Written by Rob Browning, Head Volleyball Coach, Saint Mary’s College
Teaching Young Volleyball Players How to Serve
Of all the skills we must teach young kids, serving and passing must be at the top of the list. Mastery of these skills takes a long time so they must begin early and in earnest. In this blog I will discuss what I have learned about teaching young kids serving. Kids must practice their overhand serve repeatedly and measurably.
No matter how many different ways there are to teach the overhand serve, simplicity must be a common thread throughout.
Beginning with the toss, we need to make sure to eliminate any extra movement. There should be no bending of the knees and the tossing arm should not move much. The simpler the movement, the more consistent the toss.
The ball should not go too high–just high enough so that it begins to come down before contacted. This way the ball is moving very slowly-just after it reaches its apex and stops before dropping. It is much easier to hit a slow-moving ball than one that is dropping faster because it has been tossed too high.
A common mistake kids will make is to toss the ball at their hitting hand. When they do this the ball goes back over their head, Making it difficult to hit it with much force. They need to toss the ball in front of them so that when they take their step it is still lined up in a position where they can hit it hard.
After the toss we need to make sure they’re taking a significant step in the direction where they want to serve. Taking a big step will help them dramatically to generate enough power to serve the ball over the net. Remember that one of the reasons they might not be taking a step is because they’re tossing the ball back at their hitting hand. If they toss the ball in front of them they will feel the need to take a big step to get in position to hit it–which is what we want.
I like float servers to contact the ball with the heel of the hand. It is the hardest part of the hand (which means it will go farther) and the best way to take spin off the ball. Pay attention to this when they’re serving and ask them, “where did that hit your hand?” They should show you where they made contact on their hand. If it’s the upper palm or fingers it’s not going to go very far and they will not have much control.
After contact their hand should drop naturally. Too many kids are taught to stop their hand in front of them after contact. This is not natural and requires more energy just to stop it. Their hand should end up down by their thigh. (One reason I have heard for stopping the hand after contact is that it will help take spin off the ball. This is false. Once the ball has made contact with the hand and is in flight it doesn’t matter what we do with it, so we might as well let it drop along the same trajectory down to the thigh.)
Arm warm-up should be done by serving. No matter how little they are, kids should stand as close to the net as they need to and serve across the net to a partner who will then catch it and serve it back. They should focus on the basic mechanics of toss, step, hit. The immediate feedback they will get is, 1) did it go over the net? And, 2) did it have spin or not?
Another good way to have them warm up their arm and practice their serve is to have them simply serve against a wall. Mark off with a piece of tape the height of the net on the wall so they know if they are hitting it over or not. If they hit it without spin, which is the goal, then it will bounce back off the wall to them without spin. If you have a ball for each kid and enough wall space they will get more reps this way than serving it over the net to a partner.
There are many different activities you can do to have them practice their serve. A simple yet effective activity is to have them serve across the net to a partner and keep track of their success. For the youngest kids, they should stand as far from the net as they can where they will barely get it over. Have them serve five and write down (you should have a whiteboard or something similar in practice to record scores and show the practice plan to the players) how many went over and in. It is important to keep track of their progress in this way. Even if they are one of the weaker servers on the team they will take satisfaction in knowing that they are making improvement. “Two weeks ago you could only get one out of five over the net from this spot but today you made four!”
Some of your kids simply will not be able to make it over the net from the service line for a while. There are a few things that I strongly believe we should do to help them experience the success of serving so that they can contribute in matches.
First, we can teach them to take an extra step. For a right-handed server this would be: step with right foot, toss, step with left foot and hit. This gives them some extra momentum to generate power.
Second, have them make a fist to create a harder surface for the ball to bounce off of. Some coaches think this is blasphemous because we do not want them using a fist when they are older. It’s okay! They can still practice good mechanics and it could make the difference between them getting their serve over the net or not. Also, they will not want to use their fist forever. It is only a temporary solution to help them experience the success of serving. They should still practice contacting the ball with the heel of the hand from whatever distance they can just barely get it over the net.
Finally, if they are just too small and weak and their technique is not good enough to come close to serving it over the net from the service line, then we should teach them an underhand serve. Remember, they will continue to practice their overhand serve every day. The underhand serve is a temporary technique that allows them to serve in matches and help their team score points. Some of your underhand servers will be your most consistent and highest point scorers for your team. As soon as they are able to serve it over the net overhand they will never serve underhand again.
A common problem you will see from your kids when they are serving is they will let the ball come down to their shoulder before hitting it. This results in what looks like a shot-put motion. To correct this we need to encourage them to reach up to the ball before it comes down to them. They simply need to swing sooner. It will feel uncomfortable and risky for them to reach up like that. That’s why they are letting the ball come down to their shoulder in the first place; it feels safer and more comfortable to contact the ball closer to their eyes.
Remember to let them serve in as many games as possible in practice. If they miss their serve you should toss a ball to the serve-receive side to get a rally going.
The last thought I have on serving for kids is that it is never too soon to teach them how to hit a jump floater. For some of them this will give them the momentum and the power they need to get it over the net. The technique I suggest is the one-handed toss, arm up and ready-to-hit technique. For a right-handed player the sequence is: step (with right foot), left, toss, right, left, hop and hit. Or, 1-2 toss, 1-2 hop and hit.
SOME ADDITIONAL IDEAS AND TIPS
Kids should practice their overhand serve every practice. They should stand however far from the net where they are just barely missing. When they get it over they move back a step or two and practice from there.
-they should ideally be striking the ball with the heel of their hand. It’s a hard part of the hand and will make the ball go farther. It will also help take the spin off the ball. This is where I want all my players to make contact, from 12s to college and beyond.
-keep track of their progress by having them record how many serves out of 5, for example, they make in practice. Even if they aren’t very good yet, you can encourage them by showing them that they are improving.
Some tips if they cannot make it over from the service line:
• Make sure they are taking a big forward just before striking the ball. Many kids don’t step at all.
• Have them take a step, then toss, then step again. This will give them some forward momentum.
• Teach them a simple jump float serve to give them forward momentum.
• Let them use a fist if necessary to make the ball go farther. They should keep practicing with an open hand, but in games can use a fist until they can make it over with an open hand. They will not want to use a fist forever, because the big girls use an open hand.
• If they aren’t even close, because they are physically and technically underdeveloped, teach them an underhand serve to use in matches so that they can contribute. Again, they won’t want to do this forever and will keep working on their overhand serve until they get it..