Of the many shots in a good attacker’s toolbox, one that produces a ball flight with topspin seems to be highly prized by coaches. In an effort to help developing attackers get a feel for the mechanics needed to produce topspin shots, sometimes the idea of wrist–snap will be introduced. If there’s one topic that will make coaches stand up and take sides, it’s wrist–snap. We’ve all read heated discussions outlining the pros and cons and reference our own experience or what we think we see from good volleyball players to come to conclusions.
The physics on spin is clear – the ball spins (in any direction) because a force is applied at some point off the intersection of its vertical and horizontal equators. In other words, if we don’t hit the ball on its center-point, it will spin. Topspin is produced when we contact the ball on the upper side of its equator. With that idea as background, let’s address a common question we get here at GMS. It goes something like this: “We have young athletes who hit so hard now that their attacks are going out of bounds. I would like them to keep the hitting stroke fluid without having to ease off too much. I don’t know what keys to go for/things to avoid. I have seen things on YouTube that are more pro wrist–snap, and have read blogs that discourage it. I think wrist snap is the wrong key personally but I don’t know how to encourage contact point and mechanics.”
So, this brings up two important questions: first, should we be teaching topspin to our attackers as a means to keep their attacks in the court? Second, since it IS a shot we want in the toolbox, what’s the best way to teach topspin?
While topspin modifies the flight of the ball over distance, it typically doesn’t move the ball enough to be significant during an attack. If athletes are counting on an increase in topspin to keep attacks in, well, we’re in trouble. The most significant factors that keep the ball in the court during an attack are initial velocity (how hard the ball is hit), and the direction of the shot (how high was it attacked and at what angle?). Topspin IS a factor, but it’s the least significant factor simply because the ball flight is too short for spin to affect it. Many high-level players hit with very little, if any, topspin when they attack. Note that this applies only to attacks – a serve DOES have enough time to be affected, and topspin on a spike-serve is an important factor in its effectiveness.
But if we do want to teach a topspin shot, what’s the best way? It’s been studied and shown that wrist–snap does not meaningfully affect topspin (again, the only factor in topspin is where the force of contact is applied to the ball) and that in fact deliberately teaching it will result in reduced power and mis-hits due to timing issues. Sometimes when an athlete hits the ball hard, the wrist will turn over naturally because of the forces applied, but again, most of that flexion happens well after the ball is long gone. In an effort to help the athlete create the desired outcome, we end up hurting them by over-coaching the body into artificial positions (like a wrist–snap).
We want to give our athletes a great demonstration of the full skill and then let them go try it, free of any feedback from the coaches. We find that athletes have an amazing ability to figure out some of these mechanics out on their own. Before we fill their heads with an excess of overly-technical mechanics information, let’s determine what they can or can’t do first. If we operate from this direction, it becomes easier to distill down on very specific deficiencies for each athlete rather than operating giving blanket information to the entire team. Before you start overcoaching, give your kids a chance to try the skill first. When it comes to this particular topic, most of the kids will figure it out on their own over time, while a small minority may need additional help.
So how do we encourage and teach various shots? Our recommendation is simply to give the athletes room and time to experiment and go through some failures and successes. In other words, tell them what the desired outcome is, and let them figure it out over a series of lots of repetitions. Younger players will often try to just play it safe, but we think that’s an area where you can really make a difference as a coach. Encourage them to take chances, praise them when they do (even if they make errors), and give them lots of repeat chances to do it right. Having an environment where our positive feedback centers mostly on the process and not the results is huge at the younger levels.
In the BYU gym, we wanted players to attack the line better, so we’d give them lots of reps with the direction of “hit it hard down the line”. Then they got the chance to go experiment with what worked for them. I know a lot of coaches want to start talking about “hey, to hit it down the line you need to finish so that your hand is positioned with your little finger on the bottom and your arm needs to finish to the left side of your body, and, and, and”. Volleyball is too random to dictate all these body positions and hope they work for every situation. Focus on cleaning up the basic fundamental keys, and then within that framework allow the athletes to solve the various volleyball problems on their own, in their unique ways, as their minds and bodies see fit.
With regards to the “keep the attack in” question, we like this as a model: First, make sure your athletes have really clean attack mechanics in the areas that we consider critical (footwork, double arm life, torque for power). Bad or inconsistent mechanics make it really difficult to have consistent results. Once those are in good shape, we can begin to focus on results. Start by helping the players connect what they did to the result of the shot. We like to ask things like “What do you need to do differently to keep that ball on the court?”, or “What happened on that shot?”, or “Why did the ball spin like that?” We want athletes to mindfully connect how they are moving with what’s happening on the court.
So back to the original question. If young athletes can hit it out of the court but can’t get above the level of the net when they jump, that’s a tough spot. In order to hit it in they might have to back off a little bit when their power until their jump/reach height catches up, but again, they’ll get a feel for how much power as they get more reps. Another really important starting point is to make sure that we are setting the ball at least 5-8 feet off the net – this gives them a lot more room to swing flat. Anything tighter is setting up tough conditions for success. At the end of the day, encourage your kids to keep hitting it hard. Good arms are so very rare, so if you have athletes that can hammer, please don’t teach them to wrist snap – it just leads to a reduction in power. Clean up their mechanics, blast away, and help them start figuring out how to hit it in the court with lots of mindful repetition.