Tag Archive for passing

Move your feet or move your platform?

A topic of fairly frequent discussion in coaching conversations I’ve had in the last six months or so has been serve reception technique. A lot of us were taught some variation on the idea of getting yourself to the ball – perhaps center line, perhaps pass left. Call that the “move your feet” school of passing.

This is a school with deep roots. It basically goes back to the beginnings of forearm passing (no, people didn’t always pass with their forearms, but don’t ask me when that changed). In those days serves were comparatively weak. They were almost exclusively done from standing, so they had an arc and often had little in the way of velocity. In other words, there was time for passers to move – as witnessed by the USA men employing a 2-person serve reception when they won their Olympic gold medals in the 1980s.

Then came the Brazilians. In the 1980s they started doing topspin jump serving. It wasn’t quite to the point you see it today – especially in the men’s game – but it was fast enough to force a change in serve reception to generally having a minimum of three passers, which is what you see today.

Then came the jump float serve. Granted, it’s not as pacy as the topspin version, but the lack of an arc on the ball (because you’re serving from above the level of the net) combined with higher velocities than normally seen from the standing version made for less reaction time. One can often find coaches targeting 40mph+ for jump float serves. At that tempo the ball goes about 59 feet per second – so just under the length of the court. Not a lot of time to react and move.

Now imagine how quickly a strong jump serve gets to a passer – especially considering the broad jump taking them further into the court on contact. How much time do you think a passer has to move their feet.

So, basically we have a fundamental question:

At what point do serves move too fast for passers to use that perfect reception technique that we’ve all been taught?

One coach I spoke with recently joked, “14s.” Obviously, the answer comes down to the quality of the serving.

You can tie in here the idea of using arms vs. legs to add impetus to the passed ball. I’m not going to get into an argument here over which is better. Rather, I will ask a similar question as the one above:

At what point are serves hard enough that you don’t need to add anything to them to get the ball to target?

The answer is probably very similar to the answer to the first question. And at a certain point you’re trying to take something off the ball.

The bottom line in serve reception is the platform angle. It, and only it, will determine where the ball goes. This was a point made by Tom Tait when I interviewed him for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Along with being the original coach for both the men and women at Penn State, Tom is a long-time professor of kinesiology, so he knows a thing or two about this stuff. Though in this case he speaks in terms of physics and Issac Newton. ­čÖé

When I was at the HP Coaches Clinic last year, French coach Laurent Tillie caused a ruckus when he suggested a cross-over step and end passing with bent arms. After hearing about this, Mark Lebedew did a review of the French passing in recent international competitions and found that the main focus was on setting and holding a proper platform angle (the cross-over step only happened after the pass).

So while training passers, are we better off giving feedback on the platform rather than the feet?

Fixing bad passing mechanics

A reader of the blog has a problem with one of their players. Specifically, it relates to bad passing mechanics. Here’s the note I received:

“I am a relatively new coach and this is my first season coaching boys. I have one boy on the team in particular that I’m having a hard time with his passing skills. He is doing what I call butterfly arms (Looks like he’s swimming the butterfly stroke) and delayed foot movement during passing. He waits until the ball is almost on him, then swings his arms backwards and around to get them into his hitting stance then leans forward instead of shuffling to get under the ball.

I’ve tried all kinds of passing and footwork drills with him (rolling the ball and having him shuffle to get it between his legs, having him hold his arms out, shoulder width apart and tossing him the ball without requiring foot movement, etc.) and I haven’t been able to cure this extra movement. Needless to say, he shanks a LOT of passes. Do you have any suggestions for drills or repetitions to help this?”

I’m having a hard time visualizing exactly what the problem is with the arms. I think I’ve got a general idea, though. In a case like this my first thought is the player needs to see himself to be able to understand what’s happening.

What I would start by doing is having the player watch some good passers in action. That could potentially be someone on his own team. It could be someone that they play against. Of course, it could also be some prominent high level players that could potentially be bigger role models for them. That stuff should be easy enough to find on YouTube, etc.

Once the player knows what good passing mechanics looks like, I would get them watching themselves pass. You could use one of the apps like Coach’s Eye (I think) that allow you to do side-by-side comparison of video. More than that, though, I’d want to be able to give the lad persistent feedback by using video delay, if you can (ideas for a set-up are here and here). That would let him see himself basically every repetition. He can then compare what he’s doing with what he’s seen is good mechanics. No better feedback than that!

Beyond the video, I don’t think it’s the actual drill or game that really matters. It’s more about finding the right cues to use with him. Those are the things that carry through across all activities, so you can include them throughout practice, which is important. The player needs to learn to pass in game situations, so you need to be able to have those cues established and ready for use.

Be careful, though, and don’t overload the kid. Try to only focus on one or two things at a time. If you have too many points of emphasis it’s not going to work.

Drill: 1-2 Serve & Pass

Synopsis: This drill allows passers to work on receiving hard serves, and servers on serving them, but without lots of missed serves leaving passers standing around.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for intermediate and higher levels.

