A volleyball match begins when the ball is served into play. A team may touch the ball three times – not counting blocks – on its side of the net, the usual pattern being a dig, an underarm pass made with the forearms; a set, an overhead pass made with the hands; and a spike, the overhead attacking shot. Teams also try to block the opponent's spike as it crosses the net.
A team's coach presents the starting line-up to the referees before the start of every set. The starting line-up indicates the rotational order of the players on the court. This order must be maintained throughout the set. At any given time there must be six players in play on each team. The players who are not in the starting line-up are the substitutes for that set, except for the libero who can be substituted at any time.
The three players along the net are front-row players and occupy position Nos. 4 (front-left), 3 (front-center) and 2 (front-right). The other three are back-row players occupying position Nos. 5 (back-left), 6 (back-center) and 1 (back-right). At the moment the ball is hit by the server, each team, except the server, must be positioned within its own court in the rotational order. After the service is hit, the players may move around and occupy any position on their court or in the free zone. The team commits a rotational fault or loss of the point if any player is not in his or her correct position when the serve is executed.
Rotational order is determined by the team's starting line-up and is controlled with the service order throughout the set. When the receiving team has gained the right to serve, its players rotate one position clockwise: the player in position No. 2 rotates to position No. 1 to serve, the player in position No. 1 rotates to position No. 6, etc.
In or out?
The ball is "in" when it touches the floor of the playing court — boundary lines are considered part of the playing court. The ball is "out" when:
- The part of the ball touching the floor is completely outside the boundary lines
- It touches an object outside the court, the ceiling, or a person out of play
- It touches the antennae, ropes, posts or the net itself outside the side bands
- It crosses the vertical plane of the net partially or totally outside the crossing space
- It crosses the lower space under the net
The first referee carries out a coin toss to determine the first service and the sides of the court in the first set – and in a deciding set, if one is to be played. The winner of the toss can choose either the right to serve or receive the service, or which side of the court to play on. The loser takes the remaining choice. For sets two through four, the team that did not serve first in the previous set serves first, and it alternates again for the next set.
After the initial service in the set, players serve by rotating in the order of the starting line-up. When the serving team wins the rally, the player or his or her substitute who served before serves again. When the receiving team wins the rally, it gains the right to serve and rotates before actually serving. The player who moves from the front right position to the back-right position serves.
The ball must be hit with one hand or any part of the arm after being tossed or released from the hand or hands. Only one toss or release of the ball is allowed. At the moment of the service hit or take-off for a jump service, the server must not touch the court – end line included – or the ground outside the service zone. After the hit, he or she may step or land outside the service zone or inside the court. The server must hit the ball within 8 seconds after the first referee whistles for service. Screening is not allowed and is grounds for a service fault. A player or group of players of the serving team make a screen by waving arms, jumping or moving sideways during a serve, or by standing grouped to hide the flight path of the ball.
- The serve touches a player of the serving team
- The serve fails to cross the vertical plane of the net between the antennae
- The serve lands "out"
A team is allowed to make a maximum of three hits to return the ball. Hits include intentional and unintentional contacts with the ball — a deflection off a block is not counted as a team hit. The ball must be hit, not caught or thrown. The ball may touch any part of the body, or various parts of the body provided that the contacts take place simultaneously. There is an exception in blocking provided that the contacts occur during one action — that is, if a blocker deflects an attack into the air, he or she may then hit the ball again.
Two or three players may touch the ball simultaneously. With the exception of blocking, when two or three players touch the ball simultaneously, it is counted as two or three hits. When two opponents touch the ball simultaneously over the net and the ball remains in play, the team receiving the ball is entitled to another three hits. If the ball goes out, it is the fault of the team which hit it. If simultaneous contacts by two opponents leads to a "lift" fault, it is a "double fault" and the rally is replayed.
- Four hits: More than three hits are used by one team
- Double contact: A player hits the ball twice in succession or the ball contacts various parts of his/her body in succession
- Lift: A player does not hit the ball, and the ball is caught and/or thrown
- Assisted hit: A player takes support from a teammate or any structure/object in order to reach the ball within the playing area
Excluding serves and blocks, any action that involves directing the ball over the net toward the opponent's court is an attack hit.
