Playing the freeball in volleyball: differences 

between men and women at the elite level

Jogando a bola morta em voleibol: diferenças entre homens e mulheres no alto nível

Jugando la pelota muerta en el voleibol: diferencias entre hombres y mujeres en el alto rendimiento


*University of Porto – Faculty of Sports

Centre of Research, Education, Innovation and Intervention in Sport

**Rosário Volei


José Afonso* **

Manuel Almeida**







          In volleyball, teams try to accelerate the attack construction in attempting to unbalance the opponent’s defence. The freeball –a ball returned by the opponent with a very slow degree of difficulty– is a game scenario in which attack construction speed could be mostly enhanced. To do so, many strategies apply, but one deserved our attention in the current research: the technique used to play the first contact. Ideally, using overhead pass will allow the opponent less time to organize itself, since the ball will travel a shorter trajectory. However, there are doubts concerning the actual performance of such actions in this way, even in high-level volleyball. We analysed both women and men’s matches in the Olympic Games’2012 and drew some advices for volleyball coaches.

          Keywords: Volleyball. Freeball. Elite level.



          No voleibol, as equipas procuram acelerar a construção do ataque, almejando produzir um desequilíbrio na defesa adversária. A bola morta –uma bola devolvida pelo adversário com um grau de dificuldade muito baixo– constitui um cenário de jogo no qual a construção do ataque pode ser consideravelmente potenciada. Para o efeito, muitas estratégias se aplicam, mas uma mereceu a nossa atenção nesta curta pesquisa: a técnica utilizada para executar o primeiro contacto com a bola. Idealmente, a utilização de passe (toque de dedos) irá induzir no oponente menor tempo para se organizar, visto que a trajetória da bola será mais curta. Contudo, existem dúvidas relativamente à utilização desta técnica como meio regular de contactar a bola morta, mesmo no alto nível. Analisámos os Jogos Olímpicos ’2012, masculino e feminino, de modo a retirarmos algumas ilações de interesse para os treinadores de voleibol.

          Unitermos: Voleibol. Bola morta. Alto nível.


EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital. Buenos Aires, Año 18, Nº 184, Septiembre de 2013. http://www.efdeportes.com/

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    There are special occasions within the game of volleyball when a team is confronted with constraints that inhibit the construction of an attack play. In such situations, teams merely try to put the ball over the net and into the opponents’ court. This is usually done with some type of forearm passing, less often with overhead passing, below the superior border of the net (therefore, ball trajectory will have to perform a curve with marked ascendant component and will be slow), and with a predictable low degree of difficulty for the opponent (although there are exceptions). When this occurs, the opponents will abandon the blocking positions and the setter will abandon the defensive position, moving towards the setting zone. The remaining five players prepare for an easy ball. This is called the freeball.

    As is apparent, this poses an excellent chance for teams to accelerate their attack phase, as they have ideal conditions for doing so. Accelerating the attack, however, relies not merely upon the setter’s action, but actually precedes it; specifically, the athletes responsible for making the first contact should try to accelerate the ball trajectory to some extent, so it will take less time to arrive to the setter’s hands. The purpose behind these principles is to limit the time at the adversary’s disposal for defensive organization. However, when we watch high-level volleyball matches, we noticed that a considerable amount of freeballs are played with forearm pass, despite allowing for an overhead pass to be performed. This seems to emerge as a regularity of women’s volleyball, while in men’s volleyball there is a trend towards a more pronounced utilization of the overhead pass for paying freeballs, sometimes even using jumping overhead pass.

    Therefore, it was our purpose to analyse the differences in contacting the freeball between women and men elite-level national teams. Results may provide relevant insights for training processes and possibly in assisting an evolution of game level.


    We analysed seven women volleyball matches and seven men matches from the Olympic Games’2012 (quarterfinals, semi-finals, and finals), in a total of 27 sets where 1199 plays were produced in the women’s matches, and 24 sets and 1248 plays in men. Match analysis was performed using high-definition 1080p videos. Every play was observed at least once. When necessary, the play was observed twice in order to enhance the quality of the observation. A freeball was considered every time the opponent had to return the ball while contacting it below the superior border of the net and could not even deliver topspin to the ball, implying ascending trajectories that typically facilitate the construction of the counter-attack. Descriptive statistics were applied to analyse the occurrences in each gender. A t test was performed in order to analyse the differences between the two genders (α=0.05).

    For reliability calculation, we reanalysed one of the matches of women’s volleyball, consisting of five sets and 231 plays, corresponding to 19.3% of the sample. With respect to men, also one of the matches was analysed, with five sets and 216 plays, totalizing 17.3% of the sample. For intra- and inter-observer reliability, Cohen’s Kappa was 0.89 for women and 0.86 for men, which is above the minimum of 0.75 established by the literature (Fleiss, Levin & Paik, 2003).

Results and Discussion

    Overall, 140 freeballs were registered in the women’s matches, representing an average of 5.19 freeballs per set. In the men’s game, 94 freeballs were registered, with an average of 3.92 freeballs per set. This represents a small percentage of actions in the game and denotes the aggressiveness of the attacks at this level, both when in-system and out-of-system.

    In women, only 20.7% of freeballs were played using overhead pass (n=29), while 79.3% were performed applying the forearm pass (n=111). So, despite being easily playable balls, the players somewhat refrain from using overhead pass. This provides the opponent with more time to organize their defence, and can hardly be understood in light of game principles such as attempting to enhance velocity to unbalance the defence. Perhaps this might relate to psychological factors, such as women players being under confident in their skill in overhead passing.

    In men, 46.8% of freeballs were played using overhead pass (n=44), and 53.2% used forearm pass (n=50). Even though men use overhead pass much more often that women, there still is a considerable percentage of freeballs played using forearm pass. The greater percentage of balls played in forearm pass and the smaller percentage in using overhead pass in the women’s game in comparison to the men’s game is significant (≤0.001).

    From our data, we suggest some key points:


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EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital · Año 18 · N° 184 | Buenos Aires, Septiembre de 2013
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