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There is No Substitute for a Proper Substitution

Substitutions make the game exciting. The ability for players to enter and exit the game adds value to the competition in many ways. It allows for coaches to place the most advantageous player in the game at critical points in the match. It affords the opportunity to swap players for short periods of rest to keep them performing at their peak, and allows the opportunity for coaches to sub-out underperforming players.

As exciting as it is for the game, it can be a headache for referees. And even though the rules and intricacies of the substitution can be complicated, it doesn’t have to be. Personally, sometimes I tend to overcomplicate things that don’t need to be overly complicated. I think some of that pertains to substitutions. So let’s breakdown and simplify this particular match interruption to see if we can make it a little more palatable.

First, let’s build a foundation. The best place to start is always the beginning. What is a substitution? Simply put, a substitution is a type of match interruption wherein a bench player is exchanged for a court player. Each team is allowed 18 legal substitutions and exceptional substitutions with cause and under certain guidelines. I’ll chat about that later. However, a substitution should not be mistaken or confused with the libero replacement (check out This blog post about the libero).

What is the substitution process? A request for substitution must be correctly made in order for a team to exchange a substitute for an active player on the court. A request must be made during a dead ball and before the beckon for serve. Additionally, only on request can be made per dead ball. That means a team can substitute players before or after a time out but not both. A substitution can only be requested three ways:

  1. coach gives the substitution signal (Signal 15) to one of the referees

  2. verbal request from the head coach (rule change)

  3. a sub entering the sub zone


Anecdote time… If you don’t want to read it, skip to the other side of the divider. I won’t even know if you do. As a paramedic for a high volume Fire/EMS service, I've had the honor of being on the team called to assist with several live births. I assisted in delivering 3 babies in the field. One of those deliveries was even in the back of the ambulance during transport. It was awesome and exhilarating. But there is one important thread that was common to those deliveries: in the medical profession they are considered an “uncomplicated birth" or "uneventful delivery," for obvious reasons.


The reason I mention this story is because it illustrates what every referee wants in a substitution: “uncomplicated” and “uneventful.” Maybe not exciting, amazing, and exhilarating, but beauty is in the eye… An uneventful substitution, from a referee’s standpoint, can be a simple and gracefully uneventful process that happens so smoothly that it can be over even before spectators notice.

The first referee whistles the end of a play, and the second referee steps to the side of the fault and mirrors the first referee’s post-play signals. As the court is resetting for the next play, the second referee slips into obscurity as he or she gently scans the team benches in anticipation. There she is. The Falcon’s star outside hitter; clapping fiercely as she lunges forward and blasts out of her chair making her way for the substitution zone. Lips pursed, whistle in mouth, the second referee imperceptibly shakes out the arms, and as Super Slammer steps into the sub-zone, blows two sharp blast of the whistle.

Right after the whistle blasts, the second referee rotates the closed hands, arms parallel to one another and perpendicular to the ground, and gives a little rotation (Signal 15). The sub has been recognized. The second referee takes note as the players approach each other in the zone, and as they come together they are given a smooth but purposful authorization to enter signal (Signal 16). After the players start to swap, the second referee glances back and ensures that the score table is ready before squaring up on the receiving side and giving the court back to the first referee (Signal 23).

Okay, there is no Signal 23, but if there was, it would be the second referee extending an arm up to the first referee, fingers and thumb extended and joined, palm facing up and at a slight angle as if to say, “here you go, partner.” But that is just me thinking out loud.

But what happens when things get a little more complicated? What do you do when there are multiple subs from both teams at the same time? What happens when a player jumps up to sub, enters the sub zone, and her coach barks at her to sit back down? How do you work a sub/time out/sub combo? An incorrect sub?

The first thing to do is to take a deep cleansing breath, because you got this. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, every substitution situation can be an uneventful or uncomplicated one; even the complicated ones. It’s not a question of if you will have a “complicated” substitution, but when. Find your own system and stick with it. One of the foundational characteristics of a good official is consistency. So, find your algorithm and refine it. But keep in mind the basic elements and procedures will always remain the same as outlined in the NFHS Rules Book with respect to substitutions.

Let’s start with multiple substitutions. Once you get a feel for the tempo of the match it may become easier to anticipate when a team will substitute a player or multiple players. But whether it is multiple players on either team, a single player on both teams, or multiple players on both teams, the procedure remains the same: acknowledge the request, allow the scorer sufficient time to notate the players, authorize the entry, center, and give the court back to the first referee.

With multiple substitutions, ensure that only one set of players is in the sub zone at a time. If that is not the case, gently but firmly and succinctly remind the athletes that only one player is allowed in the zone at a time. This is great preventative officiating, especially for the younger athletes that may understand the procedure but have a harder time with the application aspect. If the next sub doesn't take position in the zone in fashion, give a little motion and encourage them to do so. It may even be necessary to ask them to step into the correct area. Ensure the exchange is annotated; authorize the entry; give the court back to the first referee.

