A frequent reader of the blog sent me the following inquiry.

My question centers around certain drills/explanations that I would like your input on.

I have a few players that are tall and athletic and they definitely have a great potential to become very good at the game of volleyball, however, they struggle with hitting balls down with topspin so the balls go straight down in the court for a kill. They can jump pretty high and they seem to hang in the air, however, the final outcome of their hit is the ball going wide or hitting the wall, straight on!

In my observation, I believe that this behavior is caused by some miss-timing (they are under the ball a bit at times) but more importantly (in my opinion ) is that they do not perform the “wrist snap” to generate that topspin and hit the ball hard for a kill. I noticed that when that happens their hitting hand is not as high so they are not reaching high at the time of the contact plus they are not getting on top of the ball and don’t “snap their wrists” The hand is positioned as you would put your hand up to signal STOP to someone, sort of like for the float serve i.e. they don’t follow through like you would do for a spin serve.

Also, they don’t always perform the double arm swing when approaching to hit i.e. some time one arm goes back some two arms but it is inconsistent.

I incorporate a lot different hitting approach drills almost in every practice i.e. put emphasis on the double arm lift approach etc… to make sure that they are making good hand contact when attacking. These drills are similar to these showed here : https://www.theartofcoachingvolleyball.com/youth-hitting-drill-the-shot-maker/ and I also incorporate live setters so the payers hit from an actual set rather than their own toss. I also used this to explain the good hand contact https://www.theartofcoachingvolleyball.com/making-good-hand-contact-when-attacking/

Wrist snap

Let me start by addressing part of this quickly just to get it out of the way. As I wrote about in my myth of the wrist snap post, topspin doesn’t come from that action. It comes from where you strike the ball, and in what direction. You can create topspin with a perfectly flat wrist. Similarly, you can snap your wrist and still hit a floater.

Follow-through

A second thing I want to address quickly is the necessity for follow-though, in both hitting and serving. It is ALWAYS better for the player to follow through for the sake of shoulder health. Stopping a swing – or even worse, trying to pull back after contact – puts quite a bit of needless strain on the shoulder. And it has zero influence on how the ball travels. That, as noted above, is all about contact point.

There tends to be two reason players fail to follow-through. One is because they think (incorrectly) they need to stop their hand for proper contact to happen. The other is fear of error. They are swinging simply to make contact, not to actually drive the ball. The former you can address by talking about proper follow-through. The latter requires a shift in mentality. In other words, you need to get them away from the fear of making mistakes. That might require a change in how you talk about errors.

Timing issues

Before I get on to the subject of topspin, let me first address the timing issue. It sounds like that could at least be part of the problem here. Unfortunately, timing is something you can’t give a player a simple solution for. Each player moves at different speeds, so their approach start times necessarily vary minutely. At the end of the day, each player has to figure it out for themselves by going through as many realistic (game-like) repetitions as they can. Working off a toss is of limited value because it doesn’t provide the same timing cues as attacking off a set ball (hand or bump).

The feedback you as coach can provide is more a question of early, late, or on-time. Even better if you can show them delayed video so they can also see it for themselves.

Developing topspin in attack

Now to address the main thrust of the reader’s question.

As it turns out we had what sounds like a very similar issue with the 2019 Charleston Academy 15U team (same age group as the emailer’s team). For the life of them, most could not hit a ball with topspin. They consistently hit floater attacks and down balls.

So how did we address this?

We did a little bit of hitting against a wall so they could get the sense of proper hand contact.

Mostly, though, we did a lot of over-the-net pepper variations. The first Art of Coaching link above is an OK exercise, but it’s not particularly game-like. As such, I might use it as a follow-up to hitting against the wall. A 2-v-2 or 3-v-3 pepper where the players have to use a pass-set-down ball sequence is a much more game-like activity. And as the players are able to consistently hit their down balls with topspin you can progress them to roll shots and then controlled attacks.

Eventually, you can move to more aggressive swings in drills like cooperative cross-court hitting. And you can make it part of competitive games. For example, you might only give points (or bonus points) for balls hit with topspin.

Make sure it’s the focus

No matter how you work on your players developing topspin, you have to make sure it stays the focus. It’s really easy to let that focus slip and to start providing feedback on other things. Don’t fall into that trap!

And keep in mind that the hardest time to get them to work on topspin is when they’re competing. They will naturally default to doing the things that normally get them points. That’s why you need to have process oriented scoring focused on topspin.

Do hitters need topspin?

Before I wrap this post up, it’s worth asking the question whether hitters even need topspin. I’ve seen stuff from Gold Medal Squared which suggests there isn’t enough distance involved in hitting for topspin to effect ball trajectory. I’d need to see some science on that, however, as my eyes suggest otherwise.

The reality, though, is that if you can reach high enough and hit the ball with sufficient downward trajectory, spin doesn’t matter at all. Think about a middle hitting a quick attack down at the 3m line. Certainly no spin necessary there!

Also, hitting a no-spin ball gives defenders more trouble. Just ask anyone who’s ever peppered with a teammate who hits with power, but no spin. It’s terrifying!

Spin becomes more of a factor when you can’t hit on a sharp downward trajectory and/or your want more control.


John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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