How to Read the Serve in Volleyball
When I was a junior, I was always most impressed by the top level international passers:
‘How did they know where to stand, even before the server had made a play?’
It lead me to an important question: one which I was still figuring out well into my professional career:
How do you read the serve in volleyball? Bottom Line: The first thing is to recognize the server. Is it a power jump serve or a float serve? This will help you find your starting reception position, which affects how well you can react to the serve. From there, let’s find out what are the best practices for reading the flight of a volleyball serve.
When it comes to actually reading the flight, I’ll have to rely on what worked for me in my own career. Along with some of the best passing advice I’ve ever received:
From Italian volleyball legend Andrea Anastasi, and world-class libero, Luke Perry.
We’ll break it down like this:
Recognizing the server;
Positioning yourself in the court;
How to stand;
How to think (or not think);
Tracking the ball; and
Some final tips for reading the jump serve.
For a more in-depth tutorial on how to pass in the first place, feel free to check out my article here (coming soon!).
#1: Recognizing the server
In this sense, I really do mean recognize: if the server happens to be an old friend, all the better!
The main goal is this: the more information you have on a server before he or she serves, the better.
If you know that your friend always serves the first serve as hard as possible, this is probably useful information.
(There's a limit to this, but we’ll talk more about that in the ‘how to think’ section below).
And it doesn’t need to be someone that you know personally, either. If you’ve played against a team before, try to remember just one thing about each player:
Do they jump serve or float serve?
This will help you prepare for the serve even as the player is walking back to the baseline:
You can even start reminding your teammates about what’s to come, focusing in on the next action.
The next thing you can do is take a moment to think about the server’s favorite serve.
Do they like to throw in a short float serve?
Does she take a little off the first serve, trying to make sure it goes in?
Can he serve across the court to Position 1? Or does he always serve straight down the line?
You get the point.
And while I don’t want your brain to explode with information and possibilities, it can help to simply keep track of each servers favorite serve.
High Level Volley: On the higher stages, even in college volleyball, learning a server’s tendencies is an important part of the team scouting meeting. Generally speaking, passers (receivers) will watch video on every server that is likely to play for the opposing team. They watch for tendencies--things like the player’s favorite serve, where they serve under pressure, and which passing player a team is most likely to target.
At all levels of volleyball, it’s important to have a strategy going into the match. Something as simple as knowing your opponent’s serving tactics can be a great way to give you team a valuable competitive edge.
#2 Position yourself in the court based on the server
While some coaches may teach you to face your setter in the passing line up, I’m a firm believer in facing the server.
There are a few good reasons for this, but take a look at this VolleyPedia video for a deeper analysis: (coming soon, sorry!)
You will also base your starting position on the type of serve that’s most likely to come.
For jump servers, you want to be at 20ft (6m) or deeper.
For float servers, I recommend standing closer than this: inside 20ft.
When it comes to receiving float serves, there are a couple of things to consider.
Firstly, do you prefer passing on your hands or platform?
And secondly, how flat is the serve likely be coming?
What does this have to do with reading the serve?
Technically, this won’t help you read the path of the ball.
However, it’s essential for handling the serve and reacting in time to make a good movement.
Here’s what I mean:
Reading the serve is about getting into the right position early enough to make a good pass, right?
So if you stand in the wrong position before the serve even comes, you only make it harder on yourself to get in the right position.
If you start in a good position for the serve that’s likely to come your way, you reduce how much work needs to be done in reception.
Like our National Team coach likes to say:
“Where possible, be lazy in volleyball.” - Mark Lebedew
For more of Mark’s great wisdoms, follow his blog and Facebook page: ‘At Home on the Court’. He’s an official Coaching Wizard, and his interviews with top players and coaches are always entertaining and insightful.
The more information you have on a server, the more that you can do with this.
For example, if you know that one player likes to jump serve down the line, there are a couple of things you can do.
