In the summer of 2010, Florida State’s head women’s volleyball coach Chris Poole was about to begin his third season with the program but was still building, trying to make his sometimes inexperienced players into a nationally-competitive team. Out of the blue, he received a phone call from Dustin Sahlmann, a former manager at Arkansas where Poole coached between 1994 and 2007. “Hey Coach Poole,” Sahlmann said, “We haven’t talked in years, but I’ve got a good friend who’s developing this machine to work on hitters’ arm swings. Would you be interested in trying it out?”
The machine Sahlmann—now a head coach himself at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.,—was peddling is the AcuSpike, an adjustable mechanical arm and bucket that holds a ball above the net for hitters to approach to and hit the ball out of. The AcuSpike is made to promote high arm swings, precise approaches, and maximum jumps every time, all without the need for a tosser or setter. Poole gladly agreed to begin using it with his 2010 team, to the delight of Assistant Coach Holly Watts, whose first thought was how nice it was that she wasn’t going to have to toss for hitters all the time anymore.
Today, as they are in their third season of working with the AcuSpike, Poole and Watts are intimately familiar with the apparatus and have found there is little not to like.
“The only time we’ve had any trouble is when we tried letting them do some serving out of it,” said Watts. “That’s something we kind of played with at the beginning. The toss is so important to the serve you’ve got to incorporate it in the training part, so it didn’t make as much sense to use [the AcuSpike].”
Overall, the AcuSpike seems to have helped the Seminoles improve. In fact, last season they stormed all the way to the Final Four in San Antonio, a first in the program’s history.
Watts credits this not only to the AcuSpike itself, but the way she and Poole have chosen to incorporate it into their daily routines. For the first 45 minutes of every practice, Watts takes the middles and right sides to a court with the AcuSpike, and they work on approaches, arm swings, blocking, and transitions, while the setters, outsides, and serve receivers can all be spending that time perfecting their own skills, without being required to set or pass for their teammates.
“[The AcuSpike] lets us split up and get a lot of contacts,” Watts said. “[The players] get so many more touches when you don’t have to wait on somebody to pass the ball and somebody to set the ball. So we can have our team divided up where everybody can really specialize for part of practice and get a lot of reps and then when you put them together it’s like you’ve already had a full practice worth of touches almost.”
Poole said they have chosen to use the AcuSpike mostly with their middle hitters and right sides (their “bigger kids” as he says) and not their outsides as much. His explanation for this distinction is that the Seminoles’ outsides are usually the more skilled players, while the middles and right sides are excellent athletes but perhaps would benefit more from additional repetitions to work on their form and technique.
“So many times young players come in with a low elbow,” said Poole. “They won’t reach to make contact with the ball. Well, this machine is going to hold it there for them. So we can crank it up to wherever we want it to be and we can tell the hitter they’ve gotta go up and hit the ball at that height, and they can’t cheat by letting the ball drop down to them.”
However, there is a bit of a learning curve when transitioning from hitting out of the stationary AcuSpike to the more variable in-match set.
“It’s not like you are going to use the machine one day and the next practice their arm swing is gonna to be fixed in a scrimmage,” said Poole. “It’s not at an instant, but you begin to see them reach better, you begin to see them get on top of the ball and having their elbows up higher because they’re being reinforced with that every time that they use it to warm up during the first part of practice.”
Poole and Watts both maintain their confidence in the machine’s power to bring about great improvements.
“I’m not getting paid anything to promote it,” said Poole. “I’m promoting it because I believe in the machine. I think it’s done a great job for us. I think they’re good people there at AcuSpike. They’re working to try to develop equipment that is going to help further volleyball development.”
If the AcuSpike is indeed the key to a future without the chronic low elbow disease that is so prominent in young players, it’s certainly something we can all look forward to.
Originally published in November 2012