Passing Techniques and Systems- One Size Does Not Fit All

Coaches must guard against automatically mirroring other teams’ or coaches’ techniques and tactics. Many factors should influence how the skills are taught and the systems implemented. The game is different at the collegiate or national team levels compared to a 14-under club team. The men’s game at the international level is a beast unto itself—the velocity of the serve and attack in the men’s game impact both systems and techniques. A coach might try experimenting and implementing some concepts, but blindly replicating systems and skills is unwise.

I hear many club coaches at all levels lament the lack of serve-receive skills with their players. At the FIVB World Championships a few years back, we recorded the contact point relative to the passer’s body with the subsequent pass quality. We did this for every team and every passer, totaling over 4,000 receptions. The results are below:

As you can see, the most accurate passes occurred when the contact point was at the body midline, closely followed by outside the body around the hips. There was a marked drop-off in accuracy when the contact was at the shoulders or below the knees.

Passing is not a black-and-white skill. Only some passes will be contacted at the midline. When a serve has high velocity, the passer might not have time to make contact in the preferred location. There must be a comfort level passing at the midline and outside the body (right or left), the high ball, and the low ball. These are items that can be rehearsed in practice sessions. I suggest significant time be spent on receiving at various angles in a controlled setting for focused technique repetitions, then progress to receiving “live serves.” Implementing visual cues for the passer is not to be ignored. See my recent blog post regarding visual cues.

An associated component of serve-receive is the reception pattern being used. If the most problematic areas in reception are the short or deep serves, can we assist the passers if we re-think reception patterns? Almost without exception, teams will receive the serve by aligning three passers across the central part of the court. The 3-person pattern exposes passers to the most problematic types of serve: the short or deep serve.

I encourage club coaches to experiment with receiving with four or five passers. I hear coaches muttering how they can’t put more passers in the pattern when they currently don’t have three decent passers. It might be possible to improve passing numbers if the court coverage responsibilities for each passer are reduced. Passing numbers will also improve with current non-passers if they know they will have passing duties. Urgency is a great motivator!

Let’s take a look at the W-Reception pattern.

The above photo shows how all players, minus the setter, have reception duties. The entire pattern can move forward or back as required. The front-row passers will take the short serve and move laterally as required. This allows the backrow passers to drop a little deeper. By doing so, the backrow passers receive assistance with the short serve, and moving towards the end line, will allow the deep serve to be more manageable. The positives of the W-pattern are making individual court coverage a little more manageable while addressing the short/deep passing challenges of the 3-person pattern. The weakness of the pattern is all passers, strong or weak, are targets for a good serving team.

Coaches can flatten or shift the pattern to facilitate their best passers take a little more court. See below:

You can see in the above pictures how the left-front or right-front passers have dropped deeper to take more passing responsibility.

The other pattern worth exploring is the U-pattern.

The advantage of the U-pattern is the quick attacker does not have passing duties, freeing them to focus on the attack. Also, the front-row passers will take the short serve, alleviating this passing challenge for the deep passers. The liability of this pattern is the increase in individual court coverage. As with the W-pattern, the entire pattern, or the LF or RF passers, can drop deeper as events dictate.

With the velocity of the jump serve in the men’s game, the W-pattern and the U-pattern are both problematic. However, for the women’s game, especially at the younger levels, these patterns are a viable option for coaches. The other aspect that I like is these patterns allow more players to gain experience in serve-receive. The women’s game desperately needs more quality passers capable of attacking. With either pattern, short, deep, and lateral passing responsibilities must be organized and practiced. I would encourage coaches to experiment with multiple patterns to maximize passing strengths and hide potential weaknesses.