Short Zone Serving

The following article is taken from COACHING VOLLEYBALL: OFFENSIVE FUNDAMENTALS AND TECHNIQUES  Edited by:  Kinda S. Lenberg  and may be found at the Coaches Choice Volleyball Coaching Library

Short Zone Serving

By Tom Pingel

Short zone serving is an area that a lot of coaches shy away from, mostly because they feel it is too easy of a serve or it is not effective enough for what they want to accomplish during a match.

In fact, many coaches believe that they should simply let their players stand back and just “let it rip” because that type of serve might be a lot more effective. In reality, coaches can use the short zone serve primarily to try to catch a receiving team off guard if the receivers are out of position. The short zone serve can also be used to disrupt an opponent’s offense, especially if you are playing a better team that receives the ball really well. If a team has a big player and that player subs out in the front row, the coach is subbing that player out for a good reason—probably because he cannot pass the ball or play defense very well. Or, perhaps his ball control skills are not very good.

Hitting a good, consistent short zone serve right into this player’s lap is a good way to take the opponent out of his offense because it forces that person to receive and, when he is receiving, he may be taking his mind off attacking. Also, if you have a receiver who is receiving deep in the court in a three-person reception pattern, having him move up close to the net to receive can also disrupt the opponent’s offense from the standpoint that it affects the attack approach, angles, etc. The last thing a short serve can really affect is the amount of time that the setter has to think about the choices on the set. When the pass is traveling from 20 to 25 feet up to the net, the setter has a lot of time to get to the pass and make an educated decision about where to set. If the pass is at the attack line and only travels 8 to 10 feet, the setter does not have as much time to think about where to set and that may ultimately affect his choices.

The down side about short zone serving in general is that, while it gives the receiving team less time to react, it also gives your defense or your blockers less time to react. The blockers have to be aware that the ball is going to be passed to the setter rather quickly and they are going to have less time to see the approach patterns. Also, if the team that is receiving has a front-row setter, the ball is getting to that potential attacker a lot more quickly. Therefore, your defense is going to have less time to get into position. If you are having one of your servers execute a short zone serve, do not have that person playing left back defense, simply because he may not have time to serve and travel all the way to the left back position if the opponent has a front-row setter, since the setter can jump to that position very quickly.

Types of Serves

The High Arc Serve

This serve is very effective. A lot of teams, men’s in particular, are using this serve. A team is not going to get a considerable number of aces off of it, but it has a low chance of error and makes it easier to hit targets. Technically speaking, with the high arc serve, you still want the ball to cross the net somewhere between the top of the antenna and the top of the net. It is not going to be so high that it is going all the way back 15 to 20 feet. Ideally, you want to have this serve land from the attack line and up. In order to do that, the ball should be served nice and high so that when it is crossing the net, it is definitely on its way down. The big technical difference on this serve is that instead of the normal toss out in front of the server like he is going to serve in the deep zone, the ball should be tossed slightly back so that the server is contacting the bottom of the ball, not the back of the ball.

A lot of travel time is involved with this serve—plenty of time for a person in the back row to scoot up. Again, you are not looking for aces with this serve; you are looking to take the receiving team out of the reception pattern. If you have a short zone serve to middle front, three or four players may converge on the ball and clog everything up into the middle. If you are playing against a team that runs a swing offense and your outside hitter is having to come in and receive that ball, it could really affect your defense. Some squads that have the receiving teams very deep almost beg you to short zone serve because it quickens their offense even more. Knowing that, you may not want to short zone serve against those opponents.

With the short zone serve, you have a little less chance of error because if you miss, you definitely want to miss deep. You do not want to miss short because it goes in the net. If it travels a little bit deeper, that is acceptable. The down side is that you are not going to get many aces and it is an easier ball to pass to target than the quicker serve.

The Flat Serve

The flat serve does not travel nearly as high as the arc serve. It is basically the same type of toss that you would use for a deep zone serve. However, it is hit much more lightly. The idea behind the flat serve is that it is barely going to clear the top of the net and it is going to drop off once it gets past the net.

The advantage of this serve is that it does get to the receiving team a lot quicker and it has a better chance of catching them off guard, especially if they are receiving deep. Because it is moving a little bit quicker and flatter, it is a harder ball to receive and pass right to the target.

When receiving a ball in the back row, a player wants to pass it to target, but he has a little bit of room for error in depth. He has a 20-foot pass and he can adjust to the speed a little bit. Also, he has a little bit more time to see the ball. On a short zone serve that is really flat and gets on the receiver in a hurry, the receiver almost has to dig it and take some of the speed off of it.  Otherwise, he is looking at an over-pass. Again, with this flat serve, the toss is out in front. If the ball is hit too strongly, it goes right back into the heart of the reception.

From a technical standpoint, the toss stays out in front. The server is hitting it left and trying to get it close to the top of the net. The chance for error is high. A flat serve can clip the top of the net, or carry out if it is hit too hard. This type of serve also leaves more room for error on contact.  For example, if a player hits it a little bit high on the hand instead of down where he should normally be serving, he could fluff it a little bit. Or, if he hits off-center, the serve is not going to have enough speed on it to reach all the way to the net.

