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The Volleyball Split Step – Pump the Brakes?

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Volleyball Split Step
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At Gold Medal Squared, we strive to understand and use principles to drive our training methods. When certain ideas in the coaching community experience a rapid rise in popularity, we immediately take a more critical viewpoint – we’re nervous that we’re seeing a fad, or that people are driving the ideas, not principles.

Enter the volleyball split step. Currently, it’s the Stanley water bottle of volleyball training methods. A few loud voices are pushing the skill rather aggressively, so we decided to engage in the conversation and offer what we view as a reasonable, balanced approached to the idea. It’s worth noting that the split-step concept has been around for decades. This is not a novel idea. It’s come and gone before.

Next, we don’t care so much about being “right”, we care about being effective and optimizing our time in the gym. That’s what motivates us at GMS.

As we explore the split-step, we ultimately want to answer two very important questions:

  1. We know that the body has a wonderful ability to optimize for the environment that it’s in. With certain skills (speed), the body is more effective at these optimizations than we are as coaches. In other words, when our coaching disrupts an instinctual movement, we’d better have a REALLY good reason for doing so. 
  2. If we do determine that our coaching improves the athlete’s performance in the environment, we now need to decide if the time we are spending on this change is adding enough value to warrant the investment.

What Is The Volleyball Split Step?

The split step is a popular footwork pattern that you will see in a variety of sports: tennis, baseball, soccer goalkeeping, etc. These athletes are trying to deliberately engage their SSC (stretch-shortening cycle) or stretch-reflex – the general application being that “I know I’ll have to move laterally very, very quickly, but before ball contact (off the opponent racket, off a hitter’s bat, off a penalty kicker’s foot) I don’t know which direction I will need to move”. We’ll see a widening of the base (feet further apart), a lowering of the center of gravity, and a characteristic “hop” or slight raising of the heels.
 
Below are some video examples of this technique being used by professional tennis and baseball players. We will demonstrate the split step being used in volleyball, with video examples, later in this article.

WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?

Like a lot of areas of biomechanics, the neurology and physiology of the SSC isn’t fully understood, leading to uncertainty about its application. You won’t have to look far to find over the top supporters making claims that it’s the most important skill an athlete can learn, while others will argue that it’s best left to the body’s own devices of optimization and problem solving.
 
We are going to argue in favor of the later. 
 

Frans Bosh, one of the gurus in athlete movement, and author of the book Strength Training And Coordination: An Integrative Approach, has this to say.

Elasticity (reactivity)
Apart from the type of muscle action in which muscle fibers lengthen and shorten, elastic muscle use is also a part of contextual movement. This form of muscle action differs greatly from concentric and eccentric action. Elastic muscle use is predominant in many sports. Coaches seldom have a good understanding of what exactly happens during an elastic muscle action. Even researchers have still not sufficiently identified this muscle action, especially in contextual movements. This is because elastic muscle use is very hard to interpret, owing to the extreme speed and the small range of motion of the muscle action. Invasive techniques in which sensors are placed in tendons and muscle bellies (for example running turkeys) can measure elasticity somewhat more accurately (Roberts et al., 1997). However, for a true understanding of elasticity, we must still rely on very simplified models.

According to Bosh, and as we mentioned above, the science around why and how the body reacts this way isn’t completely and wholly understood (running turkeys?). However, there are some well-executed studies that strongly suggest that the SSC does, in fact, successfully prepare your body for faster movement.

So while the scientific research doesn’t give us a complete understanding of what’s happening in the body, we are going to assume that the move is productive, primarily because an overwhelming majority of athletes use this mechanic instinctively, without any coaching or instruction. Again, the body is great at finding speed optimizations, and we see the SSC movements in virtually all elite performers, across multiple sport disciplines.

We are NOT debating if using the split step is productive or not. Lots of very high level athletes in a variety of sports use this mechanic. Our ultimate question is should we spend time PRO-ACTIVELY teaching the skill. For us, that’s where the rubber meets the road.

