Blog: Evolution of Blocking Drills

By John Kessel | April 12, 2013, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

In the book The Seven Habits, author Stephen Covey says one of those habits is to “begin with the end in mind.”  I can think of no skill more important to do in totally game-like situations other than blocking, in short – the best blockers get that way by blocking live hitters in real games or grills. So when coaches ask for “the best blocking drills,” it is simple – you block hitters who are attempting to put the ball past you.  It is that simple as the principle of specificity must be followed. This however is a blog on how blocking drills have evolved to this point, so let’s take a look back.

When I was young, my coach would pull or lower the net to let me “feel” how it was to block.  That tradition is simply a waste of players’ valuable volleyball learning time, just like it would be to lower the net for a spiker.  We must train in reality, and for those kids who cannot jump high enough to put their hands above the net, not their fingertips or fingernails, we need to teach them to play floor defense all six rotations.  When they can get their hands above the net, then they should, with that body and size they now have, start learning the “when and where” of blocking, since the actual technique is pretty simple – you jump with both arms and put them up (and as you get taller/better jump, over) above the net. 

Then there is the tradition of “soft” blocking, where a shorter player jumps at the net with their hands folded back to intercept a ball being spiked sharply down.  For sure this is a blocking technique, but you have to ask yourself, how many of your opponents hit the ball down at such a sharp angle that the soft block is possible?  The percentage is very low compared to the much higher success level of having that player dig most spikers. 

One other key thing to remember is that if a player is too short to get their hands above the net, they might not block, but they CAN be good attackers. One of my favorite high school teams I coached, Del Norte out of Albuquerque, NM had the Garay sisters. Claudia was maybe 5’1” with her highest jump and reach, her fingertips still were a good 4 inches below the top of the net. So I had her play middle back all six rotations, and hit bics and shoot sets and tandems, but all from 2 meters off the net. Remember that no matter how high you jump off the floor, if you contact part of the ball below the top of the net, it is not an illegal back row attack. Claudia hit near the net all six rotations as part of our offense, but was always legal in those attacks.  She also never hit where she looked but that is covered in the STOP Teaching Spiking blog.  The point is, you might not teach a player to block, soft  or otherwise,  if they are short, but you always teach them to attack and play floor defense like a waterbug in a stream.

Then there is the BOX, a tradition for both spikers to hit against a block, or for blockers to stand on and practice their “technique.”  Like so many non-game like methods created not from the science of motor learning principles, but from teaching the way we were taught, learning to block while standing on a box is a total waste of time.  Remember, there are two parts to being able to “do” a skill – 1. Being able to demonstrate the technique without a ball, thus showing that you KNOW what the technique is and 2. Being able to do the technique at the right place and time.  You can simply have players stand on the ground and then move/jump to show you what their blocking technique is, not even with a net. Once you know they have the concept, you need to guide their discovery of timing to learn when and where to jump, against a real attacker.  This short time window means that the skill of blocking starts with reading what is going on in the game.  The myriad of combinations of where the setter is in relation to the attacker, how high the set is and how far off the net, the jumping ability of the attacker, the arm speed of the attacker, and so many other things factor into when and where to jump.  This is never learned on a box. Indeed, when blockers “block” a coach/teammate who is standing on a box, since the “attacker” is frozen in time, the blockers must key their jump based on the slap or toss of the ball by the person standing on the box.  Even though we want all blockers to watch the intelligent thing involved in the attack, the PERSON, and not the ball, since this person is on a box, the blockers learn to their when/where by watching the ball.  Again I must say, a blocking a spiker on a box is a total waste of time, as it teaching the WRONG skills in blocking, not the correct ones. 

There also is the tradition of “shadow blocking,” where to players on opposite sides of the net jump and touch hands together, then land, and move down the net, jump again and touch hands, in some bizarre choreographed mirror line dance.  So again, if you become the Olympic gold medalist at shadow blocking, what have you taught your athletes to have as a blocking “skill?” You have taught them to jump directly in front of the attacker – which is actually the wrong place to be as a good blocker for you let the spiker swing freely cross court, and the further the attacker is off the net, the more “inside” the block needs to form, not in front of the attacker.  You have taught them to jump at the same time as the attacker, which is too early for any set ball other than one put on top of the net for a joust.  Every centimeter the ball is set further off the net, the blocker needs to jump more and more microseconds later.  The goal is to be at the top of your jump as the ball nears and crosses the plane of the net.  Finally, you have taught them to play patty cake above the net, when in reality, the more you can penetrate over the net, the more court space behind your block that is taken away for your team’s defenders.

