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Volleyball 101 - A Beginner’s Guide

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A beginners guide to understanding volleyball

Japan v USA - FIVB Women’s World Championship 5th Place Match
USA #24 blocking and making the wall. Also see the antennae in this picture.
Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

One of our readers had a great idea for a beginners level explanation of volleyball. So, as we are still about 100 days away from the first serve of the season, I figured why not? I am going to start basic here so if you’re already a seasoned volleyballer, you might want to just move on.

Players

First of all, each team has six players on the court during play. There is a seventh player that wears the different color jersey from the rest, the libero (li-bear-row or lee-bur-oh, depending on your preference). She plays only in the back of the court and is there to improve the defense of the game or, in other words, keep the ball off the floor. So, seven players starters even though there are only six on the court during play.

Of the six players, three are considered front row and three backrow. There is a line on the court called the 3 meter line or 10 foot line for those against the adoption of the metric system (estimate with me). This line delineates front row from back.

Volleyball - Olympics: Day 1
Behind the 10 foot line is the lighter red color in this picture. Anyone in the backrow can attack if they are behind that line.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Considering the line, here comes a critical rule to understand: If you are a backrow player you cannot attack (jump and hit the ball above the net) in front of that 10 foot line. Only the three front row players can jump above the top of the net and block or attack the ball.

Scoring

Every time the ball is served, a point is scored. This is called rally scoring, and wasn’t always the rule. Used to be, you could only score when your team was serving. An NCAA volleyball match is best three of five games. The first four games are played to 25 points. If a fifth game is needed it is played to 15 points. You have to win by two points in any of the games. So if game 2 is tied at 24-24 then one team must get to 26 to win.

On this note, my husband often asks about just how much better Nebraska is than their opponent. So if you’re into tracking margin of victory, or if you didn’t watch a game in person, you can tell pretty easily if it was a blowout by the score.

If a team wins 3 games to 0, it may not necessarily have been a blowout if it went, say, 25-23, 25-22, 26-24. Wow, tight match! If the games were won by 5-10 points, it was lopsided. More than 10 points, yeah, total blowout. So if a quick scan of the box score the next day shows you a 25-12, 25-15, 25-10 win... oof. That was ugly, or, really good if the Huskers are the right side of that score.

Rotations

Back to game play. After your teams scores a point, you also win back the serve (called a sideout). Importantly, when you win back the serve the rules say your team must rotate clockwise so a new person serves.

Let’s say the Husks sideout and when they rotate middle blocker Lauren Stivrins goes to the backrow to serve. Coach is likely to send in a defensive player as a sub for Stivrins. Shorter players are generally better at defense because they are quicker and lower to the ground to dig hard hit balls toward the ground.

Rotating changes that match ups for each team. Coaches manage those match ups with substitutions. If Lexi Sun (6’2” outside hitter for NE) is hitting against a 5’10” blocker, the other team is likely to try to sub in a taller blocker for that rotation.

Contacts

When the ball comes to your side, you get three contacts on the ball each time it’s on your side of the net. A block, though, does not count as one of those three contacts. A block is when 1 to 3 players jumping at the net to form a wall in front of the other team’s hitters.

Ideally the three contacts go in this order: pass or dig (hits in the forearms of the player and goes up), Set (overhead with open hands, looks a bit like basketball shooting form) then hit, attack or spike (player running and jumping toward the net to hit the ball down to the other team.

Scoring

If the ball hits the court on the other teams side of the net, way to go, you just scored a point. The ball hitting the court or floor is the most common way of scoring points. Other ways to score points: if someone is in the net on the other team, you get a point, or if someone on the other team mishandles the ball (holds it for too long=a carry, or hits it twice=double contact) then you get a point.

In and out calls can be confusing if you don’t understand few things. First, if the ball hits any part of the boundary lines then it is IN. If the ball touches the pinky finger of a blocker but then lands out on your side of the court, you lost the point because your team touched the ball. There are antennae on the net right above the boundary line. The ball cannot touch the antennae, or it is out.

Those are the basics. I don’t think you can go out and coach now but hopefully less frustrating to watch a game and not understand it. Next up, let’s chat about referee signals and what they mean.