Every player on a volleyball team has a unique and important role, each requiring a specific skillset.
The six key positions in volleyball are setter, outside hitter, opposite, setter, middle blocker, libero, and defensive specialist.
There’s also room for a seventh position, the serving specialist, although we only tend to see this in exceptional circumstances.
Let’s take a quick look at the starting locations for each of these positions and then we’ll discuss the individual roles of each position in greater depth.
Diagram Of Volleyball Court With Positions
We often refer to the different volleyball court positions as a number. The back/middle position is 6 and the numbers go backwards to 1 as you rotate clockwise through each zone.
In the above diagram, you can see the typical home positions for each different player role. This is where each player role/position prefers to spend their time.
- Setter – Usually sets out of position 1 or position 2 if they’re in the front court.
- Middle Blockers – Shockingly, middles tend to stay in in the middle of the court in the 6 or 3 positions. Middles are usually swapped out for the libero in the back court so they spend most of their time in position 3.
- Outside Hitters – Otherwise referred to as left side hitters or wing hitters, these guys stick to positions 4 and 5, operating out of the left side of the court.
- Opposite Hitters – Also known as right side hitters, these players stick to positions 1 and 2.
- Libero – Plays primarily out of the 6 position and plays only in the back court.
I’ll discuss in further detail how player rotations work in a later article, but for now let’s try to understand the responsibilities of each of these different positions.
Volleyball Positions Abbreviations
The above positions are often referred to using short hand abbreviations as shown below.
Let’s now take a look at each individual position and their responsibilities.
The role of the setter is to orchestrate the team’s offense. They’re in charge of delivering the ball from the passers in the back court to a hitter in the front court.
The Setter Is The Brains Of The Operation
They call the shots and dictate what happens on court. They’re master communicators and natural leaders.
They’re often the team captain and even when they’re not, they need to act like one.
A Setter’s Job Is To Deliver The Goods
During serve reception, the setter’s primary responsibility is to accurately ‘set’ the second touch into the perfect hitting window for the outside, opposite, or middle hitter to kill the ball.
A great setter will identify holes in the opposition’s defense and coordinate an attack to exploit it.
Setters Communicate Via Sign Language
Setters often use hand signals to communicate to the offense what specific attacks or combination plays they want to run.
This is often done secretively in between plays so the opposition isn’t able to get a read on what specific attacks they’ll have to defend against.
Depending on the particular formation, setters will also have to block and defend and will occasionally pass the ball if needed. They also need to be able to serve the ball.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of A Setter
- Strong leaders, assertive – A good setter needs to take charge of the situation. They have the largest responsibility on the court: they’re the glue between the defense and the offense.
- Accurate and consistent – They need to be able to set butter, time and time again. Put simply, setters need to put the ball in the perfect spot so an attacker can put the ball away.
- Decently strong – A good setter often has to be able to set the ball really high and far across the court. Some younger, weaker players may struggle to push the ball into the hitting window and these players might not yet be cut out to be a setter.
- Quickness – Setters often have to chase down dodgy passes to get underneath the second ball. They need to be speedy and agile.
- Height – Most people think it’s the hitters and middle blockers that need to be tall, but being a really tall setter is hugely advantageous as you can not only block more efficiently but also make the opposition blocker’s job a lot tougher.
The outside hitter, or left side hitter, attacks out of the left side of the court and is often seen as the go-to attacker on court. They also play an important passing role during serve reception.
The Outside Hitter: Rockstar On Court
Particularly at the youth level, the outside is often the most talented spiker and everybody knows it.
They can usually jump high and hit hard. They’re often the recipient of more sets than the middle or opposite.
When play breaks down and the defense is scrambling, the second ball is often ‘released’ to the outside who’s tasked with getting the ball over the net.
Great Outside Hitters Are Great Passers
You won’t get particularly far as an outside if you only know how to hit the ball…
The outside can’t just be a good hitter, however. They need to know how to pass as well, since they’re a big part of service reception.
Of course, they also need to know how to block and defend too. A good outside really needs to be a good all rounder.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of An Outside Hitter
- Reliable and consistent – A good outside can’t be repeatedly tanking the ball into the bottom of the net or shanking passes. They need to be consistent as an attacker and pass the ball well.
- Smart offensively – A really good outside hitter knows when it’s time to absolutely whale on a ball and when to gently roll or tip the ball around the block.
