Breaking Down the Approach

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1 Breaking Down the Approach Written by Andre Christopher Gonzalez Sunday, July 31, 2005 One of the biggest weaknesses of the two-legged approach is the inability of the athlete to transfer horizontal momentum and convert it into vertical speed. Athletes are unable to efficiently transfer these energies because the majority of the weight prior to jumping is in front of the core, thus increasing the amount of horizontal momentum. In many instances this is caused by the athlete over-accelerating, which does not allow for enough knee and ankle flexion prior to jumping to facilitate proper energy conversion. Athletes, especially at the junior and college level, are weak at the core and as a result call on weaker muscles and muscle groups such as the lower back and the shoulder to facilitate power while striking the ball. The most efficient attackers (rhythmically) coordinate speed, energy transfer, and lever control; they also rely on the core (stomach) muscles to stabilize the body in the air and use the hips and shoulders to generate power. The third biggest weakness is the inefficient use of the upper body levers to elevate and prepare the arms to lift in a loaded position. In many cases the energy needed to help the attacker elevate the arms is lost because athletes do not exercise complete control over their levers. The lack of upper and lower body coordination during the initial steps of the approach concurrently interferes with the relationship between the closing step and attacking arm, ultimately prohibiting the attacker from leaving the ground in a completely loaded position. These deficiencies are the primary reasons why attackers (especially at the younger ages): *are not capable of striking the ball with full extension; *are not able to stabilize the body after it has left the ground; *leave the ground with more horizontal speed and less vertical speed; *do not exercise a complete follow through after contact; *are not in a completely loaded position after leaving the ground; and

2 * take numerous unhealthy swings that result in suffering from chronic lower back and rotator cuff injuries. The following technique facilitates the efficient use of both the upper and lower body levers used to transfer the energies needed to stabilize the core and promote the use of a healthy swing using the correct muscular resources for power and velocity. Correct Ready Stance Some of the problems surrounding the approach begin before the athlete even takes her first step. An athletic stance combines straight feet and the flexion of the ankles and knees starting with the back at approximately a 65- degree angle. This will position the shoulders slightly in front of the knees allowing the attacker to begin with her weight on the lead foot ready to transfer energy to the opposite foot. This starting stance can be thought of as a more erect sprinter s stance. Beginning in the same stance before taking the first step will aid in developing consistent movement patterns towards the jumping area, ultimately leading to a better understanding of how to efficiently transfer energies before leaving the ground regardless of the quality of the set. Although volleyball players attempt to convert horizontal momentum into vertical energy, this concept in some ways is similar to the long jump athlete and/or hurdler. Athletes in both events are trained to take a specific number of steps before jumping, allowing them to maintain upward vision without having to negotiate their jumping marks. Taking the same speed and length of steps allows the volleyball player to concentrate on the ball and the block without having to decide on how many steps must be taken to reach the ball. Taking shorter, longer, quicker, and/or slower steps often results in the lack of core stabilization in the air forcing the weight of the trunk either in front or behind the center of gravity. Some common errors before taking the first step include: switching feet, hopping, and dipping. These added variables put the attacker at a considerable disadvantage because she is forced to develop other inefficient mechanisms such as the swinging or lifting of both arms to counteract the actions of the lower body. For example, an athlete who switches her feet before taking the first step is usually guilty of making reactionary circular arm movements to match the actions of the lower body. These extra movements prohibit the attacker from correctly elevating the arms to

3 execute the time-sensitive steps needed to attack the ball with balance, rhythm and power. The First Step: Directional Step and Rhythm Jump The directional or rhythm step is a low to the ground and quick step that serves two purposes: the first is to aid the attacker in deciding which direction she will begin pursuit of the ball and the second is to help the hitter predict what type of speed will be required to strike the ball given the horizontal and vertical speeds of the set. This step should resemble a running motion, with the arm opposite to the leg taking the first step naturally moving to the side of the trunk. Although much of the success of the attack is predicated on the speed and location of the set, the symbiotic relationship between the setter and the attacker is only as effective as the hitter s ability to react and respond with speed to the set with consistent rhythm and timing. This may appear to be a minor detail but very rarely does a ball get set with the same speed and location and taking the first step in rhythm toward the jumping area is critical to the attacker s success. Often attackers react late after a set travels outside the hitting zone and are forced to strike the ball while leaning, eliminating the potential areas along the net they could attack. As in most sports the first step is the difference between scoring and not scoring, defending or not defending, winning and losing. In track sprinters constantly train to explode out of the starting blocks without hesitation because a race can be won or lost in the first few steps. With all things being equal the runner with the fastest reaction time has a considerable advantage. Depending on whether an athlete employs a three or four step approach, the rhythm step should be placed behind the three meter line to allow for an extended follow thru after contact. The height of the athlete must also be taken into consideration. Taller athletes may take longer to accelerate and should start in an area conducive to allow for enough area to reach the desired acceleration. This is one of the reasons why larger airplanes require longer runways.

