Athletes Unlimited is launching its second league this Saturday with the first professional indoor volleyball league the U.S. has seen in years. The league is full of talented athletes, with college superstars and international champs alike converging in Dallas, TX for six weeks of action-packed play.
Athletes Unlimited has pioneered an entirely new model for how a league can operate, with no set teams, unprecedented athlete control, and an individual scoring system that makes each player a star in her own right. It’s an innovative system that has some similarities to fantasy sports, and it’s made for an entirely new fan experience. You can check out our full explainer on how the scoring works here.
Once you’ve got a hang of the scoring system, it’s important to brush up on your understanding of the sport itself in order to get the most out of this history-making season. We’re here to help with a crash course on the basic rules, terms, and nuances of indoor volleyball.
Volleyball is a rebound sport where players use their arms and hands to send the ball over the net. A team earns a point whenever the ball touches the floor on the opposing team’s side of the net. Play is begun with a serve, and a team is allowed three touches on the ball (not including the block, but we’ll get to that later) before they must send it over the net. A player cannot touch the ball twice in a row.
A volleyball match is broken up into smaller sets, which are games played to 25 points (a team must win by 2 points to end a set). Generally a volleyball match is played best out of five sets, but for this Athletes Unlimited season, teams will play three sets no matter who wins.
There are six players on the court at any given time, and these players rotate around the court so that they take turns serving the ball. A team that is serving will continue to serve until they lose the point, which means a strong server can be a huge asset to a team. The receiving team can break the serve at any time by winning the point, and they would then serve the next point. Let’s look at some of the main ways that a team can earn a point.
Scoring a Point
Ball touches the ground – This is the most common way to earn a point. If the ball hits the floor in bounds on the opponent’s side of the net, the team wins a point.
Ball is out – If a team hits the ball out of bounds on their opponent’s side of the net, the team that hit the ball out loses the point. If a player from the opposing team touches the ball before it hits the ground out of bounds, it is now that team’s ball and the out of bounds call is nullified. A ball is also considered out if it crosses the net outside of the antennae (the red and white sticks on either side of the net), or if it hits a wall.
Faults – There are several faults a player can commit which will give a point to the opposing team. Some of the most common faults are double contact (when a player touches the ball twice in a row, most often called on a bad set), net faults (when a player touches the net), and foot faults (when a player steps over the center line under the net, or steps on or over the base line while serving).
Types of Touches
Another crucial element to understand about the game of volleyball is the different types of ball contact that make up the game. Volleyball is an extremely specialized sport, so understanding the different types of contact, which positions use them the most, and how they work together will take you a long way towards mastering mechanics of the sport.
Serve – This type of contact starts each play. The designated serving player stands at the back of the court behind the baseline, then hits the ball over the net after the ref’s whistle. There are several types of serves including overhand, underhand, standing float, jump float, and jump topspin. At the professional level you’ll see most players hitting jump serves, with the jump float being the most popular in recent years due to the unpredictable trajectory it can give the ball. All players on a team must have strong serves, but some players will serve less often than others due to the position they play.
Pass – This is typically the first contact after the ball crosses the net either from a serve or other contact from the opposing team. You might know this type of contact as a bump if you’re old school. This ball is taken on the forearms out in front of the body, with the goal being to create a nice, clean arc to the setter so they can set up one of the hitters. Players can also pass with their hands overhead in a setting position if they wish. A pass is called a dig when it comes after a hard-driven ball from the opposing team (literally digging the ball up away from the ground to keep it in play.)
Set – This type of contact is usually the second of a team’s three touches. It’s played with both hands above the head, where a player takes the ball briefly with her fingertips then releases it to a specific spot in order to set up a hitter. The setter is the primary person who uses this contact, and they are highly skilled at the nuances of the movement and can have incredible control over the path of the ball. You’ll also occasionally see a setter try to trick the other team by setting the ball sideways over the net, which is called a setter dump.
Hit/ Attack/ Spike/ Kill – As you can see, this type of contact has many names, probably because it’s the fastest and most aggressive thing a player can do to score. A hit is when a player jumps into the air (usually near the net, but back row players can attack as well) and hits the ball hard with her open palm. An attack can hit very high speeds and is directed down to the floor, with the hope that the opposing team won’t be able to dig it. When a player scores a point off a successful attack, it’s called a kill.
Block – A block is when one or more front row players jump up at the net as an opposing player is hitting the ball to try to block it from crossing the net. A stuff block is when a team blocks the ball and causes it to hit the floor on the attacking team’s side. However, if the ball bounces off the blocker’s hands and goes out of bounds, the attacking team wins the point (this is called tooling the block). A blocking contact does not count as one of the team’s three contacts.
Positions in Volleyball
The last important piece of the puzzle that will help you learn the game of volleyball is an understanding of the different player positions. As said before, volleyball is an extremely specialized sport, and different players play unique roles on their teams to make up an effective whole.
Players generally have a specific home position that they return to once play has begun (called their base) because that spot allows them to do their job most effectively. Despite the fact that players have to rotate around the court, you’ll see the athletes returning to their base spot every time in order to fulfill the specific job requirements of the position they play. Here’s a basic rundown of those different positions and their primary responsibilities on the court.
Setter – Think of the setter as quarterback of the offense: they have a hand in nearly every play, and they make strategic decisions on the fly to determine the team’s attack. The setter generally takes the second ball after a pass, setting up a hitter by putting the ball in a specific position for them to jump and attack it.
Setters have a unique relationship with their team, as they need to be in sync with every attacking player. They have to know how each player likes her sets, who’s hot that day, and what types of plays are most effective against the opposing team. Setters rarely get the glory of the kill, but they make the whole machine run and can be one of the most fun players to watch.
Libero – While the setter controls the offense, the libero is captain of the defense. This is the player who wears a different colored jersey from everyone else. Libero is a special position that can only play in the back row, and who does not have to participate in regular substitutions. Instead, the libero runs on and off the court more freely, usually playing back row for both middle hitters.
The libero is an excellent passer, as that is her main job. This is the player you’ll see diving all over the floor digging balls, sending off perfect passes to her setter, and reading the opponents hits so well you might think she can read minds. The libero is a consistent presence on the court that can make a team’s defense coherent and effective, and she often takes on an important leadership role on the floor.
Defensive Specialist – A defensive specialist, or DS, is also a back row player. Like the libero, these athletes are excellent passers and play a crucial role in a team’s defense, but they sub in and out in the normal fashion. You’ll see these players used in all sorts of different ways to help shore up a team’s defense, and they can be a great strategic presence to make a difference in the back court.
Hitters – There are three attacking positions: Outside (or Left Side), Middle, and Right Side (or Opposite). These are the players that jump and hit the ball off the set, trying to get kills against the other team. These players are also the primary blockers—especially the middles—so they play an important role on both offense and defense. Hitters are the team’s first line of defense and last line of attack, and watching them battle it out at the net can be thrilling.
How to WatchThat was your crash course in the basics of volleyball, and you should be all set to watch the opening match of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball’s season this Saturday at 4 P.M. ET on Dailymotion. Keep an eye out for games on FS1, FS2, and CBSSN as well as online throughout the season, and follow Athletes Unlimited on social media to stay in the loop. Remember to check out our crash course on AU scoring here, and tune in this weekend as pro indoor volleyball sweeps the nation!