See it, Pass it
Written by GMS Advisory Staff Member Ron Larsen

During my tenure as an Assistant Coach with the USA Men’s Team, I often had the opportunity to talk to Hugh McCutcheon about what were the most important skills for our players in our quest to win a Gold Medal in Beijing. Unequivocally, Hugh always said, “The premiere skill is the ability to see and read the game.” Research in this area further substantiates this opinion. “Expert batsmen, like experts from other striking sports, provide the impression of having ‘all the time in the world’ despite performing their skill under several challenging constraints” (Abernethy, 1981).

Additionally, volleyball is a ‘visual-motor’ sport with an emphasis on the ‘visual’. Visual motor skills refer to the players’ ability to coordinate vision with the movement of the body or our motor programs. Vision is involved in all of our movements in volleyball. It is important that we understand that vision is a component of all the skill areas, and particularly the coordination between the eyes, arms, and hands.

According to statistical studies conducted by Dr. Gil Fellingham, the most important fundamental (motor program) for winning volleyball matches, in both men and women’s volleyball, is our ability to receive serve. If this is the case, what are we doing to improve our ability to receive serve? This gave me pause for thought. If vision is so important, more important than the motor, then we need to incorporate some visual training keys in addition to our motor keys. We all are competent when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of passing. We talk about putting our wrist and hands together, having our arms straight, making a simple move to the ball, and facing the ball and angling our platform. However, we also need to train our players to read the game, or in this case the server. Again,

“One of the great coaching debates concerns whether the ability to read the play in team sports is innate or trainable. Some coaches describe it as the player who is a good driver in heavy traffic, the player who seemingly knows what is going to happen next, two passes before it actually happens. While they may not be the fastest around the court or field, their ability to accurately forecast a game’s future means they always seem to have all the time in the world” (Farrow).

The evidence overwhelming supports the notion that seeing and reading the game is a learned trait.

What is the best way to help the player learn how to read the server? Currently the most common practice is “highly directed in nature, with detailed instruction and feedback as to correct behavior being provided” (Abernethy et al., 1999, Farrow et al., 1998). However, there is another method which may be more advantageous to learning how to anticipate where the serve is going. This method is called guided discovery (Williams, 2002). Guided discovery emphasizes that the receiver determines what they need to look at to anticipate where the server is going to hit the ball. In this case, they would need to spend considerable time, unless we as coaches direct them to “information rich” areas (Magill, 1998). An information rich area in serving would be to direct the passer to look into the contact zone rather than at any specific cue. They would then have to determine for themselves what information is pertinent in anticipating where the server was directing the serve.

So how do we utilize the above information when teaching our passers? I think that there are two parts to passing: what you do before the serve (Pre-Serve), and what you do during and after the contact (Serve).

• Identify the passing seams and responsibilities with the other passers, i.e. I have your short or deep.
• Look at your target, i.e. where do you want to pass the ball? The powerful impact of visualization has long been proven as an aid in performance. I would like my receivers to visualize where they want their pass to go.

• Look at the server’s contact zone. Remember this is an information rich zone.
• See the direction of the serve. I like to call this the line of the serve.
• Get ahead of the line. I like for us to make the first move with our hands and arms because they are faster than our legs. Prepare your platform angle early so that the passer can make slight adjustments if needed.
• Look at the pass. This is where we gain valuable information about our angle. Was it too great? Not great enough? Etc.

What we are trying to do is develop players who can pass the ball at a high level for a long period of time. We know that if we do this, then hitting efficiencies will improve and our ability to side out will increase. If we can do this, then we will win more games. To do this most efficiently, we need to learn how to read the server by looking at the information rich areas and visualizing where the pass should go. I believe that if we can help our players see the right things and use the correct motor programs for passing, then we are well on our way to developing players who seem to have all day to make the play.

“For a certain time before someone contacts a volleyball, there is a zone abundant with information for those who may play it next.  Servers can’t escape this data leakage … so passers earn themselves a real head start if they learn to mine that information-rich zone – it certainly did for me.  This ability to extract clues has many names – reading, anticipation, etc – but whatever you call it, it’s the premier skill in volleyball.” Karch Kiraly

Abernethy, B., Wood, J.M., and Parks, S. (1999). Can the anticipatory skills of experts be learned by novices? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70, 313-318.
Farrow, D., Chivers, P., Hardingham, C., and Sachse, S. (1998). The effect of video-based perceptual training on the tennis return of serve. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 29, 231-242.
Farrow, D. (2008). Reading the play in team sports: yes it’s trainable. Australian Institute of Sport Coaching Magazine.
Magill, R. A. (1998). Knowledge is more than we can talk about: Implicit learning in motor skill acquisition. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 69, 104-110.
Muller, S., Abernethy, B., Farrow, D., and Barras, N. (2006). Which visual cues do world-class cricket batmen use to anticipate bowlers’ deliveries? Coaches Report to Cricket Australia.
Williams, A.M. (2002). Visual search behavior in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 20, 169-170.