The libero has one of the most unique roles in the game of volleyball.
This player will often stand out like a sore thumb with their different colored jersey while sometimes being an entire foot shorter than their teammates!
But the job of the libero is an important one and this position has become an indispensable part of the game since being introduced almost 25 years ago.
In this article we’re going to take a look at exactly what the libero does, what attributes make for world class liberos, and what things you can do to become a better libero.
What Does A Libero Do In Volleyball?
The libero is a passing and digging specialist who only plays in the back court.
They aren’t allowed to rotate into the front court or spike the ball either.
They’re on the court for the express purpose of serve reception as well as digging.
They’ll defend from either position 5 or 6 depending on what the coach thinks is the best configuration for their team, but this will be position 5 the vast majority of the time.
Should The Libero Defend From Position 5 Or 6?
More often than not you’ll see the libero playing in the 5 position, but teams will occasionally look to put the libero in 6.
There’s a number of different factors to consider here.
Where Will The Opposition Hit The Ball?
In other words, is your player in position 5 or 6 likely to dig more spikes?
Generally speaking you want your best defender (hopefully your libero) to dig more volleyballs.
Since position 5 will receive attacks from the opposition outside hitter, they’re likely to end up digging slightly more balls than 6, so it makes sense to put your libero in front of more spikes.
Maybe you have a particular blocking structure set up against a certain team where balls will be funneled towards the 6 position – in that case, perhaps it makes more sense to put your libero in 6.
Lateral Defensive Ability
Coaches also have to identify whether their libero or outside hitter (defender in the other position) are more suited to defending while moving forward or laterally.
When you’re defending in 5, you need to react super quickly and be willing to dive forward to cover the block and dig tips.
When in 6, you’re doing more backpedaling and digging balls laterally.
Coaches need to be aware of these defensive strengths and weaknesses of both the libero and OH, so they can figure out who is better suited to play in 5 and who should be in 6.
Probably the biggest factor to consider here is the back row attack.
If your outside hitter is defending from 5, it’s much harder for them to transition into position 6 to be ready to hit the pipe ball, which is why the OH will usually defend from back middle.
Second Ball Options
If your setter has passed or dug the first ball, would you rather your libero or OH set the second ball?
If the libero can take the second ball, then the OH can still run the pipe which is another reason why we tend to see liberos play in 5 as opposed to 6.
As you can see, in the vast majority of scenarios, it makes a lot of sense for the libero to defend from position 5, but you will occasionally see them defending from 6.
Liberos Are There To Get Digs
Since the libero plays only in the back row, their role is pretty simple: pass the ball exceptionally well, and dig the ball exceptionally well.
An additional responsibility of the libero is to set the second ball if the setter passed/dug the first ball.
But if there’s one thing the libero is known for, it’s being really really good at digging.
Since the libero doesn’t have to think about spiking the ball, they can put all their effort into mastering the skill of digging, so that they’re the strongest defensive asset on their team.
Liberos Rotate In And Out At Will
Liberos can only play in the back row and once they rotate into the front row, must be replaced by another player (usually middle blocker).
But the libero can then swap back in for any back row player and doesn’t have to go through the second referee as an official substitution – they can just run onto the court and replace any back row player during dead play.
A defensive specialist, on the other hand, does not have this ability and must formerly enter/exit the game as a substitution.
To put it simply, the vast majority of the time, the libero is playing back row for the middle blockers, who are playing front row for the libero.
Liberos Wear A Different Color Jersey
Because liberos can’t rotate into the front court and don’t have to substitute in and out officially, they wear a different colored jersey to make it easier for the referees to see where they are on the court.
Can A Libero Serve In Volleyball?
This depends based on where you’re playing.
Outside of the USA, liberos aren’t allowed to serve at all (FIVB rules). Within the USA, liberos may serve but in only one rotational position (to prevent them from serving more frequently than other players).
What Are The Strengths Of A Good Libero?
