Beach Volleyball Drill of the week: Master the art of hand-setting with night-night setting

The first skill I learned in beach volleyball was hand-setting.

To most, this seems to be a momentous accomplishment. Many find hand-setting to be the most difficult skill in the game, since it’s the only one where, should you do it incorrectly, the other team is awarded a point immediately. Karch Kiraly considered it a luxury. 

To me, it’s the skill that made the most sense to learn first.

When I moved to Florida, in April of 2014, I knew only one person, my childhood friend, Mark Lammey. When he found out I was moving to Florida, he was so excited for me that he asked if he could come, too.

Absofreakinglutely!

We found an apartment, signed the lease, sight unseen, and began our Florida adventure with an 18-hour road trip from Baltimore to Navarre.

Neither of us had ever played beach volleyball before, outside of the jungle ball stuff that is as much beach volleyball as putt-putt is to golf. I wouldn’t begin playing for another few months, when I made a few friends who congregated on a nearly nightly basis at a local bar and restaurant called Juana’s, which had six beach volleyball courts on a postcard strip of sand off Navarre Beach.

Suddenly, my life was consumed with beach volleyball. I’d head to Juana’s in the morning, head out to the Northwest Florida Daily News during the day, and return to Juana’s in the evening, playing pickup until midnight. Then I’d do it again.

I was terrible, of course. I couldn’t pass. My approach was goofy-footed. When I served it in bounds, it was a miracle. Problem was, I didn’t really know how to practice. Beach volleyball was the only sport I’d ever played where practicing on your own isn’t a normal thing. A basketball player all my life, I was raised on a diet of shooting hoops in my driveway. A golfer through high school, I’d hit the range and putting green. A club swimmer in college, I could do laps all I wanted.

I found a way to practice on my own, with the only skill I figured would be easy to practice by myself: Hand-setting. Hundreds of times a day, I’d toss a ball into the air, throwing as much spin as I could on it – sidespin, backspin, frontspin, no spin – and hand-set it. Sometimes I’d do this at a basketball court, hand-setting it into a hoop. Sometimes I’d do this in my front yard with my wolfdog, Sam.

Every night, however, I’d do this before bed. At least 200 times before I fell asleep, I’d hand-set, straight up and down. I tried to set it so clean that I could read the “Wilson” lettering with every set. I did this until I was confident enough to set in tournaments – and then I kept doing it.

If you want a full list of drills, tips, and habits to become the best setter on the beach, our course, How to set in beach volleyball: The 30-day blueprint for superior setting, is highly recommended. 

I still do, to this day. I’m constantly fidgeting, perpetually bouncing or bumping or poking a ball, back and forth, back and forth. Before tournaments, I still throw the ball up in the air, with as much spin as I can, and I set it as clean as I can.

When my wife, Delaney, is gone, I’ll still set in bed. Currently, in my hotel room in Doha, I’m setting around 500 balls a day to myself, since we’re not allowed to go explore the city.

Hand-setting is, I’d argue, what I do best in beach volleyball. It’s why almost all my partners are better than I am, and why, despite being one of the smallest blockers on the beach, teams that I’m on earn quite a good deal of points: I can transition set as well as almost anyone.

Setting is a difficult skill, but it’s the easiest one, in my mind, to improve, because you don’t need anyone else. You just need a ball, and five or 10 minutes a day. Make it a routine, either when you wake up, at lunch, before you go to bed, to hand-set a few hundred balls.

Your partners will love you for it. 

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