A volleyball example – Middle Blockers

One of our core beliefs at Gold Medal Squared is the importance of training to the realities of the game: the speed of the ball and player movements, the variability of potential outcomes, and the myriad visual inputs and pattern recognition that happen in a rally.

Let’s put ourselves in to the mind of a middle blocker in order to illustrate the complexity of this job. Once a middle blocker gets to their defensive position (A3 court position), they have to process the following, and quickly!

1. Note the rotation, and identify the viable attackers.
2. Within that rotation, is the setter is front or back row?
3. Recall any game-plan specific tactical notes for this rotation that we are executing outside our defaults.
4. See the served ball contact the passer and quickly determine pass quality.
5. Based on pass quality, start filtering for the likely resulting offensive options.
6. In a perfect pass scenario at a high level, a good team will typically have 4 viable attackers in the pattern: at the far left and right of the court (OH and OP), and up the middle at the net and out of the back row (MB, and OH BIC) – in other words, there’s a lot coming at us.
7. The blocker’s eyes now go to the setter, which allows them to read and react. This is the premier skill of a really good read blocker, and it’s takes a tremendous amount of work to master.
8. The blocker makes a read and based on what they see from the setter, they dynamically move towards the attacker, all while having to see the location of the ball (is the set inside, off, outside, perfect, etc.). Note, the blocker has to determine which footwork pattern to use based on the speed requirements of the situation, another wrinkle.
9. Lastly, the blocker needs to jump and press their hands over the net as fast as possible, all while having their eyes opened and seeing the hitter hit.

There are a few minor details that we’ve left out here, but as you can see, this is an incredibly involved skill, which brings us to the most important point of this conversation:

When athletes have good vision (in the case above, they see the pass briefly and get onto the setter with their eyes quickly) and are put in a situation where they’ll be required to move quickly in an undetermined direction, the SSC (hop, split step, unweighting) will happen instinctively, without any input from a coach.

We can’t stress this enough – your athletes will do this naturally, as a response to the demands of the environment and the situation.

And here’s the second most important point of this conversation:

When you deliberately coach a split step, you are introducing extra mental processing and movement into an already difficult task. In other words, it’s possible that you are DECREASING performance – we’ve added time both in thinking and in the air. We’ve become more complex, and less simple.

Below is a video montage of Max Holt (USA jersey #12 in the video), a 2-Time Olympian one of the premier middle blockers in the world. As you can see, he’s using the split step in a way that we love. It’s a natural reflex move. His body has ultimately determined the fastest way to get from point A to point B using his SSC. We have close friends and colleagues who have been coaches on both the women’s and men’s national teams, some for decades. We can say with certainty that this skill isn’t being taught pro-actively, and in the one-off event that it was, it would take up a VERY small percentage of overall practice time. There’s absolutely no reason to interfere with the great movement patterns that are already in place. 

Note, don’t get hung up on the fact that Max is one of the most dynamic middle blockers in the world. Many of your athletes, whether it be high school, college, or professional, will already perform this skill naturally. When we go work summer camps with high school athletes, virtually every athlete in the gym will have some form of a split step already in place before camp even begins.

More volleyball examples – serve receive

One of the really compelling examples of letting the body optimize comes from watching players in serve-receive. We will often see players engage SSC when there is a big, powerful jump serve headed their way. What really stands out, however, is when the players DON’T engage SSC – slower jump serves, and most float serves. Good players are even skilled enough to notice a bad toss from the server (good vision!), predict that the serve won’t be coming as hard, and their bodies don’t engage SSC with a hop. Again, and we can’t stress this enough, the body knows what it needs, and will optimize based on the visual inputs.

