Fearlessness: the key to becoming a great hitter

by Jeff Smith

The other day I was assisting one of our middle-school teams at a tournament when one of the outside hitters made a fast, aggressive, confident three-step approach, jumped and pounded a great set with even greater speed and power, with the ball landing about three feet beyond the end line in a deep corner of the court.

As the head referee awarded the point to the opposing team, the outside hitter rolled her eyes and put her head down, frustrated that she attacked the ball out of bounds. Then she looked up at me a bit bewildered, like I had a third eyeball indented into my forehead.

That’s because I was clapping for her and told her “Way to go for it!”

One of the challenges of club volleyball is that we can all become so laser focused on winning the match that player development can take a back seat. When it comes to learning the art of jump hitting — and it is an art form, one of the toughest volleyball skills to master — growing into a good or great hitter requires going for it.

And going for it will sometimes result in hitting errors, especially at the 14U, 13U and 12U levels and even at the 18U and collegiate levels. Stanford All-American outside hitter Kathryn Plummer had 13 hitting errors in the NCAA championship match in December.

If a player wants to develop into a standout hitter, she has to learn the proper technique for hitting, from her transition to her approach footwork and her two-footed jump through her arm swing mechanics. And then she has to work on using those fundamentals in one big, fluid, all-out package while hitting countless sets in practices and matches.

And whether she’s 11 or 18, that hitter needs to work on those skills at full speed.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a time and place to swing safely, or tip instead of use a full swing, or pound the ball to deep zone 6 (middle back) instead of attacking down the line, cross court or at a sharp angle. Or use an off-speed shot (roll shot, cut shot) instead of an assertive full attack.

But those off-speed shots and safe full swings should be the exception, not the rule.

That’s why most coaches cringe when they hear a spectator yell “Just get it in!” after a young hitter pounds a ball out of bounds. Yes, there are times when merely keeping the ball in play is a wise choice, such as when the set is poor — too tight to the net, too far off the net, too far inside the court for an outside hitter or opposite (right-side) hitter or too far outside the court.

But, when the set is good or even decent and the hitter can better the ball (improve the quality of the set) by their footwork and mechanics (technical skills), the hitter needs to hit assertively with a specific purpose in mind. For instance, that may mean hitting down the line when the opposing blockers are trying to take away the middle and cross-court angles, or hitting to the deep cross-court corner when the blockers are trying to defend against attacks down the sideline.

But, for our 12U, 13U and 14U hitters who are just learning the art of hitting, discernment — quickly evaluating and making a split-second decision on how and where to hit based on the quality and location of the set and the defense they are facing — comes second.

Learning to hit with an assertive, fearless, attacking mindset comes first.

This is especially true for fifth- to eighth-grade hitters for a simple reason. The #1 skill they need to master above everything else is fearlessness. Coaches who teach their young hitters first to “just get it in” are doing those players a disservice.

Once a player has had it browbeaten into her that she needs to approach slowly and swing cautiously and safely, that habit becomes ingrained in her and is difficult to break. Unfortunately some coaches teach to just hit the ball safely in-bounds. I’ve coached against those coaches in matches. Sometimes those coaches’ teams win a lot of matches, particularly at the middle-school and grade-school levels, because their opponent is working on teaching their players how to play the game the right way so that their players learn and grow in the sport.

I’ve also inherited players taught by the “safety-first, only-winning-matters” coaches. Those players sometimes end up getting cut or moved to other positions when players who were taught how to actually hit with good technique and an aggressive approach beat them out for roster spots.

It’s much easier for a player to learn — and be encouraged by her coaches and parents — to make her approach quickly, jump explosively and swing fast and free. Establishing a growth mindset and an aggressive attitude will help hitters grow much more in this skill for years to come.

It is very challenging to take a player who has been taught for years to hit meekly and safely to the middle of the court with a safe, moderate-speed arm swing and then try to get her to approach, jump and attack with fearlessness and assertiveness — and only occasionally with select use of off-speed attacks like tips and rolls.

Sadly, many players can never break the safety habit enforced on them in middle school.

Hitters are much more likely to be successful in high school and beyond if they’ve been allowed to and encouraged to learn and apply the proper hitting fundamentals with a let-her-rip attitude.

Sure, it can result in short-term pain for those hitters, their coaches, their teams and their parents as they watch them spray balls out of bounds and in the net some matches. But, if those young hitters remain committed to learning to hit, they’ll reap long-term gains.

An outside hitter I coached in seventh and eighth grade at Serve City was a great athlete with springy legs whom I converted from setter to outside hitter when she showed nice potential hitting from the left pin. Her seventh-grade season she was hit and miss. Some matches she would reel off seven or eight beautiful kills. Other matches she’d rack up more hitting errors than kills.

But she heard the same basic message from me to swing free and focus on performing her mechanics assertively with rare exception (the “third-set-of-the-tournament-finals rule” where it’s OK to sometimes hit off-speed to win the championship, though even then I want my hitters to be in attack mode four times out of five).

In eighth grade she went from inconsistent hitter to one of the top 14U outside hitters in the area, even developing a nasty back-row pipe attack that gave us 3-4 kills per match alone. Her freshman year she made her high school varsity team and started at outside hitter.

The key for her was that she took what she was taught and in practices and applied it in our matches, swinging fearlessly even when her hitting was awry or the score was tight. Her short-term pain in seventh grade became a long-term gain in eighth and ninth grade, and her club teams rang up 37-11 win-loss records largely because of her hitting prowess.

So yes, learning the technical skills for hitting is important. But the most critical skill of all to becoming a good hitter is mental. Developing the fearless, assertive mindset of a hitter is what separates great and good hitters from those who are sub-par and mediocre.

And great hitters keep pushing themselves.

They're never satisfied with the status quo, always looking to take the next step in their development.

Once they learn and refine their basic hitting technique, these hitters work on hitting specific locations on the court (also known as lines of power).

Once they are able to run (approach) and hit in a straight line (down the sideline, cross court, sharp angle), they work on mastering their hand placement on the ball. They figure out hitting the bottom of the ball gives them loft for hitting over blockers and hitting the top of the ball drives the ball downward. Now they are able to control the height of their hits.

Then they work on how their hitting hand finishes, specifically "thumb down" and "thumb up." If they hit from outside and are right-handed, finishing their arm swing with their thumb up enables them to cut the ball down the sideline; finishing thumb down cuts the ball across the court to the corner or even the short angle.

Now they are able to control how to hit the ball off their line of power to the left or the right.

Hitters then learn how to look one way and hit the opposite direction to fool the blockers and diggers, and the process continues for the hitter who wants to be great.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls volleyball director.