No matter the level, volleyball is controlled by serving and passing. In high-level men’s volleyball, the jump serve has evolved into the game’s dominant weapon.
When a 6-foot-6 athlete unleashes an 80-mph serve, with top-spin, the defense must react in seconds. From that flurry of action, most of the game’s point-scoring results.
“It creates very easy point-scoring opportunities,” said Tom Hoff, a former United States captain. “Jump-serving has created a very unique wrinkle for teams that are going to excel at a world-class level.”
Hoff said the jump serve’s importance rose in recent years as volleyball teams began to rely more on statistics to track success. A 2001 rule change to allow let serves (hitting the net before crossing) also helped popularize the jump serve.
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Players who failed to put enough jump serves in play switched to more floaters. Jump servers who could hit the targets became more dominant and the contrast between the two stressed defenses with something akin to a fastball-changeup mix in baseball.
“I had a disastrous jump serve,” Hoff said. “I couldn’t hit the success rate.”
Former teammate Clay Stanley and current U.S. captain Matt Anderson are what Hoff calls “green light” players. Servers with their blend of power and skill produce aces and disrupt the opposing team’s attempt to generate offense after handling the serve. Errors are more frequent with the jump serve, but the risk is often worth the reward of keeping a team’s offense scrambling and off-balance.
“Clay Stanley had the best jump serve in the world,” Hoff said. “It was a game-changer for us every single time. It would shake the flow of the volleyball game and turn it to our favor.”
The mechanics of the jump serve start with tossing the ball in the air, in front of the server, so he can jump toward the ball and hit it at its highest point, often around 12 feet. The server wants to hit the bottom of the ball to create top spin. Skilled servers can move the contact point to create cutting action.
“Top spin enables the ball to break down toward the floor,” Wichita State assistant volleyball coach Matt Hoffman said. “When you it harder, it gets to the passer’s platform a lot faster and gives them less reaction time.”
Facing the jump serve requires passers to study their opponent and use tendencies to position themselves. Hoff said he wanted to watch servers hundreds of times.
“You can read, like you read a hitter and where he is going to hit, so you can read that based on the toss and the jump,” Hoffman said. “You can give yourself an idea where it’s going to go. You’re going to want to practice that quite a bit.”