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Tom Fakehany

     The United States Constitution gives every volleyball official, fan, player and coach the inalienable right to make a damn fool of themselves.  The greatest controversy during a match arises over the interpretation or judgment of legal and illegal ball handling.

    A legal hit is contact with the ball by a player's body which does not allow the ball to visibly come to rest, or have prolonged contact with a player.  The only valid criterion for judging a legal hit is that of vision. The official should observe body contact with the ball and not allow the sound of the hit, unusual body position of a player or unusual flight of the ball to influence the decision. It is better to give the benefit of the doubt to the player if you are uncertain. The referee has little latitude for adjusting position to get a better view, but the umpire can and should adjust his/her position for maximum sight efficiency.

    An ILLEGAL HIT occurs when the ball VISIBLY comes to rest or has pro-longed contact with a player during contact or when the ball contacts any body part made illegal under the rule set being officiated. In order to judge whether the ball comes to rest in the hands, the official must change his/her visual focus from the ball to the hands prior to contact. There should be consistency from skill to skill in determining illegal hits.

    A ball which contacts a legal part of the body (e.g. hand, upper back) which is in contact with the floor, (e.g. a "pancake save") is legal unless there is prolonged contact, a double hit or the ball contacts the floor.  Officials should consider each hit from this point of view. Did the contact result in a lifting, pushing, holding, throwing or carrying action?

     HOLDING CATCHING, THROWING, LIFTING and PUSHING are ILLEGAL hits because of prolonged contact with the ball, Rolling is considered an ILLEGAL hit because there is continued and steady contact of the ball with the player's body. These terms can help identify an illegal hit because they require contact of the ball for a prolonged amount of time.  A steady force, instead of a hit, is required to hold, catch, throw, lift or push the ball. When the ball is held, caught, thrown, lifted or pushed, it can be easily identified as VISIBLY coming to rest.

    A DOUBLE HIT occurs when a player illegally contacts the ball twice in succession. It can be either 2 attempts in succession or the ball rebounding from one part of the body to one or more other parts on a single attempt to play the ball (excepts in different sets of rules).  The following points should be kept in mind when judging ball handling:
  (1) The official must understand the techniques and tactics of the game so, when new techniques are used, the official should not become confused and call a ball handling violation on a technique that looks or sounds different.
  (2) The official should not permit the ball to roll up or down the arm(s).
  (3) The official should be sure that on a 2-hand set, the hands contact the ball simultaneously.
  (4) The player's arm, forearm, hand or fist should not remain in contact with the ball when executing a spike or a throw may result.  In a similar manner, a block could become a throw or carry.
  (5) The ball should not have prolonged contact with the fingers when a dink/tip/dump is executed. Close attention should be given to the player who tries to change the direction of the ball by holding or guiding it during contact.
  (6) A ball may be played off of any body part legal under the rule set being officiated.  A ball hitting the chest may be legal if it does not result in prolonged contact.
  (7) A pass is considered a double hit if the contact of the ball with the arms, forearms, wrists, etc. is not simultaneous (except on the first ball over the net under specific rule sets.).
  (8) Using an underhand, palms-open technique does not always result in an illegal hit.
  (9) When a player carries the ball across the plane of his/her body from right to left or from back to front, it is illegal.
  (1O) A ball which spins off the first pad of the fingers is probably legal.
 The official should look ahead of the ball.  This begins when the ball reaches the apex of its flight and will not contact anything which would make it a dead ball. At this point, the official should look away from the ball and look at the players near where the ball will fall. The actions of those players will indicate who is going to receive the ball and how. The official should look only at the part of the body he/she believes the ball is going to contact.
 Consistency in determining ILLEGAL hits is the overall goal.  Consistency
will allow the player to execute LEGAL hits without being afraid to play the ball and allow the match to flow without controversy.

    The comments on ball handling consistency below are supplied to show that ball handling is a case of finding a proximate solution to an insoluble problem.

    The above information was written based on the Federation Casebook and articles in the National Federation of High Schools Officials Magazine.

    The following comments show how insoluble ball handling can be to the seasoned official, much less the beginning official.

Tom Fakehany, Federation Chairman, Southern California Volleyball Officials Association, writes:
 I have been receiving e-mail from coaches and players all over the USA that as the ball handling rules change at all levels so has the consistency of calls.  Consistent officials call everything tight or call nothing at all.  First ball over doubles are called lifts or first ball over lifts are not called.  Everyone in the middle is inconsistent (85% of all officials).

