Interview with Martin Plessl: Scouting in Beachvolleyball!

In recent years a phenomenon can be observed in beachvolleyball: a crazy amount of cameras and some people with laptops are sitting behind the courts at tournaments and type as fast as if their life depended on it. Martin was one of these Scouts, as these specialists who analyse the tactical aspects of the game, are called. Read in his interview what his job is about and how it helps coaches and players to develop better strategies to beat their opponents.

Hi Martin, thanks for taking time to answer our questions. Although you are a coach now, you started on the FIVB Tour as a scout. Can you tell us some basics about your job, like when and how you started?

In 2012 Robert Nowotny and Harry Dobeiner asked me if I could help the Austrian Teams with scouting during the Continental Cup to qualify for the London 2012 games. Until then I worked as an indoor headcoach in Austria and part-time scouting for Austrian (youth)-national teams. Doppler/Horst qualified in the final event in Moscow and the beachcoaches liked my support as a scout, so the brought me in to more tournaments in 2013. In 2014 before the qualification process for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio began I was hired as a full time scout. In 2017/18 I worked half-time as a scout half-time as coach for Ermacora/Pristauz. In 2019 I was appointed Headcoach for Beachvolleyball Women in Austria and had to quit scouting. I still analyze some of our own games though.

Martin, many people don’t even know a job like “Scout” exists and even many coaches have only vague ideas how the job looks like. We would want to shed some light here. How does your collaboration with the coaches look like: For how many coaches do you work? Do you prepare data/information for every game or only on specific request by coaches?

At the beginning I worked only for the men’s teams, with priority on the team Doppler/Horst. Most of my time I spent with Robert Nowotny as their headcoach, but I also worked with Helli Voggenberger, then coach of Huber/Seidl. Later I also worked for the women’s side. All teams that played internationally could get tagged videos and some basic information from me, but priority was always Doppler/Horst.

At the beginning I tried to tape and scout as many games as I could, because we had nothing. After we had built a certain base, I focused on teams that would be important for the Olympics. Nowo gave me much freedom what to scout, as long as I could provide information when needed. Parallel games in pool were always important though.

Cameras at the FIVB World Tour

Do you share also your personal impressions and opinions and discuss with the coaches on opponents’ tendencies and possible tactics or is this something the coach is doing only by himself?

Nowo and I discussed a lot, and also Helli asked for my opinion many times. This can be difficult at times, because while scouting I see some things very well, but others not so much. As all the ball-contacts are tagged I tend to follow the ball, but cannot always see how a defender moves. In the end, I provided statistics, and gave my ideas, but the final decision was made by coach and players. The involvement of players is important too, because they also have a lot of knowledge and sometimes you can see things on the video, but from the players perspective on the court it’s no so clear.

Do you also work directly with players or is all contact done via coaching staff?

I worked more with the coaches, but if players asked for videos or opinions I was always willing to help them.

How much time does it take to provide the coaches with specific information from a game which just took place? What is the process or workflow?

You can access the stats of a game directly after the end of the game. Of course there might be some mistakes, if you type in Vienna in the middle of 10.000 people and the Eskimo-girls attack you with the water to refresh the audience, but normally it’s good enough to get an idea of what has happened during the game. To sync the data with the video takes some minutes, so 15minutes after a game, the coach can watch a tagged video and has some basic numbers. One game is never enough to interpret the numbers though… usually you need 6 or 8 games or more to get reliable data. In addition to that you must consider different factors like wind or sand (is it deep or hard), and the opponents. A certain player might shot a lot in a game, but only because the defender is slow or the blocker very high. He might play differently against you in the next game. Therefor a full analysis of a team takes much longer. When we prepared games for the Olympic Games in Rio I spent days just on one team.

Do you tape the games yourself or do you use existing videos and tag them after? What are advantages of the one or the other?

In the beginning we taped everything ourselves. This is fast and reliable, and if my camera didn’t work chances are I can trade with the scout of a different country. Today we use the stream provided by FIVB. For important games I still like to put our own cameras up, because if things go wrong with the stream, there is no backup. And of course for a copy of the stream I have to wait sometimes 30minute, other times more than 90. That can be critical if you want to analyze the morning-game for the afternoon-session.

How much live tagging did you do (games/tournament, hours/week)? How many hours did you work during a “normal” tournament day?

Somedays I would scout 8 games a day live, and maybe 1 or 2 extra at night. A typical tournament day is rarely less than 14 hours.

Can you describe one of your typical days during a tournament?

This depends a lot on the schedule of the tournament. Many times I started setting up cameras at 7.30 in the morning, scouting the first games of the day at 8.00. It’s then checking cameras, sometimes changing courts, livetagging, preparing tactics for coaches and so on. After the last game I would hurry back to the hotel, charging batteries, collecting all the videofiles from SD-cards, compressing, naming and sometimes cutting them. Partly syncing videos with data, maybe prepare something the coaches request and try to find some time to eat.

What are scouts like you doing during the “off-season”?

I spent the offseason scouting more games from video or programming worksheets for better analysis. Many times I also participated in the practice sessions of our teams, helping with videofeedback or sometimes scout matches during practice.

Martin, can you describe in a few sentences what kind of system you use and how your software is working?

We used Datavolley, a software we also use indoor. For indoor this is the international standard. We adapted the coding to fit our needs, as some other nations also do. POL, RUS, NED, USA, they all use Datavolley in beachvolleyball. Basically every contact of a player with the ball is written down in a short code. For example “a1SQ1.2#5BR” means “opponent player 1 serves with a jump serve from position 1, player 2 makes a perfect reception on position 5B (that’s pretty much where he starts) on his right side”. To get an idea: the court is segmented in 36 squares, you have 6 degrees of quality, 7 different techniques, each with several parameters, so you get quite some detail in the analysis.

