One of the best things I did as a volleyball player was spend a few years working with world class martial artists. One question I will never forget being asked was: “What does a black belt mean?” Now, these guys worked with Jackie Chan and fought professionally and in my mind I am thinking well, “It means you can hit someone really hard, for one.” But their answer was that a black belt “signifies someone who has mastered the basics.” A simple but complex answer really. Someone who also preached the mastery of the basics was a Japanese volleyball coach I learned under for a couple years while at University of Hawai’i. I would say coach “Masa”, who also coached with the Japanese National Team, was one of the most influential coaches in my life. Right up there with the legendary Tony Crabb.
So how do you master the basics? It is about refining a technique down to only its most essential movements and then executing those elements seamlessly. The less movements a technique has, the less that can go wrong. By doing this your techniques can become “pressure proof.” Performance under pressure is what separates great players from those who don’t make the team. Simplifying movements means the techniques themselves become more dependable and an athlete can then rely on them to be at her service during those pressure filled defining moments of games and careers.
One area where you notice this the most is serving. Perhaps this is because serving is the only action in the sport that a player performs completely on their own and without contention. They are solely responsible for the outcome. One ace or one error and the game could be over. Traveling around the country and working with young players I am always surprised that there seems to be a lack of systemization of the float serve. The result is a ton of missed opportunities in games. Coach Masa broke the serve down into four basic parts which, if practiced, can be relied on to hold up under even the most pressure filled circumstances.
This simple four part serving motion is easy enough for any young player to grasp and will start them on the road to a dependable serve. From this foundation they can find little tweaks that will work for them. The biggest part is the philosophy of simplifying athletic movements.
Big muscles make fewer mistakes than small muscles. Learn to rely on and train your bigger muscles groups, clean up the unnecessary movements and ugly lines, remember your alignment starts with your feet and moves up from there, breathe, know you are in control, seize your moment, flow through the ball and deliver.
Serve Feet First
Like almost any athletic movement, the serve starts with the feet. First “toe the line.” This means get your toe right up to the line. Next, point your leading big toe at your target. The body will want to flow in the direction the front toe is facing so this is crucial. Stance should be athletic, meaning erect with a slight bend in the knee. Your serving hand should be firm but not rigid. Your hips should be just shy of perpendicular to the end line with your torso position mirroring this.
If you want to “look-off” your receiver then position your toe to point toward your intended target (A) then, using your shoulders and eyes, indicate that you are preparing to serve another target (B). When you execute your serving motion your body will be correctly positioned to flow over your front foot and hit target (A).
Aim Small Miss Small
Hold the ball straight out from you and with your serving hand point out a spot on the ball with your middle finger.
You are doing two things here:
a. Sighting where you are actually going to contact the ball
b. Visualizing the trajectory of the ball over the net to its intended target
Thumb The Ear
Bring your serving hand back so that your thumb is inline with your ear. You will notice that this compacts and engages your muscles similar to if you were delivering a high punch (which you are about to do). Again muscles should be engaged here. Hips are still open and target (ball) still extended. Note the straight simple lines of the server.
Your gaze can travel through the ball to your intended target to pick up on any subtleties that might be to your advantage. Is the receiver distracted, are they trying to pick up a signal from the setter, is there a breeze in picking up, etc. Breathe. Relax. You are now in control of your destiny.
Close the Hips
The toss probably gives servers the most problems. As a general rule try to keep your toss as low as possible. I like to do a drill where I ask kids to hit the ball right off their hand and work up from there. I let them know it can be done. The higher the toss the harder to track and the more that can go wrong.
Make sure the toss is straight up from or slight in front of your platform hand. If the ball travels too high or backwards it will force you to take your peripheral vision away from the court and will also cause you to shorten your serving stroke thus minimizing your force at impact.
Another reason your toss has to be “out-in-front” is because you will be simultaneously closing your hips to square with your target and driving through the ball with your opposing arm. The under-rated key here is the hips. Allow your hips and the weight of your body flowing forward to serve the ball for you. This is much like a karate punch where the real force of the blow is not coming from the fist, as it might appear to the casual observer, but the hips and bigger muscles of the back and shoulder. Again, the principle here is to get the body flowing forward, driving through the ball.
Originally published in February 2011