On all short zone serves, the 2 zone is probably one of the most difficult because the ball has to travel a little bit farther, you have the sideline to contend with, and the serve is going crosscourt, which is adding to the distance. But, if you have a server who is really good at zone 2 serving, the flat serve can probably be the most effective serve in your repertoire, especially if the setter is coming out of that position. If the setter is releasing out of right back, serving to that position always works well. The most important thing is that the distance from a right front passer to the setting position is reduced. If the setter is facing where the pass is coming from and the serve goes to the attack line or sideline, the setter, for the most part, is going to have his back to the middle attacker and the outside attacker. The setter is not going to be able to use peripheral vision to see if the middle is coming in on time, etc. Even on a high, arcing serve to zone 2, the receiver has little room for error and the setter is going to be taken out of the reception or out of the flow of the offense at that point.  A serve over to zone 4 is pretty—and advantageous—because you are going to bring your receiver up and reduce the approach distance. From a setter’s standpoint, it is just like receiving the ball from the back row. The distance is just about the same and he still gets to see his middle attacker coming in.

Intermediate Depth Serve

The third type of short zone serve is a combination of the high arc and flat serves. It is an intermediate serve where you are looking for more aces but you are also looking to disrupt the reception pattern. With this serve, the ball is not going to land very close to the net, but you do want to have your front-row receivers receive the ball. You would utilize this serve if a receiving team would be using a service reception “W” or “U” or against an offense where there is a person playing short. The idea is that you would be serving right at the short zone receiver’s shoulder, head, etc. If he is going to receive the ball, he has to take the ball very high, move back, and adjust. If the front-row people are going to step in, it is going to be a situation where they actually have to move fairly quickly behind the ball and they have to play a ball in front. What this serve is supposed to do is create some confusion. If you have a receiving team that does not communicate very well, the front-row person may take a step for the ball because they think that they have to receive it and the back-row people see that step and stop. It should create some communication problems. This should be a fairly quick ball that barely clears the top of the net. In instructing your players, tell them to aim for a particular short zone receiver’s shoulders or head. If you have a zone receiver who is used to receiving the ball, he might not be able to get out of the way.

The advantage of this serve is that it has a decreased chance of error. If the serve is hit a little too hard, it is going to continue back to the back-row receivers and you are going to say, “Well, it was not quite as effective a serve as we wanted.” But, you are not going to have an inordinate number of errors. Again, if it is served correctly and you hit your targets, it can be very effective in disrupting reception. Because of the speed, you may also get a few aces off of it.

The down side to this serve is that it must be highly accurate to be effective. If it is not accurate, it becomes just another serve, like a down ball or a free ball that would go right into the heart of the reception. As for technique, the intermediate serve is much like the flat serve. The toss is out in front and the server hits the back of the ball instead of the bottom.

Serving Strategies

From a strategic standpoint, depending on what level you are playing or what kind of team you have, you must adjust your serving patterns. If you are playing a team that is a very strong receiving team, you may not get a large number of aces off of a short zone serve. By the same token, you are not going to get a whole lot of aces off of a drop zone serve, either. As a coach, you have to decide what is going to be the most effective way for your team to have an advantage in serving. Perhaps it is just a matter of disrupting the offense and bringing all of the players together. Short zone serving is a change of pace and teams may not be used to seeing it if they do not do it themselves. Short zone serving can also help your receiving. If your team uses a lot of short zone serves in games, you are going to be serving a lot of them in practice and your reception patterns will therefore be used to reacting to the short zone serves.

Whether you call your zones from the bench or you talk about what your serving strategies are going to be at the beginning of the game, you should always take time to discuss serving with your team. A lot of times, coaches fall into the trap of talking so much about offense and defense that they do not talk about strategies before the game or at time-outs. Make sure you discuss serving, as well as what attacks have been going well or what adjustments need to be made on defense.

The biggest fear from a server’s standpoint is the fear of making an error on the short zone serve. Obviously, from a confidence standpoint, the problem has to be taken care of in practice. Try to put your players into game-like situations as much as possible during practice. If you are a coach who calls the zones from the bench, do that in practice. It does not do players any good if you tell them to serve wherever they want or go with their own mix during practice, and then you call zones during a game. The players will have to adjust and look over to the sidelines for the serving zones.

Of course, you do not necessarily have to call the zones. If two people are back in the serving line, have the second person tell the server what zone to serve to, or have the server tell the partner what zone he is going for. Try to have them even out the serves, using both the deep zone and short zone. A lot of times, if you just let your players go back and serve wherever they want to, they are going to serve to the deep zones 75 percent of the time. Then you have to remind them to use the short zone serves, also.



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  • Ed Weber says:

    Thank you I really learned a lot!

  • Ed Weber says:

    Thank you I learned a lot!

  • Tolis says:

    This is very well written – thank you.

  • Rich says:

    Serves to Zone 2 are great in high school because a lot of less experienced setters will turn and face the passer so they will be facing the wrong way when they set. They don’t feel comfortable setting a ball coming from over their left shoulder. If you can turn them around they either have to set weak side or throw up a back set to the middle or a long back set to the strong side, which most can’t even do.

    If the opponent has their stud hitter on the left side this is a way to make it difficult to set him/her.

    Serving to Zone 4 forces the passer to pass at a sharp angle to the net. It’s easier to pass from the center of the court where you just block the ball straight ahead to the setter, but if you have to angle the pass dramatically and then scramble outside to get an approach it opens up a lot of chance for error.

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