Passing is a skill which is unique to volleyball. There is no other sport where you run after a ball and use your forearms to pop the ball up in the air! There’s no catching, throwing, or (usually) kicking here, and that makes the concept of passing the ball entirely new to first time volleyball players.
Even players with a few seasons under their belt can struggle to pass to target consistently. That’s why I’m going to give you 4 tips to use in practice to reduce the number of shanked balls (you know, those ones that go flying backwards into the the stands) and improve your team’s overall passing skill.
If I’m being honest… 4 is a lot! The 4 tips are in order of performance during the passing skill, but I’m going to tell you the main tip to focus on at the end of this article. It will be the foundation you build from with most of your passers.
Tip #1: Be in position When the opposing team makes their last contact
Now, for new players this can be a challenge. Not all teams will use three hits before they send the ball over! Teaching your team where to move for defense, as well as how to recognize a freeball is coming, will take your passing game up a notch or two!
For teams who regularly face opponents who use three hits, you want your team to be in their designated defensive position on the court and STOPPED just before contact is made.
The reason we want players to be stopped is so they can read the hitter more accurately, and react to the direction of the hit faster. If your players are still moving when contact is made, they’re going to have a hard time if the ball is hit in the direction they’re running away from.
How to use this tip in practice: Train your players to move quickly to defense. Go back and forth from “base” to “defense” without a ball, then incorporate a freeball, and finally an attack. Repeating the movements will improve muscle memory and reduce the time it takes to get into proper defensive positioning.
Tip #2: Face Where the Ball is Coming From And Angle The Platform - Do Not Turn to Pass!
With beginner players and even intermediate/advanced players, it is not uncommon to see players turn towards the target to pass the ball in that direction. I don’t blame them, I can see how they get that idea.
In practice, we often run partner drills where they are not working on tilting their platform to the target. Most often, they will just be passing back and forth, facing the direction they want to pass to. This gives them positive feedback that facing their target results in good passes.
HOWEVER. This is (in my opinion) the number one reason passes get shanked.
By turning towards the target before passing the ball, we create a much smaller area for the ball to contact at the correct angle. It may work for younger teams when the ball is nice and high and easy, but as hits become more and more aggressive, this simply will not work.
We need to teach players to face where the ball is coming from, and ANGLE THE PLATFORM towards the target, not TURN TOWARDS the target.
This requires patience while players learn this skill, because their angles will not always be right. Assure them by saying things like, “Way to face me and turn your platform, but that was just a little too much of an angle. Try a little less next time.”
How to use this tip in practice: Run passing drills where they must pass from left back or middle back, and the ball is coming from right back on the opposite side of the net. This will require passers to face you and turn their platform. I like to repeatedly yell, “Face me, face me!” As each player is moving to the ball. Don’t worry about where the ball goes at first. Focus on the right basics and the passes will come.
Tip #3: Bring platform Together in front of the body, do not swing up
New players will do a lot of swinging and/or running to the ball with their platform together. This needs to stop ASAP!
I always like to demonstrate how slow we move to the ball with our hands together by running around the court with my platform out. This will get giggles from my littlest teams and eye rolls from my older teams, but I don’t care it’s fun for me haha.
What we want is for our players to first move to the ball and then bring their platform together in front of the body. Younger players will tend to bring their platform together low and then swing up to meet the ball, mostly because this gives the ball a nice height.
Again, this is reducing the likelihood that they will hit the ball at the right contact point for a successful, consistent pass. Instead, we want to bring the platform together at the last moment before contact, while facing where the ball is coming from and angled towards our target.
How to use this tip in practice: We can teach this skill the same way we teach tip #2. Run passing drills and give instructions of “apart, apart, apart, together!” Using these cue words during practice will help them focus on the skill. Remember: The pass may not be pretty, because they’re focused on something else entirely. Don’t worry about correcting anything else until the player can keep their hands apart until the last second without verbal reminders. THEN move on to improving the passing with other feedback.
Tip #4: Freeze
That is, at the point of contact and for 1-2 seconds after. At least while they’re learning! I like to tell my team to pose like they’re getting their picture taken.
What is the purpose of freezing? We’re holding our passing position to ensure the ball travels at the intended direction. Freezing helps minimize the swinging motion which leads to passing errors.
How to use this tip in practice: During any passing drill, instruct your players to “pose for a picture” after they pass. This reinforces the freeze and will give feedback on the angle of their platform too. Show them where you want their platform when they freeze (in most situations, hands no higher than the belly button) and they’ll see for themselves if they’re stopping in the right spot.
Which Tip is most important?
Well, I believe each tip here is critical to improving overall passing skill. But if I had to choose just one, I would say that tip #2, facing where the ball is coming from and angling the platform is going to result in the biggest improvement for a beginner volleyball player. By being behind the ball on every pass, you’ll reduce shanks by…. a lot! OK, I know that’s not like, scientific or anything, but through all of the clinics, camps, leagues, and private lessons I’ve ran with younger teams, that has made the biggest difference! That counts for something, right?
There you have it! 4 tips to improve your passing! These tips need to be reinforced during all practices and consistently! This is not a skill players learn in one practice, but over the course of their entire volleyball careers. Passing will get more and more challenging as they get older. Give them a good foundation to build from and their future coaches will be impressed with their fundamentals!