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"Ugly" is Not a Ball Handling Violation

Corny Galdones, July 2002
Chesapeake Region, Referee Development Program

Ball handling judgment is perhaps the most important officiating skill for a volleyball referee. Ball handling is the core of the game. Every time any player contacts the ball, that's ball handling in one form or another. All through the playing action, a referee must decide on what to call and what not to call. Having a grasp of the ball handling rules and an "eye" to make judgment calls are critical. A referee is expected to call violations on all blatant or obvious ball handling errors. There's some leeway for a referee to judge whether or not a marginal ball handling action should be called. That's a gray area.

Ball Handling Criteria
On a team's first ball contact in any attack, the ball cannot come to rest or be held. On the second or third contact, the ball cannot be double contacted, come to rest or be held. It does not matter what the player or the ball does before the contact is made or after contact is completed. All that matters is what happens while the player is in contact with the ball. "Ugly" is not a ball handling violation. Nor is inferior talent, poor technique, bad body position, contact sound, or ball spin. If the player or the ball does something unusual or surprising, that is not necessarily a ball handling error. Once you understand these concepts and incorporate them into your decision-making, you have a sound base to judge ball handling.

Judgment Standard
What is legal and allowed for ball handling is left to the referee's discretion. Some referees call it tight or by the book. This standard does not leave much room for judgment error, especially at the higher competition levels where a ball handling action may seem illegal but is executed legally because of the better playing skills. Other referees call it loose and let the players play. This standard is more apt to get complaints from those coaches and players who favor tighter calls. Most referees call it somewhere between these two limits. No one is wrong. Each referee established a correct ball handling standard that's personally comfortable to use.

In any given match, the teams and players will adapt to whether it's called tight or loose, so long it's consistent. Trouble starts when similar play actions are not called the same way. Observe the teams during warm-ups. Watch for peculiarities of the setters and tendencies of the hitters. Determine a correct standard you'll be at ease in using that is in line with the players' abilities. Set your standard to the skill level of the better team. (Consider adjusting to the competition level so that you make about the same number of ball handling calls every match.) Whatever standard you start the match with, stick to it for the entire match.

Judgment Technique
Ignore how the ball handler is positioned to the ball. Zone in on only the player's body parts making actual contact with the ball. Evaluate what happens during (not before or after) the entire contact. If the ball comes to a stop, it's a held ball violation. If the player stays in contact with the ball for a long time or distance, i.e., not quick, it's a held ball violation. The length of contact allowed should be the same for all types of ball handling action. If the player starts the ball one way then changes direction, it's a held ball violation. If two body parts of the player touch the ball at separate instances during the team's second or third contact, it's a double hit violation. Anticipate a violation, but keep your whistle in check. Practice the three R's - Ready, Read the ball handling action & React to whistle a violation. Call only what you see. Don't guess. If you get screened from the action, get visual help from the second referee. Once the ball is released and the contact is considered legal, do not track the ball after it goes above your eye level. Instead, look ahead to the court area where the ball will end up. Identify the next ball handler and watch the hitters and blockers get into position. This will give you a better overall picture of the coming action and more time to get ready.

Keeping Up With The Action
The better the players; the faster the action. There will be less time between ball contacts to prepare. Do not follow a moving ball. Zoom forward with rapid eye and head movements to where the next contact might occur. During an attack, quickly shift your view from attacker to net to defense. Observe all of the hitter's attack. Then skip to the net for possible contacts of the ball by the blockers. After the ball goes by the blockers, find the defensive player who will be playing the ball. Get ahead of the ball. Try to have your eyes stationary and focused at the moment of contact.

The ball may be handled in countless ways. Here are rough sketches of more common situations. The live action may differ.

  • The ball may slip off or out of the hands of a player receiving the ball with a setting motion. On the second or third contact, it's probably a double hit violation. On the first contact, it may be sloppy for being mangled or poorly controlled, but it's legal. However, if the ball is "massaged" or over-controlled, then its a held ball violation.
  • When a spike is blocked, the deflected ball can fly anywhere. The quickly reacting players will do anything to keep it in play. Expect the unexpected. If the ball comes down at the net, get visual help from the second referee for a possible ball handling violation. If the player pins the ball against the top cable or net, it's a held ball violation. The blocked spike may bounce back into the attacker. If the attacker has any body part above the height of the net when this happens, it is considered a block. If the attacker is entirely below the top of the net, it is considered the first team contact.
  • On a power block in which the ball is pushed straight down with force in any direction by the blocker's hands, initial contact must be made in front of the blocker and not directly over the head. If not, the blocker more than likely started the ball forward then changed its direction down, which is a held ball violation.

