Serving With Intent

Pavlovian Serving“- A player hears a whistle and serves without thought. (For those unfamiliar, see Pavlov’s Dogs.)

One of the first things I learned during my ten-year tenure as the Head Coach for the USA U-18 team at the FIVB World Championships was that the international teams approached serving much more seriously than our USA players. The opposing servers at the U-18 World Championships served with both accuracy and velocity. They approached the skill with the importance that it merits. Serving is a chance to score points. I learned quickly to prioritize daily practice time focused on the serve. By doing so, along with improving our serve, our reception skills also improved (if you want to become a better passing team, become a better serving team!).

In recent years, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in serving skills at the collegiate level. From my observation, the quality of club-level serving has mostly stayed the same. A player’s improvement in any skill will generally correlate to the amount of time spent on the skill. At times, serving is treated as an afterthought. Adding to the problem at the club level is the restrictive area behind the end line in most club and convention center facilities, which negatively impacts service quality.

I want to present thoughts about the serve and how players and coaches might approach the skill differently. I’m not going to detail the serving mechanics. I will present thoughts that might positively impact the “why” behind a serving strategy rather than the “way” a player serves.

There are two types of serve. One is a float serve that has no spin on the ball as it leaves the hand of the server. The second is a serve with a spin (sidespin, topspin) on the ball. Both types of serve can be effective. When properly executed, the float serve, due to the lack of rotation of the ball, has a potential for the ball to move in an unpredictable flight path that can present challenges for the passer. For this “float” to occur, it seems the ball must travel at a minimum velocity of 35-38 miles per hour.

A topspin or sidespin serve will have a more predictable flight path but can be effective if hit with velocity. Passers lacking foot movement capabilities have a specific challenge with a sidespin serve. In the video below, Elena Oglivie (Stanford) demonstrates a sidespin serve. Note the distance the ball moves to the right of the passer. A serve with this movement and velocity certainly challenges the passer to move and create a good passing angle.

The server can execute the float and spin serve while standing or jumping. A standing serve offers more balance for the server, the potential for a more consistent toss, and the potential for more control. The jump serve offers the potential for a flatter trajectory, and when the toss is correct, the distance from the server to the passer is reduced.

I’ve listed items I value when working with servers and a serving strategy.

In order of importance, players using a float serve should have the following priorities:

  1. Serve without imparting any spin on the ball- requires a firm hand contact on the ball’s equator with the force of the contact driven directly through the center of the ball.
  2. Serve a ball with a flat trajectory- the target should be no higher than 1/2 up the antenna. The trajectories for a short and deep serve should be similar. I have done a past blog focused on Tunneling the Serve.
  3. Serve with velocity- how fast the serve travels is the last priority after the player demonstrates skill at the first two priorities.

These priorities apply to both a jump or standing float serve. If a player cannot accomplish these priorities using a jump float serve, they should stay grounded and work on their technique. If a player cannot deliver a good float serve from the ground, there is no reason to believe they can deliver it in the air. Young players focusing solely on velocity make excessive errors while losing the ball movement of a good float serve.

Target the Passer Short or Deep

The picture below represents passing repetitions at the U-18 World Championships and National Team competitions. As you can see, receiving the ball either at the midline or outside the midline of the passer resulted in mostly successful receptions. Passers had the most difficulty with serves that land in front of the passer or up to their shoulders. I encourage coaches to statistically evaluate the effectiveness of moving the passer short and deep versus side to side. You might find that serving short and deep is more effective than serving a seam between two players. I need to emphasize that when referring to a short serve, I’m not speaking about the high, loopy serves that drop inside the 3-meter line. I’m referring to a flat serve that falls in front of the passer. See “tunneling.” The challenge for the server is to have the same “look” for both the deep and short serve.

Every Player Should Have a Best Serve

If I’m a baseball pitcher, my best pitch is a fastball. I’m facing a batter that is good at hitting a fastball. So, do I throw my best pitch? Or do I go with a secondary pitch? My inclination is to throw my best pitch. If he hits it out of the park, I’ll try “Plan B” next time. I feel the same about serving. Every player should have one serve that they have perfected and have total confidence. I like a player who has a “best” serve and possesses confidence in this serve in all situations. If the passer handles my best serve consistently, I go to Plan B.

I Prefer Players to Serve from Corner to Corner

The picture below, with statistics from the U-18 World Championships, indicates the receiving team has the most challenging time siding out when the serve is from zone 1&5 and directed to the opponent’s zone 1&5. Serving from zone 6 to zone 6 was not a good strategy. The exception might be a jump server that serves with velocity but not control. The numbers represent passing efficiency and sideout percentage.

I Tend Not to Give Serving Zones to the Server

I want the server to be focused on their routine and keep their eyes on the court, the opposing team, and how they want to attack the opponent’s passers. Often, when the coach gives a zone to the server, the focus becomes the zone as opposed to serving a tough serve. If there is a specific game plan for the serve, it is discussed during timeouts or between sets.

Every Server Should Have a Routine

If a server has a routine, they are more apt to serve in the same manner, regardless of the situation. I don’t really care what their routine entails. But I prefer they use it every time they serve. To promote that, as much as possible, when scrimmaging in practice, I blow the whistle to initiate the serve. The whistle initiates the routine in competition, so I try to replicate that in practice.

Work With Players on Correct Armswing Mechanics

Serving both a float and spin serve requires correct armswing mechanics. Equally, the proper toss location is essential. I see two common problems with a lot of young servers. One, the toss is not in front of the serving shoulder. Secondly, poor armswing mechanics prevent the elbow from rotating from a low to a high position.

Sideout Efficiency Might Impact Serving Strategy

Coaches should consider attaching the “riskiness” of the serve with the sideout percentage of a team. I don’t have a strong opinion in this area. I’ve heard coaches with teams that sideout at a high percentage take a lot of risks with their serving strategy. Their rationale is even with a higher error percentage on a serve, their ability to sideout dampens the cost of the serving error. On a similar note, when serving good passing teams, the inclination is to serve the toughest serve at all times. Is the risk of serving your toughest serve and the potential of increasing your error percentage worth it when playing a team good at reception? Do you want to make serving errors when playing a team that passes poorly? Or, focus on keeping the serve inbounds, and the opponent will make their normal passing mistakes. All of these situations are worthy of more thought on the part of the coach.

Start Practice Drills With a Serve

A large percentage of practice activities should begin with a serve. I’m not a fan of coaches entering balls into a drill when a player serving is an option. Players should serve as much as possible in a training session. Sometimes, a coach will enter the ball, but as much as possible, keep those moments rare.

Mini-Goal is To Serve at Least Twice

Although serving errors happen, the mini-goal I have for players is to serve at least two times before the server loses the serve. Some coaches use a red light, green light approach to serving. Red light means keep the serve in, and green light means go with your best serve. I’m fine with this system; it gets players thinking about their serve.

Encourage Your Players to Experiment

I encourage players to experiment with different types of serves. I also encourage smaller players to serve from a distance back from the end line. Doing so will allow a flatter trajectory for the serve. Receiving from a team with a variety of service types presents definite passing challenges. A team with servers with various styles presents significant challenges for the passers.

Server Evaluation

By default, the player that serves the most points is your best server. It doesn’t matter how the points are scored. Don’t get wrapped up in the number of aces a server may have in a match. The numbers that I value are points scored and/or the percentage of times the serve puts the receiving team out of system.

The serve presents the first opportunity to score points either directly or indirectly. I believe that coaches should spend more time with players with both technique and strategy of the serve. Points are hard to come by when playing a good team. If your serve can provide some easy points, your team might be on a path to victory.