WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Being a middle blocker is not an easy job - you are the player that may jump an run the most in a rally and still get no sets, or even make a full turn from serve to serve without even scoring a point. Boring, you might say? Well let me tell you something - your team might have the best outside hitters, a great setter and libero, but if it doesn't have good middles it will never be complete!
A dear friend of mine - coach Giovanni Giudetti (several time champion and cup holder of Turkey, 2 times Champions League gold medalist with the team of VakifBank Istanbul, 2 times European Championship medalist with team Germany, currently coaching team Netherlands and VakifBank) explains the role of a middle blocker - "The MB is like the bass guitar - you rarely feel it's presence, but you know a good song can never go without it!" He says a good team is like a chain of platinum - all the parts are strong. But if you have a couple of them made out of plastic, when you put pressure on the chain it will brake in the weak spots. That's exactly how important the MB is for a team - it holds it together and makes it complete!
So....What Does It Take To Be An Elite MB?
Let's start from the very beginning of the game and follow on through all the skills:
It all starts there. Don't ever underestimate the importance of a good serve. It may give you very big advantage in a game, as it puts the other team in difficulties organizing their attack, makes it uncomfortable for the opponent setter to play quick and most likely will make it much easier for your team to block, defend and organize a counter-attack.
Your serve may vary from a jump float to a jump (spin) serve, from a normal float close to the end line to a float serve from distance. Your technique may be very individual as well, so here I won't try to explain that in particular (since I can only talk about my own technique and out of my experience) but instead I will point out two other important things.
#1 | Consistency!
Put goals during training to make as less mistakes as possible. Find the right amount of risk you can take and still be sure to put the ball in the other court when it's important. Of course an easy serve won't help your team much, so it's again about balance. I struggled with making too many mistakes on serve so I was staying after practice and I wouldn't leave until I made 10 consecutive good serves in every zone of the court. If I'd make a mistake I would start from zero...Sometimes it takes forever, especially after practice when you're tired and less focused, but that's exactly how you'd feel during the 5th set of a long, stressful match.
#2 | - Precision!
You need to be able to put the ball exactly where you want in the court as this might be crucial for your team block and defense tactics. Same thing applies here - practice it extra if you don't feel confident. There's a funny way of motivating the players one of my national team coaches used to apply. He'd put a narrow elastics band between the two antennas, aprox. 30-35cm above the net level and then he'd put a small bank-note (like a $10 bill) in a specific place in the court. The goal would be to serve under the elastic band and hit the target. Who ever does it first takes the bill! It sure was fun, but it's not that easy. ;)
An important skill for a good MB is receiving the short serve. But more importantly, receiving and preparing for attack afterwards. There's always an idea behind the short serve and it usually is taking out the MB's attack and focusing on the outsides. So your goal must be to avoid letting the opponent's tactic work.
- Be ready in your reception position which is no different from the position of a reception player. If you are on the left side and must be ready to attack on the right (or vice versus) - make sure you pass to the middle court before the ball arrives to your court. This might be tricky as sometimes ball hits the net, drops in your court and while you're moving you have less time to react. So keep your eyes on the ball and be ready!
- When the serve comes to you make sure you pass it precise and high enough so you have time to make your swing and attack.
- Ask your setter about where and how he/she prefers the ball, when you're passing short serves from the right side.
PROTIP | I'll tell you from my experience, they all like when you give the ball high and in front of where their position is! It helps them see the opponents block and organize better attack. If you pass the ball behind them it will be uncomfortable.
So there it is, the key skill for a middle - the block! It's not easy to block, especially when you play high level volleyball, against teams with good reception, good setters, good MBs and hitters that play quick ball. It comes with a lot of experience and practice, but there are few things you can focus on that will help you get better.
#1 | First is your "ready position" for block - knee's bent, bodyweight balanced on your feet (off of your heels but it doesn't mean on your toes) and ready to move, arms straight, ready to block first tempo attack and setter's second ball, standing about 30cm off the net so you have a clear view of the other court.
#2 | Next comes preparing for the quickest attack - the opponent's MB attack. When serve goes in the other court the MB will prepare for attack, just as you would do. So follow her/him with a step or two and make sure you're close enough to be able to block. Immediately after that look at the opponent's setter and try to read where the set will go. If you have studied her/his technique and movements (I always take extra time during video sessions to study the setter) you would be able to read in advance or maybe just in time to go in the right direction for blocking.
#3 | After that it's time for your movement. If you take a look at videos of elite MBs around the world, you'll see they all make powerful,quick and big steps, close to the ground. I could describe this cross-step movement as a "side lunge + front lunge + jump" and I hope you can picture it like that (work on these movements when you're lifting weights, it will boost your blocking skills to the next level!!!).
#4 | Then last but not least - your arms position when you block. Your arms should be facing the court, parallel to the net and over it as much as possible. Make sure you take out all the extra movements of your arms when you swing for block, as they must pass as close as possible to the net. Once your arms are on the other side of the net, you should keep them strong, using the power of your core (the core is something else you should pay quite a lot of attention too while lifting weights or warming up).
PRO TIP | Core stability is a crucial factor in all sports and in all volleyball skills because your core means the center, the base of your body. It's extremely important in attack and block.
Make sure when you are in the flying faze of your block jump to have your core nice and tight, a little bit behind the level of your shoulders, so you have a better angel of putting your arms over the net. This is one of the most common mistakes in block - core and shoulder level are the same and that obstructs the arms of going over the net as it's anatomically and physically impossible. Simply said - keep your tummy away from the net and your shoulders close to it!
Of course closing the gap between the block (making wider steps might help) and reading the attacker are important too, but that all comes with practice and it might also be depending on your team tactics.
PRO TIP | An useful exercise could be again using the elastic band tied between the antennas. This time you will make your cross-step swing parallel to the net and when you jump you will try to put your arms under the elastic over the net. This way you will practice eliminating the extra arm movements, as this will help you improve your blocking skills.
...to be continued