USA men’s national-team libero Dustin Watten wants to share what he’s learned as an athlete, how he’s inspired and what he’s overcome to get where he is.
In this article, he switches gears and offers the first lesson from his series about passing:
Understanding the benefits of the split step
“There is not one path. There is not even the right path. There is only your path.”
This is the beginning of my seven-day passing course. My goal isn’t to dictate nor to tell you there is only one path to greatness, but to share the information I’ve learned traveling with Team USA and studying the world’s best passers to allow you to build your own path to greatness.
Today we will begin your path by focusing on the first step (literally) as we will develop your split step.
The tennis split step
What is a split step? The split step is a little hop that tennis players take to get a quick jump on receiving an incoming serve.
This is done by taking a little hop in the air, as they are anticipating the service coming towards them. With a properly timed split step, they may have a quicker first step in moving towards the direction of serve.
You can see where this is going as we can learn a lot from tennis athletes and how they use split step for our ability to get a quick read on the incoming serve on the volleyball court.
Why the split step?
If you are able to time the split step well, it can help you move much quicker off the mark because your legs will already be bent and loaded at the moment you recognize the direction of the ball.
With a properly executed split step, you will be light on your feet, landing on both feet, but softly, as your heels are usually up and your weight is a little bit forward.
The split step can be advantageous because it’s a way to prevent you from being flat footed when moving towards the serve, allowing you to make a quick decision in whether you’re going to end up moving off to your left or your right foot, or if you’re just going to shift to your body left or right for the more difficult jump serves.
Finding your style for the split step
There are three ways to use the split step to your advantage in getting a jump on the serve but most players tend to initiate the split step from both feet on the ground as they can initiate the move simultaneously.
USA libero Erik Shoji, in my opinion, is the best passer in the world as well as the best in the world at the two-foot split step. What sets him apart from other receivers is that he is able to perfectly replicate his starting position after his split step (probably because he was and still is a great tennis player). What I notice often, is how athletes naturally widen upon their split step, I do this as well — unconsciously, without the intention of widening my feet.
Simple, efficient and balanced, there is so much we can learn from watching Erik.
Kevin Tillie, another world-class receiver, uses what I like to call the “approach split step.” I use this currently and just like me, you can see how he widens just a little upon landing on his split step. Once I became aware of my unconscious ability to widen, I would approach into my split step with a narrower stance with my feet, allowing my posture to widen into a natural and balanced position. If we are too wide with our initial posture, we will have a much harder time moving efficiently and I believe it’s very important to each individual athlete to watch video on themselves and to see the truth in how their posture upon landing, as most of us split step — whether we are consciously doing it or not.
You can see how Kevin, the Frenchman who won an NCAA title at UC Irvine, widens a little upon landing but how balanced he is due to the Split Step.
Using two feet? So 2019! There is a new style brewing in the professional volleyball world as a two-footed split step isn’t the only way to prime our legs in serve receive. I am seeing more and more European athletes initiating their split step by pushing off one foot and with amazing results.
Currently in the Polish Plus-Liga, (where I played last season) two of the best receiving liberos are using this method, Damian Wojtaszek of VERVA Warsaw ORLEN Fuels and Michał Ruciak of Cerrad Enea Czarni Radom. It is something that has caught my eye and I will begin experimenting with it next year as it seems simpler and they are both consistently much more balanced compared to other athletes.
Notice how balanced, strong and primed Wojtaszek’s legs are upon landing on his one-footed split step below.
Hop, Jump or Land?
One of the most common instructions in tennis when it comes to split step is that you need to hop/jump as your opponent hits the ball. Just like in volleyball, it is partly true, but you can easily misinterpret what that means and perform the skill incorrectly.
Most players will interpret this as first waiting to see the opponent hit the ball. Then, as they see it, they will initiate the split step. But that’s way too late for us to get a jump on the serve.
To use the split step properly, you need to be already pushing off the ground as your opponent makes contact with the ball — as the split step should begin a split second before the opponent makes contact with the ball. Instead of ‘jumping’, the emphasis should be on the landing from the split step.
To get a jump on the ball, you need to land exactly when you realize where your opponent’s ball is going, off his or her hand. At that moment of landing, your legs should be bent and loaded (like springs) and help you push off in the direction of the ball very quickly. That’s the whole purpose of the split step — it helps us move much quicker (in contrast to being flat footed) in your first step towards the ball.
Keeping your head level
Athletes in tennis and volleyball alike, who are caught jumping into the split step drastically change their head level, which plays a major key to tracking and receiving the serve. You can see below in the graphic that there will be some change in the head level but our goal is to make it as minimal as possible and we can do this by focusing more on our landing, rather than jumping.
Just like receiving a serve in tennis, our landing position will be slightly lower than our position before the serve — in a position to have the most explosive power from our loaded legs, giving us the best foundation possible for our first step towards the line of the serve.
The no-hop split step.
As I mentioned from the beginning, I don’t want to dictate or decide your pesonal path, I simply want to provide you all of the choices to see what resonates best with you!
One of my favorite players from Brazil, Mauricio, is also one of the best ball-control outside hitters in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to play against him for nine years now. But as you can see, there’s something a little different about his serve receive. He doesn’t use any type of split step.
Calm, balanced and cool. Mauricio is the best example of how we can dominate reception without any split step.
There are a lot of different ways to play volleyball and in my passing course I want to give you all the knowledge and information I have learned throughout my career of playing and studying great players to let you craft your own style of greatness.
With this information, the best thing you can do is experiment. Try it out and really be patient with yourself. Have some compassion for yourself when developing this skill, notice what is the simplest and which split step you can most easily replicate. As we’ll talk about a little bit later with contact, we want to push, pursue and fight for the simplest way of putting the ball to the target every time.
Maybe it’s a two-footed split step, an approach two-footed split step, a one-foot split step or maybe you’re just like Mauricio and you’re just chilling and getting a great read on the ball and moving once the ball is hit.
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