Tag Archive for volleyball hitting

Reader questions on approach, knee slides, and run-throughs

A reader submitted three questions.

  1. Do you prefer a 3 step or 4 step approach for young outside hitters
  2. Is it proper to teach a player to slide to both knees for short serve receive balls
  3. Your thoughts on “run throughs” when passing a ball versus getting a balanced base set?

Let me address them one-by-one.

Approach length

I personally don’t have a strong preference on 3-step or 4-step approach. I know some coaches favor one over the other, but I’m just not one of them. For me it’s more an individual basis sort of thing. Some players do very well with a 3-step, while for others the fourth one definitely helps them.

To my mind, the first major thing new players need to sort out is the last two steps. Those are by far the most important, especially since there are many situations where a player cannot make a full approach. It’s really important for a hitter to be able to use those two steps to open up. If not, they will end up hitting square, which is not good for the back or shoulder.

Slide to knees

I am not in favor of players going to both knees, really in any situation. When I coached the Exeter women I had a player who went straight from standing to both knees to play low balls. And this was one of my middles! I used to cringe every time I saw it. Ouch!

In contrast, one of the Exeter men was excellent at going to one knee to play a short ball in front of him. Think of it as basically a lunge lead step, with the trailing knee then sliding up to be tucked underneath.

My view is that we don’t need players’ knees hitting the floor if we can avoid it. Too easy to cause harm, and given how sweaty kneepads get, they’re bound to leave a wet spot on the floor in the middle of a rally.

The one possible exception to this is when the player is trying to take the ball with their hands. That’s a situation where the ball is perhaps too high for a platform dig or pass. Even there, though, you may argue in favor of a different technique.

Obviously, in emergency situations you have to do whatever it takes. If we’re talking about training techniques, though, I’d not be working on two-knee stuff.


A run-through is for balls you need to chase down, not for balls you can relatively easily get under. Generally speaking, you will have better platform angle control when you are stable than when running. Why add in the extra variable if you don’t need to?

What is zero tempo?

If you followed my coaching log entries for the 2016 Midwestern State season, you know at one point in the season we spent time on middle attack tempo. Our hitters were much too slow. They were still in their approach on setter contact.

This brought up some questions about the tempo we wanted to run. Specifically, should it be first tempo or zero tempo?

Honestly, I didn’t hear of zero tempo until a couple years ago. I don’t know when it started to be used. It seems to be very much an American thing, though. Basically, it’s when the hitter is off the ground at setter contact.

At least that’s what it is supposed to be. That’s how it’s described in this video.

If you watch the video, though, the hitters are not actually in the air on setter contact. They have both feet down, and are just about to jump. This is considered first tempo, rather than zero tempo. At least some people think of it that way.

Differing opinions

I spoke with Mark from At Home on the Court about this. He and I are on the same page that by our reckoning in the air on setter contact is 1st tempo. We both admit, though, that you almost never actually see that. I had a male player at Exeter who did it, and one of our MBs at MSU did it once in a match. Those are the exceptions, though.

Even still, I have long pushed my quick attackers to beat the ball. I know they probably won’t get all the way there, but at least they’ll get closer to ideal.

As I talk about in the Timing of the first tempo attack post, the idea of the zero tempo ball is that it forces the block to make a choice. In order to stop a quick attack running that fast, the block must commit on the hitter. That then makes it very hard – maybe impossible – to get up if the ball is set elsewhere.

In practice, a properly run first tempo ball is very hard to stop without commit blocking. If the ball is set high enough to let the hitter make contact on full extension, the block will struggle to get up high enough, fast enough to stop it.

Kill percentage off perfect pass

The following question came in from a reader:

What percent of kills should we expect on a perfect pass? Serve receive or free balls?

The answer to this is reliant very much on level of play. High school girls probably do not score at the same rate as college men, for example. Unfortunately, the mailer didn’t tell me what level they are at.

I honestly don’t have a specific answer in any case. I reached out to Mark Lebedew from At Home on the Court to see what he had to say, and he told me in the men’s PlusLiga in Poland (the top professional division) it’s a 62% kills rate, with a 47% hitting efficiency. This struck me as low, but that just goes to show that personal impressions aren’t always (or even often?) right. 🙂

Mark went on to say the PlusLiga sideout rate off perfect passes is 72%.

