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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Communicating with a Partner - During a Rally

We have introduced the topic of communication between partners and how important it is to a winning and enjoyable experience. The previous focus was on off-the-court communications in developing a game plan and building a supportive atmosphere. Now, we will change the focus to communicating on the court, first during play.

Players need to communicate any (and every) time any doubts, problems, or tactical changes potentially come into play while in the midst of a rally. Several examples are listed below:

  1. The most obvious example is when a ball is hit between players and there may be confusion about who should take it. A player should yell “mine” or “yours” as soon as possible. This ensures that the ball does not go unplayed – a gift to your opponents – and that both players can optimize their positioning for the next shot – instead of converging on the ball. This communication either reinforces the pre-match tactical discussions or overrides that discussion when a player is better positioned (such as in front of their partner).
  2. Another obvious communication is when one player has a better angle to see if a ball is going to be out of bounds or close to the line. A warning should be given to the other partner to allow it to bounce before making a return. With a hard hit return, a quick “no” or “out” is sufficient. With a softer lob, a “bounce it” is better. The communication of this warning is subject to special rules. Therefore, consider which wording you choose and especially the timing of the warning. The use of “out” or “no” or some other definitive word must be communicated before the ball bounces in order to be considered a warning between partners. If the intended warning occurs after bouncing, the opponents may stop play as they assume the ball is definitively called out. Rule 6.D.12 states that any such call ends the rally. 
  3. That raises the issue of line calling in general. Normally, the player making the return should be focused on the ball and not on the lines. Therefore, the non-returning partner should be watching the lines and making the call. While this is the general philosophy, some balls will be hard or impossible for a partner to see. In those situations, the returning player should call the ball out if he clearly sees it.
  4. The philosophy of the non-returning partner making the line call is especially true when a team is receiving the serve. The non-receiving player should be positioned at the kitchen line and angled to watch the serve. As soon he sees it is in the service court, he should turn to the ready position at the kitchen line.
  5. Another opponent shot that raises doubt about which player should make the return is a lob. The rule of thumb is that the player on the opposite side of the court should run back on an angle for a lob over his partner’s head. Of course, the pre-match discussion should include the specific tactics used for this shot based on partners’ relative strengths. But the rule of thumb doesn’t always apply anyhow. If the lob is short, for example, then the player on the same side of the court should call “mine” as soon as possible to preclude his partner from running to the backcourt and allowing him to keep his position on the court.
  6. There are some plays where one partner will cross onto the other partner’s side. One example is defending the lob as described above. Other examples include poaching and saving a short ball that may be unreachable by a player. In these cases, the momentum of the player crossing sides and hitting the ball may not allow him to return to his side. That player should warn his partner to “switch”, meaning the partner should take the crossing player’s side while the crossing player stays on the side where he made the return.
  7. Everyone makes a mistake. When the mistake is a bad shot, the player should warn his partner. For example, a bad third shot – one hit too far – could result in a hard swing volley or even an overhead smash by an opponent. A player should warn his partner to “stay back” instead of moving forward into a hard shot taken by the opposition.

One key to communicating in these situations is that the words should be clear in their meaning.  "Mine" is preferable to "I'll take it" because a partner may miss the "I'll" and hear only the "take it".

Some coaches instruct that communications should occur with every shot. There certainly is a benefit from more communication rather than less, especially with a new or young partnership. But my view is that talking on every hit is overkill. I think it is sufficient to communicate when Player A may have any suspicion of doubt that his partner knows how to react to Player A’s decisions. As partners play together more frequently, such verbal communication may become infrequent. But the communication is more subtle and occurs through body language, e.g., leaning or unusual positioning, which is learned with experience.

Regardless of how or how frequently messages are communicated, they must occur. Don’t ever assume anything or leave anything to chance. It takes an effort to make a partnership work and communications during play are necessary.  A short video from Deb Harrison called Communication reinforces this point.

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