Written by Jim Miret, FRVBC HEAD COACH
THERE IS NO DENYING that volleyball when played well is one of the most exciting spectator sports around. It’s thrilling to watch as players combine high levels of athleticism and skill with the execution of complex tactics in a team setting. The highest levels of volleyball require the expression of truly athletic qualities such as power, explosiveness, agility, quickness and dynamic movements.
So why are so many coaches training the athleticism out of volleyball? I realize that this topic is taboo among many coaches and professionals in the volleyball scene, but it is important nonetheless and warrants an investigation if we truly want to continue to grow our sport and foster the expression of athleticism in our game.
Many of us learn best by doing, so before I continue I want you to try an experiment to illustrate my point. After a quick warmup, take a standing position with your toes slightly behind a sideline. Have a friend or colleague give you a ready, set … go, and from that standing position sprint about five yards. Done? Great! Now ask yourself these questions: What did your body do to move? What did your feet do to move your body?
If you weren’t paying attention to your body positioning or movements, try the sprint again. This time, pay particular attention to the movements your body utilizes to transition from standing upright to sprinting across the sideline.
You can also try this experiment with the athletes on your team. Line them up on a sideline and have them perform the same task, and be sure to film them. The falsehood of the “false or negative step” From that standing position a few things probably happened to engage the sprint. First, your body leaned in the direction you wanted to move. Next, your hips loaded (dropped slightly) to help you generate power. Lastly, one of your feet stepped back to help drive you forward. Take a look at the film of your team sprinting across the sideline. It’s probable that most of your players performed similar movements to complete the five-yard sprint. In this instance our bodies are making adaptations to move quickly and powerfully. (Side note: I don’t think our bodies always select the most mechanically efficient way to move. Just pick up a set of golf clubs for the first time and go play 18 holes with no instruction and no practice, and you will see what I mean.)
When we want to sprint forward from a standing position we usually see one foot drop in the opposite direction of the movement to help propel us forward. Many coaches call this a “false step” or a “negative step” and believe that any movement away from the direction you want to travel is wasted movement and should be avoided.
In my experience as a coach and my many consultations with movement experts, I have learned that this “jab” or “drop” step actually puts the body in the most powerful position to move as it engages the stretchshortening cycle of our muscles, and gets our foot behind our center of gravity so we can drive in the direction we want to travel. According to Dalton Oliver, a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Central Florida, athletes who maximize the stretch-shortening cycle of their muscles are able to generate more speed and power in their movements, and changing direction is a primary example of using the stretchshortening cycle to increase power. According to Oliver: “If you watch a tennis player during a volley, a pitcher during a windup or an MMA fighter before he launches a powerful blow, all of them create movement in the opposite direction first to recruit more power from the SSC.”1 This results in the expression of a more powerful and explosive movement, which we know is an important component in playing high-level volleyball.
Still unsure of the science? Let’s apply these ideas directly to the sport of volleyball, using the skill of blocking as our frame of reference. Do the same five-yard sprint experiment, this time with your body parallel to the net. On the count of three, turn to your right and sprint about five yards. What did your body do that time? I’ll bet if I were filming your movement I would see your hips drop, a quick drop-step and your body leaning into the movement.
It’s common practice around the United States for coaches to teach their blockers to take one big step when blocking to cover a lot of ground quickly. And why not – this makes sense to some degree. I want my blocker to make a blocking move to the left, so I will teach her to take a big step in the direction she wants to move. In order to compare the big step to the drop-step it’s important to consider the criteria we use to evaluate the effectiveness of the movement. Is it most important that my blocker simply makes it to her blocking assignment, or is it more important that she get there with speed and agility? We must consider if this big step is the most effective use of movement. Does the big step blocking footwork allow my blocking move to be powerful and dynamic? My experience and conversations with movement experts tells me no.
Support of the big step over the drop-step in blocking is rational thinking, but not informed coaching. While I am training my blockers to move and cover ground with the big step, I am also programming their movements to be slow. Instead, why not train players to drop or jab step in the opposite direction they want to move to create a more powerful, quick and dynamic movement.
I often hear coaches tell players to keep their feet still, or to be stopped on defense. This type of instruction will only make the players’ reaction to the ball slower because it is not engaging the stretch-shortening cycle. Getting my feet to be still or stopped is nothing that we observe in top-level international volleyball or professional tennis players as they prepare to react to the ball. At this point in the article you might be thinking to yourself, “This information is great; I follow your logic, but I don’t think I can execute this with my team.” If you are thinking this, you’re not alone.
As a fellow coach, I fully understand the limits we all face as coaches. Too often we are short on time and can’t introduce new and complex topics to our teams, and in some cases we lack the high-level athletes to execute those complex skills. Is a drop-step or split-step movement a complex skill to teach and learn? Absolutely. However, not training a skill because I don’t think I have the athletes to correctly execute the move is like preventing my child from participating in track because I don’t think she will be an Olympic sprinter in the future.
Simply stated, the first obstacle to achievement is often ourselves, not those external factors we worry so much about. As coaches, it’s our responsibility to select training and drills that will maximize the level of our athletes (whatever level that might be), and not to dumb down our instruction to the perceived level of our athletes’ ability. If I train my players to execute a split-step movement pattern when they pass and defend, I’ve just made them faster and more dynamic than they were before. Are they now magically faster or more dynamic than the best volleyball players in the world? Likely not. But, they are certainly better than they were yesterday – which means I’ve done my job.
Volleyball requires explosive and quick movements. The human body will move quickest when we allow the body to use the stretch-shortening cycle of the muscles – this is scientifically proven. These are not “wasted” or “false” movements. The jab step, pre-hop, drop-step and split-step are essential footwork patterns that we can teach players to engage their athleticism to create dynamic movements in many parts of the game. We must move in order to move.
Oliver, Dalton. “Why You Need to Understand the Stretch-Shortening Cycle.” http://www.stack.com/a/stretch-shortening-cycle. 9 June 2014.