How to call a "Lift" ball in volleyball

Surprise, Roger asked me for my thoughts on what is a “held” ball in volleyball when I'm reffing. This is probably the most argued subjective call a volleyball ref can make, but I'll add in my 2 cents. I've had this discussion many times with clinicians and colleagues, and here's my best attempt at explaining it.

For a standard overhead (set) pass, your primary criteria is was there “prolonged contact” between the player and the ball. The set should continue in one fluid motion, and the ball should not come to rest at any time in that motion. If either occurs, then the played has held the ball and the foul should be called.

That's the simple explanation. :-) Now you have to add in lots more judgment. What caliber are the players? For younger players (12-14) I'll definitely be more forgiving than varsity high school, and at the collegiate level there's little leeway. Honestly, I see more double contacts when players set then held balls (where the ball is distinctly contacted twice by the player during the set, usually by one hand and then the other). These are easier to see because usually you see the ball make 2 distinct changes in direction while in the players hands.

For me, I see more held balls on 1st contact (when the player attempts an overhead pass and has to hold on to the ball longer in order to control it), or 3rd contact (when the player ends up underneath the ball instead of behind it, and is forced to reach behind them to hit the ball, forcing them to “push“ the ball forward rather than hitting it.)

So how do I catch these? A lot of it is experience. I find some things that help me (and the things I give feedback to junior refs on when observing them) are:

  • Watch the player not the ball - This is a very common trait in younger refs. We teach up refs that they are responsible for the ball handling (the down refs have the net), and so they watch the ball. The problem is that they focus on the ball, and the player is in their peripheral vision as the play occurs. As play speeds up in better settings, this makes it much more difficult to observer the players hands at the time of contact. I watch the player. After the 1st contact, when the ball is in the air, once you know it's not going to go over the net or contact the ceiling, let it go. Gravity will make sure it comes back into your field of view. :-) Find the player who's going to contact it next - focus on the player as they get set for the play, now you can clearly observe the contact as the ball enters your field of vision, and it's much easier to see prolonged contact and double contacts.
  • Spin is not an indication of a foul - this often gets debated hotly between parents/coaches and refs, but in reality this should be a non starter. To me, spin is a secondary indicator - that is, if I suspect from the motion that a foul occurred but I didn't have a great view, if the ball is spinning then I may be convinced of a foul and call it. If I saw a clean play and the ball is spinning, then I let play continue. For those that want to argue this, watch plenty of bump/forward passes where a single contact occurred, but the ball spins like crazy - you're not going to call a foul on that play, so why do it for a set? Don't get me wrong, lots of times a player will mis-hit a ball and it will spin like crazy. There, your call is easy. But don't penalize a player who made a good set just because it happens to spin.
  • Don't set your level to the lowest common setter - this is tempting to do at all levels, but especially when one setter is really good, and the other is marginal. It's tempting to set your judgment at the level of the less skilled player, to be more “fair“. Nothing is further from the truth, the opposing setter practiced to get that good, to allow a player with lesser skills to get away with calls is actually penalizing the better player, and penalizing the better team by awarding opportunities to the team with the less skilled player. That said, you don't want to set your bar where the other setter can't make a play without you calling a foul. Set a level where you reward the less skilled setter for making clean plays, and penalize them when their play is clearly deficient. Be sure not to let mistakes by the better set go away just because it happens less frequently! (A mistake I make occasionally b/c I just hadn't seen them commit an error for so long! :-)
  • Be consistent! No matter how you call it, make sure that you are consistent, both between teams, and throughout a match. It's very difficult to start a match being super-tight. It requires a lot of concentration, and if you're reffing a 3/5 match, to continue that vigilence over 1-2 hours can be very draining. You will start to get tired, and let things go, and now the coaches will start to be upset because more marginal plays are not being called. At the same time, you can't start a match letting anything fly, and then try to tighten it up, you'll get the same reaction. Find a place where you're comfortable, and call that throughout the match. I've spoken with many coaches, and for them the most important thing is consistency. Once they understand what you will call and what you won't, they can set their expectations - they just hate being surprised.


OK, I'm going to get away from the computer now because I actually have to go ref a 1/2 day for a club tournament. Until later...