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The Serve
02. The Pass
03. The Setup
04. The Spike
05. The Block
06. Recovery Shots
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Chapter 1 - The Serve

James C. DeWeese, Jr.

The serve is the act of putting the ball in play by a player from the service area. This statement, which once appeared in the USVBA rules, sounds simple, but actually it describes one of the most important plays in the game of volleyball. There are several reasons why the serve is so important.

First, the rules state that a team must be serving in order to score. A team with strong servers has an advantage in getting its offensive, or point-making system, under way and keeping it under way.

Second, when one is serving, he can to some degree force the opponents to play the ball as he wishes. This gives him the advantage of forcing the weaker men to pass the ball. Weak receivers often miss the ball entirely, commit an error or foul in playing the ball, or make a poor pass.

Third, by effectively using the screen and by effectively serving the ball, one has a definite opportunity to put his opponents off balance momentarily. The latter two reasons are closely related, as both can cripple the offense of the opponents. "The better teams try to hit a deceptive or hard serve that will nullify their opponents' chances of getting a good pass, setup, and spike." x

The serve then is more than the act of putting the ball in play. If used properly, the serve can be a powerful offensive factor. Harry Wilson, coach of the great Hollywood YMCA team, feels the serve is more important than the spike in the offensive system.2

Underhand Serve

In executing the underhand service, the server should be back of the end line and within the extensions of the side lines. This is the service area as denned in the rules. The server should stand with his knees flexed, and, in the case of a right-handed player, his left foot should be slightly in front of the right. The ball is held in the left hand to the front and right side of the body so that it will be directly in line with the right hand. A high back swing should be made with the right arm, and the forward swing should be made directly under the shoulder and the ball. The elbow should be kept straight. The ball is hit off the left hand similarly to the way a golf ball is hit off a tee. A good follow-through is essential. The right hand should be held like a claw and the ball should be hit with the heel of the hand. Some players use a closed fist and hit the ball with the heel and flat surface of the fist, but it is difficult to have the control with the fist that one has with the open hand. As the swing is made, a short step forward should be made with the left foot, shifting the body weight to the left foot. Special care should be taken to keep the foot from touching the end line, which would constitute a foot fault and result in the loss of serve.

By continued practice, it is possible to hit the ball directly in the center, causing it to make its flight without any spinning or turning. This causes the ball to jump and slide, making a very effective serve.

Overhand Serve

The overhand serve is a very effective serve and with practice may also be very accurate. This serve is accomplished by tossing the ball easily to a position just above the level of the head and just slightly in front of the frontal plane of the body. The ball should be tossed in front of the right arm and shoulder. The right arm should be in a position so that the upper arm is parallel to the floor and to the frontal plane of the body. The hand should be held in a clawlike manner, close to the head and behind the ear.

In the tossing sequence, Odeneal suggests that the valve of the ball be placed toward the receiving team. This small amount of weight in the valve causes the ball to dip and slide after being hit.3

The ball is hit in much the same manner as a spiker would hit a volleyball or in the same manner as a catcher might throw a ball to second base. Wilson recommends that the ball be hit or batted with a motion similar to a serve in tennis.4 The ball is hit with the heel of the hand and slightly capped with the fingers. There is very little follow-through on this service. Capping the ball with the fingers after hitting it with the heel of the hand will give a top spin to the ball, causing it to go at a fast rate similar to a spike. The ball may also be hit in the center and not capped with the fingers. This creates a floating ball that jumps and slides because it has no spin. The floater travels fast over the net and dies quickly, making it difficult to judge in receiving.5 Both the capped and the floater serves are very effective and can be used interchangeably.

The most common stance of the server is with his feet in close proximity to and equidistant from the end line. However, some servers prefer to stand several feet behind the end line and/or with one foot forward. It is not necessary to take a step with the overhand service. Here again, this is a matter of preference with the individual player.

volleyball drill

Illustration #/. Jane Ward, Santa Monica Mariners, executing the overhand serve.

Roundhouse Serve

The roundhouse service is one of tremendous power. This is also known as a windmill, hook, or smash serve. Only in rare cases is it used with any consistency. Many of the more experienced volleyball players use a variation of this serve and are reasonably successful with it. It is covered here only because it is a definite type serve and may be used as a last resort when time is running out and points are needed quickly.