The best liberos in the world are truly masters of their craft who tend to share a lot of the following characteristics.
Great Liberos Are Fast & Explosive
For volleyball players that do absolutely zero spiking, some of these players have incredible vertical jumps.
- Erik Shoji, Team USA libero, has a 330cm spike reach at just 184cm tall.
- Jenia Grebennikov, the greatest libero of all time, has a 348cm spike reach at just 188cm tall.
An explosive vertical jump usually translates into explosive acceleration and sprint speed, which allows these guys to chase down and dig volleyballs most players wouldn’t get close to.
Extreme speed and exceptional reaction times help liberos dig even the hardest of spikes.
Great Liberos Pass Exceptionally Well & Dig Even Better
A libero who can’t pass the volleyball is like a bird with no wings.
It just doesn’t make sense.
Liberos won’t always be the best passer on their team, but they’ll usually be in the top 2.
At the highest level of the game, all liberos tend to pass really well…
What separates great liberos from average is their ability to dig the ball really well.
Digging is a really tough part of the game…
It’s tough to train, it’s often uncomfortable or painful, especially when you’re trying to dig the ball with your face…
Jenia Grebennikov has established himself as the greatest to ever do it by being so much better at digging the ball than other world class liberos.
This is the defensive coverage zone of Grebennikov compared to USA’s libero, Shoji.
The numbers speak for themselves!
Be sure to check out this excellent video by LineUp Volleyball explaining in greater detail how Grebennikov is so much better than everyone else!
Great Liberos Are Master Communicators
If you watch enough Jenia Grebennikov gameplay, you’ll notice that he’s by far the loudest player on court.
This man is constantly screaming and shouting throughout a rally to ensure his teammates are on the same page as him defensively.
In the above clip you’ll see Jenia move in front of his middle blocker to dig the volleyball.
Prior to that move, he absolutely screamed something (probably in French) indicating “mine” or that he was going to take that ball.
The reason this is so important is because as soon as Jenia vocalizes his intention, that middle blocker can immediately shift his focus to transitioning into offense.
You can see how the MB was focused on the ball initially and then decided to leave it alone, allowing him to focus on beginning his spike approach.
Being a master communicator on the volleyball court can be as simple as being loud, aggressive, and relentless when it comes to talking on court.
Honestly, half the time it doesn’t even matter which words you say, just make your presence known!
Great Liberos Are Completely Committed
One of the worst traits to have in a libero is hesitance.
The last thing you want is to not go for a ball because you thought your teammate was going to take it, only to have it drop right in front of both of you.
Strong liberos never ever allow this to happen by adopting an ‘all in’ attitude to every action they take on the volleyball court.
If that means launching themselves into the first row of the bleachers to save the ball, they’re all in!
How Important Is The Libero?
Most people would say the libero is a very important position, but I am going to be controversial here and say that it’s not all that big of a deal.
Volleyball did just fine for 35 years prior to the introduction of the libero position and while you’ll almost always see a libero on the volleyball court today, teams don’t have to use a libero.
I personally think the setter, both wing hitters, as well as the middle blockers are more important than the libero.
Okay, I’ll just say it… I think the libero is the least important player on court.
But that’s mainly just because they’re not usually indispensable in the same way other positions are.
Any passer hitter can do a decent enough job of passing and digging the volleyball (i.e. filling the role of libero).
Yeah, they won’t be quite as good as a libero defensively, but good enough that their team will probably still do okay.
On the other hand, you can’t just put anyone in the role of setter or middle blocker without accepting the fact that you’re almost certainly going to lose the game.
The footwork required for the MB to block well or the timing to master the quick attack simply can’t be learnt overnight.
The skill to be able to back-set the ball to the perfect spot with the correct tempo is something only the setter has on a volleyball team.
None of this is to say that the impact of an exceptional libero won’t be felt.
Great liberos can be extremely valuable assets to teams and it’s still a position I’m glad exists!
