Why Good Serve Receive Technique is So Important

Consider the implications of a volleyball serve coming your way at 40+ mph.

While I was at USC women’s team practice they worked on hard serves. Their objective was to reach that speed, if not higher. Yes, they really did have a radar gun out to measure. 🙂

Consider just how quick a serve at that pace goes from the server’s hand to the passer. For reference, 40 mph is nearly 59 feet per second, or a little under 18 meters per second. That’s not far short of the length of the volleyball court. So passers have less than a second to react and get themselves and their platform in the right position. Quite a few of the serves I saw were actually faster than 40 mph (mainly from the jump servers – both float and topspin). Even the weaker serves were well into the 30s. Of course the top men’s jump servers reach spike level speeds.

The ball only needs to cover about 50 feet (14 or so meters) to reach the passer from serve contact. That’s not very far and a good serve has both the tempo to get the ball there quickly and movement to force passers to change position. This is why teaching good initial position and preparedness, efficient movement, and solid platform mechanics is so important for good serve receive passing – not to mention proper passer communication.

Coach Gimmillaro at Long Beach State focused a great deal on the mechanics of passing (and digging). He was a stickler for early platform preparation, moving in specific ways (run forward, shuffle back and to the side), and keeping stable strong body posture completely through the playing of the ball. Not surprisingly, his team is traditionally good in serve receive and defensive ball control.

Game: High Ball to Receive

Synopsis: This game works on hitters being more aggressive in challenging the block, which also means a focus on good hitter coverage, with additional work on serve receive and free ball attacking.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for intermediate to advanced teams.

Requirements: Two teams, full court, a couple balls

Execution: This game begins with a coach-initiated ball to one team. That team must then run an outside or right side attack off a high set (no quick or faster tempo sets allowed on this first ball – and the ball must be hit, not tipped or rolled). The rally is played out from there in normal fashion (any set is permitted after the first ball). The winner of that rally earns the advantage to receive first a served ball, then a free ball. A point is awarded to the team which wins each of those rallies (not just the receiving team). The next coach-initiated ball goes to the other team. Play 8 points before rotating.


  • You could make this a wash game by forcing a team to win both the serve and free ball rallies (either just the receiving team or the either team).
  • To work on weak rotations you can require a team to get 8 points before rotating (or some number of big points under a wash system).
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • The idea behind the initial high ball attack is to get players to be aggressive about attacking the block (looking for seems, going high hands, etc.). As such, players should be required to take a legitimate swing at the ball and not permitted to tip, roll, or otherwise use an off-speed shot.
  • Encouraging the challenging of the block also puts a premium on hitter coverage.
  • I saw this game used by UCLA.

Drill: Serving-Passing-Setting Quads

Synopsis: This is a good drill to work on all skills short of attacking and can be used either to work on ball-handling or as a warm-up.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Four players, two balls, a net.

Execution: Begin with a passer, a setter, and target on one side of the net and a server on the other side. The server and the target each start off with a ball. The server sends the ball over to the passer, who passes to the setter, who in turns sets the ball to the target. As soon as the first ball comes over the target tosses their ball to the server so they are ready to do the next repetition quickly. Continue until the passer reaches some defined number of good passes.


  • For lower skill levels or to give shoulders a break, players can toss the ball over rather than serve.
  • In order to work different angles, the drill can be run on a diagonal rather than in a linear fashion. For example, instead of the server being in zone 1 and the passer in zone 5, the passer could be in zone 1..

Additional Comments:

  • If the initiation is done by an underhand toss with the ball allowed to roll off the fingers (USC called this bowling) it will imitate a topspin ball. If it comes from a 2-hand overhead toss it can be made to be like a hard, flat float serve. A simple underhand toss or underhand serve could imitate a freeball.
  • If the server serves from mid-court it can be a good way to warm up the shoulder while working on mechanics without having to also worry about power.
  • Having the two balls going is meant to keep the drill moving quickly as the idea is to maximize reps in minimal time, so make sure the players keep the tempo high.
  • Having the ball come over the net in a variety of ways (you could have the players go through several rotations varying up the initiation) helps the players learn to recognize and adapt to different types of balls, especially with the ball coming from over the net.

