A player stands behind the inline and serves the ball, in an attempt to drive it into the opponent's court. The main objective is to make it land inside the court; it is also desirable to set the ball's direction, speed and acceleration so that it becomes difficult for the receiver to handle it properly. A serve is called an "ace" when the ball lands directly onto the court or travels outside the court after being touched by an opponent; when the only player on the server's team to touch the ball is the server.
In contemporary volleyball, many types of serves are employed:
Also called reception, the pass is the attempt by a team to properly handle the opponent's serve or any form of attack. Proper handling includes not only preventing the ball from touching the court but also making it reach the position where the setter is standing quickly and precisely.
The skill of passing involves fundamentally two specific techniques: underarm pass, or bump, where the ball touches the inside part of the joined forearms or platform, at waistline; and overhand pass, where it is handled with the fingertips, like a set, above the head. Either are acceptable in professional and beach volleyball; however, there are much tighter regulations on the overhand pass in beach volleyball. When a player passes a ball to their setter, it's ideal that the ball does not have a lot of spin to make it easier for the setter.
The set is usually the second contact that a team makes with the ball. The main goal of setting is to put the ball in the air in such a way that it can be driven by an attack into the opponent's court. The setter coordinates the offensive movements of a team, and is the player who ultimately decides which player will actually attack the ball.
As with passing, one may distinguish between an overhand and a bump set. Since the former allows for more control over the speed and direction of the ball, the bump is used only when the ball is so low it cannot be properly handled with fingertips, or in beach volleyball where rules regulating overhand setting are more stringent. In the case of a set, one also speaks of a front or back set, meaning whether the ball is passed in the direction the setter is facing or behind the setter. There is also a jump set that is used when the ball is too close to the net. In this case, the setter usually jumps off their right foot straight up to avoid going into the net. The setter usually stands about ⅔ of the way from the left to the right of the net and faces the left (the larger portion of net that he or she can see).
Sometimes a setter refrains from raising the ball for a teammate to perform an attack and tries to play it directly onto the opponent's court. This movement is called a "dump". This can only be performed when the setter is in the front row, otherwise it constitutes an illegal back court attack. The most common dumps are to 'throw' the ball behind the setter or in front of the setter to zones 2 and 4. More experienced setters toss the ball into the deep corners or spike the ball on the second hit.
As with a set or an overhand pass, the setter/passer must be careful to touch the ball with both hands at the same time. If one hand is noticeably late to touch the ball this could result in a less effective set, as well as the referee calling a 'double hit' and giving the point to the opposing team.
The attack, also known as the spike, is usually the third contact a team makes with the ball. The object of attacking is to handle the ball so that it lands on the opponent's court and cannot be defended. A player makes a series of steps (the "approach"), jumps, and swings at the ball.
Ideally, the contact with the ball is made at the apex of the hitter's jump. At the moment of contact, the hitter's arm is fully extended above their head and slightly forward, making the highest possible contact while maintaining the ability to deliver a powerful hit. The hitter uses arm swing, wrist snap, and a rapid forward contraction of the entire body to drive the ball. A 'bounce' is a slang term for a very hard/loud spike that follows an almost straight trajectory steeply downward into the opponent's court and bounces very high into the air. A "kill" is the slang term for an attack that is not returned by the other team thus resulting in a point.
Contemporary volleyball comprises a number of attacking techniques:
Blocking refers to the actions taken by players standing at the net to stop or alter an opponent's attack.
A block that is aimed at completely stopping an attack, thus making the ball remain in the opponent's court, is called offensive. A well-executed offensive block is performed by jumping and reaching to penetrate with one's arms and hands over the net and into the opponent's area. It requires anticipating the direction the ball will go once the attack takes place. It may also require calculating the best footwork to executing the "perfect" block.
The jump should be timed so as to intercept the ball's trajectory prior to it crossing over the plane of the net. Palms are held deflected downward roughly 45–60 degrees toward the interior of the opponents' court. A "roof" is a spectacular offensive block that redirects the power and speed of the attack straight down to the attacker's floor as if the attacker hit the ball into the underside of a peaked house roof.
By contrast, it is called a defensive, or "soft" block if the goal is to control and deflect the hard-driven ball up so that it slows down and becomes easier to defend. A well-executed soft-block is performed by jumping and placing one's hands above the net with no penetration into the opponent's court and with the palms up and fingers pointing backwards.
