Volleyball Back Row Alignments

"Hey Tom, just wanted to let you know I appreciated the article on Back Row Alignments. What little experience I have with volleyball, involves my friends and I goofing around. So now that I am actually trying to learn the rules and structure of the game, a resource like this is very informative and valuable. I actually followed along without getting lost or confused, which I think is a good sign that I am getting the hang of things. See you on the courts again soon!" --Dean, formerly in the Orlando Cypress Grove group (He's a player who is growing greatly in his VB skills. --TC)

This is a discussion of basic back row alignments in indoor volleyball. It presumes the middle setter protocol in the front (which we already do), and that the team has 6 players on the floor. Also presumed is that all players involved understand the core volleyball maxim of "pass-set-hit", and want to improve their skills. I believe everyone in our group is strong enough in the basics to "graduate" to what I will propose. If the group embraces this, I can assure you that the games will get better and become more fun. After you read it, feel free to tell me any thoughts and feeling you may have about all this.

(The instances of underscores are references to a group to which I originally wrote this in 2006. The name of the group is irrelevant to the discussion.)


It appears that many if not most of the good players at _____ ____ are used to what's called the center-up pattern. Here is the shape of it: (Net is at the top and the X's are the players.)



You have 2 inverted V's. Center-up means the back row center player plays "up" a bit, or forward. The 2 rear corner guys always cover the corners. On serve-receive this pattern allows the middle of the court to be well covered in a simple way. In a consistent center-up pattern, you stay like this the entire rally. The exception would be that the 2 hitters would line-block when defending.


A different pattern, one used by all serious players, at least in THIS city (Orlando area), is called center-back and looks like this:




The front row is an inverted V, but the back is a NON-inverted V. As far as responsibilities go, this pattern functions as though there are 3 rows. The 3 in front are (obviously) the front row, the 2 rear corner players cover the middle of the court and the short balls right behind the front row, and the "center-back" player is acting as though he is a 3rd row all to himself; that is, there's a 3rd row at the back of the court and he is the only one covering it. Of course this implies that the 2 rear-corner players are really covering a "middle" row. This is functionally true even though technically there are only 2 rows of players, not 3.

There are several things to observe about this. On serve-receive, you have (other than the 2 hitters) 2 passers instead of 1 to catch the serve that goes to the center area of the court. Because these 2 rear corner players are going to be covering short, the center-back player covers anything that is near the back of the court. On reception other than the serve, it's handled the same way.

If you're new to this, you're probably saying, "How can it be fair to expect just one player to cover a whole row of the court from far left to far right?" The reason is that when the ball comes from the other team, the ball has farther to travel to get to your far back row, therefore it will take longer for it to get there, and therefore, that guy has lots more time to get to the ball.

The "middle row" players (really the 2 rear corner guys) have the responsibility to cover their respective hitters. That is, when his respective hitter is hitting, he should be going up somewhat toward him (with arms ready to bump) so that if the opposing blocker blocks it down, he can dig it up. Actually both rear corner guys can cover the current hitter if they move quickly. Some folks say that even the center-back guy can participate, but others (such as myself) feel that the center back should stay back to cover all far balls (deep blocks). When the opposing team is hitting, these 2 players seek to dig balls arriving in the middle third of the court, which includes the center of the court. (This is where most of the hit balls arrive.)

This pattern (or the next one which is similar) is done in virtually all serious recreational play in Orlando (and I believe also virtually everywhere else) where the team uses a middle setter. At the highest levels, there are lots of other arrangements different than both of these, but we are not dealing with those at this "lower" serious level at _____ ____.

In the 10+ years I've played in many places in Orlando, I've always tried to learn as much as I can from players better than I. Just recently I sought and got confirmation from high-level sources that (as I have believed for years) the Center-up pattern is not a good pattern to use for anything other than very beginning level players, or perhaps where a player may be impaired at running fast while otherwise being a competent player. One of the biggest drawbacks is that the center-up guy is very much in danger of a hard facial impact if one of the opposing hitters is a very good spiker. Another drawback is that it puts just one player to constantly cover what is statistically the most frequently accessed section of the court, the center region. In Center-back, you have two guys to cover that same area. It's the most equitable distribution of players to area attacked by frequency.

There are two additional patterns that are similar to the Center-back. I have not heard terms defined for these, so I have coined my own.


This is identical to the Center-back pattern, except that on serve-receive (and serve-receive only), you use a Center-up pattern. That is, the receiving team's back row center guy starts forward in the middle of the court and the two rear corner guys start back in their respective corners. This allows a serve to the very center to be easily dug without as much decision-making as to who is going to do it.

But once the ball has been served by the opponents and your team has made the 1st contact (the pass), then while the ball is in the air and on the way to the setter, the 3 backrow players promptly invert back to their standard Center-back positions, the non-inverted V. That is, the middle player walks backward, and the other two move forward. This modification is extremely common in serious recreational VB circles; presently probably the most common form of center-back.

There is still another modification to the Center-back pattern. I only heard of it in recent months from a high-school VB coach, so I think it may be pretty new. I have tried it myself, it works great and I love it. I coin the term...

