Blocking is the bane of many, if not most, competitive volleyball teams. Poor blocking not only affords the opposing attacker an easier hitting opportunity, but it also puts the back-row floor defenders at a distinct disadvantage. Volleyball blocking technique is dependent upon several factors, including anticipation, decision-making, movement speed and jumping ability. After the introduction of the multi-tempo offensive, the requirements and responsibilities of the volleyball blocker have been elevated to an extremely demanding level. For middle blockers in particular, decision-making and movement speed play decisive roles in blocking performance. Mike Hebert, head coach of the University of Minnesota women's volleyball team, summarizes the role of the middle blocker:
Middle blockers have, in my opinion, the toughest assignment in the game of volleyball. They are responsible for protecting against all quick attacks in the middle zones of the net, yet are also expected to close and form tight blocks against all outside attacks. Meanwhile, opposing setters are devising ways (faking to quick hitter, disguising their own delivery styles and using head shoulder fakes of their own) to entice the middle blocker into making a mistake. Middle blockers must be tireless, explosive jumpers with exceptional lateral speed. They are the cornerstone of any successful defense (Hebert, 1991).
Blocking Related Research
Most of the information that is available on the biomechanics of proper blocking technique comes from coaching textbooks and trade magazine articles. As such, while they may provide some valuable practical information for coaches or athletes, these sources offer very little quantitative substantiation for the techniques that are advocated. However, there have been a few studies in the scientific literature which have provided information relevant to certain aspects of blocking performance. In particular, these sources involve aspects of blocking footwork technique and the vertical jump. A brief summary of the most pertinent research follows.
Blocking Footwork Technique
There are very few published studies that have sought to determine the best footwork technique for the lateral movement sequence in volleyball blocking. One of the first studies to investigate the most effective blocking footwork technique was performed by Cox (1978). The slide step, cross-over step and jab cross-over step techniques were performed by 45 collegiate males (see Figure 1). Lateral movement time was measured with a pair of pressure sensitive floor mats that were connected with a computer and a timing mechanism. Upon a visual signal, participants were instructed to move laterally as quickly as possible from one mat to the next using a pre-determined footwork technique. The average movement times for the slide, cross-over step and jab cross-over techniques were 1.284,1.329 and 1.349 seconds, respectively. Statistical analysis of the data confirmed that the slide step yielded significantly faster movement times than either the cross-over or the jab cross-over. In addition, it was concluded that the cross-over step technique was faster than the jab cross-over. However, the fact that none of the participants in this study had competitive volleyball experience severely limited the application of these results.
Cox (1980) completed a second study that applied a similar protocol with 42 competitive volleyball players. However, in this study, a preferred step technique was substituted for the jab cross-over technique. In the preferred step conditions, participants were instructed to move laterally as quickly as possible using whatever footwork pattern they desired. The average movement times for the preferred, slide and cross-over techniques were 1.306, 1.302 and 1.345 seconds, respectively. Cox (1980) concluded that both the preferred and slide techniques were significantly faster than the cross-over technique; however, there was no difference between the preferred and the slide. In an interesting observation, Cox (1980) reported that during the preferred trials, participants invariably used some combination of the prescribed techniques when performing the lateral movement.
Despite arriving at convincing results, the application of Cox's first studies was limited by the exclusion of a jump at the end of the lateral movement. During blocking, it is not enough simply to move quickly from one point to another. A vertical jump and reach must be performed at the conclusion of the lateral movement if the blocker is to reach the attacked ball. Cox recognized the limitation and addressed this issue in his third study. In this study, Cox and his colleagues extended the protocol presented in an earlier study (Cox, 1978) by applying a vertical jump at the end of a lateral movement. The results of this study demonstrated that the cross-over and jab cross-over techniques were superior in terms of getting the blocker off the ground and into the proper blocking position quickly (Cox, 1982). However, although the data were available, Cox et al. (1982) failed to include a measure of the time taken to complete the total movement and jump sequence.