Volleyball a niche mainstream sport?

In an edition of the Volleyball Ace Power Tips newsletter, American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) president Kathy DeBoer had a bit of a rant. She got quite fired up about the perception of volleyball as a sport in the States. If you’re not a US reader, don’t flip the channel, though. I’m going somewhere with this discussion with a broad implication.

In the newsletter, Kathy took a look at some figures related to high school and college level volleyball participation. It started with the state of Michigan where there are more girls’ volleyball teams at the high school level than any other female team sport (20% more participants than the next highest). This was been the case for the last 15 years. In fact, only boys’ basketball had more schools sponsoring teams in Michigan at the time. Despite this, volleyball was only sponsored by 50 of the colleges in the state while women’s basketball was in 56.

Kathy said the AVCA manager of media relations made the comment, “Volleyball is the only mainstream sport that everyone thinks is a niche sport, even the people in it. I can tell you right now, no male sport with the participation and sponsorship numbers of volleyball would ever consider itself a niche sport.”

I think there’s a key bit in there which is really telling. It’s the “…even the people in it.” bit. I’ve been involved in volleyball since the latter 1980s. Thinking on that phrase, I couldn’t help but look back on all those years and realize he’s totally right.

The newsletter went on to show that 22 of the 50 states featured girls’ volleyball as the top team sport. Soccer came in second in the rankings at 16 states. Basketball was a distant third with only 7 states. And yet, basketball continues to have a higher profile than either volleyball or soccer at the collegiate level.

There are at least two parts to this problem.

One of them is the lack of a comparable men’s sport with a high profile. Unfortunately, men’s volleyball is way behind the women’s side of the sport. Some blame Title IX for that. There’s a lot of competition in male sports, though. Also, for a long time volleyball was viewed as a girls’ sport (as indicated in The Volleyball Debate). In some places it still is!

Regardless of the reason, not having a strong men’s counterpart does play a part. Title IX compliance strongly encourages schools to provide equal funding and other support to women’s teams as given to the men in the same sport. Thus, when men’s basketball gets loads of money, media coverage, etc. it will invariably follow that women’s basketball does too.

Actually, now retired Brian Gimmillaro from Long Beach State suggested something to me during a chat we had once. It was about the business side of things. He said women’s volleyball determines the support of the men’s team instead of the other way around. He said the men’s coach there told him to keep on winning because the men benefit from it. That means things like getting the best locker and team room facilities in the conference. The decision by the Athletic Director at the University of Pacific to cut men’s volleyball (which had a budget of about $100k less than the women) for funding purposes provides an idea of the state of the game on that side of things.

This sort of development suggests that we really need to be looking to address the profile of women’s volleyball, both in its own right and potentially as a way to elevate the men’s side of the game as well. There being no male counterpart to the recently developed collegiate Sand Volleyball competition tends to support this argument. The high profile of Misty & Kerri, and then Kerri & April, at the pro and Olympic level have brightened the spot light on the women’s side of the beach game as well.

So how do we do increase the profile of women’s volleyball – or volleyball in general?

At the grass roots level, the AVCA newsletter offers some good advice about dealing with local media to make it easier for them to write about the sport. Part of it is just realizing that most media types do not have volleyball backgrounds. That means it needs extra support from those of us in the community to cover the sport effectively and efficiently. Obviously, getting our own teams, clubs, etc. press coverage is the main focus, but by doing just that we raise the profile of volleyball in general.

On top of all that, we have to make sure we are constantly letting everyone out there know how great a sport we have and how the sport is developing in a way which demonstrates how mainstream it is – or in the case where it’s still developing, how well it’s growing. In short, we need to be evangelists. Just don’t be obnoxious about it. 😉

Big rewards from seeing fellow volleyball coaches in action

During the course of just over three weeks in 2013 I spent a total of eight days watching various teams go through their training, and two other days taking in matches. It was a fantastic experience. I made some positive new connections. It reinforced some old relationships. And it was great for reconnecting me with US collegiate volleyball after several years away.

