What Volleyball Huddles Can Teach Us About The Dynamics of “Personal Distance” Reply

By Chris Simmons

Most of us don’t realize that the distance we place between us and others greatly affects our communication and relationships. To illustrate my point, let’s look at a real life situation that clearly demonstrated the dynamics of closeness.

I was thoroughly enjoying the volleyball tournament my talented daughter was competing in when a team huddle caught my attention. “That’s not the way they huddled last week,” I thought. Just seven days earlier, the girls were 6-1 going into the championship round. Their teamwork and technical skills had been nearly flawless and it showed in every time-out prompted huddle. The girls stood in a tight circle – many hugging their teammates on both sides.

But today – several things were different. They were off their game and they knew it. They were winning, but the game was closer than it should have been. The other team wasn’t scoring points as much as much as my daughter’s team was giving away points with sloppy play. When the coach called a time-out, the girls huddled but with 12-18 inches between every player. Shoulders sagged. No one touched, laughed, or even smiled. They were frustrated and disappointed in themselves.

As the tourney continued, three of the girls hit a slump and their opponents used the opportunity to take a small lead. At the very next huddle, not only was there now one to two feet of daylight between most of the players, but the three slumping girls stood loosely together five feet outside the circle.  No one had said anything to them – the three had excluded themselves. Later that afternoon, they settled down – regained their focus – and played the best game I’d seen in years. Their re-found camaraderie and joy again showed in their huddles. Everyone was hugging and smiling.

The girls had played together for months at this point. They were all good friends – some had been best friends for years. Even so, the ebb and flow of emotion visibly displayed the expansion and contraction of  their individual and collective personal space needs. The “intimate zone” bonding of a seasoned team gave way to physical distancing among players as a result of their stress.

Known as “proxemics,” this occurrence refers to the distance between interacting people. Personal distance is a key element for judging and then displaying how a person aids our self-interest. It’s a subconscious survival instinct derived from gathering visual clues and deciding to move towards someone, let them come to you, or move away. The fluid dynamic of this physical space reveals a great deal of information, as the four “proxemic” zones (listed below) are circular areas in which others enter or stay based on the relationship we have with them at that exact moment.

   The Four “Proxemic” Zones
Intimate Space: Within 18 inches.
Personal Space: 18 inches – 4 feet.
Social Space: 4 – 12 feet.
Public Space: 12 – 25 feet.

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