I wrote recently about the length of rallies in Olympic volleyball, comparing the men’s tournaments of 2004 and 2021. I found that rallies were slightly longer in 2004 than they are in 2021 with an increase in service errors (which shorten rallies) not quite offset by an increase in longer rallies (of 3 or more net crosses). I went on to postulate that the increase in longer rallies could be because of improved block and defence (with I expanded on here), following on from stronger serving. A couple of people contacted me and noted that their observation was that spikers are taking less risk in general, and using options such as recycling more often. My first reaction to this is that my observation is that offence is much more aggressive than it was. Sets are faster from all positions and closer to the net. Aggressive seems to be analagous to risky, which we will come back to.
The data have spoken. The kill percentage is basically unchanged. However, the error percentage and block percentage are both lower in 2021. This does support that argument spikers are seeking methods to reduce risk. It does not support my thesis that offences are more aggressive. Except… attack and offence are not the same thing.
What has happened as offences became more aggressive (faster and closer to the net) is that attack options changed. The changes were driven partly by individual players such as Conte, NGapeth and partly by coaches who noticed that what those players were really successful and told their players to do the same. The new options were all off speed options, including the power tip. The great thing about those options is that they are almost zero risk. When the ball is set fast and close to the net, power tips are aimed at the middle of the court between the blockers. Blockers can’t stop them, so essentially the only two possible outcomes are a point for the attacker or an extended rally, probably to the attackers advantage. If a blocker is in good position, to recycle the attack is relatively easy (for a skilled attacker), which is also a positive outcome. Everyone is happy. Attackers can be aggressive and ‘creative’. Coaches see errors go down. Fans see more rallies (even if they don’t notice them).
Attackers (note the term is no longer spikers) ARE taking less risk, but not at the expense of agression. We know that they are still being agressive because they actually scoring a little bit more than their ancestors. It then logically follows that allowing power tips is as good for volleyball as service errors are. Even if they create endless (exceedingly dull) debate.
For the record, here is the breakdown between reception and transition attack. Reception attack is a little worse now (because the serve brings the reception away from the net). Transition attack is better (because it is more aggressive and attackers have more and better options).