the research (we talk about that research at our GMS Coaching Foundations Clinics.)

If you dig through box scores for collegiate women's volleyball, you will find endless examples of winning teams with less blocks per game than their opponent. In fact this was the norm for us at Arizona State during the 2012 season. We spent an enormous amount of our time teaching our athletes to serve, pass, dig to the right places, and work like crazy in transition. Very little practice time was spent on blocking.

What does all of this mean and what questions should we be asking?

If blocking isn't highly correlated with winning in women's volleyball, how much time should we spend teaching it in practice?

There's only so many hours in the day. For club volleyball coaches, your time in the gym with your kids is severely limited. As a result, we have to organize efficient practice plans that give our kids the best bang for the buck. In other words, you have to prioritize. Rather than teaching blocking first, teach it last. Teach your kids to become good at serving, passing, digging and managing their swings. Once you feel that this is in place, introduce blocking. Your kids will pick up the footwork and arm-work quickly. Since we know that blocking becomes more important as power increases, it's nice if we can teach the biomechanics to them at a young age. This gives you, and the athletes plenty of time to refine their skills as time goes on. Additionally, teaching players to learn to transition from blocking to attacking (with the correct footwork and eyework) is significantly more important than the skill of blocking in and of itself. So, you have to spend some time in the right environments in order to teach transition effectively.

Does blocking help us score or does it COST US POINTS?

This is an interesting question. We know that at the high school, club, and college level back row swings in the women's game are typically not effective (don't take our word for it, take stats in your gym). There's no doubt an elite group of women that can be effective from the back row, but that's not the norm (statistically). So, why do our 12s and 14s block back row swings? Furthermore, why do our club kids block attackers that are 5 feet outside the pin with no approach? It seems to me that we are helping our opponents by giving them hands at the net to work with.

The alternative is to teach your kids to see the game (volleyball is a visual motor game with an emphasis on the visual) and recognize situations where they "stay down" and play defense from the floor. We think this is a powerful concept that when trained correctly it can create both substantially and qualitatively more opportunities for your teams in transition. Personally, I don't think this concept applies exclusively to the club and high school level. This concept is being taught at the highest levels of the game. In fact there are some specific times in men's international volleyball when we want stay on the ground. So, look for opportunities NOT TO BLOCK.

How do we train this?

It all comes down to our ability to see the game. Your athletes will need to learn what sets to stay down on (show them video). In our gym the athletes figured it out in a hurry. It also depends on how aggressive you want to get. If you have a really solid back row, maybe you can stay down on more balls? As always, BUILD YOUR SYSTEMS AROUND THE ABILITY OF YOUR PLAYERS. That's an important concept to remember. There's no one perfect solution for every team. The game of volleyball is too random. That's why we have principles that free us up to make informed and effective coaching decisions.

Summary: It's important that we teach our kids how to block when they're young so they can be good when they're older. We are not advocating that coaches shouldn't teach blocking. We are trying to make you think about two primary concepts....

We suggest that you implement blocking systems and mechanics. But, if blocking isn't highly correlated to winning, how much time should you spend working on it given limited practice time? However, transition is highly correlated to winning, so your players have to be great in that phase of the game.

Are there times when blocking hurts your team? We think so.

Lastly, don't take our word for it! Learn about your team by gathering and evaluating sound information. Your coaching decisions from team to team will change, but the process by which you make coaching decisions should be based on principles.

To learn more about these concepts, attend an upcoming Gold Medal Squared Coaching Foundations Clinic. Click here to view our 2013 schedule.

Good luck!Mike Wall

Gold Medal Squared Volleyball Camps & Volleyball Clinics


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