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The Volleyball Serve: Controlled Aggression Is Key

Remember the 80-90-100% rule

Nothing is more important in today's game of volleyball than the serve. As the point system changed from side out to rally point, it has become even more vital to have control of this offensive weapon, which like all weapons can hurt a team if not used wisely.

Where many players fall short as servers is in understanding the balance between potential to score and the potential for error. All coaches consider risk in their game plan, and serving is one area in which there can be a wide variation of acceptable risk from coach to coach.

Each serve is a potential point and some points are more valuable than others. Service errors early in a game can be rectified easier than service errors later in the game. But service errors early can also set a tone of the game that influences your players' level of overall confidence and game anxiety.

How you approach serving strategy is directly linked to your overall ideology about competing and sports. It is best at this point to know what is your comfort zone around risk and what are you attempting to achieve with the team, not only during the current season but in years to come. Serving is the cornerstone of a volleyball offense, but it can't be considered in isolation; it needs to be integrated into a coach's entire tactical and strategic approach to the season. Volleyball players going for ball at net

My experience with rally point scoring is that errors happen, and to play low risk can look good early but can lead to risk avoidance later, which may end up costing your team big wins when it counts the most.  Taking calculated risks will largely determine how successful a team or player will be, and that holds true with serving.

There are a few widely held service ‘rules' that are excellent guiding posts for how risky your serve can be.

  1. Game point serves must go in; it's your game point or theirs!
  2. Serves after the 20 point mark has been reached: must go in.
  3. Your first serve of game: must go in to build success one step at a time. (see the 80-90-100 principle discussed below)
  4. After an extended serve receive situation: if your team struggled to score a point off of serve receive for 3 or more in a row, your next server must serve it in.
  5. If the server prior to your next one made a service error, the next serve becomes even more important because you want to avoid 2 servers making service errors 2 or more times in a row.
  6. After a time out or substitution: this is the lowest on the list of musts, and its importance is more a function of the score and which team has momentum

The concept of "must get it in" has some variables as well. Getting the serve in does not mean over the net and in and anywhere will do. (although there are times a coach will be happy just for that!) Serving with power has its merits, but it is all about being strategic and that means understanding the game as a whole.

  • Serving is the only time a player has complete control of the ball from initial contact to finish.
  • Teach the player to own the ball and own their serve and have complete control over it from start to finish.  Tips to improve ownership is to have a routine, teach visualization, consistent toss, consistent and minimal arm action (no excessive flouncy arm swing, foot movement- keep it simple silly!) And have them watch the ball as they contact it over and over again.
  • Once a player knows their best serve, then they will feel confident about using it in any situation.
  • Always play your best shot first.
  • Always teach serving in context of game play either with receivers or having to come into court to play defense.
  • Remember serving is not an isolated skill. Disperse serving drills thru out your practice as that mimics how serving is constructed in a game. Examples are: play out a point then go and serve; being tired and having to go serve, subbing in and having to serve. Find ways to reproduce game-like situations, and serving will be a strong reliable weapon within your entire game plan.

My final point is on how hard a serve does a server have or use? This is usually a bigger issue in the men's game than women's game. The court size is consistent for the men's to women's game, and men are bigger and cover more area and women do have less capacity in their upper body strengths. The realities are that men need to serve harder to be more effective, while women can be more location focused. Of course this also varies by age and the skill level of players, but the same guiding principle is universal: serve strong but no one needs to serve a 110% serve. Powerful serves are dynamite, so learn how to use them wisely!


Teach players to be able to vary the power in their serve, so that they can be consistent and never overpower themselves into a service error. The rule I teach 80-90-100%, which means first serve in a game/match is 80% power; second is 90% and if you get a 3rd it is the 100%. If the player gets a 4th serve, they don't need to ramp it up more than 100%, as a 90% may do very nicely, especially if well placed.

Also, after an ace with a 100% serve, the server can win the next service point by using a "change-up", say 80%, but again well-placed. This whole approach is a game within a game, with the server having the control to dictate the game. The key is that the server dictates their shot, power and effect of their serve; master that control. This is more advanced control, but if taught in theory throughout a young player's development then that player develops a strong sense of control over their serve and their game and that goes a long way to building confidence in your players.

Confidence can be built on success but it has to be earned in real time situations that have consquences. Any game or real time play will lead to errors so failure can teach much more than easy success. Coaches find your comfort zone around risk management and with patience and well guided learning experiences, your players will develop their mastery over their serve and ultimately their own risk management.


Alison Hitesman is a graduate of Dalhousie University with a degree in Physical Education and Coaching and Health Sciences. She has been coaching volleyball since she was 20 years old, beginning with a Senior Boys High School team in Halifax, Nova Scotia and assisting at Dalhousie University as well as becoming the coach of the Senior Womens' club teams.  Alison has played volleyball at every level, from college,  to Provincial Women's teams to Canada's Masters Team,  which won silver medals 2 years in a row at US Open Championships.
After moving to Victoria, British Columbia, she continued coaching boys' and girls' volleyball at the local club level, and has been involved at the Team BC level in training and selecting our provincial athletes, and coached Women's Volleyball for 4 years at Camosun College. Both my children play elite volleyball through out their youth club and school seasons and Alison's son plays at 17U and Senior high school level.


Posted May 21, 2012