Friday, March 16, 2007

Beginner Volleyball Lessons

Based on many of the Google and Yahoo search strings that are leading people to this blog a lot of people are looking for information on beginner volleyball lessons and drills.

This seems to be an area of interest for many people. So in a moment of pretentious confidence I have decided to try and an article about what I have been doing to teach volleyball to beginners. That said I need to point out that I am not an expert coach by any stretch of the imagination. I have only been coaching middle school aged girls for four years and I’m each year I learn new stuff that I wish I has known the previous years. So consider yourself warned.

What to teach beginners?

You need to teach beginners not only volleyball skills but also how to be an athlete. Don’t teach just passing, serving, setting and hitting. Teach them how to run, jump, hop, swing their arms, balance themselves and move quickly. Teach them how to warm up, stretch, workout and cool down properly. If you don’t know how to do these things yourself, find help.

Teach them to be good students, good athletes and good teammates. Teach good sportsmanship.

Many beginners start around 10 years old. They are truly “little girls”. You need to recognize that they are still little girls. But do not talk to them or treat them like little girls. I have found that my beginners respond best if they think I expect them to try and keep up with their older teammates. However, do not expect them to keep up, just expect them to try. Most beginner players are young, still growing and in almost all cases - awkward. Do not expect miracles. Many beginners may take up to a couple years to start looking like volleyball players. You may spend months working with a young girl whom you privately begin to suspect is never going to catch on. Suddenly overnight this small hopeless athlete wanna-be will transform into a serving or passing machine. Then just as suddenly the next day, it will be gone again. Do not look at these sudden flashes of brilliance as flukes or isolated incidences. Look at them as teasers of what is to come. They are just a preview of the potential in that child just waiting to explode outwards.

Treat your beginners like they are experienced athletes. Don’t talk down to them or talk to them like they were babies. Modify your comments and critiques of them for their appropriate age and experience. You might immediately correct an 8th grade player’s mistakes when overhand serving but you may have to let several errors made by a beginner serving underhand go by without comment. Only correct beginner’s mistakes when they repeat them. Single isolated errors are more often a result of a lack of control and an immature muscle and nervous system. For all your players concentrate your comments on the positive things they do. You have to correct their mistakes, but try to put your emphasis on their positives. I tell my players it is my job to tell you all the things you are doing wrong. So don’t get upset or think that I am picking on you. If you are tired of me telling you to stop bending your elbows, then stop bending your elbows. I would much prefer to talk to you about how great your serving has become rather than constantly criticizing your bent-elbow passing.

If you do happen to have an athlete who catches on quickly and learns the skills easily do not allow them to take any shortcuts. You may push a child like this a bit harder and encourage them to improve even quicker. But you still have to work on all the basic athletic and volleyball skills anyway. In many cases an athlete who catches on quickly will have early success even though they may have major flaws in their techniques. Do not allow them to continue practicing with the flaws. Eventually that minor flaw will become a hard to break bad habit.

Sometimes a player who catches on quickly will become the envy of their teammates because they are a “natural athlete.” I try to be very quick about squashing that line of thinking. There are no natural athletes. Most players who people think of as natural athletes are just the people who worked harder and longer than their teammates.

In addition to athletics and volleyball skills you have to teach beginners about the game itself. Teach them how the game is played. Start with the basics. Someone has to be the first one to explain things like:
• How points are scored. (Rally or Side-out scoring)
• Everyone except the server must be on the court when the ball is served.
• A team is allowed only three hits.
• A Block is not a hit. (Most beginners will not be able to block for quite a while but make them learn to do it anyway, don’t wait until they can reach the top of the net)
• A player cannot hit the ball twice in a row (except for when the first hit is a block)
• Only 6 players are allowed on the court
• Only the team captain or coach may talk to the referee during the match.
• Rotation order cannot be changed during the game
• Where do the referees and linesmen stand and what do they do.
• Court positions and overlap are important, (especially if you teach a set offense)

Teach them the rules of the game:

