As a professional volleyball athlete, I hear the term “free ball” being yelled by both players and coaches all the time. But what exactly is a free ball?
A free ball is a ball that is returned by the opponent over the net by a forearm or overhead pass that has a low degree of difficulty. During practice, it may be entered by a coach tossing the ball over the net.
Passing a free ball well gives your team the highest chance to score a point. This article will help you to understand what a free ball is and how to use it effectively.
What Does A Free Ball Look Like?
Recognizing a free ball is an important part of becoming a competent volleyball athlete.
During a volleyball rally, there are usually 3 types of balls to defend.
- An attack: your opponent spikes or uses another variation of an attack (tip, roll shot, etc.) which your team will need to block against;
- A down ball: your opponent attacks the ball, usually without a jump, which your team will defend without a block. This could also be a standing hit from a coach in practice.
- A free ball: your opponent returns the ball using a forearm or overhead pass.
Generally, a free ball will be returned high and slow enough that all players on your team are able to get into a free ball formation and pass the ball to the setter with low difficulty.
How Do I Pass A Free Ball?
Passing a free ball may be the most important basic skill to learn in volleyball.
You can pass a free ball using a forearm pass or an overhead pass.
As a pro, I recommend mastering the forearm pass first, as it can be used in many more situations and is a much more technical skill.
Overhead passing with the fingers is also important, but if the ball isn’t above your head or you don’t get into position quickly enough, it’s not always possible to perform.
How Should My Team Defend A Free Ball?
Once you’ve recognized a free ball, the first step is to call “free ball!”. This signals your team to get into free ball formation.
In this formation, the setter can run straight to their setting position, and the remaining players back up and get ready to pass and/or attack the ball. This creates a ‘W’ formation.
Who Should Pass The Free Ball?
The short answer is – whoever the ball goes to! Ideally, everyone on your team should be able to pass the free ball. However, we don’t want our setter to take the free ball – we want them up at the net, ready to set our attackers.
At higher levels, the court is split into two halves by the libero and position 6 defender to pass the free ball. This frees up our front-row attackers to get ready to spike the ball.
As much as possible, we want our libero to pass the ball as they are usually one of our best passers. This also allows more time for our position 6 player to get ready to attack the pipe!
How Can I Practice Passing Free Balls?
Volleyball teams at all levels, from novice to elite, practice passing free balls. As you play at higher levels of volleyball, there will be a higher expectation that you pass the free ball perfectly every time.
Here are some ways you can train this skill:
There are infinite ways coaches can integrate free ball defense into practice. ‘Butterfly’ is a simple drill for players to get plenty of chances to pass a free ball without too much pressure.
In the Butterfly Drill, the ball is tossed over the net in a straight line to a passer. The passer forearm or overhead passes to a setter, and the setter catches or sets the ball to a target, who then catches the ball. Players rotate by “following the ball.”
Practice With A Partner
All you need is a net and someone to toss the ball over!
To practice this, have your partner toss the ball to different areas of the court. Use something as a target (e.g., a chair) where the setter would normally be positioned.
Have your partner underhand ‘bowl’ the ball over. This creates top spin and mimics how you would receive the ball in a game.
Even though you aren’t with your team, practice calling “free ball” before the ball comes over the net and “mine” before you pass the ball. These are good habits to get into to impress your coach or teammates.
Practice By Yourself
You’re looking to get extra reps but don’t have someone to toss over to you? No problem!
You can practice by yourself anywhere that has a high enough ceiling (or none at all). Simply toss the ball high in the air and practice passing to a target. You can also let the ball bounce once before passing it to add some difficulty.
Passing It Forward
I hope that you now understand what a free ball is and how important it is to learn how to pass them effectively and consistently. Remember that volleyball has a steep learning curve, but with consistent practice and the tips in this article, you’ll be on your way to recognizing and passing free balls like the pros.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out the one we wrote peppering in volleyball, as it also covers a basic drill needed in volleyball warmups and practice.