A front-row player may complete an attack hit at any height, provided the contact with the ball has been made within the player's own playing space. A back-row player may complete an attack hit from anywhere behind the front zone, provided his or her feet are behind the attack line, or were behind the attack line upon jumping. After the attack hit, the player may land within the front zone. A back-row player may execute an attack hit from the front zone, if at the moment of contact the ball is not entirely higher than the top of the net.
- A player hits the ball within the playing space of the opposing team
- A player hits the ball "out"
- A back-row player completes an attack hit from the front zone and the ball is entirely higher than the top of the net at the moment of the hit
- A libero completes an attack hit if at the moment of the hit the ball is entirely higher than the top of the net
- A player completes an attack hit on the opponent's service when the ball is in the front zone and entirely higher than the top of the net — in other words, no blocking a serve
Blocking occurs when a player or players at the net attempt to prevent an opponent's attack hit from making it past a front line of defense and into a team's playing area. Only front-row players are permitted to complete a block. A collective block is executed by two or three players close to each other and is completed when one of them touches the ball. Consecutive contacts may occur by one or more blockers provided that the contacts are made during one action. In blocking, the player may place his or her hands and arms beyond the net provided that this does not interfere with the opponent's play; therefore, it is not permitted to touch the ball beyond the net until an opponent has executed an attack hit.
Block and team hits
A block contact is not counted as a team hit. After a block contact, a team is entitled to three hits to return the ball. The first hit after the block may be executed by any player, including the one who executed the block.
- The blocker touches the ball in the opponent's space before or simultaneously with the opponent's attack hit
- A back row player or a libero completes a block or participates in a completed block
- Blocking the opponent's serve
- A blocked ball lands "out"
Throughout a match, the coach conducts a team's play from outside the playing court. During a match, the coach requests timeouts and substitutions. He or she may give instructions to the players on the court while standing or walking within the free zone in front of his or her team's bench, as long as he or she doesn't disturb or delay the match. The assistant coach sits on the team bench but cannot intervene in the match. Should the coach leave the team, the assistant coach may assume the coach's functions at the request of the team captain.
In substitution, a player enters the game to occupy the position of another player – except the libero – who leaves the court. Substitution requires the referee's authorization, and only the coach or the game captain can request a substitution. Each team is entitled to six substitutions per set. One or more players may be substituted at the same time.
A player from the starting line-up may be substituted for once per set. He or she may re-enter only to his or her previous position, but must then remain at least until the end of the set. A substitute may enter the game once per set, and can only be substituted by the same starter he or she replaced.
An injured player except the libero who cannot continue should be substituted. If this is not possible — for instance, if the player already had been substituted for earlier in the same set — the team is entitled to make an exceptional substitution, meaning that any player who is not on the court at the time of the injury can substitute into the game for the injured player. The injured player is not allowed to re-enter the match after the exceptional substitute has entered the game.
An expelled or disqualified player must be substituted.
Each team is entitled to request a maximum of two timeouts per set. All requested timeouts last 30 seconds. A timeout request is made with a hand signal by forming a "T" using both hands when the ball is out of play and before the whistle for service. A technical time-out of 60 seconds is applied automatically when the leading team reaches the eighth and 16th points in sets one through four. There are no technical time-outs in the decisive fifth set, only each team's two 30-second time-outs.
Minor misconduct is not subject to sanctions. Misconduct that leads to sanctions is classified in three categories according to the seriousness of the offense:
- Rude conduct: action contrary to good manners or moral principles, or expressing contempt
- Offensive conduct: defamatory or insulting words or gestures
- Aggression: physical attack or intended aggression
Depending on the seriousness of the offense, the first referee will apply one of the following sanctions:
- Penalty (yellow card)
- The first "rude conduct" in the match by any team member is penalized with the loss of rally
Expulsion or red card
A player or coach sanctioned by expulsion must remain seated in the penalty area for the remainder of the set at hand. The following are grounds for expulsion:
- The first "offensive conduct" by a team member
- The second "rude conduct" in the same match, by the same team member
- Disqualification (yellow and red card jointly)
Player disqualification occurs for:
- The first "aggression"
- The second "offensive conduct" in the same match by the same team member
- The third "rude conduct" in the same match by the same team member