The short version of this article is simple: Have fun playing more one-on-one and you will be better because you learn most by contacting the ball over a net.

Before I get any further, I must ask if you have the two key items needed in our sport, a ball and a net? Most players have a ball, but not enough have a net. Many parents call me for advice and the first thing I suggest is they buy a good portable net system. There are many manufacturers (my favorite is Park and Sun out of Denver, Colo.), so choose one you like.

Families who have a net system give their young players an advantage, for they have more frequent and earlier exposure to reading, anticipation and judgment. The Van Zwietens are a great volleyball family from Florida who not only have a beach court in their backyard, they have it well-lit. It is one reason their kids became the first non-Californians to win an 18 & under beach championship, represented the United States in several international beach championships and even had an ABC sitcom filmed at their court with their kids in key roles.

Dozens of families have helped their kids become the best they can be by having a good backyard court where volleyball-loving kids can play games of any sized teams, mixing adults and kids, playing coed, all ages of kids, but most importantly playing, as the game teaches the game.

Many may not realize that the creator of the game, William G. Morgan, made his original rules for the game way back in 1895 to be played one vs. one! Indeed, the reason there is the term “side-out” can be seen in the wording of his first two rules:

Rule I – The game consists of nine innings
Rule II – An inning consists of when one person is playing on each side, one service each side; when two are playing on each side, two services each side; when three or more are playing on each side, three services each side. The man serving continues to do so until out by failure of his side to return the ball. Each man shall serve in turn.

If you have no partner, or your partner is late to arrive, use the wall as your partner. Not in the traditional repetitive floor to wall pounding however. Hit it against the wall above a net-height mark or line and when it rebounds off the wall, dig it to yourself, then set it to yourself and then spike it against the wall above the net-line mark. See how many in a row you can do like this. When you get good facing the wall, turn and hit “cut shots” against the wall and turn the other way and hit “line” shots above the net mark; then dig and set to yourself.

When your partner arrives, we would urge you to enjoy the challenge of alternating pepper. Must harder than traditional pepper, you and your partner alternate in the role of being each other’s setter. You space yourself much further apart than traditional pepper and dig the ball halfway between each other. The hitter then moves up to set to his/her partner and then moves back to make the dig, which is then set by the player who just hit. This forward/back movement is expected of every player in a match, yet is not taught in most drills.

Work on peppering over the net, played one vs. one. It is a cooperatively scored game where you and your partner are challenged to see how many in a row you can get, not who can kill on the other player. Dig to yourself, set to yourself then hit it over the net near your partner, but never right to them. Make them move. While your partner is passing and setting, you should be up near the net and then when she/he sets the ball, back up to make a dig (unless you read them tipping the ball, then you would not fully retreat).

When your ball control shows you can work WITH a teammate, you should compete AGAINST them. This means you make a court as large as you think you both can handle, then play. To go way back in time, play by those same first rules of volleyball in 1895 and let yourself pass to yourself (dribble), then set to yourself (dribble), then spike or roll it over the net. Play inside the 3-meter line, all-court width. Play half-court, full end-line length. Cooperate first to get more touches – and to practice digging balls headed out “off the block” when your teammate makes a good error and hits it out long. As you improve, start to learn another way to win, an important skill too, and compete against your partner with any sort of scoring you like (wash, rally, in a row, three points vs. two points).

In both the one vs. one and solo versions of this form of ball handling, if you become the best at it, your habits/reactions will be GREAT to have in the game. Do not just hit the way you face, but also hit angles so your partner learns to read these shots and you get better at hitting them.

Remember to spend 1-2 minutes every day you play/pepper hitting the ball with your non- dominant hand. Too many volleyball players have hurt the leg/knee opposite their dominant hitting hand (eg. right handers and left knees) due to landing from spiking off balance over their opposite leg. This is because they can only use one hand and are forced to lean over too far to the other side. While I would not expect you to be able to crank on the ball, you should be able to roll-shot save the ball with control, just like you have practiced over the net in these games and pepper versions.

With these ideas, you will become a better player by contacting the ball many more times than others while having fun!