It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the game of volleyball in the time I’ve been involved as a coach (and a player all those years ago), and across the gap when I was away from coaching volleyball. While I was on my August tour of US collegiate volleyball programs, one of the things I saw was a shift in the use of the libero. It’s no surprise this has happened. The position was only introduced at that level about 10 years ago. It was going to take time for coaches to find the best ways to make use of the position.
The early days of the libero
Back in the early days of libero use it was largely just a glorified defensive specialist. They didn’t do much more than any DS would have done, except they couldn’t serve at that point (which they can do in one rotation under US women’s collegiate rules). A team took their strongest defender and/or ball control player, gave them the off-colored jersey and said go do what you normally do, but in 6 rotations rather than 3.
When I was at Brown, our basic strategy was to identify the place the ball was most likely to go given our blocking scheme (either position 5 or 6), and put the libero there on defense, and get her central in the serve receive pattern as much as possible. Not a bad approach. You want your best ball-handling player getting as many first contact touches as possible.
Back then we gave no real thought to the libero taking the second ball should the setter have to take the first one on defense. That had a lot to do with the libero not being able to take the ball with her hands in front of the 3m line. The strategy was instead for the OPP to step out from her RS position to take it. Most teams used a similar approach.
Current libero use
Things have shifted in the last few years, though. These days liberos are being given responsibility for taking the second ball when the setter has to dig, rather than having the OPP stepping out to take it. I can think of a few related reasons this shift has taken place, in no particular order:
- More teams are targeting the setter, causing them to play the ball defensively more often.
- OPPs have gotten bigger, and while they are generally a bit more dynamic than MBs they are unlikely to be the quickest afoot to get into good position to do more than set a straightforward set.
- Coaches have gotten more conservative with their digging target, strongly favoring what is referred to as Target 2 (about 3m line in the middle of the court). This would require an OPP to have to come further off the net to play a ball, often after they just got down from blocking.
- Per the observation above that OPPs often were doing little more than just setting the OH or a back row attacker (very rarely setting the MB quick, for example), having them play the 2nd ball too away a pin hitting option which could reasonably be set on a ball dug to Target 2.
With the ball getting dug to Target 2, and them most often playing in position 5, the libero starts to become a more interesting secondary setter. On balls dug behind the 3m line they can use their hands, while on those closer to the net they can bump set. Since they’re in the middle of the court, they can go to either the OH or the RS with the ball, maintaining two attacking options – and even the middle back for a third choice. Suddenly it starts to make sense to have the libero acting as the second setter. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be among the quicker players on the court and generally well able to reach the dug ball (By the way, middle blockers are now getting more responsibility for taking the second ball dug close to the net as they can set either way as well).
Implications for libero selection and training
What all this means is that the requirements for the libero position have evolved. It’s no longer enough to pass and or dig the ball well. They now also have to consistently put up a good hittable ball to both pins and the back row. At the top levels this has resulted in coaches recruiting experienced setters to play libero. It also means a lot of dedicated libero setting work, such as that done in the Second Ball Setting drill.
Having former setters as liberos brings a leadership factor into play, as good setters are generally also good leaders. Liberos may not direct the team the same ways a setter does, but their attitude, communication, and intensity can certainly set the team’s standard. I had a libero captain one of my years at Brown who definitely set the tone for the team (and probably will again this year with the Exeter Uni women), and I saw a similar thing at USC when I was observing the preseason training there.
As coaches looking to identify and/or train prospective liberos, these are thing we need to keep in mind.