On the Facebook group Volleyball Coaches and Trainers (VCT), a coach shared a rule with regards to juniors beach volleyball tournaments held in the Chicago area – an optional one, in which any team, at any time, can request that no hand setting be used for the remainder of that particular match. It’s a bit peculiar, since it does open the possibility of changing the parameters of a match when it is already in progress. Then again, I don’t see it as being too different from the current AVP tournament format that changes the scoring system and let serve penalty at match point. But the stream of comments (I think over 100 at the time of writing) demonstrate a substantial objection to it, using words like “ludicrous” and “stupid” – mostly to defend the practice of hand setting.

The VCT group is not open to public perusal, but many commenters decried the rule as depriving their teams of a tactical, if not critical, advantage. There are even those coaches who would forbid their teams from playing in tournaments that did not allow hand setting. Which is puzzling to me – volleyball variations happen all over the world, and as far as adaptations are concerned, this one is pretty mild. I’d say the 9-man game with race-based selection baked into the rules is far more controversial. As an act, hand setting on the beach may look esthetically pleasing, but is functionally disposable – historically, the team with the highest win record, Misty May and Kerri Walsh, employed hand setting sparingly, often not at all. Notice that the rule in question is a nuclear option: it bars the requesting team from hand setting as well. When invoked, it applies equally to both teams in a sport that is supposed to value versatility and grit. So why see this as some kind of attack on learning a skill instead of an opportunity to diversify the game?

Hand setting is the golden calf of beach volleyball – some coaches insist on seeing it executed, without objectively quantifying its effects on team performance. But challenging the assertion of it’s inherent superiority is the topic of another post, the key point here is that the game is completely playable without hand setting, and in refusing the participate due to a small restriction, what are we really teaching our kids? Are we not participating because we cannot get things our way? Should we not focus on the opportunity offered to learn how a different related culture works? How we answer these speaks to what we prioritize as coaches, and that could be the difference.

One Reply to “A nuclear option”

  • There’s a history behind the “race based selection” criteria in existing for the 9 man game. The documentary “9-Man” by Ursula Liang is a good window into it. I’d say once one understands the history behind the criteria, the controversy one might derive is whether it should stay the same or evolve with the times.

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