Most of my coaching has been with 12-14 year old girls who desperately want to hit overhead serves, but at first, they can barely get the ball to the attack line, sometimes in an adjoining court. That can be terribly discouraging, so after much observation, research and experimentation, I have found something that works, and it’s a simple one-step addition - literally.
Since the VB weighs only about 10 ounces, it doesn’t take a lot of power to make it go, but the bio-mechanics of a serve involves certain momentum to insure that the ball carries successfully over the net. The laws of physics dictate that the more forward moving force is applied to the ball, the greater the likelihood that its flight into the far court will be accomplished.
With that in mind, consider the standard serve technique taught in most VB coaching books: a right hand server is to plant her left foot forward just behind the endline, toss the ball and swing away. What usually happens? The ball dies after 20 feet. Sideout and point lost in rally scoring.
May I suggest the unconventional and move the server back behind the endline at least 6 feet (2 meters or so). How can this help? Well, this not only eliminates the dreaded curse of foot fouling, but it also removes the mental barrier which unconsciously lingers in a young server’s mind, which is to stop when the serve reaches the endline to keep from foot-fouls. But coaches don’t want servers to stop: we want them to swing through and dash to their position on the court. Instead of thinking "Stop", they must be thinking "GO", so backing them up will give plenty of room to swing and go.
Now that the server is positioned sufficiently behind the endline, try something else unconventional and have the right handed server plant her RIGHT foot forward. Then, as she tosses, she steps at the same time with her LEFT foot. Now, her entire body is moving with forward momentum toward the far court. Guess what? Without any great refinement on the toss and contact of the ball, the server will see an immediate increase in distance, because the laws of physics demand that greater force makes the object go further.
I can hear the loudest objection to this, that "we must eliminate any excess motion where errors may happen." True enough, but what’s better: a serve which dies at the attack line, or one that clears the net? Furthermore, I have found that the step helps to direct the ball in the desired direction, as the arm swing tends to follow the path of the lead foot. Starting with a planted lead foot may limit the intended aim, as the server would have to swing across the body in a rather unnatural motion. A step with the left foot does not immediately give away the desired placement of the serve to the opposition, since they are usually watching the ball (which is why coaches ought to train their receivers to watch the server’s foot!) .
Another objection is that the one-step will mess up the toss. Well, let’s consider the toss: most beginning servers toss too low and too far, so I have found that beginners gain more control on the toss using both hands and releasing the ball at about eye level. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom of a low toss may work with experienced servers, but beginners need to make a good 8-10 foot upward toss. It’s much easier to adjust to an errant high toss than even a good low one, and besides, we teach servers to contact the ball with a high swing, which is mighty hard to do with a low toss.
But if they take an extra step, will they not tend to toss the ball out too far? Perhaps at first, but I have devised a little poem which helps to insure an up and in toss. It’s called, "Nose to Toes", and that’s the entire poem. The idea is to toss the ball in a straight line in front of the nose so that the ball would drop to the floor just in front to the lead toes; thus, "Nose to Toes". Coaches actually know we want the toss to be more on a line between the hitting shoulder and hitting-side knee, but Shoulder to Knee doesn’t rhyme, whereas, "Nose to Toes" has the same desired effect. See if that helps.
So in summary, here are the steps to a beginner’s serve:
Position (6-8 feet off the endline);
Posture, left foot pulled back (for a right handed server; right foot for a lefty);
Aim for a target; while holding the ball with both hands at chest level;
Breath deeply; and
Step with the left foot in the direction of the intended target, with hips swiveled bit to the right; (opposite for a left-hander) and
Toss in one fluid motion, thinking "Nose to Toes;" and keeping your eyes on the ball; then
Cock the hitting arm back with elbow high and thumb down (in an archery position), then,
Contact the ball high with the palm shaped around the ball (middle of palm to middle to ball), following through the swing toward the intended target and finally,
Go to your position, ready to play.
Yes, this is a lot to remember, but like any acquired technique, it can be learned and it will become second nature. Then the coach can start calling serving zones, which adds to the Discipline of the server, but that’s a matter for another article.
I previously submitted an article on a simplified Serve Technique, which has received good feed back from coaches and players around the country. It encourages coaches to train younger players to start the serve by setting up with left foot pulled back (for right handed hitters) and then stepping with that left foot at the same time as the toss. That gets the whole body moving forward into the serve, greatly increasing chances of the ball actually getting over the net.
But even with the intentional step, many players struggle with the serve - even those who have played for several years; in fact, I was watching a Division I college player recently (a setter, no less, so the coach couldn’t sub her out on serves) who consistently drove her serves into the net. A diagnosis of her serving form indicated her arm swing was counterproductive.- and easily correctable.
This incorrect arm swing is a common problem which plagues even experienced players who did not learn good serving techniques when they starting playing. I describe this improper arm swing as "up, stop and forward," as that’s what the arm does. Such a swing is terribly counterproductive to a good serve, because the arm is moving the wrong direction- away from the net- then it must stop, and start forward. By consequence, contact with the ball is weak, and it often flutters like a wounded duck and falls helplessly short of the net.
The reason why this action is wrong for serving is easily demonstrated to your player. Have her hold her hitting arm straight out, with palm down, and then raise her arm straight up and back. Not much beyond 90 degrees, the arm stops. It simply won’t go any further unless the shoulder is rotated: God designed it that way.
Now have your player hold her hitting arm straight out with palm down and swing her arm downward and around, like a wind mill. Guess what? The arm very naturally makes a nice big arch: the elbow can be pulled up and back, and the swing accelerates as the open palm makes solid contact with the ball. Your player will be pleasantly amazed as she watches the ball travel over the net (assuming she makes good contact, but that’s another training session! )
Like any habit, this method will take repetition to become second nature, especially if your player has taught herself to struggle with an "up, stop, and forward" motion. To help them, I give my players a key phrase when they set up to serve, such as "swing down," or "under and over." I’ve seen the change improve the serve of several of my players this season, who’ve gone from less than 40% efficiency to more than 80%, with little more than changing the arm swing.- and with rally scoring giving a point for every missed serve, your team must have high serving effectiveness!
Thankfully, it can be as easy as "under and over."