• Rules are important, but to a kid they can also be boring, the kids think that they are there to play, not be lectured to:
• Do not try to cram all the rules down their throats at one time.
• Do not hand them a rule book and expect them to read it.
• Do not stand around and read rules to them.
• Dole out the rules a couple at a time over several sessions. More than a couple minutes at a time on rules and you will lose your audience.
• During water breaks – quiz your players about rules. (While they drink show them a referee signal and just let them yell out what it means).
• Teach them all the referees hand signals and what they mean.
• Don’t talk about anything that you can demonstrate. Set a ball on the sideline and let them look at it from all directions. Demonstrate when the ball is in or out.
• It may take most of a season to teach them all of the rules.
• Get the important ones out of the way early (3 hits, 6 players, rally scoring, etc)
• Everything else can be presented as object lessons during scrimmages and practices.
• Don’t be afraid to stop a practice and use an existing situation to demonstrate a rules violation.
• Show them what it feels like to brush the net with their shoulder. Let them feel the difference between hitting the net and having the ball hit the net into them.
• Do not allow them to practice mistakes.

Teach them sportsmanship.
• Teach them to shake hands with their opponents, coaches and referees.
• Teach and lead them in cheering their opponents,
• Insist that they thank the referee for his efforts (after the match).
• Encourage them to talk to their opponents after the match. They’re all kids, let them be kids.
• Do not tolerate any disrespectful behavior towards teammates, coaches, opponents, referees, fans, parents or classmates. Do not allow them to glare, scowl or roll their eyes at you, each other, their opponents or their parents.
• Do not disrespect your players or their parents.
• Teach them to shag balls.
• Teach them to wipe up water that they spill.
• Do not allow them to talk or bounce balls when their coach is talking.
• Temper-tantrums happen. Players will not get angry just because you tell them not to. Dealing with tempers depends on the player’s and the coach’s personalities. I try the approach that if the practice is hard enough and fast-passed enough in most cases they will be too tired to get angry at anyone other than you.
• Remind them regularly to thank their parents for letting them play volleyball.

Teach them specific league rules.

• Players must wait in a certain area for games to start
• Players can/cannot take water bottles onto the court
• Players can/cannot pursue a ball outside of certain boundaries (other courts, bleachers, etc)
• Whatever your local rules are.

Teach them to play safely.
• Insist that they know where they are hitting the ball.
• Make them be aware if their jumping area is clear.
• Stop play for balls rolling onto the court.
• No Jewelry! You don’t want to ever watch a player snag an earring on the net and see it torn sideways out of their earlobe (trust me on this, it isn’t pretty when it happens to an adult, I don’t want to watch it happen to a child). Being stabbed by metal hair barrettes or bobby pins or getting fingers twisted by necklaces or bracelets isn’t pleasant either.
• Roll the ball under the net.
• Do not kick balls towards teammates or opponents.

Teach them the parts of the court
• The positions on the court (1- server, 2 – right front, 3 – middle front, 4 – left front, 5 – left back, 6 – middle back)
• The roles players may fill on the court - Middle Blocker, Outside Hitter, Setter, Defensive specialist, Libero, Opposite Hitter (front row setter in a 6-2 offense)
• The size of the court
• What the attack line is for
• Where and how to rotate players
• Where and how to substitute players
• Where the coaches and substitutes are allowed to stand or sit.
• Teach them how to set up the standards and nets once they are big enough to do so without injuring themselves or others around them.

Basic Skills Drills and Practices
For beginning players the most important volleyball skills to master early are passing and serving. In most beginner leagues a team that can pass and serve will win most of their games. They also need to learn how to set and hit. But don’t make them an early priority.

If I had my way I would spend my entire first couple practice sessions working on nothing but passing. But the players get bored after a while and you need to mix things up. Besides, dangling the thrill of spiking and overhand serving in front of them keeps them trying to improve. On my teams, you have to earn the right to practice serving overhand. I need to know that I can count on a player being a reliable underhand server before I allow her to spend practice time on overhand serving.

