Having played volleyball for over 15 years and busted countless ankles throughout my career, both wearing and not wearing ankle braces, I’m painfully qualified to answer this question.
And it’s a very valid question with no clear answer.
So without burying the lead, the answer is yes for some people and no for other people.
In any case, ankle braces are not the most effective way to prevent ankle injuries in volleyball, which I’ll discuss more about at the end of this article.
Before that, I’m going to talk about what the research says about this subject, as well as what myself and other elite volleyballers think the correct answer is.
What Does The Science Say?
When we take a look at the literature on this subject, it’s an absolute mess.
We have studies saying wearing ankle braces make you jump lower and other studies saying they don’t.1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10222540
We have studies saying ankle braces make you run slower and others that don’t.2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10222540
We do however have research that indicates that ankle braces work pretty well for previously injured ankles.3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1319230/pdf/jathtrain00013-0023.pdf
So how do we make sense of all of this?
Before we get to my recommendations, let’s first discuss the elephant in the room…
Doesn’t Wearing Ankle Braces Weaken Your Ankles?
This is one of the most common reasons people seem to think wearing ankle braces is a bad idea.
Some people say this is a myth because there’s absolutely no research that shows prolonged use of ankle braces causes weakness.4https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10222540/
But those people are also wrong.
Just because the research doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it’s not true…
We know for a fact that muscles atrophy and ligaments weaken when people wear casts or use crutches for a long time.
Although an ankle brace isn’t exactly a cast, the concept of chronically restricting movement is the same.
I think you can definitely expect the muscles and connective tissue surrounding your ankles to weaken slightly over time if you’re only ever wearing ankle braces while playing volleyball.
Of course that’s not based on any data, and is just my personal hunch as someone who has worn ankle braces for volleyball for years.
Do I Recommend Wearing Ankle Braces?
When training full time in the Volleyball Australia Elite Development Program, we literally weren’t allowed to practice if we didn’t have ankle guards.
So I’m someone who wore ankle braces every second of my 30+ hours of volleyball each week.
I’m not a doctor, but I can read research and I have years of experience with this exact thing.
If I was to have my volleyball career again, I’d avoid ankle braces entirely while I was young and didn’t yet have a history of ankle sprains.
I’d make a point of strengthening my ankle flexors and extensors by doing a regular ankle mobility routine to ensure I have bulletproof ankles for life.
If and when the ankle injuries started showing up, I’d wear ankle braces to both volleyball training and matches.
That middle part is the most important bit.
No volleyball program puts anywhere near enough emphasis on developing strong feet and ankles, but it’s of crucial importance to any athletes jumping as much as volleyballers do.
Why Don’t The Pros Wear Ankle Braces?
You would think that professional volleyball players who’s livelihoods literally depend on them not getting injured would be the first to wear ankle braces, right?
Scenes like the above from the European Championships are all too common: not a player wearing ankle braces in sight.
I’ve noticed it’s a little more common to wear ankle braces in men’s professional volleyball, but I’d estimate maybe only half the players on court are actually wearing ankle braces.
I think the takeaway is probably that it really doesn’t matter that much…
Wearing ankle braces or not wearing them: it’s just not that important.
Ankle Braces Definitely Aren’t Perfect!
One thing I’ll mention is that wearing ankle braces does not make it impossible for you to sprain your ankle!
I remember copping a really nasty grade 3 ankle sprain while on tour in Thailand, which ended my tournament, while wearing my ankle braces.
They do definitely do improve your odds of not getting injured, but they certainly aren’t perfect.
Let’s take a quick look what other things you need to think about.
What’s Your Ankle Injury History?
The research indicates that athletes who have previously experienced grade 2/3 ankle sprains will benefit far more from wearing ankle braces than those who haven’t.
The prophylactic use of semirigid ankle braces appears warranted to reduce the incidence of initial and, in particular, recurrent ankle sprain injuries for individuals who participate in activities that have the highest risk for these injuries.5https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14620786
If you’ve managed to maintain a sqeaky clean ankle injury history throughout your volleyball career, the benefit of wearing ankle braces is likely going to be quite minimal.
But for those of you like me who have done countless ankles over the years, this build up of scar tissue does cause your ankles to get weaker over time and more susceptible to sprains.
It definitely makes sense to wear ankle braces if you’re in this camp (as almost everyone will be).
Avoid Lace-Up Ankle Braces
If you are going to get some ankle braces, avoid getting lace up braces which have been shown to reduce muscle torque and power output during athletic movements.6https://volleyballvault.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Negative-Effects-of-Lace-Up-Ankle-Bracing.pdf
Instead opt for the semi-rigid braces which are less restrictive and haven’t been conclusively shown to reduce sports performance.