Marcia Alterman, President, Profession Association of Volleyball Officials writes:
 I have also been the recipient of several comments by coaches regarding the increased inconsistency of ball handling judgment this season.  And, my own personal observations would probably support that perception.  However, I am also discovering that the coaches' EXPECTATIONS are all over the map, and it's very difficult for a referee to come out of some matches alive because of the
two coach's differing "philosophies".  Within one major conference that I work closely with, I've had these (paraphrased) opinions expressed:
1.  "Unless that first ball is held onto long enough to autograph it, you refs shouldn't be calling anything - just swallow your whistle on first ball."
2.  "Don't quote me rules about multiple contacts Vs throw/carries - if that first ball is really ugly, you refs have GOT to call it."
 If those two coaches are playing each other, it's going to be tough for the referee to leave intact.

I think most referees will be willing to try their best to call what's "right."  We just have to do a better job giving them guidelines and defining expectations.  I feel the collegiate volleyball world is all over the map on this issue.

Wallace Hendricks, University of Illinois writes:
In general, there has been a sizable increase in the complaints from coaches this season.  First, those officials who had not officiated in USA Volleyball often were calling first contacts lifts when others were allowing the same play.  In the matches that I witnessed this year (there were quite a few), officials made errors much more often in calling lifts than in allowing lifts.

 That is, the general level was too tight.  Second, officials have had a difficult time changing their calls when judging second contacts.  In myexperience, officials were too loose on 2nd contacts and on power tips. All of that said, I believe most of the problem lies with the coaches andcrowd.  They observe a play that looks horrible on a first contact being allowed.  They then observe a play on a 2nd contact that appears to be called too tightly.  They then say that the referee was inconsistent.  I really have not observed any more inconsistency by referees this year than in any other year.  There has been NO CHANGE (from what I can tell) in our referees'
abilities to remain consistent during a match.  What has changed is the consistency across referees in their judgments on 1st contacts (in particular) and to some extent second contacts.

It has always been said that "as long as the referee is consistent" the coaches and players will be happy.  This simply is not true.  Coaches andplayers have an idea of an appropriate level of calling the game.  As long as a referee is within certain bounds around this level and as long as a referee is reasonably consistent, there will not be large complaining.  However, there is quite a bit of difference in the ideas that coaches and players have about the correct level of calling.  Some take their cue from the beach and want anything called that comes out with spin.  Some want calls made on sound or on technique.  Others want very few calls made.  If a good match occurs between a loose official and a coach who wants few calls, then the only criticism is consistency.  Likewise for tightness.  But if a bad match is made between a coach and an official, consistency is not important.  I had one match this year where one coach rated the R1 "30" on a scale from 1 to 30 while the other coach rated him a "13".

Did they both see the same match?

Joe Arkin writes:
 I will assume you are addressing the NF experimental rules for high school
play although I would refer to HS sports as boys and girls not necessarily as
men's and women's.  That's probably because I am a father and, believe me, high school players are still boys and girls. At any rate, trying to stay on topic here, ball handling calls at any level is not necessarily that hard to learn or understand.  The first decision you have to make is whether you decide to *grade* ball handling (FIVB, USAV,NAGWS) or whether you subscribe to the notion that it is simply *pass/fail*(NF).  If *grading* ball handling is your chosen methodology, you most likely will be a proponent of letting players determine outcomes of games.  If simple *pass/fail* judgement is used for ball handling, you most likely will be blowing the whistle more than the former.

Another consideration must be the level of competition.  At the highest levels of play (FIVB, US Open, USAV Men's/Women's AA, NCAA Division I, etc.),  the skill level of participants is so high that few ball handling errors occur.  As we move down to the juniors and beginners levels, the skill level is not very good. Here's the real crux of ball handling judgement.  Do we say, as referees, that we will simply draw a line ... anything one side of the line is okay; anything the other side of the line gets a whistle?  Or do
we say that we're going to make our judgements based on a curve grading method?

 I propose the curve.  Why?  Because it promotes more contacts in game situations.  A scenario that was presented to me early in my development as an referee suggests that, if I'm whistling for ball handling more than 3-4 times per game, I'm judging it too tight (the bar is too high for the level of competition).  No one benefits from a whistle-feast.  Players get frustrated because there's no continuity to the game and teams with lower skills don't benefit because they are not allowed to play.

 So, ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, the referee doesn't necessarily have to learn great ball handling judgement as much as they need to understand the overall magnitude of the match; understand the teams that are there on the court before them.  Once you subscribe to that mentality, ball handling judgement doesn't even become that big an issue.
 I was taught this method by an international volleyball referee that we are lucky to have working to help develop the referees.  Some subscribe to this method, others do not.  For those that do not, controversial calls usually have accompanied their courts.

