What are the volleyball positions and roles?

In volleyball, the rules specify six positions based on their rotational position (3 in the front row and 3 in the back row), and two roles: a libero and a regular (non-libero) player.

Usually, volleyball teams recognize 3 types of positions/roles (setter, hitter, defensive player) broken down into 6 specific positions:

  • Setter
    • Setter
  • Hitter
    • Middle Hitter/Blocker
    • Outside Hitter
    • Right-side/Opposite Hitter
  • Defensive Player
    • Defensive Specialist (DS)
    • Libero
A sample of the various volleyball positions and where they may play defensively

What is the role of setter?

A setter is a conventional role assigned a regular player (non-libero) whose primary responsibility is to take the 2nd touch (out of the 3 allotted touches) for their team to “set” a hitter for them to attack the ball.

Setters may be in any rotational position on the court: front row or back row. The team’s offensive system will often dictate how many setters are playing and where the setters play in the rotation (e.g., playing in the front row, back row, or both).

The most common offensive systems include:

  • 5-1 (5 hitters and 1 setter)
    • In this system, there is only 1 setter on the court at a time
    • When they are in the front row, they will only have 2 other front-row hitters
    • When they are in the back row, they will be able to set 3 front row hitters
    • The main advantage of a 5-1 is that the team’s best setter will be able to set the whole time.
    • The setter in a 5-1 will often need to be taller in order to also effectively block in the front.
  • 4-2 (4 hitters and 2 setters)
    • In this system, there are 4 hitters and 2 setters.
    • Setters in this system will only set from the front row which means they will only have 2 other front-row hitters
    • The main advantage of a 4-2 system is the setter is close to their ideal setting area (aka setting target) at the net and may be able to handle overpasses (passes from teammates that sail too far and cross the net for the opponent to attack) better by attacking or deflecting them away from the opponent
  • 6-2 (6 hitters and 2 setters)
    • In this system, there are 6 hitters and 2 setters.
    • Setters in this system will usually only set from the back row which means there will always be 3 front-row hitters available to be set
    • The main advantage of a 6-2 system is the team can always make sure to have 3 effective hitters/blockers available which means that the setter doesn’t have to be one of them (as they can be substituted for a hitter in the front)
    • The setter may be shorter in a 6-2 system and still be effective.
An example of players transitioning from defense to offense, with a setter moving to the target and three front-row hitters transitioning to be able to hit a typical set.

What is the role of a hitter?

In volleyball, the role of a hitter is to attack the ball for the team (on the 3rd and final touch). The goal of the hitter is to “kill” the ball (usually by hitting the opponent’s side of the court directly or an opponent in such a way that the opponent team cannot return the ball over the net) and win the point for their team.

The team will have 2 or 3 front-row hitters depending on the offensive system used. The front-row hitters are usually the primary hitters for the team as they are allowed to attack the ball (i.e., hit the ball when it is above the height of the net) from inside the attack line (aka within 10 foot or 3-meter line from the net).

Front-row hitters are often denoted as “outside hitter”, “middle hitter”, or “right side hitter” (aka “opposite hitter”) depending on where they usually line up defensively on the net (i.e., left, middle, or right side of the net). This is only a conventional label. Nothing prevents them from hitting at different positions on the net.

Hitters may also be in the back row but they must start their jump behind the attack line in order to attack the ball when it is above the height of the net.

What is the role of the outside hitter?

In volleyball, the outside hitter is the hitter that usually hits from the left side of the net.

The outside hitter is often the hitter that gets set the most. Most players are right-handed and it is easier for a hitter to hit a ball being set from their right side especially if the set is from behind them (as they will open up to hit towards the court and will be able to watch the set better as they approach).

In addition, many passes are not to the ideal setting position by the net, so the set is often not ideal and often limits who can be set effectively. As most teams have their setter start from the right side of the net, if the pass is off the mark they are often running towards the left side and it is easier to set the outside hitter than any other position.

The outside hitter is often expected to block on the left side of the net, help block or cover tips from the middle of the net, and often covering hits from the right side of the net (the opponent’s outside hitter).

