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Volleyball | Volleyball Definitions | Volleyball Techniques and Tactics
Hands reaching for a volleyball.

Volleyball is a sport played between two teams with a ball over a high net. The objective is to stop the ball from touching the ground on your side of the net or to get the ball to touch the ground on your opponents', depending on whether you believe the glass is half-empty or half-full. In this way it is similar to the sport of badminton although it does not require a racket as volleyballers use mainly their hands or forearms.

It is an incredibly enjoyable sport that is played by all sorts of people in many different places. Normally this will be in the park, at the beach or in a sports hall, but people also play in the swimming pool, on snow or with a balloon in their living room. This Entry also provides you with information about two more sports that are now part of the Olympics.

This Entry will provide you with information on the following areas and you'll find a separate glossary of volleyball terms that can be read alongside this one. You can also find an Entry describing volleyball tactics and techniques.

  • A brief history
  • Features of volleyball
  • Who plays volleyball?
  • How to start playing
  • A basic rules guide
  • Player positions
  • The skills used in volleyball
  • Basic tactics and strategies
  • Major international competitions

A Brief History

Volleyball was invented in 1895 by William G Morgan at a YMCA in Hollyoke, Massachusets. In these respects it is similar to basketball which was also invented at a YMCA in the 1890s. Originally volleyball was called Mintonette and in the earliest years it was played over nine innings, with the team scoring the most points being the winner. Although the rules of the game are updated almost yearly, it remains basically the same.

The game's popularity spread worldwide through the efforts of the YMCA and to Europe by American GIs in the First World War. In the 1920s Californians took their balls to the beach and created 'Beach Volleyball'. In the 1930s beach volleyball started to be played in pairs, as is its current form, and in the 1940s a world governing body - the Federation Internationale de Volley Ball (FIVB) was set up. The indoor version of volleyball was introduced to the Olympic Games at Tokyo in 1964 and the beach version at Atlanta in 1996.

A Friendly Game

The main characteristic of volleyball is that it is intended to be non-confrontational and therefore all smiles and friendship.

Teams are separated by a nice high net, so contact isn't really an issue and many women feel safe to participate in mixed games. Teams change ends by walking around the opposites sides of the court. Even speaking or gesticulating rudely to an opponent is outlawed, with players being liable to yellow and red cards. A yellow card awarded gives a point to the opposing team and hands them the serve. A red card disqualifies the offending player for the set. A red and yellow card can be awarded together, which disqualify the offending player for the whole match.

Arguing with the referee about decisions is also very much against the rules. If there is a query, only the captain may talk to the referee and this will purely be to understand how the referee has interpreted the rules. If the captain still disputes the ruling they may make a formal protest on the scoresheet at the end of the game. All very nice and pleasant.

The reality is somewhat different. Although there is little or no physical contact, there can be verbal intimidation, players talking through the net and staring each other out. Also the ball itself is quite a good object for hitting very hard, although this has little effect against good defenders! Ultimately it falls upon the referee to control the match and if they show weakness, they may open themselves up for argument and abuse from the players. Although this shouldn't be tolerated, disagreements about whether a ball landed in or out definitely occur.

In friendlier, informal games, there can still be good-natured banter and cheering of opponent's mistakes, but teams will often duck under the net at the end of a set and exchange 'low-fives'1 with the opponents.

Who Plays Volleyball?

Usually very tall, skinny people who failed at basketball - or so the stereotype would have you believe. Actually volleyball is played by people of almost any age, height, weight, sex, race or (dis)ability. It is a truly universal sport that allows people to make many new friends.

Being tall is an obvious advantage but not a necessity. Even at the highest levels, there are many good male beach players who are under 6' (1.83m) and at the 1992 Olympics, one of the indoor players was 5'7" (1.70m). These however are the exceptions. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the average height of the Russian women's team was 6'3" (1.91m) with their setter standing 6'7" (2.01m). Often these people have enormous 'coat hanger' shoulders from which their shirts just seem to hang.

In an attempt to get away from the 'tall-person' image, in 2003 the FIVB introduced new competitions for people of restricted height. To participate the men have to be under 1.85m (6'1"), and the women under 1.75m (5'9"). Apparently 97% of the world's population are under these heights.

Volleyball is widely played by disabled players as well. Disabled volleyball games generally takes the form of sitting volleyball2. Sitting volleyball is a Paralympic sport. Similar to conventional volleyball but with a lower net, the two main changes are that teams must equalise the level of disability between them and players who take shots must always have one 'cheek'3 on the floor.

