Giving players technical cues to self-coach

As I commented on in Being reminded of the coaching similarities, coaching at the various levels of volleyball isn’t as different as we might think. An example is something I saw a few professional players have an issue with. Namely, using their arms too much in passing easy balls. This isn’t a real issue if that movement is small. If it’s more exaggerated, however, it can be problematic. It likely indicatives poor movement.

There is a pretty easy way to diagnose when a player is using too much arm when passing. It’s the rotation of the ball. In theory, a free ball or float serve should come off a passer’s arms without much in the way of spin. When a player is using too much arm swing, however, there can be top spin on the passed ball. This comes from the player taking the ball somewhat high on their arms. It effectively rolls slightly along their arms as they direct it toward the net. This generally happens when a player lets the ball get too close to their body. Oftentimes that’s because they did not move back far enough on a deeper ball. Alternatively, they did not get their body out of the way to allow for for passing outside their body line.

I bring this specific passing thing up for two reasons. One is to reinforce what I said earlier. Even professional players can have glaring technical issues coaches will want to try to address. The other is as an example of a way we can provide cues players can use on their own. That way we don’t have to watch every repetition. In this case, a player who sees the ball they just passed rolling with topspin toward the setter knows they played the ball improperly.

The more of these sorts of cues we can provide our players, the more they can coach themselves. We don’t want to overdo things of course. Best to just given each player no more than a couple of things.¬† That way we can avoid overwhelming them. Even doing just that little bit, though, multiplies our coaching many times. It also potentially allows us to focus on bigger picture elements.

Of course it’s not enough to tell a player to be on the lookout for something like topspin on a passed ball. You also need to diagnose the problem and tell them how to correct it.

Note: The passing example above does not express a specific view of proper technique. That debate is for another place. It is nothing more than a sample of one possible situation and how to implement self-coaching cues.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

14 comments

  1. markleb says:

    Top spin on a passed ball would be an egregious technical error.
    Backspin is natural response when a topspin ball rebounds from the arms and has several practical advantages, chief among them being that the spin keeps the ball on the receiver’s side of the net which is extremely important on strong jump serves. Some top coaches teach a shoulder movement on contact to increase backspin.
    I would not say that using the arms is a technical error and is most definitely not a glaring one. I would say it is a far more easily controlled and simple movement than using the legs.

  2. Kelly Daniels says:

    Of all the years I’ve coached volleyball, I’ve never heard of controlling the spin of a ball when passing. I know we can control the rebound speed by pushing or absorbing the served ball.
    It’s mentioned at the top of the article of using the legs instead of the arms. I know there are different training techniques and here is one that counters the technique that is described in the article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHYshVn2EcM.

  3. John Forman John Forman says:

    I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of passing technique here because that’s not really the point of the post. I’ll just say that the coaching I saw in terms of the passing the players were doing on free/easy balls was oriented toward using the legs rather than the arms to generate the impetus to get the ball to the net. Regardless of whether you favor that method or just arms (as per the GMS video), if the ball has topspin on it going toward the net, the player has not passed as they should have done and that spin provides instant feedback that in all probability they should have moved their feet better.

    To the general question of controlling spin, as Mark notes, the intentional creation of backspin is definitely coached. It is a feature of executing any pass or dig where the arms are pushed forward through contact with the ball, such as in a J-stroke or a shoulder extension when playing a driven ball.

    • markleb says:

      The topspin comes from a lateral pass?

      • John Forman John Forman says:

        That would happen if a player is swinging their arms back on contact. Shouldn’t be seeing that on a free/easy ball.

        • markleb says:

          I rescind my original comment. I couldn’t get my head around the topspin part.
          I don’t have any particular problem with topspin on the pass. Yes, it tends to suggest a less optimal position but in and of itself I don’t see it as a problem.

          • John Forman John Forman says:

            You’ve basically just made my broader point. I don’t have any particular issue with there being topspin on the ball either. It’s not moving fast enough off a free ball pass (we hope!) for the spin to impact the flight. The spin is merely an indication of sub-optimal position/mechanics.

            An alternative example to the pass spin one is a misdirected serve. A player having a problem serving the ball left of their target very likely is contacting the ball left of their shoulder line (not the only possibility, but a frequent one). For a standing server the probably means a toss slightly to the left, causing the hand to have to “chase” the ball to make contact. If you’ve diagnosed this issue with a player, the serve flying to the left becomes a cue for them to focus on a straighter toss for better accuracy (and/or to alter the hand contact to correct).