In 1991, Buekers finally put it all together. In this study, the footwork technique which resulted in the fastest lateral movement and jumping times among 10 national-caliber female volleyball players was evaluated. The three footwork techniques which were tested included the slide step, cross-over step and running step (see Figure 1). Two pressure sensitive floor mats and an opto-electric timing system were used to evaluate the three footwork techniques. Regarding overall movement, jump and reach time, the running technique was found superior to either of the training methods. However, the advantage gained by the running technique was strictly confined to the lateral displacement sequence. Table 1 shows that the slide and cross-over steps were actually much faster than the running technique regarding the time needed to complete the final preparation for the block jump.
Buekers (1991) concluded that the optimal step technique should vary as a function of the lateral distance that must be traveled by the blocker. That is, for short distances, when lateral movement time is not the major concern, it was recommended that the slide step be used since it allows the blocker to maintain a more appropriate body position throughout the movement. However, when the blocker must travel quickly to the outside to assist with an outside attack, the running technique was advocated for its overall superiority in lateral movement, jump and reach time.
Of course, once the blocker has arrived at the final outside position, a vertical jump must still be completed. Volleyball blocking jumping is somewhat unique in that the blocker is prohibited from using an extensive armswing because of the proximity to the net. Although several investigators have reported that a vigorous armswing may improve vertical jumping performance by about 10 percent, this finding is of little benefit to the volleyball blocker. However, there are components of the block jump that are similar to typical vertical jumping.
If the blocker is afforded the time (which is not always he case -- particularly when the middle blocker is concerned), the vertical jump performance may be enhanced by rapidly squatting down prior to the propulsive phase of the jump. This lowering sequence is called counter movement because it occurs in the direction that is counter or opposite to the direction of the desired movement. During the descent of the counter movement (squatting movement), the hips, knees and ankles are flexed into positions that stretch the muscles that will act later to extend those same joints during the upward phase of the jump. Research has suggested that besides improving the force producing capacities of the muscle itself, this pre-stretch mechanism improves jumping performance by utilizing some of the elastic properties of muscles and tendons; by increasing the distance over which force can be exerted, thereby prolonging the upwards propulsion phase; and by taking up some of the muscular slack which is associated with the initial stages of the development of muscular tension.
With regard to the counter movement, it is important to understand that the optimal depth and rate of the counter movement will probably be different for each athlete. Since athletes will have slightly different physiques and differences in muscular strength, each athlete should be encouraged to develop his/her own counter movement that results in the best individual jumping performance. However, some athletes may develop a counter movement that does little to enhance their jumping ability. Some may squat too much; some not enough. Some may squat down too slowly, some too quickly and some will squat down and hold this position for a brief time. While each athlete is different, there are some general guidelines for proper counter movement mechanics that can be followed.
Too much depth in the counter movement can actually impair vertical jumping performance. While you are probably more familiar with the athlete who employs too little of a counter movement, it has been shown that the other extreme also decreases performance. The rate at which the counter movement is performed (i.e., the speed at which the athlete squats down) will also influence jump height -- the faster the counter movement, the higher the jump height. This result in itself provides firm evidence that under no circumstances (barring some tactical situation) should the athlete hold the counter movement in the lowered position for any significant length of time.
The Importance of Being Early
Research has shown that during the attack, approximately 0.34 seconds elapse from the instant of takeoff until the instant of ball contact. Since the preparatory phase (rising into the air and cocking the arm) lasts about 0.29 seconds, only 0.05 seconds are needed to initiate the forward motion of the attack and strike the ball (Chung, 1988). Fora blocker, this finding has some important implications.
To get a feel for this time frame, try to start and stopa stopwatch as quickly as possible. You will probably find that you can not come close to 0.05 seconds. When applied to the case of the blocker, itis clear that if the blocker(s) has not sealed the net by the time the attacker has begun to accelerate his/her arm in the forward direction, they will not have the time to penetrate the net before the ball has passed them. The only way to make sure that the net is sealed, therefore, is to penetrate the net early -- well before the attacker begins the forward armswing.
Unfortunately, little research has been done on the biomechanicsof blocking. As a result, it is somewhat difficult to make an informed, objective decision on the techniques that may optimize an athlete's blocking performance. The take-home message presented here is:
Buekers, M.J.A. (1991). The time comparison of the blockin volleyball: A comparison of different step techniques. ResearchQuarterly for Exercise and Sport, 62 (2), 232-235.
