The Most Neglected Three Seconds in Volleyball 

It happens at least 35 times, and sometimes over 50 times each set. It is an untapped stage for the growth of emerging leaders. It represents dozens of missed opportunities to deliver much needed praise, encouragement, and strategy … every … single … set.  

What are the most neglected three seconds in volleyball? 

The player huddle.  

If overlooked and dismissed, the six players on the floor merely come together after each point, pointlessly pat each other on the back, and perhaps say “come on” or “let’s go”. Players who have done well don’t receive specific praise that could reinforce a specific outcome. Players who have made an error don’t receive the encouragement to forget the past and make the most of the future, or the reassurance that they are still cared for and accepted by their teammates regardless of the outcome. And teams that are in a slump don’t receive the strategic direction and instructive adaptation that only the court leader can provide without a formal time out. 

Volleyball is a game of rapidly changing momentum. Each play provides a new opportunity to start fresh, shake off the past and focus on the next one. Negative momentum, if left unchecked, can spell disaster in a set, despite the coach’s strategically used time outs. And, if a team strings together a series of great plays, momentum builds and the chance of victory grows. The player huddle is THE place to both curtail negative and build upon positive momentum. 

Each team has one or more players who are the true leaders on the court. The player huddle is the opportunity for the court leader to build upon those relationships developed off the court and influence the momentum of the game through the players they are leading. The leader should be able to “read” the situation and customize the feedback to each individual. Feedback is most effective when given immediately and by someone who is respected. The player huddle naturally provides this environment. The development of these “on-the-battlefield” leadership skills in this setting is important for the court leader’s growth both during and outside the match. 

The player huddle should be used by the court leader as an opportunity for praise after good plays, an opportunity for encouragement and reassurance after errors, and an opportunity to relay strategy when things aren’t going well as a team. The court leader has 35 to 50 brief leadership opportunities every set. Each three-second player huddle should accomplish one of three leadership objectives: 

1. When a play goes well: Specific praise. It is well-known that specific praise is more powerful than general praise for reinforcing the actions we want to be repeated. Phrases like, “Great extension on that block!” or “Awesome form on that right side cross!” carry much more weight than “Nice job!” Even though specific praise is underutilized, there are multiple times during the match when general team praise is best to continue the momentum. Understand the tendency is to praise the last action before the score (the kill or the block). However, always remember the great serve that got the other team out of system or the great libero pancake that kept the rally alive. 

2. When an error is made: Encouragement and reassurance. Nearly every play in volleyball ends in an error on one side of the net. Knowing that there are hundreds of touches in a match and nearly every player will make several errors lays the groundwork for the often forgotten fact: We are human. Making one or a series of errors during a match is an inevitable result.

The player who makes an error needs instant encouragement and needs to know the team has faith in their volleyball ability and contributions to the immediate outcome. Because of the high number of errors in a match, the player who makes an error must quickly erase it from their consciousness and be fully present in the next play. Phrases such as, “I’ve seen you do incredible digs all the time in practice – I know you can do this” are very effective during the player huddle.

When errors by a specific player occur repeatedly or it becomes clear the player is being emotionally affected by the errors, she needs reassurance from their court leader that she is still a valued part of the team and that she has the ability to improve on the very next play. Silence or superficial words in the player huddle after an error can be emotionally traumatic to the player who made the mistake. It can spiral in a negative direction on subsequent plays, sets, and matches. The court leader could use phrases such as “No worries – I’m so glad to be your teammate – we’ll get this,” in the player huddle (or immediately before or after a timeout) when this happens.

3. When the team isn’t doing well: Clarify and/or change strategy. For a younger/developing court leader, the player huddle can be used to clarify and emphasize what the coach talked about in the last huddle. The leader can notice what things aren’t going as planned and reinforce the path forward with their teammates. Phrases such as, “Remember we are in ‘strong right’ on defense this rotation,” are very effective.

For a more mature court leader, the coach often gives more freedom to call plays and figure out a way to win in a specific game situation. The leader should always be creatively probing the other team for matchup advantages and points of weakness that can be exploited. Phrases from the leader such as, “I’m sorry you are getting a double block. I’ll try a setter attack to freeze the middle for you next time,” can instill faith in the leader and let the team know there is a potential path to success on the very next play.

The player huddle is the most neglected three seconds in volleyball. Develop your court leaders by challenging them to use every single team huddle as a leadership opportunity to deliver praise, encouragement, or strategy to your team. The results will be impressive.