The Role of the Libero in Volleyball as a Paradoxical Influence on the Game: Logical Debate and the Proposal for a Rule Change

Submitted by Serge ÉLOI (1), Vincent LANGLOIS (1), Kendall JARRETT* (2)

(1) Université Paris-Est Créteil (France)

(2) Deakin University (Australia) & University of Canterbury (NZ)

*Corresponding author – Kendall JARRETT, Deakin University, Locked Bag 20000, Geelong Victoria

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this paper is to bring into focus philosophical and logical concerns relating to specific rules that govern the role of the libero in volleyball. The authors contest that the introduction of the position of the libero in volleyball may have actually undermined the continuing logic of the rules of the game. In addressing these questions the authors offer theoretically based rule-change proposals for the sport of volleyball that could be used to inform future training methods or development programmes at both the participatory and elite levels. Discussion may also inform the development of new tools of analysis (e.g. computer software) or the creation of a new breadth of match simulation resources to enhance athlete performance. These tools and devices could then be presented to volleyball coaches in an effort to resolve the issues that have come to light and further inform the philosophical and logical debates about the role of the libero in volleyball.

Key words: Volleyball, rule-change, laws, coaches

INTRODUCTION

This paper is an extension of the research undertaken by Uhlrich, Éloi & Bouthier (2011) and Éloi & Uhlrich (2011) into the analysis of team sports. It follows on from the work initiated by Vigarello (1988) and Durey and Bouthier’s study (1994) and comments relating to the cultural history of sport as well as the philosophy and logic that support technological developments in sport. Up until now the philosophy and logic underpinning changes to the rules and regulations of volleyball have been based on the intention to redress the imbalance between the attack and defence. Recent rule changes have endeavoured to enhance the defence. However, there is now evidence to suggest emergence of the role of the libero contradicts this logic. The authors believe that discussion offered within this paper confirms a breach in the historical logic of the development of the rules of volleyball which has now led the game into deadlock. The proposed solution will take the form of an alteration in the design of the court and an amendment to a section of the game’s regulations.

As sport researchers, the authors believe it is important to maintain and develop an effective dialectical relationship between the researcher and the practitioner. Thus, it is hoped that comments contained within this paper help to contribute towards the development of new coaching approaches valued within the volleyball coaching community and to promote further understanding and use of technological innovation in volleyball. We therefore posit the use of a technological approach to resolve the anomalies that have emerged in the evolution of the rules and regulations of volleyball.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LAWS OF VOLLEYBALL

In general, the laws (rules) of a sport are aligned to the technical developments of the game and are endorsed by the sport’s practitioners including the players, coaches and match officials. Some rule changes however originate from outside the immediate context of the game and are a result of discussions that are derived from a different perspective. For Vigarello (1988), “the regulation is often more than just a result. It is a compromise, a synthesis. Regulation is a meeting point between different stories. It is also to some extent the outcome”(p. 188). Volleyball is a good example of this compromise and for good reason as it is arguably the team sport that has undergone the most law changes over the past two decades. The height of this change was probably reached during the 1998-1999 season in which (among other things) the scoring system was changed radically. Indeed, the French professional championship followed an unusual scenario. During the first half of the season the old scoring system was used whereby teams with service could only score points. For the return matches, the new rally point scoring system was adopted where both teams regardless of who served the ball, could be awarded a point. This new departure provoked a reaction throughout the volleyball world. The new rally point system was blamed for altering the outcome of the championship. The media reflected this contention and in some cases exaggerated the point (See the French newspaper ‘l’Équipe’ – January 1999). It was contested that the gap between the better and poorer teams was reduced, with the more able team being disadvantaged. However Eloi’s (1999) study at the time concluded there was no evidence to suggest that the balance of power had been altered. In reality, the study was conducted at a time when the prevalence of the libero on court was still in its infancy and the role and contribution of the backcourt specialist was still to be fully developed. Éloi (1999) revealed during the second half of the 1998-1999 French Professional Championship, teams only included a libero on the team sheet 92 times out of a possible 152 matches. Today, except in exceptional circumstances, all teams use a libero. Current Federation International Volleyball Regulations (FIVB, 2013-2016) now stipulate that teams can include two liberos on the team sheet to replace the first choice libero in the event of an injury.

This paper will contest that the introduction and development of this very specific role in a volleyball team, goes against the logic of development of the rule identified hitherto. However, first of all, it is important to consider the essential issues in order to identify the principal elements of the development of the rules of volleyball.

Based on the work of Deleplace (1979), one can categorise collective sports in to two distinguishing sectors: 1) the rules and regulations, and 2) the tactical constraints of the game (Éloi & Uhlrich, 2001). In this article, the authors limit themselves solely to an analysis of the development of the regulations. Traditionally, game rules are presented as successive articles organised under a set of themes, making it possible to refer to this collection as the manual. Deleplace showed that the rules could be articulated in a completely different logic (Deleplace, 1979, 1983). His works led to the interpretation of the rules in two parts, a central core and then additional rules. The central core is made up of ‘permanent’ rules which constitute the “genetic code” of volleyball. Additional rules, on the other hand, accommodate adaptations and innovations to the game in response to, among other things, strategically-tactical, tactical-technical, and the physical development of players.

