The middle blocker position is definitely one of the more difficult positions on the volleyball court and requires specialized knowledge and skills to do it justice.
As a former international level middle blocker myself, I know exactly what it takes to excel in this position and what things you need to focus on to improve.
I’ve come up with a list of 16 keys to middle blocking success that you absolutely have to be aware of.
Let’s get right into it!
1. Swing On Every Ball!
When attacking, you probably won’t get set much as a middle blocker.
But you always need to be a threat offensively, no matter how unlikely it is for you to get set the ball.
You can’t just go for the lackadaisical half-assed fake arm swing either.
You need to imagine you’re going to get set the ball every single time and be prepared to kill the ball from anywhere.
The reason this is important is because it’ll delay the opposition middle blocker from committing outside if he thinks you’re a threat.
As soon as you look like you’re not going to jump and swing on the ball, the middle blocker is out of there and setting up a perfect block on the wing spiker.
You job is to assist your fellow spikers by drawing the opposition middle in, which makes their lives a lot easier.
2. Don’t Forget To Cover Your Wing Attackers
As soon as you’ve gone for that swing offensively, if you’re not set, your mind should immediately switch into cover mode.
If the ball goes to your outside hitter, move right up next to him, get down nice and low, and get your digging shoes on because your job is to stop that ball from hitting the ground should the blockers get ahold of it.
So often I see inexperienced middle blockers moseying on over to cover their wing attackers at the sticks, but they don’t quite get down and into position until the spiker’s already hit the ball.
The ball then comes right back down near the middle who isn’t able to save it because they weren’t ready.
Don’t be a lazy defender.
Middles already have a bad reputation for being useless at defense.
Separate yourself from the rest by doing a really excellent job of it!
3. Know Where The Setter Is At All Times
I’m referring to the opposition setter here.
When your team is serving and you’re on the net, waiting to block, you need to know whether the setter standing in front of you is in the front court or back court.
If they’re in the front court, you will have to be aware of the dump.
Some left handed setters will actually wind up and spike the second ball when in front court if you let them.
If the setter is in the back court you can, for the most part, forget about them being an offensive threat.
4. Always Keep Your Eyes On The Ball
When your team is serving, never take your eye off the ball as the opposition makes the pass in to the setter.
Occasionally, the opposition will set up in different positions than usual and they’ll begin running different combination plays which will look out of the ordinary.
If you start focusing on peoples’ feet and where players are going, you’ll lose sight of the first 3 primary blocking objectives which are as follows.
- Be prepared to spike/dump/dig the overpass.
- Be prepared to block the setter if they’re front court.
- Be prepared to block the middle hitter’s quick attack.
If you take your eye off the ball even just for a second, it’s very difficult to get the timing right on any of those 3 things.
5. Use Hand Signals To Communicate To The Back Court
This is primarily a beach volleyball tactic that works really well on the indoor volleyball court too.
Imagine you’re up against a really solid opposition middle blocker who is destroying you offensively.
You’re standing opposite him in position 3.
When your team is serving, it helps to communicate to your back court via hand signals behind your back to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
You want to tell your defenders what direction you’re planning on blocking and whether you’re going to commit block or read block.
A commit block simply means you’re going to jump aggressively to block the opposing middle if the pass is reasonably accurate.
A read block means you may or may not jump to block the middle, but you’re going to decide as the ball makes its way in to the setter.
If our opponent is being set a lot and is very strong, a commit block may be the best approach in an attempt to neutralize them as a threat offensively.
If they’re not causing too many problems and aren’t being set all that often, read blocking may be a better approach.
To signal a commit block, make an open palm. To signal a commit block, make a closed fist.
With your other hand, indicate which way you’re going to block by pointing.
You should be aware of which direction your opponent likes to hit the ball, so naturally you’ll look to block that part of the court.
Even if you don’t have a read on where they’re going to hit the ball, just pick a direction anyway as it’ll allow your defenders to better defend the open court.
The above hand signal would mean you’re planning on commit blocking to the right hand side of the court.
6. Don’t Swing Block Recklessly
I see this all the time from inexperienced middle blockers.
If a ball is set out to the pins, your job as the middle is to quickly get into position to form a double block with your wing player.
Sometimes, when the ball is set to the sticks quickly, the middle blocker will jump from too far inwards and float out in an attempt to close the seam in mid air.
What ends up happening is the middle blocker crashes into the shoulder of the other blocker and often completely takes them out.
