How do you rotate in volleyball?

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Rotating is a major part of the game of volleyball. It is important for players to understand how to properly rotate to avoid penalties and embarrassment. It is important for coaches to understand all of the implications that come with rotations in volleyball to get the most out of their team. It is important for spectators and parents to understand so that they understand the constraints that the coach is under in trying to maximize the team’s performance.

The volleyball is conventionally divided into 6 zones.

Volleyball court divided into 6 zones

Roughly speaking, the court is divided into 2 halves (front and back) and 3 sections (left, middle, and right). For example, zone 1 corresponds to the back right (BR) zone of the court and zone 4 corresponds to the front left (FL) zone of the court.

Volleyball court showing 6 zones: left, middle, and right positions for both the front and back rows

Indoor volleyball is played with 6 players per side. 3 players on each side are considered to be in the front row (rotationally, they are in zones 2, 3, and 4 or in other words FR, FM, FL). 3 players on each side are considered to be in the back row (rotationally, they are in zones 5, 6, and 1, corresponding to BL, BM, and BR).

Why would you name the zones this way? Why is zone 1 in the BR instead of the FL?

The answer to that question is that zone 1 is where play starts for the serving team. The player assigned that position at the beginning of the game will be the first server. The player assigned a position in zone 2 will be the 2nd server, etc.

Again, at the beginning of the set, the coach turns in their lineup and players take one of these 6 rotational positions. The player in zone 1 will be the first server for the team that is serving first. The player in zone 1 will be the last server for the team that is receiving first. The reason they will be the last server is that each team will rotate every time they gain the right to serve (aka side out).

This means that teams rotate clockwise every time they gain the serve, that is every time they win a point that was started by the opposing team (aka achieve a side out).

Examples of Rotations

This is an example of a team in their initial rotational positions. Player 1 (P1) is in zone 1, player 2 (P2) is in zone 2, etc. We would probably call this rotation 1 for the team.

A sample of a rotation 1 order

After achieving a side out (i.e., they gain the serve from their opponent), they will rotate clockwise one position.

Diagram of where players will rotate from rotation 1

You will notice that P1 is now in zone 6, P2 is now in zone 1 (P2 moved from being a front-row player to being a back-row player and will now serve), P5 is now in zone 4 (P5 moved from being a back-row player to being a front-row player), etc. We might call this rotation 2 for the team.

An example of rotation 2

If this team then subsequently loses the serve, but that at some point gains the serve, they will rotate again. They will be in what we might call rotation 3.

An example of rotation 3

The team would continue rotating each time they lose and then gain a serve. After 6 rotations, the team would be back in their initial position (i.e., rotation 1). They continue rotating until the game/set is over.

How long does the player have to stay in that rotational positional during a play?

It is important to know that the players must be in this rotational order prior to the service of a ball. Once the ball is served they may move anywhere they want on the volleyball court. The only important carryover into the play is that each back-row player must play as a legal back-row player (i.e., they may not block or attack the ball from on or in front of the attack line. See the basic rules of volleyball post for more information.)

Where exactly do players need to be relative to the players around them in a rotation before a play starts?

To be in proper rotational order players must be to the left, right, front/back of the player to their right, left, back/front in that rotation.

For example, in rotation 1, player P3 must be to the left of the player on their right (P2), to the right of the player on their left (P4) and in front of the player behind them (P6). It doesn’t matter where players P1 or P5 are relative to them.

Rotation 1

Here is a legal starting position for a team in rotation 1.

Example of Rotation 1 in one possible serve-receive formation

In this example, it may not be immediately obvious how this team is in the correct rotational position (i.e., not out of rotation). By examining each player, we can see that they are in position. P1 is behind P2. P1 is to the right of P6. P6 is to the right of P5. P4 is in front of P5. P4 is to the left of P3. P3 is to the left of P2. P3 is in front of P6. P4 is in front of P5.

Why would you start this way on the receiving of a serve? In this example, P1 may be the setter and is starting behind P2 so that P2 can receive the serve which will allow P1 to set the ball on the 2nd contact. This team may have moved P6 up towards the net because they are not a good passer on a serve (or at least not as good of a passer as P4). P4 may have moved back because they are a good passer on a serve.

