How to play volleyball

The last time I played volleyball it was indoors and I got one hell of a caning from my Year 10 PE teacher.

He thought the best way to teach me was to volley his serve at my head – hard. So when Women’s Health suggested I take beach volleyball lessons, I’m keen to learn how to play without incurring an injury.

I hit the sand at Manly Beach to meet Martine Grant and Eliza Dean, my instructors from Sydney Beach Volleyball. It turns out there are many subtle differences between volleyball played in an indoor court and the beach variety, but the obvious ones are weather and location – sand, sun, wind and rain all make a difference.

The standard women’s beach volleyball uniform is a sports bra top with itty-bitty bikini bottoms but I opt for shorts and a tee. We kick off with a rigorous warm-up – frog jumps and jogging on the beach – I’m panting in no time.

The basics

Once we’re warm and stretched, we start the first half of our lesson – learning technical ball skills. Martine and Eliza begin by showing us the dig stance – knees bent low, arms straight, one hand cupped in the other with thumbs coming together. We pair off to practice the stance and shots.

My teammate throws the volleyball high into the air so I can get into position underneath – the ball strikes my arms in the middle, between my wrists and my elbows and I dig it upwards, but it goes wide. Martine tells me that it’s because my arms were bent at the elbow. “Keep your arms straight from your shoulders all the way down,” she advises.

“The ball will go in the direction of where your shoulders are aimed.”

I try again with more success, except when the weather gets in the way. We have to throw the ball high in the air first and the wind catches it, meaning I have to do a crab dance to get under it for the dig, much to my partner’s amusement.

While the ball is soft and light, the constant digging is turning my arms an angry red. It’ll hurt tomorrow, but I’m more worried about controlling the digs with the correct technique.

Next we learn to spike. Spiking is used to slam the ball over the net with force in a downward motion, making it difficult for the opposition to respond.

We start with the standard spike – making a three-step manoeuvre, one large left footstep followed by a quick right and left (jumping off the last step forwards), right hand held slightly curved to mimic the shape of the ball, to “spike” it over the net with the palm of your right hand.

It seems simple enough, but coordinating footsteps, hands and timing the jump is tougher than I thought and I mess up my first go by failing to even make contact with the ball. Second round I let go of worrying about the footsteps and aim for the right hit – success! It sails over the net.

Our second spike lesson is the “tomahawk”. Closing my left hand into a fist, I wrap my right hand over it and cross my thumbs to smack the oncoming ball with the sides of my joined fists back to my partner.

It goes exactly as planned. I finally feel I have some control over the ball.

The game

Time to put our newly learnt skills into action – and learn a few more along the way. Even though beach volleyball is usually played two-a-side, Sydney Beach Volleyball teaches L-platers to play six-a-side (yes, like the indoor version) until they improve.

Regardless of player numbers, in every game each team is allowed three hits to return the ball and no player can hit the ball twice in a row. We form two rows of three either side of the net. I start at the front, to the left. I’m feeling nervous, but excited as our opposition take the ball from Eliza to start...

The first serve lands unanswered in the middle of our court; a few more like it follow and we quickly learn that team communication is key to successfully playing this sport.

When it’s my turn to serve, Eliza shows me how to hold the ball in my left hand and let it go as I bring my right hand – curled into a fist, palm facing upwards – hitting against my curled fingers to volley it over the net. Smack. Success – it lands in the centre of our opponents’ court.

I serve three more times and gain three more points for my team. (A point is awarded to the opposing side when the ball hits the sand in a team’s court, regardless of who served. The first team to reach 21 points wins).

When we’re on the receiving end of the serve, Eliza tells us to call out “mine” if we’re going for the ball, and “help” if we’re playing the centre position in front of the net – the role of the player in this position is to set up the ball for another player to spike it over the net.

A quick lesson in setting shows us that we lightly touch our fingers to the ball to push it back into the air so another player can get it over the net. If done right, our three touches would be dig, set and spike to get it over the net, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Rotating positions around the court, I move into the centre and instantly feel the pressure of “setting” the shot. When the serve comes from the other side and our back player digs it, in response I make my move to set the shot, but my over-zealous play sees the ball fly across the net and hit the court on the other side. Not exactly what I intended, but hey, it scores us a point. My teammates congratulate me.

Team triumph

After a few goes around the court, we all start loosening up, making jokes and encouraging each other. I find myself laughing a lot at everyone’s gaffes – like the opposing team who can’t seem to yell “mine” and collide trying to go for the ball. The workout isn’t exhausting, but I can feel muscles in my wrists, arms, back and legs getting a pounding (and the next day I hurt. A lot).

We rotate positions every time the ball hits the sand on the other side of the net, and in the second 45 minutes of our lesson I get to practise every technique I learnt in the first half. I’ve enjoyed serving, not so much setting, loved trying the dig and spikes – they’re not all successful, but playing on a beach court under the morning sun while meeting new people and working as a team has me smiling and wanting to learn more.

Sydney Beach Volleyball holds adult beginner’s classes; go to Beach Volleyball for more info.