Help! My team is too quiet

Communication is an important part of playing volleyball, as it is with any team sport (and beyond as Mark Lebedew recently wrote). I’ve written before on the subject of getting players to talk (here and here). I’ve also had debates with fellow coaches on the subject. A reader recently emailed on the subject, looking for some help.

I coach senior girls high school volleyball. Each year, I have the quietest team in the league. They don’t talk a lot on the court, nor do they go to the center of the court and high five or whatever between points. I get them to do this at practices; I have a yelling drill; We have team activities outside of volleyball – I just can’t seem to build team spirit. I am a positive, loud, cheerful person, so it’s not quietness on my part that is causing this. What am I doing wrong…or more to the point…what can I do right?

This coach wants to address what I would view as general communication and interaction in her team. I know coaches who argue that a team should be able to play together without actually talking. The case for that is the players should all know their responsibilities. Thus, there isn’t any need for talking.

That’s all fine in theory, but have you ever actually seen a team that plays together with no talking? Even teams full of highly experienced players who played together a lot talk. It’s the low level, inexperienced teams that are usually the ones playing in silence. That should tell us something about the value of communication.

Gender differences in communication

Now, to be fair, the coaches who pushed back at me about talking are from the men’s side of the game where their does tend to be less noise in-rally. If you’ve ever been to an event where both genders are playing, you likely noticed the difference.

That was certainly the case when I coached at BUCS Final 8s during my time in England. The format there featured two rounds of men’s play followed by two rounds of women’s play. The gym was MUCH noisier when the women were on-court.

I think there’s a very specific reason for this. Female players connect with each other via communication. I don’t mean sharing information. Both genders do that. I mean they are unified by communication and interaction. If a female team stops talking you know there’s a problem somewhere. For more on that subject, I strongly recommend Kathy DeBoer’s book on gender differences.

So if you have a team that is quiet, as described above, how can you look to address the issue?

Shared purpose

It is way easier to get a group of players to do something if they can link that to a common objective. This objective has to be one they all buy in to, though. It can’t be something put on them from outside. For example, it’s all well and good to say your goal is to win your league, but if that’s not where the players are at with their own thinking then you using it as the driver won’t work. You need to figure out what they want out of it and work from there.

Gym culture

It’s much easier to get players to interact with each other if they feel relaxed. That means they aren’t caught up in their own concerns and fears about their individual performance and such. The players need to know it’s OK to make mistakes – encouraged even. See Climbing Mistake Mountain and the posts linked from there for a deeper discussion on this idea.

This is not something easily changed. You have to get probably well-entrenched attitudes turned around, and that takes time. It more specifically takes a consistent approach from the coach. You have to show every day, every practice, every game, every match that mistakes are simply part of the process of improving. If you are inconsistent and sometimes penalize errors, or get upset about them, or allow others to do so, then you won’t make any progress.

Encourage celebration

A lot of times getting teams to interact more and communicate at a higher level starts with getting them to celebrate good plays. It’s pretty easy to be happy when someone makes a good play. From that perspective, cheering tends to be easy to encourage. Players may not always be comfortable getting excited about their own plays, but if everyone else is cheering then it’s a lot easier.

So how do you get them celebrating?

You can start with simple things like having team cheers for aces and blocks. The players generally like to come up with something fun for that. You can extend that to other types of plays as well, depending on your level. These things may seem silly, but they can be a step in the right direction.

Coming together between points

If you can get the team doing things like ace and block cheers together, you’re on your way toward being able to get them to come together after each play. It’s something that may need to be coached in practice. As the emailer mentioned, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it transfers to match-time.

One way to address this is to have a designated player or two who bring the team together. The floor captain or some other leader on the court is the best candidate. Chances are they won’t have to do it for long as a habit will develop. Even after that, though, there may be times when a reminder is required.

What if someone resists?

Interaction with one’s fellow players should be considered part of the role of every player on the court. If someone isn’t going into the huddle between points then they aren’t fulfilling their role. Same if the designated huddle-caller isn’t bringing the team together. What do you normally do if a player isn’t fulfilling their role? My guess is you take them out and put on someone who you feel will do a better job of it. This really shouldn’t be seen any differently. Losing playing time can be a big motivator.