Blocking is also classified according to the number of players involved. Thus, one may speak of single (or solo), double, or triple block.
Successful blocking does not always result in a "roof" and many times does not even touch the ball. While it is obvious that a block was a success when the attacker is roofed, a block that consistently forces the attacker away from their 'power' or preferred attack into a more easily controlled shot by the defence is also a highly successful block.
At the same time, the block position influences the positions where other defenders place themselves while opponent hitters are spiking.
Digging is the ability to prevent the ball from touching one's court after a spike or attack, particularly a ball that is nearly touching the ground. In many aspects, this skill is similar to passing, or bumping: overhand dig and bump are also used to distinguish between defensive actions taken with fingertips or with joined arms. It varies from passing however in that is it a much more reflex based skill, especially at the higher levels. It is especially important while digging for players to stay on their toes; several players choose to employ a split step to make sure they're ready to move in any direction.
Some specific techniques are more common in digging than in passing. A player may sometimes perform a "dive", i.e., throw their body in the air with a forward movement in an attempt to save the ball, and land on their chest. When the player also slides their hand under a ball that is almost touching the court, this is called a "pancake". The pancake is frequently used in indoor volleyball, but rarely if ever in beach volleyball because the uneven and yielding nature of the sand court limits the chances that the ball will make good, clean contact with the hand. When used correctly, it is one of the more spectacular defensive volleyball plays.
Sometimes a player may also be forced to drop their body quickly to the floor to save the ball. In this situation, the player makes use of a specific rolling technique to minimize the chances of injuries.
Volleyball is essentially a game of transition from one of the above skills to the next, with choreographed team movement between plays on the ball. These team movements are determined by the teams chosen serve receive system, offensive system, coverage system, and defensive system.
The serve-receive system is the formation used by the receiving team to attempt to pass the ball to the designated setter. Systems can consist of 5 receivers, 4 receivers, 3 receivers, and in some cases 2 receivers. The most popular formation at higher levels is a 3 receiver formation consisting of two left sides and a libero receiving every rotation. This allows middles and right sides to become more specialized at hitting and blocking.
Offensive systems are the formations used by the offence to attempt to ground the ball into the opposing court (or otherwise score points). Formations often include designated player positions with skill specialization (see Player specialization, below). Popular formations include the 4-2, 6-2, and 5-1 systems (see Formations, below). There are also several different attacking schemes teams can use to keep the opposing defence off balance.
Coverage systems are the formations used by the offence to protect their court in the case of a blocked attack. Executed by the 5 offensive players not directly attacking the ball, players move to assigned positions around the attacker to dig up any ball that deflects off the block back into their own court. Popular formations include the 2-3 system and the 1-2-2 system. In lieu of a system, some teams just use a random coverage with the players nearest the hitter.
Defensive systems are the formations used by the defence to protect against the ball being grounded into their court by the opposing team. The system will outline which players are responsible for which areas of the court depending on where the opposing team is attacking from. Popular systems include the 6-Up, 6-Back-Deep, and 6-Back-Slide defence. There are also several different blocking schemes teams can employ to disrupt the opposing teams' offence.
When one player is ready to serve, some teams will line up their other five players in a screen to obscure the view of the receiving team. This action is only illegal if the server makes use of the screen, so the call is made at the referee's discretion as to the impact the screen made on the receiving team's ability to pass the ball. The most common style of screening involves a W formation designed to take up as much horizontal space as possible.
There are five positions filled on every volleyball team at the elite level. Setter, Outside Hitter/Left Side Hitter, Middle Hitter, Opposite Hitter/Right Side Hitter and Libero/Defensive Specialist. Each of these positions plays a specific, key role in winning a volleyball match.
At some levels where substitutions are unlimited, teams will make use of a Defensive Specialist in place of or in addition to a Libero. This position does not have unique rules like the libero position, instead, these players are used to substitute out a poor back row defender using regular substitution rules. A defensive specialist is often used if you have a particularly poor back court defender in right side or left side, but your team is already using a libero to take out your middles. Most often, the situation involves a team using a right side player with a big block who must be subbed out in the back row because they aren't able to effectively play backcourt defence. Similarly, teams might use a Serving Specialist to sub out a poor server.
The three standard volleyball formations are known as "4–2", "6–2" and "5–1", which refers to the number of hitters and setters respectively. 4–2 is a basic formation used only in beginners' play, while 5–1 is by far the most common formation in high-level play.
