Winning play in volleyball and in other sports and games

I recently learned that an University in Berne, Switzerland had started investigating and teaching volleyball players about skills which I had learned and used beginning around 1968! Interesting!

They discovered that many defending players have their concentration on the BALL, and they are now beginning to teach that defenders should instead have their concentration on the player who is about to spike the ball. Someday they may learn that also applies to the opponent who is about to Serve a ball to them!

I could jump very well but I was shorter than nearly all the other hitters on the Purdue University team in the late 1960s. But I became what was considered a world-class volleyball player, greatly because of my blocking performance. At that time, no defensive records were made but it was commonly felt that I provided a larger number of points for the Purdue team and for other teams I played on, primarily by stuff blocking opposing spikers for points. I was also a strong spiker, but out Purdue team had two guys who were much taller than me who certainly got more kill spikes than I did.

The reason for my effectiveness at blocking was pretty simple to me. I have always been an EXTREMELY OBSERVANT person, about everything. I had discovered that by carefully watching opposing players who were approaching to spike the ball, virtually all of them gave wonderful clues as to where they intended to spike to! The most obvious is to watch their eyes, as 'weaker' players tend to give simple clues regarding the direction they intend to spike. Better players know to avoid doing that, but even they often still take a quick look toward where they intend to hit.

Actually, I even experimented with trying the other side of that coin! When I was aware that I was about to hit against an intelligent blocker, I would sometines STARE in a wrong direction! I would try to convince him that I was a stupid hitter and that I was giving away where to block. But then at the last moment, I would either snap my wrist or twist my shoulder to bury the ball where there was no blocker or defender. That idea often worked once or twice, but a smart blocker would usually realize that I was smarter than I had looked, and they then reverted to better blocking techniques. A variation of that WAS pretty consistently effective for me, throughout my volleyball career, where I made an approach as a right-handed player (which I am) but then spiked the ball with my left-hand. Nearly all good blockers would be driven crazy by this, as all blockers are taught to set their block centered on the location of the shoulder of the spiker. When they discover at the last moment that they had set their block centered on the wrong shoulder, they were at considerable disadvantage, and I often got to make hundreds of left-handed kill shots to empty floor (or sand on the beach)! Often, after a 'friendly' match, a star blocker would approach me and say that he had me 'dead to rights' and he wanted to know how I was able to make such clear and effective spikes. Often, before I could respond, a teammate of his would mention that I sometimes spiked left-handed, and the subject was settled!

I actually started that left-handed business because of a Purdue University Coach. The University had gotten a guy who had been an Alternate on the US Olympic team to Coach us, and he was a rather cruel man. We had to spend many hours each day practicing, which always included many hundreds of spikes every day. Eventually, my right shoulder was so injured that I got to having trouble simply raising my right hand! So, out of desperation, one day I decided to try to make an effort at swatting at the ball with my left hand. The first try was hilarious, but since I was not able to spike right-handed without massive pain, I kept trying, and soon I got to be very good at left-handed spiking. I found it interesting that my TECHNIQUE was and is entirely different left-handed as to right-handed. I believe that is because I only first tried left-handed AFTER I had learned a lot about volleyball, so my technique is probably somewhat more correct left-handed, where it is somewhat brute-force right-handed!

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Back to the subject at hand! As a Blocker, and extremely observant, I soon discovered that, in addition to eye behaviors, many spikers also use different APPROACHES for spiking to different directions. The differences were often very subtle, less than a foot to one side or the other from where he normally approached, but it was often useful to know.

For me, the most valuable clue was often that many spikers would move their spiking shoulder slightly back (a few inches) if they intended to try to spike at an angle, and slightly forward if they intended to go for a line shot. I tended to believe that most of those spikers never even realized that they were giving me that valuable clue, but that single bit of information enabled me to make many thousands of additional blocks. I eventually made my blocking more sophisticated. Since I already knew WHERE he intended to spike the ball, I often would create an early Block in a DIFFERENT location! I wanted to ENCOURAGE the Spiker to think that he was about to have a clear kill Spike! But then, already knowing what was about to happen, at the absolute last moment, I would slide my Block over to where it needed to be, and Presto, another stuff-block!

There was a common view that I was the LUCKIEST Blocker on Earth! Hitters would WATCH me Block, where I obviously had chosen a wrong location, but then they felt that I was LUCKY in being able to correct the block at the very last instant! None of them ever knew (as far as I know) that I had been 'gaming' all those Spikers!

