To Hit or Not to Hit… the Zen of the Overpass

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I grew up in the era of crushing the overpass. In fact, my very first spike in a real match, when I was twelve, was from an overpass. I didn’t know how to play, and could not spike from a set, but I killed that ball! About fifteen years ago, I heard that hitting an overpass was a bad idea. It is more effective overall to take it is a free ball. Like all tactics I consider risk averse for no good reason, I rejected it for myself while keeping it in the back of my mind. Indeed to this day, it remains a relief to me when I see an opponent take an overpass as a free ball. I always feels it give me a chance to set up my defence that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and I feel psychologically better after losing a free ball than an overpass.

Ten odd years later, I had a player who refused to spike the overpass. Maybe refuse is not quite right, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Eventually he explained to me that he had had a (very famous) coach who didn’t let his players do it. To make his point, on an occasion when the said player forgot not to spike, his response was ‘If you want to spike so much, here’s a trolley full of balls’. The 20 odd consecutive balls that were spiked caused a short term shoulder injury and a lifetime’s aversion to spiking overpasses. I have had other players who were upset with me that I didn’t ban it for the team. If so many people really think it is a bad idea, perhaps I am the one who is wrong. I have tried to study it a little over the years, and tentatively found that hitting the overpass or playing it as a free ball makes no difference. But as Data Volley doesn’t work well (at all) with big datasets, I could never dig down far enough to say for sure. But now I have access to the great Ben Raymond and Science Untangled who did the study of the last five seasons of Plus Liga.

One slightly more sophisticated reading of the above, is that it makes a difference when the opposition setter is frontrow or backrow, the argument being that most blocks of the overpass are when the setter, arriving late, jumps to block without the spiker seeing them. So for our analysis we have separated frontrow and backrow.

Firstly, here are the overpasses that were treated as a free ball. Remember this is five seasons worth of data. There is no difference between the opposition setter being frontrow or backrow so we have consolidated that data.

NUMBERKILL%ERR %BL %RALLY WIN RATE
292258.4%5.54%6.74%73.3%

In case you are interested, it is better for a backrow player to take the first ball, except the opposite, and it is always bad for the setter to play the free ball. The setter taking the first ball reduces the chance of winning the rally by 10%. If the frontrow receiver takes the first ball it is also bad, for reasons I am not sure about.

What about when we attack the overpass?

OPP SETTERTOTALKILL%ERR%BL %RWR
FRONT74750.3%5.35%6.69%70.3%
BACK105879.2%3.88%0.00%88.1%

So there you have it: The definitive answer.
– Less actions against a frontrow setter probably suggests that many teams already differentiate in this way in deciding to when to attack an overpass. The kill percentage for the overpass is less than an attack after a free ball (50.3% v 58.4%) but the overall rally win rate is only 3% lower (70.3% v 73.3%). It is a slightly better option to play the overpass as a free ball when the opposition setter is in the front row.
– When the opposition setter is in the backrow it is a much, much, MUCH better option to attack directly. You are 20% more likely to score a direct point (with the accompanying psychological momentum) and 15% more likely to win the point.

My conclusion is that attacking an overpass is indisputably the best option when the opposition setter is in the backrow. It is clearly the best way to win a point. When the opposition setter is front, it is a psychological bonus point and I like the mentality of attacking. It you counter that it is better to err on the side of caution I will agree with you, but suggest that the difference is not really big enough for me to want to restrict my players.

Tagged Volleyball AnalyticsVolleyball StatisticsPlus LigaScience Untangled


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4 comments

  1. Hi Mark, great article. Looking further at the numbers if a team was to either hit the overpass every time or treat it as a free ball every time, hitting the overpass every time is clearly preferable. Even if you assume that 50% of overpasses will happen when there is a front row setter, the overall Rally Win Rate for hitting the overpass is 79.2%.

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    1. Do I understand correctly “expect the opposite” is a typo which should have been “except the opposite”?
      (Also, the 0.00% of BL% is, like, a literal zero blocks? That’s interesting… with 1058 occurrences, I’d expect almost everything to have happened. 🙂 )

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      1. You are right. It is corrected.
        Technically, with rounding, 0.00% from 1058 is 0-5 blocks.

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