That ball is coming at you, and it’s coming fast. This is the moment in which you’re thanking your lucky stars you read this article to protect the money maker and make that amazing dig.

The first question posed is: What is Volleyball Defense? Defense is when the opposing team is attacking, “spiking”, or in other words, sending the ball back over to your team’s side of the net. This can look like a lot of different things, but you only need to remember these 7 key concepts to have yourself prepared for any attack coming your way. This is the guide to becoming a defensive guru, from beginner to badass.


We are in a defensive mindset before the ball is even coming to your side of the net. Defense is all about putting yourself in the best possible position to make a play, this means knowing or having an educated guess of where and how your opponent is going to attack the ball. Having an educated guess and being able to narrow out other options of where you need to defend decreases the size of the court you need to worry about.

Reading the Set, Step #1: Setter hitting on 2nd contact

Is the setter hitting on the 2nd contact or are they setting the ball to their partner? You, as the defender, need to stay in place, generally planted in the middle of the court (neutral), ready to defend the 2nd ball attack until that set is released from the setter.

Reading the Set, Step #2: Location of Set

Where is that set going? The general rule of thumb with setter vs hitter angles is that when the set is tighter to the net, the hitter has more extreme angles they can hit. When the set is “off” the net (5-10 feet from the net), the hitter has less extreme angles they are able to hit. Therefore, when the set is tight, the defender needs to move slightly more into the extreme angle (if your blocker is blocking line). When the set is “off”, the defender needs to be more prepared for a hit that will not be placed as extreme angle. In most cases, the ball will be hit more towards the middle of the court because that set is “off”.


After you have confirmed that the setter is not going to attack the ball on 2nd contact, you have read the set and placed yourself in the most probable position that the hitter can attack, it is time to then take intel on the hitter. The angle/location that the hitter is coming in at and the aggressiveness that the hitter is approaching the ball at are the first keys to reading the hitter.

Reading the hitter’s approach, Step #1: Angle of Approach

Is the hitter coming in at an angle to the court or are their hips facing the line? Most beginners will come in at the direction that they want to hit the ball so that is an solid indicator of where they may be hitting the ball. In more advanced situations, hitters may be approaching a certain way and using their wrist or arm swing to manipulate the direction of the ball. This is addressed in Key Concept #3- Reading the Hit/Arm Swing.

Reading the hitter’s approach, Step #2: Aggressive vs Slow Approach

Is the hitter coming in fast, jumping hard as they can and with their arm back reading to “swing hard”? Is the hitter approaching slowly, maybe their shoulder is not fully extended to their max reach and they don’t have their arm back aggressively? These are tell tale signs of whether the hitter is going to “swing” or “shoot”.

“Shooting” means using less force and the focus of the hit is to strategically place the ball in a location that the defender is not, generally choosing to go over the block or far away from the defender. “Swinging” means the focus is to swing hard and fast, generally challenging the defender or blockers skills and trying to use force to ensure a “kill”.

Reading the hitter’s approach, Step #3: Swinging or Shooting

Once you know whether the hitter is coming in at an angle or facing the line and you know whether the hitter will be “swinging” or “shooting”, it narrows down the places that the hitter will hit the ball. This increases the probability of you digging the ball because you can focus on less locations that ball will go by using those reads.

–For example, if the hitter is approaching ‘aggressively’ at an angle to the court, with their hips facing cross court, it can be assumed that they are going to be “swinging” hard to the angle. If the hitter is approaching slower and their hips are facing the line, it can be assumed that the hitter is going to “shoot” over the block to the line.


If you are competing against a well hearsed hitter, their approach and aggressiveness will look the same for every approach in most cases. How do you create that same probability of making a dig without those cues from Key Concept #1 and #2? The final step to reading and the biggest factor is seeing what their arm does. Breaking that down, the shoulder and the wrist are key components that manipulate the direction of that ball.

Reading the Hitter’s Arm, Step #1: Reading the Shoulder

The shoulder will give an indicator of where that ball will be hit and whether it will be a shot or not.

For Beginners: If the shoulder is facing the line, that ball will generally be hit the line. If the shoulder is facing cross court, the ball will generally be hit cross court. As you advance, hitters can have the shoulder facing one way and the wrist will be the last manipulator of the ball and your final reading component.

Reading the Hitter’s Arm, Step #2: Reading the Wrist

The wrist is the final contact the hitter can make and the last read you can make on the ball. The highest level, this is the most important because every hitting rep will look identical to the other until the hand contact (wrist manipulation) of the ball. These wrist manipulations change according to the side of the court the hitter is on and if they are a right handed hitter or left handed. The following guide touches on the most common wrist manipulations as a right handed player. If reading a left handed player, it is opposite.

The different wrist manipulations can be as follows if hitting from the right side of the court:

-Straight wrist= Hitting line 

-Angled back hand (towards wrist)= Shooting high line over blocker 

-Thumb up wrist= Hitting cut shot (extreme short angle to left sideline) or hard cross

The different wrist manipulations can be as follows if hitting from the left side of the court:

-straight wrist (hips facing cross)= hard cross

-Thumb down wrist=Hitting cut shot (extreme short angle to right sideline)

-Thumb up wrist=Turning the ball line, if wrist is tilted back, hitting high line

These wrist manipulations will be the last reading indicator and extremely important to focus on as a defender to get the best read you can on where the hit will be.


It is easy to get caught up in reading and then playing the guessing game. As a defender, you need to keep in mind that no matter how well you read the ball, there is probability of the hitter deceiving you. Putting yourself in the best location position wise according to your reads is great, but useless if you, as the defender, are not in a proper physical position.

