Last Updated Sep 2022
Photos by kind permission of Steve Smith of SandS Photography
This page explains the rules of volleyball for everyone - click the link which applies best to your own situation:
1. The Game of Volleyball
Volleyball is a game played between 2 teams, anything from 2v2 up to 6v6 players. All major indoor competitions are 6v6 format. Some minor competitions are 4v4 format. Beach volleyball competitions are 2v2 format.
The game is played as a succession of rallies similar to tennis and badminton. The team which wins a rally scores 1 point and must serve to start the next rally.
Sets can be any length but are usually decided by the first team to reach 25 points, with a minimum lead of 2 points.
Volleyball is played on a court broadly similar to tennis, being a rectangular court with a net in the middle. The two teams start on opposite sides of the net and they are not allowed on to their opponents' side of the court.
Each rally starts with a server hitting the ball from behind the base line.
Each time the ball is played over the net, the receiving team is allowed up to 3 touches to return it, which they must make without allowing the ball to touch the floor, walls, or ceiling. A player may not touch the ball twice in succession (see exception below), but the same player is allowed to play the 1st and 3rd touches, as long as a team mate plays the 2nd touch.
A team wins a point either by playing the ball to ground on their opponent's side of the net within the boundary of the court (like badminton), or by their opponents hitting the ball out or committing a fault. A ball which lands inside or touching the line is IN, if it does not touch the line it is OUT (the same as tennis, but different to football).
|1. Ball IN||2. Ball IN||3. Ball OUT|
Volleyball is primarily a rebound sport - i.e. the ball may not be caught, thrown, carried, or scooped. Most touches are played with the hands or arms as a volley, dig, or hit; but it is also legal to play the ball with any part of the body at all (EXCEPT in schools' volleyball, players are not allowed to kick the ball).
If the server's team wins the point, the same person serves to start the next rally. If they lose the point, service goes over to the other team who must all rotate 1 position clockwise before serving. This means eventually all players on both sides will take turns to serve.
The net is set at a height according to the type of game (see below). In competitions, the net will have 2 antennae attached. These are exactly in line with the edge of the court and the ball must pass between them when it goes over the net.
An indoor court for 6v6 format games will include a line painted 3 metres from the net on each side. This separates the court into what we call 'Front court' and 'Back court'. Certain players are restricted in the way they are allowed to play the ball when it is in the front court.
There are many videos on Youtube of volleyball being played. If you haven't seen it before, look for one NOW before reading on ! In case the video includes commentary, this link explains some of the terminology you will hear.
2. Basic Rules of play for Beginners
This section describes the essential rules for players who are about to start playing friendly games. These rules are easy for players to enforce upon themselves so games of this type can be played without a referee.
The first 3 rules are the most important, as they are required for the safety of the game:
Net touch - it is a fault for any player to touch the net during a rally, and loses the point immediately (see exceptions below). In friendly games, all players should own up immediately if they touch the net, no matter how slightly. In competitions a referee will penalise every visible net touch.
Penetration ("foot under") - it is a fault for any player to place a whole foot into their opponents' court (i.e. by stepping beyond the centre line) at ANY time during a rally. This loses the point immediately. It is not necessarily a fault for other parts of the body to cross the centre line below the level of the net, but it is a fault if they interfere with the opponents' play in any way.
Sportsmanship - volleyball is played with a high level of discipline amongst the players. We celebrate our own victories and happily congratulate our opponents when they beat us. We do not cheat, argue, complain, insult, gesticulate, threaten, swear, sulk, or have tantrums etc. In competitiions referees impose strong levels of control to stop such behaviour immediately - so it's best to learn from day 1 not to do it !!
Now, back to the game:
Serve - the server should not serve until all players in both teams are ready. If there is a referee, the server must wait for a signal before serving. All players (apart from the server) must start with both their feet on or above the court (not outside) at the moment when the server strikes the ball.
Serve - The server must toss or release the ball before hitting it. Once tossed or released the server must hit the ball with one hand only before it hits the floor (this is unlike tennis where the server can decide to re-toss if he wishes). The server may not touch any part of the base line or the court with either foot before hitting the ball. The server can serve from anywhere behind the base line, within the sides of the court.
Serve screening - When the server serves, his team mates can stand anywhere on their own side of the court and can raise their arms if they wish. If they choose to do this, they must remain still until the serve is hit.
