Beyond Our Words

Referee explains rules and expectations to team captains before the game

As I walked into the courts in Gregory Gym, I was greeted by the excited chatter amongst students, sharp squeaks of shoes against the floor, and loud claps of players spiking balls over the net.

Watching the teams warm up, I felt anticipation for the game as I had never really watched volleyball before and knew virtually nothing about it. Watching this game was going to be a new and interesting experience.

However, while I was a stranger to volleyball, I was not a complete outsider to sports. Rather than volleyball, I play soccer. As a result, I subconsciously drew parallels from my soccer experience to try to make sense of what I saw on the volleyball court. For example, a volleyball referee points his hand towards the side that won a point after each play. Similarly, a soccer referee points his hand towards the side who gets the ball after it rolls out of bounds. As the game started, I immediately sensed the teamwork and positive camaraderie present in the team I observed. Players shouted phrases like “I got it” or “You!” to coordinate between each other to receive and send the ball over the net. Spectators yelled supportive comments like “nice serve!” and cheered after good plays.

I could easily understand the context of the verbal communication and words exchanged between players and spectators throughout the game, drawing from my soccer experience. However, while verbal spoken words may be the most instinctual and easiest way to converse between players, I also noticed how people can communicate without words . Through my observations, I became aware of a “physical language” that people use to communicate in volleyball. However, I had difficulty understanding this physical language, especially referee gestures, because I currently lacked sufficient knowledge and experience in volleyball. As such, I found that participation over time in communities such as a volleyball team causes people to cultivate a common “physical language” that allows them to understand each other without verbal communication. More specifically, I identified three types of physical communication present in the volleyball games I attended: official gestures, competitive gestures, and supportive gestures.

Examples of physical language observed in volleyball games

Official and Non-official Gestures

Engaging in a sport requires people to assume roles in the game. I identified three main roles present at a volleyball game: the players, referee, and spectators. I identified players as the people on the court and touching the ball. The referee is the person in the yellow shirt with a whistle standing at the net who called points and kept score. Spectators are people gathered around the court but not playing the game.

During a game, I noticed how different roles reacted to the same event. For example, I observed reactions to when an opposing player hits the ball out of bounds. In this case, players can react in a variety of ways, both verbally and physically, including: shouting “out,” pointing a finger upward, or raising both hands up. In contrast, the referee always reacted to this situation in the same way: raising both forearms in the air and then waving his hand to the side that won the point.

A referee indicates that the ball is out and which team earns the point

By analyzing their reactions, I recognized the presence of official and non-official gestures as part of the physical language within a volleyball game. Official gestures are limited and consistent as they are defined by the rules of the game. Specific official gestures are always used for the same event that happens. For example, raising both forearms always indicates that a ball has gone out. In addition, people can recognize roles with authority through their use of official gestures. Only the referee uses official gestures in order to control the chaos of a game and ensure fairness for both teams.

In contrast, non-official gestures are fluid and diverse but can all communicate the same message. As non-official gestures are used more for personal expression rather than to manage the game, people’s habits and preferences in the way they express themselves play a factor in how they communicate the desired message. As a result, people convey the same idea in a variety of ways. Although non-official lack authority, they represent the freedom of expression.

People act with specific gestures in order to successfully assume their roles in the game. For example, the referee gestures with primarily official gestures to successfully fulfill his role as a facilitator of the game. On the other hand, players mainly use non-official gestures as they see fit in order to coordinate with their teammates and win the point. However, they do refrain from using official gestures to make calls as they lack the authority and it is not their role.

Competitive Gestures

Teams engage in strategic discussions before the game

Players are naturally competitive as they participate in volleyball games to win. Even before the game started, I noticed competitive gestures from players as they watch their opponents spike and receive balls over the net to warm up. In doing so, they are judging their opponents skill level to help set their expectations for the potential difficulty of the upcoming game.

During the game, players engage in competitive actions that help their performance. For example, some players ready themselves to better receive the ball in a bent down stance. Players also gather for strategic conversations during breaks to plan better plays.

Examples of competitive gestures

Competitive gestures are not limited to only those playing the game. During a break in the game, a player I interviewed stated how the loud cheers from the opposing team’s spectators were obnoxious and meant to “spite” them. I had always considered cheers as positive and supportive, so I found it interesting how this player had this hostile interpretation from a seemingly positive and harmless action.

As such, I found how people can use gestures to portray their intentions when a message is socially unacceptable to verbally communicate. While sports are competitive, people refrain from direct, competitive, verbal communication such as trash talking, as this behavior is condemned as unsportsmanlike. Instead, competitive spirit is often implied and interpreted through the actions of the players and audience of the game.

Supportive Gestures

Player gives her teammate a pat on the back

In addition to the skills and practice needed to do well, sports are also a mental game. The inward mindset and emotional stability of a player can outwardly affect their overall performance. Throughout the game, I observed how people reacted when they lost a point or made a mistake. From my research, I noticed the presence of supportive gestures from both players and spectators of the same team.

Within the team, for the player who made a mistake, common gestures I noticed included shaking their head, waving their hand, or even a half-hearted thumbs up. Although this player was disappointed, she displayed actions that suggested she was unaffected by her mistake in order to avoid lowering the morale of the entire team. From her teammates, common supportive gestures include a high five or a pat on the arm. These gestures from her teammates were meant to motivate her to help her move past the error and focus on doing well for the next point.

Supportive gestures amongst players

Despite the unfavorable outcome, all members of the team acted in ways to uplift the team. This highlights how people within the same group, in this case the same volleyball team, can more closely influence the emotions of each other. Because negative emotions from one player can affect the overall team performance, players use supportive gestures to help encourage each other even in disheartening situations.

In addition, while players on the court directly engage in the sport, people indirectly involved, such as spectators, are just as emotionally invested in the game. After losing a point, audience members would crack a joke to the players between plays or give a high five between sets in order to reduce the pressure they felt and shake off the mistake.

Spectator claps and high fives players

More than just a physical game, sports consist of a community that people are also emotionally involved in. People identify and associate themselves as part of a group even if they are not directly involved. Therefore, they are still emotionally affected by the events felt by the whole group. Because of this, spectators also offer supportive gestures to further motivate the players to do well and win the game.


In my research, I observed how players, spectators, and the referee used a variety of gestures to communicate in conjunction with verbal language. As someone new to volleyball, I often struggled to understand the flow and events of the game simply through its physical language. Rather than automatically interpreting these gestures through the context of the game, I was forced to slow down in order to attempt to digest and comprehend what they were meant to communicate. However, my lack of understanding allowed me to identify the role of the physical language present in volleyball games and many sports alike.




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Alice Tian

Alice Tian

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