Volleyball Rules: Some need changing, some don’t

Don Patterson

FIVB-Volleyball_Rules2013-EN_coverThe FIVB is considering a long list of rule alterations with the idea of making the game more fan-friendly. Let the debates begin.

By Don Patterson

Nothing draws venom in sports chat rooms quite like rule-change proposals. A perfect example is what happened last season in the NFL when daily debates were ignited by the “defenseless player rule,” which dictates that it’s a foul to initiate unnecessary contact to a player in a defenseless position. Those who embrace the rule lay down an argument that goes something like this: “Reducing the number of times a player’s brain bounces off the inside of his skull is never a bad thing.” Those who dislike the rule counter with: “Football is a violent game, and that’s what America loves about it. Deal with it or watch golf.”

Indoor volleyball is not a violent sport, but it will likely have an uptick in its own rule debates very soon. Numerous changes are currently being considered by the FIVB, and there are sure to be strong opinions on both the yea and the nay sides.



More than a dozen alterations are on the table and being readied for test. Here are some of the most significant:

  • Require servers to land behind the end line
  • Back row attackers must land behind the 3-meter or 10-foot line
  • Eliminate open-hand tip
  • Eliminate overhead serve receive serve
  • Penalties for a missed serve
  • Free substitution – any player can sub for any player at any time
  • Any contact with the center line is a violation
  • Any net touch by an athlete is a violation
  • Decrease the number of points per set


All of these have good points and bad. The question is, on which ones does the bad outweigh the good and vice versa? Well, it won’t surprise to learn that I have an opinion. So, at the risk of getting crushed in the chat rooms, I’m going to weigh in. Here goes:


Servers required to land behind the end line

I like the intent of the rule, which creates incentive to use the more consistent float serve and a disincentive for players to bomb their jump serves for what is too often an all-or-nothing result: an ace or an error. Some experts say there may be better ways to reduce the number of jump spin serves – like penalties for missed serves. (More on that later.) I find it weird that players would have to worry about where they land. Why not paint a “service line” behind the end line and make it a takeoff point? That’s a more natural sports move (think 3-point shots in basketball) and seems to have less potential for awkward landings and injuries. Yes, it would mean extra expenses to alter the court, but that isn’t a deal breaker. My take: Thumbs up. Fewer service errors and more rallies make for a better match.


Back-row attackers required to land behind the 3-meter or 10-foot line

This is a lot like the serve rule, and it’s being proposed for similar reasons. In the men’s international game, the back-row hit has become so much like a front-row hit that too many points are ending too quickly. Backing up the back-row hitters will mean less terminations, and that will prolong rallies. Is it necessary for the women’s game? Maybe not right now, although University of Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. men’s national team to a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the U.S. women’s national team to a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, thinks the women will catch up soon enough. My take: Back it up for the men, keep it the same for the women. If it becomes an issue in the women’s game, move it back. No reason the rule needs to be the same for both genders. Nobody seems to mind that the net heights are different for the men and women, so this should be OK, too, right?


Eliminate open-hand tip

Lots of disagreement here. And here’s an example of two very different perspectives. USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal: “I’m really strong on this one. I think we should do this immediately. I don’t want to see a setter tip.” On the other side, former USA women’s coach and current Oregon State coach Terry Liskevych: “I think all the shots should be kept. I like the fact that the setter can be an attacker. Stopping the setter is part of the game.” On one hand, eliminating it seems like banning the bunt in baseball. Most prefer the home run to the bunt, but does that mean there’s no place for the bunt? On the other hand, it is a rally killer. My take: Trash it. An argument in favor of keeping the open-hand tip is that a change of pace is good, but roll shots serve that purpose. I’d rather see players improve their hitting and see the game take another step toward extended rallies.


Eliminate overhead serve receive

When overhead serve receive was first introduced, Aldis Berzins, a starting outside hitter on U.S.’s 1984 gold medal team, said this to me: “It’s not pass, set, hit anymore; it’s gaff, set, hit.” Great line, and, depending on your point of view, fairly accurate. Aldis, of course, is a purist – no surprise considering he was one of the best forearm passers in the world in his playing days. Nowadays, more than a decade later, overhead passing is part of the game. But if you get rid of it, more players are likely to float serve because the receiving team will be more challenged. More float serves mean fewer missed serves. That means more rallies – at least until teams get really good at forearm passing again, and then it might have to be revisited. My take: I’d like to see some test results on this, but my gut tells me that the game would be prettier, more fluid and more rally friendly if we did away with overhead passing. And it would eliminate another judgment call for refs. It’s worth noting, though, that this change would mostly impact the men’s game. Overhead serve receive is fairly uncommon in the women’s game, at least at the international level.


