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First Referee (“Up ref”)

Getting up on the stand can be intimidating for many player-referees in VGVA, especially the first time. While there is no substitute for experience, the following tips and resources are designed to help inform your activities and relieve your anxiety so that you can focus on your primary responsibility: facilitating a fair, exciting and safe game for the players.

Some of the key points to focus on when acting as a first referee in VGVA are:

Know the rules

At a minimum, you should review the NAGVA officiating presentation and errata, as well as the FIVB rules of the game. Additional resources are listed at the bottom of this page.

Court safety

Before beginning play, ensure that the court and free zone around it are free of foreign objects, there are no spilt liquids, the net is safely secured, the net posts are correctly padded, and that no conditions exist that could endanger the players.

Punctuality and time management

Take a moment after you finish playing to grab a sip of water, but if you’re ref’ing the next game, do report to your court promptly. Ensure that your line judges and scorekeeper do as well. Make sure you have a suitable game ball. Allow a sensible amount of time for the teams to gather on the courts, but when you have critical mass, whistle and call the captains to the stand to decide which side will serve (normally a rock-paper-scissors will do). Give the teams a moment to figure out their rotation, but don’t allow endless discussion. Whistle for the teams to take the court and when they’re ready, authorize the first serve. Games are time-limited, so make the most of it by managing the game efficiently.


Keep it in your mouth throughout the rallies. When a fault occurs, blow your whistle loud enough for everyone on the court to hear it. A loud decisive whistle conveys confidence and also promotes a safe environment by ensuring that everybody hears it and stops playing at the same time. If you want to buy your own whistle, the model to get is “Fox 40”. It’s fairly widely available in stores and online. This video describes how to blow a whistle.

Awarding a point

When a fault occurs, perform the following actions in sequence: blow your whistle, look at your down ref if you have one, look at the relevant line judge, decide which team wins the point (and to serve next) as a result of the fault, extend your arm to the winning side with your palm open, lower your arm, signal the nature of the fault (e.g., ball in, net touch, reaching beyond the net, …), indicate the player at fault if applicable with an open hand (don’t point!). From a spectator’s point of view, these appear as condensed into three distinct actions: whistle, indicate team winning the point, indicate the fault (and possibly the player). There will be a short pause between your whistle and your extended arm, because you will be processing information from the other officials, and there should be a short pause between your extended arm and the fault signal to give the players time to register your signal. Consequently, your arm should never be going up as you whistle, nor should you be signaling the team winning the point and, for example, “ball in” at the same time in a strange semaphore-like gesture. Use the Official hand signals, one at a time.


One of the most important characteristics of a good referee is consistency. The same situation must be treated identically throughout the match. Consistency has a couple of different facets:

  • Ball handling: set a standard early in the match for what you will and won’t call in terms of double contacts and lifts and apply it consistently throughout the match.
  • Signals: try to use consistent timing in your whistle-point-fault sequence, no matter the fault, the player or the score. Also be consistent and neutral in your body language. This conveys confidence and impartiality.

Ball handling

This refers to double contacts and lifted/held balls, and is one of the most difficult aspects of refereeing. As stated above, one of the most important considerations is consistency. Set a level that reflects the skill expected in the level you’re officiating. You don’t want to take the game away from the players with too many ball handling violations, but it’s not jungle-ball either. Some principles you can apply are:

Was the contact so faulty that it made you cringe? Like a ball held for an extended amount of time and clearly thrown, or a ball hitting one hand, then the other, and spinning like a top… Call these every time.

Did the team gain an advantage? Even if the contact wasn’t cringe-worthy, ask yourself if it gave an unfair advantage to the team. Examples would be a double-contact set that caused the ball to just dribble over the net onto the other side, or a catch-and-throw back-set designed to fool the defense. Call these every time.

If the rally is exciting and a player has made a spectacular play to retrieve a ball, but the contact isn’t perfect, be a bit more lenient, within reason. A setter executing a running-jumping-cartwheel back-set when a simple play was available to them does not count as spectacular play and should not be judged any more leniently than normal.

Don’t let players shouting influence your decisions. Make the calls yourself and stick to them. Don’t allow discussion of ball handling.

