by Jeff Smith
Similar to a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football, setter is the most important position in volleyball. (Sorry, hitters, liberos and defensive specialists. You're valuable, too.) Running the offense and taking nearly every second contact is a crucial responsibility to the team's success.
Because of the importance of the position, not just anyone can be selected to fulfill this role. Whether coaching 14U, 16U or 18U, I've always looked for six qualities in potential setters: quickness, soft yet strong hands, assertiveness, intelligence, great work ethic and a teachable attitude.
Due to the complexity of setting, some coaches are even pickier than me. In his book "Setting for the Setter," Arie Selinger, head coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s team, said he seeks out players at setter who can be described as "a play-maker, architect, decision maker, cooperative, an extension of the coach, perceptive, great mental stamina, leader, hard-working, creative, disciplined, crafty, aware, well liked and inspire trust and confidence." That's a lot of attributes to fill!
Whether you're interested in setting, are a setter hoping to set at the next level of your volleyball journey or are the parent of a current or prospective setter, let's unpack each of the six traits I listed.
Quickness doesn't only refer to how fast you can run to the ball. Much of a setter's quickness comes from their ability to read a situation and made a quick and smart decision.
Olympic coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly describes it this way: "You have to quickly get your eyes to the next actor, the next mover of the ball. One point we emphasize with our setters is ‘reading the platform,’ which means the setter is looking at and really seeing the passer’s arms contact the serve. To read best, a setter has to get to her spot fast, establish a balanced, ready position facing the passer and be ready to pounce in any direction for any pass. Then, she has to look and really see the passer’s platform. The better a setter reads the platform, the faster she’ll identify where she has to go to run the offense."
2. Soft yet strong hands
I've trained hundreds of setters over the last 20 years. To be totally honest, some players never acquire this skill. In some ways, it is a gift, the ability to have both soft and strong hands for setting at the same time.
Soft hands refers to being able to cushion the ball slightly and remove any spin from the ball as it contacts the hands. But that's just half the battle. Setters need the strength to quickly release the ball, alter its path and direct it high or fast to hitters, too. Sometimes those hitters can be 20 to 25 feet away. And sometimes as a setter you're receiving passes that are extremely high in the air or come at you flat and fast. Either way you need rigid hands, too, that can handle such challenging passes.
No matter what level, setters need to be take-charge types. They need to be able to not only take the second contact -- or first pass from a teammate -- but turn that contact into a hittable ball for one of their hitters. This requires a player who is willing to be aggressive and fearless and exert her command of the court. Many players never learn or exhibit this trait due to lack of confidence, lack of necessary temperament or a host of other reasons.
High volleyball IQ might be the most overlooked skill for setting. The setter is the team's floor general who is tasked with not only making hundreds of split-second in-game decisions but also being able to take her team's "temperature" on the court and guide and direct her teammates based on how each is doing over the course of the match. For instance, this can mean figuring out each hitter's strengths and the types of sets and set locations that bring out the best in each hitter.
Salima Rockwell knows this subject intimately well as a three-time all-American setter at Penn State University who is now PSU's associate head coach.
"A setter must cultivate genuine and real connections with every team member to ensure they trust her and count on her stability as a leader," Rockwell said. "You are the psychologist of the team because everyone needs something a little bit different and it’s up to you to figure out what that thing is and how to give it to them. The coach can do only so much from the bench. It’s necessary to have someone on the court who can settle the team down when the match starts slipping away or fire the team up when it’s time to finish."
5. Great work ethic
Setters are in constant learning mode. It's akin to a quarterback in football. NFL quarterbacks have to study and master a playbook of 300 to 400 pages in a matter of a couple of months. Setting isn't quite as challenging, but you get the idea. Becoming a great setter takes many years of practice and training. It's why most high school teams require their setters to show up for practice 30 minutes early to work on their skills and get as many extra repetitions as possible in order to develop their hands, footwork and technique.
The most accomplished setters spend countless additional hours on their own training their hands at home in their room or in the gym. Former University of Wisconsin all-American setter Lauren Carlini said she has spent thousands of hours lying on her back in her bedroom setting a ball to herself to train her hands to be soft yet strong.
She's not alone. Outstanding setting takes extraordinary dedication and drive. My younger daughter is a good high school varsity setter, and it didn't happen overnight. I remember hundreds of nights hearing the rhythmic sound of her setting a ball off her bedroom wall or setting to herself in her room for 10, 20, 30 or more minutes at a time. It wasn't glamorous or easy, but she was highly motivated and wanted to be a varsity setter, so she paid the price, and her hard work paid off.
Want to be a standout setter? Set early and often each day.
6. Teachable attitude
Due to the critical nature of the position, setters receive more feedback and correction from coaches than anyone else on the team. They need to take lots of feedback at every practice and match and filter it with a positive, even-keeled attitude.
Setting is the most complex position in the sport. There are literally hundreds of different mini-skills that setters must learn and master as they move up the ranks from middle school to high school to college. They are on a constant learning curve that requires them to be open and receptive to coaching on a daily basis. If they can't handle this much insight and feedback, their setting development will eventually plateau, and with it their growth as a setter.
Do you think you have what it takes to be a setter?
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.