On passing the ball

Coaching volleyball is often predicated on the idea that the different strategic touches on the ball (“passing”, “setting”, “attacking”) are modular skills that can be independently practiced that then integrate into a seamless activity in within game scenarios. This model is inherently flawed, with plenty of exceptions, but so dominate volleyball coaching practice that it’s difficult to even discuss teaching the game without this breakdown.
Let’s consider passing just for the sake of this discussion – which is the first contact after the serve. A lot of attention is placed on the form the passer takes, the angle of the “platform”, how long they hold, whether the ball is contacted midline or not. But these are imposed motor solutions that can distract from the main point, which is to provide the team with an attack opportunity. Coaches often focus on the individual – the “passer” – just at the point of contact, when effective and efficient passing is a coordinated team effort. Decisions are made, and consequences happen. Those are the true lessons that get obfuscated by emphasis on canonical movement solutions, and can slow team coordination.

Suggestions

  • Avoid ableist language. Using terms like “use both hands” excludes differently abled individuals, and reinforces the idea that the game is only for certain privileged people.
  • Encourage perception of the moment. Watching externally, try to account for situations that are outside of the player’s attentional focus. Keeping eyes on the ball dilutes the available attention. Players who watch the ball continuously cannot spare the attention to coordinate with the teammates, and this is not solved by verbalization. But it can sweep the problem under the rug. Embrace the challenge of developing perception.
  • Bring barriers to success down. Most commonly, passing is thought of as being done right one way, with infinite ways of doing it wrong. Every pass is good, most of them are good enough. Allow the team to figure out the challenge of making the play.
  • Have a plan. Touch the ball with intent. Most training is so focused on that point of contact that it becomes the metric of success, even if that contact actually results in the loss of the rally. Involve the player in the complete outcome. After the pass, now what? Exploring perceptual solutions usually start with a high rate of failure, but that learning leads to an abundant range of transferable strategies.
  • Develop autonomous validation. Players often have to look to the coach to check if they did it right. Provide them with criteria, and encourage them to judge for themselves. Ultimately, it’s about making it easier for the next person to touch the ball. Bringing the ball to a spot on the court only matters if someone on the team needs it there.

Unorthodox passing techniques can appear clumsy, but it contributes to versatility – which makes for a team that is more difficult to defend against.

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