Why a hitting machine won't help you learn how to hit

by David Cordes

Ten years ago, before I ever heard of motor learning, specificity or the most effective transfer of skills through game-like training, I built a ball holder out of PVC and a couple of pieces of pool noodle. The kids on my team loved it. Stick a ball in it, hold it up in front of the net and let the middle-school girls approach, jump, swing and hit the ball over the net. They looked great. They loved it, I loved it, the parents loved it.

Then we went to a game, and we couldn't hit a ball over the net to save our lives. We would pass, set and our hitters would stand there, watch the ball flying through the air until it got close enough to them so they could roll shot or shot-put swing at it. 

So the next week we spent even more time hitting off my ball holder. And the changes in my players were amazing. I felt like a genius.

Then we went to our next game. And we still could not attack a ball. No approaches, no jumps, lousy swings by kids that just stood there staring at the ball and waiting until it got too close to them to swing at it in any positive way.

So we went back to hitting off the ball holder even more.

Then a miracle happened.

I was holding the ball holder for a girl to hit, and another girl decided to practice her serving. She cranked a ball over the net and smacked the ball holder right in one of the joints and snapped it like a piece of cheap 3/4-inch PVC pipe. I didn't have anything to fix it with at practice, so I set it aside and started using my setter instead. (No, I didn't put her on my shoulders and tell her to hold a ball out there for them to hit. But I briefly considered it.)

For the rest of the season, the broken ball holder laid in my garage waiting for me to fix it. But I was busy. So we kept using our passers and setters to practice hitting. But it was ugly and frustrating, and we all hated it. Well, except the girls who were setting and passing at practice instead of standing in line waiting to hit.

Then we played our third game of the season. And we actually attacked the ball. Not a lot, but a couple of times each game I saw a girl actually approach, jump and swing at a ball that was set to her. The next week we practiced hitting off a setter even more, and we hit a couple of more balls than before in our next match.

After we won the next match, one of the parents mentioned that we were hitting a lot better. His daughter told him, "Coach built this great thing out of white pipe, and it is making us a lot better." Except that we hadn't used it for a while. It was broken.

In the end I never fixed it. I reused the PVC on some other project or my sprinkler system. And a couple of years later, I discovered why we didn't miss it, either. 

If I had a pile of money to spend on my program, an Accu-Spike hitting machine would be the LAST thing I would ever buy. Right after a serving machine. Sure, if I had one, I would use it a little, early on, to let the kids feel what it's like to jump and swing at a ball. I would be negligent to not try to use every tool available to me to see if it helps. But after a couple of swings at a ball hung on a stationary machine, I would take the machine away from them and make them actually learn how to hit a volleyball that is moving through the air. That's the best way to learn how to hit at any level.

David Cordes is a long-time coach and club director for Ridgecrest Starlings Volleyball Club.