What is a Libero? | Volley-Pedia’s Complete Guide to the Libero Position
I’ve been lucky enough to represent my country in a position that most of my countrymen and women (Australians) probably wouldn’t understand:
Let’s be honest though:
A single paragraph isn’t going to be enough to give you a good answer.
So we’ve decided to compile the Most Extensive Guide to the Libero Position in Volleyball:
In a way that actually makes sense.
What is a libero? It’s probably one of the most common questions in volleyball, and the simple answer is ‘a back-row specialist’. Liberos were first introduced into the sport in 1998 as a way to promote longer rallies and create more defensive opportunities. Since then, it has developed into one of the most skill-specific positions in (I’m not afraid to say) any sporting discipline.
Are Liberos Usually Short?
Libero Rules in Volleyball
The Best Liberos in the World
Libero Role & Responsibilities
Can A Libero Serve?
(Bonus) Part 7:
How to Pronounce 'LIBERO'
How Did It All Start?
Did you know that the word libero means ‘free’ in Italian?
And that’s no coincidence.
One of the main advantages of the libero’s introduction into volleyball was the freedom to substitute this player as many times as you like.
We’ll talk more about the libero rules in volleyball below, but for now just know that the title ‘libero’ was given to this position mostly to show that this player would be:
‘Free to substitute into the game’ unlike other players.
The origins of the libero are still a matter of recent history, starting just two decades ago in 1998.
Interestingly enough, the introduction of the Rally Point System was introduced at roughly the same time as the libero--making it an exciting time for volleyball fans everywhere.
Together, the goal was clear:
make volleyball more
for the audience, and
easier for broadcasters to
schedule match times.
The introduction of the rally
point scoring system was an
obvious way to do this (with
sideout scoring, teams could
only score points while serving--naturally, some of the games could take a very long time).
But the libero may not be as intuitive as this:
And its original effect may not have quite worked out as intended.
The goal of the libero role was to
“... increase the number of saved balls and to put an end to the dry succession of reception-pass-smash points to benefit longer and much more spectacular points” (Fournier, 2005).
By introducing a defensive specialist that could stay on the court for almost every rotation, we should have longer rallies, right?
Longer rallies, more spectacular defensive plays, and overall a better audience experience.
That’s the theory.
You can be the judge of this for yourself, but there is an interesting case to be made for the notion that liberos have had a surprisingly opposite effect to their original intention (at least, this is more plausible in the men’s game).
By introducing a ball control specialist, what we see today is that the biggest hitting teams can afford to keep their big guys on the court; having the libero simply cover more court in serve reception.
And while they might be defensive specialists… when Zenit Kazan receives a perfect pass, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to stop them!
For the full discussion on this point, take a moment to check out this study conducted by The Sport Journal.
(I’ll warn you: it’s no light reading. But they make the case in detail, so if you’re interested go check it out.)
- The libero was introduced in 1998 at the international level, then brought in by the
NCAA in 2002.
- The goal was to extend the length (and excitement) of rallies by letting teams keep a defensive specialist on court for longer.
- The word ‘libero’ means free in Italian.
-The libero was introduced at roughly the same time as the Rally Point Scoring System.
Libero Rules in Volleyball
The rules surrounding the libero players are more thorough and complicated than almost any other aspect of the game:
So I think this deserves its own section.
To make things simpler, we’ll break these up into three categories:
#1: Libero Playing Actions: What's allowed?
Liberos are (ironically, considering the name) the most restricted players when it comes to how they are allowed to play the volleyball.
The main restrictions on the libero comes with the job description: back row specialist player.
For this reason, they aren’t allowed to rotate into the front row, and they are totally restricted on the actions that front row players are normally allowed to do.
Blocking (or even attempting to block) the ball;
Attacking (or sending the ball over the net) when the ball is
contacted completely above the height of the net; and
Finger-setting attackers when they are standing in front of or
on the 10ft line.
For FIVB and many men’s divisions, the libero is also not allowed to serve at any time throughout the match (nor can they serve as team captain!).
But more about that later...
What about the back row? Namely:
Can the libero attack the ball from back row?
