By James Sneddon
When I was asked to write a blog on serving, a personal story immediately came to mind.
I was playing for a European team and it was late in the season and we were preparing for playoffs. In our most recent match our serving was particularly poor and our opponents seemed to have their way on offence. Our coach correctly identified that we made too many serving errors and the balls going in the court, for the most part, were shoved back down our throats.
So for the next week in practice we worked on serving… over and over and over, often for continuous periods of 30 minutes or more. For our next big match the team was motivated and prepared to serve tough and in… we were pumped.
Two hours later, we all sat in the dressing room frustrated, disappointed and confused as to why each of us, without exception, had our worst serving match of the season and ended up losing. Questions started to pop up. Were we mentally weak in this area? Were we simply a poor serving team? Players began to blame and point fingers. It was ugly.
Why had we served so poorly after all this practice?
After I came back to Canada and started coaching at the college level, I began to seriously look at how to train serving. It was then that I discovered one of several important motor learning principles: Distributed practice.
This motor learning principle states that when training a skill, it is more effective to train a skill for short periods of time broken up over the course of practice (distributed) rather than for long periods (massed). Phrased from another angle: “Massed practice reduces both the performance and learning of a motor skill” (Lee & Genovese 1988).
No wonder we served so poorly!
Generally speaking the focus of a drill should change every 10 minutes. Serving for five minutes, four times throughout practice is an example of distributed practice.
There are times of course, where it is necessary to spend longer than 10 minutes on serving, such as when first introducing the skill or a variation to the skill. However, as the story above illustrates as well as the above research and my own coaching experience has revealed, training using the distributed method is much more effective in the long term.
We all know that serving is a critical part of our game, yet how much time do we coaches dedicate to training the skill in a way that will transfer into the game? My challenge to the coaching community is to monitor how much time you spend on serving, and how you apply motor learning principles to this skill. I’ve provided an example practice plan where the focus of the practice is on blocking and defense, yet the players get 20 minutes of quality serving time distributed throughout the practice.
You might find that incorporating distributed practice in your training will make the practice feel a bit ‘bumpy’ and will not have the same flow. My response to this is that the game is bumpy, life is bumpy, we need to train for the bumps.
A few more important points when training serving:
- After a player serves, have them sprint into a defensive position on the court (why not train what happens in a game? It will help their fitness as well!)
- Have players serve at passers
- Have players serve to a chosen target
- Have players serve from different areas on the end line
- Have players develop more than one serve
- Monitor players progress on serving accuracy regularly
- Be patient with errors, train them to serve with velocity