As you might expect, sitting in on 13 different training sessions from 5 different collegiate teams (URI, USC, Long Beach State, CSU San Marcos, and UCLA in that order) saw me get some ideas for drills and training methods. I posted several in the Drills and Games categories.

Drills and game ideas can be found in many different sources, though. For me it was more interesting to see a couple of different things. One of them was how certain aspects of the game had changed in the prior few years. In particular, it was clear to me that there had been an evolution in jump float serve mechanics. The changes in the use of the libero was interesting to observe as well, among other things.

The other was seeing the ways the various programs operate and the different types of managerial styles. Teams have different levels of resources allocated to them, and that can play a part. For example, USC has a fantastic training facility and loads of staff on the one end. CSU San Marcos, on the other hand, had to play its home matches at a local high school. They also only had a part-time assistant coach. Some head coaches are more supervisors and big picture overseers. Others are very hands-on in training, either through requirement or personal coaching focus. I also saw variations in the way warm-ups were handled, practice uniforms, and generally the vibe of the teams in training (though that was largely subtle).

Needless to say, I jotted down quite a few notes. I also recorded several bits of video to help me recall things and to provide visual and auditory support to my players of the things I was trying to teach them.

Actually, the most rewarding time was getting to talk with the coaches. Some of them were folks I already knew, and we had all sorts of good conversations. Even those I was meeting for the first time, however, were generally quite willing to chat about what they were doing and answer questions. Some even shared things with me on related subjects with no prompting whatsoever.

I definitely recommend this sort of experience from a lot of perspectives, including a mentorship type of angle along the line of I wrote about in Making Mentorship Part of the Process. In fact, it may be something which can lead to finding yourself a good coaching mentor. Even if that’s not the case, seeing other coaches in action – particularly well-experienced ones – can get you seeing things from different perspectives. That’s never a bad thing.

So get out there and do it! You don’t need to make a 3-week trip like I did to learn some new things. Just find a good coach in your area and see if they’d be willing to have you come along and observe. Chances are they’ll say yes.

Critiquing a ball-oriented volleyball warm-up routine

This video got a fair bit of attention once upon a time (on Twitter, I think). That is how I came to learn about it. Upon review, however, I was disappointed. The second half where they are using balls in strength and conditioning work I’m fine with. There are some good elements there. They don’t specifically require a volleyball, but since you have them at hand, why not use them? The first half, however, I found to be utterly useless. You will understand my reasons if you read my comments in Are your warm-ups wasting valuable time?.

Jogging, as I noted in the referenced post, is of little value to volleyball players. Now these guys are adding in silly things like spins. And what’s this stuff with tossing the ball up in the air? The only real attempt to have anything volleyball-like in there is the bits where the players mix in some sets and forearm passes. The mechanics of those skills, though, are poor – making their inclusion worse than useless. They are reinforcing bad habits, effectively.

If you want to have players moving and executing ball-handling skills then have them move in a volleyball-like fashion (shuffles, transition footwork, short runs, etc.). And have them execute those skills with proper technique – especially when dealing with young and developing players. Things like jog-and-set or jog-and-pass might be good to mix things up in a big camp or to have a bit of fun (team shuttles, etc.), but are not for use on any kind of regular basis.

Game: 2 in 2

Synopsis: This is a simple, likely fast-moving, game which requires players to score in both serving and serve receive situations.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: Two teams, full court, 2 balls

Execution: This is a standard serve-initiated game with alternating pairs of serves (Team A serves once, then Team B serves once) using a wash scoring system. A team must win both the service rally and the serve receive rally to score a point. If one team cannot win both rallies, no points are scored and the two serves are repeated. Teams rotate each time a point is scored.