1. You can set up as per usual, and leave him the line (but be ready to make a good move on it).
2. You can shift your passing lineup so that the line is well covered.
While I’m a big fan of deception and getting in the server’s head, sometimes the best thing you can do is to show him that you have his best serve covered.
When he goes back to serve, he’ll be forced to either accept the challenge, or try something that he’s not comfortable with (like bringing the ball cross court to the empty space).
In this way, positioning yourself and your fellow passers doesn’t just help you react to the serve more effectively: it can actually influence where the server will serve.
#3: How should I stand to ‘read’ the ball better
While this post is all about ‘reading’ the ball, you’ll notice that most of the advice actually has to do with ‘reacting’ to the ball.
The reason for this is that's where most of the work is actually done: in reacting to a serve. For some tips on reading the server before the ball actually comes, see the final section of this post (#6: Tips on how to read the jump serve).
When we talk about how to stand in reception, I’ll need to lean on some advice given to me by volleyball legend, Andrea Anastasi, at a team training camp:
‘Always be moving’.
When I think about it, maybe there’s one simple reason this has stuck with me so long:
It was totally against everything I’d ever been taught about passing.
For the longest time, coaches had been telling me to ‘stick’ the pass.
‘Be still’ - ‘Get behind the ball’ - ‘Freeze after the pass’.
You’ve probably heard a few of these yourself.
And while I know that there are reasons for teaching each of these methods to juniors, Anastasi’s method freed me of some terrible stiffness which had always restricted my passing technique.
He described it like playing tennis, or his favorite analogy: ‘like dancing’.
It may not be for everyone, but this would be my number one tip for reading and reacting to the serve:
‘Don’t be afraid to stay moving.’
You may not make the right step at first, but you’re not stuck to floor. React, shift, twist your body and adapt to the ball that comes your way.
You’d be surprised how many bad footwork moves can be saved by staying loose and continuing your movement to the very end.
So, how should you stand in the passing lineup?
Anastasi likened it to standing as a tennis player stands.
Loose, slightly upright, bouncing on your toes and ready to move.
It’s that simple.
If you have a routine which helps you prepare mentally for the serve, by all means adjust this tip as you like: Touch the floor, squat down, spin around three times--whatever you need.
The main takeaway that I got from that camp was this though:
Always be moving.
It will help you react to the serve you’re not expecting.
#4: How to think (or not think)
*It's possible that many of these tips are too individual, or only work for some players and not others. If that's true, bear with me: and I hope at least some of you will find it all useful!
'Overthinking the pass' is a common phrase in volleyball.
You miss one reception, then suddenly you spiral into a funk which makes the ball seem as small and unpredictable as a ping pong ball.
Overthinking in reception is a crime I was guilty of frequently in my career--and, of course, it never made me any better.
There are a few common ways that players overcome this challenge. I’ll share these first, before getting to the tip which helped me most of all.
#1: Focus on the next point.
This is a pretty common expression in volleyball circles, and it has its merits. By focusing your energy on the serve that is about to come (and not dwelling on the serve that just came), your mind and body are actively preparing to make a positive movement.
It's a mindset that has inspired entire books in sports psychology, and it actually has a lot to do with visualization and meditative techniques.
Unfortunately, in my experience, this phrase is thrown around so often that it’s beginning to lose some of its sting.
If you really can force yourself to focus on the next point and ignore what’s just happened, then you will be in a better position to handle pressure and challenges. However, in my experience, the simple instruction ‘focus on the next point’ isn’t always enough to make a difference.
Another way that some teams attempt to move past the 'overthinking’ dilemma is to communicate with teammates.
After you make a mistake, you own it. You tell your team that you’ll make the next pass better, and then continue talking about the game in your passing lineup.
I like this one more than the ‘focus on the next point’ mantra, but it still falls short in some circumstances (in my opinion).
Put it this way: we know that not all team members will be best friends.
And while communicating with your team is an incredibly important skill, there will be times when some players simply don’t want to leave their own heads.
Forcing them out of that zone and insisting that they communicate as though everything is going perfectly isn't the best strategy, from what I've seen.