Double logic of regulation composition

“Rules have a function of making the game reproduce itself” (Deleplace, 1983, p. 100).

According to David (1993) if the game has always ontogenetically preceded the rule then the game can only live by the rule. Coulon also supports the hypothesis of rules having a double nature suggesting that “at the same time technical rules govern the game, social rules enable it to proceed concretely…” (Coulon, 1991, p. 185). One can therefore conclude, to successfully reproduce the game one has to consider this double necessity. Further still, of significance to the reproduction and development of the game are considerations of time and space: Time being that the rules must preserve their substantive essence while accommodating the evolution of the physical, technical and tactical aspects of the game, and Space being that it must be possible to organise matches between protagonists from all countries. Historical recognition of the influence these factors have had on the rules of volleyball can be linked to 1947 when the International Federation of Volley Ball (FIVB) unified the regulations issued from different zones. This double ‘space/time’ requirement therefore leads to a double logic in the composition of the rules. On the one hand, there are the rules that preserve the essence of the game as an original discipline (e.g. within a larger family of over the net or wall sports such as tennis, badminton or squash) known as the core regulations of the sport. On the other hand, there are rules that allow for intelligent additions to the core regulations accommodating advances in techniques and tactics and developed by coaches, performance analysts and the players. These are the additional rules.

The central core of regulation (CCR)

Historically, these rules are the stable core of volleyball. They guarantee its specific logic. These laws cannot be changed without fatally damaging the essence of the game. It includes information relating to the aims of protagonists and their basic rights (rights related to achieving the goal). In volleyball, they can be defined as:

Table 1: Chronological development of central core regulations of volleyballTable One

Please note that the final element highlighted in Table 1 marks for us, the true birth of volleyball as a modern sport. From a didactic point of view, the core regulations contribute to the representation of a game directly orientated towards the consideration of the opponent. It can also be delivered from a player’s first exposure to the game. On this occasion the coach, by revealing these four rules, and by explaining the dialectical relationship between them, allows beginners to immediately access the specific logic of the game. This logic can be expressed as follows; “The material configuration of targets determines an original confrontation as the play areas are separated by a net. The inability of the opponents to come and get the ball, results in an impossibility to block the ball. The ball must therefore be hit” (Éloi & Uhlrich, 2001, p. 118). It is only then, during the onset of random actions of the practice, that the coach can add precision to the rules and regulations.

Additional rules

These have been introduced throughout the history of the game. Only in retrospect can one adjudge whether or not the legislators by passing these new laws have preserved the balance between attack and defence, therefore ensuring the competitive nature of the game. The equilibrium between attack and defence remains a ‘vital issue’ for modern volleyball.

Bernard Jeu (1983) informed us that “Above all, what keeps the attention is the confrontation of two heroes, two champions, two teams… the precise moment of the switch from equality of chance to the inequality of result. It is the tragic separation of fate, the privileged moment of its liberty and its uncertainty” (p. 31).

If volleyball is to remain enjoyable to play and watch, then this balance between attack and defence as a strategic concept has to be maintained. A fair competition will take place when both teams have equal opportunity to 1) reduce their opponent’s space while creating time to play the ball when defending, and 2) increase the space that can be exploited in the opposing court while reducing time of the defending team to play the ball when attacking. It is then during a unique match on the occasion of a single confrontation that the winners will be revealed. The second part of Jeu’s quote, (often neglected), supports this strategic concept of having a balance between attack and defence. The symbolic death or defeat, of one of the parties, has to happen without interference. It is then as free people that protagonists confront each other, accepting the uncertainty linked to the battle they choose to undertake. It is therefore crucial for the game’s survival, to ensure above all, the balance between the attack and defence. This is the reason why it is necessary to determine which; if the attack or defence; dominates. There is a simple way of knowing this in volleyball. One must just count the number of times the serving team wins the exchange. Article 6.1.3 of the rules and regulations entitled Rally and completed rally’ defines a rally as follows: “A rally is the sequence of playing actions from the moment of the service hit by the server until the ball is out of play. A completed rally is the sequence of playing actions which results in the award of a point” (FIVB Rules of the Game, 2013-2016, p. 21). However during a performance level match, in the majority of rallies, the ball crosses the net just over two times. According to a study by Fournier (2005), in 2000 the average was 2.39 times and in 2002 the average was 2.31 times per rally. The first passage over the net occurs when the server accomplishes his service. The second passage is when one of the players of the receiving team attacks. ‘The introduction of the libero rule has therefore not had the effect of increasing the number of exchanges, but of reducing the number instead’ (Fournier, 2005, p. 132). This data can be explained by the fact that the imbalance between attack and defence is such that the first attack if often decisive. Thus, two out of three times, the team initiating the exchange loses. In a study conducted during the 2009-2010 French Super League season, it was calculated that the ratio between the number of points won and the number of exchanges initiated for the league winners’ tour was an average of 0.38 (Albert, 2010). This data represent 1.14 points won out of three services performed. At this stage of the argument, it is useful to illustrate why the team with the service is the one in defence. In fact, immediately after the player serves, three situations can arise. The first possibility, the server misses his service (ball in the net, ball “out,” or fault). There has been no response from the opposing team and the other team must now serve. The second possibility is that the server wins the point directly (either an ace or winning service). In this case, the opponent’s intervention is limited to the simplest form (in the case of an ace: watching the ball fall out of range; for a winning service: the receiver fails to control the service which makes it impossible to play by a partner) and the same server, serves again. The third and last possibility, is when the opposing team receiving the service organises itself to attack. The serving team must then defend. It is therefore logical that the serving team is the defending team. On digesting these facts, we can highlight a significant shortfall for the defending team in volleyball against the attacking team. If we assume that the ideal balance is at a ratio of one out of two (one service out of two leading to the winning of the rally), it is obvious to see that for the most successful team in the French championship, the ratio is just over one in three.

