Why Do Volleyball and Basketball Players Wipe Their Shoes?
There are some things you do in volleyball without really thinking about it:
Wiping the soles of your shoes can be one of them, but that doesn't mean there isn't a good reason behind it.
Why do indoor volleyball players wipe their shoes with their hand? They do it to add grip to their shoes. In both volleyball and basketball, players will do everything they can to turn, pivot and jump better on the shiny gym floor surface. Wiping sweat, water or even saliva on the bottom of your shoes can help create friction and stop you from slipping in crunch time.
This is actually one of the more common questions I’m asked about volleyball from first-time spectators:
Not, ‘Why is that player wearing a different colored jersey?’
Or, ‘Why do they have to rotate around like that on the court?’
But: ‘What’s with all the touching and wiping of the shoes?’
So, let’s answer that question today. This post will cover:
Why volleyball players wipe the bottoms of their shoes;
Why it’s supposed to work;
If it actually works;
How much is just superstition or habit; and
Which shoes provide the most natural grip: Basketball or volleyball
Why do volleyball players touch their shoes?
All the way from middle school up to professional and international level volleyball, you’ll see players wiping the soles of their shoes with their hand, or maybe a towel on the sideline.
Sometimes, it can look like they’re not really aware of what they’re doing:
Like they’re on autopilot (which can make the movement seem even stranger).
There’s actually a good reason for wiping your shoes, though.
Especially when you are playing on hardwood floors, getting a good grip on your playing surface can make a big difference.
This is also why you see those trios of kids wiping the court between sets in International volleyball. While they might also be wiping up some rogue sweat, the main purpose is to make sure that the playing surface and clean of dust and dirt--both of which can make the court slippery.
Volleyball is a sport of quick and agile turns.
You move from defense to offense in a matter of seconds, often taking several small steps to change direction.
When the floor is slippery, or your shoes have a layer of dirt or dust built-up on them, each of these steps become less efficient (not to mention potentially dangerous).
So volleyball players wipe their shoes between points, in timeouts, whenever they think to do so, to ensure that their movements are as fast and efficient as possible.
How does wiping your shoes help with grip?
It’s all about friction.
Not to get too deep into the science of it, but friction is all about creating an opposing force to the movement.
The rougher two surfaces are the more friction you’ll get.
Think about trying to run on ice, or a completely wet surface (like next to a swimming pool).
When you push back with your foot, you’re actually trying to move forward.
But to move forward, you need the ground to stop that energy somehow and transfer it into a forward movement.
On a slippery surface, all of that energy is allowed to keep moving backward--and you end up going nowhere.
Volleyball and indoor court shoes are designed to maximize grip on the court.
The rubber soles often have grooves in the design, which are just another way of making a rougher surface to create more grip.
When these grooves become filled with dirt, dust or whatever else, the gripping design of the shoe becomes less effective.
And when you are playing on court for a couple of hours, taking hundreds of steps and covering plenty of ground, your shoes will naturally build up a thin layer of this dirt and dust as you’re playing.
(If you don’t believe me, next time you’re warming up on court, take a minute to check out the thin layer of dust covering your court’s surface. Lay down flat on your belly, and get a good side-view--it’s enough to make you want to get the mop before each session!)
When players wipe their shoes with some form of moisture--sweat from the forehead, water from the bench, or even by licking their palm--this layer of dirt is transferred onto the hand or towel:
Leaving the shoe clean and ready to grip.
Does it actually work though?
But I will say that the effect isn’t long-lasting.
While wiping your shoes will give you a firm grip for the next couple of points, it won’t be long before you begin to start slipping again. Especially if you are playing on middle school or high school gym that are used for multiple sports.
In international volleyball, it’s standard that matches are played on a taraflex or Gerflor surface.
This is a specific rubber surface that is made to be placed over volleyball courts, and it provides players with a greater level of grip than shiny hardwood surfaces.
If you’ve played on taraflex or Gerflor before, leave a comment letting us know if it lived up to the hype, or if you prefer the standard wooden floorboads.
Since the effect isn’t likely to last more than a few points, players are often wiping their shoes quite often.
This is what I’ll talk about in the next section:
How much of shoe-wiping is just habit or superstition?
Speaking from my own experience, I know that the quality of gym floors has only gotten better as my career progressed.
You start on relatively slippery middle school gym floors, then eventually (if you’re lucky) you work your way up to the professional taraflex stuff.
What this means, though, is that when you’re starting out, many juniors develop the habit of wiping their shoes out of necessity:
Juniors are typically playing on slippery floors.
They have more need to wipe their shoes to get better grip.
These early habits stay with them for their entire careers.
So, even though high level competitions have incredibly satisfactory floors with mopping boys, clean taraflex, and expensive gripping volleyball shoes--you’ll still see players wiping the soles of their shoes!
In this way, it also becomes something of a habit and comfort in an individual player’s game.
This is where I’ll input a little bit of psychology again, so forgive me if you’re not interested!
While players might have started out wiping their shoes as a way of getting more grip, the result of that was twofold:
They really did get more grip; and
They felt the benefit of that action (wiping their feet) as it positively influenced their gameplay.
Is it possible that, with thousands of repetitions, the act of wiping your shoes can become a psychological comfort?
If the movements becomes associated with playing better on the court, then I think it is possible.
So next time you’re watching volleyball on TV, keep an eye out for players who wipe the soles of their shoes:
Do they do it more often in crunch time (when they really need to be calm and focused)?
If so, maybe we’re onto something with this theory...
Which shoes provide the most natural grip: volleyball shoes or basketball shoes?
Let’s be honest:
The range on both of these product categories is too large for me to cover here in this article, and the level of grip will vary from shoe to shoe.
What I will say is that both basketball and volleyball shoes are specifically designed for better grip on indoor surfaces.
Generally, you’ll find that volleyball and basketball shoes have a more rounded sole with the gripping design coming up over the sides of the shoe:
This lets you push off from the floor at different angles, and still get the benefit from the shoe’s rubber sole design.
In my career, I’ve played with both basketball and volleyball shoes, and honestly I’ve had hit and misses with both.
For my full guide to the Best Shoes for Volleyball , I’ve spent hours researching the best options on the market, and comparing that with my own experience. I’ve interviewed top players from around the world about their own shoe preference, and put together a list of shoes that covers each price range. So if you’re looking for a new pair, I’d highly recommend taking a few minutes to check out those more detailed reviews here. (Link coming soon)
So now you know why indoor volleyball players wipe the soles of their shoes:
To increase grip by creating a little more friction between their shoes and the slippery court surface.
If you have a friend who is always wiping the soles of their shoes, but doesn’t know why, tag them in this post and let them know!
Otherwise, if you’d like to know whether you can wear basketball shoes for volleyball, check out the next VolleyPedia article below.