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The Lo-Down: Understanding Serving Zones
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The Lo-Down: Understanding Serving Zones

August 22, 2017

Ever been at a Nebraska volleyball match and noticed Coach John Cook signaling in a number behind his clipboard? He’s telling the server where he wants the serve to go, one of the key strategic decisions made by one coach or the other on each point. Today we’re going to dig into what those zones are and the role they play in how the rest of the point unfolds.

Quentin Lueninghoener

When it comes to serving, the court is divided into six zones. Right back is zone one, right front is zone two, middle front is zone three, left front is zone four, left back is zone five and middle back is zone six. Coach Cook will signal in the zone by holding up the corresponding number of fingers, using a fist for zone six. Sometimes he will ask the server to serve directly into a zone, sometimes between zones, which is signaled in by flashing one zone followed quickly by another.

Zones two, three and four are considered short serves. The strategy here is to try to get the middle blocker to receive the serve and have to pass, which often pulls her out of the hitting rotation. It’s very hard to pass and then attack, and most setters are trained not to set the person who passes if the passer is in the front row.

That same strategy is often used when serving deep to zones one, five or six. When a team serves here it is often trying to force the front-row outside hitter to pass for the same reason a team might target the middle on a short serve; it is very difficult to have to pass and then go hit. When you’re watching a match, pay attention to who is receiving the serve as it will tell you a lot about which player the serving team is trying to eliminate as an attacking option.

Now that we have a basic idea of where serves go and why, let’s talk about where serves come from and why. Where people serve from on the court is a hotly debated topic. Do you just let players serve from where they’re most comfortable? Many coaches do. I always served from the right side of the court because that’s what felt comfortable to me. It’s where I started serving as a young player, and it was also easy to run to right back where I played defense as a setter.

Aaron Babcock

Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke serves during Nebraska’s 2016 NCAA Semifinal match against Texas in Columbus, Ohio.

There is some research, however, that shows serves from the middle of the court are the hardest to pass because the server typically won’t tip off which direction she is serving. When a player serves from the left or right side of the court, she will often turn her body slightly in the direction the serve is going to go.

Still, serves from the middle of the court are somewhat rare. Most of the time, setters, right-side hitters and defensive specialists who play right back will serve from the right side as it allows them to get into position quickly. That’s also why you’ll often see outside hitters, middle blockers and liberos serve from the left side.

You can notice these subtle changes while watching a match. Next time you’re at the Devaney Center, pay attention to where players serve from and how they have to change their body positioning based on where they’re at and where they want the ball to go.

You can also take note of the different arm positions based on the depth of the desired serve. If a player is serving deep her arm will go straight back almost like she’s pulling back a bow string, and it will look like she’s high fiving someone straight across from her. When serving short the elbow will drop a little lower and it will look like she is trying to high five in the sky.

Serving is a fun chess match in volleyball once you know what to look for, and it’s not simply the start of each point. With each serve a team is trying to influence how those points are won or lost.

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