Serve - if the serve clips the net and still goes over, the ball is in play and the rally continues (i.e. unlike tennis, in volleyball we do NOT play a let). The same applies if the ball clips the net at any time later in the rally, play continues as normal.
Receiving serve - The team receiving the serve may not block it or hit it back with a shot played above the level of the net and from within the 3m line (if the court has one). This means that if the ball is still wholly above the level of the top of the net when the receiving player plays it, he may only play a pass to a team mate. Refer to the diagram below. In reality it's very difficult to judge whether an airborne ball is just above the top of the net or partly below it, so in friendly games when there is no referee we tend to use a rule of thumb - if a front court player jumps, he probably plays the ball above the net so it's a fault; if he plays with both feet on the floor it's likely that the ball is partly below the top of the net so we consider it's probably legal. Although the official rule does not mention jumping, it's a guide to help making a decision.
Ball played into the net - At any time during a rally, if a team plays the ball into the net between the antennae with its first or second touch, the ball is still in play until it touches the floor. So it is permitted to use the remaining touch or touches to play it over and continue the rally.
Ball hit off the court - At any time during a rally, if a team hits the ball off the court with the first or second touch, it may still use the remaining touch(es) to return the ball providing it has not touched the floor, wall, ceiling, post, or other obstacle - i.e. you can chase it and play it !
Ball played outside the posts - when playing the ball into the opponents' court, the ball must pass completely between the posts supporting the net (or if antennae are fitted, completely between the antennae). So when chasing down a ball which has been deflected out of court, the player may not simply aim for the nearest back corner of the opponents' court. The ball would fail to pass between the posts (or antennae) so it is OUT.
Ball touches post or antenna - a ball which touches the post (or antenna), or touches an imaginary line drawn vertically above the top of the post (or antenna), is also OUT. (See also note below)
Double touch - During a rally, players may not normally play the ball twice in succession. However on the first of the team's 3 touches, if a player plays the ball in such a way that it inadvertently bounces off another part of his body, this is considered legal and the rally continues. But if the same situation occurs on the 2nd or 3rd touch, it is a fault and loses the point.
Attack hit definition: An attack hit is ANY touch which sends the ball in the direction of the opponents' court and over the net. An attack hit can include such things as a tip, a mis-directed pass, an unintended rebound etc.
Blocking - during a rally the defending team may try to block an attack hit by reaching up close to the net with a hand or hands raised, intending to make the ball rebound immediately back into the opponent's court. This is called a block. A block can be made by 1, 2, or 3 front court players alongside each other.
Reaching over the net - players are allowed to reach over the net during a block, but they may not touch the ball before the attack hit has been made. It is illegal to reach over and interfere with a set, or to prevent a pass from reaching the setter or hitter.
Block touches - any touches made by a player or players participating in a blocking action do not count as team touches nor as a touch by the individual(s). These would typically be multiple rapid rebound touches. This means that no matter how many times the ball bounces between the blockers during their block action, the team still has 3 more touches to return the ball, and any of the players can play the first of these even if they were involved in the block action.
Back court blockers - in a 6v6 format game, a team has 3 front court players and 3 back court players (these change as the individuals rotate their positions). Back court players may not participate in a block action, it's a fault even if they don't touch the ball.
Back court attack hit - a back court player may only play an attack hit EITHER if both of his feet are completely behind the 3m line, OR if jumping, both feet were fully behind the 3m line on take-off, OR if at least part of the ball is below the level of the top of the net. Basically a back court player may not move within the 3m line and then play an attack hit from above the level of the net.
Joust - it is permitted for players on opposite sides to touch the ball simultaneously at the net, this is called a joust. Once a joust has started it is permitted for either player to force the ball over the net even if this results in him reaching over to his opponent's side of the court. But a player may not reach over to start a joust. When the ball works loose following a joust, the team is still allowed 3 more touches as normal and the player who was involved in joust may play the first touch if they wish (i.e. similar to a block). A player may not reach over the net to play the loose ball following a completed joust.
Climbing - a player is not allowed to climb on any part of the equipment, surrounding objects, or on another player when playing the ball.
Ball handling - the requirements on players' ball handling are enforced more strictly as the level of competition becomes higher. Beginners should follow these guidelines:
A dig may not be played using two open palms. It would be considered a carry or throw.
