Education: Ball Handling Decisions – the Toughest Call We Make

By Marcia Alterman
NCAA Rules Interpreter

In the OTP Clinics this summer, we spent a great deal of time talking about ball handling criteria and decisions. I know that not all of you can attend an OTP clinic, so I’d like to re-cap that information – even if you DID attend an OTP clinic, it never hurts to review the important points of the most visible part of our job.

Applicable Rules

  • Rule 14-2-3-a states that “During the team’s first hit successive contacts with various parts of the player’s body are permitted in a single attempt to play the ball.” That means that different criteria are used on a team’s first contact than on the second or third contact. It’s sometimes difficult to “switch gears” as the rules require, but it’s a skill we must all develop.
  • Rule 14-2-2 states that the ball must not be “held (including lifted, pushed, carried, caught or thrown). Prolonged contact with the ball is a fault.” Notice the “rolling” is not mentioned. Some balls that seem to be “rolling” up the arms are actually successive contacts, rather than prolonged contact. If so, that play would be legal on a team’s first contact. On the other hand, a ball that is continuously in contact with a player’s body for an extended time is still a lift, and should be called on any contact.
  • Referring back to Rule 14-2-3, note that the rules do not say that a first team contact can be lifted. There is a feeling out there that virtually any play on a first team contact is allowable. And, it is true that some of the ugliest first contacts are simply multiple (successive) contacts, and should therefore be judged as legal. But it is simply not true that “anything goes” when determining whether or not the ball is lifted on first contact. You must consistently and fairly determine whether or not the duration of contact is unacceptable on a first contact, just as you do on the second and third contacts.


  • If you truly have to decide whether or not to make a call, the call should not be made. But, we must disallow blatant ball handling faults. If you only make the calls that you are absolutely certain are faults, you’ll be just as comfortable making that call when the score is 28-28 as you are when the score is 5-3.
  • Concrete standards are sorely lacking when it comes to ball handling decisions. We can’t say “Middle blockers mishandle the ball virtually all the time”, or “A player who isn’t square to the flight of the ball can’t set the ball legally”, or (my favorite) “A ball that comes out spinning must be a double-hit”. There simply are no absolutes! Instead, we have to judge each ball contact by focusing only on the body part that contacts the ball. One-hand sets must be judged using the same criteria as two-hand sets. Non-setters must be judged the same as setters. It should not matter what the score is, what reaction your last call got, or what body position the player is using. All you look at is the fingers/hand(s)/body part contacting the ball. Then, you judge the duration of contact and the number of contacts, and apply the rules as stated above. “Automatic” calls based on other criteria have no place in volleyball.
  • Spin is not a criterion for double hits! Forearm passes spin, and are virtually never called double hits. Yet a set with a small amount of spin is sometimes expected to be called a double hit. If you see balls coming out of a set with a significant amount of spin on it, you should be reminding yourself to focus on the ball-hand interface. There is certainly a probability that a significantly spinning ball might have been double hit – but if you don’t actually see the double contact, you shouldn’t call it. Instead, remind yourself to focus on the hands as they contact the ball, and judge accordingly.
  • Utilize the philosophy of “over control” versus “under control” when judging whether contacts are legal or not, and then make the correct fault signal. “Over control” means that the duration of contact was too long, or the player changed the direction of the ball after initiating contact, or otherwise controlled the ball too much to be in line with the rules. Over control is illegal on all plays, and should result in a “lift” signal being used. “Under control” means that the person playing the ball did not send the ball where she intended and was not able to contact the ball simultaneously with all body parts. Under control is illegal on second and third contacts, and the “two hits” signal should be used. A ball that rolls off of the top of the extended fingers of a player who is trying to save it is under controlled, and should not be signaled as a lift, or called as a fault on first contact.

Ball handling decisions tend to be the primary ruler coaches use when judging our work. We must work to make those decisions more consistently from game to game and player to player. It’s a tough task, and one that requires constant practice and review. The players continue to get better and better – we must strive to do the same. 

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