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Ball Handling: It's a Judgement Call

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

I have sat in the stands for many volleyball games. I have been a player, coach, spectator, parent, and referee. I have heard parents, coaches, and players yell, scream, taunt, heckle, and vocalize their disagreement of a call that a referee whistles. This, in and of itself, requires a lot of courage on the part of the referee to climb up on that tower and call a game.

When I made the transition from player to coach to parent to referee I gained another perspective on the game. There were rules that I followed without ever even knowing they existed. But this isn't about those cut-and-dry whistles for a rules violation. This is about the toughest calls on the court to make: ball handling faults.

Take a look in the USAV rule book (or any volleyball rulebook modeled after the USAV rules) and you will not find any definitive description of calling a contact violation as it pertains to whistling a fault. Consider this taken directly from the 2021-2023 USAV Indoor Rulebook:

In accordance with the spirit of the rules and to encourage longer rallies and spectacular actions, only the most obvious violations will be whistled. Therefore, when a player is not in a very good position to play the ball, the 1st referee will be less severe in his/her judgment of ball handling faults.

The USAV rulebook (21-23) goes on to cite some examples of favorable judgement calls and allowing play to continue. Additionally, there is really only one rule, again- with reference to the USAV ruleset, that governs ball handling with respect to guiding a referee in criteria for whistling a ball handling fault. USAV (21-23) Rule 9.2 and 9.3 address the "Characteristics of the Hit" and "Faults in Playing the Ball," respectively. USAV Rule 9.2.2 reads:

The ball must not be caught and/or thrown. It can rebound in any direction.

And USAV Rule 9.3.3 reads:

CATCH: the ball is caught and/or thrown; it does not rebound from the hit.

Here is where I want you to notice something. There is not, and most likely NEVER will be a rule, reference to a rule, description of a rule, violation, or any other language in the rulebook that uses the words "LIFT" or "CARRY." In this referee's humble opinion, I find it rather absurd and whimsical when I overhear a spectator get upset and heckle or taunt a referee using those words. "Awe come on ref! That was a carry!" Nope... not a rule. "Wow! You didn't see that LIFT! What game are you watching." Well, I'm watching the game that is being played on the court right in front of me whilst I stand on this tower directly adjacent with the optimal vantage point to observe the players' game mechanics and techniques. There is no such rule that includes the word "lift." Nope. Doesn't exist.

One thing that I know for sure (and completely espouse) is that the use of words and phrases that include "lift" and "carry" conveys a couple of things on the part of the spectator. First and foremost, it implies a lack of knowledge (or understanding) of the rules that volleyball uses; redardless of the governing ruleset (USAV, NCAA, NFHS). Specifically, the rules pertaining to ball handling and ball handling faults.

Second, it confirms that if said spectator actually does know and understand the appropriate rule, that spectator did not see the same thing the referee saw..

The take away here is clear: recognizing and whistling contact errors is a JUDGEMENT CALL, and judgment calls CANNOT be protested.

I have a humble appreciation for the experience that I gained from being a player, coach, spectator, and referee. Each of these roles allows for a unique perspective that can't be garnered from the others.

Here is my position:

  1. A PLAYER views the game from on the court; the vector is UNDER the ball from the perspective of PLAYING and a focus is on WINNING THE RALLY.

  2. A COACH views the game from court adjacent; the vector is BESIDE the ball from the perspective of GUIDING players and a focus on WINNING THE MATCH.

  3. A SPECTATOR views the game from the stands; the vector is TOWARDS the ball I'm with the focus on watching the match with the focus on their subjective bias toward their favored team.

  4. A REFEREE views the game from an elevated platform; the vector is IN FRONT of the ball from the perspective of objectively evaluating each ball contact with the focus on determining whether that contact is legal or not; objectively judging each contact irrespective of the others.

At its core, those four classifications of "participants" are fundamentally different with different mentalities and attitudes while viewing the match. The key difference is how each person watches the match with respect to their particular attitude. Everyone is different. And as I tend to sometimes over-explain things I will not go into the minutia of individuality. Suffice it to say, no two people will see the same thing even when viewing the same thing from the same place.

A referee is trained to evaluate players in a different manner than a spectator watching the match. Does that mean all referees whistle every ball handling fault correctly all the time? No. Does that mean referees never whistle a fault that didn't actually happen? That rich. Humans are fallible. That includes referees. But the takeaway here is a referee is looking at something different than everyone else. Referees are taught to look ahead of the ball; where the ball is going. The reason for this is to be able to evaluate the action the instant contact with the ball is made. Because the best way to evaluate anything is to be looking at the area of action BEFORE the action takes place.

You may be thinking to yourself, but if I am intently watching the ball with purpose and concentrating then I will be able to recognize a true ball handling fault when it occurs. To that I say, try it while mentally whistling your own ball handling faults. Then, compare those mental calls to what the R1 ACTUALLY calls. Do that for one full set.

Then on the next set of the same match do the same thing. Only this time don't watch the ball. Watch where the ball is going. To do this effectively, use your peripheral vision to track the ball's flight in the air and anticipate where the ball will be going. Watch the receiving player's arms and hands. You will be able to view the moment of contact much more accurately using this technique. Again, compare your mental whistles with what the R1 ACTUALLY calls and see if there are any changes from the previous set. I think you will be surprised.

Ball handling faults are, by far, the most difficult calls to make. And observing the contact is only one aspect of making the call. Many factors are also considered such as age and ability level of the players, situation, and athleticism. So next time you are in the stand and want to scream at the presiding referee over a ball handling call, take a step back and evaluate the overall situation. Volleyball is a fantastic and highly competitive sport. And the sport is so great because of everyone involved. Spectators and parents add to the excitement of the game.

See you on the court,

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