Recently, another spiking machine video was shown in an online coaching group that I frequent. One of the coaches looked at it and said WWJKS (What Would John Kessel Say), so I am going to share the science and my thoughts based on motor learning as it relates to most machines.

If you look at the millions of patents out there, clearly there is a desire to build a better mousetrap. However in sport, most of the devices created take away from the development of the most important “machine” on the playing field – the actual human playing.

“Training is specific. The maximum benefits of a training stimulus can only be obtained when it replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the activities of a sport. This principle may suggest that there is no better training than actually performing in the sport. This text maintains that the principle of specificity is the single most pervading factor that influences the improvement of performance…” – Drs. Carl McGown & Steve Bain

To be a spiker, you must adjust your approach timing and position as you run into the infinite number of set variations; tall or short, even jump and bump setters. Ball flights can be set high to low, too near or too far off the net. Each one of these requires the attacker to adjust to hit at that full-reach, sweet spot. Hitters at any age need to learn to read their setters and the flight of the ball.

The spiking machines take away this skill development. If you set this machine for one spiker to hit the ball at full extension – unless everyone else following hits at that same height – all those following are going to be hitting the ball at the wrong place and time. The most important skill players need to gain is reading the subtleties of the game flow. It is something that randomly varies with every single swing, no matter how good the setter is.

Finally, there's no antenna or block when a machine is used, so there's very little chance to make adjustments required by set placement relative to the block and antenna. When a machine does not randomize, it helps players look good in that practice and has a negative impact on performance.

Take a look at the way these 11-year-olds in the USAV video “Game-like Wall Practice” are working on hitting OVER the net. You can do the same thing when you approach in a “neutral” way then change the direction of your spike while in the air. Last time I checked, no machines were allowed in a match, but blockers, the net and antenna are.

I want to share three things I believe our volleyball family needs to change in their traditional teaching:

  1. Can’t pass/can’t hit needs to change to,“Hi, I am a volleyball coach, let’s hit!”
  2. Setting youth and beginners right on the net should instead be “The first sets I am going to teach you are the same sets used by the U.S. Olympic Teams – this line is the 3-meter line and three of the sets are known as A, Pipe and D.”
  3. Beginners should start with high sets changes to "The first thing we will do is hit the lower version of the “pipe” set, known as the ‘bic’.”

Better Spike Development

Let’s build out what I mean by these key three points of better spike development:

  1. The FIRST skill we should teach kids is spiking. Pair up and have one beginner throw the ball to the receiver/hitter. That player overhead or forearm passes the ball back to the tosser/setter who sets the “bic” (a meter above the net at most, moving with the setter so the hitter adjusts and the setter puts up the “same” ball every time), and the hitter runs, jumps and swings at it.
  2. The tradition of hitting right on the net comes from adults training kids and not changing the game for the kids’ sake. By starting with back-row attacks, the players learn to swing and hit OVER a net, not into the net. The sets they hit will vary at the starting level, but there are no under-the-net worries as all hitting takes place well off the net. The athletes are hitting sets they will hear/see done at the Olympics, and connect better to the sport and team. They are not doing a beginner set/spike, they are doing the highest level and CAN do it, just not down at the angle of the international players.
  3. The higher the set, the faster the ball falls through the sweet spot in time of full extension contact. By setting a “bic,” the ball is in this sweet spot the longest. It also encourages the players to make a fast approach.

Another problem with machines is they promote standing in the line. This is not how sport is played, yet it is how some coaches train too often. Sport is random, chaotic and even ugly. Most devices are designed to eliminate the realities of the game. This also takes place when another “machine” tosses sets for hitters – the coach. A coach could set, but that is stealing repetitions and reading from the team’s setters. Tossing is just another form of blocking the training to look good for practice.  For more on not standing in line, please refer to my blog Standing in Line.

I simply have to say that the “machines” to use are three:

  1. Teammates
  2. More nets
  3. Recording/instant replay devices

Teammates are the reality we need to learn and read. The best spike machine is not as good as a little brother, sister or friend setting real sets or playing doubles over the net. More net span – like a ribbon or nets – allows smaller groups to receive/set/attack. The BAM video delay, Coaches Eye, Dartfish, Ubersense and other tablet/phone recording apps allow a player to attack and then see immediately if the video confirms what they felt/thought.

The intent of the spiking machine is important and understood: to get hitting reps at full extension on a full jump at full power. Creating stations to add reps to your practices, including a machine set up in a corner to motivate the players arriving early to jump and reach to some level. Using it during practice to take one athlete out and get them to jump train, rather than stand in line, is fine. This single-player use of the machine is better than a player standing around before practice.

Full-Extension Spike

The development of full-extension spike contact needs reflection and understanding that most coaches don’t have. When most coaches see a player spike “low,” they say one of the following five statements: 1. Reach! 2. Get on TOP of the ball! 3. Extend! 4. Keep your elbow UP! 5. Don’t drop your elbow!

Then they either send the player over to the spike machine for that “training” or they “coach” the player by tossing more “sets.” If you have said any of these five statements or their variations, please keep reading.

Without a machine or a ball, ask the player to run, jump and swing at full extension. If the player does that without a ball, then you both know they understand the technique. If not, you need to use video and/or intrinsic (player) and extrinsic (coach) feedback until you both know/see that the player can jump to swing at full reach. Once they know what the right technique is, you need to help guide them to do the same with the infinite variety of sets. In 99 percent of the spikes where the athlete does not “reach,” it is simply because they are late. Rather than reach “technically” to full extension and hit the ball off their elbow, they put their hand on the ball at this late and lower contact point. Do they need a machine? No, they need to swing sooner and faster.

The machines you need are a net, a ball, and teammates even if it is your grandmother setting you over a short span of rope or ribbon in the backyard. I think she would enjoy spending time with you and having the chance to help you be a better spiker. With any luck, she will treat you to ice cream afterwards. No machine will ever do that.