For the average player playing in their local league, about the only thing that stops them is their level of motivation. If you want to play, you can.

How Volleyball is Played - Getting Started

Decide what type of volleyball you want to play, or whether you're not fussy. Take into account if you like playing with more players4, if you like rules which codify swimwear as your uniform5 or even what the weather is6.

Take a look on the internet for volleyball websites, or wander down to your local sports hall and ask if anyone plays. If you live near the beach or park perhaps you'll see people playing.

If you can't find a local team or league, just start playing with your friends. To begin:

  1. Invest in a decent ball. You may think that the cost is extortionate when you look at the price of volleyballs, but it is well worth paying £30-35. Too many people get an old football or cheap £5 volleyball, pump it up to the max, and then wonder why their forearms are so red and sore. It's difficult to convince people to play again under these circumstances. If you're in doubt, look for an official FIVB ball.
  2. Agree a court size and rules with your friends. Size depends on such things such as number of players and general enthusiasm for throwing yourself around7.
  3. Rig up a net or some rope between two poles or trees. Officially a men's net height is set at 2.44m, ladies at 2.21m. Whatever you choose try and make it so that people of normal height have to jump a bit to hit the ball downwards.
  4. Split into two teams.
  5. Bat the ball back and forth over the net. Perhaps even keep score.
  6. Enjoy yourselves.

When you've been playing for a while and want to get more serious, invest in a portable net, or hire a court at the local sports centre. Try incorporating some of the following basic rules and maybe even progress into using some of those more recognised tactics and strategies.

Basic Rules Guide

The rules of volleyball have minor differences between the beach and indoor versions; the rules adopted for games played in the park between friends can have major differences. The following list conveys the main rules to consider using. Ultimately though it just helps if everybody playing agrees on the rules they are using, and they replay a point if dispute occurs.

  • A team usually consist of between two and six players. At the top level, beach volleyball is played in pairs, the indoor version with six.
  • The court: an indoor volleyball is 18m by 9m, divided into two equal squares by the net; beach volleyball courts are 16m by 8m, also divided in half by the net. In indoor volleyball there are two attack lines, each three metres from the net.
  • The ball may be played with any part of the body.
  • A set is played up to 15, 21 or 25 points, preferably the latter.
  • A point is scored by the team winning the rally.
  • A ball landing inside or on the court lines is in, otherwise it is out.
  • Teams lose a rally when they commit a fault.
  • On winning serve back from the opposition, a different player must serve. This is achieved by the team rotating clockwise.
  • In indoor volleyball, three players on each team must stay inside the attacking line, and three players outside8.
  • After each point all players must rotate a position clockwise on the court, meaning that players must be equally good at attack and defence.

Faults include:

  • Using more than three touches in attempting to return the ball to the opposition.
  • A player touching the ball twice in a row. The exception to this is when the ball is blocked. A block does not count as one of the team's hits and so the blocker can subsequently play the next contact and the team get up to a total of four touches.
  • The ball landing on the ground inside a team's court space.
  • A player touching a ball before it lands out.
  • Throwing, catching or lifting the ball (although this rule is not common to the backyard volleyball played by beginners).
  • Touching the net (this rule isn't either, but it should be for safety reasons).
  • The ball passes outside of the posts on the way back to the opposition court.

Player Positions

There are only two positions in volleyball: the libero and not the libero. Until 1998 the libero position did not exist and all players on the court were equivalent. The libero is a defensive specialist for the team. They must wear a different colour top to everyone else to mark them out. They may also switch with any other player on the court after any point, meaning they can keep the same apparent position. Their focus on defence allows them to become better than their team-mates and so you will normally find them covering the shot as it crosses the net.

The specialist rules about the libero are that:

  • they may not serve, block or attack the ball above the height of the net.
  • if they volley a ball when standing in the three metre zone, the attacker may not hit the ball above the height of the net. This is to stop teams using them as a setter.

The Skills Used in Volleyball

Below are the main shots used, whether they be passing, defence, staring your opponent down or hammering the ball into the dust.

The Serve

The serve is the moment when the ball is put into play. This can be by a variety of methods, all with their problems and advantages.

