By: Mas Shibata
Transition and Approach Footwork & Technique
Article 3 of the Critical Analysis of Attacking Series focused on the last two steps of the approach which I referred to as the 2-Step Attack Footplant. This article will delve into the full approach with examples of transition footwork & technique.
There are a multitude of subject areas concerning footwork skills and patterns. For purposes of this article, I will refer to the starting location on the court to begin the attacker’s approach as the Loading Area. The reference to an area versus a specific spot is to differentiate general locations on the court for each player based upon their individual skill level and physical abilities. Another factor, and possibly the most important, is how much time is available to the attacker before they would need to begin an approach to hit a set ball.
What are contributing factors in determining how much time is available and how far a player is able to transition off the net? One obvious answer may be something as simple as the will, energy and effort exerted by a player.
Most people are creatures of habit in many aspects of their life, which makes it probable that volleyball players also develop repeatable habits in the way they play the game. It has been my observation watching other coaches and viewing coaching videos on the internet that most players are initially being trained to use a 3-Step or 4-Step approach, and they are usually standing in a hitting line at a fairly defined spot on the court for their starting position for the approach.
A premise of writing the Critical Analysis of volleyball skills series was to attempt to expand my knowledge in not only volleyball skills and technique, but also in the related areas of coaching and teaching the skills. In that effort, attempts are being made to research relevant issues which could possibly impact how we are teaching and what the short-term and long-term implications may be. Along this vein, I have been reading articles on subjects such as kinetic energy, muscle memory and habits to name a few. A word of caution would be that just as there are contrary opinions about volleyball technique, there are some contrary opinions written about almost every area of related research I have embarked upon to write these articles. Ultimately, some contemplation and discerning of the researched data will be assessed for inclusion or exclusion into your coaching and teaching philosophy.
Christopher Bergland - The Athlete's Way, No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect - The Brain Science of Muscle Memory. …do the same thing again and again and again to hardwire it into long-term muscle memory that is stored in the cerebellum. If pushed to categorize the cognitive differences, I would say that the cerebrum is the house of your conscious 'thinking mind' and the cerebellum is the house of your intuitive 'subconscious mind'.
The March 2015 study, "Modeling Memory Consolidation During Posttraining Periods in Cerebellovestibular Learning,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Every athlete, musician, surgeon—or anyone who regularly performs a motor skill that becomes fine-tuned with practice—knows that through repetition and practice motor skills become automatic. What is happening in the brain that hardwires and consolidates the formation of motor skills into long-term memory?”
The inclusion of these passages serves as my reminder to be cognizant that anything I do as a coach through repetitions may be creating a hard or impossible to change habit in the future if it is not grounded in sound principles and technique. By the same token, allowing technique that is considered detrimental to long term development or dangerous to a player’s safety without addressing it would necessarily contribute to establishing a negative habit.
Intuitively speaking, it seems that longer and deeper approaches would provide advantageous opportunities over shorter or no approaches. Given the finite time available to transition for each specific rally, is there a best or preferred method to make the transition movement?
Three basic options would be to turn and run, using side shuffles, or back-pedaling. Realistically, any of the three methods could be the best option given a specific scenario or circumstances. There are also many, if not the majority of times that the best alternative you may have preferred technically was not used, but it resulted in a successful outcome.
Approach Footwork and Technique
Given the relatively short distances that a player has been trained to transition to, speed may be the most determinate factor to success over having perfect footwork technique. The video and photo sequence of Louisa Lippmann of Germany is presented for your observation and analysis of approach technique and timing. There will obviously be technical differences among all players in analyzing approaches. Lippmann was selected for analysis as her technique contained most of the basic core components that I have observed being taught by many coaches.
In my observation of coaches training approach technique over the past twenty-five years, I would opine that the most prevalent technique has been a fairly rigid and robotic approach toward mechanics. It is typically the 3-step approach with a player standing with their right foot forward and having both arms outstretched in front of the body. The approach footwork mantra is left-right-left, with a slow-to-fast tempo. The coaching methodology tends to be a slow, precise explanation of how the feet and arms are coordinated in executing the approach.
I have evolved to believe that much of the timing issues experienced by some players may be due to the fact that some of the coordinated motions that occur while the player is airborne are taught as a movement before or after it is executed in real-time. The biggest discrepancy from my observation is in the coordination of the timing of the arm movements in relation to their footwork. As stated earlier, players are often taught to have both arms extended out in front of them for the 3-step approach in training situations. A review of the photo sequence above for Louisa Lippmann shows that the extended arms position in front of the body is started half way through the first left step motion and is not reached until the end of that left step as seen in Row 1 of the photo sequence. Row 2 of the photo sequence shows that the backward reach of the arms occurs while Lippmann is in the air and the optimum backward reach is achieved as the right heel contacts the ground in the Row 2 – Frame 6 photograph.
