This weekend I was working with young players (7th graders) during club volleyball tryouts. At this age, there are going to be a few players who stand out that have played club before or are just naturally athletic. There are also going to be a few people who have never played before and are just mimicking what they see others doing, even though they’ve had no formal training.
My court was no different, and there were plenty of times I saw the opportunity to tweak a player’s movements or form to improve their performance. While this takes some one on one time with a player, it is definitely worth it to step aside for a minute or two and help them (read more at the bottom on why this can work to your benefit, even during tryouts).
Volleyball is a sport which uses complicated movements which often have three, four, or even more elements. This can make correcting bad form a challenge. In passing for example, once you fix the footwork, you need to worry about the platform. And then the movement to the ball. And then shrugging the shoulders/angling the platform/pushing with the legs/etc. You can forget about them calling the ball at this point. The brain is on overdrive just to step in the right direction with all of that input.
At tryouts there were a few girls (75% of them about 5’ tall) that just couldn’t get the ball over the net during the serving portion. Again, volleyball movements are complicated, but serving can be fixed relatively quickly if you know what you’re looking for. By breaking the serve down into its major elements, you can fix a serve (or at least improve it) in just a few minutes.
Step 1: Footwork
Always, always, always, start with footwork. Starting with anything else will lead to a breakdown in other skills later, because the footwork is the foundation which skills are built from. This fix is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. If a player has trained improperly over time, it will take some serious focus to correct this issue. The fix? Usually it is to take the last step with the opposite foot. This keeps the body balanced and allows players to swing harder.
Occasionally, you will need to add steps for a younger or weaker player, because forward motion helps create momentum and power behind the serve. Most players should only take one step forward, but add one more step for players struggling to even serve to the 10’ line.
Common indicators that the footwork is wrong:
Lopsided body posture.
Dropping their non-hitting shoulder dramatically when contacting the ball.
The toss can still be a challenge for players even when they know what they’re supposed to do. Motor skills and control are not at their highest level in younger players, but by showing players where the toss needs to be (usually just by holding the ball in the air) you can make dramatic improvements quickly. The toss should be just above their highest reach and slightly in front of their hitting shoulder. Practice is the best teacher here, unfortunately, because it is often control which is the issue rather than stubbornness or an unwillingness to try.
Common indicators that the toss is wrong:
Lopsided body posture.
Chasing after the ball after the toss but before contact.
“Rainbow” serves. Serves that go up in an arc after contact.
Serves hitting the ground before the net or going into the net.
Step 3: The Swing
All sorts of things can go wrong here. The main objective should be to keep a quiet upper body and maintain a simple, clean swing. How often is this the case though? Young players looking for extra power may “wind-up” or “shotput” the ball. Extra power should come from footwork, not from the swing.
By instructing players to focus on opening their shoulders wide with their hitting arm’s elbow pointed behind them, and then a focus on contact at the right point of the ball (discussed in the toss section) plus a straight follow-through, armswing issues should be fixed.
Common indicators that the armswing is wrong:
“Loud” serve. Lots of body movement which looks rigid yet out of control.
Slouching over after contact is made.
Extra hand motions or upper body movement.
A serve which looks more like a shotput throw than a volleyball serve.
Spin on the volleyball which is not topspin.
Step 4: Contact
This is it. The moment where you find out whether or not your small tweaks have made a difference. Contact should be made in the middle of the ball for beginners working on the basic float serve with a firm hand. The palm should be used for this contact. It can help to have a player hold her hand out and trace the area of her hand which should be making the contact. Don’t forget! Contact is only a brief moment in the armswing, so the follow through should be addressed when discussing armswing as a whole.
Other than this brief instruction on contact, the rest of your help on the serve should improve everything overall!
Common indicators that the contact is wrong:
Backwards spin on the ball.
Sideways spin on the ball.
Slapping noise when contact is made.
By breaking the serve down into these four different elements, you should be able to isolate what is wrong and make easy fixes. Sometimes you will have a server with only one problem (armswing across their body instead of straight through, for example), but many times it is a mixture of two or more. This can lead to funky looking serves where it is hard to determine the problem.
If you can’t pinpoint exactly what the issue is, just go step by step until you’ve covered everything! Following these hints may not automatically result in an ace serve every other time… but it will get your players’ mechanics correct. Once the motion is good, practice is required to perfect their form and train their bodies how to move.
During club volleyball tryouts, it can be a challenge to actually instruct players on ways to improve during that day. It might even be discouraged, but I think it is important to take some time to coach the girls for a few reasons.
First, you’ll get a better idea of how coachable they are. For example, if you have to remind someone to call the ball every time they make contact, I would be hesitant to take that player unless they clearly demonstrated a certain skill level. Everyone is coachable, but it depends how patient you are.
Second, you’ll get a good idea of their attitude. This is closely related to the first reason, but different in a major way. You’ll learn how easily the player gets frustrated (or not), and how they respond to your encouragement. Some players will quickly revert to old habits if their new attempts are not successful. But others are willing to learn and trust you, therefore they’ll stay upbeat despite not quite mastering the skill right away.
Finally, you’ll be able to evaluate everyone on a more even scale. If a player just needs to know the footwork for their approach, teaching this skill to them for a minute or two can result in a better performance immediately. Of course that player will not hit well if they are just running at the net with their hand up. But if they understand what they are doing and have confidence, that can make a huge difference and make them more competitive.