The day I realized I was failing my team

by Jeff Smith

My second year as a volleyball coach felt like a dream season for someone who was new to the sport. Our team had run off a 19-3 record that broke the school record for single-season wins, helping turn our small school into a volleyball-crazed institution where every home match became a must-see event and where our players were heroes to the younger students on campus.

After a long string of straight-set victories, it felt like we could do no wrong.

That is, until Geneva opened my eyes in the first round of the conference tournament.

The Vikings played a style of volleyball like no other team we had faced all season. In short, they were a hitting machine. They jump spiked from every area of the court: front row, back row, left side, right side and middle. Their offense was in attack mode the entire match. They made their share of hitting errors, bombing a number of spikes out of bounds, into the net and even occasionally off a gym wall.

But their coach never seemed bothered by their hitting errors. His facial expression never changed. After each hitting mistake he would simply crack a small smile, clap a couple of times and encourage his team to keep swinging, keep being aggressive.

By contrast, my team's success was predicated on defense, ball control and consistent serving. Trying to block and dig Geneva's barrage of hits put us on the defensive all match. To our team's credit, the girls fought valiantly and hung tight with Geneva for three thrilling sets before the Vikings prevailed 26-24 in the decisive final set. But our style of play paled in comparison to Geneva's. I spent very little time in practice working with my players on jump hitting. My philosophy was to teach consistent use of three contacts but with a focus on delivering safe standing spikes, minimizing mistakes, keeping the ball in play, avoiding risk and waiting for our opponent to commit fatal errors that gave us points.

This formula for success produced gaudy results -- we won 19 of our first 22 matches, after all. But after the match I felt like I had let my players down in one critical area: They weren't prepared for jump hitting, not to mention setting to jump hitters, at a higher level. And jump hitting is one of the most important, and exciting, skills to learn in our sport because 1) it is one of the most essential elements in the high school and collegiate game and 2) it takes so many years to acquire, refine and master.

It suddenly occurred to me that most of my eighth-grade players would now go to high school tryouts in August with minimal teaching, skills or experience in how to execute a jump spike of any kind. They would be at a competitive disadvantage as they vied for limited spots on the freshman or JV teams. And the biggest culprit for this lack of training was none other than me.

I no longer felt like we could do no wrong, either. Geneva had revealed to me the kind of style that was slowly emerging across the sport. From that point on, I became committed to teaching the full game to my teams, with a strong emphasis on hitting. I wanted every player to come through my program learning how to jump hit and how to set to a hitter as well, no matter if they were 6 feet tall or 4 feet 9.

This one match with Geneva transformed my coaching philosophy for the next 17 seasons and continues influencing me today. Now opposing teams see my teams the way I saw the Vikings umpteen seasons ago. Many teams are more skilled at hitting than our teams, and my teams sometimes rack up hitting errors at an alarming rate -- we had 27 jump hitting errors in one two-set match back in January -- but few teams are more committed to jump hitting at every opportunity, and from anywhere on the court, as we are. The players themselves love it, and, truth be told, I think most of the opposing players they face are envious of the freedom they get to approach, jump and swing.

If you're a parent who would love to see your daughter develop jump hitting skills, or a coach who wants to teach and instill a hitting mentality on your team, or an athlete who longs to learn how to jump hit or grow into a consistent jump hitter, the only thing stopping your daughter or players from achieving this goal is making the commitment to doing this.

And yes, it is a commitment. It won't magically happen in one 10-minute session of hitting lines. It won't become reality by having someone mindlessly underhand toss balls for your hitters to pound into the court. And it won't take place if your coach or your dad or mom wince and mutter "just get it in" every time you hit a ball into the net or out of bounds.

But hitting skills will slowly, methodically and gradually emerge if you take a few necessary steps, including:

  1. Learning and practicing jump hitting from day 1 of practice
  2. Learning and practicing jump hitting from the front and back rows
  3. Working on jump hitting off live (and yes, both good and bad) sets
  4. Working on jump hitting in game-like drills and situations
  5. Living with the inevitable growing pains of a high volume of hitting errors
  6. Making the training of jump hitting as important to your team's development as passing, serving and setting

From the first day of practice for each season we introduce and work on the approach, footwork, technique, torque, timing and arm swing necessary to jump hit from any spot in the front and back rows using both a two-step and three-step approach. We treat jump hitting as a skill that is every bit as vital to the game as passing, serving, setting and digging. In fact, with my teams jump hitting is considered so crucial to my athletes' development that I also teach most of them how to jump serve largely because the footwork and arm swing used in jump serving is so similar to their jump hitting approach and arm swing.

In a nutshell, jump hitting is like a muscle; it'll only get stronger, leaner, healthier and better conditioned when you regularly exercise it. We practice jump hitting in small court games, half-court games and full-court scrimmages. During our game-like drills a rally won using a down-ball, or standing, hit doesn't even earn a point. In matches one of our team goals is to compile at least twice as many hitting attempts as our opponent.

And we train hitting as one piece of a total package. Hitting ultimately shouldn't be learned in isolation but in concert with setting, passing and even blocking. When we want to work on our jump hitting skills, we practice jump hitting off live sets, not off coach tosses. And those live sets are practiced by receiving passes from teammates, not perfect tosses from a coach. And, in most circumstances, those passes from teammates are delivered off free balls, soft hits or sometimes serves over the net from teammates competing against them. And, as often as possible, our hitters jump hit against one or two blockers in the game-like drills and games we play.

These game-like settings help our hitters, setters and passers develop the total skills they need to hit, set and pass against live competition. Our hitters learn how to read sets and adjust their footwork, approaches, jumps and arm swings to a wide variety of sets -- some sets of which are too far off the net, or too tight to the net, or too high, or too low, or too close to the antenna or too far inside the court. Just as a good shooter in basketball needs to learn how to shoot jump shots off both good and bad passes, and a wide receiver in football needs to learn how to catch a range of passes, a successful jump hitter must learn the art of taking a bad set and delivering a decent hit or taking a mediocre set and delivering a good hit.

Jump hitting takes an inordinate amount of practice, sweat, failure, time, frustration and effort, especially at the middle-school and freshman/15s levels. It's tempting to just push off the heavy lifting of learning or teaching this skill to an athlete's next coach or next team. But, for those athletes and coaches who decide to dedicate themselves to learning or teaching this craft, it's an investment that will pay tremendous dividends -- not necessarily that season, though many times it does pay off in a matter of weeks, but definitely for the athlete's future.

And it is one of the most rewarding and exciting skills in our sport. Just today I received an email from the director of the tournament my team played in on Saturday that lauded the girls for being such a fun team to watch. A mom from another Serve City team came up to me between matches on Saturday to share how she makes it a point to head over to our court to watch the team play when her daughter's team isn't playing.

The Geneva Vikings deserve the credit for compliments like those.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.