Typically, outside hitters are expected to be effective back-row players (when they rotate to the back) serving, passing, and hitting effectively from the back-row. For this reason, on most teams, the outside hitter position is the most prestigious position to play as they tend to get the most playing and hitting opportunities.

What is the role of the middle hitter?

In volleyball, the middle hitter is the hitter who hits from the middle portion of the net. Middle hitters are often expected to block in the middle as well as assist blocking on the right and left side of the net, so they are often referred to as a middle blocker.

As middle hitters/blockers are often involved with blocking across the whole net, they are usually the tallest players on the team. Their height helps to make the team’s block more effective.

In higher-level volleyball competition, middle hitters (aka middles) often run more kinds of approaches and hit different kinds of sets than other hitters. These types of approaches/sets include:

  • “1” approach/set
    • Fast tempo approach (often approaching and jumping just before the setter touches the ball) where the middle follows the setter to the pass and approaches close to the setter to hit the ball quickly as it leaves the setter’s hands
    • This set is the most common set for middles playing at a higher level of competition and is very effective as the fast tempo is harder to block.
  • “2” approach/set
    • Slower tempo approach (waiting until after the setter sets the ball before approaching) where the middle hits a set to the short middle of the court
    • This set is often the 1st set a middle will learn as it is the simplest to learn and execute effectively
  • “31” / “shoot” approach/set
    • Fast tempo approach where the middle approaches about a third of the way in from the left side of the net and hits a set sent straight from the setter with a low arch
    • This set is an effective set as it forces the opponent to block at a different location on the net than the typical “1” or “4” location and can cause confusion and difficulty for the opponent with a faster tempo.
  • “slide” approach/set
    • An approach where the hitter goes parallel to the net, crossing behind the setter where the hitter tracks the set and hits it off of one foot (instead of two)
    • This set is often used with a front-row setter as there is no player to the right of the setter, so there is enough space to run it.
    • This set is effective as the setter is moving parallel to the net so it is difficult for the block to set up correctly, and the timing of the hit is difficult for the opponent to anticipate
An example of the 4 most common sets that middle hitters will encounter

Middle hitters are often not expected to play in the back-row. The reason for this is that most middles are often taller and less athletic than their teammates and thus may not be as effective defensively in the back.

In addition, as middles are often expected to block all across the net in the front, and to always track and attempt to hit a “1” approach (even when they ultimately don’t get set), playing middle can be the most exhausting position to play. This is another reason that teams may choose to not have their middle play in the back row to allow them time to rest.

At lower levels of play, the best hitter on the team is often the tallest player and it may make sense to play them in the middle to provide a better block across the net and to make it easier for lower-level setters to get them the ball (i.e., it is easier for them to set the short middle than to set outside).

What is the role of the right-side/opposite hitter?

In volleyball, the right-side (aka opposite) hitter is the hitter who hits from the right side of the net. They are sometimes called “opposite” because they are often the player that is opposite of the setter in a 5-1 offensive system.

Usually, if the setter plays in the front-row they will play on the right side of the net to be closest to the ideal setting position. If the team has 2 setters and they are running a 6-2 system where the setter in the back row sets, then the setter in the front row will be the right-side hitter or they will substitute the front row setter with a specific right-side hitter.

The right-side hitter is usually the only hitter behind the setter, as the setter normally faces towards the left side of the net.

Right-handed hitters may find playing right-side hitter to be challenging as they have to wait for the ball to cross in front of them to their hitting arm when making an approach. Right-handed hitters will often find it more difficult to adjust to sets that are set further inside of the court (i.e., towards the middle of the court) and may have to abort a hit entirely as their normal arm swing will be aiming out of bounds as they adjust to the left.

Left-handed hitters have a decided advantage in hitting from the right side as they don’t have to wait for the ball to cross to hit it and they can more easily hit balls set further inside the court. They can do that by stepping towards the middle and simply swing across towards the opponent’s side of the court.

