Volleyball Rules and Terminology

Written by Michele Wheat


Volleyball is one of the most popular sports to play, and it's played all over the world. It's a fun and exciting game that people of all ages and skill levels can enjoy. It was invented in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1895 and was originally called "mintonette," a name derived from that of another indoor sport that uses a net: badminton. Whether you're new to the game or you've been playing for years, it's always a good idea to learn more about the rules and vocabulary of the game before you hit the court.

How to Play

A typical volleyball game requires two teams with six players each. The teams are separated by a net that the ball is required to go over. Every player on the court has a position: setter, outside hitter, middle blocker, libero, opposite hitter, or serving specialist. A coin is flipped to determine which team serves the ball first, and then, once the ball is served, the teams hit the ball back and forth over the net until a fault occurs. Each team is only allowed to hit the ball a maximum of three times before it goes over the net.

The goal of volleyball is to hit the ball over the net into the opponent's court so that it hits the ground or the opposing team can't return it over the net. Each time your team does this, you earn a point. Typically, teams will play a match that consists of five games, or sets. This is the format used when volleyball is played as an Olympic event. Whichever team wins three sets first wins the match. The first four sets are played to at least 25 points, while the fifth game, if needed, is played to at least 15 points. Sets must be won by at least two points unless the tournament rules say otherwise.

Basic Rules

Some of the rules may vary depending on the tournament your team is playing in, but the fundamental rules of volleyball are the same no matter where you are.

  • Only six players are allowed on each side of the court: Three should be in the front row, and three should be in the back row.

  • Players may not hit the ball twice in a row.

  • During a volley or on a serve, the ball may be played after hitting the net.

  • If the ball hits a boundary line, it's still considered to be on the court.

  • If the ball hits the floor outside of the court, the referee stand, or the ceiling above an area outside of the court, it's out.

  • A point is earned on every serve for the team that wins that rally.

  • Players cannot hold, catch, or throw the ball.

  • Front-row players can switch positions after the serve.

  • Players can hit the ball with any part of their body without penalty.

Rule Violations

If a player commits any of these rule violations, the opposing team automatically gets a point.

  • Stepping on or across the service line while making contact with the ball during the serve

  • Being unable to serve the ball over the net

  • Touching the ball twice in a row or carrying, catching, or throwing the ball.

  • Crossing the center line of the court. Exceptions may be made if parts of a hand or foot cross the line, but if a whole hand or foot crosses the center line, it's an automatic violation.

  • Touching the net with any part of the body while the ball is in play

  • Reaching over the net to hit or block the ball if the opponent has a player in position to play the ball

  • Touching the ball if it has not yet begun to cross over the top of the net onto your side of the court

  • Failing to rotate servers

  • Attacking or blocking from the front row when you're playing a back-row position

Volleyball Vocabulary

There are a lot of terms that come up in volleyball that can be confusing for beginners. Here are a few popular terms to know that might make learning the game a little easier.

Ace: A serve that results in a point immediately for the team

Approach: A fast stride toward the net, usually by a spiker before they jump into the air

Assist: Passing the ball to another teammate who can score a point via a hit

Attack: The act of hitting the ball offensively

Attacker: The hitter or spiker who offensively hits the ball, intending to get the ball over the net

Block: A defensive play that can be done by one player or multiple players to keep a spiked ball from hitting the court

Bump: Hitting the ball with the forearms

Center Line: The border that divides the court in half. It runs directly under the net to create even sides for both teams.

Decoy: An offensive play meant to disguise the player receiving the set

Dig: Passing a ball to another teammate when it's close to the floor

Dink: Pushing the ball legally over or around the blockers

Double Hit: An illegal play where the same player makes multiple hits in succession

Forearm Pass: Joining your arms from the elbow to the wrist to pass the ball underhand

Foul: Rule violation

Held Ball: A ball that comes to rest during contact

Hit: Jumping and hitting the ball with a forceful overhand shot

Jump Serve: A serve that starts the game by tossing the ball up high, jumping, and hitting it in a downward motion over the net

Joust: Two players on opposing teams who are both attempting to play a ball above the net at the same time

Kill: A quick attack that leads to a point by the attacking team

Line: The boundary of the court

Line Shot: When the ball is spiked down the opponent's sideline nearest to the hitter

Let Serve: A serve that hits the net. The ball is still in play if it dribbles over to the opponent's side, but it's considered dead if it fails to clear the net.

Overhand Pass: A pass where the player has both hands open and plays just above their forehead

Overhand Serve: Serving the ball and hitting it when the hand is above the shoulder

Ready Position: The posture the player takes before moving to make contact with the ball

Red Card: A serious penalty that may result in player disqualification, a loss of a point, or the team losing the serve

Roof: A spiked ball that is blocked by a defensive player and is deflected to the floor of the attacker's side

Serve: The basic skill used to put the ball into play

Server: The person who puts the ball into play and starts the game

Spike: A hit or attack

Underhand Serve: A serve where the ball is tossed from underhand at about waist height and then is struck with the opposite hand in a closed fist

Wipe: When a player pushes the ball so it lands out of bounds

Yellow Card: A warning from a referee or other official when a player is acting up. Two yellow cards in a match for a single player will result in their disqualification but not in the loss of a serve or point.

Additional Resources