Requirements: 6+ players, 3 balls, a net.

Execution: Set up three players in serve reception on one side of the net, with a target, and 2 or more servers on the other side. The servers work in sets of three good serves. The first one is an aggressive serve to any of the three passers. The second and third serves are controlled balls to the two players who did not pass the first ball. For example, Server A serves a hard jump serve to the passer in Position 6, then Server A and Server B serve standing float servers to the passers in Position 1 and 5.


  • Passers can rotate after each trio of serves, or stay in assigned positions if working on specialized training.
  • If you only have one properly aggressive/tough server, they should always serve the first ball, otherwise the first ball can be done in some kind of rotation.
  • If a server misses their serve they can either go again immediately, or the next server can go.
  • You can go for time, for some number of good passes, specifically for a target number of good passes off the aggressive serves, or make it a servers vs. passers game.
  • If you have sufficient players, you could run this drill 2-sided with servers and passers on both sides of the court.

Additional Comments:

  • This drill was introduced by Laurent Tillie at the HP Coaches Clinic.
  • This is a good drill to allow for aggressive serving without the common problem seen in most serving & passing drills where there can be lots of missed serves and/or balls going largely to the same passer/zone.

Setter start position and the passing target

I saw the following question asked.

Should we have our setters start at the net, slightly offset from middle in the traditional target position (net zone 6 in the old USA Volleyball numbering system)? Or should we should allow them to go to a spot a bit further off the net.

The latter reflects a shift to have passes which aren’t as close to the net. It’s something that’s gained traction in recent years, at least partly thanks to the spread of the Gold Medal Squared philosophy. I think the setter start position and the passing target are issues which deserve separate attention.

Passing Target

To my mind, where you have your passing target depends on a number of factors. Level of play is obviously a big factor. You don’t want to try to force a high level of accuracy on players lacking the technical skills. Also, if all you’re setter is going to do is set high balls it really doesn’t matter too much of the ball is off the net. At the same time there’s greater margin for error at the top end of the sport. The skill of setters and hitters to allow for less precision. The result is that teams in the middling levels are the ones who require the highest degree of passing accuracy to run a quick offense in the middle.

Coaches have begun setting their teams’ passing target a bit off the net to reduce the risk of overpasses. It’s similar to having your target for digs being middle of the court around the 3m line. Keep the ball on your side of the net and give your team a chance to get a swing.

I understand the motivation, and certainly do a lot of work with my own teams to avoid overpasses. There’s a trade-off which must be considered, though. It’s akin to the one we make when considering how aggressively we should have our teams serve. At a certain point more risk is required to be competitive. We have to consider the effectiveness of our pin hitters when deciding on a passing target. If they are able to consistently score (or at least put the opposing under pressure) then the more conservative passing approach is reasonable. If, however, our OHs and OPPs struggle to score, then we need more precise passing. That brings our middles into the equation and gives our pin hitters swings in better situations.

Setter Start Position

My personal philosophy is that the setter should always start at the net. They then react from there to move off the net if the pass requires. My reason for this is setters get themselves into trouble quite often when they try to move toward the net on a ball passed close. We’ve all seen it. After coming off the net the setter loses their sense of position. They then end up having to try to play the ball while moving toward the net. This tends to result in net touches, center line violations, ball-handling errors, or simply bad decisions. The mistake I tell my setters they cannot make is to mess things up by being out of position when one of their teammates gave them a perfect pass.

Now, that said, there are times when it might make sense for the setter to start slightly off the net. At the lower end of the playing ability scale, if you have a slower setter and the vast majority of balls are being passed off the net then a start position a few steps into the court makes sense. on the other end of the spectrum, if you have an athletic left-handed setter who can attack the ball effectively, having them start a bit off the net to be able to get a short approach can make sense.

As always, what we coach our team to do should depend on the specific circumstance of that group of players and the opposition we face.

Drill: 5-Player Passing and Movement

Synopsis: This is fairly simple group ball-handling and movement drill (though with room for increased complexity and/or intensity) that could be used as a warn-up.

Age/Skill Level: This is suitable for all levels

Requirements: 5 players, 1 balls, court, 3 cones

Execution: Place two players on one side of the court and three on the other. Behind the two players place one cone each, and place a third cone on the 3-player side in the middle of the court toward the back. What follows is a continuous ball movement exercise where the players on the 2-person side always pass the ball straight ahead over the net while those on the 3-person side always pass the ball diagonally. After one of the 2-person side players passes the ball, they circle around the cone behind them, while on the other side the passer loops behind the cone to switch to the other position.



  • Players can be required to forearm pass or set the ball, or some combination.
  • The cones can be moved to challenge player movement to a greater or lesser degree.
  • A second ball can be introduced to increase tempo and focus requirement.

Additional Comments:

  • If using multiple balls in this drill you’ll probably need to have more than just the 5 players to keep the play flowing.
  • I saw this being run by German men’s professional team TV B├╝hl.

