We’re all coming up on the first tournament of the year, which means we’re all starting to introduce and train defensive team concepts. There’s a lot of jumping up and down and yelling “Base!” “Go to the net!” “Ready. Ready!!” I think talking players through the play is a necessary part of the process at first, but we can help our players along and save our voices (a little) by giving some keys to help them figure out why they should be going where we want them to go.

Rich Luenemann (formerly at Washington University in St. Louis) offered a solution for helping players think about what they should be doing when the ball is on the other side of the net. He called it his “rules of defense,” and they give players a guide for when and why they should go to base, and when and why they should abandon their base positions.

The Four Rules of Defense are:

  1. Defend the overpass.
  2. Defend the free ball.
  3. Defend the setter dump.
  4. Defend the attack.

By outlining these rules for your players, you give them a way of thinking about the game that allows them to know what exactly they should be ready FOR at any given moment.

Rule 1: Defend the Overpass

The first thing your team should be worried about after sending the ball over the net is an overpass. Discussing defending the overpass as the first rule of defense is also a good way of showing them why it’s so important that they get back to base quickly during the rally. What’s the first thing that could happen? An overpass. Where is the overpass most likely to go? Because the passer is aiming for a spot along the net, odds are if they miss it will be just over the net. That’s why in base, we have three people at the net. The next most likely place for the ball to go would be around the middle of our court, so we have two people there in base. The least likely place an overpass will go is deep in our court, so we only need one person to cover that.

Base — The best position to defend the overpass. Photo taken from here.

Rule 2: Defend the Free Ball

It may seem strange that defending the free ball (typically the third touch) would come before defending the setter dump. The reason for that is to get players thinking ahead of the game. If the first pass is shanked, at the younger ages the odds of the other team attacking the ball back over the net go way down. With that, players should be able to identify the coming free ball before the second touch (in other words, they would know it’s going to be a free ball before they would know that a setter dump is coming).

With that, work on your team releasing to their free ball positions as soon as they know that an attack is out of the question.

Side note: This awareness of when the free ball is coming over and what to do about it is why it’s really important that you do not practice free balls by slapping a ball and tossing it over the net. The team will never identify a free ball in a game by an opponent catching the ball and slapping it. They’ll identify the free ball by where the pass goes on the other side of court. In addition, they should be in free ball position BEFORE the free ball is contacted. If you slap the ball and send it over, (1) you are teaching them to be moving to their positions during the third contact. And (2) you are teaching them to only defend the free ball from wherever you’re standing — usually off the court. When working on free balls, toss a ball to a player who is on the court, and have them send it over. It’s a more realistic angle, your team gets a chance to practice sending and receiving more difficult “free” balls, and you get to check that your defensive players are in position before the third contact is made.

Rule 3: Defend the Setter Dump

As soon as your players know that the ball is going to be settable and on the other side of the net, they should be thinking about defending the setter dump. Base is also the best place to defend the setter dump, so if it’s a good pass, your team knows they should be in base from the moment the pass is contacted until it hits the setter – all the time, ready for the overpass, and then the setter dump.

Base — to defend the setter dump.

Who takes what responsibility on defense is ultimately up to you and your scheme (I’m always a fan of “It’s everyone’s ball). Just be sure that your players are watching the opposing setter rather than the ball, and are on the lookout for the dump before the ball hits the setter’s hands.

Rule 4: Defend the Attack

If the setter does not dump the ball, then the final thing your team needs to worry about is the attack. The best position to defend the attack from depends on your team and who you’re playing against (there is a lot of value to the middle-middle, rover or other less-standard defenses on some teams. Don’t discount a defense just because you don’t see it much at the upper age groups). The important things are to make sure (1) your best defender is in the general area where most of the balls go, and (2) all defenders put themselves in a position where they can see what’s happening on the other side of the net.

The major idea behind this post, though, is this: constantly telling your team to “go to base,” “get to the net,” then “get off the net” is not nearly as useful as helping them to figure out why they go to those positions. If they know the whole time that the ball is on the other side that they’re responsible for the overpass, the free ball, the dump, and then the attack, they will have a better idea of why they need to be where you want them to be. You can also then use these rules when you start to talk about eye sequences, and playing the game ahead of the ball.

About the Author

Kim Fletcher is the former ATL Team Director and Recruiting Coordinator for Cobb Atlanta Juniors in Marietta, Georgia. She is currently an assistant for the 18 Elite team. Kim is the former Assistant Coach for Kennesaw State University Women’s Volleyball. She was a middle blocker for the University of Notre Dame, followed by a year of professional volleyball in Austria.