Positioning on Hitter’s Contact, Step #1: Stop on Contact:

No matter the read you make, no matter where you’re at, as soon as that hitter makes contact, your entire body needs to be stopped on contact. This means a balanced base, even platform and not leaning towards the direction you think it may be going. When you lean the wrong way, you turn a ball that you could get a touch on, to an untouchable ball, all because you had to shift your weight and use your agility in a different direction than you began in. Seconds are essential, leaning takes away from those few split seconds you have between the hit and the ball hitting the ground.

Positioning on Hitter’s Contact, Step #2: Body Position:

Where your body needs to be positioned on contact is as follows:

-Feet=slightly staggered, the foot closest to the sideline, slightly staggered in front, ready to launch off.

-Knees= bent, need to be in a loaded, athletic position. The lower you are to the ground, the more reaction time you have. 

-Arms= within your body, elbows in, hands slightly below chin. Your hands should be ready to put together a passing platform or to protect your face via hand dig. This is why they remain in the middle/neutral section of the body.


Eye on the Ball, Step #1: Get your feet/body into the best position:

After that ball leaves the hitter’s hand, you are then using your read and reacting to where the ball is going. For example: If you are standing in the cross and your blocker is blocking the line, if the hitter then shoots to the high line, you are running down that ball and getting your feet/body in the best position you can to get in that location and make contact with the ball that was hit. This will involve diving, laying your body out, rolling, sprinting, etc. Ideally, you are getting that ball in your “midline” of your body. This will not always happen, especially when digging, which is where your platform angles, one hand digs, overhand digs, etc. come into play.

Eye on the Ball, Step #2: Watch the ball all the way into your platform:

This step seems like a no-brainer, but this step cannot be overlooked. The reason for watching the ball all the way to your platform is that you can make any final last micro adjustments with your platform when you watch it all the way in. Maybe you need to dip your shoulder a smidge more, maybe you need to extend your arms out more or less than you have in that moment to ensure that the ball hits your “sweet spot”. Remember, every sport, you need to watch the ball all the way to its contact spot, digging is no exception.


You have done all the work of using your intel on the hitter’s approach, the hitter’s contact on the ball and have made the correct movements to get a touch on that hit. It is all for nothing if when you get to that ball, it is not controlled. Absorbing a dig, creating the perfect angle with your platform, and holding that platform to target are all steps to go from uncontrolled dig to perfect pass for your partner to set up for you. The entire goal of the dig is to transition the opportunity into a kill and point for your team so the dig has to be there.

Platform Contact, Step #1: Absorb the ball

What is absorbing a ball and when do I do it? Absorbing a ball is when there is a very hard driven hit and if it bounces off your platform with no absorption, it will go over the net because of the velocity on the hit. We absorb to control the dig and keep the ball on your side of the net. Absorbing the ball is done with your hips, platform, and shoulders. Your hips will lean in towards your platform, this in turn, brings your shoulders slightly back which changes your platform’s trajectory so it is not as forward, but more parallel to your body.

Platform Contact, Step #2: Angle your Platform

Before and during contact of the ball to your platform, the angle of your platform determines where that ball will be going. There are 2 different angle planes to focus on when digging a ball.

-Parallel angle which means side to side angle. Your parallel angle is created when the ball is at all to the side of your body or ‘out of your midline’. You create a parallel angle by shooting your platform out to the side where the ball is going, dropping the inside shoulder so your platform is slightly ’tilted’ to target.

-Vertical angle means up and down which deals more with Step #1: Absorbing the ball. Your platform angle when digging a ball should be slightly below parallel if you just held your arms out straight from your body so that when the ball contacts your platform, the ball’s trajectory is upwards. Height on digs is important so your partner has time to set you in transition to offense, having your platform trajectory up helps create height.

Platform Contact, Step #3: Hold your Platform to Target

Holding, or “sticking”, your platform to target is comparable to the follow through when shooting a free throw. It is the final component to your contact with the ball. This is the completion step, equally as important as the beginning steps. Holding your platform facing the target can mean having a shoulder dropped so the platform is facing inside the court, towards your partner, and it means not letting your platform break during/after digging contact. If you watch the ball all the way in (Key Concept #5) and hold your platform to target, you should never have to look up to see where your dig went if you do both of those correctly.


Mindset is everything. If you believe you can get a touch on a ball, it allows you that opportunity. “You never know, unless you go” is incredibly true. With every drill, game, or play, if you can condition yourself to believe you can get that ball and have a motto of “No ball falls on my side”, you’ll be a more successful defender. If you practice not going after every ball, that will translate into your game play.

Never Give Up, Step #1: Don’t Waste a Second

Hesitating is the silent killer. It takes away even a millisecond that you could have been one step closer to that dig. If you hesitate, generally your body will come up vertically or even backward slightly so not only are you losing a second, but you’re now out of position to lunge towards the ball, making that play because your weight is on your heels. Never waste a second thinking you can’t get that ball.

Defense wins games.

These 7 Key Concepts above are vital to every dig you make in volleyball. The most simplistic outcome of following these concepts are as follows:

  1. Making a good read on the hitter gives you a better opportunity to know where the ball will be.
  2. Being in a ready, loaded position gives you the chance to make motions towards that ball.
  3. Knowing where your body and platform needs to be gives you an opportunity to control that dig.
  4. Believing in yourself that you can dig everything gives you endless defensive potential.

Defense is hard work, but using these 7 Key Concepts, you will have the highest probability of making a defensive play. Now tell me, what is more frustrating as a hitter than always getting dug?

Coach Alyx

CEO and Founder of Volleyball Solutions. Coach Alyx has been playing and coaching women's indoor volleyball for over 15 years. "Volleyball is my culture. It is an incredible opportunity I have to share my knowledge of the sport, as well as the raw character it develops, with our next generation of players."

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