This is a series about volleyball written from the different perspective of each position on the court. I’ll write about setters, middles, left side hitters, right side hitters, liberos and coaches from the way they approach the match, to what they practice and their role on the court. This article is about middle hitters.
The average volleyball rally lasts 5 seconds. In that time, the middle hitter will move to block (three steps to cover 10 feet) and move to hit (three or four steps the other way to cover 15 feet). Middles react to the play around them and make split second decisions. They gain advantage as their experience grows and they can read other player’s bodies and expect what is going to happen just before it does.
When the set leaves the opposing setter’s hands, they sprint with exact footwork (open step, as big as she can with the outside foot, a cross over step and a close step) to get “hip to hip” with the right or left side blocker to assist with the block. When the ball leaves her setter’s hands, she must be jumping in the air to attack.
After a longer rally, take a look at the middle taking deep breaths to recover (she’ll be subtle about it so the other team doesn’t know she is out of breath) before she has to start it all over again.
On the practice court, middles will go through a drill to improve their ability to sustain this high intensity output over the course of the match. It is a drill designed to focus on the middle, force her to incorporate all types of footwork and build her stamina to be able to put forth maximum effort.
The drill: 30 seconds on the clock. Side to side movement to get to the block, then turn to run off the net in no more than four steps to get ready to hit, but, as soon as the ball is passed stop wherever you are, pivot and get back to the net and into position to jump to be an offensive option for the setter and/or a decoy to pull an opposing blocker away. After the jump to hit, start again with the blocking footwork. In 30 seconds she will jump 8-10 times and, change directions 12 times and take 40-50 steps. Whew! Tough job.
In the friendly confines of the practice arena, after this drill is over the middle hitter has her hands on her knees and needs time to catch her wind while the other middle goes through the drill, but then, probably too soon, it is her turn again. Middles work hard! They operate at full speed all the time and are constantly changing directions. While on the court, the middles rarely stand still. Watch them; it’s impressive.
Middles must have precise footwork (they drill the placement of their feet every single day in practice) but they also must have all-out hard work hustle. Stop reading and for the next 30 seconds do the drill above, go ahead, I’ll wait. Are you back? Are you breathing? This is why you love Lauren Stivrins; she goes hard, has great technique and she is fast. Middle hitter is a tough position and those that do it well are a joy to watch.
Let’s return to our football analogy. A middle is like an inside linebacker (ILB). No, not just because they are some of the most physically imposing players on the court, although this is certainly true. An ILB is, during any given play, in a run or a pass blitz scheme, dropping back in pass coverage, absorbing a blocker, tackling a running back or a receiver, or covering a zone. And most plays, is doing at least two of those things. You NEVER see an ILB standing still. Middles are the same. Block and attack, left side, right side, slides… and it is all based on reactions to what the opposition or her own team is doing.
Let’s take as step back to talk about more of the basics now that we have more of a feel about the position. Middles are tall, usually the tallest on the court. Being tall is beneficial as a middle because that allows them to get their hands over the net fast.
Blocking is just as important as hitting in this position, and some would say blocking is more important. Blocking can mean physically returning (blocking) the ball back to the opponent but it is also taking up space. A big player takes up more space so when players jump and block there is an area of the court behind them that the hitter cannot hit. Picture a pie wedge greyed out behind the blocking hands. Bigger blockers grey out more area so bigger blockers make stronger defenders.
On the offensive side, some middles are better at running behind the setter for a hit (slide) while others are better at the straight approach to the net which is generally in front of the setter. What ALL middles must do is be available as an offensive threat. This is where her quickness and hard work come into play. As soon as the ball is passed, the middle has to track the ball and get to her hit.
Let’s pause here and remember that passes go all over the place sometimes. The setter is like the pot of gold, you will find her at the end of the passing rainbow. If the middle doesn’t watch the ball from the passers arms, then she will likely smack into the setter by just running her route. This is a practice drill. So she facilitates the offense by doing an intricate dance with the setter, both to get out of the setter’s way and to put herself into position to be an offensive option. Add it to the list of things she needs to do!
The middles must be available to be set because that stresses the other teams blockers. If the middle is running her route, then the opposing middle must stay to maybe block then sprint the left or right if the setter pushes the ball to the pin hitters. Stivrins in the air as an offensive threat holds the opposing middle long enough to open up a hole in the block that might be set for Lexi Sun. Team sport!
This is the game from the perspective of the middle hitter/blocker. Ask away in the comments. Here is my questions for you, which position should we talk about next; libero, left side hitter or right side hitter?