We are continuing our multi-part series on why team roster size matters more than most people realize, and why you should be asking any club you are looking at the important question “How many players do you carry per team?” Read More

In club volleyball, teams are limited to **only twelve substitutions per set** while Libero replacements are unlimited. Since substitutions normally happen as players rotate around the court, and rotation only happens when a team sides out, the amount of rotation, and therefore the number of substitutions that will be needed/used in any set will be highly variable.

The worst case scenario (worst case for getting players involved) happens when one team wins the set 25-0. Since a side out never occurs in this case, no rotation happens, and the six players who started on the court will never come out (without the coach making an atypical substitution). This means the starting six players for each team will have 100% playing time and all other players will have 0% playing time for the set.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the situation where both teams never win a point on their own serve. This means that every point is a side out for one team. In other words, Team A serves, Team B wins the point, Team B serves, Team A wins the point, rinse and repeat. In this scenario, each team will rotate the maximum number of times possible during the course of the set and each team will burn through their available substitutions at the maximum rate. How quickly will each team run out of substitutions? Let's figure it out.

Before we can do that though, we need to review how our theoretical team starts the set on the court. If you remember from part 1, a team running a 6-2 will typically start a set in the following positions:

Remembering the role pairings in a 6-2 detailed in part 1, we can see that the following substitutions/replacements take place as we move into each rotation:

- Rotation 2 - one substitution (OH2 for DS)¹
- Rotation 3 - one Libero replacement (MH2 for L)
- Rotation 4 - two substitutions (S2 for OPP1 and OPP2 for S1) and one Libero replacement (L for MH1)²
- Rotation 5 - one substitution (DS for OH2)
- Rotation 6 - double Libero replacement (MH1 for L, L for MH2)
- Rotation 1 - two substitutions (S1 for OPP2, OPP1 for S2)

Since we use six substitutions for every six rotations, we can deduce that we will burn through all twelve available substitutions when the score reaches 12-12. Once a team runs out of substitutions, the six players left on the court are the only ones that can play for the remainder of the match. Libero replacements can still happen because those are unlimited, but at that point in the set, a maximum of seven players can now be involved in the match. So, given even an optimal number of players on the team (10), in this “maximum rotation” scenario we can only involve everyone for **half** the set.

Just like the worst case scenario, this maximum rotation scenario rarely happens (it is nice to know the upper and lower bounds of a problem though). So what does happen in a more typical scenario? To find out, you just need to know the average number of sideouts (and thus rotations) that occur per team for the level of volleyball you are looking at. Joe Trinsey³, writing for Gold Medal Squared, says “the average number of rotations per [set] will be somewhere around 26 or 27, or 13 for each team.”⁴ Remembering that we use 6 substitutions for every 6 rotations and we have a maximum of 12 substitutions, we can see that we will run out of substitutions just as an “average” set nears its end. Given this, we can see that ten players is effectively the upper limit for the number of players that the rules of club volleyball allow to meaningfully participate in a set.⁵

Given everything discussed so far, we have established that the rules of the game itself restrict us from meaningfully involving more than ten players in a set of volleyball. But why does that matter? Why not just take twelve per team, or maybe fourteen, or heck, eighteen per team?⁶ What if we give everyone equal attention and instruction in practice, we give them an equal number of reps in practice, and we give them an equal chance to compete for playing time in matches? Aren't our families only paying for practice anyway?⁷ I suppose a club can take as many players as they want per team and can justify it however they like, but is it right? Is it really the best thing for their athletes? And in doing so, are they potentially hinting at other “shortcuts” they might be taking?

I believe that much (maybe even the bulk) of the learning that happens during a typical club season, happens within the confines of team practices. But I also believe that the crucible of competitive match play, when decisions made, actions taken, and effort expended directly result in wins and losses (i.e., success and failure) teaches important lessons that simply can not be learned any other way.⁸ Isn't that why we play sports? Isn't that why we, as parents, expend so much time, effort, and money to have our kids participate? Why would you want to do all of that if your child just ends up with a drastically different experience compared to others on the team? Paying thousands of dollars a year for your child to potentially sit on the bench or take stats for the whole season is not my idea of a good deal. Maybe your athlete is so talented that they are the one player that gets to play all around all the time, and so, team size doesn't really matter in your mind. Good for you... I guess. But their teammates? Oh well, sucks to be them? Personally, I don't want to be involved in that. You make your own choice.

Working hard to accomplish something, giving everything you have to achieve a goal, competing hard to "earn" playing time, all are wonderful life lessons that are valuable to learn. But where do you draw the line? Yes, sports should be a meritocracy, but what is an appropriate age to be competing for the very ability to **ever** see the court in tournaments?⁹ What are reasonable expectations for a family when they are paying so much to have their child participate in youth sports? How much playing time over the course of a match/tournament/season should any player expect?¹⁰ Those are really hard questions to conclusively answer. College volleyball teams often carry rosters of eighteen or more players and competing hard to ever see the court is the norm. Why not teach these same lessons earlier at the club level? Well, age appropriate learning is not normally a divisive concept. We don't reasonably expect middle/high schoolers to take graduate school-level math courses and excel, so why should it be reasonable to apply college-level expectations within youth sports? Do the rules suddenly change if a club adds “Elite” to their name?

Now that we have firmly established that the rules of club volleyball effectively cap team size at ten players, we will continue our analysis by looking at club motivations and what happens when you do go beyond 10 players. We will see you for that in part 3!

Continue to part 3.

¹ In this example, OH1 is playing all around this set. However, even if OH2 is the one playing all around, the substitution numbers remain the same as we work our way completely through the rotation cycle. The substitutions just happen at a different time. If we are carrying more than 10 players and are substituting a DS for both Outside Hitters, we will use two more substitutions per rotation cycle and our substitution burn rate will be even worse.

² Technically, this Libero replacement happens before rotation 4 – it happens back in rotation 3 after MH1 finishes serving (i.e., Team B sides out). In other words, it happens halfway through rotation 3.

³ Joe Trinsey has a resume worthy of trust on this topic.

⁴ Joe Trinsey’s comment is specifically about “good high school volleyball”. However, high level (i.e., good) high school volleyball and club volleyball should be very similar in this regard, certainly for our purposes. There is definitely nothing in the rule differences between high school and club volleyball that would influence this particular number. The number also agrees with another source that does mention club volleyball in the same breath as high school.

⁵ You can bump this number to 11 if you use two liberos (remember, replacements are unlimited) but I am trying (and failing) to make this article not go on forever. I also happen to not be a big fan of using two liberos (yep, post for another time).

⁶ The maximum number of players that can be rostered to a USAV club volleyball team is 15. You will only see 18 on a roster in high school and/or college volleyball (maybe others?).

⁷ I agree with so much of what John Kessel has written over the years, and I think he missed the mark on this one. Yes, the bulk of touches and learning happens in practices. Yes, sports should be a meritocracy. Yes, parents should defer to the experts (coaches) when it comes to determining playing time for their athlete. But, why is it reasonable for a club to build teams of a size such that a player has no chance to see the court in tournament play? And there is so little value in tournament play that a club can reasonably fall back on the “you are paying for practice” excuse? Sorry, I just don’t agree.

⁸ Yes, you should be competing in every practice with winners/losers in nearly every drill. But that just isn’t the same as winning/losing in an actual match. You can (and should) try to simulate the pressures of real competition in practice but it will never be the same.

⁹ And no, making a kid a serving specialist does not count.

¹⁰ While team roster size does directly impact playing time for everyone on the team, the topic of minimum playing time per player is actually a different (and equally complicated) topic that we will save for another day.