France Men’s National Team, Tokyo Olympics Gold Medalist 
 
Below is a montage of every France reception in the 5th set of the Tokyo Olympics gold medal match. Needless to say, these guys were good enough passers to lead France to the top of the podium. You’ll notice different split steps by each athlete – another argument that each individual athlete will do what his or her body naturally does all by itself.

Against topspin jump serves (see below), all three of France’s primary passers utilize a split step which has their heels off the ground entirely.

Volleyball Split Step Passers Gold Medal Squared Chris McGown Mike Wall France Olympics Gold Medal

Against slower float serves (see below), the split steps used by France’s primary passers (#9, #2, and #17) are noticeably less emphasized or even non-existent.

Volleyball Split Step Passers Gold Medal Squared Chris McGown Mike Wall France Olympics Gold Medal
Russia Men’s National Team, Tokyo Olympics Silver Medalist 
 
The Tokyo silver medalist was Russia. Again, you’ll see a variety of split step moves utilized by the different passers in different scenarios.

Against topspin jump serves (see below), Russia’s passers look almost identical to France’s passers, with all three passers’ heels in the air.

Volleyball Split Step Passers Gold Medal Squared Chris McGown Mike Wall Russia Olympics Gold Medal

Against float serves (see below), Russia’s primary passers implement a much smaller split step, or none at all.

Volleyball Split Step Passers Gold Medal Squared Chris McGown Mike Wall Russia Olympics Gold Medal
USA Women’s National Team, Tokyo Olympics Gold Medalist 
 
The USA women against opposing float serves look similar to the men against float serves. In almost every one of these video clips, there are no split steps at all. But, occasionally in these examples we do see a little split step. This is further evidence that a split step will happen when it needs to happen, and it won’t happen when it doesn’t need to. As coaches, we shouldn’t force it one way or the other.

More volleyball examples – backrow defense

Not surprisingly, we’ll see the SSC come out on hard-driven attacks. On good teams, you’ll see and almost-perfect choreography of “hop” – the defenders are in the air at the same time. This isn’t a product of hours and hours of training to coordinate hop sequencing – it’s the product of players who have seen a lot of volleyball (visual inputs!) responding instinctively to the demands of the environment. In other words, “what it takes to be great” at that level comes out naturally, without any coaching from us.

And again, even on defense, when the situation doesn’t demand it we see players do not engage the SSC – they just stay flat-footed and move simply.

Men’s Liberos – Poland, USA, Japan, Italy

Below is a video montage of digs made by liberos of the final four teams in the 2023 Men’s VNL – Poland, USA, Japan, and Italy. You’ll notice different types of split step techniques used by each individual libero, and different moves made by each libero in different scenarios.

Women’s Liberos – USA, Brazil

Back to the women’s side of the Tokyo Olympics, we see a variety of split steps made by the liberos of USA and Brazil while digging opposing attacks. In some of the below examples, you’ll notice the USA libero completely in the air while reading an opposing attacker, which is very similar to what we saw the male liberos doing in similar situations.

Girl’s High School Liberos

Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah, was the best high school team in Utah and nationally ranked through the 2021-2022 seasons. Mountain View’s libero (#16 in the video below) had never been taught about split steps or trained to do split steps. In fact, the term “split step” was never mentioned in a single Mountain View practice throughout her high school playing career. However, in the video montage below from the 2022 state championship. you’ll notice she makes many of the same types of split step moves as the USA National Team libero, despite the fact it was never trained or discussed. In some examples she is completely in the air (just like USA’s libero in some of the examples shown above), and in other examples she has no split step at all (also just like USA’s libero in some of the examples) – and that’s totally okay.

