t’s tough to get officials on the same page when determining the three toughest calls in volleyball. There are many strong feelings and opinions involved.

Coincidentally, making such calls in a match often awakens strong feelings and opinions from players, coaches and fans. Well, maybe it’s not really a coincidence. The truth is, even among officials, we all see the game somewhat differently. Some calls that you might think are clear and easy might be unclear and somewhat difficult or vice-versa. It’s tough to get officials on the same page when determining the three toughest calls in volleyball. There are many strong feelings and opinions involved.

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Experience level and background can be factors in determining what we decide are the toughest calls. If we vary so much on deciding what is difficult as officials, how can we really expect that coaches are going to react favorably when we make that tough call in a match?

I recently conducted an informal survey of some officials to get their thoughts on the topic. I asked them to list what they viewed as the three toughest calls and then to name the one call they thought every official must have on their list and defend their rationale. It was interesting to see how those thoughts varied based on years of experience, background and level of play and/or rule code.

After reviewing some strong opinions from my fellow officials, I chose what I view as the three toughest calls for officials of various levels. Each of the following three calls appeared on multiple lists.

Illegal alignment

  1.  As an interpreter who trains new officials, I’m not sure there is anything tougher for an official than to immediately and consistently recognize illegal alignment. As serve-receive schemes and alignments have evolved over the years, it gets even tougher to recognize the slight adjustments made to hide the setter, position their outside hitter closer to the left side or whatever the other purposes might be behind their alignments. Officials are expected to decipher those schemes before every play — without exception!

When it really comes down to it, the basics of the illegal alignment rule are not that complicated. There are only seven potential overlaps by players — four side-to-side and three front-to-back: 1) left front to center front; 2) right front to center front; 3) left back to center back; 4) right back to center back; 5) left front to left back; 6) center front to center back; and 7) right front to right back.

To grasp the concept of illegal alignment, it is critical that an official understands those seven situations and how they are the only overlaps that can possibly be illegal. When we are in a training class using magnets with labels on them indicating positions and moving the magnets around, it’s a great feeling when officials finally recognize the potential overlaps. That rules foundation is absolutely necessary before trying to properly identify illegal alignments on the court.

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Of course, that’s where the problems come into play. The players on the court unfortunately do not wear labels indicating their position (though with tomorrow’s technology, maybe they will wear labels some day that only referees can see!) and they sure don’t stay in that same spot to help you throughout the match, either.

After gaining some experience and testing different theories, many officials will learn a technique that works for them. It might be to memorize the setter’s number and his or her opposite plus one more pair of opposites (automatically making the remaining two opposite). It might mean that an official works on using hair color or headband style to help indicate opposites. Different techniques work for different officials and there is no right or wrong way.

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Overhand pass (setting action)

  1.  It can be difficult to rule on the legality of an overhand pass in general, and what makes that ruling even more complicated is that the rules can change based on whether the action is performed on the team’s first contact or a subsequent contact. The toughest part is that the official has to take all of that information into account and make a proper ruling in about one second.

Officials must understand the rules behind the overhand pass — what is legal and what is not. It comes down to three things: Is it prolonged? Did it visibly come to rest? Are there multiple contacts? If it’s none of those things, it’s simply not illegal no matter how ugly it might look and no matter which contact it is. When it comes to prolonged contact, there is one question I am most often asked: “What exactly is prolonged contact?” Answer: If you can say the word prolonged while he or she is making contact, it’s probably too long. It can be a pretty good guide, especially for new officials.

Play at top of the net

  1.  Is the setter back-row and where was he or she at the moment of contact? Where is the blocker? Who touched it first? Is that a back-row block or a back-row attack? The split-second calls at the top of the net might be some of the toughest. That is where experience plays a major role. Those plays happen quickly, but with time, officials can learn to see them in “slow motion” as they evaluate each component rather than at the break-neck pace they often appear to new officials.

There are things you can do to help with those calls as you gain experience. We don’t have time to process where the setters are on those bang-bang plays or during a long rally. We might not remember what we said at the start of the rally. So, cheat. I often use my hands to help me officiate net play. When a setter is in the back row, I place the hand closest to that side gently on the stand with two fingers extended. If a setter is in the front row, I have an open hand on the stand. Then, as the play develops near the net, I can feel my fingers and know if I have a potential back-row player fault.

The reality is that we get better at making the tough calls when we discuss them with other officials, when we seek advice to learn new things that can help us out, and when we work to incorporate that knowledge and those techniques into our own officiating.

With that dedication, today’s three toughest calls might become some of tomorrow’s easiest.

What's Your Call? Leave a Comment:


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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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