Teaching and Practicing Passing
I'm not going to try and describe the physical part of the stance and motion of the forearm pass. There is an excellent description of the physical act of passing a volleyball here:

To start, have your players pair up and practice tossing a volleyball back and forth. Emphasize that their toss has to be a high arcing toss that lands in your partner’s hands. Start six feet apart and toss with a two handed underhand toss. After a few repetitions, move them back a few feet. Continue this until they are tossing ball about half the width of the court. Make sure the player calls every ball they are about to catch.


Once they start getting the hang of tossing line them up and demonstrate while the players copy your grip and stance. Have them practice the passing motion several times without a ball. At this point I like to walk down the line a couple times and toss a ball to each player for her to pass back to me. Make each player call the ball before they pass. If the team is new I make them call out their name before they pass for the first practice or so. This allows both me and their teammates a chance to learn names. Make brief comments about gross errors in form or style at this time. But don’t get too picky. Let the little things go for right now. Your goal at this point is to get them passing. Be sure to congratulate each player for each good pass. After several passes through the line, pair them up again for a little toss-pass.

The players partner up about 6 feet apart and let them toss-pass back and forth with one player tossing the ball to her partner who passes it back where the first player catches and tosses it again. Repeat this several times then switch roles. After a couple times switching roles, have them each step back a bit and start the drill over again. Again, each passer should call the ball before passing.

Don’t let them move too far apart too quickly. Start working on form and accuracy before working on distance. Repeat this drill every practice for awhile or until they all master it. Early on you will want to start all practices (after warm-ups and stretching) with this drill.

Once most of your players can pass most of their attempts back to the tosser, you can let them try passing back and forth.

Be aware that both the toss-pass and pass-pass drill can be very chaotic. At any moment several of your players will be chasing balls instead of tossing or passing.

The down side of this toss-pass, pass-pass drill is that while it teaches them to toss and pass a volleyball it does so in a static manner. For the most part the players are standing still. Volleyball is a movement game. So don’t limit your passing to just this drill. Use this drill only for beginners and warm-ups. Pass-pass drills are the best place to comment on and work on form errors. As the players are passing the coach can walk among them watching and critiquing their technique.

Passing lines are the basis of many volleyball drills. The basic passing line starts with the coach and a basket of balls standing at the net. One or two players are lined up on the same side of the net as the coach but on the other side of the basket – they are the targets. Your passers are lined up single file at the number 6 (back center) position on the court.

The coach tosses a ball to the first player in line who passes it to the first player in the target line. The target catches, or chases down the ball and puts it in the basket then goes to the end of the passing line. The passer after she passes goes to the end of the target line. Do not allow you players to mover through the middle of the drill. Do not allow players to walk through the drill. They should always run from one spot to the next. This drill can be slow or fairly up beat. Once the players get used to the drill you can move right along, often tossing the next ball just as the first ball is reaching the targets.

Passing lines starts out simple. As your athletes improve the drill should get harder. You do not have to always toss the ball to the player. In fact, after one or two warm up passes you should never toss the ball to the player. Move them left, right, up or back. This is one drill where you can easily mix beginner and advanced players. The coach just has to modify the toss depending on the player’s skills. Toss the ball closer to slower beginner players. Advanced players can chase down balls tossed to all four corners of the court.

Other options for passing lines allow the coach to toss the ball underhand or overhand, simulating an off speed spike. Eventually the coach can actually start easily hitting a ball at the more advanced players. NEVER hit a ball at a beginner. Most of them do not have the speed or skills to defend themselves from a hard hit ball. Even an easy hit can scare or injure a beginning player. Not all injuries are physical. You don’t want your players to become afraid of the ball, and/or their coach.

Passing line drills can be run with the targets on the same side of the net as the passers, but the coach on the opposite side of the net tossing, serving or spiking the ball to be passed.

