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Winning Numbers: Know Where Your Points Come From

I do not consider myself a “stat’s guy” in any way shape or form, I just happen to have taken quite a lot of them in my career (hint: I didn’t play a lot). Statistics are a necessary evil when it comes to both understanding and winning games of volleyball. I miss the days when you could sit on a sideline and coach with the “eye test”, relying on your instincts and experience to make judgments on what you are seeing on the court.

Nostalgia is wonderful, except when it is stupid. While I will be the first to say there seems to be a new measurement for almost everything in sports these days, the right statistics are a valuable tool. Not utilizing them is essentially wasting free information. Coaches, players, and fans are all human, and humans make mistakes. Numbers are simply numbers, measuring the story as it unfolds on the court.

I’m grateful for my time tracking statistics, primarily because the experience gave me a numerical context which has only complemented my own “eye test” as I’ve gotten older. Numbers are always going to be up to interpretation, but I truly believe you need experience and intrinsic knowledge of the game to help read the story.

Not all numbers are created equal. Distracted athletes (especially in the college setting) will always try to look at what their hitting percentage was, how many digs they had, how many kills they had, so on and so forth. Outside of hitting efficiency I find most of those cursory statistics you see in a box score to mostly just be noise since the best volleyball stats are never found on the NCAA stat sheet (if you’re an athlete reading this, focus on winning the game and not the stat sheet).

What statistics are important is largely relative to the Coach, and different Coaches value different things. Some coaches change what statistics they value every year depending on what players are on their teams roster that season (Russ Rose). In my view the most important numbers in the game of volleyball are universal and incredibly simple.

25, 2, and 3. Those are the most important numbers in a match of volleyball. You need at least 25 points to win sets 1-4, you need to outscore your opponent AT LEAST by 2 in any set you want to win, and you need to do this for at least 3 out of 5 sets to win a match. Regardless of whatever statistics you are interested in keeping, they need to be able to help you get to those numbers, and you need to know where those 25 (15) points are coming from.

In volleyball, you can score on a kill, you can score on a block (NCAA stats only keep track of blocks ending the rally, we aren’t concerned with soft blocks for this exercise), you can score with an ace, and lastly when the enemy team commits an error. So, in every set your teams scoring equation will roughly look similar to this (not a hard rule, but it’s easy to understand).

Kills + Aces + Blocks + Opponent Errors = Final Score; where you want you’re final score to be 25, or 2 points greater than your opponents score, 3 out of 5 times.

These are the winning numbers in any volleyball match. One of the reasons why I love this breakdown is because it’s information that’s simple and actionable. You want the information you collect to be easy to understand, because nobody should need to be a rocket scientist to understand any game plan; “Keep it simple stupid” is the mantra, because the less complicated the message, the more comprehensive it is.

As an exercise in utility, the file below shows the earned points and errors of the Top 15 D3 Men’s Teams at the conclusion of the 2020 season (stats pulled from NCAA website).

Looking at the data, you can begin to see where the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team are, and figure out where you would adapt as a coach or player. The way I see this data, the recognized programs in the country are scoring in the following ways in a 25 point set.

1: 11-13 Kills per set
2: 1.5 – 2.5 Blocks per set
3. 1.5 – 2.5 Aces per set
4. 9 – 11.5 Opponent Errors per game.

These numbers can provide direction, and as a coach I can adjust my strategies to get my team to operate in these scoring ranges to win the game. Learn how to create scoring opportunities using your roster, train to minimize your errors, and play hard to put pressure on your opponents so they mess up.

We are looking to make use of the data we collect through action. If my team is averaging more than 12 kills a set, we are getting ample scoring opportunities via our offense. If we’re averaging less than 1.5 aces/set, then as a coach I should probably be evaluating my serving strategy, are we serving tough, are we getting the other team out of system, are they siding out on their first attack after every serve. These are all questions you can ask yourself when evaluating your teams performance based on the numbers.

There is no point to collecting a statistic if you don’t plan on using it to win the game in front of you. To be actionable means you intend to take action. Collecting information and then not using it to win is just wasted effort. As an example, lets look at “Player A” in a hypothetical first set of a random match. In set 1, they have 4 kills, 1 ace, and 2 blocks, for a total of 7 of the 25 points your team needs to win the set.

However, they also hit the ball out of bounds 4 times, got aced 4 times and were in the net twice because they were chasing blocks. “Player A” gave the opposing team 40 percent of the points they need to win the set while giving your team 28 percent of your needed score. As a coach, I’m looking at this performance and saying I need a less mistake prone player on the floor right now; that’s what it means to be actionable.

“Player A” may be the best player on your team the majority of the season, but if they are playing this poorly there shouldn’t be a conversation from a numbers standpoint. A volleyball season is a collection of averages, and nobody is always going to be “in the zone”. This is because humans are intrinsically imperfect beings. We can train to be consistent, but sometimes there’s just a perfect storm of bad luck, frustration, and opponent planning that gets in the way. In this situation, put “Player A” on the bench. Let them clear their head so they can fight another day, because the teams goal is to win now.

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