The NCAA Volleyball championships ended this week with a dominant performance by the University of Texas team. Their women played a superb power game while displaying uncanny and tenacious digging defense as they cruised past Oregon. The tournament games represented the epitome of the logic of net games where a net separates the two teams or opponents as in tennis.
The separation created by the net creates a dynamic different than contact team sports because it prohibits opponents from physically impacting a player to throw that player off his or her execution. This insulation from physical impact whether a tackle, block, bump, grab or check that dominates football, soccer or modern basketball means that that no one can lay a body on you and knock you our of your rhythm or skill by sheer physical impact or violence. This displaces the role of intimidation and forces players and teams to rely more on intellectual strategic and tactical misdirection to throw players out of their games.
The separation from physical buffeting permits a premium focus upon skill and form without the need for massive muscular or mental ferocity to fight through the physical assault upon body and form in contact sports. This freedom from physical intimidation permits focus proficiency and minute gradations that are often impossible to sustain in execution in “contact” sports.
I cannot emphasize enough how net sports channel strength and skill development into pure form and coordination rather than the type of strength, aggression and ferocity needed to fight through contact sport. This is not football with its violent and planned collisions and it is not basketball or soccer with its “incidental” but endless contact (I won’t even talk about hockey with its legalized brawling). The open space of net sports permits players to execute in space and time free of the manhandling of contact. It also, like baseball, isolates a very fine-grained form of evident responsibility for one’s actions in coordination with others.
It also leads to a different mental mind-set. The physical structure of the court amplifies this. Unlike flow sports that move from one basket/goal/end zone to another and can expand the field of play, the field of play remains rigidly circumscribed. Players have nowhere to go with no movement away from their spot to the other end of the court of field. Each player has responsibility for the space they control and intricate moving relations, almost balletic, with each other once action starts. This circumscribed court emphasizes and rewards quickness and lightening pattern recognition and reaction time over pure speed that open fields or sprints to the other end of a two ended field requires.
Players possess autonomy in their space. They are responsible for their side of the court as in tennis or their part of the court in volleyball. It requires players to play both offense and defense but in the same space with the same patterns rather than moving suddenly to the other end of the field to reposition. Although like football and other reset sports, it permits the player or team to reset after each point and prepare for the play rather than the pure flow sports such as soccer or lacrosse or water polo. This permits players and coaches to develop superb and unfettered skill sets because no one is physically disrupting their actions. It means plays and schemes exist with a relative clarity of purpose and execution. This enables a form of beauty that can exist almost unsullied such as the perfection of a serve or beauty of a return at full extension or a magnificent dig that requires immense physical courage and skill and body control all at the same time. The athlete’s body exists alone in space and time unimpeded by contact with other opponents. Net sports isolate responsibility in a visible and inescapable manner since no one is disrupting them.
This capacity to execute plays without opponents contact puts a premium upon speed and precision and almost unconscious situational awareness of where teammates are. At the same time the attack/defense dynamic moves from one of pure strength and bullying through or towards the goal and relies upon reaction and throwing off the anticipated system and flow of the other team. Because the opponents cannot use physical strength or bullying, teams and players have to rely upon skill, tactical placement, disturbing rhythms and immense speed and precision in their response.
The placement of the ball dominates the movement and tactics. The serve, the return or in volleyball the serve reception that then gets the ball to the setter determine almost everything. The teams must move incredibly fast given the speed or placement of serves and adapt quickly and in a meticulous choreographed manner.
Offense and defense depend upon the mind and patterns recognition and incredible speed of reaction. This is true of all elite one on one competition, but the net court remains fixed and static. All this occurs in a defined area that cannot be expanded through movement up and down the court. This closure of the court intensifies the speed of reaction time and minimizes the time to see the pattern and react.
Sometimes players are strong enough to simply overpower the other side with blistering serves or power hits that move so fast they go over or through blocks. But more often, players must place the serve at a precise spot with differential speed or spin. The serve seeks to throw the receiver off their best return. In tennis a fine serve forces the returner to a weakened or misplaced return that in many ways determines the point that may not end until five hits later. Likewise in volleyball serve receive remains stunningly important. If the receiver cannot get it to the setter in the right place, the set will be off either in terms of space or position on the court. This throws off the entire scheme; again the point may be over even though it takes five or six hits to get there.
Placement, speed, deception, misdirection all matter in direct competition team sports but they reach their purest form in net sports because the opponent does not have the option of pushing or blocking or checking someone out of the way. Opponents must draw each other out of position with tactical insight and physical or psychological misdirection. The mind and skill must win, not just physical disruption.
Because of this structure the serve dominates net sports in unique ways almost equivalent to the importance of the pitch in baseball. The baroque techniques and rococo gyrations of table tennis serves highlight this domination and importance to incongruous extremes.
Because of the structure as both a net sport and a reset sport, the serve and serve reception overwhelm all other aspects of the sport. Serves are the one moment when the player is alone, unfettered and has complete control of their actions, much like the pitcher in baseball.
The primacy of the serve places immense emphasis upon developing complex, powerful and intriguing serves. Sheer speed is not enough. Elite defenders quickly master the speed serve. Players need accuracy and diversity. If a defender only has to master one serve reception, they can anticipate and pounce. Volleyball manifests this in unique ways because six separate players will serve, and each player can bring a unique skill, rhythm, and speed to the game. Raw power serves may be the most fun but can be the most predictable. On the other hand floaters that land in defender’s chest or exactly between two zones or a drop serve the slices into the back of a players hit can force maximum extension and deflate the serve return. This displaces the offense set up and can be far more devastating than a big booming serve. Of course the most fun lies in the ACE where a serve blows past or forces an error by the receiver and the player or team win the point without any return. Aces can be tactically demoralizing, bring in the spectators and win points without exertion of the rest of the team. They can tempt some players or teams to over rely upon them, but when they occur, can be beautiful.
No one interferes with the serve—it remains just you and the ball—that’s it. Along with pitching, serving represents one of the purest moments in all sports. It isolates the athlete, the athlete’s skill and the requirements of a situation. For instance the type of serve will change depending upon the serve reception skill of the opponent; it will change depending upon the rhythm or expectation built up at that point in the game; it will change depending upon one’s own capacity to hit aces; it changes depending upon how important the point is and how much pressure is upon both server and receiver; it changes depending upon the noise or excitement or stress emanating from the spectators and fans. Elite serving requires immense situational awareness, exceptional self-control and superb skill. Modern rally scoring amplifies this because missing a serve gives a point to the other side as well as returning the serve to the other side in volleyball, while in tennis it gives away a point when all the advantages are on one’s own side.
The situational pressures exist in the mind. In net sports, the mind and discipline remain supreme, I don’t care how supremely skilled or focused an athletes is the unexpected surprise and intimidation of physical contact, legal or illegal, designed to destroy a person’s concentration or skillful execution changes everything. It emphasizes another kind of bigger/faster/stronger to fight off physical battering.
The structure of each cluster of sports generates their own logic of completion and excellence. Parallel competitive sports like swimming or a reset sport like football or volleyball/tennis have their own dynamics and logics. And these shape the type of training and person and dynamic and action. The net sports present their own logics of execution, precision and, above all, intense initiating and reactive intelligence.