Every medium level player can replicate any of the skills of volleyball to a recognisable degree in a closed environment. More or less any one can make a good set or spike to a specific part of the court. Once we start to play matches however, there seems to be a very large difference in ability between players. Setters who ten minutes earlier were setting through a hoop suddenly can’t keep the ball in play. Spikers who could spike in every direction with no block, suddenly can’t keep the ball in the court. Why is that?
Certainly some of the differences are motor learning differences. Better players are likely to have better developed motor programs. Certainly some of the differences are psychological. Game stress changes a player’s ability to run the correct motor program. But very rarely to we think about the role of decision making in this process?
Players ‘performing’ in a closed environment have the advantage of being able to plan their motor program well in advance of their actual contact. A setter decides to set to position 4 and organises the correct motor program before the movement begins. A spiker decides to spike line and and organises the correct motor program before the set. The key part is that the decision is made before the movement begins. In practice, the later the decision is made, the worse is the subsequent skill execution.
What this means is that lot of what we see as poor developed technique or high game stress is actually poor or late decision making. A setter who sets the ball two metres from the net, does not have poor skills, but made the decision too late to run the correct motor program in the available time. A spiker who spikes into the antenna, does not have poor skills, but but made the decision too late to run the correct motor program in the available time. Conversely. a lot of highly skilled performers that we see make very early decisions, which allows them to be very precise in the actions and carry them out with such conviction that their opponents cannot prevent them.
What does this mean for the coach?
Firstly, to improve skill execution help the players learn to make earlier and better decisions.
Secondly, teach players to make early decisions (even before the play has begun) and either carry them out with full conviction. Or to reduce the number of options they have. For example, rather than telling a spiker to spike either line or cross after seeing the block, tell them to focus on cross court either 4m or 6m depending on what they see. Another option is to teach them to disguise their intentions. If a player has time to plan their motor program, they can do many different things before contact without losing quality. For example, the game situation might require a setter to set a particular ball or player. There are many technical (and tactical) variations they can use to disguise that intention and ensure quality execution.
Decision making is the key.