As I have watched beach volleyball evolve over the years, I have noticed that there are some fundamental skills that have become lost with the modern game. One of these lost skills is the footwork required to defend the line.
There are two changes in the game that I think have had the most influence on how the line shot is defended and they are:
- The introduction of the fast, flat line shot over the block
- The changing of the court dimensions from 9×9 meters to 8×8 meters
Anyone who played on the 9×9 meter courts knows that the only chance you had to dig the line shot was to use your footwork to clear the ‘no-play zone’ and get close enough to have a legitimate play on the ball. This was even more difficult to do on the 9×9 meter court. That’s because the cut shot was longer and used more frequently, which forced the defender to hold until the ball was in the air before releasing to run down the line shot.
Today, I see many defenders standing in the middle of the court and then leaving early to run to the line shot… while depending on their super tall blockers to take away all of the cross court options. Why more hitters don’t simply chip the ball over the cross court block into the court abandoned by the defender I don’t understand, but too often they don’t. The most old school rule for playing defense is ‘be still while the hitter is hitting.’ So, how did the defenders play such good defense on a 9-meter court by waiting?
As I said before, the line shot used to be loopy and slower than it is now. The evolution of taller blockers and a smaller court has allowed defenders to start closer to the line shot. Out of necessity, today’s line shot is more like an off-speed hit than the loopy, deep shot of the past. The first person that I saw use this flat, fast line play was 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes. Kent approached the ball as if he was going to hit it and then used a high, quick jabbing motion to push the ball fast and flat just over the block. This was devastating on a 9-meter court, and caused many teams to serve his partner, Karch Kiraly.
That was no better option, of course.
Because of the smaller court, bigger blockers and less effectiveness of the cut shot, defenders aren’t forced to have the same footwork and tracking skills that they needed in the 9-meter game. Now, I often see tall defenders take two steps toward the line and dive to attempt a line
dig. Though this may get them to the ball, too often it doesn’t allow them to play through the ball and get a quality dig.
My basic rule for line shot defense is that your footwork has to clear the three meters of what I call ‘no play zone’ and get close enough to the ball to actually be able to make a quality play on it. When I coach defensive footwork, I start by doing backwards math. I literally have defenders start by standing or lying down in the digging position at the end of the play.
Then I have them walk back to where they would stand to start their defensive play. That becomes the number of steps that they must be able to cover in their footwork. I have been doing this for many, many years and I have never found anyone, 7-footers included, who can cover this area effectively in less than three steps.
The other key component in defending the line shot is tracking. Tracking includes positioning, prioritizing, timing, and moving in unconscious competence among other things. This allows the defender to systematically eliminate all other options and use a planned response to manage a difficult situation. This system worked on the 9-meter court and it certainly works on the 8-meter court.
The fundamental components of the system are positioning, prioritizing, footwork, executing the play, and recovery.
Steve Anderson, Canada’s national beach volleyball coach
Volleyball Source Magazine, Summer 2014