Recently, I watched my son, Cody, play in a couple of matches for his pro volleyball team in Germany.
What I loved most was the range and adaptability he showed as he was attacking and blocking. He was MVP of the match, scoring as many stuff blocks as the rest of his team combined. He serve-received as many balls as the other team’s libero and at a higher success rate. He killed twice as many balls as any of the other players on the court, from both the back and front row, and both sides of the net. He also made some key digs from the back row.
In the words of Hugh McCutcheon on what he sought for the national team: “We want players who are good at all six skills, and great at one or two…”
So how did a kid from Colorado get so good at blocking? Well, I can tell you this, he never blocked from a box or blocked hitters who were on a box. He blocked live hitters. How did he get to be good at serve reception? He played a lot of doubles growing up and never threw a ball to a setter; he always received, then hit. After all, the ideal hitting drill is a pass/set/hit drill.
This, however, is a blog about hitting more effectively, and I am writing this not to players like my son who can touch over 12 feet high. I am writing this to Claudia Garay, a 5-1 hitter on a high school team I coached who was our best hitter – and better than every other taller player.
I am coaching 13s, and a lot of 12s on the 13 team, and at every practice, everyone hits, sets, serves, serve receives and digs. Every player sets and hits at each practice in front/back format.
This leads to my first point to help your hitters. Most teams focus on hitting left side all the time, and rarely, if ever, hitting the right side. Spending half your time hitting from zone 2/the right side means you are developing far more effective hitters who can deal with a ball falling into their sweet hitting spot from both on and off hand.
We start every hitting session with the back row playset calls of our national team – A| Pipe/Bic | D. Every player’s first backset is a D, not one tight to the net, a three-meters-off-the-net backset, so we start with making the positive mistakes first. With the youngest, we start with the Bic, aka the back row quick, which we ask to consistently be the height of the antenna or one meter above the net band. It is harder for less experienced and younger players to set the higher sets, but even our youngest/smallest player can consistently now set a front and back set meter ball.
Hitting From Way Back
We spend a large amount of time hitting from not only back row but from five, six and even eight meters back. You simulate a “bad” pass that goes well off the net, and in front back format, the bad passer backs up “behind” (further back from the net) where the ball is falling and calls “Sick!” (that is a play on words of a bic set), and their teammate sets them a “bic” or meter-high set for them to jump and attack.
You read that right, I want my 13s and younger to jump and swing from eight meters back, not stay on the ground and forearm pass a free ball over for the third contact. This ball flight teaches (just like a back row attack) how not to swing into the net but to learn that important positive over-the-net arm swing.
Hitting Over the Block
The pic of Cody hitting over the two-foot high block (right) made me realize another of his skills that any player OF ANY SIZE can emulate to become a better attacker: hitting with range, especially OVER a block.
In our gym, there are times we put the net up to the men’s height and work on better learning the timing/arm swing it takes to hit over that “block” – equal to an eight-inch/hand-high block that is the max block of the majority of our opponents, which is nine meters wide.
Learning how to hit effectively over a block wreaks havoc with the opponent’s defense which relies on the shadow of the block to not have to worry about hard-hit balls falling into that zone. It is not the arm swing learned in pepper or in traditional wall spiking. It can be learned properly against a wall, even as homework, as seen in this USAV Sport Development video on using the wall in a more game-like way.
Then there is the other part of range/hitting effectively: to be able to hit both cross body and wrist away shots from the right and left side of the court.
Again, while these shots are understood well by hitters who train in zone four/left side, we simply do not have enough players in our sport who are good at hitting line (with wrist away) and inside the three-meter line (with the cross-body swing) from the right side/zone 2. Most players hit where they face, in pepper, practice and competition (as the cross court has the most court available), thus most hits go the way they are looking.
To be more effective, we simply need to spend more time practicing not hitting where you are approaching.
We all should heed the words of this Russian scouting report from the 1968 Olympics about Jon Stanley, the father of 2008 gold medalist opposite hitter Clay Stanley:
- Never hits where he looks
- Always hits where you aren’t
Hitting Off Speed
Learning to hit off speed is another technique. Most athletes hit on a good set but hit off speed/tip on a bad set. I believe it is important to learn to hit with range and options on the bad sets and every now and then tip/off speed on a good set.
That is not what usually happens in a game and so you are becoming a more effective hitter. Do it in warm-up, in over-the-net pepper, and in hitting grills. Remember to not tip/off speed only where you are looking; hit tips cross body and away from your body.
Hitting Off the Block
I would guesstimate that in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, some 15 percent, likely more, of Taylor Sanders' attacks as an outside hitter would have flown out of bounds by more than 100 feet…only he scored the point by hitting off the top of the blockers' hands.
The smaller you are compared to your blockers, the more important being able to hit off the top and the sides of the block become. Of the two shots, cross or line, I first suggest hitting off the side of the outside blocker that sends it to the line/outside the court on any deflection. When you swing cross court, you too often will be roofed in, vs you can be roofed, but if it deflects past the line, over the net or on your side it is a point for you.
Tied into this concept is teaching and knowing when to wipe out, from both the left side -- a press into the hands and radical cross body shot for a right hander; or from the right side – a press and radical wrist away shot for right handers. Some know how to do it from the left side, few are good from their off hand/right side of the court. Practice it standing to experience the motion (sending the ball into a near wall so you need not chase the wipe shot across the gym floor), then learn when on a tight set, to a) jump safely away from the center line and b) reach and press into the blocker then wipe out of bounds.
Without a blocker present, these shots in practice would look like errors, which is why we need to hit against blockers all the time if our level of play has blockers confronting us. Too many hitters develop false confidence pounding the ball, then get roofed or go timid when the reality of a block is present. The block is a tool to use to be a more effective hitter.
Hit With Your Other Hand
Finally, spend a little time in practice learning to hit with your nondominant hand. No good coach in soccer, basketball or lacrosse would spend 100 percent of their time just training the dominant hand and foot, but in volleyball that is normally the case.
You will become a more effective hitter if every practice you let yourself hit a few shots with your nondominant hand. You don’t need to be ambidextrous, but you must know how to use your “other” hand/arm to save and place balls in the chaos of the game.
The biggest error I see is that players and coaches want hitters to look good, so they ignore the net (last time I checked every spike must go over a net) and the reality of the block (at the higher levels), and they fail to link the flow and reality of the game by using hitting machines and coach tosses. The players look good in practice but never learn how to jump at the right place and time.
My 13-2 team has no one who can get above the top of the net with at least their hands to “block,” so we weave swim noodles into the net to be like an 8” or higher “blocker” and teach them to be better diggers.
Every player, regardless of size, can hit over any net or block, with range, from all over the court (though the littles have to be off the net to have a chance). We just have to learn in reality.