3 Tips to Become an Effective Beach Volleyball Setter

by Tim Maruyama

"Well, I'm not a setter!"

What’s typically the first question you are asked when you tell a friend you play volleyball? You've got it! “What position do you play?”.

Specialization is nothing new to the sport, but over the last several years we have seen a significant shift in philosophy. Coaches often think that you need to train in a specific position at the age of 11 if you want to play in high school. As this trend continues, we lose something. We lose the six-rotation players. We lose the out-of-system plays. We lose the interest of new players who don’t fit “The Mold”.

The biggest counter to this trend is the sun, the sand, the wind, and your best friend: beach volleyball.

Never "been a setter" before? Here are three tips to become an effective setter without using your hands.

Learn how to read
On the beach, you have several elements you need to “read” every second of every play. Let’s just focus on a few. The attack is coming over and you see it’s not going to you but to your partner. You have now read the angle of the attack and are focused on the angle of your partner’s platform and the ball quickly approaching her. In a fraction of a second, you decide which direction to start heading.

As the ball is starting to soar in the air off your partner's platform, you are now reading where you are in relation to the ball, the net, and your partner. You look up to keep tracking it while battling the sun and the wind to better the ball. You take a second to peak over the net to see what’s going on. Glance back at your partner to see how she is transitioning and if she called a specific set and then try to find the ball again.

There is so much to think about on every play that it’s important to learn how to see from the eyes of a trained setter. Pick one element to read next time you are setting.

Move your feet
I’m sure you have heard this phrase a million times, but it can’t be emphasized enough. While setting up your partner requires a good platform or great beach hands, it's significantly more important to have great footwork. In the sand it’s much harder to move, so we are forced to explode out of the pit of sand we have wedged into with every step. Many players make the mistake of waiting and watching. Don’t be that player. Be the player that explodes in a direction way before they “need” to. 

This is different than when your coach or parent is standing on the sidelines yelling “Talk, talk, talk.” I’m not talking about the times when the ball drops between you and your partner because you forgot to say “Mine”. As a doubles player, there is so much going on that communication makes a world of difference.

It’s important to talk because teaching is the best way of learning, and muscle memory is enhanced when multiple senses are associated with it. As a doubles partner, the more you tell each other what you are seeing the easier it will be to make good reads and the earlier you will know to explode and move your feet.

As a coach in the sand and indoors I hear people lean on this phrase all the time: “Well … I’m not a setter.” It is often said to save face when an error is made, but that simple phrase tells us so much about the culture we have created in our gyms. Athletes quickly learn on the sand that you do not get that option of an excuse anymore. You have to be the best libero, setter and attacker every play.

3 Placement Shots That Will Power Your Team's Scoring

by Alex Hurlburt

Not able to jump up and pound the ball through the floor on every set? Yeah, me neither. Thankfully, you do not have to be over six feet tall and be able to fly in the sand to be successful!

In beach volleyball, it is often said that placement is more important than power. Now, before going into this idea, I must point out that having placement AND power is obviously the ideal, but this is not as necessary in the sand as it is indoors. Often, a well-placed ball will do the trick, even if hitting in some of the most inopportune of circumstances.

Because of the larger square footage that each player must cover in sand compared to indoor, it is much easier to earn points by forcing opponents to have to move to dig a ball. Many shots that are easy conversions for an indoor team -- such as a roll shot over the block or a short pass over the net -- become difficult for a sand team to dig.

Check out these three placement shots and see if you can add one or two to your offensive repertoire:

Deep ball
If the opponents are forced close to the net -- possibly to dig a short set or tip off the block -- it can be a good idea to send a ball deep toward the end line. It is harder to move backward than forward, and this shot will often render your opponents unable to return it. 

Short roll over the block
When the opponent has a block up on the net, consider rolling a ball directly over the block and towards the side of the court that the defender is not. Even if this shot has a high trajectory, it is often difficult for the defender to cover as much ground as is necessary before the ball drops behind the block.