It now seems that this deficit has become a ‘genetic’ constant of volleyball. Despite the efforts of the game’s legislators to change the rules in order to counterbalance this deficit, it continues to persist.

What would have occurred if the rules had not changed?

Demiselle (2005) notes thatthis search for a systematic adaptation of a sector relative to the other, attempts to balance attack and defence. But even today, the equilibrium between the balance of forces has not been found; the offensive phases are always on top” (p. 236). Thus, traditionally, members of the rule committee have used two complementary approaches to try to remedy this situation. On the one hand, they have passed laws that aim to increase the power of the defence. On the other hand, they have passed laws reducing the power of the attack (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Current model of volleyball regulations Figure One

Additional rules increasing the power of defence players

In volleyball, defensive actions are divided into the ‘block’ defence (an over-the-net intervention that aims to directly deflect the ball back into the opponents side) and the ‘floor’ defence (which takes place further away from the net and occurs when a player prevents the ball from falling on to the floor by bumping it into air so that a counter-attack can be initiated).

  1. In 1964 authorisation was given for the blocker’s hands to extend above and across the net. Allowing the hands to be placed on the other side of the net meant that blockers could get closer to the ball, thus reducing the angle of attack of the spiker. In addition, the angle of incidence of the arms enables the blocker to direct the ball more easily towards the floor, while making the cover support for the spiker much more difficult.
  2. In 1970 the ‘double-touch rule’ was introduced, permitting blockers to make two consecutive contacts of the ball.
  3. In 1976 blocking regulations were refined even further when it was decreed that the first contact of the block should not be counted as one of the three contacts that a team was permitted to make in order to return the ball over the net. This rule confirms that the blocking action is unique. At all levels of the game the vast majority of attacks require a defensive recovery action, a set and a spike. Allowing a touch off the block not to be counted as one of the three contacts enables a team to properly organise a counter attack. This rule therefore gives an added advantage to the defence.
  4. In 1992 the possibility of simultaneous contacts on service reception and first defence was introduced. Attacking actions such as a service or spike continue to be executed with greater power and speed, and are therefore becoming increasingly difficult to defend and control. This rule allows for greater tolerance with regards to the precision of the contact.
  5. In the 1990s further refinements which increased the body contact area permitted to play the ball were introduced. In 1992 contact was permitted from the head to the waist and then down to the knees. Finally, in 1994, players were allowed to play the ball with any part of the body including the feet.

The rules reducing the rights of attack players

  1. In 1922 the three metre line was introduced. Back court players could now only launch a spike attack from behind the line, thus reducing the number of attackers close to the net.
  2. In 1972 antennas were introduced to the volleyball court. Located on the net directly above the intersection of the centre and side line, they are designed to limit the area that the ball can legally pass over the net and into the opposing court. Initially, the antennas were placed 25cm outside of the side line of the court which corresponds to the diameter of the ball (the space between the two antennas measuring 9.5m). Then, at the next Olympics (1976) it was judged that the entire ball must be able to stay inside of the play area. The antennas were therefore aligned with the outside of the side-lines (with the space between both antennas then measuring 9m).

It is clear then that rules which reduce the rights of attackers are far fewer than those which increase the rights of defenders. We can therefore see the will of preserving the spectacular character of spike actions. Following the history of volleyball rules can help us to understand decisions made by the FIVB rules committee and their attempts to rebalance the attack-defence ratio. However, the authors believe that existing attempts have not been sufficient enough as a significant imbalance persists. Arguably, rule changes made over the past few years have been implemented to increase viewership and make it more attractive to watch – a commendable intention which is not without its consequences.