Defensively, right-side hitters usually need to block the opponent’s outside hitter who is set often and is usually one of the opponent’s better hitters.

Right-side hitters are often utilized as back-up setters if the setter has to take the first contact and pass the ball. The right-side hitter is then nearest to the usual setting target and can continue running the offense as normal. In addition, the right-side hitter is often the other setter in a 6-2 system.

As the right-side is often used as a replacement for the setter when they rotate to the front, they may not get the opportunity to play as much in the back row when the setter is needed. Of course, this is by convention only as teams could have the setters switch with middles instead (i.e., setters play in the back row while middles play in the front row).

What is a pin hitter?

In volleyball, a pin hitter is a front-row hitter that hits near the “pin” or antenna/post (i.e., the post that is holding up the net). That is, it is referring to an outside hitter or a right-side hitter.

The term is useful for differentiating between a middle hitter and other hitters. Often players will switch between playing outside or right-side hitter as needed by the team.

Sometimes the player will play both positions (outside and right-side hitter) within the same game, as they may stay and hit on the side they are nearest to in the rotational order. This is sometimes referred to as “pin hitting.”

“Pin hitting” can be a useful tactic to confuse the opponent by allowing a strong hitter (e.g., outside hitter) to hit from a different position (e.g., the right side of the net) against perhaps a weaker block. It may also be useful to balance playing time for hitters that prefer to play outside hitter by allowing them to hit outside in 1 or 2 of their front-row rotational positions.

What is a defensive player?

In volleyball, a defensive player is considered a player that primarily plays in the back row and is expected to handle most of the team’s first contacts (i.e., dig/pass).

Defensive players should be proficient at reading and positioning themselves based on the opponent’s approach, quickly moving to cover tips or hits away from them, passing accurately to the ideal setting position (aka target), covering hitters when they are hitting against a blocker (i.e., to save a ball that is blocked by the opponent), and at times are asked/required to be a backup setter if the setter has to take the 1st touch or is not in position to set a poorly passed 1st touch.

Defensive players are often shorter players that may be less capable hitters/blockers than their teammates. Defensive players may be a normal player that conventionally only plays the back row and is substituted for a taller player when they rotate to the front row (aka a defensive specialist or DS) or they may be a designated libero.

What is the role of a defensive specialist (DS)?

A defensive specialist is a defensive player that is simply a non-libero player that usually only plays in the back row.

A DS may start the game in the back row or may enter the game as a substitute for another player when they are in the back row. As they are a normal player, it takes 1 substitute to bring them into the game, and 1 substitute to bring in a replacement for them when they rotate to the front row.

As different volleyball leagues have different substitution limits, teams utilizing defensive specialists may find themselves bumping up against those limits. Thus, the DS may only be able to play the back-row for one or two sets of back row rotations.

As a DS is not limited by the rules of a libero, they are able to attack the ball from the back row like any other normal player (i.e., they must simply jump from behind the attack line before contacting the ball above the height of the net) and they are able to set the ball without limitations, as needed.

What is the role of a libero?

A libero is a defensive player that is specially designated as such and must wear a contrasting jersey. They have special rules governing their play.

Some key rules pertaining to liberos:

  • May only play in the back row
  • Enters and exits the game for free (i.e., does not count as a substitution), known as a replacement. If leaving from one position they must wait for one play before returning to a different back-row position unless they are going to serve.
  • May play in any back-row position
  • May replace any player in the back row. They are not limited to replacing one rotational position as substitutes must.
  • May not set a ball from in front of the attack line and have a teammate attack the ball (i.e., hit the ball when it is entirely above the height of the net)
  • May not attack the ball (i.e., hit the ball when it is entirely above the height of the net)
  • Must wear a contrasting jersey to their teammates
  • Are not allowed to serve in FIVB ball (but may in other leagues)

The libero position was created specifically to encourage more participation by shorter players.

The rules give the libero a significant advantage over just playing a normal player as a defensive specialist in most cases as they can play more (they may play almost the entire game), they can replace more than 1 player position, and they cost no substitution to enter and exit the game.

Read more about the libero position, here.

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