(Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

When considering the rules, spirit and intent influence interpretation. It would be easier if every rule was black and white. No wiggle room. We either have a fault or we don’t. The play was either legal or it wasn’t. But that isn’t the case.

If it were, anyone could be a sports official, or officials could be eliminated altogether, and robots could do our jobs. But being strictly “black and white” isn’t the reason we have rules or officials, regardless of the rules code. This could be said for any sport, not just volleyball.

The rules provide a framework for how the game is played, and some parts of the rules’ framework are more rigid than others. We might consider the more rigid rules as the foundation of that framework. For example, in volleyball, a team is allowed three hits to return the ball to the opponent. No room for interpretation there; it is black and white. A team is permitted two timeouts per set. Again, it’s black and white. But there are other components of our rules framework, and they extend beyond the black and white. These components are often called “gray areas” in clinics, training materials and rules discussions. But are the rules really so bland, coming only in the colors of black, white or gray? In short, the answer is, “No, the rules are full of color!”

Understand the full purpose of a rule’s spirit and intent

So, let’s step away from the black, the white and the gray and look at the more colorful side of the rules. It starts with understanding their “spirit and intent” — in other words, their purpose. Why does the rule exist? What is the rule trying to accomplish or prohibit? When and how is the rule applied? Are there exceptions to the rule? There is a general philosophy that applies to virtually all rules — to ensure fair play for both teams. That’s their intent. But what about their spirit?

Let’s go back to the example of the “three hits to return the ball” rule. There is an exception — blocking. Blocking doesn’t count as one of the team’s three hits, except in beach volleyball. Why? If blocking counted as a team hit, that would leave only two more contacts to get the ball across the net. It’s difficult for a team to run a good offense on two hits, so we’d likely see a lot of “free balls” sent across the net instead of a planned attack system. This would make the game less exciting for the teams, and more importantly, the spectators. So, the spirit of the rule, which permits three team hits after a block, encourages longer, more exciting rallies, while allowing teams to run their offense to its fullest potential.

We’ve briefly covered the spirit and intent of the blocking rules, but where are the various shades of color? It’s right there in the rules! Was the player close enough to the net to be considered a blocker? Was the player reaching higher than the top of the net at the moment of contact with the ball? Throw in the rules involving back-row players, collective blocking, or blocking in the opponent’s space, and this can get very colorful!

Take a look at the ballhandling rules and guidelines for any of the rules codes. This is where things are far from black and white. In fact, we often say that ballhandling decisions involve a lot of gray areas because one, judgment is involved, and two, the experience of the referee plays a factor. That doesn’t make ballhandling a gray area; it makes ballhandling colorful!

What about delay sanctions? The rules are fairly black and white in describing actions that may be considered a delay to the game. But when it comes to applying the spirit and intent of the rules, we have to take other factors into consideration. For example, a substitute runs toward the substitution zone, and just as her foot enters the zone, the coach yells, “No!” Do you blow your whistle anyway, since technically a substitute entered the substitution zone? Or do you hold your whistle because you recognized the coach was trying to prevent the substitute from entering the zone? Some would say this is a gray area, but with the number of options at your disposal, and based upon your experience, this situation seems to be more colorful than gray.

And speaking of color, what about those yellow and red cards? The rules describe behavior that could result in an individual warning or penalty. The intent of the cards is to draw attention to the conduct and help the referees control and manage the match. But like ballhandling, a referee’s experience plays a factor. Some referees can control minor behavior issues with a few words or a well-timed “tweet-tweet” from the whistle. Other referees are quick to “pull the yellow” to address conduct. The spirit of the conduct sanction rules gives referees some flexibility, especially for minor infractions. There’s color in these rules, and not just yellow and red!

When we talk about “gray areas” there is an implied sense of vagueness, ambiguity or fuzziness. But we could dig into virtually every rule and find some color, and it’s that color that enables us to manage, facilitate and direct a match. Truly learning the rules, not just “studying” them, should lead us to understand their spirit and intent. And once we understand that spirit and intent influence interpretation, those fuzzy gray areas clear up a bit. We start to see some color, and this helps us be better match facilitators and managers.

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