Here are three things to do to become a better defensive setter.
I learned from an early age that setters weren’t supposed to be good defenders. My teammates were told to take the setter out. This was not only to get teams out-of-system, but because setters, my coaches said, were poor defenders and wanted to release from the back row to go set. If my coach told my own team that, I knew other hitters prepared for that, too.
Perhaps it’s part of who I am (and that “Youngest Child Syndrome”), but hearing that setters were terrible defenders made me want to be exceptional at defense. I learned to love it. In fact, I dreaded rotating to the front row because I wouldn’t be able to make sure the ball didn’t hit the floor (luckily, in club I had a B1G Ten, All-America libero to trust).
I grew up in an era that is long-gone: the libero played middle back defense and didn’t take the second ball out-of-system, and back row setters dug to the right-side attacker. As a result, my dig quality became pretty solid, as a non-setter had to chuck the ball to the outside hitter.
While I do believe that technical training, such as body posture, positioning, platform work, and footwork is important, there are three things I mastered to go from teams saying, “Hit to the setter,” to “Keep it away from the setter.”
1. I read situations.
As athletes, we have all performed drills that teach us basic positioning: base-to-defense, on the outside, middle, right side… I think this is important “101” type training, but we do this against a perfect block set-up, a perfect set, enough time to get in position, and assuming the hitter will hit around the block. What it doesn’t do is prepare us for other variables: the hitter’s approach line, a split-block, tooling the blocker’s hands, the attacker inside or outside the antenna, and more.
This type of “101” position training gives us a set of rules to follow, but your opponents don’t always play by perfect rules. Learning to see the hitter and what shot she is trying to hit, where she is facing, what her elbow is doing, and how far off the net she is tells me more than any position rulebook. I have coached talented athletes that miss digs because they’re too rigid in what they’ve been told, instead of trusting what they see in the situation.
In college, I went to a SEC school and the junior setter above me (literally) was over six feet tall. I knew my chances of being the setter, at 5’8” with an average vertical, were slim, so I hopped into the passing drills, as well as the setting ones. Even though I played right-back defense my entire playing career, I became the libero because I was great at reading situations on defense.
2. I expect the ball is coming to me.
Sometimes we get into the perfect position, we see our hitter, the block is challenging her, but when the ball comes to us, we’re surprised and just aren’t ready.
The mindset I have when an attacker gets set, is, “The ball is coming my way.” Even if I prepare myself to read the situation, and I think she’s hitting cross, I’m still on the line saying, “She’s hitting line,” so I’m ready for a mis-hit, or a mis-read. There is nothing worse on defense, in my opinion, than being able to dig a ball and simply not digging it. Prepare your mind and expect the ball to go your way, every time.
3. I have confidence.
We prepare our positioning, have the mindset that the ball is coming to us… and then what? We must make a play!
When I tell myself that an attacker is swinging my way, I feel confident that I’ve faced many different hitters, and made a variety of different plays on their swings. Because defense is largely a mindset, it’s thrilling to say, “Challenge me. I dare you. You’re not scoring on me,” and then doing everything in your power (and training) to get a dig. It’s an attitude, and that attitude comes from the confidence in doing it, again and again.
My number one goal on defense is for my team to get an effective swing. My number two goal is to keep the ball in play. Sometimes, we feel pressure to be perfect, but keeping your opponent from scoring and getting another chance to play defense is a nice alternative, don’t you think?
Remember that defense is more than perfectly controlled reps off a box. It’s a mindset, and a challenge to learn different scenarios. It’s playing with expectation and confidence, two things that can be practiced in every rally, and every rep, so long as you’re aware and making effort.
On occasion I play with my collegiate team. Many of the players are ten years younger than I am, and training daily. I often make reads and quality plays on the attack, and they look at me like, “How did you see and do that?” Well, now they know.