When playing a volley, the ball should contact the hands only briefly. prolonged contact would be considered to be a catch and throw.
Also when playing a volley, the ball should not be flicked in a way which results in excessive spin.
When playing the ball with one hand underneath and the palm facing upwards (typically when stretching to reach the ball), the ball must be struck cleanly. The fingers and wrist may not flick or flex in order to gain extra control over the direction, this would be regarded as a carry. It's better to learn to play this type of shot using a clenched hand (a fist) rather than an open palm.
Net touch - if a player touches the net in these situations, the rally continues as normal:
player's hair brushes the net
player touches the net outside the antenna
player makes a successful attack hit and his momentum causes him to touch the net on his follow through after the ball has already touched the floor of his opponents' court (the point has already been won before the net is touched)
player brushes the net when not in the action of playing the ball (typically when moving to a new position)
Double net touch - if players from both sides touch the net during an interchange, we stop the rally and replay the point (play a let). It does not matter who touched the net first if it's all part of the same interaction.
Ball hit outside the antenna on 1st touch - if on the 1st touch, the ball is hit over the net and outside the antenna/post (i.e. through the "External space") it can still be recovered by a player, providing they reach it without stepping on the opponents' court. The second touch must then be played back towards the player's own court, again passing outside the same antenna/post, enabling the 3rd touch to be played over the net through the legal "Crossing space".
3. Playing in a Competition
Your first competition is likely to be a local tournament involving several teams, or a match against another team. There are likely to be 2 referees, one at each end of the net, a scorer, and maybe also 2 line judges. The primary referee (1st Ref) has overall control of the game. There are various protocols and procedures which players must follow, the referees will guide the teams through these.
Discipline - referees demand a high standard of behaviour and fair play. The 1st Ref has yellow and red cards which are given for bad discipline:
yellow card - formal warning
red card - 1 penalty point is added to the opponents' score, and gives service to the other team
red and yellow card held in the same hand - player (or Coach) is disqualified for the current set (but NO penalty point)
red and yellow card held in separate hands - player (or Coach) is expelled for the rest of the match (but NO penalty point)
Discipline - the only person allowed to speak to the 1st Ref is the team Captain. If a player wants to communicate with the 1st Ref, he should do it via his own team Captain. Obviously this could become tedious, and in reality referees will allow brief interchanges with individual players so long as the match is being played amicably and the comment is respectful. But always remember this is a privilege which they do not have to grant. The only person allowed to speak to the 2nd Ref is the Coach (or the team Captain if there is no Coach), and this is only to request substitutions and timeouts. Any comments or complaints made to the 2nd Ref about decisions are very likely to result in cards being shown.
Discipline - players may not argue with nor attempt to influence a referee's decision. Strictly speaking even the team Captain cannot argue either, all he may do is ask the referee to explain his interpretation and judgement of what he saw. But again, so long as the game is being played amicably, referees will usually allow players a little freedom of expression.
Team kit - players should wear matching kit with unique numbers on both the front and the back of the shirts. For high level competitions, the shirts must be numbered between 1-20. A team may include 1 or 2 libero players in their squad, the libero shirts must be distinct from the regular players.
Now, back to the game:
Warmup - the game will usually be preceded by a formal warmup period which the 1st Ref will control. During the formal warmup, all participating players must wear their playing kit. When hitting over the net during the formal warmup, for safety reasons players must hit down the line (away from their opponents) and not cross court.
Serve - the server may not serve until the 1st ref blows his whistle and gives the signal. If the ball is served before the whistle, the ref will stop the rally immediately and play a let.
Serve - once the ref blows his whistle for service, the server must strike the ball within 8 seconds.
Positional fault on service - at the instant when the server strikes the ball, all players must be in their correct positions relative to their team mates.
Ball handling - referees will apply their own judgement of legal or illegal ball touches. The higher the level of the competition, the more strict the referee will be.
Sportsmanship - if you make a small touch on a ball which goes out, you should own up to it even if the officials don't notice it. If you don't, you are effectively stealing a point which you have lost. However it's not essential to own up to a small net touch which is unnoticed by anyone else (including your opponents) - let the rally go on.
