Giving volleyball a kick

With an impressive history dating back hundreds of years, sepak takraw is a test of dexterity, strength, and speed

Have you ever wanted to take volleyball to the next level? Incorporate a bit of footwork into the manoeuvres or even just kick the ball back over the net? Or, for those avid footballers, try juggling while dribbling with the ball? If these appeal to you then sepak takraw, a native South Asian sport, may be right up your alley. The game is a blend of football and volleyball with many twists and versions, is a test of dexterity and strength, and undoubtedly a great form of exercise that can be played both recreationally and competitively. With a rich history and lively culture surrounding it, sepak takraw is an entertaining watch and worth giving a shot the next time you have access to a volleyball net and a good pair of shoes with some friends.

In Thailand, the sport has been around for hundreds of years and there is evidence that sepak takraw was played during the 16th century reign of King Naresuan. However, the modern version of sepak takraw that we see today began to take shape in the 1740s with a departure from the traditional circular style of play and more official rules being devised. In 1929, the Siam Sports Association drafted the first competition rules. The volleyball-style net made its way into the sport another four years later and takraw was even introduced into curriculum in Siamese schools. This is a testament to the cultural root of the game and how it is a source of pride for the Thai. It became such a cherished local custom that another exhibition of volleyball-style takraw was staged to celebrate the kingdom’s first constitution in 1933.

The Thai were not the only ones that had a custom of playing takraw, although Thailand is acknowledged to be where the sport originated. The Chinese were inspired by cuju, an ancient Chinese military exercise, where soldiers would try to keep a feathered shuttlecock airborne by kicking it back and forth between two people. As the sport developed, the animal hide and chicken feathers were eventually replaced by balls made of woven strips of rattan. The sport even made its way to the United States eventually, where it was first organized by a group of students from Northrop University. Malaysian students attending the university often enjoyed playing the sport and taught a handful of American students how to play, which in turn inspired Malaysia Airlines to sponsor a US team from the university to attend the National Tournament in Kuala Lumpur in November 1987. So, while the sport is most popular in Asia, it is still played in North America in the US and Canada as well.

“The balls are traditionally made of woven bamboo or rattan, though modern balls are usually made of synthetic material.”

Sepak takraw has a lot of the same rules and characteristics of volleyball. Two teams play with three players each with positions known as left inside, right inside, and back. The official takraw court is a tad smaller than a standard badminton court with a net dividing the court in half. Each team is allowed three touches of the ball to pass it over to the other side–without letting it touch the ground. The balls are traditionally made of woven bamboo or rattan, though modern balls are usually made of synthetic material. The winner is the first team to either 15 or 21 points depending on what is decided before the game begins.

“There are plenty of maneuvers commonly used during the game that take an impressive amount of skill and speed.”

The match begins when a teammate tosses the ball to the server who has one foot in the “serving circle”. The server then kicks the ball with the available foot over the net to start play. The typical rules of volleyball take over, except that no hands or arms can touch the ball. This is the feature that makes takraw an acrobatically challenging sport that requires a lot of flexibility, coordination, and power. Takraw is known for its intricacy and speed of methods used to keep the ball off the ground. Basic moves include the sole, instep, knee, shoulder, and head kick. An advanced move that you would see if you were to watch it played professionally would be athletes doing a cross-legged kick – crossing your left leg over your right and jumping up to kick the ball with the instep of your left foot. There are plenty of other maneuvers commonly used during the game that take an impressive amount of skill and speed.

The common volleyball spike is more difficult to achieve in takraw because in order to slam the ball like that your foot would have to be above the net. In order to do this though, players do a type of bicycle kick like in football, jumping and flipping in the air in order to get the power and height to kick the ball. A roll spike is a difficult move where a player leaps high to kick the ball over the opposite shoulder. Another complicated striking move is known as the sunback, similar to a scissors kick but over the same shoulder. If a player is quite skilled at various striking moves, they are known as the killer and feared by the other team.

Not all takraw is played the same. There are many variations of the game, although the volleyball-style net type is the most popular. In-tossing takraw is a simpler version of the game with fewer rules, with the point being to see how many times the ball can be hit aloft by a player. It is often used as a means of training, with a good player being able to keep it off the ground for approximately 10 minutes. This may not seem like a long time, but it takes a lot of skill and practice and is a good test to see how advanced players’ moves are. Circle takraw, closer to the origin of the sport, is less acrobatic and consists of five to seven players standing in a circle trying to keep the ball off the ground for as long as possible. This is the most recreational and beginner-friendly version and a staple Thai pastime. However, hoop takraw, also known as lawd huang, is the most difficult version of the game. It is similar to circle takraw except the goal is to put the ball into a basket-shaped net with three hoop openings in a triangular formation. The hoops are about five to six metres off the ground, making it a difficult task. Each team is allotted around 20 to 30 minutes to try and shoot the ball into the basket as many times as they can from the perimeter of the circle. Points are also awarded for creativity, so it is a time for players to show off.

The versatility of takraw makes it an easy game to play for all levels. If you have a background in volleyball or football, it is definitely a sport to give a try. With an impressive history and a current international sport, it is only something to add to the repertoire for athletes. Who knows, maybe a student at Trinity will be brave enough to start a club for sepak takraw. I know I would be willing to give it a shot.

Shannon McGreevy

Shannon McGreevy is the Sports Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.