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Volleyball 104: Substitutions Can Get Technical

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Volleyball has some technical rules but you are a football fan so you can understand technical stuff!

NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship
Coach Cook talking with his team
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Note this is part of a series. The previous explainers can be found here:


On to substitutions. Subs are highly related to rotations, the topic of the last volleyball article. Subs are best understood with practical examples and pictures.

Many coaches teach these concepts during a practice by setting six players up on the court and PAINFULLY walking through all six rotations. It takes time to teach new players this concept. Since we can’t stand on a court together, I’ll use a picture or two.

Each team has 15 substitutions per game (25 points). There is a referee at the scoring table that keeps track of the subs along with other parts of the game.

Think of the volleyball court as six stations. The team needs to rotate clockwise each time they side-out (win the serve back). As players rotate around the court, coach will see strengths and weaknesses in players.

Coach will see a need to sub players in and out to give the team the best chance at scoring points in different rotations. Some subs are systematic, planned and happen every game. Other times they are based on someone not performing or matching up well against the other team.

Most of the time a player is subbed out in the backrow to get a better passer in the game. A player is subbed out of the front row to have a better blocker. Another reason someone is subbed from the front row is if their attack is not effective (they aren’t getting kills). Generally, shorter (under 5’10”) players don’t play the front row.

Practice example: at the start of the game Lexi Sun is left front. In order to be in the correct rotation (by the rules) she has to be the left of the middle front and she is in front of the left back. See the picture below:

In this example, Lexi Sun starts the game in left front. When the ball is served she has to be in front of the left back (position 5) and to the left of the middle front (position 3).

This is her position at the start of the game and she has to stay there until the ball is served (after the ball is served all players can move around the court wherever… although, make sure you reference back to the 10-foot line rule! Backrow players can’t attack the ball above the top of the net in front of the 10-foot line).

3 side-outs or rotations later, Lexi is the right back. Coach makes a substitution putting Megan Miller in to serve and play defense. This is just an example.

As the game goes on, the team rotates and Lexi still has to stay in her position RELATIVE to the people in front of her and behind her in the positions. This is where a sub is useful.

If Megan Miller comes in for Lexi Sun and plays the back row then when it is time for front row again (three rotations later) Lexi Sun needs to come back in for Miller. Megan and Lexi are now in the scoring book (recorded by an official at the scoring table) as occupying that position on the court. The coach can sub a third player into that same position that Lexi and Megan are playing but none of those players can then play for someone else.

So Lexi starts in left front, then on the next rotation she has to move to middle front but after the serve she can move back into left front for the duration of the volley.

Clear as mud? So the rules dictate that coach can only do that so many times in a game, and so much use substitutions judiciously. You see situations where a game goes to 30 or more points and a coach is out of substitutions and gets stuck in an unfavorable rotation.

This is similar to time outs in football or basketball. You don’t want to take time outs into the locker room, but you don’t want to waste them early in the game either.