I recently spent a few very interesting hours with a top professional men’s tennis coach. We discussed a whole range of issues but one in particular stuck in my mind. He said that technically and physically there was hardly any difference between the top players in the world (not just the top five, but also beyond). He went on to say that one of the most important skills that differentiates between the levels is the ability to ‘get out of neutral situations’, what he called ‘transitions’. In men’s tennis there are many occasions when during a rally the state of the game is essentially neutral – neither player has an advantage. The best players turn out to be the ones who can most often turn (transition from) these neutral situations to their advantage. I found this very interesting and thought instantly, as I do, about volleyball.
Volleyball is not the same as tennis, but can we still find ‘neutral’ situations? The answer is ‘Of course!’ In volleyball the attacking team normally has a big advantage over the defending team. There is however, one situation where the odds become much closer to 50/50** is when one team is attacking a high ball. A high ball attack is a neutral situation. Most teams at least intuitively understand this. Tipping short and playing all free balls towards position 1 are low risk plays designed to force the opponent to attack a high ball, or put another way, designed to create a neutral situation. When a spiker plays the ball into the block hoping to recycle the ball (cover and play it again), he is trying to turn a high ball (a neutral situation) into one in which his team can attack a faster ball or change the point of the attack (a positive situation). One can often see rallies in which there are one or two or three or four of these actions consecutively, especially when Italian teams or coaches play against each other.
It turns out that we can look at volleyball in terms of positive / neutral / negative situations. So coaches should ask themselves the questions
- How do I avoid being in a neutral situation on my side?
- How do I create a positive situation on my side?
- How do I create neutral situations on the opponent’s side
- How can I turn negative to neutral and neutral to positive?
Or just one question… ‘How do I get in and out of neutral?’
If you think in these terms, you will be surprised to notice how many teams (even at the very highest level) voluntarily put themselves into a neutral situation in the name of reducing risk (e.g. attacking a high ball when they could still attack a faster one) or who allow the opponent to be in a positive situation instead of trying to create a neutral one (e.g. by not paying attention to where they put a free ball over the net).
And you will instantly understand why Brazil has been so good for so long.
** My team wins 54% of rallies in which it attacks a high ball and 50% of rallies in which our opponent attacks a high ball. That compares to winning 77% v 32% of rallies with a first tempo attack and 71% v 39% of rallies with a fast attack.