Basic Rules In Volleyball

So your kid is playing volleyball, but you don’t know the rules yet? Let me help you! If you have never played volleyball, or even if you have played volleyball some of the rules are constantly changing. They also vary by location and league. Don’t worry, the base rules always stay the same. I explained in a previous post how to score points in volleyball here.

Essentially, players keep the ball off the floor on their side of the net whilst also putting the ball down on your opponent’s side. There are four different kinds of rules: boundary rules, technical rules, conduct rules, and safety rules.

Boundary volleyball rules:

Volleyball court size:

Zones on the court:

The court is made up of zones. Zones have invisible boundaries that must be respected. Each player will spend two serving turns in each zone. One in serve receive and the other while your team has the serve. Much like baseball, each team gets a chance to score while in possession of the ball. You are allowed to score as many points in each rotation as you can. There is no limit. However, once you have served and then received in a particular zone, upon winning the serve back you must rotate zones. This means that the players end up moving through the zones on the court “fairly”. Most teams use this to their advantage and will start with their strongest server serving first.

Now, the zones on the court have to be respected. Because there are different ways to line up on the court you may notice how the players shift around when they are on serve receive. No back-row player may start in front of the front-most player. Consider this an offsides rule in volleyball – you have to respect the zones and boundaries. Likewise, a front-row player may not be behind any of the back-row players to begin the rally.

You also must respect the order of the zones. A player in zone 5 may not start on the wrong side of a player in zone 6. The starting zones follow players, not the court. Except between the front row and the back row, which I already mentioned.

Court lines & Gym parameters:

Most points in volleyball are scored on boundary rules. You have three contacts to get the ball from your side of the court into the bounds of the opponent’s side of the net. Hitting the ball out of bounds is a boundary rule, point to the other team. If you hit the ball outside the bounds but they touched it, that’s a point for you. Any call made by the referees that the ball is in/out, to digs gone wild, the ball hitting the floor, block touches, etc. is a boundary rule.

For example, you dig the ball, but it’s going to the other side of the net, but out of bounds (so the opponent would not touch it). If you have time to run down the ball, you can. You must respect both the court lines and which side of the antenna the ball passed. Whichever side of the antenna the ball passed leaving your side, it must be played back on the same side. If not, it’s out of bounds.

Players attacking from the back row must respect the height of the net or the three-meter line. Jumping from behind the ten-foot line (or three-meter line) is acceptable. Jumping on or in front of it will result in a point given to the other team.

Ceiling is out of bounds as well:

Sometimes the call refs make can be a bit confusing. The point goes to your opponent if you’re the last player to touch the ball before it either goes out of bounds on the other side or fails to be touched by another teammate. However, the antenna is ALWAYS out of bounds. If the ball touches the antenna, automatic point. Some boundary rules vary. In some leagues, the ceiling is considered out of bounds – no matter how it touches or where it is a point for the other team. Generally speaking, in the NCAA the ball may touch the ceiling. This depends on the trajectory of the ball and the perceived ability to play it if it had not touched the hoop or other natural parts of the gym.

Crossing the line in the middle of the court:

The net is also a boundary. The rules about being able to touch it in certain places also vary. In some leagues – you can’t touch any part of the net ever. In others, like Switzerland, it’s legal to touch the net anywhere but the top portion called the “tape”. This rule exists so that players do not come too close together or endanger each other. Jumping and landing on other players is something to avoid. It prevents players from injury.

Players need to stay in bounds when the play starts:

Players must all be in bounds at the start of play as well. You cannot start the rally outside of the court. Players may not step into the court while serving. BUT! They may land in the court after they have made contact with the ball. Boundary rules also bleed into safety rules (below)

Photo: @CEV

Technical volleyball Rules:

Technical rules involve how you contact the ball and the number of touches. You only get three touches to get the ball back over the net. However, if you touch the ball with a block, the block touch does not count. That’s because it’s a part of the defense. You also may attack a ball you just blocked. Each touch is seen as separate phases of volleyball – defense and offense. Players cannot touch the ball two times consecutively. There is some nuance with that rule as well.

Libero volleyball rules:

Liberos are exclusively defensive specialists. They’re the ones wearing the different colored jerseys. They typically go in to play the back-row defense of middle blockers. There are two rotations where they cannot be on the court; the rallies where the middle blocker is serving. Otherwise, they can play the back-row defense for both middle blockers. They don’t count as official substitutions so they can enter and exit the court as many times as they like.

