Summer Olympics: All About Beach Volleyball

All About Beach Volleyball

I don’t know about you, but when I think of summer, I think of sun, water, and sand. While lots of Summer Olympic events take place in water or in the sun, only one that I can think of directly involves sand: beach volleyball.

How Does Beach Volleyball Work?

A beach volleyball court is 16 by 8 meters (about 53 by 26 feet) divided into two equal halves and divided by a net strung seven and a half or eight feet above the ground. Beach volleyball is always played in teams of two. Beach volleyball players pair up, if not for life, at least for the duration of an Olympics, and usually much longer. Communication is key, because the two players have a lot of space to cover and movement in the sand is slower and harder than on grass or wood. Even more important than the verbal communication that goes on between players during the game is the unspoken knowledge of each other that grows over years in a pair. You may also notice players communicating before points with hand signs, usually held right behind their butts so that the other team can’t see what is going on.

Beach volleyball matches consist of up to three sets, of which the first team to win two wins the match. The first two sets are played to 21 points, the third, if necessary, to 15. Games must be won by two points, so if the teams are very close, you may see scores higher than 21. Points can be scored on any rally, not only on a team’s serve like they used to be. A point is scored by forcing the ball to hit the sand in the opponent’s half of the court or by allowing the ball to hit the sand outside of the court if an opponent was the last player to touch the ball.

Why do People Like Watching Beach Volleyball?

Remember I mentioned that players hold their fingers behind their butts to communicate with each other before points? Well, television producers are overjoyed to use this as an excuse to have their cameras linger on beach volleyball olympic butts. Sex appeal is not the only draw to the sport though — far from it. As anyone who has ever tried to run or jump in sand knows, it takes a gargantuan amount of power and stamina to do it effectively and for any extended period. Beach volleyball is certainly a strength and an endurance sport but it also has a lot of technique and tactics. I also think that two person teams are one of the most fun events to watch. As a spectator, you can develop a fandom for a pair that doesn’t verge on creepy the way that rooting for individuals sometimes feels, but is more intimate that rooting for a team of 12 or 20.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are two medal events in the Olympics for beach volleyball – a men’s event and a women’s.

How Dangerous is Beach Volleyball?

One of the joys of playing beach volleyball, even at a very very low level, is that when you dive for a ball, you land on soft sand, not a scrapey wood floor. Beach volleyball is a very safe sport to play. You’ll rarely see a team have to withdraw because of injury, but you do often see players taping up their fingers, wrists, shoulders, or leg muscles, all of which take a beating from this sport.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Beach Volleyball?

So… here’s the thing. The sport itself is not so bad. There are two gold medals, one for women, one for men, each of which have an even number of teams and athletes competing for it. The net is slightly lower for women than for men, but I’m not horribly opposed to this type of difference that recognizes the difference between the average height of men and women. No, the bigger problem in beach volleyball, which makes this a bad sport in terms of gender equality, is the uniforms! Men wear reasonably baggy shorts and loose tank top shirts. Women wear skimpy two piece swim suits. I don’t think either uniform is better or worse for playing beach volleyball, so why have a difference at all? I’d vote for putting both genders in tight swim suits, but I’d also accept putting both in looser athletic wear.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Beach Volleyball is from Saturday, August 6 to Thursday, August 18.

Read more about beach volleyball on the official Rio Olympics site.

Does a team have to hit the ball three times in volleyball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Does a team have to hit the ball three times in volleyball? Is that a rule or a custom? What happens if you hit it right back to the other team when you get it?


Dear Kerry,

If you’ve ever played or watched volleyball, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “bump, set, spike.” That three word phrase describes the most common way that a volleyball team deals with a ball hit to their side of the court. The ball usually comes over the net from the other team moving pretty fast, and it’s often not possible for the defensive team to reach it until it’s close to the ground. This necessitates an underhand hit, usually done with two hands folded into each other, called a bump. The purpose of the bump is to prevent the ball from hitting the ground and to get the ball moving back up into the air, where it can shed some of its speed and be easier for the next person to handle. The next person closest to the ball runs under its arc and is ready to take it when it reaches close to head height. Their job is to take the now much more controllable ball and set up one of their teammates in a position where they can really attack the other team with the next hit. This gentle, tactical move is called a set and it’s done with two hands pointed towards each other with the fingers slightly loose. A set sends the ball easily back into the air, right into a spot that’s above the height of the net and usually quite close to it. From there, a leaping teammate can spike the ball, hitting it as hard as they can with the heel of their hand, aiming for a spot on the other team’s side of the court where they think it will be able to find the ground regardless of the opposing team’s defensive efforts. This pattern, bump, set, spike continues unabated until one team is unable to save the other team’s spike from hitting the ground or the ball goes out of bounds. Bump, set, spike – three hits on each side of the court – is the common rhythm of volleyball but it is not a rule.