In terms of statistics what are the most important informations the software is providing?

You can more or less have any number you want: FirstBallSideOut is pretty important for example, Breakpoint Percentage is another one. Ace/Error Ratio might be of interest to you. For me it was also interesting if a receiver is weaker against a certain type of serve or on a certain side of his body. It really depends on your philosophy then. If you think reception is important you go for that number, if you want to improve your setting, you may look for these numbers. For me the combination with video is most important. Because the numbers are one thing, but you must know why they are as they are.

What do you think are the most important numbers a coach should look at and which patterns should they look for in videos?

As I just said, this is a question of the philosophy of the coach. For example the 2 teams I worked for Doppler/Horst and Huber/Seidl had very different numbers. One was quite good in Sideout, the other in Breakpoints. You can win both ways: you can play almost perfect sideout and then win the game with 1 or 2 aces, or your sideout is not as stable, but you convert some great digs and make some huge blocks. If you look at the very top you need to have a very good sideout to not lose the game and you need to have good block/defense to win it.

If you could have “the perfect scouting system”, how would that look like?

That’s easy: automated tagging. I am much more interested in the analysis of the game than in entering the data, yet almost all my time I spent tagging videos.

How did scouting develop the last 5 years?

More and more nations in beachvolleyball invested in scouting. I think that the level of play also increased due to scouting. Once players understand their own patterns they will try to work on that in practice. If you look at some young players on the tour, they are VERY variable in their options in serve, attack, but also blocking and defending.

Some nations started to outsource scouting to third party companies. On the one hand this is a chance, as big companies have the resources to bring new developments. On the other hand single nations lose their advantage in scouting.

Which developments in the area of scouting do you expect in the next 3-5 years?

I think within 5 years we might see automated scouting. Maybe not on sidecourts, as the viewing angle for cameras there maybe too limited but for sure on center courts. Technically it is already possible, it’s a question of investing the money and developing a software.

Bigger nations/federations will also go for Big Data Systems. Once you feed all the data in Big Data Systems we might find correlations we couldn’t see before. That will further improve practice and the knowledge about your opponents.

Effectiveness of scouting: How often during a game do you have that thought: “the opponent is doing exactly what we analysed!” and how many times does the opposite happen: “uh-ohh, they play completely unexpected?”

Haha, both happened already, but it’s more often that you know what an opponent is doing than not. The problem is: you might not be able to stop him although you know it…

Even with the best opponents’ analysis and game plan, your teams still has to execute…how difficult is that? What are your thoughts about that part?

A plan is only that: a plan. It get’s more interesting when it’s confronted with the reality. To know about your opponents tendencies is important, but you still have to play your own game of course. But analysis does not only help with your opponents! You should scout your own team as well, because this gives you an idea where you need to improve, and what tendencies an opponent will know about YOUR team! I consider this even more important than the scouting of opponents. And the lower the level, the more important it is to know your own team first.

Do you see big differences between teams/players in terms of how easy/difficult it is to figure out the main tendencies? Is that what separates the great players from the rest (variability, difficult to predict the next attack etc.)?

For sure there are differences. Some players are very hard to read. But others are quite easy to read, and yet you gain nothing, because although you know what is coming, the execution is so precise that you still may struggle to win.

From your experience: Are there differences between men and women in terms of predictability and execution of gameplans?

Getting on thin ice here… I think the question is not about predictability. As stated before, you might be predictable but still win because you execute perfectly. There are some teams that are harder to predict than others for sure, and for me there are more men’s teams in that area.

Do you think there is a danger of “over-analysing” and giving the team too much tactical information/input? Where is the limit?

Definitely. If a player thinks about too many options his/her decisions will be slower. That is Hick’s Law. As a scout I have had enormous amounts of data. It was then the decision of the coach to reduce that and share a small part with the players. While a player might remember quite a bit at the beginning of the game, it might be less once crunch time has arrived. But this is also quite individual: some players have a huge capacity for information, others forget who to serve right after coin toss. In my experience it also helps to let players develop their tactics partly by themselves. Now, working as a coach, my teams should always come up with their own ideas. I try to teach them what to look for, but try to make them independent of me. If a good team changes things during the game, they also need to react by themselves. So it’s good, if the not only understand what to do but also WHY.

Do you have any tipps for beginning scouts?

At the start its’s a tough business, so damn fast. Keep calm – if you really want it, you will learn!

Most of the things I needed for scouting I learned from another Austrian scout Franz Kaiser, who was a kind of mentor for me, when I started. In Austria we have very basic courses for the use of Datavolley, but you will have to work a lot by yourself. So maybe the best advice is: find a mentor, who can help you!

If people are interested in scouting, how can they find resources? Is there special education? Any books or articles you can recommend?

For resources: if you are fit in the german language and interested in the general topic of scouting you might read “Systematische Spielbeobachtung” by Martin Lames, who gives a theoretical (and scientific) background.

More practical might be this blog: http://www.scoutvb.com/

And of course you can always contact me if you have specific questions.

Thanks Martin for sharing your knowledge and give people an idea about the job of a scout in beachvolleyball

Read here the interview with another scout: Alex Raev (RUS): https://ibvca.net/2020/interview-with-alexander-raev-scouting-in-beachvolleyball/#more-495