October 7, 2015

Spikeball in Physical Education

Last spring, I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 SHAPE America National Convention & Expo in Seattle, WA.

It’s no big secret that the event was an incredible success and one that I’ll never forget (I’m pretty sure there’s even a Twitter picture of me riding a mechanical bull somewhere that shows just how memorable #SHAPESeattle was for me). I got to hang out with some of the best physical educators of my generation, attend incredible sessions that are still impacting my practice and meet amazing vendors promoting some of the coolest and most innovative physical education equipment that is available today.

One of those vendors was Spikeball.

Now I had heard of Spikeball before. Teachers from my PLN had been sharing pictures of Spikeball sets being used in their P.E. classes and with their families on the weekends. That said, I had never seen a set in person nor had I seen the game be played by highly skilled adults.

After watching the Spikeball guys do their thing during their massive session in Seattle, I figured it was time to see if Spikeball could be a good fit for our physical education program here at St. George’s School of Montreal.

After I got back from Seattle, I ordered four Spikeball sets from their website and received them literally within a few days.

Side note: I just have to say that, as fun as Spikeball seemed, what really blew me away was how cool everything about it was. The branding, the sweet travel bag, the spikeball stickers… everything about the game made me want to play it. I know I’m a sucker for good branding, but the reality is that the attention to the little details (e.g. the small jokes in the game instructions, the action shots on the box, etc) makes the game seem so much more legit (yes, I’m using that term and sticking to it). Spikeball didn’t just feel like some novel game, it felt like an actual sport and I wanted to play and be good at it.

Anyway, back to the blog post:

At the time, my grade 6 class had been working on a few different net/wall game grade-level outcomes (GLOs). Specifically, they were focused on the following GLOs:

  • Performs a legal underhand serve with control for net/wall games such as badminton, volleyball or pickleball. (S1.M12.6)
  • Strikes with a mature overhand pattern in a non-dynamic environment (closed skills) for net/wall games such as volleyball, handball, badminton or tennis. (S1.M13.6)
  • Transfers weight with correct timing for the striking pattern. (S1.M15.6)
  • The class had been using a variety of net/wall games (e.g. pickleball variations, speedminton, badminton, etc) to help them master these outcomes and, by the time we received our Spikeball sets, the students had been quite successful in their learning.

Since I was eager to try out Spikeball in class and see if it had any educational value, I decided it would be beneficial to the students (not to mention pretty cool) to see if we could make some progress on the following grade 7 GLOs while using Spikeball as our main learning activity:

  • Strikes with a mature overhand pattern in a dynamic environment for net/wall games such as volleyball, handball, badminton or tennis. (S1.M13.7)
  • Selects offensive shot based on opponent’s location (hit where opponent is not). (S2.M8.7)

Here’s how we did it (over 3 classes):

Part One: Introducing Spikeball

The first thing I set out to do was to introduce my students to the game of Spikeball (or roundnet as it is sometimes called). Luckily for both me and the students, Spikeball has some awesome visuals on their website to help get you going, not to mention this sweet drone video to give you a good sense of what a high-level game of Spikeball looks like.

Now as cool as Spikeball looks, it takes some getting used to before you get to the level of play you just saw in that video. To help my students get there, I had to layer the game.

Part Two: Breaking Spikeball Down

Layer One: The Ball and The Net (Sending the ball to a specific space)

To start off, I just wanted the students to get used to the most basic mechanic of the game: you bounce a ball off of a net and then it’s someone else’s turn.

This may seem like an unnecessary step, but it takes a while to understand how the ball interacts with the net when you bounce it off of it. Where does the ball bounce best? How can you direct the ball? What makes a shot legal or illegal? Which areas make the ball more difficult to return?

To help my students explore and better understand these tactical problems, the first layer of our Spikeball breakdown simply involved four players around a net with no teams. In group juggling style, the players would find a passing pattern in which every player got to touch the ball before it went back to the first player. The catch was that you had to throw the ball off of the net in order to pass it to the next player (who would then catch the ball).

Again, although very simple, by reducing the tactical complexity of the game and the amount of skill involved, this layer allowed students to explore how to use the net to send the ball to a specific location.

After layer one, I would have my students come in so we could discuss what they discovered about the net/ball relationship. Through our conversations, we realized that a) throwing the ball hard against the centre of the net made it bounce high, which made it easier for the next person to catch it, b) bouncing the ball softly off the net made the ball bounce low, which forced the next player to move their feet to catch the ball and c) throwing the ball into the “pocket” (i.e. the area close to the rim) made the ball bounce in an unpredictable way which made it really hard for the next person to catch it.