In order to simulate a misguided second hit, the coach can toss from the same side of the net as the passers, but move the targets to the middle of the court on the other side of the net. The coach can toss from off the sides of the court or from behind the passing line. If your gym has open rafters, toss the ball into the rafters so it bounces back down in an unpredictable manner.

You can add extra targets to the line and have each passer pass in succession several balls tossed or spiked to different parts of the court.

The main points to emphasize with passing lines are:
• Move to the ball, establish your stance and then pass to the target.
• Always have a separate tosser and target. Learn to pass the ball somewhere other than back where it came from.
• Try and keep the configuration of the drill to simulate game like situations. Tell your players what that game circumstance they are practicing is.
• Insist players call the ball before they pass. If the drill is simulating a third hit that should go over the net, the rest of the passers should yell “over” to help remind the passer to get the ball over the net.
• Encourage players to yell guidance to the passer – “Short”, “Long”, “Out”, etc.
• Vary the direction of your tosses. If a player starts second guessing and cheating towards one direction or the other toss the ball the opposite direction.
• Verbally congratulate great passes. Only criticize major form errors and truly wild passes. Passing lines is a place to work on moving and passing. Not small form errors. Do that during Pass-pass drills.

Pass and run is also known as a passing shuttle. Two lines of 3 or more line up single file on a single line facing each other like they are setting up for a tug of war. Have the first player on one end of the line toss the ball to the front player on the other end of the line to start the drill. From that point on the ball is passed back and forth between the two lines. Each time a person passes a ball they run to the back of the line they just passed to. The object is to see how many passes in a row the players can complete before missing one.

This drill is not for raw beginners. Your players have to be able to have a chance for their pass to get where it is intended before this drill will work. But this drill can be used as a team success metric. Each week have them run this drill for 5 minutes and keep track of how many successful passes they make in a row. Try to improve that number each week.

Pass and run can also be done as a set and run drill once they learn how to set.

Teaching and Practicing Underhand Serving

Other than passing, a good underhand serve is the second most important skill for a beginning player to master. It is also a skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. I have never been able to hit a good overhand float serve but I have a pretty good underhand floater. You will be amazed at how often a player who can receive the hardest overhand serves with ease will be flummoxed by a softer underhand serve.

The footwork for underhand and overhand serving is almost exactly the same. So make sure your players learn the footwork early so they don’t have to unlearn and relearn it later.

Underhand serving should be the easiest thing to do in the game of volleyball. It is after all the only time during a game where a player gets to hit a ball that is not moving.

The two main components of a basic underhand serve are the step and swing, and the hit. The step and swing is just that. For right handed players the step and swing is just a step with the left foot and a back to front swing with the right arm. I always start my players working without a ball. Have them stand behind the service line with their heads, shoulders, hips and feet all facing where they want the ball to go. In this case the middle of the other side of the court. The player should stand with their weight on their right foot; the left knee should be bent with their toes resting lightly on the floor for balance. Their left hand should be low in front of them tuned upwards like they are trying to cradle a ball. Their right hand should be swinging lightly in a straight line between their hips and the imaginary ball in their left hand. When they are ready to hit, they swing the right arm backwards (keeping the elbow straight). As the right arm reaches the back of swing and starts forward all their body weight should go with it, as they step forward from their right foot to their left. They should be balanced on their left foot at the same moment that their hand passes through the spot where the imaginary ball is. The natural continuation of this movement is to take a second step back onto their right foot and onto the court as their right hand continues to swing upwards until their arm is pointing in a straight line over the top of the net where they wanted the ball to go.

That is a very log winded way of saying – step with your left foot at the same time you swing with your right arm while keeping your body and right arm swing path all pointed the direction you want the ball to travel.

DO NOT THROW THE BALL INTO THE AIR TO HIT IT. Underhand serving is a very simple skill, don’t complicate it unnecessarily.

