Tag Archive for volleyball serve

How to teach the overhand serve to volleyball beginners

volleyball serve

A reader asked the question, “How we can teach the over arm serve for beginners?”

I see a lot of difference in how coaches coach serving. Here’s a video that I think gets the basic elements in place, though.

Getting it all pointed in the right direction

Broadly speaking, the main thing I’m trying to get a beginning server to do is to have everything move in the same direction. By that I mean I want to see their body and their arm swing all pointed the same way. Preferably, that’s at their target. This is how to generate optimal power and accuracy.

The first part of having everything going in one direction is the step. The step is what generates weight transfer, which is the first phase of power generation. I’m sure you can see how you want the server’s weight moving in the direction of their intended serve to generate the strongest possible serve.

The second part of having everything in the same direction is the toss. In order to make contact, the server’s hand must go to the ball. If the ball is tossed to the left of the hitter’s shoulder it will tend to go left, and if it’s tossed to the right the serve will tend to go right. Neither of these is an optimal situation for either power or accuracy. Instead, we want to the toss directly in front of the hitting shoulder.

If you can get the new server doing these two things, you will have gone a long way toward making them a consistent server. A good way to work on this is to stand directly behind them and provide feedback. Even better is to let them see themselves on video from that angle. That will really help to highlight things for them.

Coaching the toss

The vast majority of serving errors have poor tosses as their root cause. It takes a lot of practice to get this part to be consistent. I personally teach the toss as a “place”, which I picked up from someone along the way.

The idea of the “place” is that you really don’t want players tossing the ball very high. The higher they put the ball up in the air, the greater the chance for error. Instead, I teach the player to hold the ball out in front of their hitting shoulder, at about shoulder height. They then lift the ball a short way into the air – just high enough for them to swing their arm and contact at good reach – at the same time they take their step.

So basically you have a step-toss joint movement. This is instead of what many new players do, which is to toss, then step. You can see the step-toss demonstrated by the girls in the video above.

Coaching ball contact

When it comes to ball contact, you must ensure new servers keep their wrist and hand firm through ball contact. If they allow the wrist to get floppy and/or the hand to be soft, the result is usually a ball served into the net.

The other thing to make sure they do is to hit through the ball for the sake of power. I do not coach players to “pop” the ball. That’s when they pull their hand back immediately on ball contact. The theory is that it helps to create better float. First, for beginners I’m not worried about whether the ball spins or not. There are other priorities. Second, the ball has already left contact with your hand by the time you start to retract it, so the popping thing really doesn’t accomplish anything. Finally, popping puts unnecessary strain on the shoulder. Just let the player follow-through on their serves naturally.

Generating power

Even if they get all the other stuff (step, toss, hand contact), some players still struggle to generate enough power to get the ball over the net. This is especially true of younger girls. In my experience, this is mostly a function of swinging too slowly at the ball.

The power of the serve is a direct function of the speed of the hand at the time of contact. To serve harder the hand must move faster. Increasing arm (hand) speed in serving is very much like doing it in hitting. You have to look at the power being generated through torso turn and how that is extended up through the shoulder. Mechanical issues there will have to be addressed.

In many cases, though, it’s not a mechanical issue that is the problem. It’s a mental one. The player just doesn’t understand the need for a fast arm swing, or potentially how to generate it. One way I’ve found to get them moving in the right direction is by having them work with a towel against a wall.

Tie a knot in the end of a bath towel. Have the player hold the other end in their hitting hand. Have them face the wall, then do their arm swing. They should make the knot in the towel snap against the wall with as much speed as they can. Make sure their mechanics are right. You want them generating a whip through their arm, not trying to power with the shoulder.

A few reps of these towel swings should be enough to set the idea in the player’s head. Then get them back to hitting the ball. I’ve seen little girls unable to even get the ball to the net have no problem serving over after a little bit of time with the towel.

Multiple steps

I personally am not a fan of servers taking multiple steps in a kind of walking approach. It just tends to introduce more room for error. That said, though, I’ve had a few players who served that way pretty effectively. If a player needs a little extra power and can control their toss, then so be it.

Final thoughts

The stuff I’ve outlined above is mainly what I think about and look at when working with new servers. I like to keep things as simple as possible. The more complicated you get, the more likely you are to introduce error into the process. Aside from the mechanical stuff, I encourage servers to reset themselves after each serve. There’s no rush. Relax. Take a breath. Then serve. If you can get them to just focus on these basic things I think you’ll be pretty successful coaching your new servers.


