I came across an assistant high school volleyball coach looking for advice. It was on the subject of player communication. They wanted advice with respect to both calling the ball and talking with each other on the court. This is a problem coaches of younger and developing players have on a regular basis. As such, I thought it would be worth addressing.

Here’s the scenario presented by the coach in question.

I am a varsity assistant coach at a private, all girl high school and the reason for my post is communication. No one talks. And I mean no one. It is a very small school & an intimate program with hardly any cuts being made. My head coach and I have tried EVERYTHING to get these girls to communicate and nothing has worked so far (except our spike in blood pressure) It is a struggle for us to get some girls to even call the ball, much less chit chat on the court (calling blocks, reading hitters, identifying players on the opposing team) or exude any excitement when they do something great! Being a player myself,

I don’t remember anyone teaching me to talk, we just knew we had to & wanted to. This is a big problem in our program on every level and all of us are stumped (AD included).

Calling the ball

Let me first tackle the calling the ball subject. I think it is probably more straightforward because it’s a pretty well-defined issue. I find a good way to encourage ball-calling is to attach consequences for not doing so. Mainly that means something like not counting a good rep in a drill if the player didn’t call the ball. The trick, though, is making sure it’s being enforced by the person counting. Players can’t let each other off the hook.

Alternatively, you could have some kind of reward for calling the ball. It could be a bonus point, or something along those lines. Whether positive or negative feedback works best in your case will likely depend on the player(s) involved. So-called “away from” motivation (avoidance of something negative) tends to be stronger than “toward” motivation (pursuit of something positive) for most people. It’s not for everyone in all situations, though.

All this said, I’m not in favor of teaching players to call the ball if you don’t first teach them who is supposed to take the ball in the first place.

Player-to-player communication

I like to tackle this issue by putting players in situations which inherently encourage communication by the structure of the exercise. At the HP Coaches Clinic I attended back in February 2015, Shelton Collier talked about using “scramble” type games to quickly integrate players. Separately, Steve Shenbaum provided some activities you can use off the court. These, though, operate more from the perspective of getting to know each other by interacting 1-on-1 or in small groups.

There’s a famous – or perhaps notorious – example of this sort of thing in the movie Side Out. It involves the setter calling a number and the hitter replying with half of it as they hit the ball. So if the setter said “10”, the hitter replied with “5.” I’m not necessarily recommending this particular exercise (it was a beach pair using it and there was a bit of extra context), but the idea is there.

My point is, look for ways to introduce a communication requirement – or at least strong encouragement – into the mix. It doesn’t have to necessarily be in a game-like situation to start. The priority is on getting players talking with each other on the court. Once you develop that foundation, you can go from there.

Let’s go back to the idea of consequences and rewards. A really simple way to get players talking to each other during play is to make it a factor in scoring. If you scrimmage in practice, stop the rally and award the other team the point if the players on one side don’t communicate as desired. Alternatively, give them a bonus point for doing a good job. The change in attitude you see when involving the score might amaze you.

That said, don’t let volume of noise be your measure of productive communication.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    4 replies to "Getting volleyball players to talk"

    • Kelly Daniels

      Im so glad Ive joined your blog. Many of the things you discuss are so relatable in many situations. If one has not experienced your information, if they stay around long enough, they surely will.
      In this regard, I get my athletes to communicate by using scrimmages where they are not allowed to talk at all on one side. Then repeat the process. We then address who won and did communication have anything to do with it. Very rarely has a team who didnt communicate win the 7pt scrimmage. Lessons learned we repeat the process, but only guesture can be made while the other side verbably communicates. The results are normally the same, but really close scores.
      These two events pretty much addresses what Oliver Wagner discussed when addressing why. The athletes now know why and supports the communication philosophy.
      One other drill I Iike is the Name Game. This is where the athlete playing the ball, other than serve, must call the name of the person to next contact the ball. It really works for me with new teams because it helps me learn the names, which Iam horrible with names. LoL This same drill is transistioned to call out positions (Setter, OH, MH, RS or backrow positions. As well we then run the drill as in a live match. Athletes call out attacks. If the hitter doesn’t call the set they don’t get set. If no one call a set the setter dumps the ball. We do use the scoring as you stated, whereas lost of rally if the attacker not calling get set, no matter the result of the contact the opponents wins the rally. My experience has been the teams calls the ball more often than not during competiton.
      If available, I have another coach who’s played against me explain how I was when I competed. The first thing they normally say, ‘He never shut the ‘F’ up!’ Hahahaaha

      Keep the blogs coming!


    • Oliver Wagner

      Sometimes we wonder why others do not do certain things. My experience is that in more then 90 % of the situations people do not understand the why. I agree to the coach you are mentioning, that in the past “we” simply did what all the others were doing. But todays kids more often ask for the why behind things. And I think this is good.

      The problem is, that us coaches in many times do not explain the why. And if we explain it, we do not make sure that the kids got the point. Honestly I don’t think that any human being will resist sound reasons that help them to grow.

      But sometimes we can not explain the why. And the reason is, that what we ask for is not explainable because it doesn’t make any sense. We simply ask our players to do what our own coaches asked us to do. They might have given us “reasons” like “you have to this because this is good communication” or similar phrases.

      Calling the balls in reception from my point of view is a good example for this. It simply doesn’t make any sense… But that might be a discussion for another day 🙂

      • John Forman

        “Honestly I don’t think that any human being will resist sound reasons that help them to grow.”

        Oliver, you have much more faith in humanity than I do. 🙂

        As for the “Why” of calling for the ball in reception, you and I have definitely had this conversation, I can provide two very specific reasons.

        I do agree with the need to explain why we ask our players to do things. They don’t always ask, but I tell the anyway. 😀

    • cmarquis91

      This is my first year coaching and I have a 7th grade girls volleyball team. This is their first year playing. We have worked on the basics and as far as it goes for their first year playing they are doing great. My problem lies in the fact that when we play games the girls do not communicate, becoming frustrated and angry with each other, and cannot commit to a decision of how they are going to hit the ball. We have consistently from the first day of practice talked about how important it is to communicate and I have explained the many different reasons that is. They still do not do it. The frustration and attitudes I give punishments for but, it is not fair for me to pull those girls out of games because I don’t have enough players for a team if i do. The reason I say it is not fair is that the girls that don’t have attitudes and work hard are being punished by not being able to play in a game. I have threatened that we will forfeit a game if the players keep it up but, we all know how the parents would react to that. I am going to try the different suggestions you made but, if you have anymore on attitudes and what not they would be welcome. On a side note my 8th grade teams hasn’t lost a game yet which is exciting.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.