I’ve played volleyball a lot, and professional volleyball players almost always hit the ball as a jump serve, or hit it overhand. So, I was curious whether you’re allowed to hit the ball underhand in the official volleyball rules. Here’s what I found.
It is allowed to serve underhand in volleyball. According to the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) the balls can be hit with any part of the hand or the arm. The manner in which the ball is hit does not matter provided it is only hit with the hand or arm.
There are other rules that govern how a serve is made, so below I will explain what an illegal serve is, whether you can serve the ball with a fist, and whether you can serve the ball with two hands.
What Is an Illegal Serve in Volleyball
The rules of volleyball can differ by each individual league, but the rule set that most volleyball games follow are those put out by what is called Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) which translates as the International Volleyball Federation. They govern all games of volleyball and are based in Switzerland.
They put out detailed documents describing the rules of the game for referees and players alike. According to rule 12.4.1 of the Official Volleyball Rules ‘the ball shall be hit with one hand or any part of the arm after being tossed or released from the hand(s).’
In another way of saying you can serve it however you like provided you hit it with one hand. Therefore, the following serves are illegal:
- Kicking the ball
- Hitting the ball out of your hand without releasing it from your other hand
- Using two hands at once
- Serving the ball with any other part of you body
Therefore, if you do an underhand serve you need to release it from your hand first. This can be as subtle as pulling your other hand away just before you make impact with the ball.
Through my experience in playing a lot of volleyball, serving underhand is very effective when you apply spin to the ball, or hit it flat. Spin makes the volleyball curve which makes it difficult to receive. And hitting it flat produces what is affectionately known as ‘a floater’.
The design of a volleyball is such that the valve that is used to pump the ball up is heavier than the rest of the ball. So when you hit it flat without any spin it wobbles back and forward on it’s trajectory and is very difficult to receive.
How an underhand serve compares to overhand and a jump serve
An underhand serve is effective, however, you can generate much more speed on the ball when you serve it overhand or jump serve. The reason is the trajectory of the ball is different. When you serve the ball underhand the flight of the ball goes up and then down.
But, when you serve overhand or jump serve the ball goes from around net level and then travels downwards. It’s still possible to create confusion for the other team by serving underhand quickly while the other team is a bit distracted.
However, at the professional level players are very disciplined to be ready for the serve and are watching very closely. As a result, you very rarely see underhand serves in professional play. Because it’s not as effective.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that teams will identify a player that is having a bad game, or isn’t good at receiving serves as others. And they’ll try to aim the serve so that they need to receive it.
A jump serve is much harder to perform than an overhand serve, and for that reason you still see overhand servers in professional play. An overhand of jump serve also gives you the option to create topspin on the ball. This is where the ball dips.
The receiving team is not allowed to block or spike your serve
The most ideal serve is generally where it starts to travel downwards just as it passes the net.
That way it dips before it reaches the backline. One danger in casual games is that someone will simply block the ball if it’s too low to the net, or spike it back to you.
But, this is against the rules of volleyball, and is not allowed in professional or amateur volleyball matches.
Who’s the best at serving in professional volleyball
Although, it can be debated who the best is at serving in volleyball, there are some standouts such as:
- Ivan Zaytsev – Italy
- Yoandy Leal – Brazil – born in Cuba
- Ángel Dennis Diaz – Italy – born in Cuba
- Thibault Rossard – France
In recent times the following volleyball players have had the best performance at the most recent Olympic games are:
- Wilfredo Leon – Poland
- Lucarelli Souza – Brazil
- Alessandro Michieletto – Italy
- Milad Ebadipour – Iran
- Bruno Lima – Argentina
It’s common that they hit the ball so fast that the receiving players can’t keep the ball in play even if they are positioned perfectly.
The best servers can serve the ball at 130 km/h (80 miles/h).
The National Collegiate Athletic Association of the USA (NCAA) provides stats on the most aces for the current year. You can check it here to see who the current best volleyball servers are at the college level.
History of volleyball serves
Volleyball was invented in 1895. The game was originally created to be an alternative to basketball which was also invented around the same time. But, favored more athleticism. The original aim was to create a ball game that favored smaller and weaker players.
However, since then players that are much more athletic dominate the professional volleyball leagues.
In a study it was found that on average professional volleyball players are over 6’4, whereas, in amateur leagues it’s common for players to be shorter and closer to the average height.
Volleyball serves have undergone changes over the years.
Interestingly, only since the 1950’s players have began using overhand serves. But, it wasn’t until about the 1990’s when players started doing jump serves.
Can You Spike a Volleyball With Your Fist?
I’ve noticed hitting the ball with a fist can generate more force than hitting with an open hand, but I wanted to know whether it’s permitted under the volleyball rules. I looked at the official rules and here’s what I found.
It’s perfectly fine to spike a volleyball with your fist. Under the rules created by the International Volleyball Federation you can hit the ball in whatever way you like provided it’s hit cleanly and isn’t caught or thrown.
