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02 Jun 2015
IOC News

Anatomy of a volleyball player

When American William G. Morgan created volleyball in 1895 , it was designed to be a less intense and gentle version of basketball. And while it is true that there is no physical contact between opponents in volleyball, the sport is now considered one of the fastest and energetic to feature on the Olympic programme.

At the highest level, volleyball players have to be incredible athletes. When played over long periods, the high-octane nature of the play and incredible levels of quick movement required to salvage the ball and mount an attack means players can burn an incredible amount of calories.

Yet unlike most sports, where competitors can cover long distances, volleyball players cover shorter distances in comparison. One half of a volleyball court comprises a 9m v 9m area and players can often be rooted to the same areas of their half, but they can work extremely hard during rallies and draw upon endless resources of aerobic stamina. Furthermore, explosive movements and sharp reflexes are key when it comes to making the transition between defence and attack.

As a result, the fitness levels required to succeed are substantial, with thigh and lower leg muscles a constant source of power not only when moving around the court, but when performing jumping movements and surviving the subsequent impact of the landing. The volleyball net stands at 2.43m for men and 2.24m for women, so a strong vertical leap is paramount in order to gain an advantage.

Not surprisingly, training increasingly includes plyometric and sprint work. Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-times gold medal winner and widely considered to be one of the best beach volleyball players of all time, explains how she incorporated more running alongside strength, agility and stride exercises. “Running is empowering,” she said. “It helps work muscles, lung capacity and cardio. I feel more dynamic and light when I push off.”

Meanwhile, the mere act of performing a shot, whether pass, set, spike, block, dig or serve, requires a strong upper body, with arms and shoulders in constant use. Attacking shots in particular require a whipping or swinging movement to enable players to drive the ball with velocity.


It is also no surprise then, that many of the world’s most dominant volleyball athletes are long and lean. This extra height empowers players with a greater presence at the net, whether attacking and executing spikes or performing blocks while defending. This additional length can also enable players to cover the court quicker and get greater power behind the ball. 

Yet volleyball requires much more than breathtaking levels of fitness. A game of tactics and skill, it also combines tactical awareness, balance, reaction time, flexibility and skill. The best players also have an ability to read the game.

Ryan Miller, who won gold with the USA team in Beijing in 2008, believes this is the biggest quality a volleyball player can have.

“It’s so important,” he said. “It just comes with playing the game over and over again, being in certain situations and knowing to make the best choices in those situations.”

As the sport continues to evolve, so do the skills and physical attributes required to succeed in the quest for gold. One thing is for sure: we can expect the competitors in the indoor and beach volleyball tournaments at Rio 2016 to provide us with no shortage of impressive feats of strength and skill as they push themselves to the limits.

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