THE DEVELOPPEMENT OF VOLLEYBALL IN THE MEDIA

It is arguable that any sporting activity has an intension to develop and one of the key points of modern communication is image. “The image has recently become the means of promotion and valorisation of an object. It even sometimes gives it existence and meaning. As a form of social link, it often replaces facts themselves” (Vigarello, 1988, p. 149). Today, volleyball suffers from a very poor image in France. Thus, when the Paris Volleyball team won the Volley Ball Champions League in Paris (Halle Carpentier, 2001), it was impossible to get unencrypted channels to retransmit the final. Similarly, when in 2009, the French men’s team played the final of the European Nations’ Championship, the final was only broadcast on one cable channel. It is perhaps difficult to imagine similar limited media coverage for other major team sports in the country such as football, rugby or even handball. However, poor media coverage is not just specific to France and has prompted the decision makers for the sport to attempt to make volleyball more attractive to the media. Perhaps it is for this reason that international bodies are striving to improve the way matches are played. Philippe Blain, previous coach of the French National team and Chairman of the FIVB Coaches Committee reminds us that what volleyball needs in the future is:

To enhance the spectacular side of our sport for fans, sponsors and media.

To increase the number of exchanges of the ball in one point.

To keep the same rules for all volleyball users regardless of age or sex.

Blain, 2010, p. 32

Media issues

The authors believe there are two main challenges associated with making volleyball a ‘television-friendly’ product. On one hand the overall duration of a match must be reduced. On the other is the necessity to control the inconsistency between a short match (in three sets) and a long match (in five sets). Indeed, television programmers often argue that these uncertainties prevent any programming from being possible, since it is impossible to predict the duration and thus the end time of a game. Vigarello (1988) noted that an increasing pressure is exerted on game designers who are aiming for a greater television presence in their sport. It is forcing them towards regulatory evolutions that are not without repercussions on the technical developments of the game. In this context, the control of game-time is a major asset in gaining access to television coverage. One of the first rules to reduce the overall length of matches was the so-called three-ball system introduced in 1978. A significant time saver was discovered (approximately a 20% reduction in game time length) following the instant availability of a ball on the serving team’s side. With the presence of three ball retrievers, one ball is made available at each end of the court with the ball used in the previous point being re-circulated to the last server during the exchange. However, this reduction of game-time is not enough and falls well short in reducing the differences between the duration of a match won and lost in straight sets and a match played over five sets. Further measures were therefore required.

Development of the first model

The authors have classified the rules of volleyball into two categories; 1) the central core of regulations and 2) the additional rules. However, it seems that the three-ball system, of which the purpose is to reduce overall game-time, does not influence the attack-defence ratio. It is for this reason that a different model for the rules and regulations of volleyball requires consideration. The desire to make volleyball more spectacular and popular for the media led to the creation of a number of game-rules that can be grouped into a new category: additional rules that are not influenced by the core concepts of the game. These new categories clearly reflect the proposals made by Vigarello (1998) when he stated that “the regulation is at the intersection of (often separated) dynamics. Its formulation indicates the influence of each of them, it reveals their respective weight” (p. 190). It is the representation of these influences (dynamics) that we now need to consider in our updated model. The additional rules should now consist of two sub-categories. First, additional rules built into the game designed to redress the imbalance between attack and defence. Second, additional rules that are not influenced by or fail to enhance the core concepts of the game but are designed specifically to make volleyball more conducive to television and other forms of media coverage.

Additional rules independent from the game

In this new category, it seems appropriate to separate the two areas. First of all, the rules of which the purpose is to reduce the duration of the match. Secondly, the rules that aim to make the volleyball ‘product’ conform to television. This gives us a more complete representation of the rules and regulations of volleyball (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Proposed model of volleyball regulationsFigure Two

Independent rules that reduce the duration of the match

At first, this was done with the introduction of ball retrievers who had the task of managing three balls (in 1978). Ten years later in 1988 the Rally System Point was introduced to decide the fifth set. This decision resulted in reducing the duration of only the closest and longest games (e.g. a match over four sets). Then, in 1999, the Rally Point System was applied to all sets. Twenty-five points now have to be scored to win the first four sets, and 15 points for the final fifth set.

Additional rules independent from the game, aiming to make the volleyball “product” conform to TV norms

Reducing the overall time of matches has certainly helped to make volleyball more television-friendly. However, it has not proved decisive in attracting broadcasters to the game. Other elements also need to be put in place to increase the potential for income generation when covering a match which is why when the new scoring system was introduced; it was also accompanied by a new category of time-outs. They are automatically called by the referee when the leading team reaches the score of 8 and 16 points (introduced in 1999). These ‘technical’ time-outs have duration of one minute. So why impose such gaps which end up increasing the duration of sets? Economic reasons prevail over any other factor. The ability to place advertisements in the middle of the game can help ‘finance’ the distribution costs. Of course, coaches still have two 30-second time-outs available to them that they may or may not take depending on the circumstances of the game. It is interesting to note that the ‘publicity’ time-out is given more prominence within the current regulations than the traditional coaches’ time-out.

The second way to enhance the presentation of volleyball on television is to make the game more of a spectacle. It is in part for this reason that the position of the ‘libero’ was introduced in 1999. It should be noted here that the primary purpose of this role was to strengthen the defence. Further analysis of the real outcomes of the libero in this specific aspect of the game will be discussed later. According to the regulations, the libero is expected to “wear a uniform which has a different dominant colour from any colour of the rest of the team. The uniform must clearly contrast with the rest of the team” (FIVB Rules of the Game 2013-2016, p. 41). But apart from the difference in clothing, what are the strategic consequences of the introduction of this very specialised role in to the game of volleyball?

