"Handball" is a game played with a little rubber ball inside a glass cube. In the game of soccer, there is a violation of the rules known as "Handling.”
The handling offense occurs when a player deliberately plays the ball with “the hand” (which is defined in the technical literature as any part of the arm from the top shoulder seam to the fingertips), even if the arm is not extended. The key is that the player plays the ball, not that the ball plays the player. Unintentional contact with the hand or arm while it is held in a natural position is not a violation. Many less experienced referees tend to call the handling violation too often
When the ball approaches near shoulder level, young players will often use the outside, upper arm area while keeping the arm pressed up close to the body. That is a violation of the rules, but you will see a lot of leeway given for this at the younger ages of youth soccer.
Very young players often tend to raise their hands straight up when faced with a ball over their heads. Usually they are trying to keep their hands out of the way so they can play the ball with their chest or head, but they simply haven’t learned to judge the flight of the ball accurately. Despite their good intentions, if the ball strikes their hands or arms, that is a commonly called as a violation, because their arms are not in a natural position. It is also highly visible to the spectators.
Playing the ball with the top or front of the shoulder is often also called as handling, although technically, it is not. But the judgment of the referee determines that because only the referee has an official opinion on what part of the body was used to play the ball.
It is instinctive to protect the face or body with the hands from a fast, powerfully-struck ball at close range. Making contact with the ball during a purely defensive reaction is not a violation. Taking the opportunity to direct the path of the ball after accidental contact is a violation. Obviously, this is purely a judgment call by the referee. What is “fast” and what is “close-range” are also judgment calls and will vary by age and experience levels.
To repeat: the handling offense occurs when a player deliberately plays the ball with the hand or the arm. The key is that the player plays the ball, not that the ball plays the player. Unintentional contact with the hand or arm, while it is held in a natural position or as a result of an instinctive protective motion, is not a violation. If the player's team benefits from such unintentional contact, even if it occurs in the penalty area, or even if it leads to a goal or the prevention of a goal, that is called "the breaks of the game.” It is still not a violation.
So, the next time you are at the pitch, calmly enjoying a Saturday morning match, show your sophistication. Remember to holler “handling” rather than “handball” – or, even better, recognize that the situation has been adjudged by the referee to be not a violation at all, and holler nothing. J