A volleyball in a sand court on a sunny day

Sand Volleyball 101

Are you looking to get away from your usual routine, mix it up with a new physical pursuit—while relaxing with friends, sipping a cool adult beverage, and burying your feet in the sand? Then sand volleyball might be just the sport you need.

Despite its landlocked status, Kansas City has a remarkable number of sand-filled volleyball courts scattered all over the area. KC Crew offers recreational and competitive sand volleyball leagues at the courts beside the Missouri River at Berkeley Riverfront Park. Private facilities such as Shawnee Mission Beach Volleyball in Johnson County, the Sandbox at PowerPlay in the Northland, and Centerline Beach Volleyball in Blue Springs offer different levels of league play to satisfy your competitive side, and courtside bars to fuel your social side. And while many facilities take a break during the winter months, Volleyball Beach in Martin City rolls out a giant inflatable dome over its sand volleyball courts to keep the beach vibe going all year-round.

But wait. What if it’s been years since you touched a volleyball? Maybe you played in middle school or high school, or perhaps your only exposure to volleyball was in gym class. Have no fear. We had certified volleyball coach Todd Harris walk us through the basics, so that when you show up to your first game, you won’t stand out as the sand-volleyball noob.

“Probably 95 percent of the people who come out here to do lessons with me are just getting back into sand volleyball,” said Harris, who offers 45- to 60-minute private lessons at Volleyball Beach. “Most people just come out here to have fun and play, but they can use a little refresher course so that they don’t look too bad in front of their friends.”

Sand vs. Indoor

If you have past experience with indoor volleyball, there are a few differences to keep in mind when transitioning to the sand.

  1. Indoor is faster. The surface is faster, and the ball is lighter. In sand volleyball, the sand will slow you down, and the ball is heavier.
  2. Different balls. Sand volleyball is played in all types of weather, so the sport uses a heavier, more durable ball. Because of its weight, the sand volleyball will maintain its flight path better in windy conditions.
  3. Sand volleyball will wear you out. Expect to feel more of a burn when playing sand volleyball. There are a few reasons for this: First, you’re probably playing in the sun, which can make things warm, which will drain you a little bit. Second, every movement in the sand requires your leg muscles to do extra work when dealing with the shifting surface under your feet.
    Pro Tip: The volleyball easily picks up sand in wet and dry conditions. When you’re getting ready to serve, gently toss the ball up in front of you and then clap your hands hard on either side of the ball. You’ll pop the excess sand off the ball and keep the grit from flying in your face when you serve.
  4. About your feet: Barefoot is always best. You’re not going to move in the sand as well if you’re wearing shoes; plus, they’ll quickly fill up with sand and that’s a great recipe for blisters. If you really want to keep your feet covered, minimalist toe shoes such as Vibram FiveFingers might be an option. Or you could try wearing socks.
    Pro Tip: Sand gets hot in the sun. To keep your feet from baking, dig them in a few inches to find the cooler sand in between plays. Of course, you’ll want to pull your feet out before the next serve so you’re ready to move.

Getting Started

  1. Warm up. Once the game starts, you are in for a great workout—so treat yourself like the athlete you are and warm up. Do a few active and static stretches to make sure you don’t pull any muscles.
  2. Remove the bling. Clear your arms and hands of all watches and jewelry. You might not like the results of an epic showdown between your smartwatch screen and a sand-covered ball. Plus, you need a clean, smooth platform when you make contact with the ball.
  3. Wear sunglasses. It’s always a good idea to protect your eyes from UV rays, but sunglasses serve a couple other purposes in sand volleyball. First, you don’t want to lose the ball in the sun. And second, you’re playing on sand, and the sand will inevitably become airborne. Even if you’re playing at night, glasses will help keep the sand out of your eyes.

Keys to Sand Volleyball Success

When Harris provides lessons to players who are new to sand volleyball—or those looking to improve their game—he focuses on two key areas: serving and passing.

“This whole sport is what we call a rebound sport,” said Harris. “Everything’s a rebound: whether I’m passing, setting, or hitting, it’s all about rebounding the ball. Serving, however, is the one skill that you have 100-percent control over.”

Harris also focuses on forearm passing, since that’s the most common touch a player makes during a game. While you can’t control how a ball comes to you over the net, you can, with practice and proper technique, get to the ball and pass it in a way that makes it playable for your teammates.

“I always teach people to try to better than ball than what you got,” said Harris. “If you got a serve, try to make a nice, high pass that the setter can get to. If you’re the setter, pass the ball high. That gives your hitter time to get under it, jump, and swing. And if you’re the hitter, and you can’t get to the height of the net, stay on the ground but look at how to place the shot to find where the other team’s not.”

Pro Tip: The other team, if they have any serving skills, will seek out your team’s weakest passer and serve to that unfortunate individual over and over again. Don’t be that guy. Learn how to pass.