THE ROLE OF THE LIBERO

The aim of making volleyball more spectacular was argued for by the highest technical authorities of volleyball. In his editorial called Revolution by the show’, André Glaive, then French National Technical Director, predicted that:

In the wake of the appearance of the libero, here are the three winning sets with Rally Point System up to 25 points. This is not just a change, it is a revolution: the era of volleyball, where the score could sometimes remain the same for several minutes without change is over, no longer boring the audience and diminishing their interest…leaving room for a live performance with a score in constant evolution, where the libero enters the match, and where the coach can be in constant movement! Spectators will love this new game, simple to understand because each exchange will be ended by a point but also by a shorter duration of the match. Television channels will find it easier to broadcast a match without having to juggle with the number of sets. (Glaive, 1998, p.2)

So how was the introduction of the libero going to transform the nature of the game and make it more media friendly? In short, the libero was supposed to be a defensive specialist whose skills were going to prolong rallies making the game as a whole more spectacular and exiting to watch. The libero was introduced to “increase the number of saved balls and to put an end to the dry succession of reception-pass-smash points to benefit longer and much more spectacular points” (Fournier, 2005, p. 127). Examination of the regulation explains why such a player can be dedicated to the defence.

The libero: rights and duties

Four pages (Chapter VI, p. 41 to 44) within the 48 page FIVB regulations are devoted to the libero (FIVB, 2012). Essentially, the regulation says:

  1. Each team has the right to designate from the list of players on the score sheet up to two specialist defensive players: Liberos.
  2. Only one Libero may be on court at any time.
  3. The Libero is allowed to replace any player in a back row position.
  4. He/she is restricted to perform as a back row player and is not allowed to complete an attack hit from anywhere (including playing court and free zone) if at the moment of the contact, the ball is entirely higher than the top of the net.
  5. He/she may not serve, block or attempt to block.
  6. A player may not complete an attack hit from higher than the top of the net, if the ball is coming from an overhand finger pass by a Libero in his/her front zone. The ball may be freely attacked if the Libero makes the same action from outside his/her front zone.

To summarize:

  • The libero is a back-row player who can neither attack nor serve.
  • He/she can receive and defend.

A particular fact: while all other player substitutions must be noted onto the score sheet, any libero can go in and out of the court freely if these changes occur between two points. But who will he/she replace?

The Libero: strategic aspects

To answer this question, we need to provide some additional knowledge. How a libero is used is integrally related to the type of player he/she is brought on to replace. The strategy for using a libero should not only uphold the regulations of the game but also be compatible with the core concepts of volleyball.

Specialisation in volleyball

Since the birth of volleyball, we have made the journey from an arranged universalism to an inevitable specialisation. The regulatory requirement of rotations for the serving team (which became mandatory in 1916) shows a structural universalism. This statement can be supported by the fact that players intervene in front and rear positions in order to successively perform all actions including serving. Thus, the idea of universalism can be defined as the principle of a collective organisation where all the players can play in all the different roles depending on the circumstances of the game. But it appears that the strategic-tactical development of volleyball has followed a path similar to other human activities.

As suggested by some concepts of the organisation of the work (the Taylorism for example), the activity, in this case playing the game of volleyball, can be divided into tasks. The efficiency of the team then depends on the increase in players’ performance in certain specific tasks. The idea of specialisation then led to the introduction of a collective organisation in which each player has a clearly defined role regardless of the circumstances of the game. This is what led to a division of tasks according to the different positions. This development was supported through regulations relating to training methods. A whole set of rules helps define what a positioning fault is. It would be tedious here to make a detailed description of these rules. But we will, however, note two essential rules which clarify this concept. “The team’s starting line-up indicates the rotational order of the players on the court. This order must be maintained throughout the set” (Article 7.3.1. b. FIVB Rules of the Game, 2013-2016, p. 23). The team’s starting line-up is given to the referee by the coach before each set, indicating the order of service for the entire set. Players serve one by one without ever missing a turn. There is therefore a certain importance when choosing who will serve first based on the player’s quality of service, and/ or the positional set up of the team. “At the moment the ball is hit by the server, each team must be positioned within its own court in the rotational order (except the server)” (Article 7.4. FIVB Rules of the Game, 2013-2016, p. 24). These positions must be respected until the server hits the ball. Then each player can occupy the position that suits him. However, front and rear players retain their prerogative.

