Serve First or Receive First?

Introduction

One of the first decisions to make in gaining an advantage in the match is whether to serve first or receive first (should you win the coin toss).  Mark Lebedew showed that teams will win approximately two thirds of the rallies as the passing team (or one third of rallies as the serving team) in the top professional leagues and international competition.  This means it is better to choose to receive first as you are likely to win that first point.  Lebedew also points out that if points are generally won by the passing team, the starting serving team will need to score two more points on serve to win the set whereas the starting passing team will only need to score one more point on serve to win the set.  If the chance of winning the rally as the serving team is 33% then the starting serving team will have a much harder job to win the set. 

So the choice is clear at elite men’s level: receive first.  However, does this hold true at lower levels of volleyball?  John Foreman makes the point that at lower levels of volleyball, serving is more dominant so it could be advantageous to serve first.  Also, is it the same for both genders?  

So I wanted to find out, using data from various competition levels separated by gender, is it better to serve first or receive first.  

Method

We can calculate the percentage of points won as the receiving team and serving team by using the sideout and break point percentage performance indicators, respectively.  The sideout percentage is the percentage of points won as the receiving team.  The break point percentage is the percentage of points won as the serving team.  The sideout percentage plus the break point percentage should equal to 100% as the rally point can only be won by the receiving or serving team. 

Sideout % = Sideout Points Won/ Total Opposition Service Attempts
Break Point % = Break Points Won/ Total Service Attempts
Sideout % + Break Point % = 100%

I collected the sideout percentage and break point percentage of all match data that pertains to the competition level.  Some competitions will only include the team data that I analyse for plus their opponents.  This will mean that the competition level is generally centred around the teams I analyse for.  The Women’s Super League will include more data from other teams as I have scouted more matches outside of Polonia SideOut London.  There are seven competition levels I have been involved in, as seen below:

Competition Level | Teams Involved + Opponents | Seasons
Champions League Men | IBB Polonia London | 2019+2020

Novotel Cup Men (Int.) | England, Scotland, Luxemburg, Iceland | 2020
Men’s Super League | IBB Polonia London | 2018-20
NEVZA Women’s Club Championship | Polonia SideOut London | 2017+2019
Women’s Super League | Polonia SideOut London | 2015-20
BUCS Tier 1 Women | City University London | 2017-20
BUCS Tier 2 Women | City University London | 2016-17

Results + Discussion

Below is a table showing the sideout and break point percentage separated by competition level.  The results show that the sideout percentage decreases with decreases in level for both the men’s and women’s volleyball.  The highest sideout percentage is 66% at Champions League Level.  This matches Mark Lebedew’s data at elite level.  It looks like BUCS Tier 1 Women is the level where it would be slightly advantageous to serve first as the serving team won 52% of the rallies.  It’s better at BUCS Tier 2 level as the break point percentage is 54%.  This would reflect John Foreman’s observation that the lower the level, the more serving becomes more dominant.  

Sideout and break point percentage separated by competition level

Conclusion

Choosing whether to serve first or receive first depends on the level of competition.  Simply put, receive first for higher level of volleyball and serve first for lower level.  

The inflection point, where it becomes more advantageous to serve first, looks to be BUCS Tier 1 level for women.  If you wanted to see what that level looks like, you can watch City University London videos down below.  Where that inflection point is for men, I don’t have that data.  

I do wonder how far up the break point percentage can go up at the lowest competition level.  Perhaps 66% is the upper limit for break point percentage, like how 66% is the upper limit for sideout percentage at elite level.  I know that BUCS Tier 3 level was pretty bad (we once won a match 25-3, 25-1, 25-7 basically through serving) so I could conceiveably see it going that high.  

In any case, I would say before you decide to receive or serve first for your own team, I would try and measure your team’s own sideout and break percentage percentages before deciding whether to serve or receive first.  

City University London Women Match Videos, 2019-20

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