Forearm Passing Technique

Proper forearm passing technique begins by holding your arms parallel, placing the heels of your hands against each other, and then wrapping the fingers of one hand around the other, with thumbs placed evenly, side-by-side, on top. Press the heels of your hands together and flex your wrists downward slightly. This will pull your elbows together and provide a smooth surface for the ball to strike.

  1. Adjust your grip. Some people learn to do a forearm pass with interlaced fingers, or even crossed thumbs. Harris advises this is an excellent way to end up with a broken finger if you take a dive into the sand. Don’t interlace your fingers.
  2. It’s not batting practice. As the ball drops toward you, don’t swing at it with your fists or forearms. Not only do you lose control, but you will wind up with blotchy red forearms from the constant smacking of ball against skin. Instead, keep your hands above your belly button but below your chest. When making contact with the ball, make a small, controlled, shrugging motion.
    Woman on sand volleyball court in passing position
    Pro Tip: Here’s a good way to know how high to hold your hands when preparing for a pass: Look up toward the top of the net. Now, move your arms up until you can just see them in the bottom of your field of vision. That’s the proper height for keeping your hands at the ready.
  3. Watch your stance. Stand in an athletic position with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and weight on the balls of your feet, not in your heels. Have your hands at the ready about belly-button high, so when the ball comes you’re ready to bring your hands together.
  4. Stay on your feet. No one ever won a race on their knees, observed Harris. Although it’s tempting to make a graceful dive into the sand to rescue the ball—once you’re down, there is no hope of getting back up in time to make another play. Instead of diving, run through the ball.
  5. Pass high. Sand volleyball uses an eight-foot net, so it’s always safest to keep the ball up. “The higher you make the ball, the better,” said Harris, “especially in rec ball.” With six people on a team, if a ball is passed high, one of those other five players will be able to get to it.
  6. Point your hips toward the target. If you rush toward a ball with your hips facing off the court, chances are high that the ball is going off the court after you touch it. To be sure you don’t get caught running out of bounds, move laterally—in a step Harris calls a jab-shuffle. Lead with the outside leg, jabbing out to the side, and then shuffle with the other leg to catch up. In just a few strides, you can cover half the distance of the width of the court while keeping your hips squared to the net… which is probably the general direction you want the ball to move after you hit it.
  7. Talk. The biggest mistake teams make is failure to communicate. Call that ball. “When you’re passing and moving around the court, talk. Call the ball,” said Harris. “And then give a nice high five.”
  8. Beat the ball. If you get there ahead of the ball, you’re good, said Harris. If you get there at the same time, your chances of making a successful pass diminish. If you’re late … then your teammates will be sad.

Serving Technique

Anyone can serve a ball overhand. “Most adults have more than enough upper body strength to serve — it’s just that they don’t know how,” said Harris. “It’s not about how strong you are, it’s about how fast you strike the ball.” With a good, fast strike, the ball compresses and then bounces off your hand. If you strike slow, the ball won’t compress, will have very little rebound, and won’t go very far.

Woman serves volleyball outdoors Woman serves volleyball outdoors

  1. Less is more. Harris explained many people want to start their serve by holding the ball down low, then tossing it high into the air before striking it. “You’re not Serena Williams, and this isn’t tennis,” said Harris. “Utilize a less-is-more strategy. The less movement you have, the more accurate you’ll be with the ball.” Keeping the ball closer and lower will also cut down on the amount of time the wind has to move your ball before you strike. Lift the ball to the higher position, then drive it home quickly.
  2. You don’t need to step. While it might feel natural to step through your swing, Harris teaches people to serve without stepping. Instead, keep your weight on your back foot, and then rock your weight forward onto your front foot as you strike the ball. Staying in one place should increase your accuracy.
  3. Don’t paint the ball. If you drag your fingers along the ball (like a paintbrush) when you serve, you’ll put backspin on the ball and it will lose power as it heads over the net. Work to make that contact with the ball fast, hard, and direct. “Think of a celebration high five,” said Harris.
  4. Serve from the middle. From that position, you can place the ball anywhere you want. For beginners, said Harris, the goal is simply “over and in”. But once you get some practice, you can make slight adjustments that put the ball where you want it. All it takes is a slight change in the angle of your striking hand to change the direction the ball goes after you hit it.

Next Steps to Recreational Volleyball Glory

So, you’ve mastered the forearm pass. Your serve goes over the net and stays in bounds most of the time. What’s next?

In a word: Practice. If you’re playing in an early league, show up an hour before games start, get a court, and serve for a whole hour. Bring a partner and practice setting and passing. “Know where you’re at, and then know where you want to go,” said Harris. “If you really want to get better, you’ve got to get out there and work.”

But most people, Harris admitted, simply want to get just a little better so they don’t look too bad when they’re playing with their friends. “Because volleyball’s not the whole thing,” said Harris. “It’s also social.”

About the Author

Kristi Mayo is the editor of REC Midwest.