There’s no rule in volleyball that requires a team to hit the ball three times before sending the ball back over the net to the other team. There is a rule that dictates that a team may not hit the ball more than three times before the ball travels back over the net or touches a player from the opposite team. Three is a maximum number of hits, not a required number. A team may choose at any point to hit a ball coming onto their side of the court right back to the other team without pause. So, why is three such a dominant number? It comes down to tactics. Each time the ball comes onto one team’s side of the court is a threat and an opportunity. It’s a threat because if the ball drops to the floor, the other team gets a point. It’s an opportunity because if the team can bring the ball under control and set up a strong shot, they have a chance to score a point if they can overpower or fake out the opposing team’s defense. Using the full three hits offers the best odds for a team to be able to create a winning hit for their team. It usually takes a good bump on the first hit just to prevent the other team from scoring. It’s hard to set up a good spike straight from a bump, so a set is usually the next move. Just like that, it’s the third hit! Once in a while, a savvy volleyball player will take advantage of this three hit rhythm by doing a quick spike on the second hit, when the other team is expecting a set. This rare move can catch a defensive team unprepared and score an easy point, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Next time you watch volleyball, see if you can identify a time when it would have been better for one team to hit the ball over the net in fewer than three hits!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why do people like volleyball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do people like volleyball?

Just wondering,

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Hi Jennie,

Volleyball is a funny sport when you think about it. I mean, why shouldn’t the ball hit the ground? Why do teams of people go to such lengths to keep it from hitting the ground that they look like semi-trained seals? Like most sports, once you accept the invented framework of the game, it’s a lot of fun. Volleyball has a few features that make it exceptionally fun to play and to watch. Here they are:

Volleyball has great vocabulary words

How can you argue with a sport that has wonderful words for so many of its actions?

  • To bump the ball is to hit it under-hand with clasped hands, usually to a teammate.
  • That teammate often sets the ball, or hits it gently up with two outstretched hands facing each other.
  • If you’re tall enough or can jump high enough, it’s possible to spike the ball. This is when you make contact with the ball above the level of the net and send it hurtling along a downwards path towards your opponent’s side of the court.
  • If that opponent has the reflexes of the cat and their fearless, springy athleticism, they might be able to rescue the ball right before it hits the ground with a bump. This is called a dig.
  • My favorite term, although I’ve never seen it done personally, is the six-pack. No, not soda or beer, and not stomach muscles either, this refers to the rare occasion when a spike bounces off an opponent’s head, or in the case of this absurd video, three opponents’ heads. In the bad old days of volleyball lore, the spikee owed the spiker a six-pack of their choosing.

Volleyball punishes selfishness

This is probably my favorite part about volleyball, both as a player and a viewer: volleyball punishes selfishness. How does it do that? In volleyball, a team loses a point if the ball hits the ground on their side of the court. Each side of the court is roughly thirty feet by thirty feet and each team consists of six people. This is a reasonably small area for that many players to be at the same time. Compared to soccer or even basketball, it’s very crowded. Keeping the ball in the air is hard enough but if a selfish teammate tries to wander into someone else’s area to hit the ball, it almost always ends badly. The first problem is that there usually isn’t enough time or space for the person being encroached upon to get out of the way. Even if they are able to skedaddle and the poacher hits the ball, he or she is usually out of position to respond to the next hit for the other team.

In this way, volleyball teaches great lessons about teamwork and… revenge. I have fond memories of beating selfish jocks in gym class with a team of kids they wouldn’t ever dream of losing to in a sporting event.

Volleyball scales well with the player

Volleyball is unusually flexible in terms of who can play it. It remains fun whether you play it with young children, on a recreational league team with other aspiring volleyball players, or competitively in college, a professional league, or international play. At all levels, the object remains the same (keep the ball from hitting your side of the court, make the ball hit the other side of the court,) but the challenges vary. When played with beginners, the main challenge is just hitting the ball over the court. With intermediate players, hitting the ball over gives way to working with your team to hit the ball over in a way that makes it more difficult for the other team to respond to. At the highest level, the challenge transforms into out strategizing and executing your opponent. The complexity of the tactics available are impressive. It’s no coincidence that the Wikipedia page on volleyball has pictures of both Buddhist monks and nudists playing the sport.

