Why does one player in volleyball have a different color jersey?

In volleyball, the libero is the player that wears a different color jersey from their teammates. The libero is a specially designated player that is allowed to replace any player in the back row without the need to substitute. They may never play in the front row.

Because there are special rules governing the libero (see below), the player must be obviously distinct from the rest of their teammates. This is why they wear a different/contrasting jersey to their teammates.

How does libero substitution/replacement work?

A libero is allowed to enter or exit the court in between plays/rallies (i.e., between the end of one play and the start of the next play). If they are off the court, they may enter and replace any player in the back row. If they leave the court, they must wait for one play/rally before returning to the court in a new rotational position.

The libero and the player they are replacing should enter and exit the courts through the sideline nearest their bench but not going through the substitution zone (see the article on substitutions for more information on the substitution zone).

Libero (L1) enters/exits through the Libero Replacement Zone and the player being replaced (P6) exits/enters there

Unlike a substitution, no referee has to signal a replacement and no waiting is necessary or expected. The referee may or may not see the replacement and may just whistle for the next play to start, so both the libero and player being replaced should move quickly to avoid being caught unprepared for the next play or even being called “out of rotation”.

When must a libero exit the court?

The libero must exit the court when they rotate to the front row.

They are only allowed to play in a back row position legally, so they must exit the court before the start of the next play.

The only exception to this requirement to exit the court after rotating to the front row is if they move to replace the next server instead.

Are libero’s allowed to serve?

Liberos are not allowed to serve in FIVB play. Most other leagues (NFHS, NCAA, USAV) allow the libero to serve in one rotational position.

Once they serve for a particular rotational position, they may only serve again in that same rotational position for the remainder of the set.

To serve, they may simply replace the player that is in the serving position before the start of the play. To do that, they may either move from the bench area or from any court position directly to the serving position.

If they replace the server from the bench, the player being replaced simply goes to the bench.

If they replace the server from another position on the court, the player being replaced will go to the bench, while the previously replaced player returns to the court in their rotational position.

The libero (L1) replaces the server (P1) and the previously replace player (P4) returns

For example in the situation above, the libero (L1) just rotates to the front and goes to replace the server, so the previously replaced player (P4) returns, and the newly replaced player (P1) exits. This situation is only possible if the libero has not yet served in the set or has previously served in that same rotational position.

How should you pronounce “libero”?

The term “libero” is from Italian and means “free”, as in “battitore libero” which means “free defender.”

There is a surprising amount of confusion on how to pronounce the word “libero”.

You may hear:

How should it be pronounced? It seems like the Italian pronunciation is the proper one given that it is an Italian word, however, as it has been adopted into the English language if you want to be understood you may want to adopt the common usage for your area.

In my particular area of the U.S. (Arizona), I hear the British pronunciation (lih-bear-o) predominantly.

How many liberos may a team designate?

This depends on the volleyball league.

LeagueLiberos Allowed
NFHS (high school)1
NCAA (college)1
USAV (club)2
FIVB (international)2

Teams may designate between 0 and the maximum number allowed.

How does it work if you have two liberos?

Two liberos work the same as if there were only one libero, except that the two liberos can replace one another.

Two liberos cannot do anything that a single libero cannot do.

  • Only 1 libero may be on the court at a time
  • Once a libero serves that is the only rotational position, a libero may serve in
  • If one libero is on the court (i.e., the acting libero), the other libero may only replace that libero on the court
  • If neither libero is on the court, either of the two liberos may replace a back-row player

Are liberos allowed to jump and hit the ball?

A libero may hit a ball over the net only if they do not contact the ball when it is entirely above the height of the net. If the libero is a shorter player, and/or doesn’t jump very high they may be able to jump and still contact the ball such that it is not above the height of the net.

The main referee will determine if it is a legal hit or not. It is a judgment call.

For that reason, many teams don’t want the libero jumping and hitting the ball to avoid losing the point on a violation.

Why aren’t liberos allowed to hit the ball as normal? The position was designed as a defensive specialist and to allow shorter players to be able to compete. If liberos were allowed to attack as normal, it would incentivize teams to put their best back-row hitter as a libero.

Are liberos allowed to overhead set a ball?