The various position profiles and team composition

Since the libero can replace any back row player, which player will he/she replace? To answer this question, one must deconstruct the composition of a team and then analyse the roles and responsibility of each position in relation to each other (as the team has to rotate). At the professional level, there are currently five different position profiles:

  1. The setter: he/she is the distributer and the offensive tactician of the team. He/she has a contact with each ball (Éloi, 2007; 2009).
  2. The opposite: he/she is the spiker, the hitter. The one to which the ball must be given to get out of the most difficult situations.
  3. The outside hitter: there are two, and as their name suggests, they play an important role in reception (recovery of the opponent’s serve) and spike.
  4. The middle blocker: he/she is specialised in first-tempo attacks (fast attacks) and is the main blocker. He/she is positioned at the middle of the net and tries to intercept the opponents’ spikes.
  5. The Libero: he/she receives and defends and can only be a back-row player.
    1. First libero: he/she is an expert in receive, and plays when the opposing team serves.
    2. Second libero: heshe is an expert in defence, and plays when his/her own team serves.

Due to the fact that the teams are constantly rotating, it is necessary to balance the players’ positions against each other. One must therefore put equivalent position profiles on each (front and back) line. The historical evolution of strategic-tactical organisations led to a division of each speciality in the following way. Here is the most common pattern today (see Figure 3):

Figure 3: Traditional formation of a high-level volleyball teamFigure Three

It is observed that the middle blockers and the outside hitters are placed in opposition in the same way that the setter and opposite are.

Which player does the libero replace?

The appearance of the jump serve requires the presence of three receivers. It is therefore impossible to remove an outside hitter. The setter distributes the ball to set up the attack, and is therefore essential during all phases of the game. The same thing applies to the opposite player who can be called upon at any time. Therefore, it is only the middle blockers whose presence is not essential when they are backcourt. The libero therefore, in most cases, replaces each of the two alternative middle blockers (after their service, as the libero is not allowed to serve). But since the last volleyball rules (FIVB, 2012), each team can have two libero players noted onto the score sheet. So, as we can see in Cannes Volleyball team, one libero can play when the opposing team serves, and the other when his/her own team serves. This new regulation allows to have two libero profiles, one expert in receiving and the other one in defence. The second libero can replace the libero on the court freely between each point.

Organisation of the adversarial relationship in volleyball

It is generally accepted that the balance of power in volleyball consists of six match-ups. There are six players, so six rotations, and then six match- ups with the opponent. It appears that people must deepen their thinking if they are to truly analyse the balance of power in the discipline. While it is true that the two teams occupy six successive positions, one must not forget that these rotations are done alternatively. As depicted in Figure 4, a set is a succession of 12 different match-ups that cyclically occur. A set comprises approximately 2.5 whole rotations per team (Albert, 2010). This study by Albert showed that out of 21 games played by the Tours Volleyball team (French champion for the 2009-2010 season) the average was 2.54 rotations for 25 point sets. This average drops to 2.51 if all types of sets (including tie-breakers) are included.

Figure 4: Succession of 12 different match-ups that cyclically occur in a volleyball setFigure Four

Effects caused by the use of the libero on the attack-defence ratio

We have already established the fact that the inclusion of a libero can enhance a team’s capacity to receive service as well as defend an attack. When calculating the attack-defence ratio, it is important to recognise that a side’s capacity to launch an attack is closely linked to the strength of its service reception. Similarly the libero is also a specialized defender who can enhance the team’s defensive capabilities. Current opinion suggests it is primarily the libero’s contribution to team defence that has more significance. However, if one was to collate the number of opportunities available under the current rules for the libero to support the team’s defence against the opportunities to initiate an attack from service reception, the net result clearly indicates that the libero makes a greater contribution to the offense.

Take the case of the team that is on the upper part of the court (see Figure 4). By observing this pattern one can see that out of a total of 12 match-ups, the libero is involved in service reception in six positions (match-up 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11) but only defends in four (match-ups 2 , 6 , 8, and 12). The libero is off the court for two defensive positions, when the two middle blockers are required to serve (match-up 4 and 10). One can therefore conclude mathematically that the libero contributes to the attack more often than the defence. Thus, the introduction of this new role has not had the desired effect of redressing the imbalance between attack and defence.

So what are the circumstances that led to this innovation? Originally, it was the volleyball playing countries of Asia who advocated the introduction of a specialist defensive player. Influenced by their slighter, physical profile in contrast to their European and American counterparts, Asian players were recognised for their speed, agility, and intelligence in defence. Their initial proposal, however only permitted the specialist defensive player to participate in the game during the six phases of service. Of course in two out of the six phases, the middle blockers are required to serve, which meant that the libero could only remain on the court for four out of a possible 12 phases of play. This was deemed to be insufficient to justify the creation of a new position. After much discussion and experimentation, a compromise was found which resulted in the introduction of the position of libero as it is used today. But the current examination shows that this player is actually helping to strengthen the attack as opposed to diminishing it. This reality totally contradicts the intention of the original Asian proposal and undermines the natural evolution of the rules of volleyball. And since 2013, despite the introduction of a second libero, he/she still does not help defence. In fact this new regulation allows now having an expert in receiving, and therefore helps the attack more.

WHEN ‘ATTACK-DEFENCE RATIO’ AND ‘SPECTACULAR QUALITY OF VOLLEYBALL’ CONTRADICT

It can therefore be argued that the introduction of additional rules derived from external pressures to make volleyball more attractive to the media has failed to redress the attack-defence imbalance and has even undermined the essence of the game. The introduction of the libero to enhance the game as a spectacle has in fact had an opposite effect. The attack continues to dominate the offense and the duration of rallies is shorter. Additional side effects have also become more apparent.

