Defensive Specialist In Volleyball: Role Explained


The defensive specialist (DS) is a fairly unique role on the volleyball court.

Because it’s not one of the 5 primary positions, it’s not super common to see someone stepping in as a DS, but it does happen from time to time.

Today we’re going to take a look at what exactly a DS does, when you might use them, how important this role is, and what attributes make for an excellent defensive specialist.

Defensive Specialist Volleyball

Let’s begin!

What Is A Defensive Specialist? What Do They Do?

A defensive specialist can be any volleyball player who possesses exceptional passing and/or digging abilities.

They’re usually subbed into the game to replace a weak defender or to help their team side out.

Defensive Specialist

Think of the DS as the ‘bomb squad’.

This is a normal police officer with specialized training who comes in to resolve a certain difficult situation.

The DS is no different.

They’re usually an outside hitter, opposite, or setter who comes into the game temporarily to get their team out of a tricky rotation.

They’ll quite often be a skilled back row hitter in addition to their defensive abilities which gives the setter more offensive options if needed.

Even though they’re on the court primarily for their passing and digging (i.e. defense), there’s nothing stopping this player from spiking the ball.

DS Vs Libero… What’s The Difference?

The libero is quite different from a defensive specialist.

The libero is an actual ‘real’ position which plays on court for almost the entirety of a game.

A DS is an ‘unofficial’ role which only crops up from time to time during particularly close sets.

Unlike the libero, a DS can rotate into the front court, they can spike the ball, and they wear a normal colored jersey.

The DS must be subbed into the game like any other typical substitution and can’t replace players freely like the libero can.

How Important Is a Defensive Specialist In Volleyball?

A really good DS can make a huge impact in really close game scenarios.

A Good DS Can Save A Match

Imagine you’re down 21-22 and the other team’s server has been repeatedly targeting your worst passer who is making lots of passing errors…

In a situation like this, it makes sense to sub in a defensive specialist to help pass the ball and get their team the side out they so desperately need.

In this case, the DS will sub in for the weak passer and stay in the game at least until they’re out of the passing line up and back in the front court.

At this point the coach may sub them off again – so you’ve essentially got a DS and an offensive specialist (OS?) taking in turns at that one position.

Do You Really Need A DS?

If I’m being completely honest, I’d say having a defensive specialist on your team isn’t all that important – it’s more of a ‘nice to have’ luxury.

Most teams do perfectly fine without a DS.

Most really good defenders are already on the court as the libero or passer hitter, so it’s quite common for rosters to not give much thought to the role of DS.

At the end of the day, a DS often enters the game to take out a really bad passer/defender who’s struggling.

The DS doesn’t have to be some godlike quasi-libero, they just have to be slightly better than the player who’s making lots of errors defensively.

What Makes A Good DS In Volleyball?

If we go back to our ‘bomb squad’ analogy, the most obvious thing that springs to mind is ‘performs well under pressure‘.

Keeps Their Cool Under Pressure

A DS isn’t entering the game when the score is 5-5 in the first set… They’re coming in when it’s late in a really close set and the stakes are high.

They absolutely must be able to get the job done even when there’s a lot riding on every point.

Obviously, they’ll need to be exceptionally good at defense – this kind of goes without saying.

Exceptional Passing Ability

This defensive excellence mainly comes in the form of really accurate passing.

It’s tough to sub someone into the game with the objective of ‘making a dig’, but it makes a lot of sense to take a weak passer out to replace them with a strong one.

The whole idea of the DS is to get all 3 of your best passers in the serve reception lineup so you have the best chance of making a perfect pass, killing the ball, and winning the point.

Back Row Hitting Ability Is A Bonus

It’s also quite handy if the DS is capable of hitting from the back row.

Yes, they’re mainly on the floor to pass the ball, but if they can be an offensive option as well, then this is a very nice bonus.

Is Defensive Specialist A Good Position?

Most volleyballers probably wouldn’t really consider DS an actual ‘position’ – but it certainly is nice to have the skills required to step in and help your team perform down the stretch.

The role of DS is a pretty exciting one as you’re really only on the court in high-pressure scenarios.

Yes, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with being a DS… You never want to sub in when it’s 24-25 and completely shank the pass…

If you enjoy throwing your body in front of volleyballs, diving all over the place, and nailing passes on service reception, then you’ll enjoy the role of DS.

Defensive Specialist FAQ

I wanted to run through some common questions I see regarding the defensive specialist position.

What does DS stand for in volleyball?

DS stands for ‘defensive specialist’ which is a player who enters the game to pass and help their team side out.

What’s the average size/height of a defensive specialist?

Since a DS can be any player on the team, they’ll range in height quite considerably.
You don’t typically see middle blockers playing the DS role, since they never really pass, and the same goes for opposite hitters.
You’re more likely to see an outside hitter or setter enter the court as a DS, so height will usually be fairly average/on the shorter side.

Is a defensive specialist a blocker in volleyball?

It’s entirely possible to be subbed into the front court purely to give your team the biggest blocking presence it can muster.
So yes, a DS can be a blocker, but it’s extremely rare.
The vast majority of the time the DS is there to pass the ball and will be in the back row.

How many defensive specialists are there in volleyball?

You won’t normally have more than 1 DS on a team but there’s really nothing stopping you from having more.
At the end of the day, defensive specialists don’t usually consider themselves a DS… they’re just an ordinary player who was subbed in for a specific task (usually passing the ball).
So it’s entirely possible you could have several players capable of fulfilling the role of DS.

ABOUT Harvey Meale

As a former international level volleyball player, I now spend my days working out and writing for Volleyball Vault. I look for ways to bring my wealth of experience and knowledge to create unique and insightful perspectives in my content.