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.