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Let Them Play Volleyball

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Nothing is more riveting than nail-biting rally for a crucial point in a deciding set between two passionate teams. Perspective of the game can change when you are watching a match and you don't just SEE the game... you FEEL the passion, drive, and energy of BOTH teams in their desire to win. If you ever get to see two teams with that insatiable hunger to win in a true visceral battle on the court, count yourself lucky.

If you get to witness a match like the one I just described then chances are pretty good that the match was officiated by a referee dedicated to the competitive spirit of the game; a referee that espouses one of the first things that can be read in the USAV Rules Book:

Volleyball can enrich the lives of all who play and watch it. It should be fun, p3

and under the heading, "BALL HANDLING GUIDELINES,"it reads:

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 judgement of ball handling faults.

I addressed ball handling and whistling ball handling faults in more length in one of my previous blogs, but I would like to broaden the scope and write about the general role of the referee as it pertains to the spirit of the game and how it is officiated in general. More specifically, I want to share a little bit about how the referee "controls the flow" of the game using two main tools: attitude and a whistle.

Most, if not all, referees became referees for a common reason: love of the sport. Let's face it, no referee is standing up on a platform for up to 12 hours a day (sometimes for multiple days in a row) for the money. Benefits? That's rich. Referees are already hard to come by; officiating games can take its toll if you compound that with long days and back-to-back games.

I had the pleasure of officiating a tournament recently. It was a one day, two-court, two- referee tournament in which I presided over thirteen games. Some of those games were played with extremely high energy at a fast pace. Those high energy games were either won or lost by skill, athleticism, poor ball handling or shear luck on the part of the athlete. But, I can say with a high degree of certainty that no match victor was decided by a referee's judgement call. It was an amazing tournament full of exceptional athletes that showed an abundance of dedication, skill, and heart.

During the tournament I was approached by a coach that wanted to speak to me about my officiating style. More specifically, he wanted to talk about my ball handling calls as well as the way I called the match overall as compared to my counterpart on the adjacent court. He brought to my attention, in his opinion, the amount of ball handling errors that I did NOT whistle. He also mentioned a comparison between the quantity of my calls vs the other referee to which I was not making the amount of calls that my counterpart was.

There is something that I ALWAYS mention as part of every pre-game meeting with the team captains:

You are here to play volleyball. I want your teams to play each other, not me. I will call the game as fairly, consistently, and equally as possible. Defeat your opponent by besting them not by arguing calls for points. Win with dignity, lose with grace.

I want to make something clear above all else: I love the game; every aspect. I have chosen to make the move to officiating because my body can't compete at the level that my brain wants it to. Okay, okay, fine..., I'm just too old and broke down. There. I said it. But for all those that would say "ah, you're not old...," let me assure you... I've jumped out of planes and marched hundreds (literally) of miles with crazy amounts of weight. I destroy my knees, legs, and back even more by standing on a referee platform for hours while I watch a ball fly back and forth, but I digress. I espouse the spirit of the game annotated at the beginning of the USAV Rules Book. In my own words: LET THEM PLAY VOLLEYBALL.

But that doesn't mean I just let the players sling slop over the net. Again, that wouldn't be keeping in the spirit of the game or enforcing the rules. Nor would it encourage athletes to rise above and improve their level. Officiating a game should be guided by age/level of play and presumptive skill level. It would be preposterous to officiate a match at the junior level between two teams at the U12 level in the same manner that I would officiate a game at the high school varsity level. It just wouldn't work for the simple fact that U12 players are still grasping the core aspects of the game and basic techniques. Try explaining the minutia of the libero to a younger player... especially the concept of "libero replacement." Go ahead. I'll wait.

By contrast, athletes at the varsity level have a much more refined understanding of and ability to play the game. Athletes are refining their technique at the varsity level not learning the basics. They are performing at an ever rising peak; some are even playing at the collegiate level and being scouted by college recruiters. Generally speaking, not only is it a physiological certainty, but it is also apparent on the court that younger athletes have lesser refined coordination and fine motor skills in ball handling, as well as a more rudimentary grasp of game concepts. So to judge both levels of play equally would be doing both teams a disservice.

The key idea here is EQUITY vs EQUALITY. Equality in officiating between two competing teams. Equity in officiating overall.

I explained to the coach that whistling a dead ball at every potential ball handing error is not be keeping in the spirit of the game. These athletes are here to play volleyball; not spend court time looking at the referee to see why play was stopped for the thirtieth time before the fifth point (yes, I know that's not realistic). But a good referee is always learning, so I asked this coach if it was his opinion that I judged the match EQUALLY for both sides or did he feel there was bias towards one team or the other. The coach shared with me that the he thought the game was called "fairly" and "consistently" (actually using those words). At the same time, his assistance coach interjected to reinforce to both me and the head coach that the match was called fairly and consistently for both sides. I don't know why this coach decided to approach me, but I absolutely appreciated his inquiry and feedback. I did not get any feelings that it was motivated in any way because his team lost the match.

Being a referee is difficult in its own right; rules, equipment, time, travel, rules, tests, clincs, rules, ratings, time, rules... When you add the stresses of making tough calls, getting heckled from would-be rule experts in the stands, and verbosely animated protests from coaches, it can be downright grueling.

I love the role I get to take in how these matches play out. My goal is consistent and fair judging of each match WITH RESPECT to the level at which the athletes are competing. I wouldn't have it any other way.

See you on the court,

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