The Law Of Unintended Consequences: The Libero

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liberoFor as long as volleyball has been a performance sport, it has been defined on and off the court by the central battle between offence and defence.  The belief has long been held, and held to be inviolable, that the advantage of offence over the defence is to the detriment of the game.  Nearly every rule change over that time has been an attempt to redress that imbalance.

In the mid 1990’s the idea was hatched to improve the defence by including a specialist defensive player: the libero.  Secondary issues to be addressed were the increasing size of the players, and the ‘fall’ of Asian volleyball. The libero was going to solve all of those problems.  So did it?

In the short-term, there were no liberos, only outside hitters who couldn’t spike as well as other outside hitters.  And there were coaches, whose job it was to create the best solutions for their teams.  The coaches put those backup outside hitters to play backrow for the middle blockers. The short-term effect?  Reception became better, the offence became stronger.  Defence didn’t improve by very much.  On balance offence became even stronger.  By the Law of Unintended Consequences the libero rule was a failure.

In the medium term, there were liberos.  After about ten years, the first generation of players who had only ever played libero reached the international level.  These players were good at reception, but were also much better at defence than the previous generation.  The medium term effect? Reception, and therefore offence, stayed much the same.  Defence did (seem to) improve.  On balance not much changed.  By the Law of Unintended Consequences the libero rule was a failure.  But middle blockers seemed to be getting bigger.  Mmm…

In the long-term, there are two liberos.  After many years of restrictions, coaches now have the option of using two liberos, one for offence, one for defence.  But the really interesting thing is how middle blockers have changed.  It seems obvious, but by increasing specialisation you increase outliers.  Liberos have become ‘smaller’ because they never have to spike at any point in their development.  Conversely, middles have become ‘bigger’ because they never have to receive or defend at any point in their development.  The long-term effect? Blocking has become much, much better.  Bigger, better blockers touch more balls which better defenders can keep alive.  Therefore more defence, and more longer rallies.  So in the long-term, the libero rule is a success, but by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

And Asia now has two teams in the top twelve in the world; Iran and Australia.  The Law of Unintended Consequences.

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  1. Couple of thoughts:

    1) Great post! fascinating that middle blockers are now bigger making blocking/defence better. Is it also possible that they allowed for the bigger passer-hitter to become more common (in tandem with the receiving on the hands rule)? Instead of the middle blocker being out of the pass/taking less court you can have that receiver out of the pass.
    2) So how was the libero going to help Asian volleyball? Their opponents were string in offence and the Asian teams were strong in reception and defence… so a libero would only make their opponents even stronger in defence????? Oddly, I’m sure a lot of Asian teams would not consider Australia and Iran to be “Asian” teams. At least the Asian Women’s teams have been consistently competitive
    3) Are there now players who have only played exclusively Libero in their? Surely players who play Libero at the highest levels played as passer-hitters at decent levels?


  2. I keep expecting someone to suggest a “libero” version of middle blockers in order to improve team defense, which will then probably get misused to put your best hitter on the front row for six rotations. 😉


  3. i recomend this article from spain–“Callejón, D. (2006a). Estudio y análisis de la participación técnicotáctica del jugador líbero en el voleibol masculino de alto
    rendimiento. Tesis Doctoral del Departamento de Física e
    Instalaciones aplicadas a la Edificación, al Medio Ambiente y al
    Urbanismo. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.”

    statistically he demonstrates that the libero helps build up k1 rather than defense.


  4. The “falling” Asian nation at this time was Japan. I think they were meant to be the beneficiaries of the libero rule (not Iran and Australia) and I suppose that’s what you meant by unintended consequences in this case ?


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