beach volleyball and game theory
Posted by Laura McLay on August 1, 2012
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!