Unlike basketball, which has four quarters, or soccer, which has two halves, volleyball is played in sets. The number of sets is determined by the regulating body and it’s not always the same.
In professional volleyball, games can include between three and five sets, and they’re ended once one team has won three sets. To win a set, a team has to score 25 points and have a minimum lead of two points.
This isn’t always the case, though, as volleyball on some levels isn’t played up to five sets, and it can sometimes take only 15 points to win a set.
To prevent any confusion, I’ve taken it upon myself to explain how many sets are in a volleyball game, how sets work, what are the differences between competitions, and how ties are broken.
Understanding the Basics of Volleyball Sets
A set is, in my own words, a score-dependent segment of play in volleyball. The key word there is ‘score-dependent’, not time-dependent like in soccer or basketball.
Unlike those sports, a volleyball set is finished once a team establishes a 2-point lead with a minimum score of 25. So, if the result on the scoreboard is 25-23, the team with 25 points won the set, and the game is restarted from 0-0.
In professional games with 5 sets, the game is finished once a team wins 3 sets. The team with more sets won is the winner at the end of the match, and the ending of the final set ends the game too (depending on how the game goes, the final set can be the third, fourth, or fifth set).
With this in mind, you can see how volleyball is more flexible than time-dependent sports. You can’t really tell how long a game will last, as you never know if it’ll get resolved within three, four, or five sets.
Moreover, you can’t even tell how long the sets will last because teams need to establish a 2-point difference to win a set. If the winning team is leading by a 1-point difference, the game will continue until it gets to 2 points, but more on this later.
Volleyball Set Formats (Types of Volleyball Sets)
The 5-set format is the professional format. A team can win with the results of 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2. The 3-2 result means that five sets were played, and the fifth set was the game-winning set, also known as a tiebreaker.
This isn’t the only format though, as we also have the 3-set format. Also known as the ‘best of 3’ format, this format isn’t used in professional volleyball (aside from charity matches and stuff like that), but it’s often used in amateur leagues, and on middle school and high school levels.
This really depends on where you’re playing, though. In some countries, high schoolers play the full 5-set format, while other countries rely on the 3-set format. High school volleyball sets are a category of their own because they differ from district to district.
Middle-schoolers usually play only three sets and it’s extremely rare to see them playing five sets. Since children at that age don’t have the composure and the experience of an adult athlete, they can’t stay focused for so long, and playing for five sets doesn’t make much sense.
College volleyball, despite being the closest thing to professional volleyball, is only played up to three sets. Another massive difference, aside from the number of sets, is the point difference. Only 22 points are needed to win a game (with a 2-point difference).
You can see that most non-professional players only get to play three sets, and this makes sense to a certain degree.
The margin for error on the professional level is so much smaller, and only allowing professionals three sets would, in a way, be too cruel to the players. Professional volleyball players are also drilled athletes and they don’t have a problem with playing the game for a long time, while the same can’t be said for high schoolers and college players.
The Rules and Regulations
FIVB, commonly known as the International Volleyball Association, is the body overseeing professional volleyball on the international level – they’re the international ruling body, and professional national leagues usually follow FIVB’s rules.
In the United States, the governing body is called the USAV (USA Volleyball), and it regulates and oversees the work of the National Volleyball Association and the Volleyball League of America.
The NVA and the VLA are two fairly new leagues, which were established in 2017 and 2019, respectively. They’re the first professional leagues the country’s had in a while, as volleyball seemingly never took off the way other sports did.
Within those leagues, the leagues themselves are the ones making the rules, and they both mostly follow FIVB’s 5-set rule.
There’s also the Association of Volleyball Professionals, which regulates the beach volleyball leagues for men and women. They’re a very important regulation body because beach volleyball has different rules to indoor volleyball.
The NCAA regulates college volleyball, and college volleyball is usually the best of 5 system. However, when volleyball teams from a single university play, the university can set the set-cap to 3 sets.
This is why the answer to how long are college volleyball games and how many sets are played in college volleyball is not universal. The University of Nevada, for example, follows NCAA’s rules, but they modified their games to three sets!
The Anatomy of a Volleyball Game
Let’s quickly analyze your average volleyball game.
Team A plays Team B. Some people wonder how many sets do you need to win in volleyball, and the quickest volleyball game can end in three sets.
Let’s say that Team A won the first and the second set, the third set is what we call the match-winning set or a deciding set. Deciding sets are capped at 15 points, not 25, and that’s how 3rd or 5th set volleyball rules are different from other sets.
In translation, Team A only has to score 15 points with a point difference of at least 2 (so at least 15-13) to win the third set and win the entire game. This rule applies to both FIVB and NCAA volleyball.