Once our discussion was done, it was time to move onto the next layer.

Layer Two: Self-Passing the Ball (Maintaining a rally)

In layer two, I wanted students to continue exploring how to successfully maintain a rally in Spikeball all while adding to the tactical complexity of the game by increasing the difficulty of the skill involved.

For this layer, the first player would throw the ball onto the net as a pass to player #2. That player would then have to tap the ball up as a self-pass before striking the ball onto the net as a passing action to player #3. This would continue until the ball returned to player #1. If the team managed to do so without having to restart the rally (i.e. without the ball touching the ground), then they scored one point. Teams would attempts to score 5 points, then 10 and then 25 (which, despite their efforts, no one managed to do).

I would go around and talk to teams about what makes a successful self-pass and what makes for a good strike. Students would explain to me that self-passes were good when a) the amount of force used allowed the ball to move up to a good height for striking and b) when the ball was “set” close enough to the net. As for striking, they found that striking the ball with a) your hand held open/flat and b) the top of the palm of your hand allowed them to send the ball onto the net in the area they were aiming for.

Layer two allowed students to develop the skills of both making a pass and striking the ball onto the net. Without teams or competition, they were able to practice both skills in a safe learning environment that put an emphasis on skill mastery.

Layer Three: Team Rallies (Maintaining a rally)

Now that students had a better understanding of how to pass, how to strike and how to successfully send the ball to a desired area, it was time for them to do this in cooperative fashion.

For layer three, each four player group was divided into two player teams. Still using the throw serve to start play (to minimize errors and maximize rally times), players on a team now had perform 1-2 passes with their teammate before sending the ball off the net and towards the other team. It is important to note that the tactical problem being explored here was still “maintaining a rally”. Teams had to see how many exchanges the could collect within a given rally. Again, the challenge goals here were 5, 10 and 25 exchanges.

Once I saw that most teams were starting to understand how to work together with their partner and maintain a rally with the other team, I brought the class in for a group discussion. We talked about tactics they used in order to successfully set up a strike with their partner. Students shared that what worked best was a) communicating with your teammate, b) adjusting your positioning according to your teammate’s and c) setting the ball close to the net and at a good height for striking. We then talked about where you liked receiving the ball from the other team to make it easiest for your team to maintain the rally. Teams shared that they liked the ball being high and not too far from the net. They also mentioned that they liked it when the ball was sent directly to them. Finally, they mentioned that they hated pocket shots (those weird very-close-to-the-rim shots that make the ball bounce in odd directions).

Once this round of questioning was over, we started to discuss what would make it difficult for the other team to return the ball. Teams suggested that sending the ball either high and far or close and low would make it difficult to return. Also, fast bounces could make it difficult for the receiving player to properly pass the ball to their teammate. Finally, sending the ball into a pocket would be very frustrating for the other team.

That said, now that teams had a better understanding of what could lead to scoring a point, it was time for them to start practicing just that!

Layer Four: Spikeball (Scoring a point)

For this layer, I would have teams start to play the full game with a few modifications to secondary rules:

First off, teams would start off by serving the ball by throwing it. Exploring the tactical problem of scoring a point can’t happen if teams never get pass the serve. However, I would eventually replace this with a spiked serve for the teams who were more advanced… although that doesn’t mean both teams had to (remember that every team/player should always work at their own skill level and that it is ok for different students to be playing with different sets of secondary rules).

Second, for teams who were still struggling with getting a rally going, I would allow some teams to use a “catch-toss” (i.e. catching the ball as a second contact) as a first or second contact (depending on what I was seeing in the game). This would allow teams to get rallies/attacks going without slowing down the game too much. As time went on and players improved their skills, students would begin to stop using “catch-tosses” as frequently. It’s all about letting every student feel successful in authentic game situations!

Finally, I would have students play short games to 5 (rather than 21). Nobody likes being crushed 21-0 and feeling bad about yourself isn’t the state of mind you need to be in in order to keep learning and improving!

Play went on like this for some time and I would rotate teams around to allow everyone to play against different opponents. It was crazy how fast students started to pick up on how to be successful in the game and started pulling off highlight reel plays.

The thing is that Spikeball is exciting. It’s fast, it doesn’t require a ton of skill to get to experience awesome rallies and it’s simple enough to get started right away.

The students loved it and, like most people who play it, got addicted to playing it. So, after having developed my own addiction for the game over the summer, I decided to start a Spikeball intramural league here at St. George’s School of Montreal.

…but you’ll have to wait until the next blog post to learn more 😉

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Spikeball #PhysEd Facebook group for more ideas on how teachers from around the world are using Spikeball in their physical education programs.

Thanks for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of
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