- Athletic – Outsides have the highest vertical jumps of all positions. Being able to hit really hard is going to help the outside get past the blockers and get more kills. At the same time, they need enough agility and coordination to transition quickly from defense into attack mode and to hit balls from awkward positions.
The opposite hitter operates out of the right hand side of the court and is responsible primarily for attacking and blocking.
The opposite or right side hitter is similar to the outside hitter in that they’re one of the primary wing attackers on the court, but the role is otherwise quite a bit different.
Opposite Hitters Don’t Really Have To Pass
The opposite rarely passes the ball and so they don’t need to be great at serve reception.
Think of opposite hitters as a hybrid between a middle blocker and an outside hitter.
Opposite Hitters Occasionally Assist With Setting
If the setter is out (i.e. contacts the first ball or is unable to reach the second ball), the opposite will often step in to set the ball, so it helps to have a good set of hands as an opposite.
Opposite Hitter: Back Row Spiking Specialist
These players also need to be able to hit the ball well from the back row. Opposites don’t tend to lack jumping ability…
Seeing an opposite absolutely crush a back row attack is one of the most impressive things to witness in the sport of volleyball!
Opposite Hitters Are Often Left Handed
Since the opposite attacks from the right side of the court, it’s quite beneficial if they’re left handed. Being left handed means the ball doesn’t have to cross their body in order to attack it.
Having said all that, some of the best opposites in the world are right handed, just as some of the best outsides are left handed!
Opposites Are Proficient Blockers
Opposites play a huge blocking role as they’re matched up against the opposing team’s outside hitter.
Being tall and having decent jumping ability helps opposite hitters to shut down the left side offense of the opposition.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of An Opposite Hitter
- Capable of attacking from the back row – Spiking is a tough skill to master. Spiking from the back row is even harder… Spiking a ball around a block to find the open court from the back row is really really difficult, but a good opposite will be an offensive threat from anywhere on the court.
- Tall and athletic – Think of opposites as outside hitters who got really good at spiking and blocking and never worked much on passing. They’re often really tall and powerful.
- Left handed – Again, it’s totally possible to be a great opposite as a righty, but being left handed definitely makes life easier when hitting from the right side of the court.
Middle blockers are often the tallest players on the court and are responsible for running quick attacks through the middle of the court, as well as blocking the opposing team’s attacks.
The Great Big Dumb Middle Blocker
A middle blocker, sometimes referred to as a middle hitter, or simply a middle, often lacks athleticism and technical prowess.
They’re there for two reasons: get blocks, and hit the ball.
At the junior level, middle blockers tend to lack court awareness, can’t pass very well, and are pretty useless at digging.
Middles Are Blocking Specialists
Because the middle blocker stands in the center of the court, they have to attempt to block attacks from the opposition’s outside, middle, and opposite.
They need strong footwork and quick reaction times and the ability to transition quickly from their defensive role into a fast paced offense.
The Middle Hitter Attacks Swiftly
Offensively, middle blockers usually run ‘quicks’ which are high paced attacks through the middle of the court.
The middle hitter will look to contact the ball almost immediately after it’s left the hands of the setter which requires incredible timing and precision.
This is done to force commitment from the opposing middle blocker, freeing up defensive pressure for a wing attack.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of A Middle Blocker
- Defensive powerhouse – The middle coordinates joint blocking with the wing players, establishing position and timing. A weak blocking presence is almost always a death sentence in volleyball.
- Height – You simply have to be tall to be a middle blocker. This is primarily because you need to be able to block quick attacks and the closer your hands are to the top of the net, the quicker you’ll be able to form a block.
- Fast footwork – At the elite level, setters move the ball to the sticks really quickly. As a top middle blocker you have to move your feet extremely efficiently to be able to get into position to have any chance of blocking the opposition hitter.
The libero is a back row passing and defense specialist.
They sub into the back court usually for the middle blocker and their primary role is as a serve reception specialist, but they’re also out there to dig the ball and make all sorts of defensive plays.
Liberos Are Technicians
When on court, they take control of the back row and can often be seen diving and rolling all over the place as they make athletic defensive saves. They’re usually the most accurate passer on the team.
The Shortest Position In Volleyball: Libero
Quite often the libero is the smallest player in the lineup. Since they only play in the back row and aren’t allowed to spike the ball, they swap out height for extreme agility and accuracy.
