Each point starts with a serve, but passing is the bedrock of the game. Point-scoring is built on the pass, each point stemming from that first contact until the last.
For the purpose of this article, I’m focusing only on serve receive passing. Digging attacks can look similar to passing, but the defensive technique is a whole other monster, one which I am unequipped to handle on my own (mostly because I’m a blocker to my core).
But serve receive – I got this. When I transitioned from an indoor Middle Blocker to the beach, it took me two seasons to get anywhere near good. Why? It took two years of reps to become a consistently good passer. On the beach, it doesn’t matter how hard you hit or how smart of a blocker you are – if you can’t pass, you can’t win.
Opportunities stem from a good platform pass. Serves cannot be blocked or attacked by an opponent, and you can’t use your hands to pass a ball like you can indoors. So beach players 99% of the time use forearm or platform passing when taking the first ball. The 1% is a last-ditch effort when you’re in trouble i.e. a tomahawk, chester, one-arm stab, or the very rare pokey pass.
So how do you pass in beach volleyball? Passing is best executed with both arms fully extended straight in front of your body, butted up against each other. It’s called forearm or platform passing because the goal is to create a platform with your forearms. I know, the name is v creative.
While all agree that getting as flat a platform as possible is the goal, there’s definitely more than one way to get it done. Some begin with palms open and facing up. They place one hand on the other and then fold their hands until the edges of their thumbs are side-by-side.
Another popular route to a good platform is to make a fist (normally with the right hand) and wraps it up in the left hand, again with the thumbs straight and side-by-side. Both techniques finish by extending your arms out just before your elbows lock, and then rolling your inner elbows up to create that flat forearm surface.
The variance I’ve widely found in these two techniques depends on where a player grew up. I’m pretty sure Midwesterners (like yours truly) are taught the fist-in-hand method while West Coasters learn the former. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Also, the world of passing is not limited to these two hand techniques. However you can get the best, straightest platform in the least amount of time… get after it.
So you’ve got your perfect platform, nicely done! Now, where do you want the ball to hit your arms? Ideally – in sticking with the creative forearm pass name – it should be taken on your forearms, halfway-ish between your wrists and elbows. You definitely want to avoid your hands (first – ouch… second – the bumps of your bones make the ball go in all different directions). You also want to avoid your biceps (taking a ball above your elbows is the surest way to make it die two feet in front of you and lose the point).
The next variant in passing strategy is where your body should be when you contact the ball. A lot of players first learn the midline method – when your body is centered directly behind the ball as you pass. This is especially great to practice when you’re new to the game, because having your body and arms consistently in the same alignment with the ball will yield the most consistent results. Midline passing is pretty doable in the indoor game when dealing with more people passing. Even some beach coaches are adamant about taking every ball midline. They prioritize moving your feet to the ball in every pass, no matter where it is. However, as the game speeds up, 100% midline passing becomes unrealistic.
The counter-method to #AlwaysMidline is what I call angle-centric, or focusing more on setting a stable angle. Volleyball is a game of geometry. Blocking is about taking angles from the hitter and channeling them to your defender. If you cut the ball sharper than your opponent can reach, you’ll get a kill. Wherever your platform is facing, that’s where the ball will go.
So with this in mind, angle-centric passing focuses on getting your platform to face the intended target without having to center your body with the ball. That means, if a ball is served way to your left, you will worry less about running or shuffling to get directly behind the ball and more about making sure your platform is flat. From there, you set your arms at the proper angle to “reflect” the pass to your target.
Proponents of angle-centric passing would argue that as serves get faster and faster, getting your midline to the ball every single time is impossible and neglects the importance of good angles. Proponents of midline passing argue that the consistency of a really good line midline passer is just unbeatable. My advice? Focus on midline passing as you learn the game. Then as you get more confident and familiar with what it means to set a good passing angle, you can shift your focus.
The last bit is how much resistance do you put on a ball to pass it perfectly? It depends, and this is where reps and experience come into play. A top-spin serve generally doesn’t need much resistance at all. You basically just have to get your platform under it, and the spin will do the rest. But a slow, dancing float serve needs to be watched. The ball may drop right in front of you or veer to the left at the last second; floaters demand attention until the second you pass it.
But whatever you do, don’t swing. The impact from your opponent’s serve is doing most of the work. Passers just need to get their platform there, step into the ball, shrug their shoulders, and guide it to target. AVP athletes use their instinct and experience to determine how much physical input they give.
It’s hard to explain all of this in words – most of us are visual or kinesthetic learners, so I don’t expect to change lives here. Passing, in theory, is the easiest and least technical part of the game. It seems pretty straight forward in comparison to other beach skills. It’s what most newbies and kids comprehend the gist of first. But passing proves time and again to be the undoing or making of a great player. Even with its perceived simplicity, the necessary repetition makes it the hardest skill to master.