Additional Thoughts on Serve-Receive

As a follow-up to my recent article on serve-receive, I’ll present some additional items I value. Why the continued focus on this component of the game? In conversations with coaches, serve-receive is the one component of the game that is a never-ending challenge for players. Part of the challenge is the improved ability of the opponent’s server to serve with velocity and accuracy, increasing the demands on the passer. The other part of the reception issue is how the skill is taught and the need for more repetition of forearm contacts (either in reception or defense) in training sessions.

In no particular order of importance, here are several items that I value technically, along with some system components.

The serve-receive pattern is adjusted relative to the server’s location. The three photos below show how the Ohio State Men’s team passers adjust their court position based on the server’s location. The pattern shifts to protect the court area closest to the server. The serve down the line is the shortest distance from server to the passer, so the ball gets to the passer faster, allowing less time to react. Consequently, the pattern will adjust to that side of the court. When the server is in zone 6, the pattern is balanced from sideline to sideline.

Jump servers tend to serve the same distance regardless of where they serve. Except for the “rolled” jump serve that drops short, a jump server putting velocity and spin on the serve, the ball will travel a relatively consistent distance. Consequently, since the crosscourt passer is an increased distance away from the server, they will adjust their court position to be closer to the server than the line passer. The diagram below will demonstrate how the passer at the furthest distance from the server adjusts their court position slightly closer to the server.

Protect the short serve first, and move to the deep serve. With most float serves, the ball dropping in front of the server is more challenging to pass than the deeper serve. When I say short serve, I’m not talking about the loopy serve that the passer can quickly react to. I’m talking about the short serve with a flat trajectory that resembles a deep serve. I presented this in a past blog on Tunneling the Serve where the trajectory of short and deep serves is almost identical. In addition, the international ball tends to drop, so passers tend to protect that court area first. In the photos below, you see how the USA and Germany demonstrate their court alignment to “not get beat short.” Both patterns start around 13′-15′.

Coaches at most levels should remember this as they work with their passers. However, adjustments based on the competition should always be a consideration. If the opponent either doesn’t serve short or they do not “tunnel” their serves, adjust the court position accordingly.

Prioritize Passing Range, Especially for the Libero. In theory, your libero is your best passer. With that being the case, you want the libero (hopefully) or your best passer to increase their area of passing responsibility. This increased area of responsibility requires technical adjustments. In the video clip below, you’ll see the emphasis on the movement of the passer to the ball. With higher velocity serves, it is difficult to get behind every ball and be stopped. So, work with your passers to acquire comfort with passing while moving. Also, notice that even though their feet move, their upper body remains quiet.

A drill that I often do to develop an increased range and focus on visual cues with passers is to reduce the width of the court by putting tape about 5′ in from each sideline the length of the court. A single passer must pass all serves between the taped lines (about 20′ in width). To do this successfully, they must focus on the visual cues of reception and movement to the ball.

Not all passers are equal. The best passers should have increased court responsibility. Notice in the reception pattern below how the primary passers adjust their court position to cover more area. Also, the organization of the seam coverage is deferred to the primary passers. The two primary passers (LB and Libero) will receive about 7.5 of the 9 meters. This organization allows the primary attacker to receive less area, freeing them up to attack.

To a large degree, the level a team can play is based on the ability to receive the serve successfully. You don’t have to be a great passing team to win, but you can’t be bad. My goal with the teams I’ve coached is no more than one reception error per set. If we can accomplish that, we are always getting a swing on attack and forcing the opponent to earn their own points. I encourage coaches to devote significant practice time to forearm contacts using some of the items that have been presented.