Having a pre-serve process

volleyball serve

Serving is the only closed-chain skill in volleyball. By that I mean it’s the only skill which is no reliant on someone else first doing something. Setters need a pass. Hitters need a set. Blockers and defenders need an attack. The server, though, is in full control of their own execution. That allows them to develop a routine before they put the ball in play.

Having a pre-execution routine is something we see in other sports. Baseball is probably the most obvious example for American sports fans because it has so many discreet plays. You can definitely put tennis in the same category.

In volleyball, some servers have very simple routines – hold the ball up, wait for the whistle, toss and hit. Others get more involved with a bunch of bouncing and/or hitting the ball. Perhaps the most over-the-top pre-serve routine I’ve ever seen involved a bunch of bouncing with weaving body/leg movement. Not something I personally would have encouraged.

And it doesn’t just apply to the player with the ball – the server or the pitcher. It also applies to the receiver, as Natalie Hagglund (US national team and former USC libero) pointed out in a recent post. In fact, some of the more ridiculous pre- routines can be found by hitters in baseball.

In particular, Natalie’s discussion of pre-serve routine focuses on keeping things simple. To quote:

“Your process should be short, sweet and should be able to trigger some sort of reaction.”

I’d say the same thing about serving.

And beyond the process, there’s also the focus. Here too Natalie recommends keeping this limited. If you’re focused on too many things you’ll probably find yourself overwhelmed. This applies to coaches just as much to players, by the way.

So give Natalie’s post a read. I would suggest, though, that the “simple” process described in one of comments left by another reader sounds anything but.

Thinking on the subject of calling serve zones

volleyball serve

Jason at Court and Classroom wrote a laugh out loud post on calling service zones for our players. It’s worth a read, mainly because so much of it is in the “sad,but true” category.

For example, with respect to calling for a serve to Zone 3:

Area 3: This serve will turn into an absurdly easy lollipop serve to area 6, allowing the opposing team to violently impose their will upon us, and ensure that we don’t call ever call for a short serve again (until the next match).

Comic relief aside, serving strategy is often on my mind. As I wrote in To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets, I’m not generally a zone caller. This is a change. When I coached at Brown I called them all the time. Things are different now.

These days, in a developmental situation, I like to work with players to be more aggressive with their “comfortable” serve. Then we work on expanding their repertoire. I find in competitive situations, players are often more likely to produce successful results with their “best” serves to a non-optimal zone than their weaker serve to a better target.

That said, I understand the value of a coach calling serve zones. It reinforces a stated plan and allows the coach to adapt to what they’re seeing in the match. I just don’t want robot players. I want ones who think for themselves and can create their own solutions.

While at Svedala I didn’t call signals, aside from sometimes giving a player a specific instruction (normally something like “first serve is good”) or a reminder of which passer we’re after. My focus instead was on keeping our serving focus in huddles on the target(s) we pointed out in our scouting – or a target which has turned out to be particularly good for us in that match.

That said, I can see how I might look to signals as target and strategy reinforcement options for some teams.

Recommendations to help improve the serve toss

Improving a team’s serving is something that coaches of especially younger teams are always looking to do. Even when I was coaching at Exeter, I spent a fair amount of time focused on serving, to good benefit. Invariably, once raw strength is sufficient to get the ball over the net overhand, the biggest factor is serving performance is a consistent toss. The following question from a reader highlights this.

I coach a HS JV team. Each player has the potential to have great serves: they are strong and when the connect properly, their serves are rockets. However, they are inconsistent due to their toss. Their toss will sometime either be too low or to the side which creates a serve into the net or out.

What are your recommendations to help improve a perfect toss?

There are a couple of things I can suggest to help players with their toss.

Record your players serving from either directly behind them or directly in front (behind is probably safer!). This will show quite clearly where players are tossing the ball, which is probably all over the place. Show them an example of a good toss, and then show them where there own tosses are in comparison.

Short Serves
A lot of screwy mechanical things can come into play when players serve full-court because they are thinking about power. Have them serve from mid-court where power is not a concern. That way they can focus on consistent tosses and good ball contact.

When I was at Exeter, nearly every training with the women’s team featured what I called a serving warm-up. It was players serving back and forth in pairs starting just about the 3m line and gradually backing up to the end line. This both served to warm-up their shoulders and to give them time to work on their mechanics. I would do this with any team where developing good serving technique is a priority.

I should note that even coaching professional players as I’m doing at Svedala there are toss-related issues (saw them when working with the TV Bühl guys last month as well). They aren’t usually as dramatic, and take on a different character, but they can be equally influential.