“Height is the one thing you can’t train.”
This was the first thing my coach told me when I started playing. Although that may sound harsh, there’s no denying the truth: you can’t teach someone to be taller.
The fact is, if you’re short you will probably never hit from the same height as a tall player, and you will never have the same reach. Your stride is shorter, your leverage is lower, and people will always assume you play libero. That’s just how it is.
Luckily, you don’t need to be tall to be a good volleyball player! And you definitely don’t need to be tall to spike a volleyball.
So, how do you spike a volleyball if you’re short? To spike a volleyball if short, you need to play to your strengths (don’t play the height game), focus on proper spiking, technique, and footwork; and, develop your strength in the gym. Further, you should aim to get as much experience as possible, and the best way to do this is to play with people better than you.
Some players come to the sport with a chip on their shoulder, bothered by their height, with something to prove.
Do not let this be you.
The faster you accept your height and adapt to your own style of volleyball, the faster you’ll become the amazing player that you were meant to be. More importantly, you’ll be much happier in the long run.
Playing volleyball if you’re short might feel harder – and in some ways it is – but the difference mostly comes down to technique, experience, and managing your expectations. In this article, I’m going to be addressing all three of these and how they relate to becoming a “Little Giant” of a spiker, so let’s take a look.
The Honest Truth About Spiking When You’re Short: Don’t Play The Height Game
The first step towards becoming a good spiker if you’re short is to understand the game.
Regardless of height, there are several key constants:
- The net is set at a standard height,
- The lines are an unchanging boundary; and,
- The ball must never touch the ground
It’s your job as a spiker to hit the ball over the net and land within the court before the opposing team can return it.
Because of their natural reach, tall players are often the ones seen spiking and blocking – dominating the net in order to control the flow of the game. If a skilled short player tries to spike normally against an equally skilled tall player, they will get blocked 7/10 times.
If this sounds familiar, or generally frustrating – no matter what height you are – it’s a tricky puzzle to solve, but the key is simpler than you think:
Don’t play the height game
You wouldn’t challenge a pianist to a thumb war, and you wouldn’t try to out-squat a powerlifter, so why would you try to spike over someone taller than you? Tall players have a natural advantage in volleyball, but only if you play into their hands. It just doesn’t work.
Here’s the honest truth:
Spiking is essentially a battle in the air, and if you keep pounding spikes straight into a block, over and over again, thinking it will change, then I have news for you: it won’t.
In order to become a good spiker of any height, you need to understand when to spike, and when not to spike. it’s just a little more important if you’re short.
Believe it or not, there are other options while in the air that will benefit you, and different positions that will give you the freedom to spike without a block (I’ll talk more about this in the next section). It’s all about choosing the right one for the job.
7 Ways To Improve Your Spike When You’re Short
Now that we’re in the right headspace for spiking, let’s discuss some ways to improve your spike.
Most of these should be familiar to you if you’ve played volleyball before, but I’ll be commenting on slight adjustments that will help give you more success playing against taller opponents and slipping in some of my favorite tips and tricks.
My top seven ways to improve your spike if you’re short are:
- Practice Proper Technique
- Gain Awareness
- Improve Ball Positioning
- Train Strength
- Improve Conditioning
- Get Experience
- Use Different Shots
Tip #1: Practice Proper Technique (Frame & Footwork)
Tall volleyball players get away with a lot of things they shouldn’t. Sloppy form and uncommitted swings are repaid far too often with success due to the simple fact that they have the leverage to make it work.
As a short spiker, the opposite is true of you: poor form and footwork will normally result in either a missed spike (out of bounds) or swinging straight into the net. Because your point of contact (POC) is lower, the possible area on the court you can successfully hit the ball also becomes smaller.
Consider the fact that you will often be hitting from below the top of the net; it is simply not possible to hit down and pray like many tall players. A different strategy is needed.
The proper technique provides this solution, allowing you to hit the ball powerfully and create a lot of topspin as you roll your hand up, over, and through the ball as you spike. This will allow you to hit over the net and arc the ball back into court, solving the first problem of height.
