The first lesson coaches and athletes should understand is that most volleyball players do not land, they fall, and if the ground was not there they would just continue falling.
Simplifying the task to allow for the athlete to learn to land safely and effectively is important, but doing so reduces the challenge and does not reflect the more complex demands of jumping and landing performance in volleyball. This is often a necessary first step, but there are more layers to this issue that must be addressed. If they are not accounted for in the design of the training program, there will be limited transfer into volleyball performance.
There are realities that come with being performance-oriented, notably the issue of single-leg landings (i.e. "single-leg falling") and the epidemic level of ACL injury, versus the general health bias of non-athletes. However, developing an improved understanding of vertical jump performance in volleyball means taking this issue, and others, and moving from simple to complex through development until we can make everything simple once more.
The load absorption characteristic is important in that:
Jumping and landing strategy will be influenced by the complexity of the game and the full context is required before determining a good versus bad strategy for each (e.g. a single-leg landing is, in fact, a good strategy versus not landing at all and falling over one's self). So, while single-leg strength is important, it is far more important to understand that athletes need to know how to be athletic, and that they often must be capable of doing so on one leg.
A primary benefit of a good, foundational landing strategy is that it should perfectly mirror the loading position for a vertical jump. This is important and greatly simplifies our developmental strategy. The hard thing about this is getting athletes to understand how to do so at velocities that will both reflect the demands of jumping in volleyball and force an adaptive response that will support performance and durability. The easy thing about this is it is basic physics: every action produces an equal and opposite reaction.
But there is a second layer to this: our bodies are designed to absorb and adapt to stress according to the overload and specificity principles.
If we load the jumping position, hard and fast, we will jump from that position with greater force rapidly, but due to this adaptive capacity our muscles and joints will become more powerful and over time will be able to do this with even greater power. This is what I refer to as a short and long curve. The short is the correct focus and execution in the movement, that of playing explosively in jumping and within the sport, and the long is the body adapting to this input and growing a resiliency that further supports performance and durability. This intent is a catch all for excellence throughout development.
One key component of load absorption is tissue quality, with respect to joint motion (mobility and stability) and to those joints ability to support greater forces (load tolerance).
These are principal considerations in the development of any good training program. First, we have to be able to achieve the correct positions throughout every stage of our training. Assuming universal competency in athletes being able to achieve these positions on day one is foolhardy. Assessing athletes' capabilities in these more challenging athletic positions does not have to be complex.
Start with a basic assessment of movement skills and one simple heuristic for introducing more complex skills is, "Correct, slow, and then fast." Second, if we can achieve good position we must then develop both the power to support those positions and the capacity to do so repeatedly specific to the demands of the sport. Understanding how to do so properly within even a single vertical jump performance has important lessons for it in how force, power, and velocity characteristics are integrated and sequenced with respect to normal training timelines (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Vertical jump force (red line), power (light blue line), and velocity (dark blue) relationships. Following the red line, we see that there is an unloading effect following the start of the movement, the first orange circle on the left, and this is followed by a rapid increase in force as the athlete creates more stretch-load as they lower into a good jumping position (the slope of the red line here is what is referred to as the rate of force development and is an important differentiator for jumping performance).
Following this phase, which is colored in a light blue background shade to distinguish the eccentric/loading phase, the athlete reverses direction and begins producing force as explosively as possible. It is at this point that power often, but does not always, achieve its peak for the movement as they combine an active and forceful push against the ground with an increasing velocity as they gain a positional advantage over gravity.
As the athlete increases velocity their force decreases as they have less and less time to produce it as they prepare to leave the ground. At take-off, the athlete achieves peak concentric velocity and the athlete has successfully jumped. Upon landing the athlete makes an impact with the ground at very high velocity and how well they absorb these forces will impact the eccentric power achieved here (high eccentric force with high negative velocity, i.e. downward velocity).
We need this information from the landings to understand what the maximal forces an athlete will have to accept in the sport as this has important implications for the development of the training program. With a dual force plate system, as was used to generate this image, via the ForceDecks software, we can also gain tremendous insight into asymmetry relationships (indicated here with the yellow and green lines).
About the Author
Daniel Martinez is an expert on vertical jump and physical preparation for speed and power sports. He has his master's degree in Strength & Conditioning through Edith Cowan University and his bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sport Science, with a minor in Sport Psychology, from Texas State University. He has also been the strength and conditioning coach for Trinity University Volleyball (NCAA DIII) for the past 9-years and has consulted and presented on speed and power development for volleyball at the club and collegiate level for several organizations and volleyball programs recognized for their excellence.
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