Timeouts - usually each team is allowed to use 2 timeouts per set, each timeout is usually 30 seconds long. Only the Coach (or Captain) may request a timeout, by asking the 2nd Ref between rallies. During a timeout, both teams must leave the court. The match ball must either be handed to an official or left on court for the next server. The 2nd ref will whistle to indicate the end of the timeout and will direct the teams back on to the court. Players must return to the court immediately following the whistle.
Rolling Substitutions - some competitions (usually low level tournaments) allow rolling substations which are a simpler alternative to regular substitutions. Players take it in turns to rotate off court after position 2 and rotate back on as server. Referees will not be involved in this procedure.
Regular Substitutions - a team is allowed to make up to 6 substitutions per set. Supposing player B replaces player A, the only player who can later replace player B is player A (returning to his original position). After that, player B cannot play again in the set, and nobody else can replace player A. (Note - if a player cannot continue due to INJURY and the team cannot make a substitution without breaking these restrictions, the team may make make what we call an exceptional substitution instead).
Substitution procedure - supposing a team wants to replace player A with player B. At the end of a rally, player B must immediately go to the substitution zone which is between the post and the team bench, and wait for the 2nd ref to approve the substitution. player B must be in playing kit ready to play (no track suit etc) , and if numbered substitution paddles are available must be holding up the number of player A's shirt. The 2nd ref will make both players pause briefly at the edge of the court (to allow the scorer to record the substitution), before directing them on/off. If multiple substitutions are being made at the same time, all substitutes must go to the substitution code at the same time. The 2nd ref will then control the individual substitutions, one pair at a time.
Libero substitution - a player can interchange freely with a libero substitute in between rallies, without needing to be directed by the ref.
Libero restrictions - a libero must start every rally as a back court player, and is subject to the same playing restrictions as other back court players. In addition, if the libero sets a ball with an overhead volley action from front court (i.e. any part of a foot touching or over the 3m line), the attack hit may not be made on a ball which is entirely above the level of the net. Note that the set itself is legal, it only becomes a fault if the attacker does not allow the ball to fall at least partly below the top of the net. This applies even if the hit is made from the back court. A team can only have one libero on court at a time.
Libero replacement - if a libero becomes injured and cannot continue, the team may choose to redesignate a regular player as a libero (providing they still have 6 other regular players), he must change into libero kit. At the end of the set, he can revert to being a regular player if they wish. However, note that a libero may never be redesignated as a regular player (i.e. in the event of a regular player becoming injured).
Team bench - during rallies, the off-court players on the team bench must remain seated. If they want to stand or stretch, they must go to the team warmup area which is at the side of the court and behind the base line. The only person who is allowed to stand during rallies is the team Coach. During a timeout and between sets, players may exercise in areas outside the court. When one or two chairs are set out next to the team bench, these are usually (in high level competitions) only for the Coach and Assistant Coach - players may not use them. Also obviously players are not allowed to approach the opposing team's bench at any time.
Team bench - some high level competitions (including junior competitions) require that all players' names are listed on the scoresheet, and the scoresheet will be signed by the Captain and Coach before the start of the game. Only players who are listed on the scoresheet will be allowed to sit on the team bench. It's worth remembering that other squad members can be listed on the scoresheet (up to a maximum of 12 players) to enable them to sit on the bench with the rest of the team even if they have no intention of playing (e.g. if they are injured). They do not have to wear playing kit, but they can only participate in the formal warmup if they do.
Protocol at start/end of sets (team matches) - players may only enter the court when directed by the referees. At the start of the first set, the teams should line up behind their respective base line and wait for the 1st Ref to signal them on. At the end of each set, each team should return to its own base line and wait for the 1st ref to signal. players must then return to their team bench walking anti-clockwise around the edge of the court. The match ball must be handed to the 2nd ref. At the start of sets 2-4, the teams should wait at the side of the court and wait for the 2nd Ref to whistle them on. At the start of the final/deciding set (if played), the teams should line up behind their base line as they did for the 1st set. The interval between sets should be 3 minutes long.
Protocol at end of match - after the final whistle, teams line up on court to shake hands with the referees and opponents, Captain first and Coaches last. Both lines move anti-clockwise, the team on the referee's left shakes hands with the referee first.