Short poke
If your opponents are not setting up a block and are playing defense deep in their court, try to see an opportunity to poke or pass a ball short over the net. This shot can often earn its own point many times, or it can set up an opportunity to take advantage of an opposing player getting stuck close to the net by sending a pass or roll to the vacated deep area of the opponent's court.

4 Steps to Prepare for Your First Beach Tournament

by Jeff Smith

Nearly all of the 100 athletes participating in Serve City's beach volleyball program this summer are new to the sport. As a rookie to beach, that is most likely both exciting and a little scary to you at the same time!

And that's totally fine and to be expected. You'll be in good company at our tournaments, as the other first-year Serve City beach players will be in the same boat as you.

Hopefully all of you will be signing up for a Serve City beach tournament in the next few days. Beach practices are great for you in many ways, but practicing without playing in an actual tournament is like practicing for several weeks for a school musical and yet never taking the stage to perform for a live audience. I encourage you to register for a tournament and just go for it. It'll be a terrific experience that will stretch and grow you as a volleyball athlete.

If you're new to beach tournaments, you probably have a long list of questions. That's normal in any new activity. Here are four insights about beach tournaments and how you can prepare for them that will put you at ease about entering a Serve City tournament this month.

1. Get your body ready

July is typically one of the two hottest months of the year. Prepare yourself physically as if the weather for that day's tournament is going to be 90 degrees and humid.

  • Drink lots of water and sport drink the day before the tournament. The average person needs 64 ounces of water a day. To gear up for the tournament, drink 80.
  • Carb up. Eat a healthy pasta dinner for dinner and a good breakfast the morning of the tournament. If you need to eat gluten free, eat meals that will fuel up your body for a full day of physical exertion.
  • Get a great night's sleep. Get to bed early and sleep for 9 to 10 hours to energize you for the tourney.
  • Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, a visor and plenty of sport drink and energy or granola bars for tournament day. Be ready for everything.

2. Know the rules beforehand

We've covered the rules, regulations and differences between beach and indoor volleyball in practice. For a quick refresher on the main rules, click here to read the Great Lakes Region's beach volleyball rules of play for Chicago-area tournaments. Read these standards a few times before your first tournament so that you're familiar with them and won't be caught off guard by anything.

3. Come up with a basic team strategy with your partner

Earlier in the week, spend a few minutes talking with your partner about your team strategy. Come to agreement on some basic tactics your team will follow, such as:

  • Who will be the captain for rock-paper-scissors to determine serve and side before the match?
  • Who will play on the left side of the court and who will play on the right? The left-side player is usually the stronger hitter of the team, while the right-side player is generally the better setter. (This can change if one of you is left-handed. Southpaws usually play on the right side of the court.)
  • Who will serve first for your team in each match?
  • If you're a high school-age team, will you position a blocker at the net, and who will it be?
  • If an opponent's serve splits the two of you, who will take the 50-50 ball? (If one of you is clearly a better serve receiver, a good strategy would be for that player to automatically take all serves that split the middle of the court.)
  • Where do you and your partner hit best from on the court? If one of you is small, you'll probably be more successful hitting sets that are seven to 10 feet off the net or farther.
  • What are your partner's strengths as a hitter? Are they best at hitting jump spikes cross-court or down the line, or do they excel more at hitting standing roll shots that frustrate opponents by landing in the short area of the court? What are your hitting strengths? The more you know about each other's strengths and weaknesses, the more you'll be able to play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses as a team.
  • Where do you and your partner most effectively serve to on the court? Knowing this will help each of you choose the right zone serving hand signals to relay to your partner when serving. For instance, is your partner better at serving to the deep end of the court, the seams or the short portion? Use your partner's strengths when signaling where to serve.
  • How will the two of you determine when to call timeouts? Teams can use up to two timeouts per set. You don't have a coach, so it's up to you and your partner to figure out when to call a timeout. As food for thought, do you purposely save them for the end of each set to ice the opposing server in a tight set, or do you immediately call one early on if your team gives up X number of consecutive points?

