Originally published in VolleyballUSA, Winter 2017-18
U.S. Women’s National Team outside hitter, two-time Olympic medalist
My advice for attackers is always be prepped to hit your way out of a lot of situations. The most important steps in your approach are the last two steps, your step close. These steps allow you to get your feet to the ball and hit with range.
If the last two steps are dynamic and strategic, you can hit to all areas of the court. It not only allows you to hit with power, but it gives you the eye sight and ability to see where the defenders are.
U.S. Women’s National Team head coach, three-time Olympic gold medalist
I see many players in high school and college with really long attack approaches. Starting too fast and too far away, the long sprint causes them to jump more forward than up off the floor, and makes it more difficult for setters to ‘find’ the hitter in her ‘window.’
In the USA gym, we work on a shorter approach that allows the hitter to accelerate more, get higher off the floor, and jump more vertically. The coaches who teach this concept, and there are plenty, call it ‘slow to fast.’
With the first two steps of a four-step approach, it’s almost like you’re walking. For a right-handed hitter, that would be a small timing step with the right foot, and then a left step that’s a little bigger and a little faster.
The third step is really explosive, propelling the hitter forward. After that third step hits the floor, the fourth step plants and the hitter jumps. The way we describe it in our gym is, “walk, then explode.”
For a good example of this type of hitting approach, go to YouTube and watch University of Minnesota outside hitter Alexis Hart.
Keep in mind, it’s easier to "walk, then explode" when you don’t have to pass because you can shuffle out to get yourself off the net (around 13 feet) and a little outside the court, then walk a couple of steps and explode. If you pass the serve, it’s more complicated because you have to start your approach right after passing, from inside the court.
One benefit the national team gets from players mastering a slow-to-fast approach is that we can run a more effective fast-tempo offense. Two other benefits – and these are true for teams at all levels – is that it makes it easier for the setters to find the hitters and allows hitters to have a bigger ‘window’ since they’re not barreling at the net like a train.
Beach Pro, 2007 AVCA First Team All-American at UC Santa Barbara
Related: Rapid Fire with Theo Brunner (video)
What makes beach a cool sport is the variety of ways a hitter can succeed. You can find world-class attackers who have very different preferences when it comes to set location, set height and the set speed.
In addition, you can find successful attackers who almost exclusively pound the ball, attackers who almost exclusively shoot the ball, and every combination in the middle.
If I had to distill what most world-class hitters have in common, though, it would be this: They keep the ball in front of them. This is why beach athletes commonly practice "waiting" on their approach.
By keeping the ball in front of you, you maintain constant peripheral awareness of the opposing team’s defense. The longer you can maintain this awareness, the longer the opposing team has to wait before making their defensive move.
"Waiting" also prevents the hitter from getting too far under the ball. When hitters get under the ball, they have to look up and completely lose track of what the opposing team is doing. That gives the other team the perfect opportunity to trick the hitter into thinking a particular shot is available and then taking it away at the last second.
Head coach at Shippensburg University, two-time All-American at Penn State
“As a middle blocker in college, I was quick and had good court vision, but I was only 5-11, so I had to figure out how to run circles around the big blocks in front of me. One key was to never approach straight into the waiting block. I would approach toward the gaps in the block to make the blockers move, which creates opportunities to get the ball through the gaps and often makes the blocker late. Use your peripheral vision to see the blockers moving and to watch their hands.
I was blessed with having a setter (Salima Rockwell) who could push the ball wherever I needed it, but it’s important to communicate effectively to help your setter know where you want the ball.
As a middle blocker, effective communication is twofold. One component is giving your setter a clear visual target in the air when you are asking for sets in front of her. As you reach the peak of your jump, your elbows should be up above your head. With your hands, you can show your setter the area where you’d like to receive the ball. This gives her confidence that you’ll get a good swing if she puts the ball between your left and right hand, which can be 1 ½ - 2 ½ feet wide.
Being vocal is the second most important component, especially when you’re running a route behind the setter. Calling for the ball loudly and confidently will make it easier for the setter to give you the set you need. It also makes it more likely that the opposing middle will hold a little longer on you than they would if you’re silent. It’s your job, after all, to hold that opposing middle so your outsides get one-on-one opportunities. Therefore, the more specific you can be vocalizing what you want and the tempo you need, the better.
Finally, I would like to say that if the set isn't where you wanted it, you should SAVE the ball. Do your best to score, but keep that ball in play. Then talk to your setter about how you both can improve your chemistry. Play hard!