4. Full Rules for Experienced Players
Refer to the FIVB Rules, available as a pdf file on the internet:
Use the Casebooks for interpretation of some exceptional situations
Volleyball England run courses to train referees, visit their Event Finder (in VolleyZone) to find the latest list of scheduled courses.
There are also 2 Facebook groups "Volleyball England Referees" and "Suffolk Volleyball Referees" where members can post questions and discussions about the rules.
5. Rule Changes Introduced 2022-23
Several changes came into effect in September 2022. The most significant of these is the one affecting positions at service hit.
POSITIONAL FAULTS - The rule regarding player positions at service hit (rule 7.4.3) has been relaxed to allow players more freedom, in order to reduce the number of interruptions for positional faults. (Note that players can still continue to position themselves in exactly the same way as they did last season, this would still be legal, but they would not be taking advantage of the flexibility made possible by the new rules).
To understand the new rule, first look at these diagrams showing the OLD rule which you are already familiar with.
Old 188.8.131.52: "Each front-row player must have at least a part of his/her foot closer to the centre line than the feet of the corresponding back-row player"
The diagrams represent the positions of a front court player (white feet) and a back court player (blue feet).
The first diagram shows a formation which was (and still is) legal because the toe of the white-right foot is ahead of both of the blue feet.
The second diagram shows what used to be a fault, because neither of the white feet have any part which is in front of both the blue feet. The front court player was not deemed to be in front of the back court player.
Now look at the diagrams showing the NEW rule.
New 184.108.40.206 "Each back-row player must be level with or have at least a part of one foot further from the centre line than the front foot of the corresponding front-row player"
The first diagram shows a formation which is now legal because the toe of one white foot (in this case the left one) is level with the heel of one blue foot (in this case the right one). It doesn't matter where the other two feet are, the formation is legal because the back court player is not deemed to be entirely in front of the front court player. Obviously it's also legal for the back court player to be further back, so both of the formations in the previous pair of diagrams are legal.
The second diagram shows a formation which is a fault, because both of the back court player's feet are in front of both of the front court player's feet.
Important additional note - in the first of these two diagrams, at the moment of the service hit, if the blue right foot, or the white left foot, or both, have been lifted off the floor, the formation remains legal. Under the new rule, the feet are deemed to be in the last position where they touched the floor, until they touch the floor again. (N.B. the foot may only be lifted as part of a normal walking or running movement, not something bizarre like standing on one leg or hopping). This is particularly important to remember when you take your turn at refereeing.
Similarly the NEW rules allow additional freedom for adjacent players in the same row.
New 220.127.116.11 "Each right (left) side player must be level with or have at least a part of one foot closer to the right (left) sideline than the foot further from the right (left) side line of the other players in that row"
This diagram represents the positions of the Left (white), Centre (blue), and Right (white) players in the front court, and also in the back court.
The front court players are legal because part of the white-left foot is closer to the side line than the whole of the blue-right foot (NB level would also be legal). Under the old rules, the position of the blue-left foot would have made this formation illegal.
The back court players are in an illegal formation because no part of the white-right foot is closer to the side line than the whole of the blue-left foot.
As with the previous example for front court / back court players (rule 18.104.22.168), if any of the feet have been lifted off the floor at the moment of service hit as part of a normal movement, they are deemed to be still in the position where they last touched the floor.
Other rule changes introduced in September 2022 are much more straightforward
Team Captain can now be a Libero. Obviously the referee will still need to know who is the on-court Captain whenever the Libero is off-court.
Blocking - a player can now block simultaneously with the attack hit (used to be only after the attack hit had been made)
Serve Screening - the wording of rule 12.5 has been changed for clarification only. Serve screening faults will continue to be extremely rare. Some situations which would merit a serve screening fault are:
- player deliberately moving around
- hands held above the head
- both hands reaching across to one side
In all these situations, it's preferable for the referee delay whistling for serve and make the player/s stop, rather than calling a fault
Substitutions - the substitute must be ready at the moment the substitution request is made, otherwise it will be refused and incur a time delay penalty
Substituting an Expelled or Disqualified Player is now allowed via an exceptional substitution, whenever a regular substitution is not possible
Libero Kit - if a team is using 2 Liberos, they can wear kit of different colour to each other (and must be different to the rest of the team)
Technical Time-Outs (previously used in the NVL) are no longer part of the official FIVB rules but may still be used in specific competitions