Andre Lennox of Portland, Oregon writes:
    My major complaint was that the refs make calls on how the play sounded.  The biggest complaint from coaches in this region is on serve receive when the ball strikes the receiver on the arm where the forearm ends and the biceps begins and it makes a "sticky" sound.  More often than not the refs will call a lift on the play even though there was not infraction on the play.

I am not upset that officials miss calls or make a bad judgement call.  The ones that upset me is when they make the wrong call.  I am not upset at any  particular ref, but rather the methods in which they are trained.  I am trying to be proactive in this area and find out how and who trains them so that maybe their volleyball knowledge can be enhanced.

David writes:
    I take video tape of every match that I evaluate.  We use video tape at our officials' training clinics.  One year, someone even brought a video tape to nationals and asked officials to vote about contacts seen on the tape.  All of these will give you exactly the same conclusion:  you cannot judge ball handling on the basis of a video tape.  It is very, very hard.  Many times, I will make a decision at the court that I feel is uncontroversial.  When we go to the video tape, it is no longer clear which call is correct.  You can see double contacts sometimes by slowing down the tape, but you cannot judge held balls.

    Sorry, we will not be able to produce a video product that will provide any realistic training for ball handling.  We can short cut some of the training with videos and good instruction on techniques.  But we will still need people helping the officials to judge whether or not they are calling the match at the proper level.  This happens extremely rarely in high school.  That is part of the reason why the officiating has a little more variance than in college.

    One thing I have noticed as a player and down ref is that a lift is easier to see from the floor than from above. I think it has to do with perspective. From the floor you can see someone contact the ball (setting) bring it down then set it (thus a lift). When you are on the stand because of you are looking down it is hard to pick up the ball being brought down before the set. One thing I have done as a down ref is held one hand close to my body and tried to help by doing a mini signal (double or lift) when I thought the up ref couldn't quite see what was going on. My partner and I did this in a manner that the players didn't catch on.(boy that would be ugly: "the down ref saw it why didn't YOU!")

    Last year at regional finals the club I help coach (Ohio Wesleyan) made it to the finals. In the semis and one other match that a woman ref called (I can't remember her name, her sex has no bearing) we had I believe a total of 6 ball handling calls against us. In the finals we had OVER 30!  Oh well, My 2 cents worth.

John Nelson writes:
 The problem I have seen is the players and coaches don't always remember what team contact the questionable ball handling occurred on.  I've had players come up and ask how I could not call that a double, then when I ask them what team contact it was they saw first then go, oh yea.  The only inconsistent call I have seen is the first contact off the hands going spinning backward from the player.  The contact is very brief but still gets called a lift by some.  NAGWS ball handling commentary on ball contact is it shall not be considered a fault :

1c. When the ball contacts the open hand(s) and spins off the hand(s) backward without being held.  I think this is an automatic lift for some and not others and this causes some problems for players. Just some thoughts of what I have seen.

From Minnesota Matt Leach writes:
What I don't understand is why high school volleyball is called tighter than any level of volleyball anywhere. And this is not just because first ball 2-contacts is still an infraction at that level.

Most referees, in Minnesota atleast, call any forearm pass that does not look or sound perfect a lift. Most of the same referees call ANYTHING that looks a little strange a lift. This leads to some ridiculous lift calls, such as a ball hitting a player on the shoulder (and rebounding cleanly) or, better yet, a spike or serve that hits a player in the head (those pesky ears having latched on to the ball, I guess).

Anyhow. It kills rallies, confuses the players, and generally screws up the game. Sure wish there was a way of coming a little closer to consistent calls regardless of the crew...

Lynn Wallace wrote:
I have the same criticism of high school refs in Utah.  I've seen matches ended with very tight ball-handing calls, and in general, the refs just blow their whistles too often. Some say that refs at the beginning levels should call tight to teach the players proper technique.  I see some merit to this point, but we still end up with the problems you cite.

Volleybum wrote:
From my many numerous travels across the US this volleyball season, I have seen all kinds of wonderful rules that are in effect.  From in SC where you are not allowed to dump for no matter how clean it is it is a lift.  To MS where the team on serve receive has to make three contacts before then send it back over the net.  If not, they get called for a rules violation.  What rule that is, I have no clue. Here is what I think.

Right now in the US there are atleast 13 different sets of rules that are used?

Why is that?

Why can't we just have one set of rules that everyone can follow?  Imagine if in baseball when you are in grammer school you get 6 balls to a walk, then in Middle School you get 3 balls and 5 strikes, then in HS you have get 4 balls and 4 strikes, then in college you get 4 balls and 3 strikes, but you only get to see 6 pitches. Why in every other sport in the US are there the same basic rules, but in volleyball we have so many different rules? I think the first thing we need to do is set up one set of rules to play by. Get rid of
all these different sets of rules. (I am not even going to go into outdoor volleyball, every city has their own rules) As for officials, I don't care how they call, as long as they are consistent when they officiate.  I don't care if the are consistently good or consistently bad, as long as they are consistent.