Yep, We’ve Tried It, And Screwed It Up

You may think we’re having this conversation from some Ivory Tower of theory and research, never having trained any of this. Well, we feel even more secure in having this conversation, because we’ve done it the wrong way in the past. Chris McGown tells this story:

“I took the MVB head coaching job at BYU in 2011, and was looking for all the help and wisdom I could get – who better than my father, the hall of famer, to be around me and the program? I asked for his help, and he became our volunteer assistant. He’d recently come from coaching the Swiss Men’s University Games team, and had noticed during that competition that the Taiwanese team had a pronounced “step-to-hop” prior to serve-receive. Always the curious mind, he started looking into that move, which invariably led to tennis players, baseball infielders, and a few others performing what the tennis crew call the “split step”. He suggested that we start training our passers with a similar move and at that time, what dad suggested, dad got. What we found during that fall training block was:

  • It was incredibly difficult to sequence the hop correctly. Variations in toss height, server rhythm, arm speed and serve speed all combined to make good hop timing difficult
  • It added complexity to an already difficult task. Passing is a tough skill, and now we were adding a little forward movement, mental processing to sequence, a deliberate hop. Now we went from juggling, to juggling on a unicycle.
  • It took a lot of time. We were spending a lot of time trying to get good at this step-hop move instead of getting good at seeing the path of the ball and making good angles. In terms of value-add to important outcome-critical elements of the skill, we were diluting our time.
  • It made us worse. Eventually we noticed the following: the timing of a deliberate split step was often mis-sequenced, making us too late or sometimes too early – rarely perfect. When we took a deliberate hop, we almost always jumped too high, making us late. Passing numbers weren’t getting better, and if anything, the numbers indicated we were worse for having trained this move.

Long story short, we abandoned the experiment after that fall training block and returned to our focus on “see the server, see the serve, and start tracking the pass with your platform early”. Those simple instructions resulted in the movements that we wanted, and on fast, powerful serves, we saw our players with a little hop.”

Answering our two questions

So where does this leave us with regards to our two big questions?

First question: do we as coaches need to disrupt or enhance a movement that is already in-place, and instinctual to our bodies?

While the biomechanical science of the SSC isn’t completely understood, we feel strongly that both the anecdotal and research-based evidence point to the value of this movement in performance. The good news for us as coaches is that this movement (aka: split-step, hop, unweighting, SSC, stretch-reflex) will come out naturally in our athletes, with no interference or instruction from us! As we said, the body is really good at optimizing solutions in the environment – we don’t need to overcoach this.

So is a split-step valuable? Yes, IF NEEDED. And we can allow the body to determine when it’s needed (and to what degree/timing) and when it isn’t. Again, we don’t need to create complex rules and regulations for moving.

Second question: is this worth our time?

Hopefully we’ve laid out a convincing argument that we don’t even need to be coaching this, so the question of spending time on it becomes moot. But the larger issue is “where should I be spending my time with players that might need to engage SSC?”

Rather than focusing on the split-step or hop, we feel like we can add a lot more value to our players in helping them see the game in a way that triggers SSC appropriately. So what does that look like in terms of our training? We’d suggest three ideas:

  • Begin with simple mechanics. Make sure that our players have the most simple mechanics possible for blocking, serve-receive, defense. Strip away any unnecessary movements so their bodies can move efficiently.
  • Coach vision. This is a much longer conversation, but emphasize the visual aspects of the game as much as we can in our coaching – questions like “what did you see?” and teaching keys/cues for good visual sequences will help trigger good biomechanical responses much more than trying to force those responses will.
  • Play a lot of volleyball. For good movements to come out, we need to be training in an environment that demands those movements – in other words, the more often our players are asked to recognize and respond to the patterns and speed of game-like volleyball, the better they’ll become at seeing, knowing, and reacting.

The Volleyball Split Step – Wrapping It Up

While we hope this information has been helpful relative to the very specific question of a split-step, our larger hope is that you’ve seen the value of using principles in your coaching, time-management, and decision-making.

There’s a tremendous amount of good information and good coaching advice out in the world right now, but it’s mixed in with equally bad or misleading information. Being able to leverage solid principles in determining which is which will save you and your players countless hours of wasted time, and hopefully in the end help you win more volleyball matches.

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