This is a common effort to get around the ruling, but sadly--I’ll have to spoil the party early.
The ruling makes things pretty clear, no matter which zone you happen to be standing in.
If the libero attacks the ball from above the height of the net, it will be automatically called a point to the opposing team.
This doesn’t mean that liberos can’t occasionally score points though.
Take a look at this crafty play by Japan’s national Women’s team libero as she places the ball in a hole on the opposing team’s court--from below the height of the net:
If you watched the video above, you’ll see that the libero is also lining up as if to set one of her front row attackers.
Notice how she takes off with one foot from behind the 10ft line?
That’s a pretty move, but she’s not just doing it for fun.
Another restriction on the libero player has to do with how they set up their attackers.
Libero rules can read a bit like scripture...
But for this ruling, the point doesn’t end when the libero sets from inside the attack line: it’s only a fault when the hitter makes an attack on the ball.
For this reason, you’ll see liberos jumping across the 10ft line an attempt to still use their fingers while setting up a teammate.
Otherwise, they may just resort to bump setting players when they know that a foot is crossing the line--but don’t worry, many liberos are just as accurate like this as they are with their hands.
You might be wondering:
Why is this rule so… specific?
This rule actually needed to be introduced separately--following the first days of the libero.
You see what happened was, crafty fox-like coaches figured out that having one player who always rotates through the back row could be used to their offensive advantage.
By shifting the rotation so that the libero player would actually serve as the team’s setter.
This way, teams would be able to keep their setter in the back row in all rotations, allowing for three front row hitters at all times:
Pretty neat, right?
Well, the FIVB caught onto this pretty quickly, and thus we have the strangely specific ‘no-hand-setting-inside-the-attack-line’ ruling imposed on modern liberos.
What a sport...
#2: What are the libero substitution rules?
The libero is allowed to substitute in for any player in a back row position. (If you’re not familiar with the court positions in volleyball, take a minute to read our post Volleyball Court Positions: Explained).
Typically speaking, this will be the middle blocker:
But it doesn’t need to be.
Once the libero rotates around and is about to enter the front row rotations, they must be substituted back out of the court, and the player who they replaced will return into the court.
This is where the libero player really does have some freedom.
Not only can they replace any player in the back row, but they can do so an unlimited number of times.
It's actually not even technically considered a 'substitution'. The libero position comes with it a set of rules regarding the 'replacement' of other back row players: It doesn't count as a substitution because, technically, it isn't one.
While defensive specialists aren’t anything new to the game of volleyball, there were only so many times that they could be substituted into the court for a back row player.
More importantly, when they were substituted in for one player, they needed to wait until that same player rotated around into the back row again, if the rules allowed them a second entry into the court (which is quite rare).
As you can see, the libero brings a particularly special
advantage when it comes to rotation and defensive strategy.
A secret weapon, if you will...
Let’s see how it looks in real-time.
Once the libero reaches the front row, they can freely be replaced by a new player--without getting the referee’s attention.
Then, as soon as the player at the service line has finished his or her service run, the libero is free to enter the court once more for this new player without restriction.
In USAV and women’s collegiate level volleyball, the libero is also allowed to stay on and serve in one rotation.
When this happens, they don’t even need to leave the court at all! The middle blocker who is entering the back row will head straight to the sidelines, and the new middle will enter in the front row.
What about when the libero is injured?
If the libero becomes ill, injured, expelled or disqualified over the course of the match, they’ll need to be replaced.
For this to happen, let’s take a look at the rules about designating (and re-designating) the libero player.
#3: Designating the libero.
Before the beginning of each match, the libero needs to be designated:
It’s so special, in fact, that in many competitions they even have a separate section on the scoresheet.
VIP: LIBEROS ONLY
This is for a few reasons, but the main one is so that the referee knows who the libero is at all times.
And the main way that they’re able to do this is by the libero’s different colored jersey.
If you’ve ever watched volleyball with a newcomer to the sport, let me guess a phrase you’re bound to have heard:
‘Why is that player wearing a different color jersey?’
So: why does the libero wear a different colored jersey?
