The preteen and early teenage years, just when kids start to grow, are as important for athletes as any other age.
During their middle school years, volleyball players start growing intensely, finally using their height to their advantage, taking a step away from just passing the ball to the other side.
At this stage, their game starts looking more similar to adult volleyball, and it’s important for the coach to set proper drills for the kids.
So, what are some good volleyball drills for middle school kids and what advantages do they provide?
Here’s my pick!
Loading and Forearm Passes Drills – Passing to the Setter
At this stage in their development, children are usually good enough at basic volleyball skills. They’re good enough to pass the ball around, for their level of course, and they’re used to scoring points not by spiking the ball, but by throwing it over the net with a forearm pass.
However, middle school is the age at which they learn to spike the ball, which means that setting is becoming more important.
Up until this point, the general game plan was just to keep the ball in play at all costs, which is why coaches focus on passing and basic technical skills so much. Now, there’s a rigidness to the game plan: pass the ball to the setter -> have the setter set the ball for one of the hitters -> the hitter spikes the ball.
The first step of that plan is both the back line and the setter learning their roles properly.
The back line has to pass to the setter, and this is done through loading and forearm passes.
My coach would have the back three players line up and the rest of us would just launch balls at them from the other side of the court. The setter would, of course, wait in the middle, in front of the net. The goal was to get the ball as close as possible to the setter.
He would draw a 2×2 meter box around the setter with a piece of tape. Every ball that went into that box was a good ball. Every ball that went outside, even though the setter could get it if they wanted to, was a bad ball.
After running this drill two times with the same back line, the coach knew which players were the best at passing to the setter and which players needed 1 on 1 work.
What he really emphasized was for the players to focus on the box on the court. Sometimes we did this drill without a setter in the box because he was, frankly, unimportant – it was only important to hit the box.
After drilling the same motion again and again, the players (not me, I was an outside hitter and I rarely got the first touch) knew how to position themselves for each ball just from muscle memory.
Loading was also especially important. Children are quick to forget this because they lose focus quicker than adults, but having your body ready to accept the ball before the ball comes at you makes passing much, much easier.
To make sure that we loaded properly, he’d have us run suicides whenever he noticed that we’re receiving a serve without loading first. One player forgets to get low to the floor and load for a pass – the entire team runs a suicide. We learned to load very quickly.
Finally, we had to do a lot of forearm passing drills, focusing only on properly accepting the ball and passing it. He would have us do forearm passing drills in trios.
One child (not from the back line, so this was often my job) would be hitting the ball at half strength at a player from the back line, standing about 20 feet away. Their goal was to pass the ball with their forearms to a player standing behind the hitting player.
The box would sometimes make an appearance in this drill as well, but not always, as the goal was for the players to develop the proper technique – accuracy comes later!
These two loading and forearm passing drills helped us all to learn a lot about positioning ourselves, while the large-scale passing to the setter drill taught the back line how to make the first offensive step in a game – get the ball to the setter.
From my experience, this is the first volleyball drill for middle school children that paid off, as our game started changing from ‘just pass the ball around and get it over the net by any means necessary’ to ‘pass it to the setter, set the ball for the hitter, spike the ball’!
Accuracy and Decision Making Drills for Setters – Setting the Ball
The second part of that ‘pass-set-spike’ plan is to set the ball, so that’s what should be drilled next.
Before you start with setting exercises, remember one thing – children aren’t as tall as adults. Your hitters won’t be able to spike the ball the same way and with the same hit rate as they will when they’re in their late teens and adolescence.
Adult players always like the setter to set the ball as high as possible. “Give me time on the ball.” I always say.
This isn’t a worry with children – they’re usually short and they can’t jump above the net and slam that ball into the ground. In fact, most spikes won’t come from the front line, right next to the net, but somewhere from the middle of the court.
Your setter should be taught accuracy and decision making – they need to be able to see which hitter is in the best position, make the decision where to pass before the ball even gets to them, and then set it accurately.
Decision making and quick thinking is incredibly important for setters, more so than any other player on the court.
This is an aspect in which volleyball and soccer are incredibly similar – the best soccer players scan the area around them just for a moment before they receive the ball. When they receive the ball, they already know what to do with it.
So, for accuracy, we did drills for setters in trios.
The setter would be standing in their usual spot, in front of the net, I would be standing on their side, and one of the back three would be standing in the back line, alone.
As an outside hitter, my job was to hit the ball at the backline player at half strength while standing next to the setter, I’d then run back to my position, which helped me with foot movement and backwards, recovery runs.
