Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon has two advanced degrees and a minor in statistics, so perhaps asking him how comfortable he is using advanced metrics in his own sport was akin to lobbing a juicy set for him to spike in my face.
But he took the question in the spirit that it was intended and answered it with grace.
“I like the quantitative aspect of our sport and that it is data-driven,” McCutcheon said. “But I also understand there’s an art and a science to it. The real thing is getting that data and applying it to the moment.”
Because volleyball has a lot of moving parts and depends on individual skills, advanced stats aren’t foolproof.
But used properly, as with any sport, they can provide a sliver of an advantage — which in a close match between powerful programs might be the difference between winning and losing.
For the Gophers (25-3), who open play Friday at the Maturi Pavilion as the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, it could be the edge needed to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis next month.
First-year Minnesota assistant Jennifer Bolduc, whose official title is video coordinator, is the program’s go-to source for data. She mines a lot of it from volleymetrics.com as well as from the Gophers’ own tendencies through video review, and from there patterns of efficiency and inefficiency emerge.
The Gophers, for instance, have the fifth-best hitting percentage — total kills, minus hitting errors, divided by attempts — in Division I volleyball this year at .299.
Beyond that, though, comes true hitting efficiency — which takes into account that not all kill attempts that don’t result in an immediate point are created equal.
If the receiving team can’t muster an attack and must simply send a “free ball” back over the net, that’s more valuable than if the opposing team can generate its own attack attempt.
Bolduc, who started doing advanced data work at Colorado State a decade ago before meeting McCutcheon through the U.S. National Team, said use of advanced data is common in the top levels of college volleyball.
“I think we’re doing it at as high a level as anyone else,” she added.
The Gophers value serving and receiving because data shows those skills correlate highly to success, and they tailor their training accordingly.
As is the case with data in any sport, sorting through it and delivering it to athletes are among the biggest keys to using it properly. Particularly when using in-match data, coaches are cognizant of not overloading players.
“The information doesn’t help at all if it can’t be applied. We know the human brain has a limited capacity to process information, and for the athletes, they have enough going on with managing their own performance,” McCutcheon said.
“Giving them some important things relative to opponent tendencies or patterns helps. But giving them a 30-page document does not.”
Bolduc agreed, reinforcing that information delivery is as important as the data itself.
“You have to be picky about what you use and what you deliver in terms of what they can actually apply to the game,” she said.
So Bolduc and McCutcheon take loads of data, try to separate out the noise and funnel the useful components to players. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and it seems to be working quite well for Minnesota. The information can be daunting to process, but it’s better than not having it at all.
“I think it’s good to have an objective source of information to validate or make you question your perceptions,” McCutcheon said. “It’s a great resource.”