The libero wears a different colored uniform to the rest of the team, not because they are a fashion diva who needs to express themselves:
But so that the referee can identify who is the libero at all times.
This has to do with those libero rules we talked about above--imagine if the libero blended in with all the other players on court. It would be much easier for them to sneak into the front row and attack, right?
Once a libero has been designated, they will be assigned a libero jersey, and this goes for any back-up libero that happens to be on the same roster.
For some FIVB tournaments, with rosters that are larger than 12 players: two libero players must be designated. And if one of those liberos becomes unable to play, the second libero can be re-designated as acting libero for the remainder of the match.
For the USAV, things are slightly different.
Teams are able to designate either 1 or 2 liberos at
the beginning of the match. The designated libero
can also be changed at the beginning of each set.
Cheers to that.
This means that the same libero doesn’t need to stay in this position for the entirety of the match--coaches are free to move other players through the libero position, as long as they note this at the beginning of the set.
Designating A Libero
Specifically: If thy libero sets a ball with their fingers from inside the line of 10 feet, thine hitter shall not contact the ball from above the height of the net.
FREEBALL & COVER
Libero Role & Responsibilities
What is the Role of a Libero?
The libero was brought into the game as a defensive specialist:
And in today’s modern game, defense naturally takes up a major part of the libero’s role.
However, the libero also takes on a number of other jobs, which we’ll talk about in this section below:
#2: Service Reception (Passing);
#3: Setting; and
#4: Freeball & Cover situations.
In most cases, the libero on any given team will be one of the
strongest defenders. Typically quick, agile and ready to get in
the way of any missile directed their way, the libero position is
often strategically placed by coaches in the defensive position
where they can touch the ball most often.
This will vary from team to team, although almost always liberos will find themselves in Position 5 or Position 6.
In Position 5, they are able to take the sharp, hard hitting swings of the opponent’s attacker, as well as commanding other roles:
Things like picking up the tips and roll shots which might otherwise hit the middle of the court.
By playing in Position 5, the libero also frees up your team’s outside hitter to run the pipe directly through the middle of the court.
When playing in Position 6, the libero is free to roam around the baseline in defense. For bigger, high-swinging teams, this might be the best option for your fast and agile libero player.
In Position 6, they can read the play, move to balls that shoot off the top of the block, command the defensive structure from the back of the court, and also fill any gaps or seams that might appear during the rally.
#2 Service Reception (Passing)
This is where the idea of the libero as a ‘defensive specialist’ becomes something of a paradox.
Let me explain:
The libero was brought into the game to extend rallies and make spectacular defensive plays, right? But they are also valued on teams for their serve receive skills.
In many teams, the libero will be the leader of a team’s service reception
line-up, often taking up half or more of the court on float serves.
This frees up the attackers to make a full approach on the swing, and ultimately
makes a team more effective in sideout.
More importantly though, by adding a passing specialist into the mix, the libero position has ultimately given teams a greater offensive advantage.
It lets teams receive the serve positively (arguably) more often than if there was no libero, which is one of the most important factors in how successful a volleyball team’s offense will be.
As we saw earlier, there was a time when many coaches tried to use the libero rule as a way of bypassing the back-row setter restrictions.
And while the FIVB was quick to catch on, that doesn’t mean that libero players don’t still have their go at setting up the offense.
In fact, in many teams it is the libero player who is assigned to taking the second contact when the setter is forced to play the ball first.
For those who aren’t so familiar with volleyball structures: In almost all cases, you want your ‘setter’ to take the second contact in volleyball. This allows them to set up the offense players with a precise pass.
When the setter is forced to play the ball first (like in defense), then they aren’t allowed to play the ball again without another player stepping in first.
So, in situations when the setter cannot take the second ball, the libero is your next best bet for controlling the volleyball to a fellow spiker.
But what about that 10ft line restriction?
Even with the ‘no-hand-setting’ restriction for liberos inside the attacking zone, they are still many coaches first pick for relieving the setter.
In fact, some of the more spectacular plays made by top-level liberos have them flying into the attack zone, setting the ball in mid-air and landing as their teammate plants the ball down in the opponent’s court.
