beach volleyball and game theory

I played volleyball from junior high until when I finished my PhD.  I mostly played traditional 6-on-6 inside volleyball, but I was happy to play just about any type of pickup game. In all those hours on the court, I learned a few things about volleyball strategy.  6-on-6 volleyball highly specialized. A team usually has a setter, two outside hitters, two centers, a weak side hitter, and a defensive specialist that plays in the back row usually for the centers. The team uses their three hits to set up an offense, and no player can touch the ball twice in a row.  Usually, the setter is shielded from the first hit so that she can handle the second hit, accurately passing the ball to a hitter for the best possible offensive attack.

Beach volleyball is a bit different, and the strategy is worth discussing. Clearly, both players have to be good at everything (defense, passing, hitting, blocking, and anticipating the other team’s move).

Less obvious is the role of game theory.  Here, there are two players per team, and a team has three hits to get the ball over the net. It is almost always best to use all three hits to properly set up the offense to maximize the chance of winning the point.

The opposing team, however, wants to minimize the chance of this team getting the point. Every team has a stronger hitter. Usually it’s the tallest person on the team. A team’s goal is to get the best hitter the ball on the third hit. This means that the best hitter needs to get the ball on the first shot. The strategy here is less complicated with a deterministic route of hits between the two players (i.e., if player A gets the ball first, then only player B can get the ball next).

The opposing team is aware of who should not get the ball first, and generally serve or hit to the shorter player. This is like a zero-sum game with perfect information. During the US beach volleyball games with Misty May-Treanor Kerri Walsh Jennings, I noticed that teams almost always served to Misty (the shorter of the two) than to Kerri, despite how good Misty is at serve receiving and defense. This was not a coincidence. This is also not the same strategy as in indoor volleyball, where tall players are usually less skilled defensively, and as a result, often are the target of serves and spikes.

Have you noticed other Olympic sports that have a strong game theory aspect? I’m sure there are lots!

7 responses to “beach volleyball and game theory

  • Matthew Saltzman

    So apparently, some Olympic badminton teams were caught throwing games in early rounds so that they would face easier opponents in later rounds. Does that count?

  • Harlan Harris (@HarlanH)

    Hm, in epee fencing, there are particular sorts of attacks that you can use that are fairly likely to end up with double-touches, where both people get a point (on their way to winning at 15 points), an in particular where you minimize the likelihood that only your opponent gets a point. Useful if you’re ahead and want to finish the bout quickly, or if you need to delay for time while you figure something out. And it often annoys your opponent too. I’m sure you could formulate epee strategy as some sort of stochastic game with a learning component.

    Indoor volleyball is a great spectator sport! Love the coordinated actions! I find beach volleyball boring to watch — much more about power, much less about strategy.

  • Laura McLay

    @HarlanH: Thanks for your comments on fencing. I don’t know too much about it. As a casual observer, it seems to be a more athletic version of rock-paper-scissors (OK, bad analogy, but that’s all I can think of). Paul Rubin can probably tell us some more.

    I like how the strategies are more obvious to the viewer in beach volleyball (e.g., their anticipation), but like you, I prefer indoor volleyball any day of the week. It has much more finesse and is so more intricate. Lots of strategy there, but harder to explain in a blog post.

  • Laura McLay

    @SaltzmanMJ: I wrote my blog post last night and saw the badminton story first thing this morning. That definitely counts. I wish the badminton coverage were better in the US so I could figure out the “game” they were playing there. I was a badminton star in high school and played throughout college, so I know a few things about badminton too. That also means that my HS and college buddies mock me every four years. I’m sad that badminton is not considered a serious sport here in the US–throwing games will just make it worse.

  • Norm Heske

    The badminton situation isn’t game theory, just correct strategy based on the poorly planned pool structure.

    I’d like to see more beach volleyballers tap it over the net with higher frequency when the opponent is expecting a set. That would be good game theory although the volleyball purists wouldn’t like it.

  • adamo

    “Have you noticed other Olympic sports that have a strong game theory aspect?”

    High jump, pole vault and weight lifting I believe

  • Josh

    I know this is about five years too late, but FWIW:

    In short, beach volleyball does include some game theory, but the receiving team doesn’t need to play by these rules, and the assumptions are often incorrect. For example, serving May was clearly a losing strategy for a lot of teams over the years, yet this is what team after team chose to do.

    Had I been coaching one of these teams, I would have suggested that my players do something – anything – different. (Like maybe serve hard and try to force out-of-system attacks.) Of course, the perils of pursuing unconventional strategies in sports is well-documented in the book Scorecasting. In short, you better win. If not, you better find a new job.

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