First off, you should understand that to hit the ball harder, you just need to swing your arm faster. Stop working so hard on hitting the ball harder. Instead, focus on swinging your arm faster. When players go for hitting harder, they tighten up the muscles in the shoulder girdle and cannot unleash their fastest arm swing. Swing fast, swing faster. The quandary is, when you first start to swing faster, or as fast as you can, you are not as accurate.
Speed first, accuracy second
Trying to be successful for a parent or for the fans of the match can also make a player tight. There’s a lot of pressure in thinking, “I must do this right while they are watching me.” Similarly, there are coaches who think along the same line. Many a coach, parent, or even a teammate has been heard to say the famous spectator line, “For gosh sake, just hit it in!” This statement alone has caused hundreds of volleyball players to fall short of their full potential.
Swing away when you’re young, even if you lose. You will stay fast and become more accurate as time goes on. Pro tennis player Andre Agassi said it best when he referred to being young, “I hit the ball as hard as I could, I found the court later.” Golfer Tiger Woods said the same thing when he said, “I hit the ball as hard as I could and found the fairway later.” Be patient. Let yourself miss. Accuracy should be sought WITH speed, not at the sacrifice of speed.
See how fast you can really swing
Hit a ball against a wall where anything, from floor to ceiling, is “accurate enough.” See how fast you can swing your arm. The idea here is to get a feeling of how fast you can really swing if accuracy is not a worry. That is the swing you want when you’re in the air spiking.
Open the door, slam the door
Much of the power in serving and hitting comes from “torque,” which is the same twisting action that baseball pitchers use to fall off the mound. Spikers have to do it in the air. Players need to develop powerful torque by opening up, sometimes called “bow and arrow.” The key is to open up after you take off and, as you swing that fast arm, to close off, slam the door, with as much power and speed as you can. Like the arm swing, timing is vital and takes a long period to learn for most players.
Jump so the ball is in “neutral”
You want to jump so the ball is in line with your hitting shoulder. Often, you’ll jump and the ball ends up falling to the right or left of your shoulder, forcing you to hit the line area or a cross-court area shot (cut included) with no other choices. If you jump so the ball is falling directly in front of your shoulder, you can choose to hit line, cross-court or cut.
Jump so the ball is in front of your hitting shoulder. Hitting the ball with power requires that the ball be in FRONT of your shoulder. If you jump and the ball is too far in front, you will have power, but likely not be able to hit the ball over the net. If you jump so the ball is too far behind you, you will be able to get the ball over the net, but lose a large amount of power. Some players compensate by arching their backs to get the ball back in front of their hitting shoulders, but then develop injuries to their lower backs.
These last two parts both start on the ground with your jump. You may have to start jumping a tiny bit further back to make sure the ball falls in front of your hitting shoulder. You may need to drift less before flying forward toward the net. (If not done right, you may be putting the ball behind you as you drift). Jump on time to reach that sweet spot at the top of your jump and in “neutral.” Likewise, you may need to jump or adjust your push on takeoff to make sure the ball is falling in line, not to the right or left of your hitting shoulder.
Hit from the 3-meter line first at every practice
Right now, coaches spend their lives begging the hitters to stay off the net. That is due in large part to the tradition of hitting ON the net. Not only is this easier to block for any sized player, but it also makes for more ankle sprains and injuries when the set drifts too close to the net. The BEST way to learn to spike is to first hit 2-meter high balls from the 3-meter (aka 10-foot or back-row spike) line. You can have it set higher if you want (see the impact of higher sets elsewhere in this article), but you should start at the 3-meter line, then move closer as the practice and season develop.
Always follow through
What kind of a tennis serve would players have if they stopped at full reach after striking the ball? How many home runs will you hit if you stop your bat after you swing for the seats? Too many players slow or stop their arms after hitting the ball. Let your arm whip through the ball and slow down naturally by your waist area. Let the shot you hit determine which side of your body, if any, your arm is on when it stops.
