Volleyball – Ballhandling Judgment a Key Skill to Master

Hold It! Ballhandling Judgment a Key Skill to Master


By Julie Voeck

primary responsibility of the first referee is to determine whether a player makes legal contact each time he or she plays the ball. The referee must ensure the ball has not been held, caught and thrown or “over-controlled.” That means referees are making hundreds of judgment decisions in a single match. Ballhandling judgment is often considered the most important skill for a volleyball referee to master, similar to calling balls and strikes in baseball or softball.

Who decides? Only the first referee can whistle ballhandling faults. When the second referee believes the first referee may have been screened from seeing a contact, he or she may indicate that opinion to the first referee using a discreet signal; however, the second referee cannot whistle to stop play and make that call.

The spin of the ball is not considered when determining the legality of the contact, nor should the referee consider the player’s body position, the technique used, or the sound of the contact.

To determine the legality of each contact, the first referee should lead the ball with his or her eyes, rather than follow the ball in the air. The referee should focus on the actual contact of the ball on the body part, then pick up the next play/player with his or her eyes.

When is a ball considered “held” or caught/thrown? The various rules codes give specific guidance to help the referee judge whether the ball was legally played. NCAA and USAV rules state, “The ball must be hit cleanly and not caught or thrown. It can rebound in any direction” (USAV 9.2.2; NCAA 14.2.2). NCAA rules also include “prolonged contact with the ball is a fault.” NFHS (9-4-5) uses slightly different wording that says, “Legal contact is a touch of the ball by any part of a player’s body which does not allow the ball to visibly come to rest or involve prolonged contact with a player’s body.” A held or “caught and thrown” ball normally occurs when the player over-controls the ball. Any first team hit can be a multiple or double contact, but a double contact on a team’s second or third team hit is illegal. A caught/thrown or held ball is always illegal, whether it’s a block or the first, second or third team hit.

There are numerous playing actions that may result in prolonged contact with the ball or the ball being caught/thrown or held:

Forearm pass. That is a common technique where players hold their arms together, forearms facing upward, to form a platform to pass the ball. It is often used during serve reception and when making other first team contacts. The ball is played legally when it rebounds quickly from the platform. When the player isn’t able to control the ball with a forearm pass, the ball may contact the player multiple times (i.e., rebounding from forearms then to the shoulder), or may roll up the player’s arms. In most situations, that play should not be considered a held ball if it occurs on the first contact where multiple contacts with the ball are allowed. However, it is a fault on a second or third contact where multiple contacts are illegal. A ball that quickly rolls up the arms and doesn’t visibly come to rest is generally not considered “held.”

A ball can be overcontrolled by a player using a forearm pass. When the player catches or stops the ball between his or her arms, a held ball has likely occurred.

Setting action. A held ball may result when the ball is played using “setting action” (an overhand finger pass), and the player catches or holds the ball before releasing it. For example, when the setter’s intended hitter is late getting into position for the attack, the setter may be slow in releasing the ball, and a catch/throw or held ball may result. 

Attacking the ball. A held ball can occur if the player catches and throws the ball when attacking or “tipping” the ball across the net. It is legal for a player to use his or her fingertips to attack the ball, but the ball must be played without being caught, thrown or held.

Ball falling near the floor. A held ball could result when a player is trying to play a ball that is very close to the floor by getting underneath the ball to prevent it from hitting the playing surface. A player may use a single, open hand in an attempt to keep the ball in play, and may catch the ball to prevent it from touching the floor. A ball is generally not caught/thrown or held if a player makes contact underneath the ball with an open hand provided the ball rebounds off the open hand.

Ball played out of the net. That is a play that often results in referees automatically making a call when the ball was actually played legally. As long as the ball rebounds off the player, the referee should allow play to continue and not make a call based on the player’s body position or technique. A ball falling down the front of the net often rebounds slowly from a player’s arm(s) or hand(s) because it isn’t carrying much momentum. A slow rebound shouldn’t be confused with an illegal catch/throw.

Determining ballhandling legality is a skill all referees must learn. Regardless of a referee’s experience, it is an area that everyone can improve upon with practice. Strive for consistency, stay current with playing trends and techniques, and seek feedback from partners and fellow referees to help identify areas you can improve.

Julie Voeck, Milwaukee, is president of the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials. She is also an FIVB international referee, and college and high school volleyball referee.

“This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, citations, mechanics and/or officiating philosophies found in this article may or may not be correct for the current year.”

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 09/13 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Don’t Do It

By Dave Sabaini

It seems no matter how long a person has been officiating, and regardless of the sports they work, any official can fall into situations in which his or her judgment or ability is questioned.

Often those situations are a direct result of officiating “errors” that are all too common, and can certainly be avoided under most circumstances with just a little bit of preparation. Look at the following errors, see if you are prone to any of them and then check their solutions to help you improve.

Error: Anticipating the play too much. You’re working your umpteenth game of the year, when a seemingly routine play develops. You’ve seen the play dozens of times, so you turn your head or orient your body away from the action for a moment, to get a jump on where you know the ball is going. The trouble is, the ball never arrives, and you have no clue what happened. Solution: Never anticipate a play to the degree that you turn your attention away from the action. Especially at lower levels, nothing can be assumed.

Error: Anticipating the call. The bad cousin of the previous error, anticipating the call never seems to work. Thinking, “Oh, the shortstop got to that ball in plenty of time, the batter is a dead duck at first,” will cause you to blow more calls than a blind man. Solution: Never anticipate the outcome of a play. Let the players determine what the call is to be.

Error: Being out of position. Most coaches can handle a call that happens to go against their team if the official was hustling and in position to make the call. But if you’re getting tired and a little lazy, or worse yet, careless, and miss a call, expect to get roasted. Solution: Hustle. You’re being paid for a full game, so give it. You’ve heard it a hundred times: The game you’re working is the most important game in the country that day to the participants. Treat it that way by hustling from start to finish.

Error: Letting your concentration wander. You kicked a call, you fought with your spouse, your mother-in-law is coming over, or who is that gorgeous person in the third row? Next thing you know, you’ve missed a play or a call. Nothing will cause a bad game more often than a simple lack of concentration. Solution: Every play, every pitch, every moment, keep your mind on your business. The players and coaches deserve your attention during the contest, so give it to them. If you’re having trouble, get with your partner and ask him to “check” on you.

Error: Being a “hard guy.” Those are the officials who always seem to have a chip on their shoulders. Nothing they do can be questioned. Any comments are met with a hand so firm you could hammer nails with it. Those officials are tough to work with and tougher to play under. Solution: If you are a hard guy, lighten up! True control of a game comes with respect of and from all involved. Respect is earned from being fair, approachable and competent. If you’re having trouble controlling games, work on those things.

Error: Not knowing the rules thoroughly. There isn’t anything much worse than officials who don’t know the rules the way they should. Credibility begins and ends there. Solution: Make rules study a part of your regular routine both in and out of season. Get with some friends and quiz each other, or discuss scenarios. Develop the muscle between your ears, and you’ll be able to carry a game with it more often than not.

There are other errors you’ll make, but those are the killers. Work on your “game behind the game,” and rediscover why you became an official.

Written by Dave Sabaini, a freelance writer and official who lives in Terre Haute, Ind.


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