When Was The Libero Position Introduced?
The libero was introduced to international level volleyball in 1998 and made its way into NCAA volleyball in 2002.
It was introduced to encourage longer, more exciting rallies and I think we can all agree it definitely did a good job of that.
In men’s volleyball in particular, athletes are hitting the ball so hard that digging a hard driven spike is almost more about luck more than skill for a lot of us.
Liberos, on the other hand, are often able to dig at a high enough percentage to keep many rallies alive, even at the highest levels of the game!
Is Libero A Good Position In Volleyball?
The answer to this question depends on what you enjoy.
Are you the type of player who gets a bigger thrill from making an incredible dig than from making an incredible spike?
Do you like diving and rolling around the court to make the perfect contact on the ball, or do you find it uncomfortable and try to avoid it?
For me the enjoyment in volleyball comes from spiking, blocking, and winning points, so I ended up as a middle blocker.
But I can certainly appreciate how the purely defensive focus might be far more appealing to some players.
Is Libero A Good Position To Play Professionally?
This is a far more interesting question to me because I think the answer is far less subjective.
Overwhelming, the answer is no.
Liberos have got it so much tougher than any other position when it comes to landing a professional contract.
Because of how the foreigner quota works, most professional club teams fill their rosters with talented foreign spikers, blockers, and setters, and tend to fill the role of libero with local talent.
There’s simply far fewer 6’8″ outside hitters in the world than there are players who can pass and dig decently well.
Because you don’t have to be overly tall to play libero, it means there’s far more decent liberos you’ll have to compete against.
So in a nutshell, landing a contract as a professional libero is much harder than for other positions. And the contracts tend to be less lucrative too.
You can definitely still earn a good living as a libero, but you have to be exceptionally good!
Be sure to check out this article to learn more about how much professional volleyball players make.
Should I Be A Libero?
By now you should have a pretty good idea as to whether the libero position is right for you, but let’s take a closer look at the physical characteristics of successful liberos.
Physical Attributes Of A Libero
The list of physical attributes for liberos is pretty small, so hopefully you have at least the following traits.
Height: Ideally Not Too Tall!
There’s a reason why you almost never see liberos over 190cm for men and 175cm for women.
This is because height is no where near as valuable as speed and reaction time for liberos.
The taller you get, the slower you move (on average).
In order to dig a volleyball, your brain has to send a signal to the muscles in your arms and those arms then need to send a signal back to the brain before you can move your body.
At 7’2″, it takes Dimitriy Muserskiy’s nervous system a lot longer to route these signals since the neuronal pathway from brain to muscle is literally physically much longer.
Jenia Grebennikov has lightning fast reflexes, but he’s also a foot shorter than Muserskiy.
Liberos can also get away with being really short as it won’t usually handicap them all that much.
Being closer to the ground generally speaking makes digging much easier.
Be sure to check out this article for more information on how tall liberos should be.
Speed & Reactivity
By far the most important physical trait a libero needs is speed.
We discussed how important this was earlier.
Being super reactive and light on your feet is mandatory.
If you’ve got fast reaction times, that’s a big bonus too!
If you’re still unsure whether the libero position is right for you, be sure to check out this article for more information on how to choose the right volleyball position for you.
What Do Coaches Look For In A Libero?
Now that you’re sure you want to pursue the role of libero, perhaps you’re interested in playing college volleyball and like the idea of a sports scholarship.
Perhaps you eventually want to play professionally as a libero…
In any case, you have to understand how marketable you are as an athlete.
Libero Recruitment Guidelines
Let’s take a quick look at what scouts and coaches are paying attention to when it comes to liberos.
Jumping Ability & Arm Length
The below numbers are for women’s volleyball as per the NCSA website.1https://www.ncsasports.org/womens-volleyball/recruiting-guidelines
I honestly haven’t got a clue why these numbers are quoted as none of them have any relevance to the position of libero.
If you don’t meet any of these benchmarks, it’s not something I’d worry about.
