With a little extra time on my hands I have taken started to look at what might be the differences and similarities between leagues, and with it whether there are any structural ‘rules’ in volleyball. Thanks to Michael Mattes and Manlio Puxeddu, who collected the files and Ben Raymond, who wrote the apps that let me crunch the numbers for the whole leagues. The leagues I will focus on are France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Russia. For these leagues, I have almost full data for the 2016-17 season and I also think these are probably the top 5 leagues right now.
From the time that we start to play volleyball we learn that free balls are / must be converted. After all, by definition free balls are the easiest balls you will ever receive. To not convert them is to refuse a gift. We would expect that the conversion of free balls is higher than the sideout percentage.
In our five leagues, it turns out that free ball conversion is better than sideout percentage, but not by that much. However, when you think a little further free ball reception quality should (must) be better than service reception quality. So is our better free ball conversion simply a function on better reception quality?
The simple answer is yes. If we break down the conversion rates by the quality of reception, we can see that after perfect reception, free ball conversion and sideout percentage are very close to each other in nearly every league (except France). However, after positive reception sideout percentage is higher (except in Poland), in some cases quite a bit higher. While the conventional wisdom says that a free ball should be a guaranteed point, as so often with conventional wisdom the reality is different.
I have posted on that topic before, but to summarise I think the difference between the two is not the ease of reception and organisation but the movements of the players before and during the action. In the service reception phase, players start (relatively) deep in the court and only move forwards to attack. In a free ball situation, players start at the net and must first move off the net. Even though the ball is easy and predictable there is still some time restriction and they do not get back to the same starting point for their spike approach. This affects their ability to spike. It is also possible that in giving a free ball, teams are better able to put the ball into areas of the court that restrict the setter, than by serving.
The lesson as always is beware of conventional wisdom.
NOTE: One word of caution on the above analysis. I did not personally code the 800 matches that are used in this analysis so I cannot be completely sure that all use exactly same definition of a free ball as me, or even as each other. However, given the the results are similar and that they match the findings of personal studies (with much smaller samples) that I have personally completely, I am confident that the conclusions are correct.
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