I recently watched a match where a coach whose team had been leading 18-11, took a timeout at the loss of the first break point: 18-13. Watching the match, I thought that was probably pulling the trigger too soon as at that point, essentially nothing had happened. Sure enough when his team then lost another three points, he was ‘forced’ to take his second timeout, while still leading 18-16. The team went on to lose the set 23-25, with the coach having perhaps handcuffed himself by taking the first timeout too soon. By coincidence, on the same day I watched a different match in which another coach also took both of his timeouts while his team was relatively comfortably leading. By coincidence his team also saw their entire lead evaporate and he had to stand on the sidelines as a spectator during the most important moments at the end of a set. This time however, the team managed to hang on and win despite having perhaps taken those timeouts too soon. I say ‘perhaps’ because the beauty of the game is that, despite what ‘experts’ may say, noone actually knows what would have happened if something had been done differently. It is all just conjecture. That is what makes it all so much fun. But I digress…
Timeouts are one of the few ways a volleyball coach can impact a game directly. The major reason that timeouts are taken is to change the momentum of the set**. Of course there are some who maintain there is no such thing as momentum in sport (for example) but presuming for a moment that there is, what is the effect of a timeout? One study of the German men’s league studied every match for an entire season. They found that a sideout was exactly 0.4% more likely after a timeout than at any other time. That is, taking a timeout had as close to no effect on the outcome of the next rally as makes no difference. So returning for a moment to our presumption that momentum exists, taking a timeout does nothing to change it.
My experience tells me that reality is not so simple. I believe there is such a thing as momentum. I believe that timeouts can affect momentum. The information from the study should make us think about how we use those timeouts. If the effect of a timeout is minimal then perhaps we would be best served by using them only at pivotal moments. For example, when the score is close at the end of a set and the smallest effect could be magnified. More than once I have found myself with a ‘spare’ timeout at the end of a set that I am sure (well, I would be, wouldn’t I?) was at least partially decisive. One time in a top match we were playing well, although down a couple of points and I didn’t think we needed one a change in momentum or tactics, even at 22-24. We managed to save the set points and I still had one timeout which I was able to use even later in the set and we were able to win. On another occasion, I judged that we were so far behind a timeout would make no difference to the outcome, so consciously decided to keep it to use right at the end of the set to try to disrupt the rhythm of the set with an eye on the following set. Without my help, my team managed to fight back and I still had that timeout to use at 22-22, when it was really useful. Again we won.
Of course, the other interpretation is that the timeouts really do have zero effect and I am only trying to convince myself that I made a difference when I didn’t. Either way, I think it is worth thinking about how we and why and when we use timeouts.
**The second and third reasons is some order are to give new information or tactics to the team and to be seen to be doing something.