Had you tuned into the stream of the Volleyball World Gstaad Elite 16 early last month, you’d have noticed everything that makes the event, hosted in a valley the Swiss Alps, almost a unanimous favorite amongst players: Stands that were sold out weeks before the first serve, the breathtaking backdrop of snowcapped mountains, a smattering of the greatest beach volleyball players in the world.
Yet when the play began, you’d also have noticed something new. Something odd. Something disconcerting.
Whistles. Dozens and dozens of whistles.
Before the event, without consulting the players — though they were sent an email roughly a week prior — the rules on hand setting had shifted, becoming stricter on what is and what is not a lift.
No, actually. That’s not quite right.
“I was told multiple times: It’s not a change of the rule, it’s a change of the interpretation of the rule, which makes it quite subjective how you call it or how you judge it,” said Anouk Vergé-Dépré, who won a bronze medal for Switzerland in the Tokyo Olympics and serves as the president of the International Beach Volleyball Players Association.
“It impacted the game a lot and it still does, not only in Gstaad, but Espinho and it will continue.”
The sudden shift in the rules, or interpretation of them, left virtually everyone confused. Fans grew indignant at the volume of lifts being called, cascading boos upon the refs for calling lifts on sets that, just a week prior, at the World Championships, would have been acceptable. Not that it’s entirely the fault of the refs, either. They were given as much heads up as the players.
“Even the referees were confused and not able to maintain the same standard,” said the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Perusic, who defends for David Schweiner and is currently ranked No. 7 in the world. “Every game was different, every referee had to adjust the rules according to how he sees it, which created a big confusion, but on the other hand we cannot blame them for that, they did not come with the rules either.”
The result? Perusic estimated that there were six or seven incorrectly called lifts — on both sides — of his and Schweiner’s opening set in Gstaad, against Austrians Alex Huber and Chris Dressler. For the match, the number, by his count, swelled to 10, maybe 11.
“This is crazy considering that at least 90 percent of the sets would not have been called a week ago and that almost 20 percent of the rallies in the first set ended with a setting error,” he said. “This is a problem not only for us, but for the spectators as well — not the most attractive sport.”
The confusion around the rules, the guessing game of what would be called and what wouldn’t, forced players to adapt on the fly. Perusic and Schweiner resorted to mostly bump-setting throughout the remainder of the tournament, and they fared well enough, finishing second behind Chilean cousins Marco and Esteban Grimalt. But others, whose offense has become dependent on the creativity and speed that hand-setting allows, felt the impact deeply.
Poland’s Bartosz Losiak, voted the Best Setter in 2017 and part of the trailblazing team with Piotr Kantor who helped usher in this era of up-tempo, spread offense using mostly hand-setting, failed to break pool, as he and Michal Bryl were whistled for no less than a dozen lifts in their two matches. Sunniva Helland-Hansen and Emilie Olimstad, a Norwegian pair who qualified for Challengers in Doha and Kusadasi and was making their Elite 16 debut Gstaad, dumbed down their offense out of necessity.
“It ruined our experience as a player because we depend on our hand setting,” said Helland-Hansen, who won 90 matches in her four years at Stetson. “Our style of play is all about moving the attacker around. Suddenly, even if it’s a perfect set, you can get called. So if there’s a chance of hand setting, you know you might lose the point by choosing to hand set over bump set, and to bump set with tempo just isn’t the same because we’d never done it like that before.
“It was just crazy. In our game against Brazil, the referee came to me and apologized afterwards because there was no difference. It almost felt like he was supposed to take some calls from us.
“I was really pissed off about our game against Brazil because that would have been the difference between winning the set and not. And yeah, it’s just one call, but it was a call that wouldn’t have been made two weeks ago. When you put it into the big picture, we had two calls against us, and that’s the difference at this level between winning and losing.”
Nearly every player interviewed for this story relayed a similar sentiment: The refs, like the players, had been trained for a certain standard of setting. Like the players, the referees were working it out as quickly as they could in Gstaad. The players, then, hold little animosity for the refs, who either apologized after matches or, at the very least, admitted their own confusion for what now constitutes a lift and what is acceptable.
“It’s hard for the refs, in the middle of the season, to adapt to the calling,” Vergé-Dépré said. “It led to a big inconsistency throughout the matches. It was depending on which ref you got how the match was impacted.”
“There needs to be a transition period between such changes,” she added, “so players have the chance to adapt because if you were preparing the season with a certain technique because it was fine and then out of the blue you have to change, it’s really hard on the players.”
Although Perusic admits he “cannot speak for all the players,” he estimates that “the vast majority of them do not like the change, and not only because it would be the wrong idea, but because it is being implemented in the middle of the season, without any previous discussion or consultation with the players or referees.”
As the tournament went on, the standards were visibly relaxed, though strange calls were still made, many of which were shared on Instagram by an amused — and confused — Theo Brunner, who was watching from home. In subsequent Challenger events in Espinho and Morocco, the standards remained, at best, varied, which is expected in a subjective matter such as setting. It was simply the degree of the variance that is troubling the players the most; some matches went mostly whistle-free; others, rallies were regularly being finished with a refs’ whistle rather than a kill or a block.
“I would understand if they took the people who can’t set, but Perusic and Schweiner getting called eight times?” Helland-Hansen said. “Now nobody can hand set anymore. You’re changing the sport to the point that we need to reteach volleyball again.”