My analysis from the 2017 Midwestern State suggested our perfect pass kill rate was below 40%, which was definitely sub-optimal.

I’m curious to hear what folks with good figures say about kill % and sideout rates at their level. If you have any data, please share via a comment below.

Teach them how to throw

A big developmental issue with female athletes in volleyball is a tendency to hit from a body position where the hips are square to the net. I’m not talking about final position, but instead starting position. In other words, they don’t initiate their swing from a hips open position. They look more like this:


…than like this:


Granted, the balls are at different point in the two photos, but I think you get what I mean. If you don’t, watch your players hit. How many of them have the open shoulder and hips of the guy above when they jump? How many of them jump with hips and shoulders basically square to the net?

The square position many female players attack from (and I once wrote about a male player doing basically the same thing on a jump float serve) means they cannot generate as much power in their swing because they are not producing it from their core. It also means they are at increased risk of lower back and shoulder injuries. This comes from more back arching and trying to generate power from the shoulder respectively.

Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Tait in his interview describes the mechanics of hitting a volleyball as run-jump-throw. I contend that because girls don’t learn to throw in a mechanically correct fashion (foot opposite the throwing arm should be forward) at a young age like boys do, it leads to the square body posture that is so problematic in their hitting.

I have talked with a number of folks about the need for young female players to be taught how to throw early in their development. It’s something I recommended to those coaching the little ones at Svedala when I was there. I recently had that discussion with Ruth Nelson, another Wizard who is the developer of the Bring Your Own Parent program for kids ages 5 to 10. She was in total agreement.

I know some coaches have their players throw footballs back and forth as a shoulder exercise. This is generally just for older players, though, as they have big enough hands to hold and catch those bigger balls. For the little ones you’d probably want to use something smaller, like a tennis ball. I’ll leave someone more qualified than myself to address the mechanical differences.

Regardless, if you’re working with younger – or potentially just inexperienced – female athletes, it’s worth incorporating throwing time in your training. You will likely help them become more powerful hitters and reduce their risk of injury.

Hitter attack angles

Mark Lebedew once wrote on the subject of when hitters make the decision as to their angle of attack. That is whether they go line or cross with their swing. The post was a follow-up to a poll he ran asking when people thought hitters made their choice: before the set. When he sees the block starting position? When he sees the set, when he sees the blockers’ hands? Or at some other point? Basically half of respondents said when they see the hands.

Mark’s view is that mechanically there’s not much chance of a hitter truly being able to set themselves up to hit with power both line and cross such that they could decide between the two in the last instant. I would contend that when the decision is made depends a great deal on the talent level of the hitter (leaving aside the question of the set for the moment). At the low end, hitters probably make the decision before the play even starts. I know this first-hand from working with them! At the upper end, vision and experience tends to allow for later decision-making.

At the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic there was a session which nominally was about scouting, but ended up being focused on training hitters to be able to hit multiple angles. Hitter attack angles were defined as:

Straight: In line with approach
Hard-Cross: Attack with a cross-body arm swing
Straight-Cross: Midway between Straight and Hard-Cross
Hard-Away: Aggressive wrist-away attack
Straight-Away: Midway between Straight and Hard-Away

It is important to note that these attack angles are all relative to the approach of the hitter. If, for example, we’re talking about an OH with about a 45-degree approach, then the straight attack would be on that 45-degree line. Hard-Cross would be the line swing. Hard-Away would be a sharp cross-court attack. The two mixed attacks would be in between, as shown here:
Here’s what it would look like for an OPP with a straight approach. Notice how the hard away shot is actually out of bounds. Clearly, that shot isn’t available. The straight-away shot might not be either.
AttackAngles2Obviously, the exact angles of these swings are going to vary from hitter to hitter. Some attackers will be able to hit more radical “cross” or “away” shots than others. I’ll share some of the training exercises they presented in the not too distant future.

Returning to Mark’s view, we had a conversation about it a couple weeks back when I was in Berlin. I personally as a hitter was a late decider in that I looked for the block, but I was very much a straight to hard away hitter, at least as an OH. Didn’t really have much of a cross-body swing from that side. I could mix one in from the right on occasion.

The point I made with Mark was that in theory a hitter can leave the decision right up to the point of elbow extension. That’s when they decide where on the ball to strike. But at what point do you start calling those angle shifts shots rather than full attacks, and can those angles really provide the same full range as going cross-body?