What Does Defensive Specialist Mean in Volleyball?

In simple terms of the definition of the position, a DS or a defensive specialist is a player in volleyball who is a substitute for the back row players. The defensive specialist is often one that has the same qualities as a libero in terms of their ability to pass and defend during the game.

So, how are they different? What is the significance of a defensive specialist? How do you pick one? Well, we shall go through all that and then some in this piece. Let’s hit it, shall we?

The Importance of Positions in General

There is a reason every position is labelled not just in volleyball, but otherwise too. When the players are in a service rotation, it is easier to describe their location using the numbering system.

This is also helpful when you want to describe where you want the player to be physically during the game or the point. That is not the whole job description though. You can describe the location using their primary responsibilities too.

In that sense, the big difference between a defensive specialist and a libero is that the former is a substitute for a particular player. This means they can switch only with that player, whereas a libero can be a substitute for more than one player.

The defensive specialist can be used to serve, set or attack the ball even from over the net’s height. The only rule is that they cannot be in front of the 10-foot line. But when they are a back row sub, they are not allowed to block the ball.

If the defensive specialist of your choice has a good serve, they can make for a very good substitution during a tough game.

A good defensive specialist is recognized based on their consistency during their passes, digging and defensive coverage. Having a great serve is a bonus. These players are often the ones who go aim at every ball and demonstrate impressive saves.

This means a good defensive specialist must have excellent reflexes and be able to gauge the opponent’s offense so that they can position themselves well.

The Difference between a Defensive Specialist and a Libero

Apart from the substitution, there are a few other differences between a defensive specialist and a libero.

The latter wears a different colored jersey for the game and are usually used as a sub for middle blockers. They are also back row players for most rotations.

In fact, when a libero steps in for another player, they aren’t even counted as a substitute. That means every team is allotted 12 substitutions and this is not counted as one.

Liberos are also required to stay off court for a play before they can come back to play for another player.

These players are serve-receive experts along with defensive skills. They are fast and can change their direction impressively. But unlike a defensive specialist, liberos cannot attack the ball when it is above the top of the net.

They play middle back or left back and every team is allowed to have a maximum of two liberos. There are a lot of restrictions on their hitting and setting flexibility, which mostly leaves them with the ability to pass the ball.

But liberos are allowed to run on or off the court when they are not subbing for a player.

A defensive specialist, on the other hand, is officially counted as a substitute and can play any position which includes the front row. They can attack the ball from anywhere as long as they are behind the 10-foot line.

Typically, they are used as a substitute for a back row player who is believed to have less skill and hence in the rotation. When a defensive specialist is subbing for all the back row positions, another player will be the substitute for the defensive specialist. And this is also counted as one of the 12 allotted substitutions.

Why a Team Needs Both a Defensive Specialist and a Libero

This is not the case a lot of times and it is the coach’s call. But since you are allowed to have both a libero and a defensive specialist on court at the same time, it is important to understand that their combination can create a powerful backcourt for the team. And it also leaves space for the four other players to take the offense and rally.

A lot of times, those who play the offense do not make for great backrow players. That’s why a libero replaces one of them and the defensive specialist is used to fill the other slot.

Why Defensive Specialist is a Great Position

Well, even though libero and defensive specialist are great positions, the former cannot play a front row position. This is true even for players who are not exactly hitters and even if it means that you don’t get the chance to play in the front very often. 

A libero can be swapped only for middle blockers unlike the defensive specialist who can be versatile and is the coach’s choice when it comes to trading out any player.

As a defensive specialist, if your hitting and blocking skills are on point, you will get more play time too.

What You Need to Be a Good Defensive Specialist

The option to play all positions as a substitute also means that you need to be good at more than a few things. Here’s a whole bunch of them that every good defensive specialist needs to embrace.

Back Row Hitting

This is often an overlooked area when it comes to back row players. And that turns into a weapon behind the line for the opposite team’s offense players.

Getting into back row hitting drills is a great way to improve a defensive specialist’s ability to help the team. You have a steady option in the defensive specialist when the opponent breaks your play and the setter shakes things up.

The 4 on 4 Hitting Drill

This is a drill where there will be four people each on both sides. It is a game of elimination where one setter is the base and three players are back row members. The team rotates each time the ball is over the net. And you can only hit the ball if you are placed behind the attack line.

If a player commits an error here, they get out. And this means they are on deck. So, they have to exit the court and do an exercise like sit-ups of the coach’s choice. This goes on till the team is able to get the player back on the court, which happens only if they get a kill.

If the team is down to one person at any given point in the game, the player can pass, set and kill on their own.

The 3 on 3 Back Row Drill

This is a drill where you have three back row players from each time. And the extras will be outside the end line on both sides. The players are supposed to pass, set and attack while the play starts with the coach tossing the ball to one side.

The player who makes the attack is rotated with an extra player from their side. It is up to the coach to contain the attack as a variation. That could mean attack from the back row only or tips only. It could also be any attack of their choice as long as it is an attack.

Back Row Dig and Attack

During this drill, there will be a setter along with a line of other players on both sides. A traditional hitter is chosen for this so that the player from the other side of the net can give them the ball for a dig.

On the other side of the net, the player will dig to the setter by lining up their back row game. The setter then prepares them for an attack. That’s why the setters should be placed near the attack line or even in front of it so that the hitter can make their move. After the attack, both sides rotate their players who go to the opposite side at the end of the line.

The idea here is to make the back row players transition into offense. Otherwise they pretty much have nothing to do after their pass, which turns them into on the court spectators.

Parting Thoughts

Despite its importance in the game, a defensive specialist is not a very highly discussed role in volleyball. That is because, many a time, the position is optional for both the team and the coach.

Instead, the attention is given to a libero. It could also be because a defensive specialist is allowed only three of the six rotations while a libero is allowed five out of the six.

It might also be because a libero can be a sub for more than one player while a defensive specialist can do the same for just one player during the game.