Hit real sets
Timing is the key to being successful at hitting the ball hard. The best way to learn timing is to hit real set balls so you can time them. They can be random in pattern after learning the basics from a same set ball.
High sets are the hardest to time and learn from. Yet that is the ball most kids start with, supposedly to get more time to figure out where the ball is falling and to give themselves more time to get there. The lower the set, the less speed the ball has falling through the sweet-spot hitting zone. The high sets come down ripping through this sweet strike zone and players most often hit them into the net as they swing a tiny bit too late and thus make contact too low.
Basically, the higher the set, compared to what you are used to, the sooner/faster you need to swing your arm to still hit it at full extension. Remember how hard this is. The volleyball spike is the ONLY action in sport where maximum effort is done unsupported every time. Basketball players do not take jump shots from 3/4 court every time. Baseball batters do not have to jump and swing to hit home runs. Volleyball is also the only sport where one maximum effort, jumping, is followed immediately by another max effort, spiking the ball. It takes a LOT of repetitions and good timing to hit that sweet spot every time.
Use the wall correctly
Most players love to bang the ball repetitively against the wall. Coaches tell me it develops “wrist snap.” Nope. It is developing the negative error, the bad miss, of hitting into the net or block. What you need to get are reps hitting OVER the net, with wrist snap of course. Set yourself and hit above a 7’4″ or 8’0″ mark, then grab the rebound to redo that motion. That is a swing worth knowing; how to hit over the net, or even over the block.
Why is it so hard to hit at full extension? Coaches have been wondering this for so long that “Reach!” “Get on top of the ball!” “Don’t drop your elbow!” and variations on these comments have become common. What they’re doing is questioning your understanding. Show your coaches your arm swing without the ball. If you swing with a bent elbow or down by their ear, then they’ll see what it is that you need to know to complete your understanding.
If you show them full extension, they’ll know that you understand the technique and what you SHOULD do. The challenge is for you to do it up in the air with the ball moving one way and yourself in another, as the third hit for your team most the time.
It could very well be that your errors are those of anticipation and judgment, and by the time you are ready to rip on the ball, it has fallen. The ball cannot hover like a golden snitch. It keeps falling. The result? You drop your elbow or swing low.
The solution? Swing sooner or swing faster. It comes back to timing. Jump serve. This lets you set yourself, develop an over-the-net arm swing, and unleash a lot of power. It is a closed-motor program, so you will time things better than when someone is “surprising you” with their set variations. You control the set, the height, distance, etc. You likely will get better faster with the jump serve than your spike. Even if you are young, jump serving lets you crank on the ball, so never give up; just keep swinging.
Stop hitting the way you are facing all the time
While this is not strictly about hitting hard, it is about being a great hitter and great hitters can hit all directions, not just where they face. Practice hitting cut and line from warm-up to finish. Learn how to hit roll shots and control with your non-dominant hand. Misjudging the ball is more common than timing it right.
When that error in ball/jump/hit means the ball is over their non-dominant shoulder, most players lean over to put the ball as much in front of their dominant shoulder as they can. The end result: they land on their opposite leg (left leg for a right-handed spiker in this predicament) and they too often injure that knee on landing. You need to have an ace up your sleeve and be able to roll shot or control a ball with your non-dominant hand. Practice this in short court warm-up games and hit some sets as well, so you can do it. This is NOT at full power, unless you get a lot of practice. It is with control.
You’ll love it and you’ll get lots of reps playing the fun Olympic game of doubles, on or off the sand. In doubles, if you are the weaker hitter, you should take every first ball so you will get lots of training on your hitting. Play monarch/queen/king of the court. Players love this game. They know it is the best way to learn to spike hard. Just make one rule: if you give the other team a free ball, they can set it on the net, but if you make it hard on them with a deep court spike or a good standing spike, they have to stay at the 3-meter line to hit.
I hope this helps you see the many parts and ways to become a more powerful spiker. Good luck and have fun as a better terminator.