In the game of volleyball, the defensive specialist (DS) is an exceptional position on the court. This player is important because of their special abilities to defend the court for their team. They focus on passing, digging, and saving the ball during practice and game play.
In this article, we will discuss the skills needed to be a DS along with their responsibilities on the court. We will also share some equipment and practice drills that will aid players in becoming better at this position.
What Is The Defensive Specialist (DS) In Volleyball?
The defensive specialist, DS for short, is one of the players on the court that is consistent with passing, digging, and sometimes serving in the back row. Their job is to be reliable and get the ball up to the setter at whatever cost. They scramble for the ball making impossible saves. They usually substitute in for a front row player and only play in the back row.
The DS will usually substitute into the game for a front row player when they get to the back row. They will sometimes go in to serve and then rotate just in the back row before coming back out for the front row player. When coming into the game, they must be focused and ready to pass or dig.
As they rotate through the back row, they will often switch with other back row players to play the sides. The libero covers the back court while the DS covers the middle court. There is usually a hitter or setter that help cover on serve receive, so there are three players in the back row at those times. But, when the setter or hitter are playing the front row, the DS and libero share the back row.
History Of The Defensive Specialist (DS)
The defensive specialist likely became a position around the same time as the libero in 1999. The DS was to assist the libero in the back row by being a consistent passer and digger. With this position being a specialist, players can focus on plays and strategies that will help them be more effective in the back row.
Before this position got its name, the player was just called a back row player. They would play across the back row and substitute out for a front row player when they got to the front row. There wouldn’t be much switching in the back row until this position and the libero position started. Adding this position has made the game of volleyball more exciting because the player can concentrate on specializing in defense and make great plays.
Rules Of The Defensive Specialist
The defensive specialist is responsible for passing, digging, and saving the ball in the back row. There are some rules to keep in mind when playing this position to keep the ball in play for their team. Below is a list of those rules.
- Defensive Specialist can only come into the game through substitution. They usually substitute for a player that is coming out of the front row.
- Defensive Specialist can start in the game. The defensive specialist can start in the game, unlike the libero who needs to come in after the referee has checked the lineup.
- Defensive Specialist can switch in the back after the serve. The DS can switch positions on the court after the serve has the left the hand of the server.
- Defensive Specialist can jump and swing. The DS can jump and hit the ball in the back row if they are behind the 10-foot line unlike the libero who is not allowed to do this.
- Defensive Specialist can serve. The DS can serve when they come into the game if the player they are replacing has not served on that rotation.
- Defensive Specialist can go out of the court to retrieve a ball. If they ball is hit out of bounds on the first or second hit, the DS can go out of the court to save the ball.
These are the main rules the defensive specialist (DS) must follow while on the court. These rules and more can be found at USA Volleyball.
Responsibilities And Skills Of The Defensive Specialist
There are many responsibilities and skills of the defensive specialist in volleyball. In this section, we will discuss some of those responsibilities and skills.
There are five important responsibilities that the DS performs that is helpful to their team’s success.
- Serve receive
- Covering players
Being able to pass the ball well on serve receive is essential for a defensive specialist. Getting aced on or shanking it for their teammates to scramble after is not fun. If the serves are difficult to receive, it is the responsibility of the DS to adjust to receive the next serve successfully.
It is important for the DS to practice receiving serves with the right techniques of passing. They need to work well with the libero in the back row communicating with each other as to what area they each need to cover. The DS usually covers the shorter balls that come over the net while the libero covers the back.
The DS is often responsible for digging the ball when it comes over the net on a hit from the opposing team. The DS needs to be able to anticipate where the ball is going on the court by reading the hitter. After they know where the ball is going, they need to get into position quickly and stay low to pass the ball up to the setter. They should always remember to face where they want the ball to be passed. There is a lot to remember when digging, so practicing the right techniques often is necessary to be a successful defensive specialist.
Passing is the main responsibility of the defensive specialist. They need to have good ball control and focus when passing the volleyball. To have good ball control, they need to use techniques such as flat platform with their arms, good body position, knees bent, and good posture.
