The libero is impossible to miss when watching a volleyball match. Like clockwork, a first-time viewer of the sport will ask “Why is that player wearing a different jersey?” The answer oftentimes being: “That’s the libero.”
But what exactly does the libero do?
The libero can often be thought of as an extension of the defensive specialist. Before getting into that, though, let’s start with the rules that govern the position.
The rules of the libero
Per the NCAA rules book for women’s and men’s volleyball, the libero is strictly a back-row player and can only be replaced by the same player it replaces. Also, a coach can only designate one libero per set.
For most teams, the libero is not a starter. At the beginning of matches before the first serve, the libero will normally replace a player in the starting lineup. That player becomes the only player that can replace the libero. (There is normally one official tracking the libero substitutions during a match.)
The libero, also according to the rules, cannot “complete an attack hit” if the ball is above the net and it cannot perform an overhead set in front of the attack line — commonly called the 10-foot line — while still having teammates attack the ball above the net.
How is 'libero' pronounced?
It depends on who you ask. The word comes from Italian and means "free." Big Ten volleyball players weighed in during an informal poll at media days and preferred "li-BEAR-o" to "LEE-beh-ro."
The role of the libero
If those two rules weren’t in effect, the position would likely be utilized completely differently. Since those rules restrict hitting and setting at the position, the libero — based on size and the area that confines the position, as well — is often the best defensive player on the team and is used as a second defensive specialist. However, coaches aren’t required to use a libero, and the defensive specialist position doesn’t have a specific set of rules.
So why do teams use a libero in the first place?
A coach is limited to 15 substitutions per set, per NCAA rules. Most substitutions occur when a coach substitutes a hitter for a defensive player who just rotated to the front row, and vise versa — if that hitter does not play all six rotations. The libero substitutions do not count toward these 15 maximum substitutions.
Most of the time, the libero is used in the rotation of middle blockers on a team. When one middle rotates to the back row, the other middle will enter the match for the libero and be in the front row. Here are two examples of these substitutions in action.
How is a libero used in a match?
Here is a real-life example from a 2019 Penn State match: Middle blockers Serena Gray and Tori Gorrell were starters. Libero Kendall White, who is listed as a defensive specialist, went in for Gorrell before the first serve. When Gray served, Gorrell entered for White, since she is the only player that can replace the libero. Then White re-entered for Gray on the next rotation, which then made Gray the player who must replace White.
When it was Gorrell’s turn to serve, Gray entered for Gorrell without a formal substitution and White went to the service line. That made Gorrell the next player that will replace White when it’s Gray’s turn to serve again. How can this happen?
Well, what really happened was two libero substitutions in one action. Gray replaced White — since she was the only player that can replace the libero, per the rules outlined earlier — and White replaced Gorrell, which made Gorrell the only player to replace White.
The libero and the defensive specialist are normally the best two passers on the floor whereas hitters normally aren’t as skilled in passing. The only rotation in which a libero would not be on the floor would be when one of the two players it replaces is serving. Other than that, the libero is a vital part of any teams’ back row defense.