The next problematic occurrence in training is that players are often instructed to reach back with both arms before or after taking the final two right-left footsteps. The training is often paused at this point for the players to check their position and postures. They are now in a static posture at the bottom of the load with their legs, and both arms are reaching backwards as far as possible. Therefore, their legs are in the position of the Row 3 – Frame 2 photo and their arms are at the Row 2 – Frame 6 real-time photo positions. If effect, it seems we may be training a lagging or late armswing motion in relation to the approach jump. The Row 3 – Frame 2 photo shows that the armswing pendulum has already swung forward above the waist and is almost parallel to the ground in the opposite direction than the training position.
“Natural Run Approach” Technique
Do you have players with a slow armswing that hits the ball on the way down from their approach jump? Could it be that we are creating muscle memory habits in our training methods that encourage improper attack timing coordination? If the answer is yes, or even a maybe, what can we do to improve these timing issues?
A component of speed and timing could be using a relaxed and more naturally occurring running motion with the arms and legs rather than forcing a rigid and technical training regimen to the approach. After watching many international players utilizing these components, I am intrigued by the differences and whether or not they can be successfully incorporated into training the approach.
The video and photo sequence of Berenika Tomsia of Poland is an example of what I have described as the “Natural Run Approach” for observation and comparative analysis of approach technique and timing.
The entire Row 1 photo sequence to the Row 2 – Frame 2 photo illustrates the natural running motion of Tomsia to begin her attack approach. As she begins to push-off her left foot in the same Frame 2 photo, she begins the familiar backward reach with both arms which is now similar to the approach of Louisa Lippmann’s Row 2 – Frame 2 photo in her Approach Analysis Photo Sequence. The remaining frames of both approaches from this point have more similarities than differences up to the Armswing Load Position of Lippmann and Tomsia.
There are clearly some differences in approach technique between Lippmann and Tomsia, and they have been proven to be successful for each of these individual players. Do you perceive there to be any advantages or disadvantages to either of these techniques? Is the Natural Run Approach really naturally occurring or is it a trained technique? Is it possible to just encourage players with some minimal guidance and planned progressions to use their innate athleticism and coordination to successfully learn to approach with this method?
The basic approach techniques exhibited by Louisa Lippmann of Germany with some variations in how the arms are used prior to the backward reach of the arms appears to be the predominant approach style used by a majority of players, and is prevalent in the USA at all levels. In my increased observations and analysis of international players, I have noticed significantly more players employing some version of the “Natural Run Approach” style demonstrated by Berenika Tomsia. It would be accurate to say that because I have become more aware of this style of approach, there are an increasing number of international players being observed that I would place in the category of leaning more towards the Run Approach technique.
Free Ball Loading Areas
The Free Ball Loading Areas of attackers indicates where that specific player feels is their optimum location to approach from in an ideal situation. They usually have the most time to make a transition than any other situation if the libero or another back row player passes the ball.
The photo collage below shows the Free Ball Loading Areas for the Netherlands, Italy and the USA.
The first frame shows the Netherlands in a two front row attackers rotation. The left side hitter is deep and just a little outside the sideline. The middle hitter is to the left side of the libero passing the ball. You are also able to see the loading areas for the Pipe Set in the middle of the court and the D Set near the end line and right sideline.
The second frame is a free ball transition by Serbia with three front row hitters. You can see the deep transitions by the left and right side hitters and an adjusted transition by the middle hitter due to the location of the libero having to pass the free ball. The middle back attacker also transitions for the Pipe Set attack.
Frame three is also a three front row hitters situation. However, there is no libero on the court to pass the free ball. In this scenario, the middle back attacker was forced to move toward the left back area of the court to pass the free ball. The passer is still able to hit a Pipe Set but must make an additional transition move to get into a more advantageous position to attack. All three front row attackers are fairly deep off the net and prepared for their approaches.
The associated video for frames two and three above is presented for review and analysis.
Serve Receive Loading Areas
Generally speaking, the time available to transition in serve receive situations would be second only to a free ball opportunity. Having to pass before transitioning to attack would alter the footwork patterns necessary for efficient approaches. Even in passing situations, it is doubtful that a player would have an identical transition pattern every time they had to pass and attack a set.
The video of Antonella Del Core of Italy shows two examples of her having to pass in serve receive before attacking 4 Sets to the outside antenna. Del Core was required to adjust her transition movements in the two examples due to the different passing techniques utilized affecting the time she had to transition before the attacks.
It should be possible to get a deeper approach in serve receive situations if the player is not required to make a pass. In a primary passing situation, the player is typically starting deeper in the court as a passer encouraging a longer approach. There are at least two elements observed that sometimes causes difficulties for some players to transition effectively in serve receive situations. While it is very important to make sure that a pass by a teammate is not shanked to an area of your responsibility to help, players often get caught watching for too long and are not able to get them into position to make an aggressive and explosive approach. Another problem area occurs when the non-passer shuffles off the court to a loading area deeper than they normally approach from. Because they rely on their customary three or four step approach pattern, they often end up broad jumping forward to the ball more than their normally practiced approaches in training situations.
The video above shows Anastasia Bavykina of Russia and Bianka Busa of Serbia in non-passing transition 4 Set attacking scenarios. Their transition footwork techniques are fairly typical of footwork patterns used by many players in similar situations with subtle differences. There is an initial shuffle movement with a right foot crossover step before the full approach footwork is utilized.