Practicing the step and swing I make the players line up and repeat the step and swing motion several times. This is all about timing, and getting your feet and hands to work together. Most people when they walk naturally swing their arms so that their left foot and right arm are synchronized. But somehow when you try to do the same thing serving a volleyball it confuses younger players. So I always spend some practice time working on coordinating their step and swing. When you get a whole line of players working on this motion at the same time looks like a tryout for The Temptations. But since none of my players ever have a clue who The Temptations are the joke always falls flat. If their parents laugh, I take that as a chance to berate them for neglecting their children’s education in fine music.

While your athletes are practicing the timing of the step and swing you should be watching their form. Make sure the arm swing is straight back and forth. Don’t let them swing across their body. Their stance should be knees slightly bent and a slight bend at the hips. Get them started watching where the ball will be on their hand right from the start. Do not let them look up at the net until after they have “hit” the ball.

The hit. I prefer that players hit the ball with the heel of their hand and the wrist. Their arm should be turned so that the palm of their hand is facing forward and their wrist slightly cocked so that their fingers are back out of the way. Contact should be right where the wrist and the heel of the hand meet.

However, many younger girls mistakenly believe that they are stronger if they hit the ball with a closed fist. I used to not allow this. But after a couple of years it became obvious to me that it was more important to get them to have some early success than it was to force them to do things in one certain way. So I will let them serve the ball with the side of a closed fist. Just make sure that their thumb is down to the side of the fist, more or less wrapping around the index and middle fingers so that they do not contact the knuckles of the thumb with the ball.

When you think your players are ready to try serving with a ball. Pair them up with one half of each pair on each side of the net, standing opposite each other on the attack line. I have rarely met a beginner that doesn’t think she can hit a ball over the net from that position. Then let them gently serve the ball to their partner who is supposed to catch the ball and serve it back. Don’t let them just pound away with this drill. Make them stay in control and serve the ball to their partner. After several repetitions of this drill have each girl take one or two large steps backwards and start all over again. Eventually they will move all the way back to the service line.

This practice technique will teach them some control. It will also give them a chance to figure out how hard they have to swing at a ball to get it over the net. For the coach it will give you a good look at which of your players need to work on their serving distance. Some will very quickly be able to serve the full court length. Others will need some time to be able to serve a ball all the way to the net. For the ones who are struggling, allow them a shorter service line for a while. You don’t want them distorting their service style trying to hit the ball harder if they are just not strong enough yet.

Don’t expect immediate results. Even from the attack line serving will take time to master. Just keep making them concentrate on the step and swing, eyes on the ball and good clean contact.

The most common mistake I see in beginning servers is that they take their eyes off the ball. Since these younger athlete’s nervous and muscle systems are not fully developed yet they often have a hard time making their hands hit something they are not looking at. They MUST watch the ball all the way through the service motion. Moving their hitting hand even an inch or so from the center of the ball will result in a glancing blow which will send to ball any one of several wrong directions. This is why you make them line up their head, hips, and feet the direction they want to serve. They do not have to watch the net, it isn’t going anywhere. The ball is going to do the traveling, make them keep their focus on it.

If you have a player who looks like they are doing things right but their serves are very erratic, watch their eyes. More often than not they are looking up at the net before their hand makes contact with the ball. Then when their hand does contact the ball it is not a flush contact and the ball will squirt from one side or the other, or it will drive low into the net.

The second most common mistake I see is not keeping their left hand (which is holding the ball) low and still. If they raise their left hand as they swing their right they end up chasing after the ball. Serving a ball that is moving away from their hand usually results in a high short serve.

Third most common mistake is not swinging straight. If they swing across their body the ball will almost always go left out of bounds. The arm swing must be straight along the line that they want to ball to travel. They should end up with their nice straight arm pointing over the net at the ball as it sails towards their opponents.

After your players get a little proficient at underhand serving you can start some drills. For the serve and run drill each girl will need her own ball. Then they serve a ball, then chase down the ball they served and serve it back the other way. The object of this drill is to try and serve five good serves in as few a tries as possible so that the players can minimize the amount of running they have to do. As they get more proficient you can raise the expectations to 10 good serves. You can require that their serves have to be made in consecutive order as they improve further.

