First of all, if you are a current Division I college volleyball coach (or for that matter, a current Division I volleyball player), do not read this post!
For everyone else, here is some advice on improving your hitting percentages as an outside hitter - Hit smooth line and power everywhere else. For this post, we will ignore the need to tip; maybe a future post on how, when and where to tip should be upcoming?
On non-combination plays (traditionally known as a right side and or left side "X" or crossing play) or solo inside sets (where the outside hitter attacks a ball 2 to 8 feet from the sideline), the outside hitter will attack the ball near the antennae. Because offenses wish to "spread" out the block and because of transition attacks, the majority of outside hitters attack the ball on the perimeter of the court.
When an attacker takes a swing on the edge of the court, there are four issues they may well need to deal with; 1) the antennae, 2) the right or left side blocker, 3) the middle blocker and, 4) the net. Each of these four instances are a challenge to a successful attack of an outside and two of these items are static (the antennae and the net will ALWAYS be in the same spot no matter where and when you play).
I ask my outside hitters to attack for zeros and kills, and to avoid negatives. Remember that a negative is an attack which is hit out of bounds, in the net or stuff blocked; a zero is an attack which is dug by the other team or blocked and covered by the hitter's team; a kill is a ball which an attack results in a point for the hitter's team by either being blocked out of bounds, attacked cleanly to the floor or a ball which is dug by the other team but ultimately cannot be played over by the opponents (i.e. dug way deep, opposing team chases it down, but cannot get the ball back over the net). I rarely get upset with my hitters when they are blocked, because I view it as the responsibility of the rest of the team to cover the hitter; about the only time I would be critical of a hitter after being blocked, is if the hitter attacked the ball directly into the blocker and the ball was right on the net, thus the blocker has an easy time of it.
In this vein of trying to achieve positive and zero attacks from the outside hitters, while trying to avoid negative results, and in consideration of the four challenges facing the hitters on outside sets, I suggest that outside hitters attack line smooth and all other attacks with power.
Smooth line - The reason that I use the word smooth, is because it conveys a better mental image of what the actual swing of an outside hitter should look like when attempting a line attack. Smooth is not weak, or easy; it is not a roll shot.
Power - Just as it sounds, all non-line attacks need to be hit with power. Not crazy, try and bounce the ball or take some opponent's head off brute force, but rather to hit the ball with substantial strength.
Take a moment to consider the line attack, believing that the set is in the perfect position (hitter is not forced into an angle shot because the set is outside the antenna). Blockers rarely take the entire line and by that, I mean the blocker does not have their outside hand a millimeter from the antennae. Rather, the outside blocker usually leaves a bit of space on the line (or a lot of space if the scout report says to concentrate on blocking angle or the defense is in a rotation), and then most outside blockers make an unconscious angle/seam movement when blocking, thus opening up more of the line to attack.
Hitting line represents a smaller target area, both in terms of getting the ball past the net/blocker and in the court with the sideline being so relevant to the attack. On average, the harder you hit the ball, the less control you have and conversely the easier you hit the ball, the more control you have. But, hitting easy in NCAA volleyball usually is not a good thing, which is why I encourage our hitters to attack Smooth line. Smooth is at about 80% of a power hit, allowing the hitter to extend their elbow and attack at the top of their swing (creating a better attack angle), encourages control at the point of contact, yet the attack has enough force behind it to twist the hands of the blocker (remember the side line is the friend of the hitter when manipulating the line blocker) and the ball gets on the line defender quickly, while not being as easy to control.
I don't encourage a power hit on line attacks because power swings have a lower contact point (hitters use their pectoral muscles more when generating power, thus the contact point drops to allow more use of the pectoral) which brings the net more into play, power swings have less control which makes the antennae and side line a threat to a successful attack, since the hitter is attempting to achieve a kill or zero within a rather narrow physical area.
Conversely, I want my outsides to hit all other attacks with power. As an outside hitter moves their attack focus away from the line, they eliminate one of the challenges to success, the antenna, and they create a larger playing area to attack into. Of course, they also bring into consideration the middle blocker, which is not a concern when hitting line, yet they now have much more net and court real estate to work with. While there is more square footage to manipulate, there are also more defenders waiting. To achieve kills and zero attacks, we want the outside hitter to attack with power - Again, not crazy hit the paint off the ball power, but rather an attack which is hard for the defense to control the force behind the ball.
The harder a ball is hit, the harder it is for the defense to control, either by the block or by the diggers. If a ball is hard to dig, then the odds of a good dig are reduced, which translates into a less than optimal transition attack; literally having to set outside versus having the middle hitters as a transition attack threat. In terms of the block, a power hit creates challenges especially if it is attacked high on the block (hands can easily be twisted on a high hard attack, while forearms tend to be solid) - How many times have all of us seen hard attacks blocked deep out of bounds on the attacker's side, ricochet to the sidelines, touched and land 20 feet behind the defense? Many good things can happen when the ball is hit with power.
Too many times, I see outsides (unfortunately on my team!) not attack the ball with power because they are trying to keep it in (which is a good idea) or are hesitant to really bang the ball. This leads to controlled digs and effective transition attacks. There are good zero attacks and bad zero attacks - Yes, we anal coaches can break down anything into wonderful minutia! A good zero attack is when the other team cannot set the front row, or the setter has to dig the ball, or the left front hitter is removed from the transition attack. A bad zero attack is when the middle back defender digs the ball, allowing the blockers an extra bit of time to transition into their attack footwork and the setter is able to see everything set up, or the ball is hit with such a lack of power anywhere that it is easily dug into the setting area.
Practicing hitting with power is relatively easy and not too much time should be spent upon this skill, yet hitting smooth line is much more difficult to master but well worth the effort. When you, as an outside hitter, are in hitting lines or attack drills, do not just hit the ball into the middle of the court with a relaxed swing. Focus on hitting line with a smooth swing - Outside hitters need to get a "feel" for where the antennae is in relation to each outside set since outside sets are never exactly the same. It is OK to clip the antennae in practice when you hit, because this gives instant feedback about the line attack.
Also, the outside hitter needs to practice hitting the ball so it lands just a foot or two inside the sideline. Outside attacks should not land on the sideline, this creates too much margin for error (just think of all the less than perfect line judges), but rather the ball should land inside the sideline. Outside hitters need to understand how the angle or trajectory of the ball changes based on what their hand does at contact and/or how using their off arm affects the flight of the ball and/or how the management of their torso affects the flight of the ball post contact. These are all feedback opportunities which must be understood while practicing.
Thus endeth the lesson for today.