The Defensive Specialist is Stupid: Logic from a Defensive Specialist

Before anyone gets upset, please understand in college I was a 6’0 tall RS/OH (terrible at both positions) on a team with front row players whose average height was around 6’4 (6’8’’ Kevin Stross bringing up the curve) and whose approach jump heights were going over 11 feet. I was not playing front row on this team ever. I had to transition to become a back-row player (regardless of my inability to pass at the time), or a “defensive specialist”, and I firmly believe the position designation itself is largely a feel-good title for anyone not playing Libero.

But more to the point, my biggest philosophical issue with “Defensive Specialists” is the logic by which I see them utilized at most levels of play from High School, Club, to College.

As I’ve discussed before, Volleyball is a game focused on scoring points, 25 points to be exact (15 in set five). You need to be able to score to win a match. But a “defensive specialist” as a role on most rosters does not help facilitate scoring. In fact, they quite often are used at the expense of generating offense.

I see defensive specialists get used the most egregiously at the club level. If I had a dime for every occasion where I saw a dominant front row attacker who could pass (Middles included) get subbed after their serve in the backrow for a defensive-specialist I would be able to hire a full-time team of writers for this site and build my own Volleyball Training facility.

But even at the collegiate level I see this situation arise, and it irritates me every time. A strong player gets subbed out for a defensive specialist after they serve.

“We’re trying to shore up our defense in this rotation”
“X player isn’t very good defensively”
“The match up against our opponent made sense to use x player here”
“I’m trying to give X player more playing time”
“It’s like having two liberos on the court it’s great”

I have heard all these responses and more every time I ask a coach why they make this “defensive” substitution. Maybe this is just a philosophical misunderstanding on my part, but in case anyone is confused I am going to impart some fairly accurate wisdom regarding how you can win any volleyball game below.


Or, in the immortal words of New Paltz legend Chris Wright, “Swing at it”.

At any one point in a volleyball game, the opposing team can only have 3 front row players eligible to block the ball. Assuming you use a libero (you most likely should be), you can have 4 attackers ready to attack the ball at any point when you are in-system by utilizing the back row attack (If you are out of system and want to assert dominance train your setter to take an approach and become a 5th option; trust me they love getting a chance to swing.)  

Assuming two teams serve-receive at the same level, hitting percentage is the greatest statistical predictor of victory. Simply put, the team who hits better will win. Volleyball is a game where great offense will beat great defense, because getting a dig does not score a point. Digging a hard driven ball does not do your team any good if you cannot put the ball away in transition. And there is not a single defensive-specialist on most rosters who is a defensive-specialist because of their dynamite offensive capabilities.

I will be the first to say that my system style is very attack driven, and my time playing for New Paltz was largely determinative in shaping my own coaching style. To this day if you watch New Paltz play they live and die on their ability to serve tough and put the ball away on the first attack. They are not a good blocking team like Stevenson, they are not a good defensive team like MIT, and they are not as disciplined as Springfield. But the simple truth of volleyball is that attacking scores points, and if you can attack you can win.

“Well having a defensive specialist in the game allows you to dig more, which lets you attack more Ramius”

A defensive specialist is only coming into the game at the expense of taking out an offensive option in the back row. If you are concerned about one of your attackers defensive short-comings, address that in practice. It is a lot easier to teach a gifted attacker to play defense than it is to teach a gifted defender to attack well.  

“Well, what about serving specialists Ramius, they’re not always the best attackers”.

This is true, but there is an intrinsic difference between the act of playing defense and serving. An ace is 1 point for your team in a game to 25, a dig is nothing. If you have someone with a killer serve on your team, I wholeheartedly advise you to find a way to utilize that serve to score points. At worst, the other team has a good reception, and you were not winning the point anyway. It’s more likely your serving specialist will get you an out-of-system/free ball returned to you which mitigates the need to play actual defense. Or you get an Ace, and volleyball is about scoring.

Even in this situation, I can only emphasize how important it is for your serving specialist to be able to attack effectively. Because I speak from experience. It was the opening round of the UVC tournament my senior year of college, and my role on the team was to be the serving specialist. Whether I was serving for one of our Middles or our Opposite, my job was to use my serve to score or get the other team out of system.

We were playing against Stevens, it was set four and we were down 2-1 in sets. I subbed in for our Opposite to serve for him, and had served twice in a row to bring us within one. This is big point moment, where momentum from the point can swing the match. I put a good serve over, we get a free ball, but we couldn’t terminate in transition. Now we are rallying against a team that was much better offensively then us. During the rally, our Setter at the time forgot that I had subbed in for our Opposite, and after receiving a dig in transition set me a D-Ball in the back row. I was not ready for this, and neither was our team. I was not an offensive option, nor had I prepared to be one.

I had to give a free-ball to save the point, but Steven’s won the rally. They would run away with the game after that, all because I wasn’t able to attack effectively in a moment where my team needed me to. It doesn’t matter that our Setter forgot the D-Ball wasn’t an option, it didn’t matter that the Pipe was open, it didn’t matter our middle was an option, it didn’t matter that Stevens was a better team than us. The only thing that mattered was how there was a dig, followed by a great set in transition, which lead to no scoring opportunity… because I wasn’t prepared to attack.

Don’t train “defensive specialists”, and don’t train to be a defensive specialist. Train how to play defense, while still being able to attack the ball. Because a volleyball player should do everything.