In the past I’ve written posts answering reader questions about how to get players to talk on the court. Here’s an example. What I haven’t really laid out is my own philosophy on players calling the ball.

To be clear, I’m talking about a very specific thing. That is players indicating that they will (or won’t) take the next contact. Basically, calling something like “Mine” in serve reception. I’m not talking about calling for the ball, as hitters might do (“Here”, “Outside”, etc.). I’ll leave the latter for a separate discussion.

First contact

Let’s start with first contact – reception and defense. To my mind, responsibilities here should be well established and understood. This is your seam philosophy. The players should all know who gets which ball, and they should communicate it between rallies. That removes the need to call the ball and makes for overall more efficient team play.

If you want to teach youngsters to call the ball as a kind of reinforcement it’s theirs, I don’t really have a problem with it. What I definitely don’t want to see/hear, though, is someone (coach, parent, teammate) yelling “Talk!” when the ball lands between two players.

Why? Because the players should know which of them was supposed to play the ball. That being the case, talking is irrelevant.

So if a ball does drop we have to ask whether the players know who should take the ball. If they don’t, that’s a failure of coaching. We need to teach them better. If they do, then it’s a failure of the player who had responsibility for that particular ball. That’s a different issue to address.

It’s worth noting that movement toward (or even away from) the ball is probably the strongest communication between players there is. If a player moves toward the ball, it’s a signal to their teammate that they intend to play it. In contrast, a move away from the ball – like a transition to go attack – says loud and clear that they don’t intend to play the ball.

So talking is unnecessary in this context. Further, when the incoming ball is moving quickly enough it happens too late to be of any use.

Second contact

Second contact actually reinforces what I said above. Most teams have established rules for who takes second ball. If the setter doesn’t take first contact then we want them taking second, but if they do take first contact then the libero takes second ball. No communication required, right?

In fact, usually the only communication demanded in this situation is when the setter can’t get to the ball, We expect them to call “Help!”. I’m not a fan of this, though, for basically the reason outlined above.

Think about it this way. What’s the overarching purpose of the second contact? To produce the best possible attack, right? That means we want the person most capable of creating that attack to take second ball. On a decent pass or dig that’s the setter – or the designated secondary setter (e.g. the libero) if the setter takes the first ball.

Alas, sometimes the first contact is poor and the setter isn’t the best to play the second ball. This is the help ball. I have two problems with the setter calling “Help!”, though.

First, usually it happens after they’ve started moving toward the ball. Remember what I said above about moves toward the ball communicating the player intends to play it. As soon as the setter starts in the direction of the ball it tells their teammates they plan to take it. That means they all relax and start thinking about what they do next. By the time the help call comes, and registers, it’s often too late to do much. You end up with a scramble.

Second, there should be a clear set of responsibilities on a bad first contact. The players should know what to do to get the most out of it. Watch top level volleyball and you’ll see non-setters take the second ball regularly. They even take balls the setter could reach because they are simply in a better position (e.g. standing right under the ball) to put up a good set.

In a situation like this, where someone other than the normal second ball taker has to take it, I have no problem with calling the ball. I’d even encourage it – like a fielder in baseball taking a fly ball.

A side note on getting the best outcome

Note that I said the objective of second contact is to get the best possible attack out of the situation. I didn’t say simply to put up a hittable ball. We want the best attack we can get. That might only be a high set to the back row, but it’s better than a free ball or a down ball.

I make this differentiation for a specific reason. In order to get the best attack from a situation we need the ball to go to the best possible attacker. That means if there’s a decision between two possible players to take the second ball, and necessarily one of them will be the attacker, we don’t want the stronger attack option to take it. We want them preparing to take a swing. That means the other player must take the ball.

Consider the following scenario by way of example. You’re playing a back row triples game. In taking first contact, one player has had to move well in front of the 3m line. That makes them an unrealistic option for attacking the third ball. The other two players are a small libero and an outside hitter. Assuming the ball is basically the same distance from both of them, who do we want to take second contact? The libero, of course, so the OH can attack.

Or the OH could attack the ball on two if it’s a good opportunity to do so.

That’s what I mean when I say getting the best possible attack from the situation. Teaching of responsibilities should factor those sorts of things in as well.

Third contact

This phase also supports my earlier premise that no talking is necessary when players know their responsibilities. Hitters don’t need to call the ball when they attack, right? If the set is in the right area everyone knows who’s supposed to hit it.

Of course, things don’t always go to plan. Third contact tends to be the one where I can see most value in players calling the ball. This is because things can be quite confused at the end of a scramble sequence. Players aren’t always sure where their teammates are on the court, so responsibility becomes unclear.

I do think there still should be established guidelines in place. For example, if one player can attack the third contact while another cannot, you want the former to play it. Another example is that in the case of one player having to move away from the net while the other is moving toward it, you want the latter to take the ball.