The average height of a libero in the NCAA is between 5’5″ and 5’6″ for women and they’ve listed a range of between 5’8″ and 6’3″ for men.
Again, I wouldn’t worry too much if you were shorter than these numbers since they’re only guidelines.
For a full list of the height benchmarks required for college volleyball liberos to appeal to recruiters, be sure to check out my full article on how tall liberos need to be.
You will need to have played a good amount of club volleyball for recruiters to consider you.
At least 2-5 years of decent level competition is what they’re after.
Basically you need to show them that you know what you’re doing on court!
How To Be A Better Libero
How good you become at volleyball largely comes down to how hard you’re willing to work to improve.
I could come up with a huge long list of tips and tricks for liberos, but instead I’ve decided today to reveal the 20% of things which will get you 80% of the results.
Below are by far the 3 most important things you need to put your time and effort into to become a better libero.
1. Become A Master At Passing The Volleyball
First things first.
There’s no sense in digging thousands of volleyballs in practice if you’re still shanking serves all over the place.
If you’re not already extremely good at passing, focus the majority of your time and effort on becoming an elite passer.
As a libero, you don’t have to worry about spiking or blocking, so you’ve got plenty of time to spend passing the volleyball.
Provided your form is half decent, all you really need is more repetitions to grow as a passer.
You could also consider using a serving machine in order to gain experience in dealing with top spin serves.
This is one of the better ways to get tons of reps in during practice.
2. Spend Most Of Your Time Digging
Once you’re doing a really good job passing the volleyball, you should shift most of your effort to developing your abilities when it comes to digging.
At the highest level of the game, all liberos can pass really well. What separates the great from the good is digging.
Don’t stop working on passing entirely, but spend closer to 30% of your time passing and the majority of your reps on digging.
I’ve compiled a list of the most effective libero digging drills you should definitely take a look at for some training ideas!
3. Develop Your Speed, Explosiveness, & Mobility
This is one area you should be continually working on throughout your career as a libero.
I wouldn’t waste time in the gym doing exercises like bench press or curls.
Make sure you’re working on flexibility so you’re nimble enough to get to those tough volleyballs.
Ankle mobility will be a big one as that’ll help you stay low to the ground. Adequate knee and hip mobility will actually enable you to be as fast as your muscles want you to be.
You should of course also work on developing lower body explosiveness which will mean doing plenty of plyometrics.
If you’re able to master passing before focusing primarily on digging, while developing your reactiveness as an athlete, you’ll become a seriously dangerous libero very quickly!
Volleyball Libero FAQ
Teams don’t need to include a libero in their lineup, no. The overwhelming majority do nowadays, but it isn’t necessary.
There’s three main ways to pronounce libero, all of which are perfectly fine to say,
I personally use lib-eh-row as that’s the most common pronunciation where I grew up, but each of these variations are used throughout the world.
The libero is only allowed to spike the ball if it’s not (entirely) above the net.
So you are allowed to strike the ball with one hand, but since you can’t do this above the net, it’s not really classified as an attack.
An example might be when a libero is backpedaling to try to dig a ball that’s come high off the block out the back of the court. They might hit the ball up in the air to keep it alive.
This rule is dependent on where you’re playing. Outside of the US, liberos are not allowed to act as team captain but a recent rule change by USA Volleyball has allowed it within the states.
The reasoning behind why this rule exists in the first place is unclear. The most common theory is that since the captain might have to communicate with the referee, the fact that the libero is moving in and out of the game constantly makes this difficult.
Middle blockers also sub out frequently, so it doesn’t make a ton of sense to me that MBs can be the captain and liberos can’t.
Knee pads go a long way and some players like to use elbow sleeves as well.
I’ve seen some younger players using knee pads, elbow sleeves, and forearm pads as well.
At the end of the day, a certain amount of bruising is unavoidable and to be expected, especially if you’re a libero! Get used to it!