4. Focus on your play and the experience, not on the score

Beach volleyball tournaments are very competitive, but they're not nearly as intense as club or school tournaments. The more laid-back atmosphere helps bring out the best in most beach competitors. Play to win, of course, but keep your focus on your responsibilities and your team's strategy and don't give the scoreboard a second thought. In fact, that won't be difficult because most beach tournaments don't even have a scoreboard! There's just a third team along the sidelines, notebook in hand, keeping a running score for you.

The coaching term for this is focusing on the process of playing the game instead of the outcome of the match. The nice thing is, when you just concentrate on playing each rally as well as you can, the score of the game takes care of itself. Enjoy the opportunity you have to play a fantastic sport with a good friend for a partner and the growth you are experiencing as a volleyball player by participating in a beach tournament, developing your all-around skills and improving your quickness, leaping ability and overall athleticism.

Go all-out, celebrate every good play your team makes, have fun and, win or lose, be proud of yourself for accepting the challenge of playing a new sport and stretching yourself in a new way.

The Most Important Skill in Beach Volleyball

by Jeff Smith

My father was a college professor who holds a doctorate in economics, so education was extremely important in my house growing up. One lesson that Dad passed down to me was the value of reading. He preached that reading and reading comprehension were the number one key to excelling in academics. He taught my siblings and me that if you developed good reading skills, you could be successful in any class in school no matter how difficult the course.

In beach volleyball, the same lesson holds true with serve receive. If you and your partner can consistently handle any opponent's serve with accurate passing and ball control, you can compete with and defeat any team you face in a beach doubles tournament. Serve receive is easily the most critical -- and most challenging -- skill in the sport. It is even more essential than in indoor volleyball since you and your partner must cover your entire side of the court. The team that better controls the ball controls the game.

Here are five steps you and your partner can take to become reliable serve receivers in any tournament:

1. Keep improving your passing techniques

The more refined you can make your passing skills, the more effective you'll be at serve receive. As valuable as determination and effort are, they can't cover up for poor passing fundamentals. Work constantly on improving your passing form, from your feet (slightly wider than your shoulders, weight on the balls of your feet, right foot slightly ahead of your left, move your feet to the ball so you can usually pass the ball in front of your body) to your head (keep it stable with your eyes always alert). Work hard to face the server with your body and to get your body and platform into the path of the serve early, preferably before the serve crosses the net. And always finish by freezing or holding your platform pointed at your target for a full second when passing ahead for your partner to set.

Refining your skills starts in your practices as well as your work outside of practice. Good practice habits will help you grow in this area. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.

2. Study the server

Knowing where an opponent's serve is likely to go is half the battle in serve receive. Watch the server closely. Where are they serving from: the right or left sides of the end line or somewhere in the middle? What type of serve do they use: jump topspin, jump float, standing spin, standing float or underhand? Watch their toss -- if it goes in front of their serving shoulder, their serve is more likely to go straight ahead of them; if the toss goes in front of their face or non-serving shoulder, the serve is probably going to head cross court.

Pay attention to their arm swing and steps, too. They'll give you clues if the serve is going short, deep or another location; for instance, a slower arm swing frequently leads to a shorter serve. Take a few seconds during pre-match warmups to observe the other team serving to give you some key information leading into the match, too.

3. Develop a serve receive strategy with your partner

As you practice with your partner, have honest conversations with one another about serve receive. Who passes serves more accurately? You may want to place that player on the left side of the court, where more serves tend to travel due to more players being right-handed servers. If you're both similarly skilled receivers, you still need to figure out how you'll handle serves to the middle of the court between you.

Most teams determine who will take "50-50" serves sent into the middle seam based on where the serve comes from, with the passer standing cross court from the server stepping into the seam to receive those serves. However, some teams make this more clear-cut by choosing one player to always take the serve that splits the middle seam. This can be a smart strategy because it takes all the guesswork out of the decision.