Penalties for a missed serve

Much like backing up the service line, this one is designed to discourage players from bombing their serves and missing. I don’t like service errors any more than anybody else, but I don’t like this idea. How’s it going to work? You miss two jump serves in a set and then you don’t get to jump serve again until the next set? That has actually been discussed. Or how about this: You can only miss two jump serves per set and then you lose two points instead of one. Ugh. My take: Thumbs down. Way too complicated. Volleyball is tricky enough for the casual fan. (“Why is that one player wearing a different color jersey?”) Let’s not make it worse.


Free substitution: Any player can substitute for any player at any time

If for no other reason than erasing the image of a player standing with a paddle raised over his or her head, I like this. Talk about a buzz kill. Volleyball substitutions are about as energizing as rush-hour traffic. Not that the free substitution idea doesn’t have its quirks. For instance, if it’s truly free subbing with no restrictions, is everybody really OK with coaches being able to make substitutions in a way that their top server can serve twice in a row or their best hitter can run through the front row and then run through the front row again immediately? Something to think about. My take: Do it. The details can be worked, but the sport will be pithier without archaic subbing rules that are three decades past their sell-by date.


Any contact with the center line is a violation

This one’s easy. Too many injuries come when players bust over the center line. And remember, the ultimate goal is to encourage more rallies, so backing everybody up is one more step toward getting there. My take: Sign it into law.


Any contact with the net is a violation

This used to be the rule, and then it changed to allow incidental net touches. My take: Change it back. Allowing incidental net touches is silly. In the first place, it’s harder on the ref, and, secondly, many incidental touches still give the player in question a slight advantage.


Decrease the number of points per set

The FIVB is looking at best 3 out of 5 sets to 21 and best 4 of 7 sets to 15 in an effort to make the sport more TV friendly by limiting matches to two hours. In Beal’s opinion, minor changes like these miss the point. A better option, he says, might be to develop a scoring system that runs more like basketball and football, where there are quarters and cumulative points. McCutcheon says that may be the way to go but that it should be accompanied by a change or multiple changes that make it easier for a team that’s way behind to make a comeback. Volleyball isn’t quite like the NBA, where big bunches of points can be scored in a hurry. One solution: Devise a two-point play. If done right, this could be really cool and good for the game. My take: Come up with more options and do extensive testing at non-major tournaments. More data is needed before this one is ready for prime time.


Got an opinion on any or all of these potential changes? Weigh in on the comment board below and let us know what you think.



  1. Joe Schweiter

    One option we use when practicing is to use a weighted scoring system. For example, if you win the point on the first attempt, you get 3 points, if you win the point on the second attempt, you get 2 points, win a point on any attempt after that, you get 1 point.

  2. Eric

    Is it just me or the FIVB is adding more and more rules to the list each year!? Do we see that in hockey or soccer at the international level? I don’t think so… Maybe few minor changes, but never as game-changing that those in volleyball! I might be old-school, but I don’t get why we always want to change the game we all learned and loved to play! I’m all good for changes that minimize the referees judgement, but not for those “rally-helping” boundaries. My opinion : the game is the game and let it play like it should, just as for other sports.

  3. To me it shows the state of where the game is and what it desires to become. Its not a TV Friendly sport and it seems like they want to create a more TV friendly and rally filled game so they can sell the sport. To me trying to change the game itself with things that directly affect the play (3m and Serve landing rule) may work to create rallies. But it would do so at the expense of the integrity of the game and serve to dummy down the speed and power that makes the game so unique. The only way I think you could affect TV marketability without sacraficing the actually point for point play of the game is to adjust the scoring system. My comment to that – volleyball isnt basketball or football. Try to mold yourself to a sport that has similar pace and is already a TV success – say tennis.

  4. Penalties for a missed serve? There’s already a penalty for a missed serve. It’s called “the other team gets a point”

  5. No touching the net ever for any reason
    No crossing the center line for any reason.
    No unlimited subbing
    Bombing serves are not audience pleasers as they want rallies. Interesting that locally the women’s game gets good attendance and the men’s game very little. Why? Rallies, that’s why.
    Yes back row attacks must land behind the line. Take away that 1 ball possibility for any player man or women

  6. Alfonso

    I don’t like the double touch call on the setting. Its not really a double touch, its just an ugly set, but it should be kept just as what it is, an ugly set and keep the game going. It’s really hard on the referee, specially in youth volleyball.

  7. Dave

    If you’re going to allow free subbing, you might as well get rid of the libero distinction and the 10-foot line altogether…and let everyone attack from everywhere! That would *really* open up the game. Heck, it might even reincarnate the old coed IVA – no rotating (except for service turn), women in the back row only passing/digging, men in the front only hitting and blocking.