Strategies induced

In reality, the disproportion between the power of the attack and the defence led to the development of strategies that guided the evolution of the game itself.

Ensuring the ‘side out’ (receiving phases)

To compensate for the relative ineffectiveness of the defence coaches now focus on developing their team’s service-reception and side-out efficiency. In training, the teams repeatedly rehearse their service–reception and the ensuing predetermined offensive combinations. The training of the libero mirrors this strategy. Greater time and emphasis is placed on refining the libero’s service reception skills at the expense of the development of more extreme defensive techniques. In other words the position of the libero has contributed greatly to enhancing performance volleyball side-out efficiency while failing to counter the decline of the effectiveness of the defence.

Tempting anything and everything during the service phase

Extremely high side-out efficiency has also had a direct influence on serving strategies. Statistics show that the serving team has only a one in three chance to win the point. The server is therefore encouraged to take considerable risks to disrupt the opponent’s reception in order to either win the exchange outright or stay in the rally. If executed effectively, powerful serves can limit the opposing team’s attack options. Usually, serves of this nature are combined with a well organised blocking system that reduces the attack choices even further. The offense therefore becomes more predictable and easier to defend. The ‘serve block’ strategy relies heavily however on adopting, high risk extreme serving techniques that normally result in a very high error rate.

Implications for the evolution of the game

This analysis on how the game is now played is universally accepted throughout the volleyball world (idea first mentioned during professional training courses for coaches in the French National volleyball league). It helps to explain and account for the very typical scenario that is described in the following section.

A show ‘under the influence’

The modern game of performance volleyball has now been reduced to a series of brief exchanges. An exchange is when the ball passes over the net twice. The first passage occurs when the ball is served; the second is the attack of the receiving team. Current data informs us that performance volleyball teams have a 65% success rate in service reception defined by the team’s capacity to offer all of its attack options. In these situations, the three blockers in defence have to cover at least four attackers, with one if not two of these attack options being launched from behind the three metre attack line. Thus, the four threat offense is incredibly difficult to defend against. The second passage over the net is therefore often the only exchange in a rally. As suggested earlier, in an effort to nullify the quadruple threat, teams resort to high risk serving strategies resulting in errors that disrupt the flow of the game. Matches can be marred by a string of serving errors from both teams that seriously tarnish the game as a spectacle.

The change to the texture of the ball surface may help to reverse the trend. The new ball, when contacted firmly, floats, or changes direction in the air more readily. As a result, teams are resorting back to adopting lower risk float and jump float serves, as opposed to the higher risk top spin jump serve, as a potent weapon against the service reception. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be in redressing the attack-defence imbalance. Until this issue is resolved the game will be mainly characterised by brief encounters when the ball is hardly in play, punctuated with occasional longer and more exiting rallies. Gibout and Mauny (2006) stressed the importance of bridging the gap between ‘the performance’ and ‘the spectacle’:

Performance is conceived in achieving a raw result, an advantage on the scoreboard. The pleasure is gestural with a feeling of freedom and the intellectual control of the situation. Through the performance more intense emotions can be generated, often reflected in increased gestural creativity of the expert and the creation of the show, ‘the spectacular.’’ (p. 154)

In these exceptional rallies where defensive actions are often perceived as quite stunning, the spectacular side of volleyball reveals itself while showing a glimpse of the potential for outstanding entertainment.

Influence on recruitment

Due to the heavy emphasis now placed on the reception phase of the game, the main remit of the libero (based on information collected from other coaches and players’ agents) is radically changing to that of a receiver. Coaches are now recruiting liberos based primarily on their ability to pass. Similarly the training and development of the libero reflects market demands with more time and resources being spent on developing and refining reception techniques at the expense of more dynamic and extreme defensive skills. The risk of allowing this trend to continue is that the libero makes only an effective contribution to the service reception and offense.

The valence of the libero as an aggravating factor

The libero profile may then in turn contribute to the growth and sustainability of the imbalance between the attack and defence. But is this gain really worth it? It may then seem legitimate to ask how the libero reinforces the spectacular side of volleyball. It is rare that a good service reception is considered to be spectacular.

GETTING OUT OF THE IMPASSE

Volleyball continues to suffer from the mismatch between the power of the offense against the organisation and athleticism of the defence. The introduction of the libero may also be hampering advances in the technical development of the defence. The argument is pragmatic. It is a requirement of the game to defend, so it is preferable to strengthen the offensive potential. But the more offensive potential is developed the less it is possible to defend. Proposals to change the regulation of the game must be able to break this vicious circle.

