Playing Defense in Youth Volleyball – What You Need to Know

Watching a fundamentally strong volleyball team move and transition from offense to defense and defense to offense is probably the most rewarding experience you can receive as a coach. This “ballet” of movement does not happen in one match, but suddenly at some point in the season, you will be sitting on the bench watching your team play, and for unknown reasons you will find yourself relaxing with a big smile on your face. “Eureka”, you silently yell, “they get it!” The uncounted hours in practice have paid off. So, how do you get to this point with a group of young players that may have never played a set of volleyball in their lives?

The process is an cumulative one, each piece that you explain and map out for your players, will build on the previous piece. You can teach this in steps, and then pull each step into a final total exercise. Here is how to divide up the learning pieces.

1. The transition from offense to “base” defense. (Offensive alignment will not be covered in this article. The focus is on the defensive alignment in the front and back row.)

2. Moving from “base” defense to preparing to dig the opponents’ attack.

3. Positioning and reading the opponent’s attack

The first step in teaching young players defensive positions is to get them to understand where they need to be positioned on the court to start playing defense. Use the word “transition” as you walk your players through their movements from offense to defense. Have your team of 6 execute an offensive attack- bump, set, spike. As this play completes, the players should be gathered near the hitter, preparing to dig a blocked shot. As soon as the ball has been sent over the net, all 6 players should hustle (RUN!) to their “base” defensive positions.

The base defensive position looks as follows: The front row players align themselves facing the net, arms raised to shoulder level. The middle front player is in the middle of the court at the net. The right and left side players are about 10 feet from the middle player on each side. All three front row players should be ready to block the opponent’s attack. The front row players should be a foot to a foot and a half off the net. A good rule of thumb is for the players to stand near the net with their arms at their sides. Now, raise their arms, bending at the elbow to form a 90 degree angle at the elbow. The tips of the players’ finger should not touch the bottom of the net when they swing them up. For young players, some of them may not be tall enough to block; however, just facing the attacking player and jumping can be a distraction. This also prepares your players, as they mature and grow, to position themselves properly. As the front row players are aligning themselves at the net, the back row players hustle (RUN!) to take their positions. The middle back players is 5 feet from the back line in the middle of the court, the right and left back players are positioned 3 or 4 feet from the side lines and 2 or 3 feet behind the attack line (10 foot line). The back row players form a triangle, and should be in their “ready positions” (knees bent over toes, upper body bent so shoulders are over knees, arms loosely dangling) facing the net and watching what the opponents are doing. They are ready to move and respond.

To drill this transition with the team, have 6 players execute a bump, set, spike sequence. As soon as the spike goes over the net, the players must hustle and get into their base defensive positions. If this is a very inexperienced team, arrange the players in their offensive positions, then the coach hits the ball over the net, simulating the attack from the side with the players. As soon as the coach’s ball goes over the net, the players hustle to their base defensive positions. Execute this drill many times, ensure that ALL players on the team are given a chance to transition. The more times you work on this, the more automatic and remembered the positions become. You should rotate the players through each of the 6 positions on the court. This ensures that all players know where to go wherever they are on the court.

The second step is to have your players adjusting from their “base” defensive positions and reacting to where the opponents will attack the ball from. It’s called reading the opponent’s attack. Based on which of the opponent’s hitters will attack the ball, your defensive players shuffle into position to be ready to dig the attack. Front row defensive players move to block (an outside and middle player) and the other front row player drops off the net near the attack line to pick up dinks and roll shots directed at the corner. The outside back player that is directly behind the attack shuffles a couple of steps back and to the side line. This player’s job is to protect the “line” attack, and pick up any dinks over the blockers. The middle back player shuffles to the diagonal corner to dig the cross court attack. The other back outside player (diagonal to the attacker) shuffles and positions themselves directly in line with their blocker’s inside shoulder, about 20 feet off the net (10 feet from the attack line). All the back row players get really low in order to dig the spike.

This defensive movement can be most easily learned through repetition. In practice, have the team transition from offense to “base” defense then to dig up attacks from different areas. Tell them where the attack is coming from and ensure everyone is moving and gets to their position. As the players learn their positions, you can begin to hit balls and simulate the attack.

Good luck and great digs!!

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About Aileen Starnes

Hello from Germany. I'm glad to be here. My first name is Aileen. I live in a small town called Bad Wiessee in east Germany. I was also born in Bad Wiessee 31 years ago. Married in March 2012. I'm working at the post office.

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