In the next clip, Antonella Del Core of Italy and Ekaterina Gamova of Russia are also shown in non-passing transition 4 Set attacking scenarios. Are you able to detect the difference in circumstances from the above clip that allows the attackers to be able to complete their transition moves to the outside sooner before the approach footwork was started?
In the first video comparing non-passing situations, the serve was made into the 5/6 seam. Because the hitter was standing in zone 5, it momentarily held the attacker until she was sure that the player in zone 6 passed the ball. In the above clip, the serve went into zone 1 to the right back passer allowing Del Core and Gamova to release sooner for their attack approaches.
Defense to Attack Loading Areas
Off-Blocker defensive transition to attack scenarios presents other opportunities to demonstrate approach footwork technique. Video of Fernanda Garay of Brazil & Anna Baranska Werblinska of Poland shows their transitions to dig as left side outside hitters with transitions to their loading areas to attack a 4 Set.
Both Garay and Werblinska’s transition footwork of choice in these specific situations were to back pedal to their loading areas. There may be other, more preferred techniques for transition footwork to get to their loading areas but, they both had successful results.
Block to Attack Loading Areas
Blocking an opponent’s attack before transitioning off the net to attack is illustrated in the next video clip showing Tatiana Kosheleva of Russia and Natalia of Brazil both utilizing a turn-and-run transition technique. Another method of choice by some players is to back pedal to their preferred loading area.
Some other factors that possibly come in to play would be to have to navigate around a passer, the setter, or another player. Any combination of these variables could necessitate a zero-step, or something in between a multiple step approach. Watch as Lioubov Sokolova of Russia is forced to adjust her transition and attack approach as she lands from the block jump and the libero executes a pancake dig behind her near the nine foot line.
Sokolova’s awareness and execution in this situation shows the importance of developing a player’s volleyball intelligence quotient (IQ). As coaches, what can we do to develop volleyball IQ so our players are able to successfully adapt to these out-of-system situations? How much of our practice time should be devoted to perfecting in-system execution of skills and techniques versus developing a player’s ability to create successful options in out-of-system opportunities?
A distinctively different situation shows left side hitters Logan Tom of the USA and Natalia Pereira of Brazil assisting on a triple block versus a 4 Set attack by their opponents. Many teams observed will have the outside hitter become a non-hitter or have them run a 2 set in the middle of the court because of perceived transition difficulties.
The common elements in their transitions to their loading areas are the initial turn-and-run motions before sprinting to the sideline for their approaches to attack. There are differences in the direction of their turns at the loading area but they actually get their feet in an almost identical position to begin their approach footwork to the set. When they both flip their feet around at the end of their transition run, their left foot is forward and they both begin their approaches with a small loading hop for a left foot push-off step jumping their shoulder to the ball with a right-left close step.
Red Set Attack Loading Areas
The next video shows Hande Baladin of Turkey transitioning on a free ball & Anna Grejman of Poland in a serve receive transition for Red Set attacks. The transition Attack Loading Areas utilized by both players are fairly similar given the different scenarios and are also close to where the vast majority of players observed attacking a Red Set transition to.
D Set Attack Loading Areas
Ekaterina Gamova of Russia & Sheilla Castro of Brazil demonstrate serve receive transition footwork to their Attack Loading Areas for the back row D Set. In the left side video clip, Gamova is in the right back position as a non-passer and has an easy transition to her Attack Loading Area. In the second clip on the right, Sheilla Castro has a longer transition from her left back position on the court.
Pipe Set Attack Loading Area
Destinee Hooker of the USA transitions from her right back position as a non-passer for a Pipe Set attack. Destinee does a side shuffle to the left to prepare for the Pipe Set and executes a 5-Step approach. This illustrates the necessity to be adaptable to different situations and not rely solely on robotic pre-determined footwork patterns.
There are far more varied and situational circumstances that occur throughout a season than can be repeated and practiced each week. Building an awareness of possibilities within a rally and how to adapt to changing situations instead of repeating robotic sequences with mindless repetitions will help to develop volleyball IQ.
An interesting thing happened as I was writing this article. The focus was initially on where players were transitioning to on the court for their approaches. What caught my eye and focus began to change from where to how?
Christopher Bergland - The Athlete's Way, No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect - The Brain Science of Muscle Memory. Arthur Ashe said, "There is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis'." If you are over-thinking things, your cerebrum is getting in the way and blocking the more intuitive cerebellum from working its non-thinking and completely fluid muscle memory magic. I call the state of peak performance "Superfluidity." You become super fluid in sports - and in life - when you have freed up the working memory of your cerebrum to strategize and keep tabs on the more cerebral aspects of everything that's going on while completely trusting your gut and the intuitive powers of your cerebellum.
What does superfluidity look like? It is a subjective interpretation based upon our individual experiences. At some point, even a rigid and robotic technique at the beginning of training morphs into a muscle memory movement. The increased awareness of what I am referring to as the Natural Run Approach has provided another basis for comparison of styles and technique as it relates to what I consider as flow.
The video collage is a compilation of a few international players that seem to exhibit relaxed and flowing muscle memory based movements in their approaches and attacks.