  • Underhand. Rather self-explanatory - the server hits the ball underarm from underneath their waist. Very easy, requiring no practice to use, it nevertheless is rarely used after alternative methods have been learnt due to the ease of returning it with a spike.
  • Overhand float. This is where the server smacks the ball with their fist. Relatively easy to learn and use, it has a high level of unpredictability - this of course could be an advantage since confusion about the ball's path will affect the opposing team greatly.
  • Topspin. This is an overarm serve similar to the overhand float. However the player will use both their hand and their wrist to give the ball topspin. The ball is therefore more controllable and is usually aimed at a specific player on the opposing team. The ball has more speed but its path is easier to predict by the defenders, giving them more time to react.
  • Jump Serves. These are effectively the overhand float and topspin serves with a jump added in. They are obviously harder to manage but allow the server to add speed to their serves. The added speed makes the overhand float incredibly unpredictable…for both sides.
  • The Windmill. By far the most chaotic of serves available to a volleyball player. Why the name windmill should become apparent. The server stands facing the side line rather than the net. They toss the ball with both hands over their shoulder, then bring their serving arm from the side of their body to hit the ball over their shoulder, without bending the shoulder. If things go well the ball is hit slightly upwards over the net before dropping rapidly due to the topspin applied to the ball. If things go badly the players start scattering to avoid this weapon inflicted on the unsuspecting court.

The Pass

There are two types of pass that are used in volleyball, the forearm pass and the overarm pass. This category also involves 'the set', where the ball is set up for the hitter to cause maximum pain, or points, depending on their wishes.

  • The forearm pass. Also known as the bump, or the underarm pass. This pass is done by using both forearms, with the player's hands clenched together. This can provide a lot of power and can shift the ball to wherever needed on the court.
  • The overarm pass. This pass is done using the fingertips above a player's head. The player forces the ball towards their target, with a high level of control but less power than the forearm pass. Care must be taken that the ball doesn't make it inside the fingertips - otherwise the player is catching the ball, which is banned, and will concede the point.
  • The Set. Whereas the two types of pass are just that - actions taken solely to move the ball around to a more convenient location - the set is different. The set is the positioning manoeuvre for the attack or spike. The set is a specific pass (either forearm or overarm) done to the attacking location. This means that not only does the setter pick the attacker, but also the way that they attack - for example, a normal pass wouldn't place the ball two feet above a player, but a set must go there in order for a jump to be made to bullet the ball downwards.

The Volley

The volley can be considered a pass, but it can be an attack as well. Players join their hands, forming the shape of a ball with them. When a ball crosses the net and hits the player's hands the ball is flicked away - either as a pass to a player, or directly over the net. The main problems here are ensuring your hands take the hit properly to prevent injury and making sure that the ball is flicked away, rather than thrown (thereby conceding the point).

The Spike

The spike is the attack made by players in order to score a point. Players run and jump and smack the ball downwards in a move extremely difficult to defend.

Firstly, pay attention to the setter and hope they have been paying attention in practice. Ensure that you are at least three or four metres away9. Teams use code words to indicate which side you are planning to attack on10, shout the appropriate words for what you want them to do.

After the setter has set the ball, hopefully where you want (bear in mind that they chose what they think is most likely to succeed) start running towards the ball. For those who are right-handed the steps are: left, right, left, jump (if left-handed, reverse the steps). Start turning on the last step or two, to place you at a slight angle to the net.

You need to bend your knees in the last step or two as well. Stretch your arms behind you so that later you can swing them round just as you jump. Jump before you reach the ball - you'll jump forwards and if you touch the net you forfeit the point.

Now that you've made it into the air…oh yes, you should have jumped, you have to pay attention to the ball again. Pull back your right hand (or left, as necessary) to your ear.

Snap your open palm onto the top of the ball, smashing your wrist through it, which will give it some topspin and make it even harder for the opposition to get to it. Now avoid hitting the net; you can bring your arm into the opposite team's 'airspace' here, but get it back as soon as you can to ensure its safe retrieval.

So. You've just pulled off a very difficult attack, the fans are cheering, and you relax knowing the shot can't possibly be saved…or can it…read on.

The Dig

Firstly, prepare yourself that this will sting, especially if you decide to dig in beach volleyball. A dig is far more reflex-based than the other volleyball actions, and becomes more so the better the play gets. That is why it is helpful to have a libero player with quick reactions, who should specialise in things like digs.

Any purely defensive action is actually a dig, and so weaker attacks that can't simply be passed off are actually defended with a dig. A player can knock the ball up to team-mate, while trying to remain on their feet, giving them far more control and ability to react.