In this service the player should face the side line and be perpendicular to the end line. The ball is tossed straight up with both hands so that it will be directly over the right shoulder. The right arm is brought from against the side straight out and over the head with the elbow kept straight at all times. Contact is made with the ball at a point directly over the shoulder and with the heel of the open hand. The ball is capped with the fingers as it is hit. This causes the ball to go with only a slight rise and with a tremendous topspin and drop as it crosses the net. The difficulty in returning the ball comes from its velocity.

Comparative Value of the Three Serves

For many years the underhand serve was the basic or fundamental service in volleyball. Now this serve has been replaced in popularity by the overhand serve. Women players can and do learn the overhand serve, while practically all of the better men players use it.

The underhand serve is of value at the secondary school level, but its value on the college level and above is questionable. The ball must travel in a relatively high arc to get over the net, and this gives the receivers time to move back for a deep serve or forward for a serve dropping over the net. "Very few of the top teams use the easily received underhand serve." 6

At Emory University Welch teaches only the overhand serve to freshmen and sophomores. In a volleyball workshop at the University of Wisconsin, Wilson taught the overhand serve to a class of fifty women and ten men. "They learned to serve overhand fairly well in the first two days of class."7

Caldwell has given an excellent summary of the advantages of the overhand serve as compared to the underhand serve: "You can serve a much faster ball, which gives your opponents less time to move into position to reach the ball. You can impart more top-spin to the ball, as in tennis. The top-spin causes the ball to drop much faster, and your opponents must be careful to take the spin off the ball when making their pass from the serve. It is a little easier to serve a hard no-spin ball (floater) with the overhand serve. The no-spin ball is used since it is hard to guess which direction it will go as the ball comes over the net." 8 Whereas Caldwell speaks of a hard floater, Wilson is quick to point out that a ball does not have to be hit hard to make it float.9 A slow floater may be likened to a knuckle ball in baseball. The key factor with the floater is whether or not it dips and breaks, and the good players can accomplish this with balls hit at various speeds.

As pointed out previously, the roundhouse serve is used infrequently because it is difficult to control. Many coaches feel this serve is easy to field, since it is not curving from side to side. Players can be taught to step straight into the path of these hard-driven serves and pass them quite adequately. However, Stanley Zmuidins of the Newark, New Jersey, YMCA and Gabriel Budisin of the New York Ukrainian Volleyball Club have won many points in the National Championships with their roundhouse serves.

The Screen for the Server

Official rules of the U.S. Volleyball Association allow players to line up anywhere in their court they wish. They must, however, be in their proper rotation order and the three front men be completely in front of the three back men. These rules provide the serving team the advantage of forming a screen for its server.

Fig. #1
Five-Man  Screen

Fig. #2
Four-Man  Screen

volleyball drill

O—Player;       ------> Path of ball

The purpose of the screen is to hide the server from the opposing team and thus conceal the ball for a longer period of time even in its flight. When the opposing team does not know in which direction the ball will go or when the ball is hit, it is not able to get set as well for the return. "The use of a serving screen adds much to the effectiveness of the floating serve." 10 The usual formation for a five-man screen calls for the three front men to stand side by side in proper rotation order and about 15 feet from the net. The two back-line men should stand close behind, filling in the gaps between the three front men, as shown in Figure #1. Each man in the screen should raise his arms above his head. Players in the screen may also wave their arms if they desire.
It may be desirable to use only four men in the screen, leaving the fifth man to play the opposite side of the court from the screen, as shown in Figure #2. The screen may be used anywhere across the court. It may be close to one side line or the other, or it may be used in the center of the court. The Hollywood YMCA Stars employ an effective five-man screen next to the side line and closer to the net, as shown in Figure #3. This calls for accurate serves right down the side line.

See diagram of the three screens.

Strategy of the Serve

The use of the screen is one factor in the strategy of serving. Other factors include placement and accuracy. The good server is striving to hit the ball to certain spots in the opponents' court or to certain players who are weak receivers. He is also striving to be accurate by hitting the ball into the opponents' court and not into the net or out. The leading players are skilled in accuracy and placement. "Accuracy becomes automatic with practice. Also with much practice, placement can be quite easy." u

"I consider a player should be able to serve 95 per cent good, at the same time having such a tough serve as to make 10 per cent aces. It takes lots of practice. If a man can get 15 per cent aces—90 per cent may be O.K., but certainly not less." 12

Attempts at placement increase the accuracy of the serve.
Many players move back to the service area and serve with no thought of placement. This is a common practice even among the better players, and it contributes to errors in serving. Taking a moment to aim the serve at a certain player, between players, or to a certain area of the court will pay dividends in accurate serves.