Lifts can occur in a number of different situations, not just obvious underhanded scoops. Look for extended contact between the hand and the ball, either in time or space. Look for a ball being caught and redirected. On a tip, the hand must already be moving forward when the ball is contacted, and it must rebound cleanly without being caught.

One way to distinguish between a lift and a double contact is that a lift will usually look like “too much control” applied to the ball, whereas a double looks like “too little control”.

Some violations are so bad that you need to call them no matter when they occur, but try to be sensitive to the score and think twice about calling a marginal double hit when it’s 25-24. Take a look at Corny Galdones’ good articles on the delicate subject of ball handling: ABCs of Ball Handling, Judgement; Finger Tip Attack Hits; Ugly is not a Ball Handling Violation.

First team contact

It is important to correctly understand the rules concerning a first team contact and what constitutes a first contact. This is often misapplied in VGVA. There are four situations that represent a first team contact: receiving a serve, receiving an attack hit (does not need to be a hard-driven ball – any action that puts the ball over the net is an attack hit), receiving a ball from the opposing team’s block, and receiving a ball from a player’s own team’s block. On a first team contact, multiple contacts by the same player are permitted provided the two contacts were part of the same action of playing the ball. This means that an overhand serve receive that results in a double contact is ok. A ball bouncing off a player’s forearms, chest, and chin in quick succession is ok if they were in the same action. It’s not about the number of body parts; it’s whether it was a single attempt to play the ball. Lifts or held balls are not permitted, even on first contacts.


Really this should be called respect. You’ve volunteered to get up on the stand and you’re doing the best job you can (by following the advice on this page!). Under such circumstances, it is unacceptable for players to disrespect you. Only permit the team captain to address you, and only with respectful questions about the interpretation or application of the rules. Ball handling and other judgment calls are not up for discussion. Establish a standard for what you’ll put up with early in the match and stick to it throughout. Permit reasonable expressions of player emotions, but don’t take disrespect from anyone. A minor misdeed can be admonished with a double whistle, eye contact with the player, and a “that’s enough” hand gesture. For something more serious or a repeated offence, call the captain over and issue a verbal warning (“X’s behaviour is crossing the line. Please help him/her regain his/her composure. This is your official team warning for minor misconduct. No more.”). We don’t use red and yellow sanction cards in VGVA, but if a situation continues beyond a verbal warning, or is serious enough, you may award a point to the other team or expel offending players according to the sanction scale set out in the FIVB rules of the game. Such situations should be reported to your divisional director at the conclusion of the match.


As first official, you are part of a team of officials constituted to facilitate the match. Your partners – the line judges, the second referee (if you have one), and the scorekeeper – all have valuable information to contribute and it is vital that you involve them in the match. Involve your line judges in the match by making eye contact with them and looking for their signal, not just on tight plays, but all plays. If they’re not performing as you expect, give them a visual hint or call them over. If you’re ignoring them for most of the match and then they don’t give you the signal you need on a tight call, who is really to blame? Keep an eye on the score and ensure that points are going to the right side, especially in cases where you called a reserve or changed your mind about the team winning the point. When there is tight play at the net and you’re not sure if a fault was committed, look at your down ref for any sign that they have information for you or are making a call. Equally, after blowing your whistle to end a rally, look at the down ref in case they saw something you need to know about. In tournament situations, the level of communication will need to be even tighter, so you’re not authorizing serve while your down ref is authorizing a substitution or timeout, for example. Have a look at this article on Teamwork.


Before authorizing a serve, perform a court scan. Is the court free of foreign objects? Is the receiving team in position and ready to play? Does your down ref have anything to communicate to you? Is the serving team ready to play and does the server have the ball? Then raise your arm and authorize the serve. If the server has the ball and is near the serving area, but is delaying or fooling around bouncing the ball off the wall, don’t let them dictate the pace of the match. Blow your whistle and authorize serve. They still have 8 seconds to serve the ball and that is an eternity. As you are performing your court scan, note the positions of the “in” setters on both sides. Are they front or back row? This step is vital to detecting some of the faults we’ll mention later.