  • On a power tip in which the ball is pushed forward with force by the finger tips of the attacker, the attacker's hand must already be moving forward before contact is made. If not, the ball was stopped upon contact with the stationary hand then projected forward, which is a held ball violation. Be alert for a throwing motion, palming of the ball, change in direction during contact, or a long distance in which the attacker stayed in contact with the ball. Any of these actions is a held ball violation.
  • A player may do a "deep dish" set, staying in downward contact with the ball then releasing it upward. The contact must be quick. If not, the contact probably will be long in either distance or time, thus being a held ball violation.

There is a lot of subjectivity involved in ball handling calls because of their general criteria. Understanding and putting into practice the spirit of the rule and its nuances is hard for some volleyball referees to master, easier for others. Regardless, developing competence in ball handling judgment is essential for all referees. This officiating skill cannot remain static, however. It must evolve to keep up with any rule changes or advances in the game. The keys are to call all obvious ball handling errors, and to find a correct, flexible standard for borderline ball handling actions that you are comfortable with and can apply with consistency throughout a match.

The Good Volleyball Referee

Introduction What does it take to be a good volleyball referee?  It takes a lot, however; the following items are a start toward being a good volleyball referee.

Review Rule Book Regularly Prepare for your assignments by reviewing the rulebook regularly.  The more certain you are of the rules, the more confidently you can explain decisions to the captains.

Discuss complex rules and interpretations with your fellow officials and with your Commissioner of Referees.

Blow Whistle With Authority Keep your whistle in your mouth and blow it with authority.  Each whistle should be identical in strength and duration. Avoid the tendency to blow loudly for a good play and weakly for marginal plays.

"Different" Whistle Technique

Use a “different” whistle technique to indicate a different situation; ball on the court, time-out, etc., than your usual “play” whistle.

Hand Signals Use clear, concise hand signals.  Take your time, make the complete signal, and hold it long enough for everyone to see it.  Make your signals look confident and expansive while avoiding flowery mannerisms.

Play Ends Blow your whistle the instant play ends.  You must stop the play the instant the ball touches the floor, fourth contact occurs, foul is called, so that any action after the ball is dead may be ignored.  Don’t wait for the line judge to make a call before blowing your whistle.

Primary Job Your primary job as an official is to allow the game to progress smoothly with as little interference as possible on your part.  Let the players be the stars of the show.

Some of your best matches will bring you the most complaints.  Don't let them bother you or break your concentration.  You know if you have done well.


What is consistency?

We always hear it as officials, "come on be consistent." I don't believe consistency has ever been defined. Let me try. Consistency is "applying the same calls to both teams throughout the match." That is too simple but yet so hard. Or is it? How can you be consistent throughout the match?
First: Establish what you are going to call in the early in the first game of the match. Then make minor adjustments throughout the match. Players need to know what your parameters are so they can adjust and settle in for the rest of the match.
Example: As the R1 are you going to be liberal or tight with the the sets? Or can you find a happy medium. Sure a lot has to do with the level of the setters and play, however you need to set that parameter early.
Second: Apply your parameters to the left and right side of the court. To do this you must remember what you've been calling and not calling. This does not mean if you butcher a call, that you should continue to butcher the same call for the other team.

You know you've accomplished this when coaches and players say, "he/she has been calling that all match. You need to set better."


Keep your concentration on the game. So many things can distract you and break your concentration. Stay focused and take care of business, especially between points. Use the time between points to:

1) Look for the location of the setter(s) for illegal back row attacks.
2) Look for the location of other players that are suspect to back row attacks.
3) Just breathe, relax and think about what you have been calling before going back to work.

Some times the teams don't make it easy to be consistent because of the different styles of play or setters. One setter has good setting techniques and the other has poor setting techniques. Advice - slow your timing down just a little more to get a good look at each and every set. Then judge each set according to the rule book.

During play pick up the player who's going to hit the ball and watch as contact is made. Don't track the ball all the way, except for a ball that may go near the ceiling.


The three keys to being consistent are:
  1) Remember what you've been calling;
  2) Concentration; and
  3) Timing.

Don't Blow the Whistle Too Soon:

Volleyball is a fast-paced sport with highly unpredictable play.  Sometimes players can make plays thought to be impossible.  So you must wait, wait, wait until you are absolutely sure the ball hit the floor or a fault was committed.

For the half-second you save by blowing your whistle in anticipation, you could have a whole match’s worth of grief trying to rebuild every one’s confidence that you are in fact watching the same game they are.

Umpires (down-Refs):

Be proactive.  Anticipate potentially difficult situations and be able to prevent or defuse them.

Before the match:
•  Remind coaches and captains where subs are to take place.
•  Remind coaches and captains to keep water away from the court.
•  Talk to the scorekeeper, taking the initiative to ensure she has been properly taught.