Now, let’s imagine a scenario where Team A won the first and the second set, but Team B made a comeback and won a third set. That means that the fourth set, which is about to be played, can also finish the game if Team A scores 15 points with a 2-point advantage, but Team B needs 25 points with a 2-point advantage to win it.
If Team A wins, they won the game, if Team B wins, that makes it 2-2 in sets and we’re off to the fifth and final set.
The final set is always capped at 15 points with a 2-point difference. If Team A, for example, scores 15, but Team B has 14 points, the game goes on until one of the teams achieves a 2-point difference. This way, the game can go on until forever (in theory).
At some point, someone will achieve a 2-point difference (23-21, for example), and that team is the winner of the deciding set, and thus they won the whole game!
Strategies for Winning Sets
A win is never guaranteed in sports (unless professionals are playing against children), and you can never predict the outcome of a game. Even if Team A wins the first set, winning the game isn’t guaranteed.
This is actually one of the biggest mistakes players make; they win the first set and go into the second set way too relaxed.
During a high school game, my team lost a game after winning the first set with ease. We were leading 15-8 during the second set when the entire team simply shut down. We became too comfortable with our lead, thinking it was over.
The final result of the second set was 25-19, and we lost the third set by a landslide.
Psychology is incredibly important in volleyball, and relaxing before the game isn’t done will shift the momentum towards the opposite side. Momentum can shift incredibly easily.
A team can mentally get back into the game after scoring just two or three points in a row, and the opposite team can completely drop out after conceding two or three points in a row.
This is why coaches insist that players can’t relax once they start winning. Once you start winning, you go for the kill, you don’t sit back and let the ball come to you.
Variations and Special Cases
When people ask how many sets are in a volleyball game, they usually actually ask how many sets do they play in college volleyball or middle school volleyball.
There are special cases within these categories, as I mentioned previously with the University of Nevada. Many amateur volleyball leagues also include variations and play only three sets.
Middle school leagues, which are often called junior volleyball leagues, also play three sets. Five sets is simply way too tiring for children of that age, and their performance would quickly drop off after the third set, making the game more difficult for them.
This doesn’t only increase risk of injury, but they won’t play as well as they did during the first three sets.
Beach volleyball rules are different from indoor volleyball. They only include three sets, and you only need to score 21 points (with a 2-point difference), not 25, to win a set. If the third set is the deciding set, then it’s played up to 15 points with a 2-point difference.
Top Volleyball Colleges and Players
Right now, Wisconsin and Nebraska are the two best colleges in the country (D1 level).
In 2023, both teams had a W-L record of 11-0, with a point difference of only 61 points.
To paint a picture of what a small gap that really is, Florida, which came in fourth at the end of the season, is almost 200 points behind Wisconsin.
Adis Lagumdzija, from Turkey, is currently widely considered the best men’s player in the world, although the opinion of anything best in the world is very subjective and it isn’t carved into stone.
Alongside him, you’ll often hear the names of Thomas Jaeschke, an American, and Facundo Conte, an Argentinian. There are also a lot of Brazilian and Polish players tearing the leagues up at the highest level, which isn’t odd since they’re historically some of the best volleyball countries in the world.
To Sum Up
Volleyball isn’t regulated by time, but by the scoreline. The scoreline is broken into either three or five sets, and to win a volleyball game, you need to win the majority of the sets.
To win a 3-set game, you need to win two sets, and to win a 5-set game, you need to win three sets. The game deciding set is always won by 15 points, but the winning team has to achieve an advantage of at least two points.
Since a volleyball set can turn on a dime and momentum can switch very easily, a lot of focus and mental stability is needed to see a game out and win it!
What do you think? Are 5 sets too much or are 3 sets too few? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out our other articles to expand your volleyball knowledge.
Does JV Volleyball Play 5 Sets?
No, junior varsity volleyball is only played up to three sets. The team that wins two sets wins the game.
Why Does the 5th Set in Volleyball Only Go To 15?
Because at that stage, the players are already tired and there’s no need to draw the game out. 15 points is more than enough for the better team to achieve dominance. Even with the 15-point cap, the final set often gets over 20 points.
How Many Sets in College Women’s Volleyball?
College volleyball is played up to 5 sets, as the NCAA follows FIVB’s rules. When a university hosts a tournament on a local level, though, they can change that rule to 3 sets, but only for that competition.
In Middle School Volleyball, How Many Games Does a Team Have to Win a Set?
Middle school volleyball games are capped at three sets. Middle schoolers aren’t athletic enough to last for five sets and playing for so long would only increase risk of injury.