What is a Pancake in Volleyball? (And How to Do It)
Some of the most exciting plays during a volleyball match are considered scramble plays executed in desperation.
A big dig, powerful kill, or strong block is always nice...
But seeing someone give all-out effort and save a doomed play is exhilarating!
Many of these plays go nameless but some have official names.
The example we will cover here is called the pancake.
The pancake dig is performed with one hand outstretched, sliding flat on the court’s surface with the palm down. The player must dive and ensure her arm is parallel to the floor.
The ultimate goal of a pancake is to allow the ball to contact the back of the hand and use its momentum to force it back up into the air.
This move can be a game-changer and all higher-level players should be able to perform it.
The Case for the Pancake
It may sound counterintuitive to say this (we are writing an entire blog on the Pancake, after all) but the first rule of pancaking in volleyball is to avoid the pancake dig!
I know, I know. I can explain...
The pancake is a difficult maneuver to master. Even those who have done it hundreds of times still struggle to do it correctly and without some semblance of pain. It is important to understand that while valuable and awe-inspiring, the pancake should be your last effort at saving a ball.
Now that we have the cons out of the way, the pancake is a valuable tool to have in your repertoire.
This play can help recover seemingly doomed plays and can instill a sense of momentum for your side.
The keys to a successful pancake are practice, practice, and more practice.
This move requires a confident dive and slide. If you approach a pancake dig with hesitation, you will likely fail and potentially risk injury.
The Right Time to Perform the Pancake Dig
We cannot reiterate enough how rare the successful pancake is.
While the maneuver does not quite fall under the “do not try this at home” category, it should be used in very specific scenarios.
The pancake should be tried when the ball is just a fingertip away and destined to hit the ground without a desperate try.
Coaches will likely grimace every time their players attempt the pancake.
The risk of injury is one reason, and the unlikely success of it is another.
Coaches should emphasize the value of this last-ditch play while encouraging proper attempts at a good pass – through quick feet movements and appropriately timed dives.
The pancake is best put into action when a tipped ball surprisingly drops into “no mans’ land” or a serve that ticks the net is tumbling toward the floor.
Proper Execution of the Pancake Dig (8 Steps)
There are eight steps to properly set up for, and execute, an effective pancake dig.
It is important to remember that the risks of the pancake are not worth it if there are no teammates around to carry on the play after the ball pops up.
A player must be available to either free ball a pass over the net or pass to an available attacker.
Let’s get started:
Be in a good defensive posture. This will allow the necessary athleticism and enable the player to diagnose the appropriateness of the dive and pancake.
Begin as you would a normal dive and put the non-dominant foot (right-handers typically start with their left foot) forward.
This is the point to diagnose your intent – will you attempt a “normal” dive or perform the pancake? If the pancake is the call, begin to stretch forward with your dominant hand.
Drive with your non-dominant foot forward and hard as your body approaches the ground. Do not let your legs push you upward – you are aiming for down and forward.
Fully reach your dominant hand out with the palm facing the ground (think: Superman flying). Ideally, you will have timed things up so your hand is sliding under the ball as it nears the court.
Your palm should hit the ground in the spot you estimate the ball to land. The effective pancake requires that your palm hits the ground precisely as the ball hits the back of your hand.
Once the ball has made verifiable contact with your hand, alert your teammates with an “Up!” call. This will keep them engaged in a seemingly lost play. Yelling out can also encourage the ref to decide the ball is still in play.
This step is often forgotten but is very important. Get up! The play could continue and you will be in the way if you lay there. If your pancake was the first contact, you may end up having to attack a set. Be prepared.
Coaching and Working the Pancake
While we have discouraged overusing the pancake dig, it is important to practice this move.
Like all aspects of volleyball, the more you work on the pancake, the likelier you are to be successful in a live game.
Coaches should teach the move to younger or newer players in four phases:
a. Learning the “Feel”
This will be worked in partners and give players the opportunity to learn how a successful pancake feels off the back of their hands.
One partner will drop the ball – simulating a tipped ball. The other partner will crouch down and practice appropriate hand placement for a pancake.
There is no diving in this phase. Progress can be considered when players are routinely getting the ball into the air with proper pancake hand placement.
b. Tracking the Ball
Unfortunately, not all balls simply fall to our hands in a live volleyball game.
This step will aid players in getting their hands in the right place for a pancake with a more realistic ball.
One partner will lob the ball to her partner who is a few feet away. The partner receiving the ball should already be crouched, similar to the first step.
The receiving player will need to estimate where the ball will land in order to properly place her hand for success.
Progress can be considered when players are confidently tracking the ball and routinely getting the ball into the air with proper pancake hand placement.
c. Implementing the Dive
Players should now practice diving with the crouch, drive, and slide method described in the eight-step process earlier.
Progress is considered when players can perform the slide with hand outstretched, without “skidding to a halt” violently.
d. Putting it Into Game Mode
The final step in teaching players the pancake dig is to simulate a game-like situation.
Coaches can be at the net on a hitting box (or chair) and simulate a tipped ball. Players will begin near the end-line. The tip should be directed near the three-meter line, requiring a pancake.
The player should use her athleticism to step, crouch, drive, and slide with the appropriate hand outstretched.
Progress is considered when players can perform a pancake dig successfully at least half the time.
The pancake dig is a last-ditch effort to get a ball up in the air for other players to get it over the net.
This play should be reserved for appropriate scenarios and not overused for the sake of a “flashy” play.
Competitive teams should work the pancake dig into practice to ensure players can safely attempt the dive and teammates can recover the pancaked ball effectively.