Both those situations, though, can happen when one player isn’t aware of the other. Using the second example, the player moving away from the net may not realize the player moving toward it is there. That’s a situation where I’m very much in favor of the latter calling the ball to both let their teammate know they are there and to let them know they’ll take third contact.

Bringing it all together

I find it interesting that first contact tends to be where the main focus of calling the ball lands for most teams. The irony there is first contact tends to have lowest number of variables involved. As such, it’s easiest to work out who we want to take the ball in advance. If anything, it should be later in the sequence where it becomes more necessary to call the ball because there the potential scenarios are more varied.

In any case, it might seem from what I’ve said above that I basically expect my teams to play without talking. Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that I believe responsibilities should be clear and well established so there isn’t much need for calling the ball during normal play. In contrast, when things break down and play becomes more scrambled, there is definitely value to calling the ball to avoid confusion.

What I absolutely don’t want is teaching players to call the ball to replace, or to put ahead of, teaching them who’s responsible for taking the ball. Volleyball is a team sport. We need to teach the players how to play as a team, not just how to execute individual skills.

Here’s more on the idea of team playing efficiency.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

    7 replies to "To call the ball or not to call the ball, that is the question"

    • Avatar Mark Orr

      Interesting take on the on the whole idea. I see some real merit in rethinking my ideas about communication.

      • John Forman John Forman

        Glad to hear it Mark.

    • Avatar Kelly Daniels

      PREACH BROTHA JOHN, PREACH! You definitely got an AMEN from me.
      I train responsibility as you state. I teach, we are going to ‘talk’ before the play happens. I thought you were going to mentioned this, but the concept of training responsibility covers it in a broad sense. I do prefer the ‘talking’ as when a scenario presents itself. Example during the serve I expect to hear, “Short”, “Deep”, and or “Out”. Out of system I expect the 2nd contact person to say who they are trying to deliver the ball to. Third contact should come with opponent blockers if not solid blockers. We train what to do if attacker hears solo, split or no block.
      I like your articles, but this one specifically hits a home run for me!
      BTW…When an athlete ask me, “What that my ball?” My response, “Why as me, I’m not on the court. Ask your teammates.” If no one know then I take responsibility and train the knowledge. I get those dirty looks when that occur. hahahahaaha

      • John Forman John Forman

        I’m with you Kelly. When I see a ball land between two players I immediately ask them whose ball it was. Then, either one takes responsibility or they look at each other and try to work it out. Learning going on either way!

    • Avatar Jerry Stofleth

      So, I know this comment is late (about 12 months so), but with the COVID-19 scare, club directors and coaches like me are bored… so we look at posts on volleyball. So…
      First contact – I make sure my back row is spread wide, “spread the defense”, in order to minimize confusion on who’s ball is first contact – I always coach, “middle back owns it”, because there is almost no ball the middle back (or Libero, for me) can’t get – with the exception of a perfect 1 or 5 – ” if you spread the defense, there are no seams”. Any other contact beyond the 3m line can be taken by the Libero. I also have my front row “open up” so that communication is non-verbal, and immediate – if your MH is not going to take a short serve, then it is obvious. So, agree – this is a non-issue.
      Second contact – if the setter has taken a single step toward the ball, calling “help” is too late – HANDS DOWN. “Help, by the setter needs to be immediate – train your setters!
      Third contact – this is the tricky one. As a setter myself, I never want the hitters to call the ball – this is redundant to me – I know what I am doing. However, I always want the middle to make some kind of noise in order to pin down a blocker. For an opposing team that is slow to block, this provides nothing but opportunity. For a well-coached defensive team, the setter HAS to be your quarterback. He/she must be able to read the defense. If not, then either everyone calls for the ball, or no one does. The only noise a hitter might make is, “I’m out”, meaning he/she cannot take the kill shot, and most times this is the weak-side (sorry for using old-school terminology) hitter that calls this. A high, outside to the Power side is always your outlet.
      Train consistently, stick with the script!

    • Avatar Wade Taylor

      We had this issue last season. What we found was that when our players communicated & called for the ball, they actually elevated their overall game play as well. When players were silent on serve receive it transferred over to them being silent calling for a particular set as well. It the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter if they “talk” on serve receive because that issue should be resolved before the ball is even put into play as you mentioned. However, I found that when our players had constant communication it kept the entire team engaged & even helped to provide some energy as well. There was a marked difference when they did not communicate on the floor, whether serve receive or otherwise.

      • John Forman John Forman

        Wade – The question I would ask is whether you might have the causality the wrong way around. You are suggesting here that talking => more energy. What if it’s really more energy => talking? In that case, you need to actually figure out what’s leading to changes in energy.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.