Take the same approach when both teams want to sub in the same dead ball. One good thing to keep in mind here is the requesting team must be ready to complete the procedure once the request is made. The non-subbing team may make a request to substitute during the same dead ball, but it doesn’t have to be at the same time as the initial requesting team. It can be after but MUST be before the beckon for serve, and as long as everything happens without undue delay. NFHS Rule 10.2 ART 3 reads:

…the substitute SHALL proceed without delay to the substitution zone…

"Shall" meaning MUST, HAS TO, or IS REQUIRED TO. So one or both teams may request a sub at any time during any dead ball as long as the request is done properly and the players from the requesting team are offered immediately. But take your time, and make sure it's done right. I tell my kids, “it’s better that you're waiting on me then for me to be waiting on you.” Don't be discouraged if you're not exactly Lightning McQueen on a substitution. You WILL get better, faster, and smoother with time and experience.

Segue…Speaking of delay… what constitutes a delay and when does it become illegal? Basically, if the substitution takes too long without progress on the part of the players and coach. This particular aspect of the substitution is difficult to quantify. How long is too long? This is where experience and judgement comes in. Through experience, both acute (experiences accrued during the current match) and lifetime (your cumulative officiating experience) you will be able to settle in to an appropriate threshold of when a delay constitutes a penalty that warrants a yellow card.

If a sub is requested AND RECOGNIZED then withdrawn… delay. A player not moving to the sub zone after a request is made and recognized… delay. Not all substitutes report to the court at one time (with one set in the zone) and having to wait on an additional exchange… delay. Not entering the court when authorized…delay.

There are many things to consider when determining if a delay during the substitution process warrants a sanction card such as level of play, previous sanctions, and match tempo. We all know that having the right player in the right place at the right time doing the right thing is sometimes like herding cats. A 7th grade “B” team is more likely to bungle the substitution procedure than the Duke volleyball team; especially at the beginning of the season. Should they be sanctioned using the same lens you would use for the Lady Blue Devils? Of course not.

Define “immediately” with respect to reporting or entering the court when indicated (Rule 10 SEC 2, ART 7.b.1-2). I believe the determination of meeting the threshold is made subconsciously. And maybe when, all of a sudden, you become consciously aware of the elapsed time between a sub request and the subsequent action, that is the point that it may be deemed not “immediate.”

In psychology, this is called the JND or the “just noticeable difference.” Simply put, the point at which an imperceptible change in something becomes perceptible. Each individual referee has to come to this delineation on their own using the rules book as the guide. The key is consistency, and the fastest way to lose credibility is to establish a standard then fluctuate that standard in a was that is noticeable. Ultimately, it is up to you to determine how long is too long.

An improper substitution is when a player enters or leaves without authorization or doesn’t take the correct position on the court. Preventative officiating prevails here. Correct the players, and move on with the match. If it continues to happen and becomes excessive, consider issuing a sanction.

When do these situations become a penalty instead and not a case of preventative officiating (aka a warning)? To paraphrase: yellow card for the first offense and a red card for every subsequent offense if there is a delay in the substitution procedure or if a referee whistles to recognize the substitution but then it is determined to be illegal (Rule 10 SEC 2, PEN 1.a-b), or repeated substitutions not using the proper procedure (c).

If any of those three situations happens (delay, illegal sub, or repeated improper procedure), the substitution is denied and no subs may be requested until the next rally (Rule 10 SEC 2, PEN 2).

It is important to note here that if a substitute gains entry to the court and the beckon for serve is whistled then to goes from being an unnecessary delay to an illegal alignment penalty, which should be whistled, signaled (Signal 1), and point and serve awarded appropriately. An illegal sub doesn’t count against the team provided the player is removed before a rally is played.

Well, we have some sub delays, improper subs, nuclear powered subs..., so what is an illegal sub then? Glad you asked. Simply put, an illegal sub is:

-one that doesn’t follow correct procedure

-re-enters the court on the same dead ball

-enters if the substitute was previously replaced by an exceptional substitute (more on this one later...)

-enters and doesn’t assume the exact position of the out-going player.

-Oh… and a 19th substitute. Teams are only allowed 18, after all.

All illegal substitutes MUST be replaced by a legal substitute.

To date, the hardest thing I have had to do is issue a yellow card, and it was for a substitution delay. Every attempt was made to accommodate the players and coaches with consideration to the level of play. In my judgment, the situation warranted informing the playing captain of the reason for the sanction and then issuing a yellow card. Remember, as a first referee, your perception of the reality on the other side of the court may not be the same reality as the second referee's. So, if the second referee requests a yellow card then it should always be honored, even if you don’t know the reason for the sanction.

Substitutions can make a match extremely exciting. But don’t get discouraged if all it seems the coaches are doing is requesting subs for multiple players on every dead ball. Think of it this way; with every request you are getting better, faster, and more efficient at managing substitutions; you're helping younger players establish a solid foundation for proper substitutions which will help you manage them at higher level matches in the future; coaches are getting better at managing both substitutions AND players with every request which will also pay dividens later on; and… you LOVE this game.

Leave your comments. Share your opinon. What are some of your crazy experiences during a substitution?

See you on the court!

Disclaimer: My opinions are my own and my individual idiosyncrasies and nuances should be taken as such. It is up to the individual referee to be exhaustively familiar with the rules and apply them in the spirit of the sport. Comments are always welcome, but if you have a question about a rule interpretation or are confused about a rules application, please seek the guidance of your association rules rep, mentor, rank representative, NFHS section rules committee chair, or other knowledgeable source.

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