Losing to the Old Guys, Again – Are Older Players Really More Crafty?

An analysis of point-ending plays by players’ stage of career

Today, Big Time Stats are coming from yours truly, Lindy Gullett. Like Adam, I’m maybe, a little bit, sorta obsessed with beach volleyball. I’ve played volleyball since I was 9 years old. But up until a couple years ago, I was always an indoor volleyball player. 

The first time that I played volleyball on a real honest-to-God beach, I was one month shy of my 32nd birthday. And exactly two years after I played beach for the first time, I competed in my first coed beach volleyball tournament. Some of the players were younger than I am. Some of them were more experienced. One was even AAA-rated. (Full disclosure: that AAA-rated player did beat us in pool play.) But at the end of the day, my partner (host of the Big Time Stats Blog, Adam Vagner!) and I won the tournament.

After that win, I stopped to think. Why and how had we won? Adam and I had never played together before. Personally, I hadn’t played volleyball (even indoor volleyball) competitively in almost 15 years. When I played indoor as a kid, I made error after error. I’d spend half the game in my head, worrying about my most recent mistake. I felt self-conscious when I made a “smart” play instead of slamming the ball, and then I’d try to slam even when I couldn’t.

But in that coed beach volleyball tournament, at 34, I was confident and comfortable in my play. I watched the court for the right opportunities to score big. I only slammed when I absolutely had to. I was smart. I was crafty. And when I made an error, I didn’t get in my head. One error didn’t become a string of five errors. Instead, it was just one moment, a moment that I could let go of and forget. The comfort and confidence that came with age gave me the freedom to be the best possible player I can be.

The change in my playing style made me wonder — what do the pros do? Does their game style evolve as they age? Do they make fewer errors as they get older? Do they become craftier players? Or is it the same-old, same-old throughout their career?

Let’s find out.

Hard-Driven Attacks, Crafty Shots, and Errors

For our first analysis, let’s look at how players’ point-ending plays vary depending on their age. I categorized point-ending plays into four categories: (1) Hard-Driven Attacks, including line hits, angle hits, and center hits; (2) Crafty Shots, including line shots, angle shots, center shots, cut shots, tools off the block, two-ball overs, and pokies; (3) Errors; and (4) Other, point-ending plays not categorized in our dataset.

Hard-Driven AttackCrafty ShotErrorOther
Early Career35.5%47.0%15.7%1.8%
Mid Career35.2%48.3%14.6%1.9%
Late Career36.0%49.8%13.1%1.1%

As you can see, all players are more likely to end points with Crafty Shots than with Hard Driven-Attacks or Errors. Regardless of age, players are over 10% more likely to end a point with a Crafty Shot than a Hard-Driven Attack.

The use of Hard-Driven Attacks to end plays remains relatively stable over the course of a players’ career. Players end points with Hard-Driven Attacks 35.2% to 36.0% of the time, regardless of age. Early Career players (age <=26) end 35.5% of their points with Hard-Driven Attacks. The percentage of points ended with Hard-Driven Attacks decreases slightly to 35.2% for Mid Career players (age 27 to 34), but then the Hard-Driven Attack percentage increases back up to 36.0% for Late Career players (age 35+).

Unlike Hard-Driven Attacks, Crafty Shots, like soft-driven line shots and cut shots, noticeably increase as players get older. The older players get, the more they end plays with crafty shots. Players in their Early Career end 47.0% of their points with Crafty Shots. Then the use of Crafty Shots increases to 48.3% for Mid Career players, and it increases again to 49.8% for Late Career players.

When it comes to errors, older is better. Our data shows that players improve their mental game and reduce Errors as they get older. Early Career players have the highest percentage of Errors, at 15.7%. Errors reduce down to 14.6% for Mid Career players, and they reduce even more to 13.1% for Late Career players.

Diving Deeper into Crafty Shots

As players age, they are more likely to end points with Crafty Shots and less likely to end points with Hard-Driven Attacks. But there isn’t just one kind of Crafty Shot. Are older players more likely than younger players to make a turn down the line? Or do the older players love to tool it off the block? What’s the Crafty Shot of choice for the aging professional beach volleyball player?

Shot LineShot Diag.Shot CenterCut ShotOff The Block2nd BallPokey
Early Career13.0%5.5%1.3%5.9%11.6%4.8%4.8%
Mid Career13.7%6.0%1.4%6.6%11.5%4.5%4.5%
Late Career16.3%6.9%1.9%6.9%10.9%3.8%3.2%
Percentages reported based on all point-ending plays. Does not sum to 100% due to exclusion of Hard-Driven Attacks, Errors, and Other point-ending plays from the table and chart.

The increase in Crafty Shots over the course of a player’s career is driven by line, diagonal, center, and cut shots. Relative to Early Career players, Late Career players are more likely to utilize all four different kinds of shots, with an increase of 3.3%, 1.4%, 0.6%, and 1.0%, respectively.

However, when it comes to the less traditional Crafty Shots, like tools off the block, two balls over, and pokies, the reverse pattern emerges. The older a player is, the less likely they are to end points with tools off the block, two balls over, and pokies. Most notably, Late Career players end points with pokies only 3.2% of the time whereas Early Career players end points with pokies 4.8% of the time.

The Big Picture

Older players make fewer errors than their younger counterparts, and older players are more likely to go for the Crafty Shots. But not all Crafty Shots are created equal. Older players use line shots, diagonal shots, center shots, and cut shots more than their younger counterparts. In contrast, relative to older players, younger players are more prone to ending points with the less traditional Crafty Shots, like tools off the block, second balls over, and pokies. 

Yes, older players and younger players do end points in different ways. But at the end of the day, our most remarkable finding is how similar the results are for Early, Mid, and Late Career players. When comparing Late Career players (age 35+) to Early Career players (age <=26), the largest difference in the entire dataset in how often they end points with crafty line shots: Late Career players end points with crafty line shots 16.3% of the time whereas Early Career players end points with crafty line shots only 13.0% of the time. That’s only a 3.3% difference.

That means, out of 30 point-ending plays, Late Career players only ended play with a crafty line shot one more time than Early Career players.

Moreover, even our analysis of Errors only shows a 2.6% reduction in Errors for Late Career players (13.1%) relative to Early Career Players (15.7%). Assuming that it takes a player 42 points (two games to 21 points) to win a match, that means that Late Career players only gain an additional 1.1 points, relative to Early Career players, from their lack of errors.

4 thoughts on “Losing to the Old Guys, Again – Are Older Players Really More Crafty?”

  1. I’d really be interested in % of kill, dug, blocked, or error when going for a shot vs. a hard-driven. A stat like that could inform you about how much you _should_ be shooting vs. swinging instead of what players do by instinct.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Definitely an interesting analysis that I would love to do. Unfortunately, the publicly available data only contains the last point ending action that took place (e.g. kill, block, error, etc.). This makes it impossible to know what happened just before the point ended, like whether a block was generated from a hard-driven or shot hit, including who did the hit.

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