Whenever I'm watching the top level international liberos like Jenia Grebennikov and fellow Aussie, Luke Perry, I’m always struck by one thought:
They look like they have so much time out there.
And while I’d like to think that they were simply born that way, I know that a lot of hard work went into those supernatural reaction speeds and control.
So, is reaction speed something you can improve? And if so:
What are some quick reaction volleyball drills?
The first drill we’ll cover can be done with just a teammate and two tennis balls. Have your teammate hold the ball just below shoulder height, then place your hands above his or hers. Ask them to release one or both balls randomly, then race the ball to the floor and catch.
If you’re looking for some actionable ways to improve your reaction time (as in, within the next few days or weeks) then keep reading until the end:
I’ll be sharing 3 of the best reaction time volleyball drills that I’ve seen and practiced over the course of my career.
Drills that we’ve used with our Australian Men’s National Team while preparing for the 2018 Volleyball Nations League, as well as some of the best practices from expert coaches around the globe.
I’m telling you this so that you know these aren’t just my personal favorites, although I’m a big fan of each. In fact, while practicing these drills frequently, I noticed a significant change to my reactions in defense (and even reception) within a matter of just two to three weeks.
But before we get to the drills:
Why do volleyball players need reaction time?
The most obvious skill that people jump to with reaction time in volleyball is defense.
So let’s start there.
Volleyball is a high-paced, full-power, dynamic sport with a lot of moving pieces. So that even when you’re standing in the perfect position to make a defensive play:
It isn’t always easy to put the ball up in the air.
Defensively, improving your reaction speed can be the difference between hitting the ball up in the air and having the ball hit you without control.
It’s also important for situations when the ball isn’t coming right to you.
Ever seen any spectacular chases in high level volleyball (or any level of volleyball, really)?
Notice how these defenders seem to take off the very moment that the ball has hit the blocker’s hands?
Or, as soon as the volleyball clears their side of the net, they’re already pushing off to make their dive, roll or pancake.
How do they get there in time?
Volleyball reaction speed in these situations has a lot to do with training your body to simply go.
Monkey see, monkey go.
And at such a high pace, there’s no time to hesitate in your defensive move.
We’ll talk about this more later, but reducing the mental block in defense can be one of the most effective ways to increase reaction speed.
Which other volleyball skills need reaction speed?
Realistically, when you break it down enough, every volleyball skill benefits from fast reaction times.
From setting to passing and hitting, increasing the speed with which you are able to react to the play as its unfolding will give you that superstar feeling of having more time to play the ball.
Let’s focus in on just two more skills though, where reaction speed can really make a noticeable difference:
Read blocking; and
How does reaction speed affect read blocking in volleyball?
Ask any coach and they’ll tell you that a good blocking middle is an invaluable resource--similar to diamonds or gold, only taller.
So what makes for a great blocking middle?
The ability to get a touch on as many balls as possible. Being tall is an obvious advantage, but it won’t get you from the middle of the court to the sideline in under a second.
The best middle blockers are able to react to the ball that’s set without hesitation, pivoting, pushing and reaching all in the time it takes for the ball to travel from a setter’s hands to the spiker’s swing.
In service reception, quick reactions will be most useful when you’re trying to handle that bomb of a jump serve.
Do you know the average time it takes for an international jump serve to travel across the net and into the court?
- (FIVB 2006 World Championships)
That means, as a receiver, you have less than a second to make your move, create the right angle, and control the ball to your setter.
Yes, reaction speed can help with this.
Float serves tell a slightly different story:
If you’re interested in learning more about how to read the flight of a float serve, I’d really recommend reading our post on ‘How to Read A Serve in Volleyball’. We cover some really useful techniques for making the right play on the ball, as well as hinting at ways to improve how you track float serves in the air.
Nonetheless, the more confident you are in your ability to react to the flight of a float serve, the more relaxed you can be in your reception movement:
Again, quick reactions = more time to play the ball.
And who wouldn’t want more time to play the ball in reception?
While setting and attacking also benefit from fast reaction times--mostly for getting beneath the flight of a reception and getting your feet to the ball in attack--I’ll actually be covering those topics in-depth in future posts.
So stay tuned for those in the coming weeks.
For now though, let’s get into the good stuff.
3 Quick Reaction Volleyball Drills
These are the 3 best volleyball reaction drills I’ve come across throughout my professional career. I’ve tried to include a range of reaction drills:
From one that you can do before you even hit the court, to something that will take some serious focus, time and maybe even a little video.
#1: Race to the floor.
Here's the video version, with each drill included on camera:
The first volleyball reaction time drill is something that you can get out of the way in warm-up.
Standing face to face, get your teammate or coach to hold two tennis balls just a little below shoulder height out in front of you.
While tennis balls are ideal, any small ball or object that you can comfortably hold in one hand will get the job done.
Then, hold your hands hovering just above your teammate’s.
Without warning, they’ll drop one of the balls:
Your job is to dip down and catch it before it hits the ground.
Have them alternate randomly for a while until you get comfortable with this reaction speed drill. Then, have them move slightly closer to the ground.
