by Jeff Smith
Of all the skills I’ve taught over the years — blocking, serving, footwork patterns, passing, setting, hitting, digging and various specialty skills — the one skill that draws the most fear and trepidation from players is easily diving, digging and rolling.
No other skill comes close.
Whenever I’ve introduced this skill or reviewed it with players, no matter their age level, most athletes initially react with nervousness. In fact, the ones who dive into the skill — no pun intended — with gusto are usually the players who either play in the back row in matches or who eventually become liberos, defensive specialists or six-rotation players.
The willingness and ability to effectively dive and dig is only a small portion of back-row play. But it is an essential portion indeed, especially at the 15U to 18U levels and in college. Wheaton College’s libero dove at least several times every match this past fall and sometimes up to a dozen times or more in longer matches.
Simply put, you can’t be a truly successful back row player if you aren’t able to dive and dig.
This is why we devoted a large chunk of two 14U, 15U, 16U and 18U practices this season to teaching and practicing this skill. In future seasons, we will devote a monthly segment of practice time to learning and sharpening this skill in all its various forms.
Effective diving and digging starts with proper technique. A successful back-row digger or off-blocker needs to master a few important fundamentals:
Down and ready defensive position (a low, athletic posture with a wide base and low hips and her chin slightly ahead of her knees and her knees slightly ahead of her toes)
Bent at the ankles
Weight on the balls of her feet and the inside of her feet
We then start by learning the most basic dive and dig move: a one-step maneuver where the defender keeps her hips low (“under the ball”) so that she can dive flat and parallel to the floor and steps with her right foot if the ball is in front of her and to her right. She extends her platform forward and under the ball as she dives forward — again, as parallel as possible to the floor both for her safety and so she can scoop the ball up in the air with her platform.
After she dives and digs the ball up in the air (preferably anywhere to the middle of the court) and then her body goes to the floor, the defender lands on her side (not on her chest). This is crucial. Far too many female players dive and land on their chest, which is not a safe maneuver. Landing on their side is critical for their long-term safety in avoiding injury.
The digger keeps her right knee bent, rolls over her right side and then uses her right foot (specifically the right toes) to plant into the ground and propel her quickly up so that she can finish in down and ready defensive posture. Volleyball is a game of explosiveness where every second counts. Moving quickly and decisively is vital. It can be the difference between being prepared to make the next play and being slightly too late to execute that next play.
(One of my pet phrases is that great defense is about “being in the right place at the right time using the right technique with the right amount of effort.”)
Keeping the defender’s right knee bent as she rolls over her side is key. The bent knee allows her to plant her right foot and spring up fast back to her feet so that she’s ready to either cover one of her hitters, hustle to play a third contact over the net, be prepared to approach and attack the third contact if it’s set to her or recover quickly back to her base defensive position ready to defend again.
Dive into a variety of dives
Learning to dive, dig and roll takes hours of focused practice. There are numerous types of dives and rolls as well as several different scenarios to master. Here are just a few:
Digging, diving and rolling to cover tips or block touches in front of you and slightly to your right using a one-step dive
Diving to dig a ball that is short, in front and slightly to your left using a one-step dive
Diving and digging a ball farther in front of you using a two-step dive (left step, right step, dig, dive and roll for a ball to your right or right step-left step for a ball to your left)
Dives and one-armed digs
Dives into pancake digs, such as this pancake
Diving and digging balls directly to your right and left
Is diving and digging glamorous? Not to many people, though to most coaches a well-executed dive and dig is a work of art. It is an essential skill in a good defender’s toolkit, and the sooner you learn this skill and can perform it with excellence and discernment (when to dive and when to simply read the hitter and move and stay on your feet to dig the ball) in matches, the better off you’ll be and the more successful your team’s defense will be.
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.