CENTER-BACK, STRAIGHT-LINE: (Skip this section if it seems too complicated)



You can see that the back row is in a straight line for serve-receive. In all the previous patterns, you know which of the 3 backrow players covers short and which covers deep. In Straight-line it is interestingly different. Each of the backrow players covers both short AND deep! Each backrow player visualizes a channel or column running from himself up to the front row (toward the opposing server) and back to the back court line. If the serve is short, he runs up to bump it. If the serve is deep, he quickly moves back and makes a bump or hand-pass. All 3 players do the same with their respective columns for the case where they have called the ball. I have found that this makes it overall less error-prone because there's only 1 dimension to evaluate for who calls the ball (the sideways dimension), and there's only 1 dimension that the ball-caller has to run in in order to make the pass (forward or backward, not sideways). Simple, huh? The sideways dimension is easier to call (and call sooner) without worrying yet about whether it's short or deep. And the column makes it simple to know which ways to run (just forward or backward). In the other patterns, there are 2 dimensions evaluated to make the call, and also 2 dimensions in which the ball-caller runs to get the ball. So with Straight-line, when you see that the ball is in your "column" you immediately call "Mine". Then you run only forward or backward as you synchronize yourself to the distance of the ball's trajectory, eliminating most sideways motion.

I believe this Straight-line approach would not have been feasible years ago, as I think that back then hand passing was not allowed. Hand passing the deep serves is required for this scheme to work. Also this should not be used if less than the entire back row of players are fast movers.

After the serve is passed (and while going thru the air to the setter), the 3 backrow players revert to the standard Center-back positions.

At _____ ____, I've been VERY surprised to find that many of the top level players (skillwise) have always done Center-up. This is so unusual in general VB circles as to be shocking to me. I know that if I told this to all the wide variety of serious players I have played with in the area (variety of skill AND age), they would be surprised as well. I believe we will all enjoy ourselves more if, as a group, we all attempt to play using one of the 3 Center-back versions. Perhaps each middle-back player should make the decision of which center-back version, whenever he rotates into that position (and let his fellow back row players know, if it's not obvious by their motions that they concur). Of course if a team has less than 6 players, all this pattern stuff is moot. But if there are 6, doing a center-back of some form will assuredly make the games more enjoyable, and in the long run, facilitate more improvement to our VB skills. In my experience, most groups do the Center-back, Up-on-receive form. But in some situations, such as when the opposing team has racked up several consecutive aces, moving the middle guy to the back can stop the opposing run of aces.

The above material, in essentially the same form, was shared with a group where all the more advanced players were still playing "beginner" center-up. Here is a response from one of them, a friend named Joey, a skilled player in his early 20s, but very mature in his outlook:

In replying to Tom, I have this to say.

Your analysis of alignments and the apparent discrepancy between what you have seen at serious VB events and what you have seen at _____ ____ was quite accurate. But while your observations were accurate I think the part of your letter that lacked a little bit of meat was your understanding of why this is the case. It is a fair question to pose: Why are the semi-serious to serious players at _____ ____ using an alignment that is obviously inferior in design and implementation to one being used by all other serious players? Is this due to ignorance? Or is it perhaps simply what is comfortable and familiar to us so we lack motivation to adjust?

I would argue that its none of the above. I think that the reason we use the center-up alignment is that it is the most effective format for beginners. Serve-receive is where games are won and lost with beginners and the center-up format yields the least amount of serve-receive mess-ups.

Secondly, while center-back is clearly more effective at higher levels for defending against hitters, this is due to the assumption that decent blocking is going on. If you go on the assumption (which I do) that blocking is virtually non-existent at lower levels of VB, the center-up alignment is superior because it covers the whole floor more thoroughly if you take blocking out of the equation. Most plays in a lower level volleyball game involve lobs over the net, not hits... so for the same reason the center-up alignment is better for serve-receive, it is better for "jungle ball" as it is sometimes called, because there is not the constant question of who gets it when it goes to the middle; which is a huge problem with lower level players. On top of that, when a good hit actually does happen at this level, the alignment is going to have little to nothing to do with whether or not the hit is dug. Mostly it will be luck; it is worth conceding one, maybe two hits a game that could have been defended better for the advantage of the center-up alignment in all other areas of lower level play.

However, Tom, you were not necessarily bringing up this issue in regards to the _____ ____ league, or games involving mostly lower level players... you were talking about when the more serious _____ ____ players are enjoying the opportunity to play a higher level game. Why do we still play a center-up game? Interesting question. I think the best and most obvious answer is the fact that it is habit... it's just something we do. This is obviously not a very good reason! I'd like to hear what others think on this, because it is true that most higher level VB involves a center-back alignment. Of course a lot of times in higher level games, alignment is adjusted to have the best passers passing all the time, and as Josh brought up, a 6-1 setter alignment would change things. But I think now is a good time for us to analyze whether or not the semi-serious games at _____ ____ should primarily involve center-up or center-back alignments. I don't think we need to have a vote or anything, but if you have an opinion speak up and be sure to provide your reasons. We don't want to make a decision we will regret.

Joey may have inferred that center-back is for "the more serious players enjoying ... a higher level game". In the 90s, I was a beginner in the midst of a group more advanced than ours, and even as a slow learner, I got used to "center-back; up-on-receive" within only a few hours. And in all the places I've played and in all the growing I've done in my skills, playing center-back has been an underlying factor in my improvement and enjoyment of the game. I urge us all to learn this helpful concept. It's easier (as Joey's experience confirms) to learn it now, than to learn it after "beginner" habits have been more deeply entrenched.

Tom Cook

The above article is accessed under the "Tom's Misc." menu. Elsewhere on that menu are additional volleyball resources, including video "High moments" and full games from famous volleyball matches such as the Olympics. You may wish to check back there occassionally.