4 The Second Step: Landing Width and Energy Conversion Perhaps the most critical aspect prior to take-off is how the body (most notably the leg opposite the striking arm) regulates the speed at which the forearms will elevate into a loaded position. This is accomplished by landing with the feet in front of the center of gravity (at a slight angle) with the hips and shoulders squared to the setter for a front set and hips and shoulders faced outside for a back set with the foot closest to the net parallel (to the net) and the catapult foot at a 45-degree angle. Landing after the first rhythm jump in this position will allow the fast twitch muscle fibers to operate with a greater elasticity. Once both feet have made contact with the ground, the knees and ankles should remain flexed with the arms to the sides of the body. For years we have taught our athletes to swing their arms behind the body, however, in most cases placing the arms behind the body prior to take-off increases the rate of horizontal momentum causing an imbalanced rate of energy conversion (because body weight is shifted in front of the center of gravity) to occur, ultimately leading to the use of the back to generate power. It is important to remember that the closing step (the left foot for righthanded attackers and the right foot for left-handed attackers) must be positioned parallel to the net to allow the two energies to efficiently convert in order for the body to straighten in the air. Imagine an oil funnel and how it is shaped. If placed slightly tilted away from the net (with the horizontal energy stored in the base of the funnel), once the funnel becomes flush with the ground the horizontal energy can be transferred vertically through the spout. Now imagine tilting the funnel towards the net with the horizontal energy stored at an angle. The amount of vertical potential is compromised because there is a greater rate of horizontal momentum generated toward the net. Forearm Elevation Often a hitter s arm is delayed because the closing step is late to make contact with the floor or becomes prematurely unflexed before take-off. One way to remedy this problem is to train your athletes to land (after the first rhythm jump) with both knees flexed, attempting to land and jump with both feet making contact with the ground simultaneously. Using this technique will help elevate the attacking arm quicker and increase the amount of the body s weight needed to increase vertical speed.

5 The Take-off Once the athlete has landed with her feet in front of her core, the closing step parallel to the net, and the catapult foot at a 45 degree angle and has begun to leave the ground, the horizontal momentum begins to convert to vertical speed. Leaving the ground with the feet in front of the core is an indicator that the attacker exercised an appropriate acceleration level. Remember that going too fast can interfere with the energy conversion and coordination between the lower and upper body. Role of the Non-Hitting Arm and Shoulder After the hitter has left the ground, the arms should elevate, ending with the shoulders almost parallel, the non-hitting arm slightly higher than the attacking arm with the attacking hand just behind the head. The shoulder opposite the attacking arm should also remain elevated until contact has been made to prevent the attacker from striking the ball while leaning. One of the biggest weaknesses of attackers is the misuse of the non-hitting arm. The non-hitting shoulder serves several purposes, including keeping the shoulders parallel prior to contact, acting as a counter balance after contact, and keeping the head stable before, during and after contact. The most important contribution of the non-hitting shoulder is allowing the head to remain stable. Prior to striking the ball, many hitters either lower the non-hitting shoulder or throw the non-hitting arm to the side of the body causing the head to turn away from the ball. Tucking the non-hitting arms close to the body with the shoulders parallel allows the striking arm to either complete the follow-thru portion of the swing on top of or below the nonhitting arm. The Swing and Follow-Thru Taking a healthy swing requires the appropriate allocation of power resources. Imagine a baseball pitcher throwing a fastball or a quarterback attempting to throw the ball between defenders. In both cases the needed velocity is generated from the torquingx of the hips and shoulders and completed with some form of follow-thru. To use the available power resources correctly requires the attacker to keep the ball in a very small window between the attacking arm and the middle of

6 the head. After ascending, the elbow of the striking arm initiates the simultaneous rotation of the hips and shoulders, placing the bottom portion of the hand on the ball. Placing the palm on the ball is the first opportunity to attack the ball with power, this should be followed by wrapping or spreading of the fingers around the ball to facilitate the direction the hitter wishes to attack the ball. Once the hand is placed on the ball the hips and shoulders should begin to rotate (as one piece) and begin the follow-thru. For years coaches have encouraged or taught players to snap the ball with the wrists; however, I believe this technique to be both potentially unhealthy and impractical. Imagine a quarterback or pitcher throwing the ball using their wrists to generate velocity and stopping at the point of delivery without some form of a follow-thru. Beyond the lack of velocity, muscular stress would be placed on the shoulder to stop the follow-thru. Using wrist snap does have its benefits, but is best utilized in close proximity to the net without an approach, such as in the case of an overpass. Using a form of a follow-thru allows the hips and shoulders to follow their natural movement after the ball has been thrown (in baseball or football) or, as in the case of volleyball, after it has been struck. The striking arm should follow-thru either on top or the bottom of the non-hitting arm and finish close to the opposite of the body (by the hip), similar to a cross-body swing. The Landing As coaches we spend a significant amount of time training our attackers to develop rhythm and timing, how to control their weight in the air, how to use the hips, stomach, and shoulders for power, how to place the hand on the ball, and teach them a variety of shot selections. Unfortunately not enough time is spent on how to land correctly. Landing correctly has several benefits including evenly distributing weight and shock to the joints after making contact with the ground, preparing to cover, and initiating counterattack. Most athletes land on the leg opposite of striking arm. This is caused by the lack of core control in the air which is ultimately predicated on the inability of the athlete to efficiently transfer energies. A healthy landing should include placing both feet on the ground (close to the same time) with the body weight distributed vertically with the ankles flexed and knees in front of the feet.

7 Conclusion In its simplest form the approach is a run, small (horizontal) jump, and a bigger (vertical) jump, and a swing, but to attack with efficiency and accuracy requires the command over the variables leading up to the ball being struck. Control over how to predict and react to rhythm cues, control over the upper and lower body levers, control over weight distribution (and how it regulates balance and energy transfer), and how to correctly utilize available power resources to exercise a healthy swing are essential to becoming an effective and consistent attacker. Training the approach like all of the other skills should be executed with specificity, detail and consistency. Beyond training for success, specific contextual behaviors also aid the proper use of time, prevent injuries, and maintain your athlete s health.

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