  • Depending on how long you want this game to go on, you could run it to a set point objective (15, 25, etc.), or just on a timed basis.
  • You can change the rotation rule to require a team to win a point before it can rotate (rather than both teams rotate together).
  • This could be used just as easily for small-sided games.

Additional Comments:

  • If you don’t count missed serves as rally wins for the receiving team you will encourage players to serve more aggressively. Just make sure the players don’t miss serves consecutively per the rules.
  • Requiring a team to score a big point to rotate would likely have the benefit of giving more reps to your weaker rotation(s).
  • This game was inspired by something I saw in Long Beach State training.

Volleyball coaches, don’t be afraid to try something old

Back in 2013 I attended the match between Pepperdine and Wisconsin at the former’s Malibu campus. As I mentioned on social media then, the away team actually used a 2-person serve receive most of the match. You can see a sample from one of the rotations below.

click for larger version

click for larger version

In this example you can see the two front row hitters (OH and MB) poised to take a short ball. The backrow OPP is deep to support making line calls (and maybe to take a ball right to her). Meanwhile, the libero and back row OH split the court as the primary passers. The latter two were the passers in all rotations, even when that OH was front row. In one rotation, when Pepperdine had a hard topspin jump server going, they dropped the other OH in to make a 3-person serve receive. That was the only time they went away from the 2-person system, though.

To say using only two passers is unusual would be a major understatement. It was something popularized in the 1980s by the US men when Karch Kiraly and Bob Ctvrtlik/Aldis Berzins handled all the passing during their 1984 and 1988 Olympic gold medal runs. When topspin jump serves moved to the fore in the latter 80s, though, teams went away from 2-man reception. In 1998 I used it very successfully myself coaching a boy’s team to a gold medal in a tournament. I did so because I had two clearly dominant passers and the serving was not so tough. I can recall few if any other times I’ve seen it used over the years, however.

Kelly Sheffield, the then new Wisconsin coach, should get considerable credit for having the guts to go down this path (I actually coached against him when I was at Brown and we hosted his Albany squad in something like 2004). Since the 2-person formation is so rarely seen, he could easily have come up against considerable criticism. He potentially could even have faced opposition among his players. From what I saw, though, it worked quite well. His two passers were very solid. Just goes to show that sometimes taking old ideas down off the shelf and dusting them off can pay dividends.

Drill: Second Ball Setting

Synopsis: This drill is largely focused on working on the libero taking the second ball rather than the setter, but also generally works on out-of-system setting. It can be a good volleyball warm-up drill as well.

Age/Skill Level: This is a drill for all levels.

Requirements: Two players, 1-2 coaches, a few balls, half a court

Execution: The drill sets up with one player in left back and one in right back. Position a coach at the net in the left front and right front positions. One coach starts the drill by hitting a ball to one of the defenders. The other defender steps in to take the second ball and sets in diagonally to the coach across from them (right back sets to left front, left back sets to right front). Continue for a set time or number of good reps.


  • Use players rather than coaches as the hitters.
  • Use just one coach/hitter rather than two and change sides at some point.
  • Hitter(s) can attack from boxes over the net.
  • Rather than just working 2 players, rotate players on a dig/set sequence.
  • To work on your players setting either the OH or the RS attacker, you can change up the requirement that they only set diagonally the way they are coming into the ball and have them instead set the same side they are from (i.e. left back sets left front).

Additional Comments:

  • This is a drill I saw Wisconsin use during its pre-match warmup. I think I also saw it, or a variation, at either Long Beach State or UCLA training when I was there (perhaps both).
  • The main focus of this drill is to work on out-of-system sets by back row players, so it makes sense for the players in the drill to be operating from their primary defensive positions.
  • Note also that this drill is used a lot to work on the libero coming in to set the second ball if the setter has to play the first one. It assumes, however, that the libero is playing in left back (position 5). If that is not the case in your team (perhaps she’s playing middle back in 6), you can shift the drill such that it’s a middle back and right back variation.
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