  8. ugh

    if people want longer, “prettier” rallies, why not just watch women’s ball? The most interesting part of mens is that is explosive and fast paced, removing those elements of the game will push it even further into obscurity imo.

  9. Why are all these rule changes for indoor? If anyone watched the Olympics in London, you would quickly realize that on average the indoor game had longer rallies than the beach game. While some changes would help the indoor game (specifically on the men’s side), the beach game would be far more entertaining if they considered 3-4 players on the court with a return to the 9 by 9 court size. The ‘party’ atmosphere is what makes the beach game so popular, not watching the players hit roll shot after roll shot!

  10. What about the worst rule of all, the “let” serve. A served ball touching the top of the net adds nothing but luck to the game and is the worst rule change ever made in any sport. Why would you want to add luck to a sport?

  11. Tennis doesn’t have a standard match length and does just fine on TV. Stop messing with the scoring to try to fix an unrelated problem. And change the name of the games back from sets to games, a set is a group of games, not one game, who comes up with this stuff?

  12. michele

    I agree with the new rules that protect accidental contact between player, so no contact with the central line, no contact with the net.
    I would live the rest as it is.

  13. Ashley

    I never understood why the most obvious change to the game has never been considered?
    With the dramatic increase in the average physical height and jumping ability of players over the past decades, why simply haven’t FIVB just alter the net heights to address this dramatic increase in players physical statures and athleticism, for both genders?

  14. Center line violations are ridiculous. It may server to keep attackers off the net, but blockers and their size 14 foot have no choice but to land on the center line. If any line contact is a violation, then the blockers will need to move off the net – but that swings the pendulum back to the attackers favour as now there is more space to get the ball down between the blockers hands and the net, even if the attacker has to land behind the center line.
    This rule proposal is not well thought out and should not be enforced.

  15. Old-School Keef

    As a long-term American resident of Japan who learned the traditional game in the 80s, I can tell you that these rule changes have nothing to do with fan-friendliness or TV-readiness. Volleyball is hardly ever on in the US because its a minor sport whose participation rates are low among men—the primary sports TV audience. It is competed off the air by other sports that people are more interested in. It’s on all the time in Japan because it’s a huge game here with millions of players at every level. (As a result, the World Cup is always held here.) If you want to get more people watching, you need more people playing.

    Personally, I don’t think the game was made more fun to play by the innovations of rally scoring, the libero, the relaxed ball-handling rules, the smaller beach court and, especially, the dumb let-serve rule. Things that were interesting and unique about the game included the nerve-wracking side-out battles and the fact that everyone needed to be able to play every position. (The addition of the libero and the shrinking of the beach court opened the door for lots of giant hitters with poor defense, which runs counter to the aim of fostering rallies, and the relaxed contact standards and the let-serve rule just rewards sloppiness.)

    I think volleyball should show the self-confidence that other fringe sports have. I don’t hear lacrosse agonizing over how to make itself more exciting for fans. (It’s already a great spectator sport but, again, low participation.) Getting more boys playing in public schools is the best way to raise interest. Also, having a competent pro league is key. The AVP tried to do a beautiful thing there with player-ownship, but it wasn’t realistic.

  16. Beth Williams

    I agree with everything you said EXCEPT: how convinced you are that the reason more people come out to see the women play is because of rallies. That may be a VERY small, if not subconscious motivation, but let’s face reality here, more people come out to see the women because they wear skimpy little spandies that in most cases fit more like buns (how many butt cheeks did I see hanging out of the spandies today . . . ?) That and the women’s game seems more graceful in its raw power, and watching women move with such beautiful athleticism (in tiny tight shorts) is an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Watching sweaty, hairy men jump out of the gym is exciting, but definitely not novel.

  17. Walt weaver

    After reading all of these proposals and the comments, I found myself wondering if all sports organizations have this constant issue of leaders in the sport each year haggling over so many proposed changes in the game. And then there is the issue of who do these proposed changes benefit and who in particular is interested in the changes. In my experience, the proposed changes are mainly a debate over the men’s international game. Few of the changes suggested would dramatically affect the game most of the rest of men are playing and really have little to do with the quality of play or spectatorship in the women’s game or Junior volleyball. Last year the FIVB did pass a rule effectively eliminating the overhand pass on serve receive. They wanted this change because they felt it would have a positive effect on the Men’s international game. Several months after passing it, the FIVB reversed itself and the rules were left as they have been and are now. Had the change remained however, it would have done nothing positive for the women’s game or Junior volleyball, and in fact, would have caused more confusion in rules since neither high schools nor colleges would ever consider it. So, I say, let the FIVB make their lists and argue away for changing the men’s game at the highest levels. But, for the rest of us their proposed changes are most often a solution looking for a problem.


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