Let’s start at the beginning, pepper? What is the importance of being good at peppering? Well if you’ve ever spent more than one day on a volleyball court than you know that there are few things you will do at more practices than pepper. Throughout my young volleyball years, peppering was one of my favorite things to do. I would show up early to pepper with a partner or two. How can you beat a volleyball activity that doesn’t care about height? I don’t think you can. In college, I will be the first to say that my love for pepper was stifled by tiredness and pressure of peppering perfectly while crammed between 8 other pairs. But since I retired from competitive play, the one thing that has made me rethink my retirement is a 15-minute all out pepper session with my sister. It wasn’t pretty, there was plenty of bump setting and doubles but the magic between two partners, a ball and some empty space can improve overall ball control and help any player working to up their game.
So how can you become the ultimate pepper partner that everyone wants to pepper with?
First of all, warm up beforehand. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I will say it again, many many many many volleyball players get surgery on their joints; knees and shoulders especially. If you play volleyball for a long time and want to keep playing, surgery and rehabilitation might be inevitable, but most players have the ability to avoid surgery by taking care of their bodies. Dynamic stretching before starting, arm circles and throws and then finally 50% swings until your body and joints are warmed up are all small things that can have positive effects down the line.
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up, the dig. Just like in games, digs should be made high and in front of your target. This will not only provide game like touches for you, but will also help improve your partners’ footwork by making them move forward and then reset back to dig. It is easy to use peppering as a chance to warm up your platform, setting hands, and arm swing, but real progress is made with the feet.
Before we move on from the dig I have to add another point that pepper is a great chance to work on your forward sprawls. With the hitter at a less intense angle and directly in front of you, this is the perfect time to recognize keys in the arm swing like a high reach and the ball coming off their hand without a loop. Can sprawling be scary? Yes, but peppering is the time to lose the part of you that sets limits on your skills and just go for it. (This goes for overhand digging too! I know it sucks and it is easy to forget that you have to do it, but if you don’t make an effort, you will be less comfortable doing it in games and will end up ducking instead. If you are brave, talk to your partner about overhead peppering where the idea is to only dig with your hands! It requires some ball control but it is easy to hit a little softer until you are comfortable. Great for players that play left and right back!)
The set, as silly as it sounds, a set can make or break a pepper session and therefore cannot be overlooked. If you’ve ever been paired with a middle blocker (sorry middles) or other kinds of players with small hitting windows you will find that with a good set, the extremely uncoordinated hitter becomes someone that might still provide a challenge and be a partner you can work with. If we are getting specific, a good set would have the same loop as an outside (commonly called a 4) and will reach the hitters outstretched hand a step in front of their current position.
So, finally the grand finale, the big shebang! The hit! Why is this part such a big deal? Because, just like in a game, you look (and feel) like a big ninnemuggan that has no place on a volleyball court if you end a record breaking rally by whiffing the spike. How do you avoid this craziness? Well let’s start with something simple, how hard should you be hitting the ball? Personally, I enjoy swinging at about 75%, I have a lot of control at this speed and I feel I can make my partner better because it won’t be a walk in the park. If you don’t have that much hitting control yet than use they 4:1 ratio, four hits mostly under control to one hit that is just a little bit harder. This way you will lengthen the pepper rally and still get your shot at improving your power/control.
What is anything on a volleyball court without communication? Nothing, if you aren’t going to communicate then go sit down. Oh wait you are already probably sitting down because you are at a computer or on your phone. So anyway, communication, I could say many things about how peppering is just practice for a game so you might as well get in the habit, which is true, but my favorite thing about talking while peppering is the energy it brings. Just like going to a taco eating contest with a friend is way better than going by yourself, it ups the ante. In all of my historic epic pepper rallies, I cannot think of one that did not include almost continuous calls of “right here” or “come on” or “yes, nice save”. What fun is peppering if you are pretending you are alone, might as well go pass against the wall.
Cheers! Go for it! And comment below if you have any questions!