Serve receive is an integral part of an offensive system's tactics. Teams can choose among three possible formations: five, four, and three passers. Advanced teams almost never use five players to serve-receive. Using four passers is not unusual, but many top-level teams use three passers to receive serve.
How a team positions its players to receive serve influences passing accuracy. Teams must decide how to cover 900 square feet of court with a maximum of five receivers (one player normally is assigned setting responsibilities and is not part of the receiving formation.) When designing serve-receive formations, three variables must be considered. First, each player's passing skills must be evaluated. Second, how much territory can each player cover and how accurately can each player pass. And third, what reas of the court should be covered or left open.
The traditional philosophy of serve receiving is to cover the court with as many receivers as possible. All receivers need to be able to see and face the server. Every space on the court is covered by a player who can position herself to receive the serve and accurately pass the ball to the setter. Players simply adjust to the server in their respective positions, keeping the server in sight and making distance adjustments based on the particular server's tendencies.
The W-formation represents the foundation of the serve-receive system. The W pattern can be easily applied to virtually any offensive system. With the five-player serve receive pattern the court is covered. No player needs to move very far to receive the ball. Each player is assigned to a particular area of the court. Normally, the two back row passers receive the majority of serves. Front row receivers guard against the short serve. Seam responsibilities, receiving a serve directed at the area between two receivers, are predetermined.
On paper, it is virtually impossible for a ball to drop untouched. However, there are some disadvantages. The more serve receivers there are on the court, the more targets to which the server can serve and the more confusion as to who receives the serve can occur. Also, rarely does a team have five or six equally capable receivers. If there is a weakness, the server will eventually find it.
In advanced offensive systems, the W pattern does not lend itself to running certain prescribed attack patterns. In this case, the thinking is to hide the weak serve receivers and let the more consistent and accurate serve receivers pass the ball. This permits the hitters to be placed into their attack routes without worrying about serve reception. While this philosophy has its advantages it does have at least one glaring disadvantage. Mainly the large amount of court space available to the server to drop a well placed serve. Because the passer may have to move great distances to pass a ball, serve receive errors involving three- or four-player patterns are often terminal. In contrast the W pattern allows players, who are at best average passers, to get the ball up because they do not have to move very far to receive the serve.
Technically, each of the six rotations could use a different serve receive pattern. In fact many advanced teams combine various serve receive patterns using different formations in each rotation. The goal for each serve receive pattern is to place a team's best passers in the high percentage receiving positions. Weak passers are placed in the low percentage, front row positions or are moved out of the receiving formation altogether.
Teams need to have a working knowledge of the variety of different serve-receive formations. Teams should be able to quickly change to different serve-receive formations to recover from passing breakdowns and achieve the goal of an accurate first pass to the setter.