Let’s review the proper technique. Spiking consists of two elements: (1) the frame and (2) the footwork.
The combination of both is what generates power, creates control, and enables you to establish yourself as a presence on court.
A proper hitting frame involves the hitting arm cocked in the “shooter’s pose” – the palm facing outwards as if you’re about to practice archery – while the other arm is pointed towards the point of contact where you will hit the ball.
When your shoulders begin to rotate for the spike, whip your arm through in one fluid motion, making sure that your wrist “snaps” when it contacts the ball and finishes with the palm facing the ground. This is what will generate the topspin that gives your hit its extra kick and control.
As for footwork, strive to be always moving through the ball. Approach with your standard three-step approach and jump forward off of your non-dominant leg – opposite to your hitting arm. Remember to maintain a strong core to hold your frame as you rise through the air.
Practice each element separately before combining. Even if you’ve been hitting for a long time, it’s a good exercise to review. Find a wall and see how much spin you can get on the ball, then add in a jump.
With diligent practice, you should find that your spike power increases without actually having to be directly on top of the ball. Experiment with aiming your shot towards open spaces and aim to land your spikes within a foot of the boundary lines.
This will make your spikes harder to return and transform you from a liability into a threat.
Tip #2: Gain Awareness
While improving basic techniques is an essential method of becoming a better spiker, more advanced skills should be thrown in as the player grows. One of the most important of these is “awareness”.
It can be easy to overlook awareness, but being present on the court, in the moment – the “here and now” – is crucial. For a short spiker, this is even more so.
Carefully examine the player across the net from you in your position and any details that might give you an advantage:
- How tall are they?
- How high can they jump?
- Are they right-handed or left-handed?
- Do they see you as a threat that needs blocking
- Do they leave you unguarded?
Be aware of whether they block line (straight ahead) or cross (diagonal) from you, and strive to hit where they are not. Some blockers have ticks, such as pushing one hand farther than the other, and it is up to you to take advantage of that during a game.
Awareness also has to do with timing.
Be conscious of how high the ball is set to you and aim to hit at the highest point of contact so you have the most leverage possible. This will give you the most success.
One of the good things about being short is that your approach usually won’t be as long as taller players, meaning you can generate more power in a shorter space. Use your compacted jump to your advantage for hitting unexpected balls, and always be dynamic!
Lastly, be aware of your position in relation to your team: where is your setter focused? How are the rest of your team feeling? Try to support and always be up to spike when you are set. Find the spaces where the opposing team is not, and hit there.
While improving your technique will allow you to hit better, improving your awareness will make you a better player overall, resulting in more sets coming your way and more success when you go for a spike.
Tip #3: Improve Ball Positioning
The next factor you should be aware of is the ball positioning in regards to the net.
Imagine that you are set right on top of the net. You approach with good technique and are aware of the other team, but the blockers completely shut you out with their reach, giving you nowhere to hit. You try to spike past them, but it bounces right back onto your court, ending the point.
It can feel hopeless, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. There were two things that went wrong for the shorter player at this point, so let’s break them down together.
First, the ball was set too close to the net.
As a shorter player, you obviously have a shorter reach than tall blockers. A ball too close to the net shuts down your options by letting the blockers get over the ball before you can hit. When this happens – no matter your height – it’s pretty much game over.
Ask your setter to set you a little off the net. You aren’t trying to bounce the ball straight down anyway, and your rolling spike will drop faster with a bit more distance to spin. A little more room will give you space to think and time to see how to hit around the block.
Space = options.
Second, the spiker hit straight into the block.
Don’t give up if you feel trapped by the block. The point isn’t over until the ball has touched the floor, and if you spike full power into the block trying desperately to breakthrough, it’s going to be over that much faster.
Practice “recycling” the ball by hitting it softly against the top of the block. The purpose of this is to make the ball gently arc back to your team so that you can try the hit again. This is an essential skill for any great hitter, and a great tool for the short spiker.