  4. vbman100 says:

    Pat Powers is all about teaching backspin on a pass. It is possible to put backspin on it and still send it over. Just as much as it is possible to put topspin on a pass and have it stay on your side. However, I will say that most often I see backspin on a pass or a dig, maybe around 99% of the time.

    I coach sitting volleyball players. What do you recommend for training to use the legs when passing? John, I love your blog and many of your ideas. I think you may be a little off on this one. Why use 2 variables (the legs and arms) when you can use just one (the arms)? Watch the Olympic level players. They jump quite often when they receive a serve. They focus on force and angle and don’t even worry about their legs.

    I get your point that the main idea of the post is to learn from each contact and take the instant feedback from the spin of the ball and learn. Same is true for setters and serving and so on. Players too often wait for the coach to give them the answer rather than figure it our on their own.

    • John Forman John Forman says:

      As you note in reference to the Olympic level passers, they are controlling for two variables – angle and force. You say they don’t worry about their legs, but to the extent that the movement of their legs (jump, for example) transfer force to the ball, they must compensate with their arms. If they didn’t, the ball would go too high and/or far. Thus, the jump actually increases the overall complexity of the action.

      In most cases in serve receive, however, the passer doesn’t actually need to impel the ball forward to for it to reach the net (often they need to cushion, in fact), which is what generally needs to be done in free ball passing – the specific example of the blog post. The case of using the legs to do so means controlling the angle variable with the arms and the force variable with the legs. If a player passes with only the arms, then they control both variables with the combination of platform angle and arm swing.

      Now, maybe the precision of having all variables controlled in a single body part is greater than the precision when having them differentiated between two body parts (though in reality both body parts are always involved. It’s just a question of which one is positionally locked at the point of contact). If so, why do beach volleyball players use their legs when bump setting? I need to ask a beach coach I know if there’s been any movement in changing that.

      • Kelly Daniels says:

        John, So that you know, USAV at the USAV High Performance and U.S. National Team level do not teach/train using the legs in any type of passing (Serve Receive/Freeball). The served ball should rebound off the arms to the target position. Direction comes from platform angle. Freeballs are passed with just the arms if using them.

        • John Forman John Forman says:

          Yup. I’m aware of it. I’m also aware of coaches in the professional game going the other way. I’m not making any personal judgement, though I’d be interested to see research if there’s any of it out there.

          • Kelly Daniels says:

            The research should come from the consistency in the passing for a team. At least in my opinion. Not all teams are the same and I know you know that. I’ve seen local programs that teaches to use the legs. The passing is inconsistent. I know I teach not to use the legs and the passing is more consistent. Not saying that is the factor. Maybe it’s the ability of the athletes. Just that I know it works for the teams I’ve coached and it works for the HP level athletes I’ve coached.

          • John Forman John Forman says:

            I was actually wondering if there is any bio mechanical research comparing the two techniques – or at least along the same lines. But your point is of course of more immediate practical importance.

            For proper analysis you definitely need to control for things related to the athlete, the conditions they are in, and even the coaching they receive. It’s quite possible that you coach differently in some fashion when you coach arms vs. legs. Maybe the arm technique clicks better with you, so you teach it more confidently – or you spend more time training it.

            I recall reading/hearing about the impact of changing the way a passer joins their hands on their passing performance. I think the research had to do with the fact that it didn’t really matter which technique was used. It was that the player changed which improved their passing. The thinking was it came down to increased concentration by the players as they focused more intently on their technique.

          • Gary Hutt says:

            I’ve trawled google’s back catalogue and did find something in between the strange translations of a handful of Eastern European and Chinese research articles. The best I’ve been able to dig out on this one is an abstract from the conference proceedings of the International Journal of Exercise Science in 2014, looking at differences in knee and shoulder angular velocities during the forearm pass. Here’s the link; http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1848&context=ijesab
            They controlled for pass outcome, using the 3-point scoring system, and found that more effective performances tended to involve less change in shoulder angle and more change in knee angle. Only shoulder angle was “significantly” different between groups, but the numbers seem to tell a slightly different story.
            Couldn’t get an idea on coaching history based on the abstract, but the passes were performed from from around 8m from the net, fed by a ball launcher at around 2.4m high firing at 15m.s-1. Arguably not the most representative, but controls for variation in the hit.
            So… based on the 11 female collegiate D3 athletes in the study, a legs-dominant technique trumps an arms-dominant technique. But that is only 11 athletes out of every single volleyball player in history, so I’m not sure it’s conclusive. Hope this helps, and I’d be interested if anyone has come across anything more than this…

Please share your own ideas and opinions.