Spikers generally quickly get frustrated at being Blocked. And most do not seem to be overly smart. Once a Spiker had let me Block several hits, he would decide to try to 'Tool' me by Spiking toward out-of-bounds to get the ball to just nick my Blocking fingers. But since I already (usually) KNEW what such Spikers were about to try, I would then generally just pull my Block back at the last moment, and let the Spiker shoot a ball up into the Stands! A few even hit the Referee's Stand or the Referee himself! But, occasionally, when far ahead on points and in a playful mood, I would extend my block into a Pike Block regarding one of those aberrant Spikes, and still stuff-Block it back to the Hitter! Volleyball players have weird ways of getting their jollies!

Different hitters had different quirks regarding their body language when approaching for a Spike. As a result, I developed a rather strange pre-game ritual! While all my teammates were getting into a hitting line to warm up their arms for Spiking, I almost never did that. I would stand on our Back-Line and WATCH each of the OPPOSING Hitters going through THEIR hitting line! I was 'making mental notes'! Many strong Hitters love to show off during a Pre-game Hitting line, where they get to bury balls without any Blocks. As a result, those very strong Hitters would generally show me whatever quirks they had. When the game actually started, I had some additional knowledge about each of those strongest Hitters on what I might expect to see.

The advantage of that and my general approach was VERY useful! One of the best examples was the first game of the day in a Tournament near Detroit. This particular Tournament was when I was 46 years old, and I had just watched a very tall College guy crushing balls in their Hitting line before the match. We later learned that that team had not lost any match in over a year and they were highly favored to win this Tournament. WE did not know that! But he started the game as Strong-Side Hitter, which is commonly done when a team has one really ferocious Hitter. I was Middle Blocker, but he clearly saw how old I was and he considered me to be irrelevant. So on the first play, he angled a crush Spike directly to me (which I stuff-blocked on his side of the net). His Setter was VERY good and consistent, where the Set was always about one foot away from the net, which normally allowed him to really bury his Spikes, but that was really handy for me because I could place my Block less than an inch away from where the ball would be Spiked. He obviously felt that first play was a fluke and he tried a second angled Spike, again exactly to me, where I again stuff-blocked it. And a third. By now, he was screaming at his Setter to give him better Sets! I just smiled!

So the next Set was even closer to the net, and another easy stuff block. For the next Spike, he tried to hit straight, to go over my teammate in our double-block, but I reached across in front of my teammate to again put my hands an inch in front of where the ball would be Spiked, and another stuff Block. His setter didn't even dare consider Setter to anyone else by now, so the game became even easier for me! We had an 8-0 lead, and we easily won the game, and the match. It seemed logical that we would meet the same team in the Finals of the Tournament, and we did. They had taken their vengeance out on all the other teams they played, but he seemed to remember me! I thought it was very amusing that he never even TRIED to Spike even once in the Championship Match, only lobbing the ball, or sometimes not even completing his Approach. We won the Championship Match easily. I have to wonder if he STILL has nightmares of that day! But he had given me endless clues as to what he intended to try to do, and combined with them having an excellent Setter (who was intimidated by him) where every Set was well within my reach, HE made it VERY EASY for me that day! Even though I was more than twice as old as he was, and not as tall!

In my opinion, HE created all those stuff blocks I got credit for. I have a suspicion that ANy really observant Blocker could probably have done what I did that day.

In a side note to this subject, in Beach Doubles, we were 'good' but not 'world class'. So when we were in a Beach Tournament against a far better team, I tried to 'out-think' them. Specifically, if they had a huge Blocker, I would tell my partner that I would Set him a little farther from the net, like three or four feet. The premise was that if one of the two opponents was at the net, then only one remaining player had to up a ball from anywhere on the Court. My partner was smart enough to find somewhere farthest from that partner to Spike or Cobra or lob a ball to. Now, IF the Blocker decided he was doing no good at the net and he needed to 'cover some Court', then my partner would be able to Spike away without any fear of a block. So I would then Set the ball closer to the net. I wanted to get into the head of that giant Blocker, where he had to start thinking of whether he should go to the net or go back to cover. As soon as we saw some uncertainty, then we had the best advantage possible. Unfortunately, those really, really, really top Beach players rarely had any trouble upping any Spikes that my partner could make, and then THEY would crush a ball on us! When you are playing against one of the twelve best teams in the world, 'winning' may be an iffy idea!

This 'observant attitude' is useful in many sports and games. The very famous Bill Russell constantly led the NBA in getting rebounds. He often explained that he got them because he KNEW where the ball was going to bounce to so he just went there to catch it. Charles Barkley was much the same. Brian Urlacher as a Middle Linebacker in NFL football was the same, often knowing what is about to happen ahead of time. Most sports are a lot easier when you know things ahead of time! So are many games. A chess player who has studied thousands of game openings can sometimes predict what the other player is likely to do on following moves. Even simple games like Battleship can be easier to win if you have seen patterns in previous games. See the idea?

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in January 2013.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago