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egardless of the level of volleyball, before a match a coach may ask a referee, “Are you tight with ball handling or do you not call doubles?” Similar situations occur in baseball and softball. Umpires are often asked whether they have a big or small strike zone. Of course, answering the question can place officials in a situation where they must call the game based upon how they answered the coach. Although a referee might lean toward calling more ball-handling violations than not, it is best practice to consider several factors first.

Instead of trying to be considered either tight or loose with ball handling, consider how much official intervention is adequate to effectively officiate the match. Although the role of officials is to enforce the rules, it is ideal that a volleyball play ends on a player’s action rather than an interruption by the referees for a ball-handling call.More and more referees are keeping the ball in play and only calling the egregious ball-handling calls. The mindset should not be a referee looking for ball-handling calls but calling them when they see them. Here are several factors to consider when making a ball-handling call.

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Level of Play

Level of play can be defined as the age level of the participants or their skill level. Some referees indicate they never call ball-handling violations on 12U matches but they will call them at 13U. This is a flawed approach since some 12U setters playing at national club tournaments have a better skill set than some high school players. On the other hand, you would not have the same line for ball handling with a recreation league as you would for an elite travel match. Each match, the referee should evaluate the level of play during warmups and make decisions on how they plan to effectively call a match. Hopefully, the line does not change too much in similar levels of volleyball, but it may, and referees need to be able to adjust to those needs.

Consistency

Officials from all sports strive to be consistent. Officials want to know and apply the rules correctly each game and match. With regard to judgment decisions like ball handling, consistency is key to being considered a great referee. Many coaches and players might not agree with a call, but if the call is consistently made at that level for both teams throughout the match, the coach and players are more likely to adjust and play on. The goal of all officials is to be consistent throughout the match.

One way to improve consistently is to hold the whistle early in the match on borderline decisions. When a ball-handling decision is made early, a standard is set for the match. It is helpful to evaluate a couple of rallies early in the game to judge the level of ball handling during live game play rather than basing your opinion only on warmups. Another important area of consistency is to avoid make-up calls. Although you might have missed a double or called a questionable one, it is important not to look for one on the other team or deliberately miss a ball-handling call. Everyone makes mistakes, but there must not be confusion on acceptable ball handling. It is better to have one missed call than to be inconsistent the rest of the match.

Judge the Play

As much as fans and coaches want to judge the spin of the ball, referees need to focus on the player and the player’s contact with the ball. Yes, the spin may provide evidence the contact was not clean, but ball handling needs to focus on the handling of the ball, not just the ball itself. Going back to the philosophy of deciding when to intervene in a match, multiple age and skill levels give leeway to spectacular plays. Of course, this is left to be interpreted by the referee. If an athlete makes a difficult play, and the result is a blatant fault, the violation should be called.
Definitions
Most discussions on rules and best practice usually start with definitions. Many referees have some level of confidence in knowing ball-handling rules. However, even experienced referees benefit from reviewing the actual definitions of ball handling.

NCAA

Rule 14.2.2 Caught or Thrown Ball — The ball must be hit cleanly and not caught or thrown. Prolonged contact with the ball is a fault.

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Rule 14.4.4 Double Contact — It is a fault when a player contacts the ball twice in succession, or the ball contacts various parts of the body successively.

NFHS

Rule 9.4.5 — 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.

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Rule 9.4.8 — Multiple contacts are more than one contact by a player during one attempt to play the ball.

Rule 9.7.5 — A double hit occurs when a player’s successive or multiple contacts are illegal.

USA Volleyball

9.3.3 Catch — The ball is caught and/or thrown; it does not rebound from the hit.

9.3.4 Double Contact — A player hits the ball twice in succession or the ball contacts various parts of his/her body in succession.

Summary

Referees make many decisions throughout the match. The most common and often the most difficult decision a referee can make is judging the legality of ball handling. The level of the match or the experience level of the referee does not matter, ball-handling consistency is important. This is something we should try to improve each day we officiate. Similar to the fairy tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” it is important not to be too loose or too tight, but to be just right.

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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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