It’s Easier to Move If You’re Already Moving
Volleyball is a game of movement. The entirety of the game involves moving from Point A to Point B, then executing a skill. The faster you can move to the ball, the chances of a successful contact are increased. At all levels, volleyball is being played at a faster tempo. Players are serving at an increased velocity demanding the receivers move quickly to pass the ball. The sets to the outside hitter are getting lower and faster, forcing blockers to react and move swiftly to the point of attack. Attackers are hitting with increased speed and range, placing more pressure on the backcourt defenders to cover more court in less time. Yet, despite the emphasis on speed and velocity, our approach to teaching the various skills tends to be static and mechanical. Incorporating “stretch-reflex” into the instructional process is essential to promote faster movement on the volleyball court.
In a nutshell, the stretch reflex involves stretching a muscle (eccentric movement) and then quickly contracting the muscle (concentric movement). The process of stretching the muscle fosters a reaction in the body to create tension in the muscle to prevent injury. The ensuing contraction will create a tremendous force facilitating a faster, more dynamic movement. An analogy might be if one stretches a rubber band, the tension is increased. Upon release, the created tension (eccentric stretching) allows for a quick response (concentric contraction) of the rubber band. A similar concept will apply when incorporated into volleyball movements. The player loads the muscle (eccentric), then quickly contracts the muscle (concentric) as the desired movement is executed. The eccentric and concentric movements create increased force in the contraction allowing for a higher jump and faster movement.
In the video below, you’ll see Novak Djokovic incorporate a slight hop in preparation for receiving the serve. He does this to initiate the loading of the muscle (eccentric lengthening of the muscle). The contraction of the muscle (concentric) as he moves to the ball will be with a greater force allowing for faster movement.
Some volleyball coaches want the players “stopped” when the ball is attacked or served. I place a greater priority on players being balanced and in good posture with their feet on the ground. Being stopped is not a primary focus, as it eliminates the incorporation of the stretch reflex. Djokovic is moving, but his feet are on the ground, and he has balance when the ball is being served.
The stretch reflex also applies to volleyball movements. Polish libero, Pawel Zatorski, prepares for serve-receive by taking small walking steps finishing with a step-hop (similar to Djokovic) as the server contacts the ball. The hop initiates the loading of his legs for a dynamic movement to the ball.
From a defensive perspective, observe how this defensive player takes a slight hop as she prepares for her defensive move. The knees remain bent, the shoulders are forward, and the head remains level during the loading process. Also, note her timing for the loading of the legs is very consistent. As the attacker’s arm moves forward, the loading is initiated.
Stretch reflex can be used in blocking to facilitate fast lateral movement. Watch the middle blocker take a “split-step” as the opposing setter touches the ball to load the legs for an explosive lateral move. Another benefit to this split step as the ball is being set is the blocker obtains a wider base to maintain a good balance with the lower body, even if the upper body might be leaning one direction or the other.
The timing of the stretch reflex move is critical. The athlete can’t have the feet off the ground when the ball is being spiked or served. You can’t move when your feet are off the ground. You also want to avoid the stretch reflex hop executing so early that you lose the tension build-up in the muscle. The coach needs to work with the athlete to time the “loading” of the muscle so when the feet hit the ground, there will be an immediate move to the ball.
Volleyball is a sport that encourages a rhythm and tempo to all movements. The ability to repeat the movement is enhanced when skills are performed rhythmically. In all the videos, the athletes repeat the movement of the stretch reflex in the same fashion with the same timing with each repetition.
Incorporating the stretch reflex response is an essential part of developing correct skills. One of the biggest challenges for coaches of younger players is to get them moving quickly to the ball. Using the stretch reflex in conjunction with lots of activities that require movement will assist in developing the movement skills necessary to play the game at a high level.