Chung, C.S. (1988). Three-dimensional analysis ofthe shoulder and elbow during the volleyball spike. Unpublished doctoraldissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
Cox, R.H. (1978). Choice response time speeds of the slideand cross-over steps as used in volleyball. Research Quarterly for Exerciseand Sport, 49 (4), 430-436.
Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 51 (3), 430-436.
Cox, R.H., Noble, L. and Johnson, R.E. (1982). Effectivenessof the slide and cross-over steps in volleyball blocking. Research Quarterly forExercise and Sport, 53 (2), 101-107.
and Strategies for WinningVolleyball. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers,
The importance of blocking varies dramatically according to the overall level of play. At the highest levels, because hitters hit the ball so hard, blocking is the second most important skill, right behind passing. If an open-level hitter faces a sloppy block or no block at all, he simply drills the ball into the floor or off the block and the rally ends.
At lower levels of play, the block is much less important because hitters don't attack the ball as hard. But blocking remains important nonetheless. The goal, however, is not to stuff every hit; rather, it is to keep balls from being hit hard into the center of the court. A good double block will defend 75% of the court from a hard driven attack, which allows the four players not involved in the block to cover just 25% of the court.
Basic blocking mechanics
Ninety-five percent of blocking is watching and positioning. First, watch the opponent's pass; it will tell you a great deal about whom the setter will set. Second, watch the setter before he/she contacts the ball. Again, there will be clues about where the ball will go. Meanwhile, using your peripheral vision, watch the hitters; their positioning will tell you the planned location and height of the set.
After the set is made, watch the ball long enough to know where it will come down, then turn all your attention to the hitter. Generally, though not always, the outside blocker should position himself directly in line with the hitter's approach. The middle blocker "closes" the block by moving to the outside blocker's shoulder.
As you position the block, focus all your attention on the hitter, noting the angle and speed of his/her approach. Go up after the attacker. Jump as high as you can, and the moment any body part -- fingers, palms, wrists, forearms, etc -- gets above the net, push it into the opponent's air space. Keep your arms perfectly straight and try to squeeze your shoulders into your ears. Spread your fingers, point your thumbs toward the ceiling, and watch the hitter's swing.
As you reach the peak of your jump, push your hands toward the center of the opponent's court; this action angles your hands and arms so that ball deflects downward and toward the center of the court. If you fail to do this, you will get "used" or "tooled" repeatedly -- meaning, balls will go off your hands and out of bounds. (*Don't close your eyes, because you won't be able to see the hit, and don't flail your arms, because your diggers won't be able to position themselves behind you.)
When two blockers go up in unison, both executing proper blocking technique, their four hands create a "shadow" into which no ball can be driven.
As soon as you land, turn toward the center of your court and prepare to play offense: if you're the setter, prepare to set; if you're a hitter, sprint, (don't back-pedal) to the start of your approach.
To move along the net effectively and efficiently, blockers should use one of two types of footwork. If the opponent's set is falling within 5' or 6' of you, you should use a simple "step, close" pattern. If, for instance, the set is falling 5' to your right, take one big step with your right foot, then close with your left foot and prepare to jump. If the set is falling to your left, step with your left foot and close with your right.
When you must move more than 5' or 6', you should use the "running" (aka "step, cross-over" method. If the set is falling 10' to your right, for instance, you step with your right foot, cross-over with your left, then plant your right foot and go straight up. When executed quickly and correctly, you can see how the "running" method got its name. Turn your shoulders and hips in the direction you want to go, drop your hands, and take two quick running steps, starting with the appropriate foot. Then square your shoulders to the net and block.
Most men's and women's teams use three blockers. They should space themselves evenly, stretching or compressing themselves, accordian-like, depending on the location of the opponent's hitters. If the opponent has one hitter on each sideline, for instance, then you should have one blocker near each sideline with the third blocker in the middle. If the opponent has only a middle hitter and a left-side hitter, then your blockers must compress themselves, placing one blocker in the middle, one on the outside, and one half-way in between.
In a three-blocker scheme, the outside blocker's job is to correctly position (or "set") any outside block. Most lower-level outside blockers choose (for good reason) to position the block slightly inside the set, which takes away the cross-court hit and leaves the line open. Most upper-level outside blockers, because they face more experienced hitters, vary their blocking strategies.
