Volleyball Rules: What's legal (and what isn't) with hand setting

There is a great scene in the movie Rat Race, where the organizer of the race is going over the rules of a cross-country trek that will end at a locker filled with $2 million.

“The first one there keeps it all,” he says. “That’s it. Go. There’s only one rule. Are you ready? Here it is. There are no rules! Go!”

When it comes to hand setting in beach volleyball, it can sometimes feel that way. Does anybody really know what’s legal and what is not legal with hand-setting? Can anyone actually explain a double? Can a single person properly identify a lift? How do we know when a hit is hard-driven enough to take open-handed?

In many cases, particularly in player-reffed tournaments, rules are enforced on a “I know it when I see it” basis. Ask why they called a double, or a lift, and their explanation will be the supremely unhelpful “because it was a double (or lift).”

Watch enough beach volleyball on YouTube streams or Amazon Prime, and what you’ll notice is that standards vary all over the globe, and virtually nothing makes sense. You can argue at your tournament until you’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day, what is and is not a double when hand setting in beach volleyball is becoming a much more complicated issue than need be.

So, on an objective, emotionless, rule-driven basis, we’re going to do our best to explain what is and is not a double, what is and is not a lift, and when you can receive a ball open-handed (hint: whenever you want).

“A lot of people talk about a certain number of rotations,” AVP professional beach volleyball player Mark Burik said. “Spin is an indicator, but that’s not what referees are trained to do. What they’re trained to look for is did the ball hit one hand before the other on entry, and did it leave one hand before the other? That’s the only thing we care about with doubles.”

If you’d like to do an experiment testing that spin is only a potential clue, and not an indictment, of a double, try this: Grab a ball and chuck it against the wall. Put as much spin on it as you can. Watch what happens when it bounces back.

Much of the time, it will come back with spin. Sometimes, there will be a lot of spin.  

But how is this possible? A wall is a perfectly flat surface. It’s not moving. It cannot actually double-contact the ball – yet it can still return it with spin.

That’s why judging sets purely off spin alone is nonsensical.

In order for a ref – or you, if you’re reffing at your local tournament – to call a double, they must physically see two contacts, either on exit or entry. This explains why many players argue that their hands were “high and fast” and therefore their sets should be legal. In reality, if your hands are high and fast, it doesn’t actually mean you did or did not double a ball. It just makes it more difficult for the referee to clearly see whether you, in fact, did double-contact the ball on your set.

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The lower and slower you go, the more opportunity you’re giving the ref to examine your touch and contact on the ball.

And what if you go too low? And too slow?

Isn’t that a lift?

Maybe. Maybe not.

“There is no amount of time that you can say what is a lift and what is not,” Mark Burik said. “However, what referees are trained to look for is ‘Do my arms and elbows come down with the ball when I’m in contact with the ball?’ There is no how deep, how low you can take the ball.”

Essentially, if the ball comes to a complete stop in your hands before reversing direction back up in the form of a set, it’s a lift. The lower you take it, the higher the chance of that happening. If you want to avoid getting called on a lift, the higher you keep your hands, and the faster you get the ball out of your hands, the lower your rate of being called for lifts will be. This goes on all touches, no matter when you take the ball with your open hands.

Including, yes, the first ball over the net.

I don’t know why people get so up in arms when players set the first ball. It’s no different than if you were to set the second touch; it’s just unconventional. Yes, you can receive serve open-handed – if it comes out as clean as a set. Yes, you can take the first ball over the net with your hands – if it comes out clean as a set. Yes, you can set the ball over the net on your first contact, your second contact, or your third – if it comes out clean as a set.

That’s it. That’s the only standard.

Hand-setting has become far more complicated than need be. The rules are actually quite simple: Did the ball come in on one contact, and did it leave on one contact? Did it come to a complete stop or not?

Those are the only three questions you need to answer when determining the legality of a hand set in beach volleyball.


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