Men’s teams allow for two liberos. Women’s teams are restricted to one libero. Both Liberos cannot be on the floor at the same time. They must abide by the same rules. They cannot change in the middle of a rally, either. Liberos are obligated to switch between the whistle-blow that ends the previous rally and starts the new one.

Liberos may not use their hands to set in front of the three-meter line (ten-foot line). If they have crossed the threshold while using and overhand set, the front-row player cannot attack ABOVE the height of the net. If you want to know more about liberos, check out our ultimate guide:

Volleyball Positions Rules:

There are 5 positions played in volleyball. You will note the groups on this page: outside hitters, opposites, setters, middle blockers, and liberos. They each have a “zone” where they play. As I mentioned in the previous section, zones must be respected before the rally starts. Once the server has made contact with the ball you may then shift into the zone your position plays on the court. This is considered a technical rule because you can configure people on the court how you wish.

Middles may now play out of the middle front, and outside hitters may now play freely in zone 4 or left front. Setters and opposites play out of zone 2 or right front. Liberos typically play in left back, outsides in zone 6, or middle back, and again – either the setter or the opposite will be playing in right back (zone 1).

The order you put people on the court is done in a few different ways. I will touch on that in a different article.

Sets and points:

Volleyball is a “first-to” sport. In other words, there is no time limit on the game itself. Each match is best 3 of 5. Each set goes to 25 points except game five which is played to 15 points. If you have ever seen a 5 set match, you would understand why it’s shorter. I have played in games that last three hours before. In the end, you must win three sets to win the game. You must also win every game by two points.

Usually, when people are talking about a game the “game” refers to all of the sets. The same goes for matches. Sets are reserved for the individual games played within the larger one.

Double touch:

Players can accidentally double-touch on a seemingly singular action. Setting is a difficult skill to master – getting both hands around the ball and releasing them at the same time takes skill. Even the most experienced setters sometimes release the ball from their hands at different times. Because they let go unsynchronized, the ball spins. This is a good indicator that the setter mishandled the ball.

You can play with any part of the body:

You may also play with any part of your body technically. Feet, legs, shoes, shoulders, and heads are all permitted contacts. These body parts aren’t ideal, but in a pinch can make the difference between a point lost and a point gained.

Carrying the ball:

A “carry” is when a player touches the ball for too long. I may remind you that volleyball is a sport of 99% preparation to touch the ball. We play rallies like tennis players but with our bodies instead of rackets. We use our bodies like rackets, honestly. While setting, tipping, diving, and sometimes saving a misblocked ball, a carry happens. I like using a sound test to determine if it was a carry – did the contact make a noise? If it didn’t make a noise and looked a little sketchy, probably a carry. The ball cannot roll off of you. It must make one distinct contact with your body.

Volleyball serving rules:

Another technical rule is that you only have 7-10 seconds to perform your serve. You may only initiate the ball into the court using one hand. Overhand or underhand both work. You will see more high-level players using an underhand technique in sand volleyball. If you’re just starting out an underhand serve is consistent and requires less power.

Back-row attack:

A back-row player may not start their jump on or in front of the 3-meter line. They must respect their position on the court as a back-row player. Just like serving, the feet must start behind the respective line. Jumping from behind it and then landing in front of it is okay to do.

Photo: @CEV

Safety rules:

You may land on the line under the net, however, your entire foot cannot cross the line. You see this most often when setters are trying to save tight sets and even some players playing defense. This is a safety rule. It helps keeps sets off the net and people colliding into each other.

Players cannot to go under the net. If your whole foot crosses the line under the net – that’s a point to the other team. Again, injury prevention is an essential part of any sport and there are rules to help ensure the health of all players. One of the most common volleyball injuries comes from players jumping too close together and landing on each other under the net.

conduct Rules: Yellow and red cards

Conduct rules establish good sportsmanship. Playing without good sportsmanship toward the opponent and referees puts you at risk of a yellow card/red card. Talking back, speaking to the ref when you’re not the captain, and sometimes even swearing on the court will warrant a card. Other things include disorderly conduct. I had a coach who threw his water bottle across the court once. He got an immediate red card.

It is also customary to shake hands with your opponent both before and after the game. This has changed a bit since COVID. You will see some leagues have returned to hand-shaking while others have not. It depends on the competition and rules of the league.

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