If you have ever watched a heated game of volleyball, you may have seen one player on each team wearing a jersey of a different color. It is impossible to miss that, given that they look different from the rest of the team!
If you look closely, you will even notice that their game is a lot more different from the rest of the team!
This is the ‘libero’, a position introduced in competitive volleyball during the 2000 Olympics. So, what is a libero in volleyball? The libero is a defensive specialist who is only allowed to play in the back row. They are typically the best passer on the team.
They come in and out of the game and can substitute back row players at any time during the game, without it being counted as a substitution. In a nutshell, the libero is a special position where the player wears a contrasting jersey from the rest of the team so the referee can keep track of their movements.
They are not allowed to serve from the front and can only be substituted with back row players. Bonus fun fact: the word ‘libero’ comes from the Italian word that means “free”.
Quite literally, a libero is free to enter and leave the game when they need to, although they can only rotate positions with players in the back row. The following is a brief guide to understanding the libero position in a volleyball game.
What Are the Rules?
A libero will typically play left-back or middle-back positions. They are experts in the receiving a serve and are often the ones to get the first touch, as well pass several hits from the opponents.
They wear a jersey that is in contrast to the rest of their team so that the referee can keep track of any fouls. Since the libero has specific rules about their movement, the contrasting jersey will allow them to stand out. If by chance any rules are broken during the game, the referee will be able to spot it quite clearly.
Position Vis-a-Vis 10-Foot Line
The main idea is to ensure that the ball never hits the ground, for which the libero often has to take plunges and show a lot of grit.
This can at times be especially challenging as they cannot cross the 10-foot line to attack the ball from the front. They also cannot do an overhead set when they are in front of the line if their teammates are attacking the ball over the net.
Special Substitution Rules
Liberos are strictly meant to play in the back row. This means that they can only be rotated with back-row players. Each association may even have its own rules about how many substitute players are permitted in each set.
Typically, there are 15 substitutes allowed in each set. However, liberos are the exception to that rule. They can walk in and out of a game to rotate with a back-row player, and it will not be counted as a substitution. In some ways, the libero is like the joker card in a game of volleyball!
Each Team Gets Two
Each team is allowed to have two liberos. There is no compulsion on a coach or team to use their liberos. However, typically, the libero is the player on the team who ends up playing the most, which is why two liberos should split their time in a single team.
The team’s most consistent passer, who rarely drops the ball and can also anticipate its direction, is typically the player who is appointed the libero.
Where It Gets Complicated
While the rules above may be quite straightforward, there are some aspects of the libero position that can seem a bit complicated to the uninitiated. The following are some of these rules explained:
The “start” rule dictates that liberos are not permitted to start. There is a lineup of the other players which the down referee will check.
Once the lineup has been checked, the down referee will wave the libero onto the court, should the team feel the need to use them at the time. Either way, the libero will not be in the starting lineup.
A libero can serve only in one rotation. Typically, they switch with middle-back or left-back positions. If, for instance, your libero is switching with the middle-back player, they can only be replaced in the set by a player in the same position.
One Libero Per Set
Even if the team has two designated liberos, only one libero can play in each set. There is typically an official who will keep track of the libero’s movements and who they are switching with in a set.
Attacking the Ball
There are certain specifications about when a libero is allowed to attack a ball. They can jump and attack a ball when they are in front of the 10-foot line, but the height of the ball needs to be below the net.
If the ball is entirely above the height of the net, a libero is not permitted to jump and attack the ball, regardless of where they are on the court.
Setting the Ball
There are also specific rules about a libero setting the ball. A libero is permitted to set the ball to a front-row hitter, who can then hit it above the height of the net. However, the condition is that the libero can only set the ball if they are completely behind the 10-foot line.
Typically, liberos are designated as the backup setter, meaning a setter will pass the first ball over the net and the libero acts as the backup or the “setter-out”.
Liberos are typically instructed to bump set, by passing the ball to the outside hitter or right side hitter.
How Best to Use a Libero
The best passer on the team is ideally the player who is chosen as the libero. A player who can anticipate the ball and can pass it back expertly will be best put to use playing as the libero, instead of a front-row hitter.
A libero is best used playing in middle-back or left-back positions. They are great for switching a weaker middle blocker out. The biggest advantage being that each time a libero enters or exits a game, it is deducted from the designated substitutions permitted in a game.
They are also best used when they are in the position to pass the ball the most. When setters pass the ball, they should ideally pass it to the middle of the court instead of the right front.
This will allow the libero to get to the ball easily and pass it. This requires a lot of practice and coordination between the team. The setter out drill is an important one to practice.
Why Are Liberos Short?
The reason that liberos are comparatively short is quite self-explanatory. Liberos, as a rule, can only play in the back row. The taller players are required in the front row where they can jump and attack the ball.
A tall player who is also good at offense would be wasted in the position of the libero. It is useful for a libero to be relatively shorter as playing defense also means they will have to lunge a lot and pass the ball back from various angles and positions.
Being closer to the ground is extremely useful in that case. Having said that, one might find that liberos are usually shorter compared to the rest of the team.
However, if you are a professional athlete, the bar is set quite high. So don’t be surprised if even a relatively shorter libero is about 6 feet tall!
Can the Libero Be Team Captain?
It is often the case that liberos are not permitted to become the captain. Though the rules may change depending on the league you are playing or the geographical location of the association, a possible explanation is that the libero will keep rotating on and off the court.
They will typically be one of the most active players during the gameplay. Therefore, it can become challenging to appoint a floor captain when the libero leaves the court, which is presumably a fair few times during a set.
Volleyball is a fast-paced and exciting game that has several dynamic aspects. If you are playing informally, there are no rules to dictate how many players can be on court.
But what makes professional volleyball such a nail-biting sport to watch is that there are all these technicalities that one gradually becomes acquainted with.
The position of the libero is one such position that tends to attract a lot of interest because of the unique rules ascribed to the position.
Besides, it is hard to miss the only player on a team who is wearing a contrasting jersey and who never comes to the front row to strike the ball. It is a tiring and challenging position to play in, but it also offers several perks!