If a team has a poor ball handler, it is good strategy to hit the serve to this player. As long as he commits errors, the serves should be directed to him. This hurts his confidence and the morale of his team mates. If his team mates try to cover for him, this usually contributes to poor teamwork or creates an open space to hit.

The better teams have players who are all good ball handlers. In playing against such teams, the best strategy is to hit the serve between two players and cause them to move to the ball. This may lead to indecision or mistakes on their part as to which player will take the ball. Indecision may result in the ball falling between the players. A mistake in judgment may result in the two players colliding and playing the ball poorly.

A serve which goes to the extreme rear of the court is an excellent placement. The difficulty with this serve is that it often goes out.

Role of the Serve in National Championships

The importance of the serve in determining national champions can be seen by studying the Official Volleyball Guide from year to year. Below are observations concerning the serve which have appeared in the Guide since 1950:

There was, however, general improvement in the serves. Many of them were harder to handle and made the difference between victory and defeat in some of the games. The sharply hit, flat, floating serve was predominant and the most effective serve used. (1950 National Championships)13

Team balance, superb defense, a sound varied attack, excellent serving, and fine receiving of opponents' serves made Hollywood   a   stand-out   team.   (1951   National   Championships)14

The change in rules to allow service from any place back of the base line was used very little, except for a four-man screen at times. The effectiveness of this play was questionable. (1952 National Championships)15

Serving still seems a trifle weak, and in general not well thought out. (1954 National Championships)16

One other feature which aided the Northern California team (Stockton) was their serving. Opponents always had a rough time in fielding those dropping, zig zaggy balls. (1955 National Championships)17

I think a lot must be done to master the service. Many of the teams missed serves at the crucial points, including the champions. (1956 National Championships)18

Ball handling seemed better than in the past, and serves were more consistent and really paid off. (1957 National Championships)19

The Hawaiian boys were far superior in ball handling and floor play to the other nine entries and utilized numerous specialists as substitutes. The substitute servers were particularly effective, and several games were won by aces on the serve.  (1958 U.S. Air Force World-Wide Championships)20
Top teams make the serve a potent weapon, forcing the receiver to move and to fault. More hard driving serves were displayed, although the work horse of the tourney is still the tricky float serve.  (1959 National Championships)21

Few players and teams master all of the principles and skills of serving, but those who do are more likely to attain top ratings in state, area, national, and international competition.

Many are average and some are good, but all should constantly strive to be the best. Every part of volleyball is important to the game, so whatever you are doing—serving, passing, spiking—work at it, concentrate on it, and be the best.


  1. Odeneal, William T.,  "Offensive Volleyball," Scholastic Coach, November 1954, p.  58.

  2. Wilson, Harry E., personal correspondence, July 8, 1959.

  3. Odeneal, William T., "Volleyball—Major   Sport,” Journal of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, January, 1954, p. 9.

  4. Wilson, personal correspondence, July 8, 1959.

  5. Odeneal, "Volleyball—Major Sport," p. 9.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Wilson, personal correspondence, July 8, 1959.

  8. Caldwell, Web, "How to Serve," International Volleyball Review, November-December, 1950, p. 28.

  9. Wilson, personal correspondence, July 8, 1959.

  10. Burton, Roger G., "What's Happening in Volleyball," Journal of Physical Education, November-December, 1953, p. 44.

  11. Wilson, personal correspondence, July 8, 1959.

  12. Wilson, Harry E., "Player Performance Charting," International Volleyball Review, January—February 1952, p. 29.

  13. Walters, M. L., ed., 1951 Official Volleyball Guide (Berne, Ind.: USVBA Printer), p. 101.

  14. Walters, ed., 1952 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 34.

  15. Walters, ed., 1953 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 35.

  16. Mundt, Logan C, ed., 1955 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 126.

  17. Mundt, ed., 1956 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 125.

  18. Mundt, ed., 1957 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 118.

  19. Mundt, ed., 1958 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 111.

  20. Welch, J. Edmund, ed., 1959 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 149.

  21. Welch, ed., 1960 Official Volleyball Guide, p. 122.

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