In order to observe the relevant aspects of play, it is important for the first referee to focus on the right things. Each situation is different:

  • Serve: look at the server’s action to make sure it is legal (ball not held during an underhand server, not tossed twice) as well as their feet, to make sure no service line fault is committed.
  • In general: you should lean slightly towards the side that has the ball in order to improve your view of the offensive side of the net. Don’t exaggerate it like this referee, who demonstrates many regrettable habits not to be copied.
  • Ball passed: once you’re satisfied that a contact is legal (no lift, double contact, etc), and that the ball will not hit the ceiling, try to determine where ball will go next and which player will receive it. Shift your focus there instead of tracking the ball, that way you’ll get a better view of the contact and result. Look for signs of trouble, such as a back row player jumping in the front row, a scramble that may lead to ball handling fault, a ball passed tight to the net (leading to a number of difficult situations – see “Overpasses” (Nic: add link)).
  • Attack hit: once the ball is legally attacked, immediately shift your focus to the area around the net. You’re looking for many important things, all of which you’ll miss if you waste your time tracking the ball in flight. Things to be on alert for at the net: net violations by the attacker, blockers touching the net in vicinity of the ball, centerline faults (if you don’t have a down ref), four hits (i.e., ball being hit a fourth time after rebounding off the net without touching a blocker’s hands – “no touch”), touches by the blockers (your line judges should help you here too), reaching beyond the net faults. Leaning slightly towards the attacking side will improve your position for optimal viewing.


Of all game play situations, overpasses present the greatest potential for faults. Be on alert for:

  • Net touches by either team
  • Centerline faults
  • Illegal back-row attack of the setter: if the back-row setter on the overpassing team contacts the ball while it is entirely above the height of the net and it (a) completely crosses the plane of the net onto the other side or (b) contacts a legal block from the other team, it is an illegal attack. If you didn’t identify the setters in your court scan before serve, you’ll never catch this, and it is a very common fault in VGVA. It is an illegal attack regardless of whether the contact was a setting action that went amiss and passed over the net, or an intentional hit or tip.
  • Illegal back-row block of the setter: if the opposing team returns the overpassed ball and it contacts the back-row setter who has part of his body above the height of the net, it is an illegal block. In this case, it is not the height of the ball that matters, but the setter being above the net. It doesn’t matter if the setter’s action looks like a classic block or not, and in fact typically it will not. This happens most often when a setter tries to jump-set an overpassed ball, fails, and is still in the air above the net when the opposing blocker/attacker returns the ball and it contacts them.
  • Reaching beyond the net. There are a few ways this can happen:
    • Attack hit: A player puts his hand(s) over the net and executes an attack hit rather than a block. This is never permitted and is always the fault “reaching beyond the net”. It is, however, permitted to pass a hand over the net after the ball is contacted on a player’s own side.
    • Penetrating block: After the first overpass contact (or a second contact), a player from the other team blocks a ball entirely on the overpassing team’s side while a player from that team still has a legitimate opportunity to play it. This is a fault. If the block contacted the ball on the blocker’s own side, it is legitimate. Equally, if no players are close enough to attempt to play the ball, the penetrating block is legitimate. If a player close to the net executes the second hit after the overpass, you must decide if it was an attack hit that – intentionally or not – directed the ball to the other side (in which case a penetrating block is not a fault) or if it was a pass/set to a teammate to execute a third hit (in which case a completed penetrating block is a fault).
    • Setter save: A player may not reach over the net (i.e., cross its vertical plane) and contact the ball to return it to their own side. This could be, for example, a setter trying to “save” the ball that has gone over. It is not necessary for the ball to have completely crossed the plane of the net for this to be illegal; in FIVB’s words: “Above the top of the net, a player is not allowed to penetrate the vertical plane to contact the ball and return it to his own court.”
    • Learn to anticipate these situations so that you can make a quick and correct judgment when they occur. The fast pace of play at the net during an overpass requires no less. Check out this article on Overpasses.


      Remember why you’re there: to facilitate a good, fair, safe match for the players. Be decisive, but don’t by a tyrant. Try to let the game unfold and only inject yourself when necessary. Call the violations as you see them, but only with a view to enabling a better game, not to showing how clever you can be by detecting minor overlaps or being petty with excessive ball handling calls that take the game away from the players. It’s about the players, the coaches (if present), and the spectators, pretty much in that order. It’s never about you. The best compliment anyone can pay you as a referee is that you were not a factor in the match and you were not remembered. Sorry, divas.


      Questions? contact our rules coach