John Kessel with youth players in Germany.
Olympic Day is later this June, and USA Volleyball programs are welcome to participate by getting their free toolkit.
As school winds down, camp season approaches, and siblings have a chance to learn with each other, I wanted to share some ideas on giving new players the joy of playing our unique but challenging sport.
Too often, those who love our sport unintentionally start beginners (of any age) based on sport and not joy. P.E. teachers, who are often the first to introduce the game to kids, do the same, as do so many clubs and USOC Member Sports Organizations. Unintentionally, the first chance to discover the fun and challenges of our game are done in a less-than-effective way. Accordingly, I have a few suggestions for those first few hours of learning.
Start with "Superhero, Superhero, Spike"
Or call it “unicorn, unicorn, swing” or some other clever way to focus on overhead pass/set/attack. The key is to not teach the forearm pass until the fourth skill in the process. Many traditionalists will say “can’t pass, can’t hit,” and thus around the world we see these well-intentioned leaders introduce the game of volleyball first with the forearm pass. Please consider changing your introduction to what kids already have: some form of eye-to-hand coordination and not eye-to-forearm skill.
In addition, as most kids are forced to use an adult ball, small-armed children are experiencing actual pain from forearm passing -- this is not the introduction we should be making.
When kids get to slap/slap/spike, or, in some programs, grab and hold contacts one or two (as in forms of newcomb/smashball), they begin their joy of discovering volleyball. The technical part comes as the kids decide to keep playing the game. Then we get to ball shaping, better ball delivery, back setting (start early using the D set so they can hit confidently from both sides of the net), and hitting from anywhere on the court.
Start hitting from well off the net every session
Too many coaches put young/short players right on the net when they first start spiking, and the result in form and success is poor. Thus, another key for new players of all ages is to start by teaching the higher level back row calls, starting with the lowest set on the USA national teams we call a “Bic.”
Walk into schools and say, “I am here to teach you the joys of volleyball,” and then explain that these Olympic-level sets from the back row are known as A | Pipe | D, plus the lowest set in the pipe zone is a “Bic.” So, let’s all hit some Bic sets!
Not only do you have more success, you will dramatically reduce at-the-net injuries as the variance width of both the setting and the hitter awareness in jumping/landing is very broad. By staying off the net as they learn to jump at the right place and time, and as setting gets to be more accurate, you let players safely develop from beginner to more advanced.
Help players learn to keep the ball well away from the net and that “setting” can happen anywhere on (or outside) the court.
Teach a version of torque serving before they leave
Before you send them away, and before any forearm passing, give them the chance to do one skill they can practice alone – a serve.
Underhanded certainly is one option for the youngest. I prefer teaching a sidearm, or even better, overhead torque serve. Servers get over a third of their power from the shoulder turn/torque. Standing sideways at their start allows them to learn/feel this turning power. Then, when they face the net more, they still have this core movement as part of their serve.
Many youth and adults don’t realize they are not fully using torque, so starting with it is essential. Peer pressure to look like other servers at the higher level, including jump serving, will likely bring them to the more traditional overhead serve. As you can see from this video, I suggest starting with, as these under 10-year-olds show, the jump torque serve. It’s fun, it’s in their control and they can do it on their own.
Stop standing in line
This goes for just about any level of training, but for beginners, the last thing we need to do is be bored in our first experiences. I contend that boys dislike the game as they first learned it in P.E. playing with 24 classmates, 12 on a side, and one ball. This form of tennis may be fun for singles, but not for a dozen on a side … there is a reason there are SIX hoops up in the gym. Small-side courts and doubles or triples games vastly increase the learning by doing.
Long lines are boring and far less effective in learning. We learn athletic skills by doing, not watching. Imagine learning to ride with one bike and 12 kids, or driving a car after only watching someone else drive for years. You still have no clue how to drive until you start.
Also, learn to play over a net. Ribbon, rope or the USAV Four-Nets-On-a-Rope are all options for you. This same flyer includes the educational USAV Beach Ball for youth, so you can give every kid a ball to take home for just $1 each.
This photo at the top of this article shows the end of a clinic I did for my son Cody’s SVG Luneberg pro team in Germany this year. With my daughter McKenzie along, we ended the youth clinic showing how to better use the wall and how to quickly set up eight short nets on two full courts. We quickly had about 50 kids in pairs pass/setting and hitting bics and jump slide serving.
Later that week, I watched my son play in the same gym in front of a sellout crowd and be named match MVP. It started by me knowing the WHY of this question: Four kids and one ball, what happens? They play. Four kids and one ball and an adult, what happens? They drill.
Introduce recess, wall, basement and tennis and racquetball games
You can teach every beginner the kind of effective “homework” they can do until they experience the game. They can play Winner Stays On/Loser Becomes the Net games they with just three or more players at home, with friends in the driveway (coed is fine), and at recess at school. All they need is a ball.
Show them effective ways to use a wall by hitting over a mark on the garage door that is net height. You can also simply play doubles against the wall with three hits (alternating contacts) and track how many times in a row you three-hit, then hit over the “net,” This is a key example of cooperative scoring as seen in our IMPACT coaching manual.
There is likely nothing more intense and fun than a game of balloon ball played in the basement or living room (wherever the damage of a fast-flying balloon is less).
Balloon ball is also an excellent place to begin learning to play sitting volleyball. Consider not only the beach ball noted above, but for more durable program use young players can start with the Molten First Touch series (I prefer the 140g option for versatility) or the 12 and under Lite series at 240g (adult balls average 270g, about 10oz).
For those not able to play in their backyard or driveway, play doubles in a racquetball court where the ball never gets away, or at your local tennis court. Simply sidewalk-chalk the lines and string up your “net” on the fence, which also serves to keep the ball around better than most other places. To see other ways kids have created placed to play, see this classic The Game Will Find a Way blog.
IMPORTANT: If you want to help get your schools to give a good start to all in volleyball, I urge you to suggest to the teachers (math, science or P.E.) at those elementary and middle schools who are pipelines to your program to order one of the volleyball STEM kits. They likely have STEM grant money and can round things out with the volleyball STEM kit, which after being used for beach and ParaVolley, can then be given to the P.E. teacher who will get nearly 20 volleyballs to use. Check the options out at www.stemsports.com. The kids, the teachers and your program’s future will be glad you did.
Should you have any other effective ideas to give novices a great start and love of our sport, please share them below, and thanks for growing the game together.