Between games:
•  Immediately get the lineups into the scorer’s hands.
•  Ensure the teams change benches.

For a substitution:
•  Blow the whistle,
•  Ensure the scorer acknowledges the sub,
•  Send the sub into the game,
•  Then gesture back to the referee to give back the game to him/her.

For a time-out:
•  Blow the whistle to take charge,
•  Ensure water stays away from the court,
•  Signal to referee number of time-outs used by each team,
•  Blow the whistle to signal the end of the time-out,
•  Then give back the game to the referee.

Control match tempo.  Your mobility gives you a much better chance to do that than the referee.  Ensure the ball gets back to the server without delay, even if that means you have to grab a second ball off the scorer’s table.  If there’s sweat on the floor, have it cleaned up right away.  Also, remind coaches and players to be ready immediately when it’s time to sub.

Give Clear, Decisive Hand Signals.  Always!:

Who are players and coaches more likely to respect (and believe), the referee who softly blows a late whistle and meekly signals side-out or the one who whistles sharply, confidently signals the fault, then decisively signals side-out?

Be sure to hold the signal for a second; there's no reason to rush.  Second referees should move to the side of the net where the fault took place first, then signal the fault and the side-out or point.

Appropriately Use Individual Sanctions (yellow and red cards):

Don't hesitate to use them when it comes to player conduct.  Just because there are nets and line judges doesn't mean John McEnroe-like behavior is part of the game.

The greatest legacy of volleyball officiating is that through the years referees have upheld the dignity of the position.  Protect that.  With the proper mix of judgment and dignity, you can avoid precipitating confrontations yet not put up with any misconduct.

Once players and coaches realize you won't tolerate constant questioning of your calls, they will concentrate on playing rather than officiating.  And isn't that how it should be?

Keep Your Line Judges Involved:

How many times have you worked with an inexperienced line judge who, when there finally is a close in/out call, is staring off trying to find the space shuttle?  That's probably because for the last 45 minutes, she has been standing there with (at least in her mind) nothing to do and got bored.  Hopefully, in the pregame meeting you emphasized the importance of the line judges' role.

Early in the match, find a way to get them involved, even on obvious calls, such as when the ball is in by six feet.  That way they'll know they are part of the officiating crew, and what you told them in the pregame wasn't just hot air.


This week's topic of the week was written by Rick McQuown


The baseball, arms out stretched "safe" signal, is the topic of this article.  I officiated for years with the safe signal until several prominent national officials got a hold of me.   “It’s redundant!” one told me.  
“It’s draws attention to the official when we are trying to appear as invisible as possible,” another would tell me.  In those situations I “had to” break my old habit or face a failing score (I was being rated).
Many officials still use this signal.  I don’t use it anymore and I’ve noticed that coaches or partners haven’t missed it either.   Eye contact and or a quick nod that everything is just fine, to my partner or coaches have filled to void seamlessly.
What should you do?  It’s your call.  Our job is to  relay important information quickly and to walk away and feel as if we were as invisible as we could be.  


I have an idea for that particular play... Be liberal with your judgment (let both teams make that “legal” block when they may be slightly below the net and trying their best to get up as high as they can.
But when they are well below the net and in the blocking posture make the same signal you would if the back row blocker had just come up and set the ball over the net from just below the height of the net (like your patting a small child on the top of the head 2 times on the side of the net as the back row player in question).  This will give the coach a clue that you have the blocker below the net and you are going to count that touch as the first team contact and not as a block.  They may need a quick explanation the first time it happens but explain it well and hope your R2 is on the same page as you.
The best varsity matches will have this happen when a back row setter is standing and digs (in blocking posture) the first ball after an overpass, two more contacts.  
The freshmen and junior varsity may have the same situation but the front row player is just vertically challenged but both cases the same signal will give them the clue that it wasn’t a block.

As with any advise, use it or don’t... it’s our choice.

Significant Rules Changes for 2006 to Remember:

2-1-4 Note: Clarifies the flexibility for the centerline court marking to be a shadow line which designates the required 2 inch centerline. Rationale: The rule requires a centerline which extends from sideline to sideline. The new addition to the rule, which is listed under “Note” provides for flexibility when schools are re-lining the gymnasium floor. This notation allows a shadow line which is a line that designates the required 2 inch width by use of borders or outline lines at least a ¼ inch wide, which shall lie within the 2 inch width.

5-4-1d: Specifies the umpire shall verify the line-up has been entered correctly on the scoresheet by the official scorer. Rationale: The umpire shall verify that the lineup has been entered correctly on the scoresheet. Previously, errors have been made transposing the lineup from the coach's lineup sheet to the official scoresheet. Verification of the transfer of the lineup to the scoresheet by the umpire prior to the match will eliminate these mistakes.