In-Rally Communication

Most people probably think of calling the ball and calling for the ball as the talking that gets done in rallies. For sure, those are two major sources of player communication in-rally. There’s a lot of other stuff, though.

Base!
Cover!
Watch the dump!
Deep line!
Outside, outside!
Tip, tip!

I think you get the idea.

This sort of communication is a level beyond calling the ball when passing or calling for the ball as an attacker. These calls are about reading the play, anticipating, and preparing for what comes next. As such, they need to be incorporated into training players to recognize what’s happening. If you want players to be talking in this way then you have to incorporate that talk into the technical/tactical work from the beginning.

Reinforcing the requirement to talk

I mentioned potentially using playing time consequences as a way to encourage players to connect with each other between plays. Certainly that sort of thing could be applied to in-play talking as well. It depends on the player and situation, though.

As to what you can do in practice to make sure players talk as required, there are a couple of ways you can go. In the case of drills where there’s a count objective you can not count good reps when there isn’t the desired talking, or you can make it a negative if you want to be more forceful.Alternatively, in game play you can give points or bonus points if the players communicate as desired. Or you can blow the whistle to end a rally (and thus cost the team a point) if the players don’t communicate as you wish. It’s been my experience this gets them focused rather quickly!

I haven’t use it myself, but there’s a game called “ruckus” some coaches use to encourage more player communication. I’m not entirely sure of the rules. I think basically any type of communication earns a point. Don’t hold me to that, though.

Dealing with individuals

While encouraging the team toward being more interactive, you have to be conscious of individual personalities. Some players will quite readily be engaged, but others will be more shy. Trying to force the latter to be more talkative has a good chance of backfiring. You’re probably going to have to take things slowly, and gradually develop their comfort. This will require some patience on your part.

A personal example

At the start of the 2013-14 season my Exeter women’s team was about half returning players and half new players. Most didn’t speak English as their first language (it was about 10 different nationalities). All were fluent, but that isn’t the same as comfortable, especially in a new environment. Our training was pretty quiet to begin. By the end of the year, though, people regularly poked their heads into the gym to see what all the noise was about.

How did we get there?

First, they were totally committed to reaching Final 8s (played in Edinburgh that season). As such, it was easy for me to frame things in the context of how they contributed to reaching that goal. The prior year’s team lacked the same mindset, so using Final 8s as a motivator wouldn’t have worked.

Gym culture was a huge part as well. The process was slow, but eventually we got everyone bought in to the idea that mistakes were OK (though lack of effort and focus was not!). That helped build overall confidence and allowed some of the stronger personalities to bubble up positively (with encouragement) to take charge of bringing the team together between rallies.

Getting the players more focused on reading the play (not just ball-watching) definitely was a big factor. If you’re not anticipating what’s coming, you really don’t have a lot to talk about during a rally.

To the point about personalities above, we definitely had our challenges. Some of the players were just naturally quiet. It was a source of frustration for some of those who were more vocal. That’s something I had to manage. Over time, though, we got them at least a bit out of their shell and contributing their voices.

One other idea

The emailer talked about being loud and cheerful on the sidelines. One thing which could help a team “get it” in terms of communication is if the coach actually stopped and was a bit more quiet. This is especially true if the coach has a strong presence. I’m not suggesting that cheering as a coach is bad. I’m just suggesting that in some cases the players might be encouraged to fill the void that less cheering from the coach leaves. Once the team is in the habit of making their own noise, the coach can then resume being vocal without the risk of the players going quiet again.

The contrast to this is a team that is quiet when the coach is quiet. In that case the coach may need to be more vocal for a while to encourage the players in that direction. Volleyball Coaching Wizard interviewee Peggy Martin told me about doing exactly that sort of thing at times in her career, though she is normally a quiet coach on the bench. It’s a question of getting a read on the team and helping in whatever way suits the situation.

Your thoughts?

Did I leave anything out? What do you do to encourage more communication and interaction? Leave a comment below and share with the world! 🙂

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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