If you keep a clenched fist as you’re taking your spike it creates tension in the muscles of your arms and hand which make it more difficult to generate speed.
Therefore, if you decide you’re going to spike the ball using a clenched fist you should clench your fist at the moment of impact and swing your arm with an open hand.
This creates a whipping motion with your arm that generates more force then clenching your fist and wrist as you swing your arm. You can notice this if you try it yourself.
Generally if you spike the ball with a fist the ball can make contact with your fingers and knuckles which hurts more than making contact with your palm. When you spike the ball more than a few times with your fist it can really hurt, and you won’t be able to do it anymore.
The base of the palm is one of the hardest parts of the body, and many martial arts practitioners prefer to use palm strikes rather than a regular punch.
USA Volleyball, the national governing body in the USA, recognised by the FIVB gives some times for spiking harder and faster.
- Try to hit as fast as you can, and then focus on accuracy
- Open up your body prior to spiking the ball
- Aim to hit the ball when it is in line with your shoulder
- Focus on following through with your spiking hand
I wish I knew this when I was playing volleyball in high school.
1. Try to hit the ball as fast as you can, and the focus on accuracy
USA Volleyball recommends to swing your heart out at first without concern for if you’ll hit the ball in play. I’ve noticed in other sports and physical activities it’s generally recommended to practice slowly to get the right motion. But, interesting in volleyball this isn’t the case.
They say not to focus on your accuracy but to focus on hitting it as hard as you can. And over time you’ll get more and more accurate.
2. Open up your body prior to spiking the ball
They also recommend to involve the whole body, which is done through what is sometimes called the bow and arrow. This is where you arch your spiking arm back, and point your front hand in front of you.
This involves the muscles in your back and creates a longer spike allowing you to generate more speed in your arm prior to hitting the ball.
3. Aim to hit the ball when it is in line with your shoulder
They also say that you generate the most force on your spike when you hit the ball when it’s in line with your shoulder.
As the ball is sailing in the air towards you aim to position your body and shoulder so that you hit in a line straight in front of you rather than hitting it before it gets to your spiking arm shoulder, or afterwards.
With practice you develop more timing. Once you’re comfortable with that you can keep your wits about you and notice where the blockers or defenders are so that you can aim your spike where they are not.
But, in my opinion if you’re hitting it as hard as you can as recommended in the first step it’s very difficult for the defending back row players to get to your spike because it travels so fast.
4. Focus on following through with your spiking arm
Aim to hit through the ball, rather than stopping after you hit the ball. This is a bit of a mental trick that generates more force when you hit the ball. Sometimes this isn’t possible if you don’t jump exactly right, which happens commonly in a competitive game where you’re forced to make a play that you’re not prepared for.
I’ve noticed if you follow through when you’re too close to the net your fingers can clip the net which hurts. It’s also the rules of the game that state that you’re not allowed to touch the net.
Can You Serve With 2 Hands in Volleyball?
The rules of volleyball are very well defined, and therefore, you may be wondering whether you can technically serve with 2 hands, or hit the ball in your hand and then serve it. Here’s what the rules of volleyball say about this.
It’s not allowed in the volleyball rules to hit the ball while both hands are in contact with the ball. However, it’s perfectly fine to hold the ball in one hand and hit it with another provided as you make contact with the ball, you release the ball with your non serving hand.
You’ll notice if you watch people serve that this happens so quickly that sometimes it’s hard to pick out whether they released the ball prior to hitting it with their serving hand. But, if you watch closely they do. If they don’t it will be called up by the referee.
The penalty for hitting the ball with two hands
According to the official rules, it’s up to the referee’s discretion what occurs if the ball is not released from your hand prior to hitting it with your serving hand. They state that it’s the players responsibility to know the rules.
The referee has the right to score a point to the other team, and give them service. The same as what happens, they had scored a point normally. However, the referee can also decide to ask for the serve to be performed again. And state what rule was violated.
Do You Serve Overhand or Underhand in Volleyball?
There are a few different serves in volleyball, overhand, underhand, and a jump serve. But, which is the best, and which one should you do?
Overall, an overhand serve is more effective in volleyball. However, both kinds of serves are permissible under the rules of the game, according to the FIVB the international governing body for the sport of volleyball.
An overhand serve generates more speed than an underhand serve, which makes it harder for the opposing team to receive. The most powerful serve of all is a jump serve, however, it is much more difficult to execute consistently.
The reason is there is more room for error. You can toss the ball slightly wrong, misjump your jump, or step inbounds. Whereas, if you do a standing overhand serve you only generally need to worry about tossing the ball and hitting it. To make it even easier you can hit the ball almost out of your hand.
Then once you get better you can work on tossing it higher, putting spin on it on purpose, and developing your jump serve. I used to do a few overhand serves, then if we’d run a few points in a row I would go for a jump serve.
Since, I hit a jump serve in play much less frequently then a standing overhand serve.