Thoughts on Serve-Receive

My recent post on serve-receive initiated significant responses, directly or on various venues. The article aimed to encourage coaches to be creative in organizing serve-receive patterns. The straight 3-person pattern isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with the challenges of receiving a short or deep serve, which is statistically the most difficult for the passers to handle. In addition, for the young players, putting additional players in the pattern will reduce the territory for each passer, along with reducing specialization at the younger ages.

However, much of the discussion was not focused on reception patterns but on where the preferred platform/ball contact location is relative to the body. I used a photo to communicate the passer’s statistical performance relative to the location of the ball and the passer. (see below).

The photo is for statistical information only, with no intent to communicate where the preferred contact point should be for the passer. But, since there was some discussion, I thought it would be an excellent time to present my thoughts about what I value in serve-receive.

Midline Contact

Various schools of thought exist relative to serve-receive and the preferred contact point to maximize accuracy and reduce reception errors. Some coaches like to receive at the body midline. I like midline passing for younger players because of the emphasis on moving the feet and getting their bodies behind the ball. The ability to move to the ball is essential at all levels. For younger players to understand the importance of movement skills is positive for their future development.

Contact off the left hip

Some coaches want players to contact the ball outside their body, preferably off their left hip. Should a player misjudge the trajectory of the serve and the ball comes at the passer higher than anticipated, it is easier to manage the platform if the arms are outside the body. I also understand this approach to serve-receive, and there are definite positives to approaching the skill in this manner.

If the serve comes at a manageable speed and trajectory, I’m on board with the merits of the contact point at the midline or outside the body. The rationale for teaching either of these techniques is justified. It is just a matter of the philosophy of the coach. Generally, one becomes proficient at whatever they do the most.

In reality, passing is not a black-and-white skill. After dealing with the quality of serve at the U-18 World Championships for several years, it became very apparent to me that players must gain proficiency at reception from all contact points and angles. The velocity and location of the serve dictate the technique. As you see in the video below from the World Championships, the ball gets on the passer very fast (Egonu) or with lots of ball movement (Kastner).

When the ball travels from the server to the passer in one second or less, the preferred contact point by the passer (midline or hip) may not be an option. The passer must be adept at passing a ball outside the body, right or left, along with the high or low ball. All of these angles must be rehearsed in practice. If a coach only works receiving at the midline or left hip, the preferred contact area might not be an option when receiving a high-velocity serve. Consequently, the passer is forced to pass in a manner that has not been practiced. Serve-receive is a situational skill. The coach should rehearse as many situations as possible to sharpen the required foot movements and platform angles.

In no order of importance, I have listed several aspects of serve-receive I value.

The passer should face the incoming ball as long as possible. When receiving a deep serve, there will be occasions where the passer must rotate the hips and shoulders to put the platform on the ball (demonstrated later). However, sometimes a quick shuffle step back will give the passer a better passing posture and platform. Too often, on deep serves, the passer will lose posture, feet don’t move, and the arms swing wildly outside the body as the ball is deflected into the stands. In the video below, you’ll see the passer maintain posture, shuffle-step back, and have good balance and platform integrity when passing.

Gain comfort with moving while the ball is being passed. Most errors, especially with the younger players, occur when the passer stops moving their feet and lunges their platform at the ball. I want the upper body to be quiet and calm while the feet move. Too many young passers have those two items reversed-the feet don’t move, and the platform is swinging to the ball. The critical aspect of the clip below is the passer moves through the pass while the ball is on the platform.

In general, the passer must practice platform action and angles of 1) right to left, 2) left to right, and 3) straight ahead, depending upon the court location of the passer. The movement will be right to left from the right portion of the court (zones 1/2). From the left side of the court (zones 4/5), the platform is angled and moves left to right. The middle one-third of the court is the easiest zone to pass as the movement and angle are more or less straight ahead to the target area. A gray area between zones 5/6 and 1/6 always mandates the passer adjust the platform angle and arm movement based on the serve.

Regardless of posture, have the platform finish to the target. No matter what is going on with the lower body, if the passing platform is quiet and angled correctly, there will be positive results.

How to organize the seam between two passers. The consistently asked question is how to organize the seams between two passers. I organize the seams by asking the better of the two passers to be responsible for the seam. If the seam coverage is worked out in advance, there will be less hesitation, and the designated passer can move quickly to the ball.

An out-of-system pass is okay; getting aced is not! Nobody tries to get aced, but the coach must emphasize the importance of fighting hard to get the ball in the air to get a set and a swing. Players should understand that if they get tied up with a tough serve, they must fight to get the ball high to the middle of the court. If we can get a set, there is an opportunity to score.

Arms Should Relax

Passers should be relaxed with long, loose limbs. When preparing for the serve, I prefer the passer have long, loose limbs instead of an extended platform that is very rigid. High-speed serve will mandate quick movements of the feet and platform. If the passer is relaxed, they can move faster. The image to the right is very common with passers. I do not believe this is a posture that facilitates movement.

Receiving the high, deep serve is challenging. This is especially true if the serve has good velocity. Most passers handle the serve directed at waist level fairly comfortably. If possible, passers should try to get to that position as much as possible. Moving forward and back quickly is a crucial skill for a good passer. Sometimes, that is impossible. When receiving a serve at shoulder height, the passer should rotate their hips and shoulders, allowing their platform to move comfortably.

Using visual cues in serve-receive is generally underemphasized. Coaches tend to teach serve-receive from a perspective of what to do when the ball is on your platform—using visual cues (where is the server facing, is topspin on the ball, is the armswing of the server fast or slow, etc.) does not receive the attention it deserves. Occasionally, coaches should ask the passer to verbalize what they see before the server contacts the ball. This is especially true when identifying short or deep serves.

Receiving the serve dropping in front of the passer is a challenge. I’m not talking about the high, looping serve; those are easy to recognize and move in to pass. Short serves with a flat trajectory present challenges. If a passer can move in quickly and be balanced when passing, that is preferred. However, often passers cannot get into the preferred posture. In the video below, you see the knee drive, which allows the passer to field a short serve while maintaining a quiet platform and good posture.

The quality of serving in our country at all levels is improving very fast. The serve velocity is increasing and the accuracy is improving. For passers to improve their reception skills, there is no substitute for repetition. To help with the number of repetitions, try to begin most drills with a serve instead of a coach tossing the ball into play. I will again emphasize that serve-receive is situational. Put into the practice plan specific aspects of serve-receive that will be addressed in a given practice session. For example, in a 6v6 activity, have all the serves go to zone 1, short, deep, or move the passer to the sideline. The player receiving this area gets a lot of focused repetition recognizing short or deep serves, and managing their platform in a right-to-left fashion to direct the pass to the target area. The same type of serving can go to any zone or player. Lastly, all players at younger ages should be involved in serve-receive activities. We tend to specialize the reception duties at too young of an age.