Proposed rule change

Arguably the presence of cheerleaders on the court during technical time-outs has done little to improve the spectacle of the game. So what are the options available to legislators to improve the ‘volleyball show’? The authors believe the solution has to remain in the realm of the rules which are inherent to how the game is played. What makes the ‘volleyball show’ attractive is the uncertainty of the outcome of the exchange. First, we must restore the balance between the serving and the receiving teams. “More than the duration of the exchange, the evaluation of the number of times the ball passes over the net seems to be the right choice” (Blain, 2010). The game must break away from the normal passage of play when the ball passes over the net no more than two times. Opportunities for longer rallies need to be created while still ensuring the uncertainty of the outcome in each exchange.

This leaves the legislators with two options. The first is to increase the rights of defenders. Much has already been done to make the rules of contact on the ball less stringent. If even greater tolerance was afforded to the contact, the rules will start to contravene the very essence of the game. In volleyball, the ball is played by volleying, striking, or bumping. The ball cannot be caught or thrown. We must therefore address the rights of the attacking team.

The large number of offensive options available for a performance volleyball team are made possible by the position of the attack line situated three metres away from the centre line and net. An interesting solution would be to reduce the offensive potential of the backcourt players. The authors suggest moving back the three metre attack line to a position of 4.50 metres away from the net; therefore dividing a team’s court into two equal sized front and back court areas. It is anticipated that by increasing the distance from the net the effectiveness of the spike of backcourt players (those permitted to execute an attack) would reduce drastically without compromising the dynamic nature of the action. The height of the action, its synchronisation with the frontcourt offense and the power of the spikes would remain the same. Instead of attacking at an actual distance of one metre (or less) from the net, we estimate that backcourt attackers would now spike at a distance of approximately 2.5 metres away from the centre line. This change would update the 1922 rule which introduced the three metre line to separate the front and back court in the first place. Restricting the offense of the backcourt player also takes into account the advancements in physical prowess of the athlete over the last 90 years. Changing court markings will obviously have an economic downside. Initially, adhesive tape can temporarily overcome this difficulty until permanently painted markings can be phased in.

A number of the rules pertaining to the backcourt attack would remain unchanged (numbers correspond to article numbers stated within FIVB regulations):

  • 13.2.2 A back-row player may complete an attack hit at any height from behind the front zone;
  • 13.2.2.1 at his/her take-off, the player’s foot (feet) must neither have touched nor crossed over the attack line;
  • 13.2.2.2 after his/her hit, the player may land within the front zone.

One rule that should undergo a change:

  • 1.3.4 Attack line (current rule) on each court, an attack line, whose rear edge is drawn 3 meters back from the axis of the centreline, marks the front zone.
  • 1.3.4 Attack line (proposed new rule) on each court, an attack line, whose rear edge is drawn 4.5 meters back from the axis of the centre line, marks the front zone. Other rules that depend on this article would not have to be changed.

Implications for the opposition ratio

Let one now try to anticipate the effects of these new provisions. For blockers, only the front line opponents become prominent threats. The blockers can focus on the attacks at the net. The balance of power at the net is restored. When the offensive setter is backcourt the three blockers are able to match up against the three opposing frontcourt attackers. When the opposing setter is frontcourt the three defending blockers now only have only two main attackers to cover. Backcourt spikes now become easier to control for the floor defence. Increasing the distance of the path of the spiked ball by at least 1.5 metres means that the impact of the ball on the defender is significantly reduced. Another consequence, is the area that the backcourt player has to defend is significantly reduced. Indeed, as shown in the diagram below by bringing back the contact point of the spiker, even when the height of contact remains the same, the possible angle of attack is considerably reduced. The area to defend is therefore smaller. With these key constraints, defences can become effective again.

Figure 5 : The difference between the potentially accessible areas of the ball hit by a spiker from 1m or 2.5m behind the net.Figure Five

Required parameters are missing or incorrect.Thus, the presence of a libero as a specialist defender can become a genuine asset to the team. Team defences can start to develop again while re-establishing themselves as a key facet of performance volleyball.

CONCLUSION: ANALYSIS OF THE OPPOSITION RATIO WITH A REAL-LIFE TEST

When exploring the possibility of making changes to the rules and regulations, the authors chose to adopt a technical approach. They attempted to highlight the tensions between the long established desire to increase the effectiveness of the defence to redress the imbalance between the attack and defence against the legislation (from 1999) advocated by the FIVB to improve the game as a spectacle. By reviewing the various elements presented one is able to consider a possible solution to the impasse created by the power of the attack.

Assuming that the Rules Committee of the FIVB show an interest in the proposed rule change suggested, it is unlikely that this rule could be applied immediately without further research. This research could take the form of field tests conducted at all levels of the game. Competitive opportunities for males and females at universities for example could cater for the recreational up to elite performance level players. In depth analysis could be conducted on how the new 4.5 metre attack line impacts the attack-defence ratio at all levels of the game. This ‘experiment’ would create a unique playing experience for students playing the game; different to the game presided over by the FIVB. University sports federations would have responsibility for administering the new legislation, while their associate universities could lead on research. Such a rule change may also encourage the development of new tools of analysis (e.g. computer software) or the creation of a new breadth of match simulation resources to enhance athlete performance. These tools and devices could then be presented to volleyball coaches in an effort to resolve the issues that have come to light in this paper.

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