At first glance volleyball might seem a bit easier to understand than any other team sport. After all, there are only twelve players on the court (six players per team). However there is more to comprehend than initially meets the eye and it is important to understand how volleyball positions, player rotations and formations impact how teams play the game.
Volleyball positions and roles
In volleyball, the players’ positions are highly specialized and strategic. This means that each player has a primary responsibility in each game. Although volleyball is a game of adaptability, so by no means is a player subjected to staying in their specified role the entire game.
The setter is one of the strongest cognitive forces on the court. They are always looking at where the opposing blockers are in relation to their own team and then setting up high quality attacks by distributing the ball to his or her spikers / hitters. Also called the control tower, the setter is responsible for bringing the ball to the player with the highest probability of scoring.
While setters might not be as flashy as spikers, they usually possess the best ball technique and heightened court awareness. After all, the hitters can’t make a soul-crushing spike without the setter’s split-second decisions on where to send the ball.
Outside Hitter / Opposite Hitter
These players are mainly responsible for attacking and scoring. The left-wing spiker is commonly known as the outside hitter while the right-wing spiker is called the opposite hitter. In a volleyball game, outside hitters are primarily responsible for attacks while the opposite hitters help with blocking the opposing team’s outside hitter and sometimes being a backup setter if needed.
For both positions, the player’s leaping ability and power are required for them to do their jobs well. It also helps if the outside hitter and the opposite hitter know how to receive and pass the ball. In most cases, the outside hitter is the most dependable player on the court and will be playing in both the front and back row, so they should be a good athlete with great stamina in order to play well for an entire match.
In addition, it is considered a blessing if you have a left-handed person handling the opposite player position as they will undeniably have an easier time hitting from the right side of the court.
Middle Blocker / Middle Hitter
Middle blockers transition to middle hitters depending whether their team is on the defensive or offensive.
In both roles, these players have to be quick and smart. They must have great ball reading technique in addition to being mobile enough to quickly transition off the net and be in position to attack the ball.
Player height is another key factor to be an effective middle blocker / hitter (though not required, just take a look at Hinata from the volleyball anime show Haiykuu!!) and this combined with leaping ability, agility and perfect timing makes the perfect player.
Liberos are highly specialized defensive players and are the ones primarily responsible for receiving serves or attacks from the other team. They are usually the players on the team with the quickest reactions and most mobility.
As the libero will never attack the ball above the height of the net, they do not need to be particularly tall and most of the time, they are the smallest player on the team.
Unlike the other player positions, a libero can freely come and substitute a back row player, often replacing the back-court middle hitter. However, he or she needs to wait one completed rally before he or she can return to the game. Liberos wear a different colored uniform than their teammates in order to help the referees, libero trackers and linesmen identify them.
Rotating through the different positions in volleyball
The players rotate through the numbered positions / zones marked on the diagram in a clockwise direction as their team gains possession of the serve. The player who is in Zone 1 serves the ball for that given rotation. If you ever see coaches flashing their servers numbers using their fingers, they’re telling the server which zone to serve to.
Although players are required to stay in their specific positions at the start of the game, it becomes an entirely different matter as soon as the ball is served. This is why you will see players switching places once the ball is served in a match because players can then move to their respective playing positions. For example, a middle blocker located at the front-left can move to the middle front position immediately after the serve has been released.
With six volleyball players per team on court, everybody needs to be aware of each teammate’s position so as not to overlap or hinder each other. The basic rule is that players can move in an “L-shaped” pattern to quickly get into their playing positions.
Volleyball positions and tactics
To further complicate matters, different formations are used, which are usually varied depending on the level of the teams involved and the number of setters they want to use. There are three standard volleyball formations:
A basic formation mostly used by beginner teams, this formation has four hitters and two setters with the setters usually operating from the front right or front centre positions.
This formation usually has two outside hitters, and they align themselves with the setters in opposite positions in the rotation so there is always one of each in the front and back court.
The 4-2 formation is considered to have a couple of disadvantages with the lack of a clear offside hitter and a lower number of attackers leaving the team with fewer offensive weapons.
In the 6–2 formation, a player always comes forward from the back row to set. The three front row players are all in attacking positions. Thus, all six players act as hitters at one time or another, while two can act as setters. The 6–2 formation is really just a 4–2 system, but with a back-row setter transitioning to the front row to set.
The 6–2 lineup thus requires two setters who line up opposite to each other in the rotation. In addition to the setters, a typical lineup will have two middle hitters and two outside hitters. By aligning like positions opposite themselves in the rotation, there will always be one of each position in the front and back rows. After service, the players in the front row move into their assigned positions.
This formation is a great one to use if you have two setters who are really good, or if you have hitters that work better with different setters.
This is the most commonly used formation by high level teams only since it has one player that assumes the setting responsibilities regardless of their position in the rotation. This leaves five attacking players spread across the front and back row, and it means the setter can make offensive moves when they are in the front row. The setter can also be more creative with the hitters being that the right side will be open for half of the rotations, leaving room for middle slide attacks and other trick shots.
The 5-1 formation is actually a hybrid of the 4-2 and 6-2 formations.