It has a good mix of competitive and non-competitive aspects

One of the things that turns a lot of people off sports is how thoroughly devoted to competition most sports are. Volleyball, especially at more beginner levels, isn’t really like this. If the biggest challenge in the game, as we wrote above, is just to get the ball over the net, then it really isn’t that competitive of a sport. Sure, the team that fails to get the ball over the net fewer times wins, but that’s really a judged team activity as opposed to a competitive activity. Not until intermediate or expert play does volleyball become a sport where players actively engage with opponents they are trying to beat.

At high levels, it’s incredibly athletic

Watching really great athletes play volleyball is incredibly. Top level volleyball requires incredible reflexes and hand-eye coordination, explosive jumping power, strength and endurance, all of which is exhibited in this wonderful video from 2011 World league play:

That was an amazing play by two great teams playing a very cool sport.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer


Why Does One Player Wear a Different Color in Volleyball?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching the World Cup Championships of Men’s Volleyball the other day between the United States and Brazil. Why does one player wear a different colored jersey in Volleyball?


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If you’re interested in other Olympics sports, I’ve written about all the events and have worked on some schedules too. Find it all here.

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Dear Nora,

I’ve been wondering about the person in volleyball who wears a different colored jersey for years. I’ve known they were called a libero and that they played by a different set of rules but I didn’t know what they were. Now I do!

The libero is a defensive specialist by nature and by rule. He or she is usually the best player on the team at keeping the play alive by digging the opposing team’s best shots before they hit the floor. The libero, which literally means “free” in Italian, is something of a magical position because it is allowed, by rule, to ignore most of the normal rotation and substitution rules in volleyball. Like soccer, volleyball limits the number of substitutions allowed. Teams are allowed six substitutions per set in international play but the libero may substitute infinitely. This allows a team to protect their front-court specialists (usually really tall players who like to spike the ball but aren’t great at getting down on the floor and defending the other team’s spikes) from having to play the back line. The libero can also play the whole game while normal court players must rotate off and then back on after they serve.

As is often the case, with great freedom comes great restriction, and that is true with the libero. The libero is only allowed to play in the back line and cannot attempt any truly aggressive maneuvers like blocking or spiking a ball. The libero usually bumps the ball (hits it with her hands below her chest) but is also allowed to set the ball (hit it up gently using two open hands,) but only from more than three meters behind the net. If the libero sets the ball from closer than three meters, play is allowed to continue but the libero’s team has to just hit the ball over the net, they cannot try to spike it. The libero never gets to serve the volleyball. There can only be one libero, he or she is designated before the game by the coach (and by coming to the game wearing a different shirt,) and must remain the libero the entire game unless injured.

The libero is a recent addition to volleyball. It was added on April 20, 1998 by the president of FIVB, the organizing body of international volleyball. Soon after it was introduced, the libero rule was adopted by U.S. high schools and colleges who, in addition to the benefit of longer, more exciting rallies, found that another benefit of the rule was inclusion. Volleyball is a sport that rewards height. Smaller players cannot play nearly as well near the net as their taller counter-parts. The angles just don’t work well up there unless you’re tall enough to get your hands above the net. The libero gives an opportunity for at least the best of the shorter players to succeed. Said 5-foot-4 libero pioneer Kirstin Higareda to the Washington Post“It’s a big deal. It’s really given shorter people the opportunity to play volleyball.”

It’s fun to think about it in the context of rule changes in other sports that are intended to offset an imbalance favoring either offensive or defensive play. In NHL hockey, the offensive zones were enlarged to create more scoring opportunities. In the NBA, the most obvious example is the introduction of the three-point shot to increase offense but other examples abound. Major League Baseball probably comes the closest to having a libero in the form of the designated hitter. The designated hitter or DH is a position who, like the libero, only plays one half of the game. Unlike the libero though, the DH only plays offense, batting regularly but having no responsibility in the field.

The libero has cultural parallels that reach far beyond sports. It seems like every group of people and every pastime has that one person who’s a little different; who plays by another set of rules. Shakespeare’s plays are full of these kind of characters, the most famous of which is probably Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a deck of cards, there’s four of every card plus a couple of jokers. The unique character is called the fool in some traditional English dance forms like rapper and molly. Every group of friends needs a good oddball, just like every volleyball team needs a good libero. So, if you’re ever trying to remember what a libero is, just remember: a libero in volleyball is just like Ol’ Dirty Bastard was in Wu Tang… except less offensive.

Groan inducingly yours,
Ezra Fischer