Most volleyball teams use hand signals to call plays. Players clandestinely tug their jerseys and turn their backs to hide their hands from opponents while communicating with teammates.
At UNLV, there’s no need. The Rebels call their plays in Farsi, the Persian language.
Farsi is the native tongue of fifth-year assistant coach Mashallah Farokhmanesh, who was born in Burojerd, Iran.
Farokhmanesh was captain of the Iranian national team before moving to America in 1977. When he began coaching, he knew right away that he could use his language to his team’s advantage.
“When I came to this country, I listened to other teams and I said, ‘Let’s call something that they won’t know what we are talking about,’ ” Farokhmanesh said. “Since it’s my own language, I thought we might as well call plays in Farsi.”
Farsi is the official language of only three countries — Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan — but roughly 45 million people speak it worldwide, including in Uzbekistan, Iraq and parts of Russia.
Farokhmanesh came to America to continue his education and earned a master’s degree in physical education at Western Illinois University and a doctorate at BYU.
He was hired as an assistant coach at Weber State in 1985 by his wife and current UNLV head coach Cindy Fredrick, who was head coach at Weber State. The two coached at Washington State for 15 seasons before landing at UNLV.
They have found success at every stop, winning a Big Sky Championship at Weber State, ending seven seasons with 20 or more wins at Washington State and breaking or tying 12 school records last year at UNLV.
Of course, winning doesn’t come solely from the play-calling trick, but it doesn’t hurt.
“Most teams show finger and hand signals, and they have to hide it from the other team,” Farokhmanesh said. “Sometimes, if you run the same set, they will know what you’re going to run, but when we call our set, no one knows what set we will run.”
The UNLV team uses 10 or so Farsi words for calling the sets, but Farokhmanesh says he has as many as 50 calls when players are more experienced.
“It all depends,” Farokhmanesh said. “Some of them get it very quickly, but some of them take two or three years to master. If you have a senior setter, then we use more, and with a freshman or sophomore, we use less.”
Sophomore Alexis Patterson plays setter for the Rebels, and the novelty of calling plays in a foreign language played a role in her coming to Las Vegas.
“When I was a junior in high school and I committed to UNLV, that was one of the selling points,” said Patterson, who played for Northwest Christian High School in Phoenix. “They told me they have their own little twist on things where they call their plays in Farsi, and I thought that was really cool.”
Patterson leads the team with 925 assists on the season. She already is top five in UNLV history, with 2,096 career assists and has two remaining years of eligibility.
She confidently calls out the sets for her team to run, but it wasn’t always so easy.
“I didn’t actually get the sheet with all of the plays on it until I got on campus the summer of my freshman year, and I remember the very first time I was in the moment,” Patterson said. “During summer camp, my team and I got on the court and I barely knew anyone, and they all started shouting Farsi at me. I was so overwhelmed.”
After using simple numbers to call sets in high school, Patterson had to make every moment of her offseason count, knowing she would see significant court time as a true freshman.
“Farokh gave me a sheet and told me to get on it fast,” Patterson said. “I remember I would sit in my room at night and study it. After coming to practice during preseason, it finally just clicked, and now it’s kind of like a second language.”
It’s not an easy language to speak, especially for Americans who aren’t used to pronouncing the “Gh” and “Kh” sounds. But now that the Rebels have learned it, they hold an advantage over their competition.
“It actually adds another aspect to the game and makes it fun,” Patterson said, despite sometimes drawing strange looks from opposing players. “We can just yell out what we are running, and they have no idea what we are talking about.”