The backline player, no matter what position they really are, was passing the ball to the setter, practicing their loading and forearm passing skills.
The setter’s job was to set the ball to me – if the ball was too short or too long, it was a bad ball. If it came straight at me, and at an appropriate height, it was a good ball.
I then had to spike the ball to the other side, where another trio was running the same drill (diagonally), so we’d exchange volleyballs.
However, that’s just the outside hitter position. To help the setter pass the ball accurately to all positions, the coach would put me in different positions (during the drill, not during the game) and the setter would have to pass to different positions.
When it comes to decision making volleyball drills, we drilled that through a smart, number-based system.
We’d take positions in our standard formation and the coach would serve from the other side. As he hit the ball, he would shout out a number. Each position on the court has its own number, of course.
The setter then has less than a second to prepare for setting the ball for the position.
We would do a similar drill in training games. During regular training games, just as a player would pass the ball to the setter, the coach would shout out a number and the setter would have to pass the ball to that position (even if the hitter was in a great position).
If he set a good ball, the hitter’s job (or whoever’s the player receiving it) was to softly send it to the other side, so that the opposite setter can do the same thing.
If the setter set a bad ball, be it too long or too short, we’d do five pushups.
This drill helped the setters a lot with their decision making – they could easily identify the best player to set the ball for, and they could adapt their body and their setting in a moment’s notice, since the coach worked with them on quick thinking.
Thanks to the accuracy drills, we always knew the balls would be coming straight at us.
Recovery and Spiking Drills – Spiking the Ball
First of all, we did a lot of physical conditioning. The hitters are usually the tallest kids and the highest jumpers in the team. To get us to jump higher, we’d do various jumping exercises.
Aside from that, when we’re talking about drills for in-game actions, we worked on recovery drills and spiking drills.
Recovery runs are very important for hitters, as they’ll sometimes spike the ball, the opposite team will reset it and spike it back, all in just a few seconds. They need to be back in their original position, ready to pounce, very quickly.
This was drilled with five players. One hitter, one setter, and three back line players.
The coach would be launching the balls at the back line from the other side of the court, they’d pass it to the setter, who’d set it up for me, and I had to spike it to the other side.
As soon as I hit the first ball, the coach would send another ball flying to the back line, so I had to run back to reposition myself and wait for the setter’s ball.
Needless to say, this exercise should be done slowly with children – I’ve done this exercise as a teen and at college level volleyball, but much more quickly.
The focus of this drill is for me, as a hitter, to get myself back into position on time. If I did that and I managed to spike the ball, no matter how successful or unsuccessful the spike was, the drill was a success!
The second drill I did was a spiking drill. Endless setting of the ball on the attack line, not by the net, and I’d have to spike it over to the other side.
The coach didn’t want the ball set at the net because we were all too short to jump over the net and spike it.
Initially, the coach insisted that hitters don’t jump at all.
He wanted us to learn how to spike the ball accurately and into areas where it’ll be hard to defend first, and then we would focus on the strength of the spike.
Jumping was the last aspect we added to the spiking drills, and only after we became good enough at spiking while standing.
One of our hitters (not me) was almost 6 feet tall at the spry age of 13, so he already had a height advantage over all of us. Needless to say, he was our best hitter.
A spike was successful if the coach said so – he didn’t focus so much on where the ball landed (as long as it’s within lines), but on the ball’s dip and the hitter’s technique.
We later started doing accuracy spike drills. The coach would use tape to split the court into six sections (boxes) and he’d shout out where he wanted the ball to be hit just a second before I hit it.
It’s the same principle as the setter decision making drill.
Once we started playing actual games, I would identify holes in the opposition’s defense just a moment before I made my run. I knew exactly where I wanted to hit it before I hit it.
Well, there you go, folks. These are the middle school volleyball drills my coaches used back in the day. I’d dare say they were pretty effective, given that I went on to play volleyball at much higher levels (and I wasn’t half bad either).
One thing I really want to point out with these drills is that they’re basic, but for a good reason. Volleyball drills for middle school need to teach them the basics of ‘pass-set-spike’, which is the basis of volleyball entirely.
These drills are really as basic as it gets. They teach the entire team how to pass to the setter, they teach the setter how to set the ball, and they teach the hitters how to spike.
As they get older, children can get into more nuanced drills which are going to teach them very specific skills and improve very specific aspects of their game.
Although their game is evolving at this stage, middle school volleyball drills should still include regular physical conditioning drills, as well as serving drills, 6v6 training, and basic passing and control drills, such as circle passes or keeping the ball up against the wall.