I arrived a bit early to practice today, so I got to see our 12's scrimmage a group from another club. Aside from being "miniature people" that are fun to watch, these kids are remarkably talented. Back in the late 90's when I was coaching freshman, I had a hard time getting them all to serve right, yet these kids, younger and smaller, can all do it. Even more surprising is that they do it correctly. I've always theorized while coaching the older kids that the ones that put their entire body into a serve are doing that as a hold-over to when they were younger, but perhaps I was wrong.
So that got me to thinking about how we teach hitting. Whether it's by tossing or using a live setter, we teach kids at a young age the entire package: Drop back, approach, jump, swing, get the timing right. It all makes perfect sense... except for the timing part. Here's why.
In the fast offense we run, we do a lot of one balls, moving hitters all over the place. Even our higher sets require the hitters to be in motion before the ball leaves the setter's hands. This obviously puts a bigger burden on the setter in terms of timing, and should in theory free the hitters to just make the best approach they can. However, it's so hard to break them of this need to get their timing right.
This gets back then to teaching hitting at a young age. I remember the timing being such a huge issue for even the freshman I coached. It never occurred to me at the time to just have them work on the approach and everything else other than the timing, doing a careful toss to simply put it in their hands. You see where I'm going with that? Perhaps it's better to teach everything but the timing first, then start to add it later. Start by teaching kids how to hit one balls instead of high outside sets.
Here's why I think it would work. My 17's are now learning to hit shoots. For the first time in all of my years of coaching, more than half of them could do it instantly, and the rest I'm confident will get it soon. I was shocked, and very pleased. Immediately after trying that, we did a play with a more traditional higher set, and then came the problems. There was hesitation, odd step patterns and a lot of lateral drifting, all to compensate for what they thought might adversely affect their timing. When I told them to think of it more in terms of getting up there and putting faith in the setter, as they did with shoots and one balls, most of the kids made the strong and powerful approaches one hopes for.
Could we teach hitting this way to younger kids? Tough call. With a coach tossing the ball into their swing, I would say yes, you can teach this. In fact, with a coach standing there, at least you're more likely to get them to back off and not approach so close to the net that they have to drop their shoulder to swing behind the ball (this is the single biggest problem I deal with at this age group).
Can you teach this way using a live setter? That's a lot more questionable. I've seen some very talented setters in the 14 range, but I don't know how well they could set short stuff, let alone learn to adjust the timing to higher outside hits. I'd love to hear from people that coach those younger ages to see what they think.