9-5-1c; 9-5-5: Definition of a block is changed to having a player close to the net who is reaching higher than the net and deflects the ball coming from an opponent. “Block attempt,” “completed block,” and “collective block” are defined. Back-row players may not complete a block or collective block. Rationale: The previous definition of a block created play situations in which officials were judging intent. In some situations the action of a back-row player who was no where near the top of the net was considered to be attempting a block and this action play was illegal. Current coaching strategy does not have back-row players not capable of blocking attempting the block and taking them out of play. Further, such action would not affect play with no contact with the ball. The definition has been revised to have a block occur when the player is close to the net, who is reaching higher than the net and deflects the ball coming from an opponent. In addition, “completed and collective” blocks and “block attempt” are now defined. Judging intent is removed in the new definition.

"Making the Transition as a Second Referee"
By Marcia Alterman

Some of the recent changes that have occurred in the sport of volleyball in both the rules and player techniques are necessitating change in the second referee's mechanics. The previous techniques encouraged second referees to focus on the blockers' side of the net as if they had blinders on. The new (and improved!) technique is for the second referee to assist the first referee with other responsibilities, while staying observant for net or centerline fouls by any player.
The second referee's pattern of movement is referred to as transitioning, and there are a few points of emphasis that will help you be in the right place, looking at the right action to provide the best support to the first referee. In the descriptions below, assume that Team S is the serving team, and Team R is the receiving team – and YOU are the second referee (R2).

  1. At the start of a play, your first responsibility is to observe the receiving team for potential position faults. The correct position is about 4 to 8 feet back from the sideline (assuming the facility allows), and on Team R's side of the net pole. You should be no more than about 2 feet to the side of the centerline extended, or closer if the receiving team's position has little potential for overlapping. Your shoulders and body should be square to the court, even though your primary focus is on the receiving team. This body position allows you to remain observant to the needs of both teams during the dead ball period. Slightly turn your head to view the receiving teams lineup. Listen for the whistle.
  2. AS SOON AS THE SERVER CONTACTS THE BALL (assuming there is no position fault on the receiving team), you should quickly step sideways to Team S's side of the net pole, approximately 2 feet from the centerline extended. As you move, you should be able to visually pick up the served ball and watch the first contact by the receiving team either through the net or around the outside of the net pole, depending on the location of the receiver and your distance back from the sideline. As the serve approaches the net, turn slightly to open your body toward the attacking team. I find that sliding the foot that is nearest the centerline and slightly turning the hips and shoulders toward the net is a good physical ‘cue' to remind me of this technique. Be prepared to assist the first referee with ball handling faults on the first contact – your goal is to move about 4 feet in the time that the served ball travels 40 to 50 feet, and be in position by the time the served ball is received.
  3. Maintain a wide field of vision while the ball is being passed and set, observant to the play that is developing on both sides of the net. Look through the net or around the outside of the net pole to observe the take-off point for back row attackers, and whistle a back row fault if you are certain one has occurred. If a back row fault is not an issue, focus down the net, observing BOTH the attacker and blocker for possible net faults – you'll have to look through the net to see if the attacker touches the body of the net on their follow through. Move your focus up as the players jump to attack and block to see touches on the blocker's hands. Remain focused on the net and centerline as the players land (usually, while the attacked ball is landing or being dug).
  4. As the player's transition for their next play, you should too. Step sideways quickly to get into position on the new blocking team's side, and begin the routine again. The transition movement must be quick, in order to not be caught behind the pole (and its padding) in case a fault occurs.
  5. If the play ends due to a whistle by the first referee, look at him/her as you step even further to the side of the net pole (either side). If the play ended with a ball going out of bounds that you saw touched by the defending team, signal a touch immediately; otherwise, wait to mimic the fault signal given by the first referee, as well as the result signal (point/side out). If the play ends because of a fault you observe and whistle, such as a net foul, signal the fault immediately, and follow the first referee's signal for point/side out. It doesn't matter which side of the net you're on for your signals unless you are signaling a net foul or a centerline violation. Then, you must step to the side that is at fault and signal the violation. 

Being a second referee is hard work! Besides the physical demands of the constant quick pattern of movement described above, you must work constantly to be immediately responsive to the coaches and players on the court, constantly scanning between points for sub or time out requests. The second referee must also be alert to situations where information may be needed by the first referee to make the correct decision. Add bench control to that list of duties, and a truly excellent second referee will constantly have their hands full trying to take care of all of their responsibilities. Good luck implementing these new techniques, and work hard to be in the right position to always make the right call.


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