4. Face as many live serves as you can

The more gamelike serves you and your partner receive, the more you'll get used to the speed and movement of live serving and the easier those serves will seem in tournaments. Facing countless actual serves makes the game slow down for you so that hard-driven serves seem slower and more manageable.

Whenever you get a chance, play against the toughest teams and servers you can find. Face great servers who will stretch you out of your comfort zone and force you to make adjustments and refine your all-around serve receive skills. Even seek out different styles of servers to receive against: jump servers, standing servers, float serves and topspin serving.

The more challenging the servers you compete with, the better you'll get. Their serving skill will prepare you to take on the hardest servers a tournament can throw at you so that you aren't surprised or caught off guard by any server.

5. Create a serve receive process

The best female serve receiver in America is Kayla Banwarth, the starting libero for the U.S. women's national volleyball team. Kayla has developed a simple process to help her receive serves from the best servers in the world. She uses the same routine for every serve she passes in practices and matches. Her hands start on her knees. As the server tosses the ball, she straightens her body posture into an upright position and she lets out a big exhale. If she is struggling, Kayla says to herself, "Kayla, you're a great passer when you HOLD -- when I freeze my platform after contact, the ball usually goes to its target, the setter."

Like Kayla, create a process that is short, sweet, easy to remember and prompts some sort of positive reaction from your mind and body.

How playing volleyball outdoors will help your game indoors

by Jeff Smith

My older daughter, Jessica, played setter for three years in middle school. My wife and I have hundreds of photos of her setting her teammates for attacks. But, at just 4 feet 11 inches tall, she wasn't confident that she had much of a future at the position in high school.

The summer after eighth-grade graduation, Jessica and her sister joined a beach volleyball program that dramatically altered her volleyball career path. The girls quickly grew to enjoy sand volleyball, entering a slew of area tournaments and playing in practices and recreationally every chance they got. Jessica especially loved the opportunity to serve receive, defend and pursue balls all over the court. Sand soon became a mainstay in our bathtub that summer!

By the time her first year of beach volleyball had ended, Jessica's quickness, court coverage and passing and ball-control skills had markedly improved, convincing her to try out for the public high school's freshman A volleyball team at a new position as a libero/defensive specialist. She made the team, became their starting libero and has started at libero for her school and club teams ever since ... all while continuing to hit the sand courts for the last three summers.

And this new path began during a beach volleyball class in West Chicago.

Not every volleyball athlete will undergo the drastic change in their career trajectory that Jessica did. But, if your son or daughter works diligently at their beach game in the weeks ahead, they will see skill development that will translate to their indoor volleyball experience, whether they play for a club, school or park district program. When kids get serious about beach volleyball, it makes a significant impact on their all-around skills, understanding of the game and even their speed and athleticism on the court. After spending seven weeks this summer getting to do it all in beach volleyball -- serve, pass, set, hit, dig, block and play the ball every other contact -- transitioning to a specialized role as a middle blocker, opposite or outside hitter, defensive specialist, setter or libero in six-player indoor volleyball is a considerable adjustment; the indoor game can seem slower and even less enjoyable by comparison.

But don't just take my word for it. John Kessel, USA Volleyball director of beach volleyball, is far wiser about the sport's benefits than I am. Mr. Kessel recently wrote, "The beach game is GREAT for improving your indoor game. Whatever your weaknesses are, you get to work on them a ton. Unlike the six-person (indoor) game, you touch the ball in every rally. And with just two of you covering the court, you learn to read and anticipate much better. Dealing with the sun and wind helps you be more adaptable. Player height is less important outdoors; ball control and skill is most important. It is a great way to improve your jump, as there are just two of you to block and hit every rally, and communicating effectively is essential in the sport. Most top-level coaches encourage their players to play as much as they can on the beach."

Like anything worthwhile in life, beach volleyball isn't easy. But as the old saying goes, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Here's to putting our hearts into learning, growing, making mistakes, failing, succeeding and making progress over the next five weeks!