For twenty years (or more?) managing the high ball has been considered one of, if not the preeminent skill in men’s volleyball. High balls are required after defensive actions and poor reception, so the theory goes that if teams are essentially equal in good situations, then those difficult situations are decisive. The reasoning continues that the high ball is totally within the control of the players and the easiest way to manage risk. Millions and millions of hours have been spent practicing high balls and high ball situations and conventional wisdom maintains that high ball hitting is the key to success.
But is all (any?) of that true? The high ball is within the control of the players, particularly the spiker, and it is easy to manage risk, especially if you don’t try to score. On the other hand, it is the most difficult ball to set as it travels the longest distance with the highest trajectory. It is the most difficult ball to attack as it requires very precise timing to hit a ball that is accelerating into the attack zone. It is the most difficult ball to score as it requires hitting against a perfectly formed block and defence, with a maximum jump and full power. Because it is so difficult, millions of hours are needed in order to never quite master it.
At the peak of the ‘high ball era’ (around 2012) games could seem like a dance, with teams playing together rather than against each other. Immediately after defence, the block would congregate at the point they knew the attack would originate, the attacker would tip against perfectly formed block to the defender who was standing ready to receive the tip, and as that player was normally either the opposite or the setter, the process was repeated ad infinitum. Technically the rallies were long, but so was the tedium.
Given the difficulty of setting, hitting and scoring a high ball, another solution has started to gain some traction amongst many teams – don’t play high balls. By avoiding high balls and playing faster from more situations, it turns out that the quality of the set is better and more consistent, it is easier to score against an ill formed and moving block and, crucially, the effective risk is lower. People have started to understand that a having a ‘full swing’ is not always an advantage. Tips and shots made before the defence is set, or when the block is moving have a higher success rate than high balls, and with much lower risk.
The lesson, as always, is always, always, always, question conventional wisdom. And don’t play high balls.