In a previous post I encouraged coaches to teach young athletes how to throw properly as part of developing volleyball arm swing mechanics. It’s really something that should be part of physical literacy development generally. We don’t always get kids who’ve been well prepared in that context, though. As a result, it’s an issue we may have to overcome.

Something that doesn’t help in this context, though, is coaches kind of over-thinking. Let me explain.

I was once in a gym observing a men’s pro team practice. On a side court, I could see a team of 13s girls from the same club training as well. The throwing issue was fresh in my mind at the time. So when I noticed their coach doing some work on that I made sure to pay attention. It was disappointing.

You see, this coach did something I’ve see quite often over the years (sometimes called “bow-and-arrow”). I probably did it myself back in my younger days. Rather than try to explain in words, let me show you an example of what I mean I came across on Instagram (I’d link, but it’s no longer available). Watch what this other coach does with their athlete, then again in demonstration themselves. I’ve blurred it out to avoid identifying anyone involved, but you should be able to see what they’re doing with the arms (I’m also presenting it at 1/2 speed).

Now compare that to this video I’ve shared before. Pay specific attention to what the hitter’s arms do.

Do you see the difference?

In the first video the coach demonstrates arms going fully up overhead, then the right arm is drawn back from there. In the second video, notice how the arms split even before the hands get to about shoulder level. The left continues upward, while the right pulls back.

When I watched the coach of the 13s group, they were like the coach in the first video. Meanwhile, the men’s players on the other court were doing it like the second video (maybe a little higher, as Haak here seems to draw lower than most).

But you’re talking about pro athletes

Here’s the kicker to my story about the 13s. When the they got around to hitting after the throwing, most of them did it more like the second video. So the coach was actually going against what their athletes’ bodies already understood.

Now watch the rest of the 1st video and see what the player does. And the other coach demonstrating (though that one’s harder to see). I’ve again blurred the footage, but if you look closely you can tell that the player doesn’t get their hitting hand above about chin level before pulling it back in all but maybe one case.

I won’t say they’re exactly like what you see in the 2nd video, but they’re definitely closer to that than the demo from the first one. Right?

As a check, I watched the hitting from when the England U17s (boys and girls) played Norway in an October 2023 international tournament. Neither country is near the top of the rankings, so no real crazy stud hitters in that mix. Just some reasonably solid 16 year-olds. They all looked a lot like the young player above. Their hands stayed together up to about their chin on average – about their eyes on the high side, around shoulder level on the low side. From there, however, they began drawing their hitting arm back. There was perhaps one exception, but that’s a player with significant mechanical issues around core rotation. Unfortunately, I can’t share those videos.

I’m confident that if you watch any group of reasonably competent hitters you’ll make similar observation. I even had a poster on Facebook share video that they seemed to be saying showed the high arm thing, but in reality the arms started to diverge at around nose or eye level. There will, of course, be some exceptions (I think I saw a clip of Leon with higher than usual arm separation, but there aren’t many with his level of athleticism).

This sort of thing comes from coaches thinking in theoreticals rather than actually observing what happens in real life. Sometimes we have to turn our brains off and let our eyes tell us what’s really going on. Even more so in this day and age where slow motion video is so readily available. This isn’t just an issue when it comes to volleyball arm swing mechanics. It happens in lots of areas. Mark Lebedew shared something on a related note with regards to hand contact ( which links into a previous most of mine on the mythology around wrist snap).

So rather than thinking your way to a model of movement that few or no one uses in reality, watch what the majority of good players do. Not the small details, perhaps, but at least the general patterns. They are what they are for a reason.

But that means hitters aren’t max jumping!

This is technically correct. To truly max jump, your arms should continue together above your head. The problem is, though, you have to hit the ball. That means you have to pull your hitting arm back at some point. If you wait to do that until you’ve reached your peak jump, then you’ll end up hitting on your way down. Not ideal.

The broad problem hitters face is to be able to hit the ball over the net at the highest point possible with as much power as they can. Drawing their arm back at below peak jump clearly is the best solution for the challenge presented. If it wasn’t, after all these decades of hitting in volleyball we’d surely see hitters doing something else. I think in the ecological approach to skill development they’d call it an attractor.

It’s worth noting that you see something similar in handball. The mechanics are a little different, as it’s usually one-footed (like a slide), but the throwing arm there too draws back well short of being above their head.

Training it

I had someone on Facebook ask the question of training the arm motion if not using the kind of demonstration above. I think the late Tom Tait said it pretty well in his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. He described hitting as run-jump-throw. The throw part has to do with throwing your hand through the ball. I think you can actually use throwing, though, when introducing the idea.

If a player has reasonable throwing mechanics (per where this all started), then having them throw a ball after doing an approach should look pretty close to what we’re talking about here (something more hand-sized and weightier than a tennis ball, if possible). Give them the basic requirements drawn from the hitting problem. Throw the ball over the net with as high a speed as possible from as high a point as possible. You probably want them using the appropriate footwork. Otherwise it could look like a very different sport!

With those constraints and some feedback – maybe a bit of “Could you throw faster?” and/or “Could you jump higher?” – I think you’ll find them fairly quickly getting to the appropriate arm motion solution. It’s self-organization.

Not that this is the same as hitting a set, mind. You’d only want to do it to establish the concept in your players’ head.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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