Volleyball is a sport with a simple object: the ability to deliver a ball over a net against the efforts of an opposing team. The manner in which this object is achieved is defined by rather rigorous rules as to how the ball may be struck and handled by a player. A premium is placed on the offensive team's ball-handling efficiency by the limitations on touching the ball, particularly the maximum of three hits (including unintentional contacts) for returning the ball over the net.
The set and spike mechanism is the most effective offensive series that can be executed in volleyball. The set and spike are a progression from the simple return of that ball safely to the opposing side of the net. The set and spike are designed as an aggressive sequence of maneuvers, with the goal of striking the ball with sufficient force into the opposing court that it cannot be returned.
An understanding of the proper execution of the set and spike mechanism begins with how the volleyball is directed into a position where the mechanism may be initiated. Although there are many variations as to how the ball may be received when hit into the defensive team's court, in most cases the ball will be bumped by a defensive player. The bump is the first of the three permitted touches by a team upon receiving the ball from an opponent. In the rules of volleyball there is no prohibition against the first touch of the ball being a return over the net, but the accepted tactic to ensure the most effective attack is to ensure that the ball is handled so as to permit an optimal and powerful delivery with the spike.
The bump is usually employed as a pass to the setter, the player with the primary responsibility for setting the ball up in such a fashion that the third contact with the ball will be the spike. The player who delivers the spike will usually be a hitter, predetermined in the team's offensive strategy.
The set is usually executed in one of two ways, depending on the height and the position of the ball relative to the floor. The setter must possess well-defined agility and lateral quickness to obtain the proper body position relative to the ball in order to set it. The bump set is employed when the ball is delivered to the setter at a height where the player is not able to use the fingertips to handle the ball as is permitted by the rules; the setter places both arms together to direct the ball upward for the intended spike. An attempt to place the palms of the hands under the ball in such a position will almost inevitably result in a lift violation being called by the umpire.
The second type of set performed is the overhand set. In this maneuver, the setter uses a hand to better control the direction and the spin of the ball during the set, to permit maximum control over the ball by the hitter on the spike. When possible, the setter endeavors to have the body "square to the ball" when he ball is set, moving from a crouched position to perform the set, and then maintaining a low position to anticipate a return from the opponent.
The spike culminates the offensive set piece that is the pass, set, and spike. The player designated as the hitter will start the spike mechanics before the ball has been set. The hitter will first get positioned behind the place where the ball will be set. As the ball is set and begins to move upward, the hitter begins a short run up approach and launches the body into the air, driving both arms upward to create as much lift as possible. An ideal set and spike will result in the ball being struck at the peak of the parabolic path taken by the ball. The hitter transfers the kinetic energy created by the approach to the ball with a powerful arm swing. The greater the height at which the ball is struck on a spike, the more acute the angle at which the ball will travel toward the opponent, making the ball more difficult to handle.
The spike combines the force of the leap into the spike with the more delicate hand-eye coordination demanded to place the ball where required in the opposing court. To maintain balance in the air prior to contact with the ball, the hitter's body remains relatively perpendicular to the floor throughout the jump, with the hitting hand positioned between the ear and the shoulder of the hitter. The ball is then struck with the heel of the palm at the center of the ball, with the wrist extended so as to ensure that the player follows through on the spike motion to maximize hitting power.
The Magnus effect is a physical phenomenon that occurs when a spinning object moves through a fluid (liquid or gas like air), where the spin creates areas of lower air pressure to which the ball will turn, causing a deviation in its path. The volleyball serve is subject to this principle, and, though the spike generally travels a shorter distance, the Magnus effect still occurs, but is less pronounced.