The 4–2 formation has four hitters and two setters. The setters usually set from the middle front or right front position. The team will, therefore, have two front-row attackers at all times. In the international 4–2, the setters set from the right front position. The international 4–2 translates more easily into other forms of offence.
The setters line up opposite each other in the rotation. The typical lineup has two outside hitters. By aligning like positions opposite themselves in the rotation, there will always be one of each position in the front and back rows. After service, the players in the front row move into their assigned positions, so that the setter is always in the middle front. Alternatively, the setter moves into the right front and has both a middle and an outside attacker; the disadvantage here lies in the lack of an offside hitter, allowing one of the other team's blockers to "cheat in" on a middle block.
The clear disadvantage to this offensive formation is that there are only two attackers, leaving a team with fewer offensive weapons.
Another aspect is to see the setter as an attacking force, albeit a weakened force, because when the setter is in the frontcourt they are able to 'tip' or 'dump', so when the ball is close to the net on the second touch, the setter may opt to hit the ball over with one hand. This means that the blocker who would otherwise not have to block the setter is engaged and may allow one of the hitters to have an easier attack.
In the 6–2 formation, a player always comes forward from the back row to set. The three front row players are all in attacking positions. Thus, all six players act as hitters at one time or another, while two can act as setters. So the 6–2 formation is actually a 4–2 system, but the back-row setter penetrates to set.
The 6–2 lineup thus requires two setters, who line up opposite to each other in the rotation. In addition to the setters, a typical lineup will have two middle hitters and two outside hitters. By aligning like positions opposite themselves in the rotation, there will always be one of each position in the front and back rows. After service, the players in the front row move into their assigned positions.
The advantage of the 6–2 is that there are always three front-row hitters available, maximizing the offensive possibilities. However, not only does the 6–2 require a team to possess two people capable of performing the highly specialized role of setter, it also requires both of those players to be effective offensive hitters when not in the setter position. At the international level, only the Cuban National Women's Team employs this kind of formation. It is also used by NCAA teams in Division III men's play and women's play in all divisions, partially due to the variant rules used which allow more substitutions per set than the 6 allowed in the standard rules—12 in matches involving two Division III men's teams and 15 for all women's play.
The 5–1 formation has only one player who assumes setting responsibilities regardless of their position in the rotation. The team will, therefore, have three front-row attackers when the setter is in the back row and only two when the setter is in the front row, for a total of five possible attackers.
The player opposite the setter in a 5–1 rotation is called the opposite hitter. In general, opposite hitters do not pass; they stand behind their teammates when the opponent is serving. The opposite hitter may be used as a third attack option (back-row attack) when the setter is in the front row: this is the normal option used to increase the attack capabilities of modern volleyball teams. Normally the opposite hitter is the most technically skilled hitter of the team. Back-row attacks generally come from the back-right position, known as zone 1, but are increasingly performed from back-centre in high-level play.
The big advantage of this system is that the setter always has 3 hitters to vary sets with. If the setter does this well, the opponent's middle blocker may not have enough time to block with the outside blocker, increasing the chance for the attacking team to make a point.
There is another advantage, the same as that of a 4–2 formation: when the setter is a front-row player, he or she is allowed to jump and "dump" the ball onto the opponent's side. This too can confuse the opponent's blocking players: the setter can jump and dump or can set to one of the hitters. A good setter knows this and thus won't only jump to dump or to set for a quick hit, but when setting outside as well to confuse the opponent.
The 5–1 offence is actually a mix of 6–2 and 4–2: when the setter is in the front row, the offense looks like a 4–2; when the setter is in the back row, the offense looks like a 6–2.
In 2017, a new volleyball union was formed in response to dissatisfaction with the organization and structure of professional beach volleyball tournaments. The union is named the International Beach Volleyball Players Association, and it consists of almost 100 professional players. IBVPA claims its goal is to help athletes and provide them with the means to enjoy playing volleyball by improving the way the sport is run.
Another controversy within the sport is the issue of the inclusion of transgender players. With transgender athletes such as Tifanny Abreu joining professional volleyball teams alongside other non-transgender teammates, many professionals, sports analysts, and fans of volleyball are either expressing concerns about the legitimacy and fairness of having transgender players on a team or expressing support for the transgender people's efforts.
There are many variations on the basic rules of volleyball. By far the most popular of these is beach volleyball, which is played on sand with two people per team, and rivals the main sport in popularity.
Some games related to volleyball include: