If anybody had watched me walk my dog – a 140-pound timber wolf-malamute mix named Sam – when I was living in Navarre Beach, Fla. in 2014, it’s more than possible they’d have thought me to be insane. I wouldn’t just walk Sam, you see. I’d practice my approach footwork for spiking a volleyball: left, right, left-right. Then I’d do it again and again, obsessively correcting my approach.
The first time I picked up a beach volleyball was just a few months earlier. A man named Judd Smith noticed that my approach footwork for spiking a volleyball was, as it is known in the beach volleyball world, goofy. I’m left-handed, and instead of the standard left, right, left-right approach, I was doing the opposite: right, left, right-left.
Judd told me to correct it, and so, to fix it, I’d simply walk Sam the Wolfdog while practicing my approach footwork for spiking a volleyball instead.
Approach footwork in beach volleyball is a small, nuanced aspect of the game that pays dividends virtually every point. It impacts your ability to spike a volleyball. It affects how well you side out. How well you can chase down a bad set, or maximize a perfect one, largely depends on your footwork, and the timing of it.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable, but what’s this going to do?” AVP professional beach volleyball player Mark Burik said. “It’s going to breed consistency over time. Today it’s going to be ugly, but if you practice, and you felt like you did everything right, you probably felt like you didn’t get better overnight. You probably felt like ‘Wow, that was really difficult.’”
If you’ve never worked on your approach footwork before, it will feel uncomfortable and strange and just flat out weird. It’ll feel like you’re trying on a new pair of shoes – a little stiff, a little different, until you break them in, and soon, they’re the most comfortable shoes in the world.
What we want to happen with your approach footwork is for it to become automatic, unconscious, something you simply just do without thinking. When your approach footwork for spiking a volleyball becomes automatic, it frees up your brain to think about the aspects of the game that require more brainpower: what the defense is doing and what shot to hit.
Before you can hit your shot, before you can spike a volleyball, before you can score a point, you have to approach.
And you have to approach correctly.
Many of you have your basic approach footwork dialed: right, left, right-left for the right-handed folk out there; left, right, left-right for the lefties among us.
But the speed of that approach footwork is equally as important as the order. You don’t want your approach to be the same speed the entire time. You want to build it, to accumulate it so you’re at your most explosive as you reach the ball.
“The first step of approach is slow,” Mark Burik said. “We’re walking. Nice and slow and soft. We don’t want you to jump and bounce on it.”
The speed of your approach, then, goes like this: slow, fast, fastest. Why?
If we were to go full steam ahead throughout the entire approach, there’s a good chance we’d overrun our set. We’d let the ball get behind us, and we’d lose all sight of the court and limit our attacking options.
In approaching slowly at first, and building up speed as we go, we’re keeping the ball in front of us. We’re able to make any adjustments we need to get our feet to the ball. And we’re able to make that final step-close explosive and powerful.
If you keep stats of your beach volleyball practices, I highly recommend you track how well you side out when you approach properly vs. when you do not. I guarantee that you’ll see a minimum of a 10 percent increase in your side out percentage when you approach well.
And the best part?
You can practice this anytime, anywhere.
Even when you’re walking a gigantic wolfdog named Sam.
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