A libero may always overhead set a ball, but if they overhead set a ball from the front zone (i.e., on or in front of the attack line) then another player may not attack the ball above the height of the net on a hit.

So, if a libero mistakenly sets the ball from the front zone, their teammates need to recognize that they are not allowed to attack the ball as normal. If they do not attack the ball, play can continue. If they do attack the ball, the referee may call an attack fault.

For this reason, liberos will often practice overhead setting from the back zone only, or always bump set to avoid the potential confusion and violation.

Why aren’t liberos allowed to set the ball as normal? The position was designed as a defensive specialist and to allow shorter players to be able to compete. If liberos were allowed to set as normal, it would incentivize teams to put their best setter as a libero so that they would never have to rotate to the front.

Are liberos allowed to be a team captain?

Whether or not liberos are allowed to be captains depends on the volleyball league.

LeagueLibero Captains?
NFHS (high school)Yes
NCAA (college)Yes
USAV (club)Yes
FIVB (international)No

If you decide to use a libero as a captain, you will need to designate an alternate or floor captain when they are not on the court. Unlike a normal rotational player, liberos are required to leave the court when they rotate to the front unless they are going to serve. But since they may only serve for one player, there is at least 1 part of one rotation when they may not be in the game.

What are some of the key differences between a libero and a DS (defensive specialist)?

A DS (defensive specialist) is a term given to a regular player that is brought into the game (via normal substitution) to play in the back zone only.

Here are some of the key differences between the two players:

LiberoDS
May play for any back-row
player, any rotational position.
May only play for 1 rotational position
May play nearly the whole match
from the back-row
May only play 3 of every 6
rotations from the back
May serve for 1 rotational position
(except for FIVB)
May serve for 1 rotational position
May only play in the back rowUsually only plays in the back row.
May play front row if needed.
Doesn’t cost a sub to enter/exitCosts one sub to enter.
Costs one sub to exit
May not attack the ball
(above the height of net)
May attack the ball
from behind the attack line
May not set the ball from the front zone and have it attacked.May set the ball as normal
Wears contrasting jersey Wears the same jersey as teammates

Why use a libero?

There are many good reasons to use a libero:

  • A libero may be able to play nearly the entire game in the back-row (if desired)
    • As such a libero can nearly cover 2 players for their entire time in the back-row (less the service of 1)
  • A libero replacement does not count as a substitution and so allows you to save subs or supplement them
    • Bringing in a back-row defensive specialist (DS) for 1 rotational position, then bringing them out when they reach the front row again costs 2 subs per player, per 6 rotations.
    • If you wanted to do that for 2 players, it would use 4 subs per 6 rotations. If a game lasts 18 rotations, the team will have used 12 subs.
    • A libero can cover those two positions alone.
  • A libero also provides flexibility as a back-up server, as they may play in any back-row position and may serve for any rotational position (but only one)
    • In a game, if one of the normal players are struggling with their serve you may be able to use the libero as a serving specialist
    • Or, if the team subs are exhausted their serve may be saved to cover one player beyond that point.
  • A libero is not locked into playing for only one rotational position (they are only locked in serving in one rotational position) like regular players
    • This means one player can “substitute” for multiple players over the course of a set
    • Otherwise, you would need as many as 6 additional players to provide 1 sub for each of the starting 6 players in case one is needed

Why wouldn’t you use a libero?

There are a few situations in which using a libero isn’t possible or perhaps doesn’t make sense.

  • If the team only has 6 players, there is no way to play with a libero
  • If the team has players who are excellent hitters from the back-row who are not as good an option hitting from the front row
    • In this case, the team may decide to bring in players as defensive specialists, instead
    • As a DS, these players will be able to hit from the back-row as normal
  • If the team has players that are all equally good at playing in the back-row and substitution limits are not a problem
    • Even if the libero is not as good or equally as capable a defensive player, it still may make sense to use a libero to provide a break/rest without using a sub

Keep in mind that all regular players are locked into one rotational position at a time, so to be able to sub/replace all the players on the court you will need at least 6 extra players.

Also, keep in mind that total substitution limits may be reached over a long set, at which point no more regular subs will be permitted. It is a nice luxury to have a player that can always go in for a back-row position regardless of the sub situation.

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