So how do we get our players to make these predictions? Do we recruit players that we think have an innate ability to track a ball? Do we wait for players with excellent reading skills to just walk into the gym? The answer is we train them. Action prediction ability in sport is neither a magical quality nor an innate talent. It’s a learned skill, and like any skill, it should be trained from the earliest stages of a player’s development and continuously honed throughout her career. As reading is perhaps the most important skill in the game, the more we know about it the better we can teach it.
A recent study published in Psychological Research offers valuable insights into the elements that contribute to successful service-reading abilities in volleyball players.
Action Prediction Abilities in Volleyball
A team of Italian researchers examined the role of visual and motor experience in the ability of athletes to predict the action of float serves in volleyball. The authors compared the reading abilities of three groups of adult, right-handed females in their mid-twenties. Group 1 consisted of 12 volleyball athletes with about 15 years of playing experience (experts). Group 2 was comprised of 12 supporters who had no experience playing volleyball but who had regularly attended to watching volleyball for at least 10 years (watchers). Group 3 was comprised of 12 adults with no volleyball experience at all (novices).
Participants were shown video clips of two experienced players performing a series of float serves. Videos showed a front- and back-view of the server. Clips were shown using a modified temporal occlusion in which only the body movements of the server or only the ball was shown. Half of the clips showed the beginning of the action to the point of the server’s contact with the ball, thus showing only the server’s body kinematics; the other half showed the moment of contact to the initial falling trajectory of the serve (when it was approximately at the height of the net), thus showing only the ball trajectory.
Participants were asked to view the clips and predict as fast as possible whether the ball was served in our out of the court. Notably, in the front-view perspective the ball was not fully visible in the last part of ball trajectory – when the ball was falling to the floor.
What the researchers found was a mix of predictable and not so predictable results. The volleyball athletes outperformed the novices in predicting serves both from reads based on the server’s body kinematics and the ball trajectory – regardless of the viewing perspective. These results confirm years of research consistently showing the superior action-prediction abilities of elite athletes in their sports, including volleyball.
So what about the watchers? Did their visual experience contribute to accurate predictions although they had no playing experience? The evidence suggests that it did. Although watchers were again outperformed by athletes, the watchers outperformed novices in one important phase - predicting the serve when viewed from behind the server.
According to the authors, since the late stages of ball flight stayed in view only for the back-view clips, the watchers’ visual experience seems to have improved only their ability to read the serve by using this late ball flight information. In contrast, the volleyball athletes showed proficiency in utilizing both early and late cues from ball trajectory which were visible in both the front and back view videos.
Significance for Coaching
The participant-athletes’ superior performance in predicting ball flight based on the server’s body movements confirms again the profound implications of teaching players how to read. With serve reception playing a critical role in winning volleyball matches coaches should be eager to incorporate ways to improve players’ serve-receive reading skills.
So how do we do this?
Serve Receive Actual Serves - Reading the Server
Serving and passing must occupy a significant portion of practice time. Passers should be passing live serves – and lots of them. Success in predicting ball flight in volleyball comes in part from the twin abilities to recognize cues in the server’s behavior and then link those cues to results. When coaches toss balls to players or chip balls in from the sideline, players are robbed of the cues they need to learn from actual servers and consequently are deprived of valuable opportunities to link cues with results. Only through receiving served balls from real servers do players have an opportunity to identify and interpret the kinematic cues of real servers and develop the motor experience that is essential to predicting the flight of served volleyballs.
But we can’t just set up serving and passing games. Like all training, serve receive practice should be accompanied by effective feedback. We should coach players what cues to look for, ask them what they see, and guide them to understand the connection between what they see and how the ball reacts. Practice with feedback is the only principled basis for teaching the skill of reading.
Importance of Early Ball Flight - Reading the Ball
In addition to planning lots of serving and passing games coaches must emphasize the value of early preparation in serve receive. The instant research suggests that athletes’ advanced reading abilities are tied to their unique skills in reading both kinematic cues and the initial phase of ball trajectory. In other words, athletes draw heavily from what is happening on the other side of the net. Emphasizing early visual preparation teaches athletes that much of their success in service reception can be determined long before their “technique” comes into play.
 Urgesi, C., Savonitto, M. M., Fabbro, F., & Aglioti, S. M. (2012). Long- and short-term plastic modeling of action prediction abilities in volleyball. Psychological Research, 76:542-560.