The Libero Wears A Different Colored Jersey
Since the libero can’t rotate into the front row or attack the ball they wear different colored jerseys to the rest of the team to help the referees keep track of their position on court.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of A Libero
- Willing to take command – A good libero is similar to a setter; they’re the captain of the back court. They virtually need to steal passes from other players – whenever a serve goes into the seam between two receivers, it’s always the libero’s responsibility to pass it.
- Accurate setter – When the setter is unable to get to the second ball, it’s often the libero’s job to deliver the ball to a hitter (since they can’t attack, they may as well). They need to be able to set long distances with a high degree of precision so an attacker still has a chance to make a kill even after the pass goes astray.
- Extremely quick and agile – These players are little powerhouses. They’ve got incredible reaction times and are really fast on their feet.
Defensive Specialist (DS)
A defensive specialist typically has all the same skills as a libero, except they do not wear a different colored jersey and can sub into the game for any player in any position.
The Defensive Specialist Assists In High Pressure Situations
Usually you’ll see a DS enter the game when the scoreboard is very tight towards the end of a set.
Often a DS is put into the game to help deal with a particularly strong server or to take a particularly weak defender/passer out of the lineup.
When you need a sideout, it may help to have an extra reliable passer or someone who can make a stuff block if needed.
Responsibilities & Attributes Of A Defensive Specialist
- Performs well under pressure – Since this is the player we’re calling up down the stretch when the score is really close, a DS needs to stay cool in high pressure situations.
- Accurate and agile – A DS is often relied upon to make really accurate passes to help a team sideout. Just like a libero, they need to pass extremely well. Similarly, they need to be able to make great scramble defensive plays and to cover the court efficiently.
The Rare 7th Position: Serving Specialist
Some people argue there’s actually 7 positions on a volleyball team. Personally, I don’t really think this one counts and it’s usually pretty fair to say there’s either 6 or 7 positions in volleyball.
In certain circumstances, a player may be subbed into the game purely to try and win a point via their exceptionally strong serve.
The Perfect Situation For A Serving Specialist
This virtually never happens, but occasionally when your team possesses an extremely strong server, they may be put into the game just to do their thing and then substituted back out of the rotation after they’ve finished serving.
Imagine your team is up 27:26 and the opposition has a really strong serve reception lineup with an extremely strong attacker in position… We also happen to have one of our worst servers heading to the service line…
If you have a player on the bench who has a particularly reliable and effective serve, this might be an ideal situation to sub them in as a serving specialist in hopes that they can secure the set from their service pressure alone.
Serving Specialists Aren’t Really A Thing…
Unless you’re playing at the international or professional level, you’re about as likely to see a serving specialist enter the court as you are a unicorn!
Volleyball Positions FAQ
The role of the setter is often seen as the hardest because of the immense responsibility they have to create offensive opportunities for their team.
The setter really is the glue that holds the defense and offense together. They’re constantly communicating with passers, hitters, and the coaching staff to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
There isn’t a clear cut answer to this question, however as each position brings its own unique challenges.
Click here to check out my article where I ranked the positions from easiest to hardest.
Usually, the tallest position in volleyball is the middle blocker and the shortest position is the libero.
But this isn’t always the case. When I played as the middle blocker for the Australian U17 team, I was the shortest player on the team after the libero (if you count 6’5″ as short)!
It’s also quite common to have really tall opposite hitters who may even have a few cm on the middle blocker.
In almost all cases the libero will be one of the shortest players on the court.
The libero wears a different colored jersey to the rest of the team.
The libero is only allowed to play in the back row and can’t spike the ball, so it helps the refs keep track of their position on the court.
All positions except for the libero are required to serve in volleyball.
Though it doesn’t usually happen, the libero is allowed to serve in one rotation under USA volleyball rules.
In Europe, the libero is not allowed to serve.
The best volleyball positions for tall players are middle blocker and opposite as they require a lot of blocking and less passing, so height is more important.
Opposites and middles are usually considerably taller than all other positions on the court, with the MB usually being the tallest.
The primary hitting positions in volleyball are the outside hitter, opposite, and middle blocker.
The outside hitter receives slightly more opportunities to hit the ball compared to the rest… then the opposite, followed by the middle blocker.
Occasionally the setter may even hit the ball if they’re in the front court, especially if they’re left handed.
Only the libero is prohibited from hitting the ball.
OH refers to the outside hitter position.
OPP refers to the opposite hitter.
Occasionally, people will refer to the middle blocker as a middle hitter and so MH means the same thing as MB.
I’ve written extensively about which volleyball shoes are best for each position in this article.