Test yourself and see how low they can start before you start to consistently miss the ball.
Within a couple of weeks, you’ll notice that, as you begin to relax with the drill, your natural reaction speed will start to pick up and you’ll be catching more balls than not.
*Once you really begin to master it, ask your teammate to drop the ball to the left, right, or both balls at the same time!
#2: 'Statue Defense'.
This might not sound like much, but in my opinion it’s the most important thing to improving a player’s reaction speed in volleyball.
What do I mean?
First of all, to clarify, I’m talking mostly about defense: when the hitter is contacting the ball.
You might think that you’re already still, but I want you to do one thing:
Then look closely, and see if you can detect any movement at all.
Do you rise up onto your toes as the hitter makes contact? Are you in the air when the hitter touches the ball? Moving one way or another?
The thing is, when you aren’t paying close attention to this, it’s easy to think that you are staying still.
In my experience, as a player and a coach, there is a level of stillness that players can reach which will boost their positive reaction times immediately.
We’re going to talk about this in a little more detail below, but for now:
Practice being totally still as the hitter (server for receivers, setter for middle blockers) contacts the ball.
#3: Spin and dig.
This is a slightly more common drill, but it’s a good one (so long as you have hitters with some good control).
The idea is simple.
Have one defender standing roughly 5-6 meters away from a spiker, facing away from the ball.
The hitter will toss the ball in the air and call the defender’s name when she does so.
The defender needs to spin quickly, find the ball, identify whether the hitter is swinging hard or tipping the ball, and make a move from there.
In my opinion, this drill can be a little overwhelming and sometimes just plain disorienting.
For that reason, I’d suggest doing it mostly with more advanced athletes who don’t need to think as much about technical things like how to dive comfortably or how to sprawl.
That’s not to say it can’t be done with juniors, but in my experience younger players will benefit more in terms of improving reaction speed by practicing the first two drills.
How do reaction training drills work?
The tennis ball drop is simple enough. You don’t know when your teammate or coach will drop the ball, and so you are training strictly your reaction time.
You can’t read the hitter arm, or the server’s body: you just see the ball when they drop it and react.
The second drill is slightly more detailed, so if you don’t have 2 minutes to spare you might want to skip over this section and scroll down to the final BONUS tip that’s waiting below.
Being still should be the first step in the reaction process, but it often isn’t.
In fact, more often than not, you’ll see that players’ first instinct is to take a negative step or to make a negative move in defense.
Another simple way of testing this is with line sprints.
(I know you’ll never want to give your coach another reason to do line sprints, so maybe just try this when noone is watching!)
*Stand at the baseline and prepare yourself for a sprint to the net or opposing end line.
But, when you take off, you’re not allowed to take a single step behind you.
You might be thinking, ‘Why would I step backward when I want to move forward?’
Try it out for yourself (and maybe try filming it) and see what your body’s natural reaction is.
The point of that experiment is simple.
In defense, we all make negative moves quite naturally, because it’s easier for our body to produce force that way.
The problem is, producing force isn’t necessarily our first motive in defense. When we’re working in the tenths of a second reaction speed, you’ll want to make sure that your first movement is something that’s moving toward the ball as you see it.
By practicing how to stand in defense without any additional movements right up to the point of the hitter’s contact, you’ll find that you have more time to make your move toward the ball.
Add to that the fact that you’ll be more balanced and feel less rushed, and this quickly becomes one of my biggest keys to defense in all the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career.
Seriously, try it out for yourself at your next practice.
Have a teammate or coach hit balls at you from the floor, and practice standing completely still until you have seen where the ball is moving.
Bonus Tip: Reaction Speed Balls
More recently, you can actually find a few tools that help build reaction speed and sharpen your times.
There are some incredibly high-tech virtual-reality style systems, where you hook yourself up to the monitor and play a reaction speed game on the screen (which we were lucky enough to have in our college weights room).
But there are also some more simple tools that can really help with reaction time training.
Something as simple as a reaction speed ball--just a ball of rubber with several rounded notches across its surface--can be enough to sharpen your skills.
There are plenty of reaction time drills you can do once you get your hands on one of these, so it’s no surprise that they’re a popular alternative.
Actually, I’m starting to see these appear more and more on the volleyball scene. Whether it’s a libero warming up for the match or teams during specific strength training programs:
Reaction speed balls are proving a neat and simple way to boost your natural reaction speed without spending on a full kinetic signalling system.
You can get these little wizards on Amazon for pretty cheap: feel free to go check out the current price for reaction speed balls.
I've personally tried all three of these drills (plus the bonus) and found that it can really help improve your reaction time within a matter of weeks.
So, now it's over to you.
Leave a comment below telling me which drill you’re going to try out first.
Are you going to start your warm-up with the tennis ball drill and focus on improving your natural reaction speed?
Or are you going to practice being totally still, so that you can improve your positive reaction time?
I’m just curious to know which drill is most helpful, so leave a comment letting us know how it works for you.
And if you found this resource useful, please share it with your friends, teammates or next-door-neighbor:
Anyone that might find it useful.