March 20, 2023

A game focused on error avoidance

There’s a game on the Art of Coaching site that goes like this:

Side A starts with 0 points and Side B starts with 18 points. A coach initiates free balls from the side of the court to either team to start the points. Side A can earn points normally: by a kill, a tool, or an error by Side B. Side B, however, can only score points off of Side A’s errors: if they hit the ball in the net, shank a ball or make any other error. This forces Side A to minimize their mistakes and earn every point.

So basically the objective is for Side A to scored 25 points before giving up 7 points worth of errors. It’s an interesting structure in that it seeks to balance the need to score with the need to avoid errors.

The whole avoiding errors thing is a tricky aspect of coaching. We want our teams to play as error-free as possible. At the same time, however, scoring points requires taking on the risk of making mistakes. Also, growth and development means making mistakes. This is why we have to be careful how we talk about errors and the type of environment we create in our gym.

I think this game can have some use in walking the right line. It depends on a couple things, though.

What are errors?

It’s important in a situation like this to have a clear sense of what we want to count as errors. These may not be the same things that show up as errors in the stats. For example, there’s a difference between forced and unforced errors. Hitting the ball out of bounds is unforced. Failing to dig a hard hit spike is probably an unforced error. Do you only count unforced errors? Or do you count both types?

The simplest way to look at it is to count things that cost you points – missed serves, hitting errors, ball-handling errors, net violations and the like. What about getting blocked or aced, though? Are those negatives for your team or positives for the other side?

Alternatively, you can look at things from a process perspective. By that I mean are the players doing things the way we want to do them? Or are they making mistakes in these area? Coverage could be an example. Lack of coverage would be the error. This is obviously something much more developmentally focused than the point perspective, which is more about performance.

How many errors?

Once you’ve decided what to count as errors you need to figure out a good cap for how many get made in a set. If you’re thinking about normal scoring, it’s pretty straightforward. How many points would you expect the other team to get from kills, aces, and blocks? Now subtract that total from 25 and you get the number of points they need to get from your errors to win.

The initial 0-18 score above indicates an expectation of about 7 points going to the opposition from our errors. If we’re working with a lower level team where more errors happen, you might start at 0-15. At a higher level, or if you’re defining errors more narrowly, maybe it’s something like 0-21.

A note on initiation

Notice that this game talks about free balls from the side coming in to start each rally. There are implications for that. Most notably, by not serving you take out service errors and aces (particularly if you count them as errors for the receiving team) from the error equation. That’s fine if you want to go at a faster tempo for higher intensity or want to take the focus off serving and passing. You just need to adjust the initial score. If, for example, you typically make 2 service errors per set, then maybe you want to start at 0-20 instead of 0-18.

That said, because free ball initiation may stimulate more overall attacking, you could see more attacking errors. This is something to keep track of so you can tweak things to make sure the games are consistently competitive.

Starters/Non-Starters use

This game strikes me as something you could use if you have starters playing non-starters, or an otherwise imbalanced game. It will just take some tweaking based on which team starts at 0 in terms of what to count as errors. For example, count more things as errors for the stronger side. Also, where you start the scoring influences the chances of the weaker side winning.

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