Tricks of the Trade

Although solid basics are the foundation for success, even the best can pull a trick play out of their hat when the need arises.

Peter Brouillet
When the pass is good and the hitter all set to take a solid swing, that's when you utilize the over-on-two set when the defense won't be expecting it.

We all know a player who likes to be tricky on the court. Whether it’s faking a block or pretending to hit with his right hand and then dinking with his left, the trickster can be entertaining, but he’s rarely successful over the long run. In general, avoiding flashy trick plays and sticking to the basics works best. But once in a while, you find yourself in a situation where the basics may not be enough. That’s when you should consider resorting to some of the plays in the trickster’s arsenal. Here are six plays that I don’t recommend using all the time, but ones that should work for you when you need them.

Over-On-Two Set

Use this when you’re about to set, your partner is taking a good approach, and the defense is completely lulled into expecting the hit. Don’t try this play if your partner is badly off-balance or out of position because the defense will probably expect it.

The idea is to fake the set as long as you can, keeping your hands high overhead as the pass comes toward you. Then, as the ball is directly above you and about to come into your hands, extend your inside hand and contact the ball as high as possible. Shoot it deep into your opponents’ court. With any luck, they’ll be taken by surprise and be unable to run it down.

Over-On-Two Backset

This is a variation on the over-on-two set. It works best if there are no blockers. In the traditional over-on-two set, you want to shoot the ball deep over a blocker. In this version, your opponents are deep in the court, and you’re aiming for the short area they’ve left open.

As with the traditional over-on-two, keep your hands high as long as possible. If you take the ball too low, you won’t be able to execute.

The foot closest to the net should be ahead of your other foot. This turns your shoulder at an angle to the net and helps create a trajectory that allows a backset to drift over the net, instead of landing harmlessly on your own side. When the ball reaches your hands, instead of setting forward to your approaching hitter, slightly arch your back. Push the ball backward with a low trajectory, aiming for your opponents’ sideline. If you’ve done it correctly, the ball will fall within two or three feet of the net, making it almost impossible for a defender to chase down.

Back-Up Pokey

This is an emergency technique used to play a ball that’s heading over your head while you’re backing off the net. This happens most often when you’re fake blocking, and the hitter shoots; or when you’re playing short for the hit, and the hitter tries to loop it over you.

For this play, turn and move toward the back court while keeping your eye on the ball. Ideally, you’ll be able to reach and make a normal pass. If you can’t, plant your foot and shift your weight while reaching for the ball with one hand. Bend your fingers down from the second knuckle while keeping your hand unclenched so you end up with a flat surface at the top of your bent fingers. Poke upward and forward at the ball to keep it in play.

Skyball Serve

Very few people use this serve as a mainstay, preferring the more popular jump or float serves. But the skyball is great to use on a blindingly sunny day when your opponents are facing the sun. It’s also a good serve to exploit a weakness in your opponents’ passing.

The best skyballs are the highest ones. A low skyball is easy to pass, but one that seems to drop out of the heavens is much harder to handle. First, position yourself at an angle to the court, never straight-on. (I rarely serve a skyball, but when I do, I like to be almost perpendicular to the court.)

Bend your knees as you bring your arm back, and, as you release the ball, give it a little height on the toss. As you begin to follow through, straighten up, and contact the ball with a flat fist. Follow through with an upward trajectory to give the ball maximum height. This is a serve that requires practice and can fail in windy conditions. But once in a while, it can be a winner.

Play the Ball Off the Block

Once in a while, even the best setter will trap-set you at the net, meaning he or she has put the ball way too close to the waiting arms of the blocker. Usually, swinging away at a trap set results in a glorious stuff block for the opponent. But here’s another way to play it.

Instead of hitting the ball hard, tap it upward and off the hands of the blocker. If the ball doesn’t go out of bounds off the blocker’s hands (a “tool” and a side out or point for you) generally, it will fall slowly back into your side of the court, giving you or your setter a second chance to play it. A couple of things to keep in mind: Don’t just swing or poke away indiscriminately at the ball, or you’ll probably get blocked. Make a conscious decision to rebound the ball off the blocker’s hands well above the tape because a ball that rebounds off the tape may cause a savvy blocker to yell “No touch!”

Reverse Forearm Pass

At one time or another we’ve gotten stuck too short in the court and watched a good shot sail over our heads and land on the back line. Although it’s not ideal volleyball form, the reverse forearm pass is one way to make the play.

This pass is basically an upside-down traditional pass. To execute it, raise both arms above your head, clasping your hands and angling your wrists back. Play the ball off the area where your wrists meet your forearms. The idea is to get the ball up high in the air, so it’s important to keep your wrists angled back and your arms high. If you forget this, the ball could shoot straight forward or down.

Originally published in June 1997

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