Drill: 5-player Pass and Set

Synopsis: This is a combination passing and setting drill, which can also incorporate controlled serving, and perhaps even hitting.

Age/Skill Level: This is suitable for all levels

Requirements: 5+ players, 4 balls, court, 2 cones

Execution: Place one player in each half of the back row, a setter near the net in the passing target zone, and one player each near the antennae as setting targets, with a coach on the other side of the net opposite the passers. The coaches alternate sending free balls to their passer. After a player passes the ball, they move to a cone set somewhere on the perimeter of the court and then back into position. The setter alternates setting forward and back. After 10 balls to each passer, they switch with one of the targets.


  • Players can be used in place of the coaches to initiate balls to the passers.
  • Serves (from in the court or full) can be used in place of free balls.
  • Setter can either set the balls passed from position 5 to the target in 4, and the ones from zone 1 to the target in 2, or vice versa.
  • Rather than just catching the ball, the setter targets could hit.

Additional Comments:

  • Ensure your setter is always operating from your preferred target area to encourage passes directed there.
  • This drill can be run with just 4 balls by having each target start with a ball, which they then toss to the free baller (or server) after the latter sends a ball over the net to the passer.
  • I saw this being run by German men’s professional team TV B├╝hl.

Propper passing body and foot positioning

Questions come up at times (as this article indicates) about body position when passing or receiving serve. This is particularly the case where the feet are concerned. Some coaches ask the question whether a passer should be square to where the ball is coming from. Or should they be square to their passing target? Another question is whether a player should have their feet even or slightly staggered with one in front of the other. If the latter, which foot forward?

I think the response to the first question you will almost uniformly hear from experienced coaches is that they want players square to the ball, not to target.┬áThis lets them move laterally in reaction to the flight of the ball. The one possible exception I would suggest is in the case of a line defender.┬áThere you can opt for an “on-help” position.┬áThat is where the player is turned somewhat into the court rather than straight on to the hitter. This can help better dig balls toward the center of the court rather than straight toward the net where it is harder to set.

In terms of foot positioning, many favor a slight stagger. The argument is this is a better reaction position than parallel feet. As to which foot to put forward, I personally leave it to the player’s comfort.

The one thing I would note, however, is that none of the body and foot position stuff matters at all if the player’s platform is wrong.┬áNo matter what, the player has to orient their platform properly toward target on ball contact. The ball goes where the platform is facing.

How to stop overpassing

Overpasses are a persistent problem for many teams. Whether it’s in serve receive, on free balls, or on defense, teams which send the ball straight back over to the other team shoot themselves in the foot. This can be especially damaging when playing against good opposition.

So how do we prevent overpasses?

There are a couple of ways to approach it. Let’s take a look at each one.

Correct the mechanics
The cause of overpasses is a passing/digging platform angled incorrectly. The platform angle is too close to perpendicular with the floor and not close enough to parallel. The first thing to look at is whether that is coming from poor mechanics in the passing or digging executions or just something which requires a minor adjustment. For example, is a player not moving to the ball properly or not creating a good platform, or is the player moving in to position well but just getting the platform angle slightly wrong for the type of ball they are playing? If it’s the former, that means work on basic mechanics needs to be the first priority.

Change the target focus
Overpasses often come about because players are trying to be too precise with their passes or digs. That can be corrected by letting them know they don’t need to be perfect and that it’s OK to make a mistake off the net. In some cases, like digging or passing hard serves, you can actually get them focused on what is sometimes referred to as “Target 2”, which is essentially the 3m line in the middle of the court.

Negative consequences for overpasses
When playing a match, there is a negative consequence for overpassing – often the other team ramming the ball back down your throat. To reinforce this in training there must be a negative consequence to an overpass in drills. My favorite way to do this is to make an overpass a deduction in drills where the players have some target count. For example, if players have to get to 20 good passes, I make the overpass -1. That encourages them to make the mistakes in their passes on their side of the net rather than on the other side.

Those are the three things I do to get my players to keep the ball on their side of the court when digging or passing. What about you?

Game: Points for Passes Variation

I little while back I posted the Points for Passes game, which I’d seen at at University of Rhode Island training.It’s something quite useful for putting the focus on serve receive passing in a game play context.

As an experiment, I tried making it a 2-sided game. By that I mean rather than one side serving all the time, I ran it more like a regular game situation with each rally deciding which team serves the next ball. So basically what you have is a game that gives bonus points based on the quality of the serve.

Here’s the wrinkle, though.

Rather than having the rally winner serve, I had the loser serve. In other words, winning the rally gives you the right to receive serve and thereby gain more points from good passes.

So far the players seem to like the game, though the loser serving bit is a bit confusing at first. If you play to 25 points things will tend to go fairly quickly. That’s good if you want to play several games, mix things up, etc. If you want longer games, though, you can play to more points or maybe only give points for high quality passes (say 1 point for a 2 pass and 2 points for a 3 pass, or just 1 point for a 3 pass). You could even think about using negative points for things like overpasses of whatever you might want to focus on.