Tip #4: Train Strength
Height can seem like an impassable wall, but if you really want to battle against the giants in the air as a “Little Giant”, you need to put in the work.
Strength training is the best way to close the height gap by improving your vertical jump and mitigating many of the advantages taller players have. It’s also a great way to improve your self-image and work on that quality of life I was talking about earlier.
My personal recommendations are to focus on leg, core, and shoulder exercises for volleyball.
Use dynamic exercises like hang cleans with leg exercises like back squatting or Bulgarian split squats as the base of your workout, and start building a regimen that works for you and your body type from there.
Technique, consistency, and choice of exercises are all important, so if you have never done serious work with weights before, find yourself a friend or head over to these other resources:
Tip #5: Improve Conditioning
Conditioning is incredibly important for short spikers.
While tall players can get away with being lazy and barely jumping when they’re exhausted, you need the guts to keep jumping your highest to get above the net. If you don’t, you’ll practically be down balling from the floor, which won’t help anyone.
Take time to do conditioning with or separate every workout – my personal favorite is the rowing machine in the gym.
Try jogging to practice instead of walking, if you live close, or dedicate 30 minutes a day to running around your local park. Time yourself and as your stamina increases, up the distance or push yourself to go faster.
Legend says that Hugh Jackman can crush 2000 meters on max resistance in 7 minutes flat, and although it’s a tall order asking you to beat Wolverine, having something to aim for is a great motivational tool for yourself (even if you never reach it).
Tip #6: Get Experience
There is no substitute for experience. Experience is the best teacher, and the more you have, the better a spiker you will be.
Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially in practice. There are very few people that do something that goes wrong and think: yeah, I’ll do that again. You’re going to have some bad ideas, but the only way to know that is to try them.
Eventually, you will have more good ideas and habits than bad ones and will have seen and played through almost everything that you will experience in volleyball. Train yourself to react correctly to every situation, and as a spiker this means to use the right shot for the right job.
I encourage you to play as much as you can with whoever you can if you’re looking to improve.
Seek out players that are better than you (and taller, ideally) and ask them to help you practice.
Draw your learning from many sources, and you’ll find that you improve massively.
Tip #7: Use Different Shots
It might seem a strange way to wrap up a section about spiking, but sometimes spiking isn’t always the answer.
Some different spiking types are:
- Roll shot
- Cut shot
As a short spiker, you’re going to be endlessly competing against the block, and how you choose to deal with this will change with every shot. Sometimes, there is a clear space to spike past the block and score, and whenever possible you should do this!
Other times, however, you might use a roll shot to arc the ball into a specific part of the court. You might tip by gently bumping the ball just over the block so that it falls out of reach of the defenders in an open space.
You might use a cut shot by not rotating your hand and slicing away from your body, “cutting” it across the net in an unexpected direction. This is especially common in beach volleyball, and a good cut shot is pretty much necessary if you want to dominate on the sand.
You also might recycle the ball in order to give your team another chance at scoring from a more promising angle.
The choices are endless, and it’s up to you to decide at the moment which to use.
Other Spiking Resources
- How To Spike A Volleyball Straight Down
- 16 Types Of Spiking In Volleyball
- Footwork For Spiking A Volleyball: Technique, Drills, Errors
A large part about becoming a good spiker and learning how to hit – whether you’re short or not – is good decision-making. Learning how to manage your expectations on the court is difficult; it requires temperance of pride that can feel wrong. But as a spiker, you are one of six people playing for your team, just one cog in the larger machine
Don’t just spike, play smart. The point doesn’t go to the person who hits the hardest, it goes to the team who doesn’t let the ball touch their floor.
Ask yourself: how can I make that as hard as possible? Once you know, go forth and dominate. Good luck!
About The Author
Ailan Samuel is a writer and athlete who has played volleyball at the university, club, and national level since 2012. He has competed successfully in both beach and indoor competitions, resulting in four silver and two gold medals, and was awarded the Half-Blue while playing in Scotland. He received his MA in English and Medieval History from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and is currently studying for his MA in Publishing and Creative Writing at Bournemouth University.