Volleyball has been described as an 'interval' sport with both anaerobic and aerobic components. At the higher skill levels, technical performance may be limited by physical characteristics as well as physical fitness, and performance characteristics such as speed and vertical jump. This investigation compared teams at the two uppermost levels of men's volleyball in Canada for differences in physical, physiological and performance characteristics. The subjects were members of the national (n = 15) and universiade teams (n = 24). The parameters examined included percent body fat, maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), anaerobic power, bench press, 20-m sprint time and vertical jumping ability. The only significant difference in physical characteristics between the two teams was in age. Despite similarities in standing and reach height, the national team players had significantly higher block (3.27 vs 3.21 m) and spike (3.43 vs 3.39 m) jumps. An evaluation of anaerobic power measures produced similar power outputs during a modified Wingate test, yet the national team members had higher scores (P less than 0.05) for spike and block jump differences as well as 20-m sprint time. The large aerobic component of elite volleyball play was supported by the high VO2 max value recorded for the national team players (56.7 vs 50.3 ml kg-1 min-1). The results suggest that either years of specific physical conditioning and playing or the selection of individuals for the national team who possess more desirable characteristics as a consequence of genetic endowment, plays a significant role in the preparation of international calibre volleyball players.