#4 Don’t Follow The Ball

Don’t Follow The Ball!

It’s not the ball that you should be looking at. 

Go to any club, in any city, in pretty much any country in the world and the universal catch phrase that coaches will tell their students in doubles is to “follow the ball”. If the ball goes wide, you go wide with it. It’s sounds so simple and it feels so right.

There is only one minor problem with it – it’s absolutely wrong! Have you heard of things that sometimes sound too good to be true? Well, this is one of them and here’s why:

1. The ball.

Watching the ball gives very few clues as to where it is going to come back over the net. The opponent’s body position on the hand provides an immense amount of clues as to where the ball is going to come back.

Instead of watching the ball for clues, it is far more beneficial to watch the opponent’s body position and look for things such as balance, spacing from the ball and the angle of the racket.

The clues are far more evident from the body than the ball.

2. Comfortable v Uncomfortable. 

I need to burn this into your brain to replace your old bad habit with a new one.

If your opponent is comfortable hitting their shot, let’s face it, they can hit it anywhere they want to, and you realistically have little impact on that. Yes you could fake early and jump around like a monkey, but in general any shot is theirs for the taking.

It’s a whole different story if they are uncomfortable.

If your opponent is uncomfortable, on defense, reaching, falling, off balance, rushed, jammed, lunging low, wide or even high, the LAST place they want to hit the ball is down your line for one major reason – the percentages say they are going to miss it!

Even when your opponent is moving wide, if they are taking a huge step or look to be in distress in any way, they are 100% wanting to take that ball back to the safety of the middle of the court. ADVANTAGE YOU!

Here’s the bottom line – an uncomfortable opponent wants to go through the middle of the court. You can leave early and force them to hit another shot, which they will probably miss, or you can time it right and go and feast on the middle of the court. Either way works just fine.

Opponent Comfortable

This is a difficult situation for the volleyer. There is not much they can do, but one thing they definitely should not do, is go and cover the line and totally take themselves out of play.

They can certainly “hold” and stay at the yellow circle in an neutral position, or if they feel the need to move forward, it will be more right at the opponent than anywhere else. Yes you are still looking to go to the Center Window, but the opponent can do anything they want so the options are pretty limited.

Opponent Uncomfortable

This is the best ambush of all. Look at their body. See them go wide. Then do the most counter-intuitive thing and go to the middle of the court, which is exactly where they must hit their defensive ball. Gotcha! The last thing a player wants to do is attempt the spectacular from an uncomfortable position. It’s just too difficult to consistently have success with.

You have got to put yourself in their shoes – you make exactly the same choices as your opponent does. Use that to your advantage.


Strategy Drills

I have learnt over the years that it is not easy for players to initially “see” the opponent because they are so “hard wired” to watch the ball. They need some help with that, and by being on court standing right behind them is by far the best way to develop this talent.

1. Playing Drill

Objective – To help promote real time understanding of when the opponent is comfortable and uncomfortable.

  • Play points.
  • The coach stands right behind the net player – either the server’s partner or the returner’s partner.
  • Whisper to them what they should be looking for before the point starts and “live” during the point.
  • As soon as you (the coach) sees that the opponent is uncomfortable, tell the player to head early to the middle.
  • Helps the net player learn the right timing of when to go.
  • The coach provides as extra set of “expert” eyes to help the net player make better decisions.

Variations – Sometimes it works great for the coach and the net player to change roles and have the player behind watching what the coach does.

2. Feeding Drill

Objective – To put the returner immediately on defense and have the opposing net player make good decisions on where to go.


  • Have all players start in their normal doubles positions.
  • Feed the ball to the Returner down the line from the net. Make the feed challenging.
  • Emphasis is now on the Server’s Partner to correctly read the body language of the Returner and go and get the ball.
  • Play to 15 then all players rotate positions.

Variations – Start the Returner more in the middle of the court so they have to run more to the first shot – be more on defense. The coach can control how tough the first ball is with the feed. Adjust accordingly with the level of players participating.

Go Do This

The body gives far more clues than the ball for where the ball will return.

If the opponent is comfortable, you have to do less because they can do more.

If the opponent is uncomfortable, then you lay an ambush right in the middle of the court.

The opponent’s balance gives a lot of clues. Did they take big steps? Are they reaching? Are they jammed?

If the opponent goes to slice their wide, defensive shot, that’s extra incentive to go to the middle of the court.