Learning to Volleyball Serve

Published: 12/30/2021

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I play volleyball with a group of math grad students. For a long time my primary objective with my serve was just to get it in as consistently as possible. And for the most part I succeeded. I held the ball in my left hand out in front of me, made a gentle swing with my right arm and hit the ball with my fist for a high loping arc that usually landed in the middle of the court. Not too hard to receive but very consistent.

I felt this was optimal for fun because it's really boring when someone just serves out or into the net and it's also sort of boring when someone's serve is rarely received well. The worst is when their serve is balanced between those two outcomes. But the months have gone by and we've all gotten a lot better and I figured I really should practice an overhand serve.

So I went through life a few months with a vague idea that I'd go to the court with my ball and serve back and forth until I could do it consistently. It never happened and I vaguely blamed it on lack of time or willpower when the problem was that vague plans just don't happen. But this weekend while playing ping pong with Paul since the crew is scattered across the globe for the holidays, Paul suggested we do some volleyball practice so we went up and served back and forth at each other. At least we did at first eventually it was just me serving while Paul threw the ball back at me.

After trying for a bit with mixed results Paul asked if I wanted some advice, which of course I did. He said one should move their arm in two motions. Instead of rotating my shoulder and extending my elbow simultaneously, I should first rotate my shoulder so my hindarm was facing up and forearm back and then extend my elbow using the momentum generated from the first part of the move, a whip like motion similar to how one throws a baseball or, it turns out, spikes a volleyball.

While up there hitting the ball I realized how pointless it would have been for me to come on my own to practice. It's one of those things where I think I "know" how to serve the ball overhand because I watch other people and I have a description of what's going on. First you throw the ball in the air, then you hit it with your other hand. What else is there to say? But in fact I didn't know how to serve at all. Maybe if I had come on my own I would have wiggled my way into some local maxima where I was at least serving it in but I never would have gotten as good as I was able to with Paul's coaching.

I'm filled with sadness thinking about how rarely learning in my life looks like this. It's such a simple formula. I do something. Someone who knows how to do it watches me. They tell me what I'm doing wrong. I try again. And yet this simple procedure basically never happens. So much time toiling alone when a more experienced observer would instantly see ways I could improve.

This is part of the reason I've been programming on stream lately. Already I've gotten a few pointers about bash. I guess the primary reason I don't do everything on stream is it is much more stressful doing any activity when you're being watched and judged. But maybe I need to be watched and judged to improve. I wonder how many other activities I could get dramatically better at from a few sentences of advice from someone who could see me doing it wrong. I also wonder how many timees people have watched me do something clearly wrong and not said anything because it wouldn't have been polite. So if you're reading this and think there's any advice I'd benefit from please share it.