Below is an example of a starting position for rotation 1, when the team is serving.

Example of Rotation 1 in one possible a serve formation

In this arrangement, it is perhaps easier to see that the team is in the correct rotational position. In this case, P1 is serving and is outside of the court (and thus can be anywhere behind the end line regardless of the positions of the other players on the court). P2 is to the right of P3. P3 is to the right of P4 and in front of P6. P4 is in front of P5. P5 is to the left of P6.

Why might you start this way on a serve? In this example, P5 might be the setter who usually plays BR (so they are closer to setting target between zone 2 & 3). P1 is going to move to the middle back (BM) after they serve. P6 may be a top passer and may man the BL position which is diagonal to the opponents outside hitter (the hitter that hits most often for the opponent). P3 is playing middle blocker/hitter in the front row. P2 is playing outside hitter. P4 is playing right-side/opposite hitter.

Once the server contacts the ball to start the play, the players are free to move wherever they are needed. When your team is serving, you usually have time to switch to your preferred base defensive position. When your team is receiving, you need to concentrate on getting a good pass and attack before you will need to switch to your preferred defensive position

How many times does a team rotate during a set?

At most, it is possible for a game to have a side out for each service (e.g., each time the server serves the opponent wins the point). In that case, a team would rotate at least 25 times. Of course, it is possible to never lose serve in which case no rotations would ever occur. On average, I would estimate at a typical high school level (or 16U or older club level) the side out rate is probably around 50%. This means half the time the receiving team breaks the serve (or a service error occurs). In that case, an average set would see about 15-16 rotations

How do rotations affect volleyball strategy?

Rotations affect teams because it dictates what players are in the front-row, which players are in the back-row, and which players are serving. Coaches will want to look at each of the 6 rotations for their team to make sure they can be as strong as possible through all 6 rotations.

In some sports (e.g., football and basketball), it is easy to just put the top X number of players on the field/court to achieve the best possible result. This is not so obvious, easy, or even possible to always have your top players in the right position in volleyball.

In volleyball, you may start with the optimal lineup with 3 tall and capable front-row players who can block and hit effectively, and 3 capable back-row players that can pass, set, and even hit effectively from the back-row. In one rotation, this dream lineup could be compromised as 1 of those capable front-row players now has to serve, pass, and possibly hit from the back-row, while one of those capable defenders may now be in the front-row where they are not nearly as capable. This could happen in just 1 point. In 2 rotations, you now have 2 players out of their optimal position, and in 3 rotations your dream lineup is reversed.

Teams may mitigate this effect through substitutions and the use of a libero in the back-row. However, teams do not have unlimited substitutions (e.g., FIVB allows only 6 and USAV only 12 substitutions per set) and may only have 1 libero on the court at a time.

Coaches will have to decide how to best balance the rotation so that they can be effective enough throughout all 6 rotations over the expected length of the set. They don’t want to get stuck in a rotation where they are unable to achieve a side out. They also don’t want to exhaust their substitutions and be stuck with an inflexible lineup at the end of a set where a point can make the difference between winning and losing a set.

Another way rotations affect team strategy is in whether or not the team uses one setter (5-1) or two (4-2 or 6-2) in their offensive scheme. In a one setter system (e.g., a 5-1), eventually, that setter will rotate to the front-row. In that case, the team will have 2 front-row hitters roughly half the time, and 3 front-row hitters the other half. If they use two setters that are opposite one another, they can always have a setter to set from either the front or the back to achieve the 2 or 3 hitters (in a 4-2 or 6-2 system, respectively) they are looking for all of the time.

Coaches may also consider that their team will have more opportunities in rotation 1 than in rotation 6 given that unless there are exactly 6, 12, 18, or 24 side outs in a set they will have at least 1 more opportunity in rotation 1. This may mean that they want to have a slightly stronger rotation 1 for serving, hitting, and/or passing and setting in rotation 1 than in rotation 6.


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