The middle blocker's job is to block all middle sets and to close to the outside blocker on outside sets. If the middle blocker is repeatedly late and/or jumps laterally to close the block, someone is going to get hurt. To avoid such injuries, middle blockers should either go straight up whereever they are, leaving a hole in the block which the middle back player can fill, or not go up at all.
Hints for better blocking
1. After the set is in the air and you know where it's coming down, turn all your attention to the hitter. Position yourself in line with the hitter's approach.
2. When the set is really tight, keep your eyes focused on the ball and ignore your blocking assignment. Go up as hard as you can and wrap your hands around the ball. If any part of the ball is on top of the net, you don't have to wait for the attacker to contact it . . . just slap it to the floor.
3. If a set is 5' or 6' off the net, jump later than you would for a set that is 1' or 2' off the net.
4. Penetrate, penetrate, penetrate.
5. If you realize the hitter cannot take a good swing at the ball, yell, "Downball," and don't block. At the most levels of play, your team is better off trying to dig weak hits than trying to block them.
6. A "soft block" -- which deflects the ball upwards into your own court and gives your team an easy ball to pass -- is almost as good as a stuff block. Acknowledge teammates for good soft blocks.
Technical Skill: Blocking
By Paul Smith
Head Coach University of Victoria Men
A team's block is its first line of defense, its aggressive and explosive movement designed to shutdown the opponent's offense. The significance of the block to a team's defense cannot be stressed enough. Essential, if a team's blocking scheme breaks down, so does its defense.
The key to a good blocking team is to simplify the overall movement by reading all the cues. Instead of reacting to the situation, your players can anticipate the situation.
Function of the block
Basic Philosophies: CAR
When you give feedback in blocking, it is positive and aggressive. Things like "Go after the ball," "Get the ball on their side," and "Grab the ball" are the kinds of verbal feedback.
The ready position is very important in blocking. you need to well-balanced on your feet, to react towards whichever direction the opposing setter guides the ball.
You should be a comfortable distance off the net, about 45 centimeters or so. If you're too close, you don't give yourself any room in which to maneuver upwards or sideways. If you're too far away, you'll allow the ball to fall between you and the net. You've got to try your hardest not to let that happen. So find a comfortable distance from the net - each blocker feels his or her own distance.You should be on the balls of your feet with your feet spread shoulder width apart. Your feet have to be fairly far apart so that you have enough leverage to push off and gather momentum towards either side. Your arms should be extended above your head. That is, your hands should be up high (higher than your ears) and in front of your head so that they remain in your peripheral vision.Your eyes should be on the setter as he/she waits for the pass to fall into their hands. This stance is the same no matter which position along the net you are located in.
So, as you step up to the net to block, you should first of all call out how many hitters there are. Then point out which players are the hitters. It's extremely important to communicate with your teammates, especially the other two blockers. Tell them if the setter is eligible to attack and point out the other two hitters.
FIRSTLY, blockers must focus on the serve receive pass. Is it off the net or directly to the setter? Can the opponent run a combination play or will they have to play it safe? These decisions must be made almost instantly.
SECONDLY, look closely at the setter and the body cues this player may provide in determining where the set is headed.Typically, if the ball is far in front of the setter's head, chances are good they will set the ball to the outside. Conversely, if the ball is at the midline of the setter's body or if the setter's head or back is leaning backward, they will likely backset. In addition, some setters have a tendency to jump set when going to their middle attack.
THIRDLY, after a decision is made as to where the set is going, the blocker must immediately pick up the attacker and read their body in order to determine where the shot is directed. Four rules when reading the attacker are as follows:
FINALLY, it is necessary to know the opponent's hitting tendencies. Do they hit straight ahead? Do they have a strong rotation of shoulders? What are their favorite shots? Do they pull the ball down when attacking? Coaches should be responsible for this area, scouting the opponents prior to the competition. If pre-match scouting cannot be accomplished, the coach should watch the opponent during warm-up drills and in the first game of the match, But your players can also pick up these tendencies by watching the opponent.
Blocking is a skill that must be done with the right attitude: Confident, Aggressive, Relentless.