It’s incredibly annoying if you’re and opposite/outside and whenever you go up to block, you’ve got a 250lb 6’10” middle blocker shoulder barging you in mid air every time!
The solution is fairly simple.
Even when swing blocking, focus on going into the jumping movement with little to no horizontal momentum.
You should almost be going straight up from wherever you take off from.
Of course some sideways drift will be unavoidable.
This leads me into my next point…
7. It’s Better To Not Get Far Enough Out Than To Put Up A Sloppy Block
Here’s what I mean by this…
If the setter sets the ball to the antennae fairly quickly and you realize you won’t quite make it all the way out in time to make a good double block, just go up to block wherever you are when the attacker is spiking – even if there’s a big seam between you and the other blocker.
The reason you want to do this is because you make it obvious to the defenders behind you that there’s a seam in the block and they’ll know to step up and defend this gap.
If you desperately try to close the gap when there’s no way of making it, you’ll end up putting up a sloppy block with poor height and penetration and there’s still going to be a seam the spiker can exploit.
It’ll be a lot less obvious to your defenders where they should be expecting the ball to go.
At least if you just go up strong wherever you were able to make it to, you can take out the sharp cross court angle and give your defenders a clear idea of what they’re working with.
8. Blocking Is About Penetration, Not Height
A lot of beginners think a good block is about getting your arms as high above the net as possible.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
As soon as you jump and get your fingers above the net, they should be shooting forward across the net.
Think of blocking as reaching across instead of raising your arms up.
The objective of blocking is to ‘take out’ a certain area of the court that your opponent can hit the ball.
The reality is because people don’t contact the ball all that high, you can take out more court by reaching over as opposed to reaching up.
Not only does penetrating across the net take out more space, but it also prevents the ball from being hit into your arms before landing between you and the net which is an absolute disaster.
Beginners mess up this idea of ‘penetration’ by going straight up initially and once they’re almost at the peak of their jump, they pat their arms down across the net.
Don’t do this.
Instead, focus on shooting forwards as soon as your fingers get over the net.
Your arms should already be over the net, and as you reach the peak of your jump, they should extend further over, not higher up.
Notice how as soon as the blocker’s hands get above the net, he’s extending forwards across the net.
You’ll also notice how he’s locked his shoulders out right at the top of the jump to get some extra forward extension.
9. Block With Strong, Evenly Distributed Fingers
This is more of a blocking 101 tip but is particularly relevant to middle blockers as this should be their bread and butter.
Beginners often block with their hands straight up or up and back.
Elite blockers make sure their hands/wrists are bent slightly forwards when making contact with the ball.
This makes the ball more likely to deflect the back across the net as opposed to land on your side.
Your fingers should be tensed and firm the whole time they’re over the net.
10. Practice Your Blocking Footwork With Intense Focus
Blocking can be kind of boring and repetitive to practice, but if you do it properly, it’s the one thing that will improve you the most as a middle blocker.
Your blocking drills don’t have to be elaborate by any means. It’s not so much about what you do when practicing blocking, but how you do it.
You need to use visualization to practice the reaction speed and quickness you’re trying to develop.
I like to reflect on the time I played against the Thai Navy team when I was 16.
They moved the ball so quickly to the sticks that it was extremely difficult to get out far enough.
If I was just a couple milliseconds too slow, I wouldn’t get into position in time.
I had to focus on the ball and the setters hands so intensely. It was as though I was an Olympic sprinter waiting to react to the start gun.
You can do this simple drill on an empty net.
Stand in the blocker ready position and practice your big initial outside step, followed by the cross over step and the jump. Penetrate over the net and lock your shoulders out.
But do all of this as quickly as possible.
Decide in an instant when you’re going to go and then execute the block as quickly as humanly possible while maintaining proper form.
If you have a partner, have them say ‘go’ at a random time so you have something to react to.
The point of this drill is to develop reaction speed more so than blocking technique, but you should be focusing on both.
11. Improve Physicality But Remember Technique Reigns King
Let me explain what I mean by this…
The middle blocker is one of the most ‘physical’ positions on the court. You have to be big, athletic, and strong.
While I always preach the importance of improving your vertical jump in volleyball, it’s actually not as important as you’d think for the middle blocker position.
If that were the case, the top middle blockers in the world would all have gigantic spike heights, but the reality looks quite different.
