How to Pass the Toughest Serves

Pepperdine Athletics
Bob Ctvrtlik played for Pepperdine in the early '80s and went on to win gold with the men's national team in the 1988 Olypmics.

Let’s set the record straight. I’m not the best jumper in the world, and I’m not the quickest guy who ever played in the Olympics. But I pride myself on my consistent passing ability, and that means putting the ball on the setter’s head 95 times out of 100.

Passing is one of the most underrated skills in volleyball. These days, with so much emphasis on power, young players—especially big ones—spend most of their time practicing to become big bombers. There’s nothing wrong with being able to bring the heat, but don’t forget to spend some of that time working on passing reps, too. If you’re not a big bomber, great passing will earn you a spot on the court. If you are and you can also pass, you’ll be an extremely valuable member of your team.

Being a skilled passer may not get you the big headlines, but it will help you contribute to making the offense work efficiently. Every time you send a perfect or near-perfect pass to the setter, the chances of our siding out go up exponentially. You allow the setter to dictate the tempo and style of the offense, rather than limiting his choices with a poor pass.

Good passing makes everyone look good. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ve always become good friends with the setter on every team I’ve ever played on.

Create a Perfect Platform

There are three basic types of underarm passes: straight away, to the side, and high and deep. The sketches on this page will illustrate proper form for each of them.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Pepperdine Coach Marv Dunphy always told me that to form a good platform, your two arms should work as one. One mental picture that helps me is to think of my arms as a 2x4 piece of wood, straight and working together. The closer together you can place your arms, the easier it will be for you to pass well. In general, women tend to form a more natural platform than men because of their muscle structure. In general, women tend to form a more natural platform than men because of their muscle structure. In my case, I had to stretch my shoulders and chest muscles for nearly a year and a half before I could bring my arms completely together. Remember, if your platform is correct, forget all the rest…more often than not, the pass will bounce in a true trajectory.

If a ball is to one side or another, you need to get your platform at an angle by dropping your inside shoulder. If the ball is at your right, drop your left shoulder and visa versa.

A good way to practice forming a stable platform is the old stand-by pass the ball against a wall. Pick a point on the wall, pass 20 balls to your left side without stopping and then 20 to your right. This makes you more comfortable adjusting your platform and also teaches you focus.

Also, hit some balls off the wall and over your shoulder. Work on taking a drop step and pass to the same spot.

Drop a knee on the short serve

The main key here is to judge the flight of the ball, get there early, and get your butt down. Unless you absolutely have to sprawl, stay on your feet so you’re available to attack. It’s important to get there as early as possible so you don’t have to curl the ball by scooping it with your arms.

Scouting

Before almost every serve, I look to see where I am relative to the sideline. One thing that I find very helpful is scouting the server. Not a lot of people do this, but if you watch players for a few minutes, it’s easy to see where they like to hit the ball on the serve. If you feel more comfortable passing balls that are on your right side, position yourself just to the left of the server’s favorite spot.

Next time you’re killing a few minutes between matches at a tournament, take some time to watch one rotation of an opposing team. It’ll pay off when the match starts.

The high riser

I try to stand in a spot where I know that any ball that’s hit at my neck with any kind of pace is going to go out of bounds.

Turn and extend on the high, deep side serve

If a ball is deep, turn to the side it’s coming toward and take a drop step. For instance, if it’s coming up high to your right, turn and make a deep plant with your right foot back. Bring your arms up, but be sure to hold your platform, then direct the ball up to the setter.

When you adjust to the high ball, one arm will have to slide ahead of the other. It’s the same concept as when you’re skiing and your uphill ski slides ahead of your inside ski.

Stopping the jump serve

Jump serves aren’t as intimidating as they look. In fact, I think they’re usually a lot easier to pass than float serves. It’s just a matter of getting the right tempo and adjusting your platform so the ball doesn’t go over the net.

If a player is really pounding the ball, don’t try to make a perfect pass. Just make sure it’s setable. Players often make the mistake of trying to pass a heater perfectly and end up overpassing the ball for an error.

Passing jump serves isn’t much different from making a dig. You should start in a defensive position, though not quite as low. Prepare yourself for the toughest serve, but don’t stand back on your heels. Stay balanced so you can move forward.

Again, pay attention to server tendencies. Teams should position their best passer where the server hits the ball most often. Always be looking for little clues. For example, the server may take a smaller jump or have a more relaxed armswing when serving short.

Don’t worry about giving up the perfect jump serve. If they’re going to hit the ball as hard as they can on the line, congratulations. Forget it, and move on to the next play.

Always try to get directly behind the serve. Against jump servers, take a step back so the balls are coming in at abdomen level or lower. It’s much easier to control a jump serve when it’s in front of you. If you have to take it up high, it’s hard to pass because of the velocity.

One thing I used to do before big matches was have a coach stand on a box and pound 20 balls at me, starting slow and working my way toward hard hits. That helps you get your platform ready and your trajectory set before play begins.

Cushion the tough jump serve

If a server is just ripping the ball, there are a couple of ways to take the heat off it. I had one coach over in Italy who taught us to start a roll when the ball came in and collapse behind it. That takes a lot of heat off it although I don’t like to do it unless it’s absolutely necessary because it takes you out of the offense. But if you’re in the back row, it’s no problem. Another way to take some steam off a tough serve is to bring your arms back toward your body. With this technique you can stay on your feet.

On normal passes, your platform should always be moving toward the setter, away from your body.

Collapse on a short, fast jump serve

Only use this in emergency situations. But if it’s your last option, remember to curl the ball back after your sprawl. Players often make the mistake of keeping their platform the same as normal, and when they do that, the ball goes right over the net. You have to really exaggerate the curling of your arm. If you think the ball is going to end up on the 10-foot line, it’ll probably be perfect—right on the setter’s head.

Originally published in January 1998

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