Until we train all officials the same way, and some officials out there either die off of old age or get off their power trip and let us play,
we are in for some rough times ahead.

Bob Writes:
     We have extremely inconsistent referring here in VB (Santa Clara Valley, CA.) Our opening match we got a ref who worked the JN 18 finals.  He was great.  In other matches, we get people without a clue.  In consecutive matches we got an R1 that would not call a lift if it hit him in the face.  He was teamed with a R2 who didn't appear to know the rules or have an ounce of sense.  In the following match we got "Mr. Whistle".  This guy called lifts where I couldn't even tell what triggered his displeasure (no spin, no noise.)

    Both of these people are poor refs, but one type of problem results in an unfair match and the other doesn't.  A ref who is too harsh disrupts the game, but everyone is generally penalized equally.  The ref who never calls lifts, though, can unfairly benefit the team with a poor setter against a team with a good one.

    In our CCS playoffs, we got the guy who never called a lift in our first encounter with him.  He has developed a new habit.  He now calls lifts fairly often, but only when the player attempting the set is facing away from him so he can see her hands.  If the setter was facing him, they could get away with almost anything!  We went to 4 games so it came out about even.

Unknown writes:
 I will agree that we have been told that if there is roll on a contact, such as a serve receive, it shall be called an illegal hit.  Personally I never call "lifts", I call "illegal hits".  A point of semantics but I think it is important because H.S. and indoor USAV volleyball do not mention "lifts".   The reasoning why any roll on a contact is considered illegal is because H.S. rules state that there may be NO prolonged contact.  We have been told that the ball rolling on contact with the player shall be an illegal hit.
So when I ref H.S. I call it an illegal hit and when I ref USAV I let play continue.

 I take part of your comments as a compliment.  It sounds like officials are consistently calling the contact you mentioned as illegal.
Therefore the coaches should at least be happy in the consistency.  I know that people will disagree with the calls I make but I try very hard to be consistent.  So if I'm calling every little nit-picky ball handling call I need to do it all the time.  If I let sloppy ball handling play happen without calling it then I need to try to maintain that same level throughout the game and match.  Either way the players and coaches need to adjust to the level that has been set by the officiating crew.

I really don't believe that referees will win or lose a match for a team except for the rarest occasions.  Teams not adapting to the officiating crew they have can cause themselves to lose match.

Unknown Two writes:
 I have taken part in the past in experiments with three referees linked to an electronic system  with two out of three voting system to call errors. It was just an experiment to examine  individual  judgment in ball handling.  During the trial a more practical effect came up in that referees showed a much more homogenous vision on erroneous ball handling and the equipment appeared to be an excellent training device.  The trials were stopped as it would not be practical to find three  referees on a continuous bases.

Unknown Three writes:
 One of the areas regarding ball handling calls that has been pretty frustrating for me for a number of years is that the rule (and it's various rephrasing over that time frame) for determining lifts / carries / throws / catches leaves far too much open to interpretation by referees and therefore causes extreme inconsistencies by the same referee regarding how they call sets, tips, forearm passes and overhand passes let alone the same calls between different referees.  Then throw in emergency save situations that "don't look right" (but are often perfectly legal) that get called and you end up with frustrated fans, players, coaches, and officials in far too many

USAV Rules
14 Playing the ball
14.1 Team hits
14.1.1 Each team is allowed a maximum of three hits...
14.4 Characteristics of the hit
14.4.2 "The ball must be hit, not caught or thrown"
14.5 Faults in playing the ball
14.5.3 "Caught or thrown ball: A player does not contact the ball cleanly"
18 Attack hit
18.1.1 During an attack hit, tipping (directing the ball by contact with
fingers only) is permitted if the contact is brief and the ball is not
caught or thrown.

Since these rules don't distinguish between types of "hits", why do so many referees make extremely different judgements in what they will "allow" in the form of an attack-hits, tips, sets, forearm passes, etc?
How is it possible for the so called "power tips" and "sweep blocks" that so many players have gotten away with over the past several years to NOT have been "caught or thrown"?

When asked about some throw / lift calls -- some referees dispense sage advise like "the player broke his or her wrist" or "the player started his or her contact behind their ear", or numerous other strange comments that appear absolutely nowhere in the rules.

How can we expect even highly experienced referees to be consistent in their ball handling calls when the rules leave so much undefined and open to individual interpretation?

Thus as the majority of writers above state, the foundation you build your ball handling skills on is based on equity.  Whatever path you take is your course, but it must be a consistent course.