Divide the team into two squads. Both squads line up behind the service line on the same side of the net. The first person in each line has a volleyball. When the coach yells go, they each serve a good serve. Then they have to chase down the ball and return it to the next person in their line who then serves, chases down the ball and returns it to the next player in line until everyone has served, chased and returned. If a player misses their serve they have to chase down the ball and get back in the front of the line to serve again. They first team finished wins.

Divide the team into two squads, one on each side of the net. Both teams start serving. Every time a person misses a serve they have to go lay down on the floor on the side of the net they are serving to. They have to lay flat and cannot sit, crawl or move around. They have to stay there until they are hit by a teammates serve. Then they can rejoin their teammates. The first team to run out of players loses. The kids love this drill and I usually put a 5 minute time limit on it because it very quickly becomes an excuse to just lay down on the court and rest.

The team lines up off the back line of the court and serves one at a time. I put a target on the other side of the court like a chair. The first person who hits the target with a serve gets to pick what drill we end practices with. Since I always end practices with some sort of running drill (suicide relays, etc) they usually are pretty motivated to hit that chair with a serve. As a team they each only get one shot (two if I’m feeling generous) at this, if they all miss, I get to pick the final drill.

That is pretty much the basics for passing and underhand serving as I teach it. If you are a parent and are looking for things to work with your child in the back yard the best thing you can do with them is toss the ball for them to pass it back to you. But remember to move them around. Don’t just throw the ball to them. If the toss is close to them don’t let them reach for it. Get their feet moving. Remember it is always – Move to the ball, set your stance and pass the ball.

Back Yard “Net”
If you have the space in your yard to practice serving but don’t have a net. Get a piece of ¾ inch PVC pipe. Put a 2 foot cross bar on one end, stick the other end in the ground until the cross bar is 7 feet, 4 inches off the ground. This will represent the top of the net. The service line should be 30 feet away from your “net.” To accurately represent the court you should have a 30 foot area to serve into on the other side of your PVC pole. Width should be that critical. A player needs to learn to serve in a straight line. So 10 or 15 feet in width should be plenty.

This simple “net” is also useful for a couple younger players to pass back and forth over.

This article ended up being a lot longer than I planned on. So I will try and write more some other time about teaching beginners how to set and spike.


Jayme said...

Wow, great blogs about volleyball. I have a very similar post up on my blog about coaching vall.
I absolutly love when you said "If you are tired of me telling you to stop bending your elbows, then stop bending your elbows." I feel that exact same way sometimes. I look forward to reading more!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely a great blog...Im an intern and I needed some pointers on how to teach beginners how to play volleball because I had no idea where to start. I've read great ideas in this blog and I just want to say thank you.

Anonymous said...


Tri Valley Volleyball said...

Invaluable post! Starting up a youth volleyball league and was nervous what exactly to do in practice. Thanks for a jumping off point! Keep writing

Alvin said...


Thanks for your tips on underhand serve. I have learnt alot about it thru your blog. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I have a 12-year old daughter who wants to play and can't get on a team. Thanks for the tips I can use to teach her. Right on target for beginning athletes - all in the right spirit of sportsmanship and development.


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Carl said...

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Anonymous said...

Great suggestions! Thank you for the good tips!

Hitting drills said...

Great tips. These volley ball tips can be incorporated into baseball as well!

Anonymous said...

+1 on the Dead Fish game. My 3rd, 4th, and now 5th grade girls continue to love that game.

Diane said...

Great tips! I am a former volleyball player and have coached high school before, but now my third grader is starting and your tips are SO helpful! Thank you for such a wonderful post.

Mallory Grubler said...

this is an awesome and really helpful post. thanks so much !

Anonymous said...

So happy to come across your post, thank you. I just started coaching a grade 6 team - all first time players - and was looking for pointers on how to teach serving to young girls without the muscle development needed for a strong serve. I'm taking away some good how-to ideas from your post, but most importantly, the recognition that I should lower my expectations a little and be day it will click!