Players are typically referred to by the position they are playing. The positions are always denoted from the view of the respective goalkeeper, so that a defender on the right opposes an attacker on the left. However, not all of the following positions may be occupied depending on the formation or potential suspensions.
- Left and right wingman. These typically are fast players who excel at ball control and wide jumps from the outside of the goal perimeter in order to get into a better shooting angle at the goal. Teams usually try to occupy the left position with a right-handed player and vice versa.
- Left and right backcourt. Goal attempts by these players are typically made by jumping high and shooting over the defenders. Thus, it is usually advantageous to have tall players with a powerful shot for these positions.
- Centre backcourt. A player with experience is preferred on this position who acts as playmaker and the handball equivalent of a basketball point guard.
- Pivot (left and right, if applicable). This player tends to intermingle with the defence, setting picks and attempting to disrupt the defence’s formation. This positions requires the least jumping skills; but ball control and physical strength are an advantage.
Sometimes, the offense uses formations with two Pivot players.
There are a lot of variations in defensive formations. Usually, they are described as n:m formations, where n is the amount of players defending at the goal line, m the amount of players defending more offensive. Exceptions are the 3:2:1 defense and n+m formation (e.g. 5+1), where m players defend some offensive player in man coverage (instead of the usual zone coverage).
- Far left and far right. The opponents of the wingmen.
- Half left and half right. The opponents of the left and right backcourts.
- Back center (left and right). Opponent of the pivot.
- Front center. Opponent of the center backcourt, may also be set against another specific backcourt player.
Attacks are played with all field players on the side of the defenders. Depending on the speed of the attack, one distinguishes between three attack waves with a decreasing chance of success:
- First wave
- First wave attacks are characterised by the absence of defending players around their goal perimeter. The chance of success is very high, as the throwing player is unhindered in his scoring attempt. Such attacks typically occur after an intercepted pass or a steal, and if the defending team can switch fast to offence. The far left or far right will usually try to run the attack, as they are not as tightly bound in the defence. On a turnover, they immediately sprint forward and receive the ball halfway to the other goal. Thus, these positions are commonly held by quick players.
- Second wave
- If the first wave is not successful and some defending players have gained their positions around the zone, the second wave comes into play: the remaining players advance with quick passes to locally outnumber the retreating defenders. If one player manages to step up to the perimeter or catches the ball at this spot, he becomes unstoppable by legal defensive means. From this position, the chance of success is naturally very high. Second wave attacks became much more important with the “fast throw-off” rule.
- Third wave
- The time during which the second wave may be successful is very short, as then the defenders closed the gaps around the zone. In the third wave, the attackers use standardised attack patterns usually involving crossing and passing between the back court players who either try to pass the ball through a gap to their pivot, take a jumping shot from the backcourt at the goal, or lure the defence away from a wingman.
The third wave evolves into the normal offensive play when all defenders not only reach the zone, but gain their accustomed positions. Some teams then substitute specialised offence players. However, this implies that these players must play in the defence should the opposing team be able to switch quickly to offence. The latter is another benefit for fast playing teams.
If the attacking team does not make sufficient progress (eventually releasing a shot on goal), the referees can call passive play (since about 1995, the referee gives a passive warning some time before the actual call by holding one hand up in the air, signalling that the attacking team should release a shot soon), turning control over to the other team. A shot on goal or an infringement leading to a yellow card or two-minute penalty will mark the start of a new attack, causing the hand to be taken down; but a shot blocked by the defense or a normal free throw will not. If it were not for this rule, it would be easy for an attacking team to stall the game indefinitely, as it is difficult to intercept a pass without at the same time conceding dangerous openings towards the goal.
The usual formations of the defense are 6–0, when all the defense players line up between the 6-metre (20 ft) and 9-metre (30 ft) lines to form a wall; the 5–1, when one of the players cruises outside the 9-metre (30 ft) perimeter, usually targeting the center forwards while the other 5 line up on the 6-metre (20 ft) line; and the less common 4–2 when there are two such defenders out front. Very fast teams will also try a 3–3 formation which is close to a switching man-to-man style. The formations vary greatly from country to country, and reflect each country’s style of play. 6–0 is sometimes known as “flat defense”, and all other formations are usually called “offensive defense”.