The true dig involves a player diving towards the ball11. If a player is unable to reach the ball normally, it is unlikely they can simply use a normal forearm pass to save it. Then they use 'the pancake'. This involves sliding one or both hands along the sand just underneath the ball and tapping it up. The successful use of this to prevent a spike is the most impressive action in volleyball.

The Block

There are two types of block. One method is attacking, aiming to score points by preventing the ball from entering your side of the court. The other is defensive, used in order to make it harder for an attack to be made. Blocks are named by how many people they have, eg a triple attacking block has three people attempting to keep the ball in the opposition side of the court in order to score a point.

The attacking block is done by a player (or several) predicting where the hitter will hit the ball. Players must position themselves to interrupt the ball. Players hold their arms at 45 degrees with their palms out, with their palms actually in the opponent's half of the court. If the ball's path is predicted correctly it hits a blocker's palm and is reflected straight down onto the floor, scoring a point.

Defensive blocking is supposed to inconvenience an attack. The player's sheer presence can cause the hitter to decide to attack a more inconvenient spot, or use a less powerful, more lob-like shot. These shots are easier to defend and return powerfully. Defensive blockers can also jump, staying in their half, with their palms bent backwards - this causes the ball to slow down and bounce extremely high, and is very easy for a hitter to spike straight down.

Basic Tactics and Strategies

There is a dedicated volleyball tactics Entry that explains briefly the various strategies, both defensive and offensive, used by different teams of different standards. If you aspire to become more than a casual player you will need to discuss it with a coach and with your team-mates, as well as experimenting to see what is best for yourself. A short summary of the main methods is given below.

Three touches - this is the writer's way of playing. In simple terms it is basic game play. The players simply use their three touches to try and get the ball to the other side of the net, without any specific strategy or use of the ball.

Teams then start designating one or two players to set the ball and others to hit it, with positions of the setter(s) varying and the hitters either forming a square or a 'W' shape around them.

In defence players will start blocking the ball - going right up to the net to prevent it entering their half of the court. The other players will form a triangle around their setter to allow both defence and preparation for a return attack.

Major International Competitions

Although there are major professional indoor leagues in Italy, Japan, Greece, USA and Brazil, the profile of volleyball is maintained by international competition. To this end the FIVB has created a schedule that brings the top international teams into the spotlight. A major international competition occurs every year - four tournaments repeat on a quadrennial cycle. There are both a men's and women's tournament in each.

  • The Olympics. Since 1964 volleyball has been part of this great sporting event. Beach volleyball was added later to give both sports equal international ranking.
  • World Grand Champions Cup - Follows an Olympic year. The tournament is for indoor volleyball. First held in 1993, it brings together the champions of the four highest-ranked continents plus the host country and a wildcard. The male team from Brazil has won three times making it the great team of this tournament.
  • World Championships - Held two years before/after the Olympics. The oldest indoor volleyball international conference, it was established in 1947.
  • World Cup - Originally contested in 1963, it moved from being held the year after the Olympics to the year preceding them in 1991. It therefore acts as a qualifying tournament for the Olympics themselves. It brings together 12 teams including the host country, the five Continental champions, four best vice-champions and two FIVB-nominated wild cards.
  • FIVB Beach Volleyball SWATCH World Championships, held every two years, are the world championships for beach volleyball.

Also there are also major men's and women's competitions held on an annual basis:

  • World League - annual men's competition involving 16 teams played weekly over two months, boasting $15 million in prize money.
  • World Grand Prix - launched in 1993, the annual women's competition involving 12 teams playing over a two-week period. Boasts $1 million in prize money.
  • Age-related competitions for junior players.
  • Recently introduced height-restricted competitions for men under 1.85m and women under 1.75m.
  • Continental Championships eg African Nations Cup.
  • World Club competition.
  • Various leagues around the world.
1A hand gesture or greeting in which one person slaps an open palm of the hand down onto the upward-facing open palm of the other person. The two greeters may then swaps roles and repeat the gesture. The palm contact takes place at or just below waist level.2Or sitting beach volleyball.3And no, that would not be the cheek on your face.4In which case indoor might be the way for you.5Stick to those beaches then.6Wales' beaches and rain don't always mix.7Not including trivial things like actual available size.8Very bouncy players can jump from outside the line, but must hit the ball before they land.9Outside the attack line, at least.10Well that's what they say the words are for.11Just bear in mind doing this, at speed, on sand.

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