I’ll get to my ankle brace recommendations shortly.
Should Liberos Wear Ankle Braces?
In my opinion, if you’re a libero, you should definitely not wear ankle braces!
Almost all of the danger your ankles face comes from jumping to spike or block the ball.
Almost all of the sprains I’ve had in my career came from landing awkwardly on someone else’s foot around the net.
As a libero, you would be absolutely crazy to risk weakening your ankles when your risk of injury is so low.
Should Setters Wear Ankle Braces?
This one is a little more nuanced.
Does your team tend to play you as a back row setter? Or do you find yourself attacking and blocking from the front row fairly often?
As a setter, I would only wear ankle braces if my team favored the 5-1 rotation, as I’d be forced to block (i.e. jump) a lot more.
If my team used two back row setters, I’d avoid wearing ankle braces entirely as I don’t think the risk of injury is high enough to warrant potentially weakening my ankles.
Which Ankle Braces Do I Recommend?
My whole career I used only the T2 Active Ankle brace and found that they did a decent job overall.
This is by far the most popular ankle brace for volleyballers and I rarely saw anyone playing in anything else!
They’re pretty affordable, fit into your volleyball shoes quite nicely, provide a good amount of support, and don’t really negatively impact your ability to play at all.
For my full breakdown of the which ankle braces each different position should wear, check out the below article.
5 Most Effective Ways Of Preventing Volleyball Ankle Injuries!
I’d almost be willing to guarantee you that religiously doing the following activities will work 2-3 times more effectively than wearing ankle braces will.
This stuff is absolute gold for volleyball players and I wish someone had told me about this back when I was playing competitively!
1. Train Your Tibialis Anterior!
Your tibialis anterior is the muscle on the front of your shin.
It’s responsible for ankle dorsiflexion and is your legs first line of defense when absorbing the contact forces of landing after spiking a volleyball.
By training this often neglected muscle, you’re going to massively increase the stability of your ankle and knee joints, which is crucial for anyone jumping a lot.
I recommend using a device like a tib bar (as shown above) about 2-3 times a week for volleyballers, after which they’ll begin noticing significant improvements to their overall stability, but particularly when landing.
2. Increase Your Ankle Mobility
Most people have very poor ankle mobility which results from wearing shoes with a raised heel all day long.
Having flexible and limber ankles is key to maximizing athletic performance, but also preventing nasty ankle sprains.
Past injury is a leading cause of poor ankle mobility, so if you’ve done a few ankles in the past, you’ll likely need to work on this more than most!
Improving ankle mobility is pretty simple and primarily involves doing a ton of calf stretching.
The easiest way of doing this is to stand on a slant board and stretch your calves, holding the stretch for 2-3 minutes.
Just taking 5 minutes a day to stretch your calves out thoroughly will do wonders for your ankle mobility.
3. Do Ankle Inversion Walks
Ankle walks are another great way of strengthening the tibialis anterior muscles which are used to stabilize your ankle joint.
Becoming strong in this position is my favorite way of preventing ankle inversion sprains, which are the most common type of ankle injury in volleyball.
Most people will struggle with this at first, but start by just putting all your weight on the sides of your feet without moving.
Eventually, you should be able to perform walks like this quite comfortably.
4. Do ATG Split Squats
The ATG split squat is another exercise you should definitely add to your ankle mobility routine.
This movement is super effective at developing ankle mobility as it requires a ton from your tibialis anterior while giving your Achilles tendon a great stretch.
There’s countless other benefits of doing this exercise, mainly to do with the knee, but it’s one of the best ankle bulletproofers I’ve found as well.
5. Use A Training Sled Regularly
As athletes, we tend to completely neglect training our feet.
There’s a crazy amount of muscle in our feet and one of the best ways to develop this area is to train using a sled.
When you’re pushing a training sled, your toes and feet are getting a workout unlike any they’ve ever had.
On top of this, your Achilles is also getting a super effective workout.
Strong toes, feet, tibialis, and Achilles = bulletproof ankles.
If you can find a way to incorporate all 5 of these exercises into your weekly routine, your need for ankle braces on the volleyball court just went way down!
At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to wearing ankle braces in volleyball.
Many of the world’s top professional volleyball players don’t wear ankle braces.
A lot of them do.
While there’s no evidence that says prolonged use of ankle braces make your ankles weak, we can logically infer that always wearing ankle braces on the volleyball court will cause them to weaken slightly over time.
We do know that athletes with a history of ankle injuries are definitely better off wearing ankle braces to prevent reoccurrence.
Regardless of whether you choose to wear ankle braces or not, all athletes should dedicate some time each week to strengthen specifically their ankles by performing the exercises discussed above.