Liberos also practice setting up players with their forearms, for cases where they are forced to set from inside the 10ft line. While it may sound confusing, this is simply called a ‘forearm’ or ‘bump’ set.
#4 Freeballs & Cover Situations
The libero also takes on a slightly different role in some specific situations that are common to volleyball.
‘Freeballs’ are what we call any opportunity where your team is able to play the first ball without much pressure.
I don’t mean pressure in terms of the moment of the game (taking a freeball at 14-13 in the fifth can be a high pressure move like anything else!).
I mean pressure in terms of how hard or how difficult the opponent’s attacking play has been.
In most situations, a freeball is when the opponent has had some difficulty on their side of the net, and cannot set up a full offense. In these cases, they might resort to digging or setting the ball over the net:
That’s when the libero will come into action.
Unlike most defensive set-ups (where are 6 players have responsibilities in covering the area of the court and beyond), the freeball situation will have the libero taking on a much larger share of the court.
In some teams, the libero will be responsible for taking every freeball.
Personally, I think that most players are capable of handling a freeball, and there’s no need to put so much pressure on the libero, but you get the idea.
Since the libero is not an attacking player, this allows your team to set up a full offense, without sacrificing a hitter by playing the freeball.
Cover situations are an event in volleyball when:
Your team is attacking and the opponent blocks the attack.
In these situations, the ball can fly back quickly onto your
side of the court.
It’s a completely legal play, and if your team is ready for it,
it can give you an opportunity to roll the dice once more:
playing the ball with 3 more contacts to set up an attack.
Forgive me if you know all of this, but the libero will also play a slightly more active role in cover situations.
This might mean filling any open holes in the court, or crashing in directly under the opponent’s blockers to get hit by any thunder blocks.
It will depend on your team’s system and coaching preference, but in general, the libero can expect to play a larger role in your team’s cover system than many other players.
Are Liberos Usually Short?
How Tall Are Liberos?
There’s a positive and negative way to spin this:
To be fair, let’s take a look at both.
In short, yes. The height of your average libero will be a little smaller than the rest of those skyscrapers hanging around at the net.
There are some good reasons for this.
And by good reasons, I just mean that they make sense: it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily good for liberos...
The negative spin might be that liberos are often forced to play libero due to their height. You know the story:
Okay, maybe these interruptions are getting a little too creative...
Anyway, that’s one way of thinking about it: and it does happen, don’t get me wrong.
Sometimes playing libero really will be your only option for being competitive on the court at the higher levels.
But for me, the libero position is an opportunity for short players (and by short, I really mean sub-6 foot) to compete at the highest level in what is often a tall person's game.
For me personally, this has given me the chance to represent my country at
one of the highest competitions our sport has to offer (Volleyball Nations
League). And I know that while 6ft 1 may not seem so short to many of you,
I also know that the same opportunity could be given, even if I were a decent 5 or 6 inches shorter.
In any case, liberos tend to be one of the shortest players on the team for many of the reasons covered in the rules.
Since they aren’t allowed to attack: having a tall, high-reaching libero won’t really be doing you any favors.
And when we review the primary roles and responsibilities of the libero position--things like serve reception, defense, and setting from the back row--you can see that height plays little to no impact on the quality of the player's actions.
A related theme to this topic is the idea that the libero may not play as important of a role as some offensive players on a volleyball team...
And when you go a full three rotations without touching the ball, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the libero player could really be filled by anyone.
The truth of it is, a good libero is vital to a team’s success: whether they recognize it or not.
Service reception is where this is most noticeable, but there are countless subtleties (in things like how they touch the ball, how they organize the serve reception line up, and how much pressure they are able to take off their teammates) which can separate a great team from an average one.
Once upon a time... There was a young volleyballer named Jess. Jess finds out that she's quite skillful, with a natural control for the voleyball. But when Jess enters high school, she finds that her fellow teammates have grown on stilts over the summer.
Coach puts Jess in a different colored jersey, starts calling her a funny Italian name, and she never went into the front row again...