WVU sports: Program big help for Mountaineers volleyball
Editor's note: Coaches and players constantly search for an edge through the most modern ways. More and more teams focus on technology as a key to success.
What's happening at West Virginia University is a good example of what's happening across the country. This is the first part of a 5-part series.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Jill Kramer was hired as West Virginia's volleyball coach a day before the start of fall camp in August 2010, she was well aware of where the Mountaineers stood in relation to the haves and the have-nots.
And of all the things she could have asked for and been granted by Athletic Director Oliver Luck, Kramer requested Data Volley.
Not more or better practice space. Not extra money for recruiting and paying assistants. She wanted the statistical program that tracks and records every touch and every outcome during a match and gives players and coaches greater insight into how to scout opponents and how opponents scout WVU.
"The biggest part of it is using the statistics to give them analysis," Kramer said.
The two greatest tools for the WVU players are how they do during every side out and what their hitting percentages are in each rotation. That's the most realistic representation how effectively the Mountaineers bump, set and spike or how well they defend and pass during a match. If WVU scores a lot of points and attacks at a high percentage, it's worth remembering. If the opposite is true and the opponent is successful with its offense, then those areas need some attention.
"We use that to figure out which rotations we need to work on, which play sets worked for us, which aren't," Kramer said. "The other thing is we're able to see what the other teams are seeing. If they look at a certain rotation and look at the statistics for a certain rotation, they might decide to defend us a certain way.
"There are a lot of different things to look at like that and Data Volley gives you everything. It helps us see which areas are our strongest and which are our weakest and helps us know what we need to do training-wise and if we need to spend time working on one rotation more than another."
Finding strengths and weaknesses
The Big 12 requires teams to use Data Volley. They must also share the statistics and upload matches to a server. There is no hiding from weaknesses within conference play.
The Mountaineers designate a volunteer assistant, Will Cornell, to track and qualify every touch. That means every serve, set, attack, dig or block gets a grade of either good, average, bad or an error.
From there, the possibilities are limitless. The Mountaineers can scout themselves to see what happens whenever a certain player sets for a certain teammate's attack. They can look at rotations and see how most attacks end. They can spot tendencies of their servers. They can see who's good at digging and who's good at blocking and where a player generally tries to send a spike.
And so can the opposition.
"It's no different than baseball when a team's shifting its defense to right field because the left-handed hitter is a pull hitter," said assistant coach Ted Wade.
Suppose there's a timeout in a match. The Mountaineers need a point to close a set or get the win. They reference Data Volley. They see where their server usually goes. They know the opponent will have a player there. They can change it up for an advantage or they can play to their strengths.
Say they stick with their strengths. They can look at the opponent's personnel and use Data Volley to see where a set will go and where that attacker will aim.
Wade goes through a scenario for an opponent that must remain nameless for the purpose of this explanation.
"When they pass the ball now, they're going to back-set to No. 22 and she's going to hit the ball here," Wade said, pointing at one of the nine areas Data Volley tracks on the court. "So we're going to shift everyone so they can get to that. Those are the percentages.
"Now when No. 5 hits the ball, this is where her ball goes. She almost never hits it here and she never, ever hits it here. But we know she hits it deep. So we say, 'OK, we need to stay deep when she hits it.' "
Effective in all phases
There is a bit of misunderstanding involved with volleyball statistics. For starters, the game is played two different ways and a team generally won't perform the same in both areas.
"Phase one is whoever is serving," Wade said. "When it's my turn to serve, I've got to be good with the pass and the attack. The other phase is attacking after you've attacked me. When you hit it, how good am I when the ball is hit at me?"
Wade said passing a serve to set up an attack and digging an attack to set up an attack are "two very different skills." Data Volley knows this, so with six rotations on a court and two parts of the game, the program provides details about 12 different parts of the match. That's valuable because WVU or an opponent might be terrible at digging off an attack or especially good at attacking after a serve. A player might be great at digs and might struggle with passes. Whatever the possibility, it's covered in Data Volley.
With the help of Data Volley, the Mountaineers distribute and digest very detailed scouting reports that show statistics for serves, attacks and blocks and diagrams illustrating where a player is known to go with the volleyball.
"There is nowhere to hide anymore and there are no secrets," Wade said. "When we start a match, our weakest passer is getting served every single ball. They know, especially as the season goes along and we have 20 matches of the team passing volleyballs. They take the stats and they use them. They look at it and say, 'Well, who's the weakest passer on the team?' Then when we put six kids on the court, they can say, 'That's the weakest passer, serve the ball at her.'"
'The camera doesn't blink'
Learning about limitations is useful as well, and Kramer can use what she finds to put together rotations or to hide players. At the worst, the statistics are a good way to get the team's attention.
"When we put real numbers down there for them to take a good look at, it gives us some real knowledge about the team and about the opponent and we can figure out what we have to do with it," Kramer said. "It's an open book and it's up to you to do with it what you want. It shows them what they're actually doing."
It's great for games, but it's just as valuable in practice - and practice is where the Mountaineers get really industrious. Inspired by her time as an assistant at Alabama with a similar setup, Kramer has a primitive, but effective way to record practice and learn from it in the moment.
A mobile cart carries a modest flat-screen television with a small camera attached to the top. That camera records practice and a cable runs to a Tivo digital video recorder, which operates on a brief delay.
"The camera doesn't blink," Wade said.
When something happens in a practice, be it good or bad, players can stop to review it.
"It's such a great coaching tool and teaching tool," Kramer said. "There are so many things we tell them that maybe don't resonate, but when you can go right over and see yourself do something, that puts another layer on that. We see them improve, I think, at a much faster rate."
Kramer said lessons learned in the moment are more beneficial to the player and the team than the ones learned hours later. The team might review the tape after practice. A coach might email a player an edited clip from practice - complete with the coach's thoughts dubbed over the video - for reinforcement before bed.
"I really think they get more out of it this way," Kramer said. "They make more improvements during a practice and they're doing it quicker. They're not waiting until the next practice."
Others benefit from sights instead of sounds. Elzbieta Klein is an outside hitter from Poland. Kramer said that sometimes Klein responds to critiques and compliments with head nods - and sometimes they don't fit the situation.
"You can show her what's going on you can tell there are times when she looks at the video and goes, 'Oh, wow,'" Kramer said. "Sometimes seeing is believing."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.