I’ve got Marko Podraščanin of Serbia ranked as the third best middle blocker in the world and he has a spike reach of only 346cm.
How about Italy’s Simone Anzani? Fifth best in the world with only a 350cm spike reach.
The second greatest middle blocker in the world, Lucas Saatkamp, reportedly only has a 340cm spike reach!
I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but even if they’re almost correct, it’s saying a lot.
What this tells us is that it’s entirely possible to become one of the best middle blockers in the world without a crazy vertical jump.
It definitely helps, and it certainly helped Robertlandy Simón become the best on the planet with a 387cm spike height, but it’s not everything.
The reality is that the best middle blockers are technically better than everyone else.
They have better timing offensively, quicker reactions when it comes to blocking, and can read the offense better than the rest.
You should always be improving yourself as an athlete: lift heavier and get stronger so you can be more explosive, jump higher, and hit harder.
But just understand you probably won’t jump your way to the top of the middle blocking rankings!
12. Aim For The International Hitting Zones When Spiking
Middle blockers for the most part have a habit of hitting the ball really sharp and love to aim for the attack line.
Part of this is because we’re really only ever up against a single blocker so it’s a lot easier to hit the ball down when you’re not also trying to hit around a double block.
But I’ve noticed that if you make a deliberate effort to aim for the back corners of the court, even as a middle blocker, you’re going to hit with a lot higher efficiency.
The reason guys like Anzani and Podraščanin are able to attack the ball with such a solid hitting percentage is because you rarely find them hitting short.
They make a point of hitting the ball deep into the back court.
It’s still extremely tough to defend because it’s a quick attack, and it also reduces the likelihood of hitting the ball out or getting stuff blocked.
This brings me nicely to my next point…
13. When It Comes To Spiking, Variety Is The Spice Of Life!
The last thing you want is to be labelled as a one-dimensional middle blocker who can only hit the A-ball.
Even worse is when you only run A-balls and only ever hit the ball straight. Or you hit to the right and never swing across your body to the left side of the court.
These middles are very predictable and extremely easy to play against.
A good middle blocker should be difficult to play against. They should be unpredictable and always keep you on your toes.
You should be able to hit As, Cs, and B-quicks.
And you should also be able to run meter balls, 2s, and 4s.
Now you don’t need to have all the tricks in the book. You don’t need to practice the off-tempo quick ball as demonstrated by Simón above…
If you can simply run 1-2 attacks consistently and can aim for anywhere on the court you’ll be doing just fine!
14. Be Aware Of The Proper Defensive Positioning After Serving
After you serve the ball, you’re going to have to play defense for the remainder of that rotation.
Usually you’ll serve and then run into position 5 where and you should be ready to defend.
If the ball is set to the opponent’s right side, you need to transition out so that you’ve got one foot on the sideline and you’re prepared to defend the line shot.
If they set to their outside hitter, you need to stay in relatively close and be prepared to dig the hard cross court angle or dive on a tip/roll.
The point is you can’t just sign off because you’re now in the back court and you’re about to swap out for the libero.
You need to be a defensive asset for your team for that one rotation and you need to be willing to get down low and put your body on the line to save the ball!
15. Get Good At Running The Pipe
Look at you, in the back court for half a rotation and already trying to change the conversation from playing defense!
Being able to hit from the back row after serving the ball can give your team more offensive options which is always a good thing.
This works particularly good if you’re a really athletic middle blocker who can jump.
If you become proficient at hitting the pipe, after serving you can look to switch from defending out of back/left to back/middle.
This will put you in better position to run the pipe.
16. Turn Your Jump Serve Into A Weapon
Some of the best servers in the world are middle blockers because they have the following attributes…
Having longer arms means you’re capable of generating more power.
Being capable of generating more power means you can serve the ball harder.
They also often have a very high spike height.
That means they can serve the ball at a more devastating angle, making it tougher to receive.
So in theory, middle blockers are biomechanically configured to serve more unreturnable serves than any other position.
Lean into this by spending more time working on your jump serve!
Parting Words Of Advice
The key to becoming a better middle blocker is to make yourself a more well rounded asset.
Become a better blocker by improving your reaction time from simulating real-world situations in practice.
Learn to hit multiple attacks in multiple directions.
Have a powerful jump serve in your arsenal.
Be able to hit the pipe.
Actually defend properly on the rare occasions you have to.
There’s no shortage of things you can work on to grow as a middle blocker.