How does volleyball substitution work?

Indoor volleyball teams are allowed a certain number of substitutions per set (aka game). There are a number of rules related to substitutes in volleyball that make it more complicated than some other sports. Players who have yet to play may go in for any player, but once in (whether starting or entering through a substitution), they may only play in that rotational position.

This means that once a player plays in a set they are locked into a particular rotational position (i.e., the position they would have been in had they remained in the game the whole time) and may only play in that spot.

To understand substitutions, you should first understand rotations in volleyball. A player is assigned a position in the rotation when the set starts and/or the coach submits the lineup that places the player in one of the 6 spots on the court (also associated with the order they will be serving). Every time a team gains the right to serve after their opponent it is called a side out, and the serving team must first rotate one position.

Throughout the course of a set, the team will probably rotate several times. That spot in the rotation is what may be referred to as a rotational position.

If a substitution is desired, a player who has never played in the set or has already played in that same rotational position may be inserted in the place of that player.

Why do teams substitute players in volleyball?

There are a number of reasons why a team may decide to substitute a player in volleyball.

  • A player could benefit from a brief rest
  • A player is injured
  • A player is performing poorly
  • A player is a front-row specialist (or a stronger player in the front)
  • A player is a back-row specialist
  • A player is a serving specialist
  • A player is not benefiting from playing in a non-competitive match
  • Playing time is being balanced between players on the team
  • Players are being given more experience in certain situations

The league rules limiting substitutions will play a big part in influencing how and when substitutes are going to be used. Leagues that allow a lot of subs will probably see more subs just for specialists throughout the set, whereas lower limits will probably only seeing substitutions for providing rest, full replacement, or late game attempts to score the set winning points.

How do you signal and complete a substitution?

A player on the bench can indicate the desire to substitute by stepping into the substitution zone.

The substitution zone is the area from the attack line (aka 10′ line) to the net just outside of the court on the side where the team bench is located (it may be on the left side or right side of your team’s net). This area should be free of players waiting on the bench as the area is designated for indicating and handling substitutions.

To indicate a substitute, the substitute that will be entering the game should enter into the substitution zone. The on-court player that is being substituted should match up with the player entering the court by standing facing one another but off to the side so that the referee and scoring table can see both players’ jersey numbers.

The players should wait until the referee (either the 1st or 2nd referee motions the substitute onto the court). The player entering the court should find the correct rotational position (that the exiting player just vacated) and get ready for the next play to start. The player exiting the court should leave the substitution zone and join the team’s bench.

(SUGGESTION: It is a good idea to have the exiting player tell the player entering what rotational position they will be entering. In theory, they should be watching the game and know that, but a coach or teammate should not count on that.)

Players’ on the court may signal the desire to substitute by going to the side of the court where the “bench” is located near the substitution zone and signal their teammate and referee that a substitution is desired.

In theory, the players involved don’t need to do anything other than to enter the substitution zone, but the reality is that the referee(s) may not notice the desire to sub and you run the risk of being out of rotation if the referee signals the next play to start and the serving player actually serves to start the play.

To avoid this, it is wise to have the players involved and/or the coach to call out their desire to substitute and try to get the referee’s attention as quickly as possible.

How many substitutions are teams allowed?

The number of substitutions varies significantly between indoor volleyball leagues.

Currently, the major volleyball leagues have the following rules:

Additional Limitations
NFHS (high school)18No
NCAA (college)12No
USAV (club)12No
FIVB (international) 6Yes:
Starting player – 1 time out, 1 time in
Bench player – 1 time in, 1 time out (replaced by starting player only)

A team will likely have a significantly different substitution strategy if they are limited to only 6 subs vs 12 (or 18).

It is, of course, debatable which limits are better, but it is obvious that allowing only 6 subs will reward players that are all-around/generalist players vs. specialists (e.g., front-row only, back-row only, and serving specialists) as matches that have upwards of 18 rotations will mean you will not be able to bring in front or back row specialists for more than a single 3 rotation period which will likely have a limited impact.

(NOTE: It is important to note that a libero may replace any of the back-row players and it does not require substitution. Again, there are some differences between the league rules for the libero but it allows at least one back-row specialist even in FIVB play.)

Are you allowed to substitute more than 1 player at a time?

Yes! You may substitute more than 1 player during a dead ball situation (between the end of one play and the signaled beginning of the next play).

To do that, follow the sequence for substituting with only 1 player entering the substitution zone at a time. After the player entering the match and the player exiting the match have been paired up in the substitution zone and they have been motioned to complete the substitute, the next substitute should enter the substitution zone and again match up with another on-court player.

Up to all 6 players may be substituted during one stoppage if desired.

Are you allowed to substitute the server after they have served once?

Yes! This is a common question that people have. It is rarely done, but it is allowed.

Why might a coach consider doing this in a match?

  • The server gets injured or shaken up after their last serve
  • The referee whistled to serve before a substitute was able to be made
  • The server barely managed to get the serve in and the coach (and possibly the player themself) is not confident they will be able to serve effectively again
  • To show mercy to the opposing team (or allow a little-used player to play) by bringing in a less capable server if the match is out of reach

What happens if a team signals for a substitution but doesn’t have any subs left?

It depends on when the incorrect substitution is identified and the league specific rules.

In general, if it is immediately recognized, it may only result in simply being denied or it may receive a delay of game notice/sanction. This is a yellow card sanction which is a warning. If a delay sanction is issued again in that set, it will be a red card and result in a loss of rally/serve (which means the opponent will gain a point).

If the substitution occurs and the player enters the game, then one or more points may need to be adjusted.

For example, in FIVB, the team committing the substitution error will lose the point and the serve. If multiple points have been played, the opponent keeps their score but the violating team loses all the points gained since the violation.

Obviously, coaches should track the substitutions used to not exceed the cap and possibly be penalized or leave the team in a bad situation for the remainder of the set (e.g., a back-row specialist having to play the front-row or vice versa).

However, if a coach loses count they usually can ask the referee to check and report on the number of substitutions recorded between plays.


2 Comments on How does volleyball substitution work?

  1. Can more than one player sub in for a position?

    1. Yes, more than 1 player can substitute for the same position in the rotation. The only limitation is that once they have substituted for a particular position in the rotation, they can only return to the game in that same position.

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