Blocking feedback is unique, as you can block GREAT yet not touch the ball! Every other skill in our sport you contact the ball for part of your internal feedback and learning.  In blocking, if you take away a hitter’s favorite shot, and they tip, rather than hit, or hit out or a less effective for them shot to hit around your block – you did a GREAT job blocking.  So in coaching blocking, you need to check for understanding with your players and if they jump in the right place and time, and the hitter adjusts to a less favorite shot, you make sure they know how great that block was.  This timing is in thousandths of a second difference between right time and late/early.  Stand on the ref platform and take video right down the top of the net with an iPad or a web cam hooked up to a laptop.

Two other things to think about creatively puts us back to who should be blocking and if a block is needed.  The latter is simple, not every attack deserves a block, or the attacker may not deserve a two or even three player block, but just a single blocker. . If you had a player who could touch higher above the net than half her teammates, you likely would have her blocking on the court. What if she was your best defender by far? Why not let the other two netmates form a two person block and let your great floor defender dig all six rotations.  That sure works at many junior levels, but know that our USA women’s Olympic team has also done this, letting their best digger dig, even when she was at the net.  

Back when I could jump, something I still get to remember now by watching my son blocking, I was told that I had amazing “hang time.”  My nickname was “Sky King” as l had a good vertical but I am not able to avoid the laws of physics, including gravity.  What would happen is that the taller middle blocker would close next to me and jump, but I would delay by maybe 2-3 thousands of a second, as I read that the attacker was hitting off speed.  Then as my teammate started to fall out of the sky, I would still be climbing, and would block the tip or soft shot.  The fans, who only watch the ball, did not see that I delayed a tiny bit, but did see the taller middle blocking teammate falling and me still “hanging” in the air and stuffing the ball. The point of this story in a paragraph is simple, blocking is about jumping at the right time and place, based on what the attackers most likely options are as seen from their approach and the set placement – and it is always different.

In my article “Volleyball Canyons to Bridge” I ask one “canyon question” on blocking. That is, what percent of the time do your hitters spike against no block in a match…and what percent of time in practice do your hitters attack against no block.  As the most valuable way to learn to block as we noted at the start of this blog, is by blocking hitters approaching and jumping, then in practice your blockers (and hitters) should be blocking at a percentage that matches that percent. If you coach 12s there will be quite a bit of time you can hit in practice against no block, but as you move up the age ladder, you should find that most the time hitters hit, they should also be being blocked.

You see, the final evolution gets us to becoming the best we can be at seeing and recognizing patterns. If you watch the Tom Hoff Great Player webinar,  you hear how he determines what he might do as a middle blocker on things that are both scouted and seen in 8-10 previous attacks during the match against each player.  He is adjusting and learning as the match goes on, and this only comes by playing, not drilling.  Blockers and diggers need to share the same “Visual Encyclopedia “ that our new head National team coach Karch Kiraly addresses so well – how patterns tell you the probabilities.

So again, to be a great blocker requires improvement in the two most important skills in our sport – learning and reading.  Remember the myths of reading are 1. high level athletes have superior visual systems – 20/20 vision (they don’t) 2. Perceptual skills do NOT transfer across sports (they do) and 3. Perceptual skills can’t be improved by practice/instruction (they can be improved).  The realities are in blocking to recognize and recall structured patterns…anticipate using advanced visual skills… have efficient search strategies – seeing v. looking, other cues to look for – hand position, shoulder, etc… extract minimum essential information, superior knowledge of situation probabilities…know that perception is less affected by emotional state….   

My favorite point of the importance of being a good blocker by simply blocking hitters comes from a discussion that our national team coaches have shared.   When coaches are asked if they would rather have a player with near perfect reading skills and not great technique, or a player with perfect technique and not great reading skills, the answer is generally universal.  So again, as the game teaches the game, stop creating blockers who are ball watchers and start teaching them to watch the hitters’ approaches and remember what each attacker does.  Tom Tait said it best…Let athletes be athletes, not robots.