People become more hostile, less open to changing their behavior and ultimately focus less on the actual skill: they double down, rather than opening up.
If communicating with your teammates is the goal, then I’ve found that a quick discussion with each player before competition can be a good step.
Find out what works for each player individually: Do they prefer that everybody gives them a high-five? Or would they rather that the coach shouted at them to do better?
It may sound strange, but each player will be different, and sometimes a 5 minute conversation can be enough to change how they react under pressure.
For my own personal philosophy on ‘how to think’ in reception, I’ll have to share another breakthrough moment in my own career.
Again, inspired by Andrea Anastasi and Australian Men’s Coach, Mark Lebedew:
It was that simple, apparently. But of course, it’s easier said than done.
Don’t think of a pink elephant, right?
Well, as it happened, it would take 30 minutes of them both consistently telling me ‘don’t think, don’t think,’ before they were blue in the face with it and I was finally distracted enough to actually stop thinking.
This was the breakthrough moment, but the most valuable lesson was this:
I learned later that it’s something which can be practiced.
You can actually get better at non-thinking.
When you can learn not to think in reception, and simply react or move to the ball ‘naturally’, you’ll find that a lot of the stiffness and pressure can go away instantly.
I know that this brief explanation may not have cleared things up for many of you. If you’d like me to write a full article on this ‘non-thinking’ mindset, let me know in the comments and I’ll put something together for you.
#5: Tracking the Ball
Time for some advice from world-class libero, Luke Perry:
‘Just watch the ball, mate.’
Luke has a way of making everything look and sound easier than it is for most mortals, but he’s spot on about this one.
When we start as beginners, watching the ball onto our platform is one of the first things we learn.
As you develop, minor technical details start to consume your thoughts:
‘Keep your platform away from the body’ - ‘Drop the hips back’ - ‘Create the perfect angle’
All of these things are important, and will help take your passing game to the next level, but they can quickly drown out Perry’s very simple piece of advice:
Watch the volleyball all the way to your arms or fingers.
For jump serves, this isn’t quite as important. You can pretty well track the flight of the ball as it crosses the net and determine where it should land on your platform.
For float serves, on the other hand, it can be especially important.
Now that you’re standing in the right position to start.
You’re ready to always be moving.
And you’ve started to clear your mind (and stop overthinking).
You’re ready to return to the basics, and simply track the ball all the way to your arms or fingers.
#6: Some more practical tips for reading the jump serve
While the best jump servers in the world will practice keeping their 1. shoulders, 2. approach and 3. head neutral no matter where they serve:
These are all important points to track if you want to get a head start on reading a fast jump serve.
Notice the toss: Did the server toss the ball where they wanted to? If they toss too far behind themselves, it’s likely that the ball will arc higher over the net and land deeper in the court. If they toss it too far forward? They’ll be chasing it into the court, and may just take a full swing at it, anyway (likely with less topspin, too, so be warned!).
Where are the shoulders facing? Again, with practice, a server’s shoulders can face the same way no matter which way they intend to serve the ball. However, for developing players it can be a good cue to take note of where the server is facing their body--that will tell you where they want to serve most, so you can prepare yourself early for this play. (Whether the ball actually goes there is another story, sometimes!)
How aggressive is the backswing? This is most important for spotting a short serve. When jump servers want to play a change up serve (a short serve), it’s common that they won’t pull their arm all the way back before the swing. If that sounds too hard to spot, think about it this way: when the server is in the air, does it look like she’s ready to hit it as hard as possible? If not, prepare yourself for a shorter serve, and you won’t be so surprised when it comes.
As you practice more regularly, expose yourself to new servers and opponents, and begin to develop a feeling for the game--you will naturally begin to read the serve better.
In the meantime, try out some of the tips above and see if you notice a difference.
Whatever stage of your volleyball career you find yourself in, I hope you found something useful in this post.
If you did, feel free to share it with friends, teammates or anyone that might benefit!