The defensive specialist works closely with the libero, so it is important to use good communication skills with one another. If these two positions can get into a rhythm together in the back row, they will have great success. Usually, these two players are talking with each other on what areas to cover as well as giving one another encouragement.
Getting into position to cover other players is another responsibility of the defensive specialist. When the front row players are hitting or blocking, the DS should move up to cover the ball in case it’s blocked or returned quickly back over the net. If the DS is reading the players on the opposite of the net, they can anticipate where they need to cover.
For example, if the ball is set to the outside hitter, the DS may notice by the way they approach the ball if the ball is going to go downline, short, or cross court. The DS can then call out to the other players what they notice. This helps the entire team play good defense.
Teamwork is important for any position in volleyball, but for the defensive specialist it is especially important. If a DS has a good relationship with their teammates, it will help their teammates trust them more on the court. The DS can often see what is coming from the other side of the net, so communicating to the other players what to expect is important. Another way to gain trust is to move quickly and make every effort to get to the ball. The DS must be willing to do whatever they can to keep the ball in the air. This will help their team know they are doing their part of teamwork.
A defensive specialist must have certain skills to be able to fulfill their responsibilities. Below is a list of those important skills.
- Consistency has accurate passes most of the time, ball does not hit the floor very often, always in the right area to cover the court
- Experience has experience knowing where to be on the court to always cover the ball
- Endurance able to recover quickly from a bad pass or dig by getting the next one up, take hit after hit from opposing hitters
- Communication use effective/positive communication skills to work with teammates on the court
- Effort able to quickly get to every ball even if they don’t get it, do not give up
- Strong passer/digger must have good ball control when passing and digging, the ball is not being shanked too often
- Aggressive Doesn’t hesitate often when going for the ball, calls for the ball when going for it
Drills For Defensive Specialists
Defensive specialists can become better at their position by practicing some drills. Drills will help them become more consistent with their passing, digging, and court coverage. Below are three drills that will help defensive specialists improve their game.
Two-Ball Defensive Pursuit Drill
In this drill, two players split the court and the coach stands at the net. The coach hits, tips, or throws the ball into the court. The players need to get the ball back to the coach in two contacts. The players stay on the court until they reach a set number of completions. If a ball touches the ground without the players making effort, they lose all their completions.
Variation: There is not out of bounds and the ball can be entered anywhere.
This drill is a simple one but allows two players to help each other with their digging ability. The players stand far enough apart to allow for one player to hit, tip, or throw the ball toward the other player. The coach or players decide on how many balls each player will dig when it’s their turn. When all of that is decided, one player hits, tips, or throws the ball at the other player that many times. When finished, the players switch.
Important: Be sure to give each other challenging balls to return.
Knockout Digging Drill
In this drill you will need to outline a small box on the court with a large box around it. Line up the team to receive the ball. The coach hits, tips, or throws the ball to the first player. After the player digs the ball, they try to catch their own dig. If they catch the ball in the little box, that is the best, then big box, then anywhere.
For example, if the first player catches their ball in the big box, but the second player behind them catches their ball in the little box, the first player is out. This continues through the line until one player is left.
Important: If the players catch the ball in the same area, they both stay in the game.
Equipment For The Defensive Specialist
Being a defensive specialist requires a player to be able to move quickly on the court while making a pass to the setter with good ball control. They help their team set up for a great play. Choosing the right equipment to help them be successful is important.
In this section, we will share our top choices of equipment for the defensive specialist.
Because of all the quick movements the defensive specialist must make, these three things are essential in a good pair of volleyball shoes: comfort, flexibility, and durability.
The Nike Women’s Zoom Hyperace 2 are great for a defensive specialist. These shoes are specifically designed for action on hard courts. On the inside, they have excellent cushioning and arch support to help keep the feet comfortable. They are made of lightweight material which makes them very flexible for those quick movements on the court.
These shoes are made with a durable rubber sole and have tread made with excellent traction. Defensive specialists need traction to prevent from sliding on the court and getting hurt. There is also a heel cage on the back of the shoes that enhances support and stability.
- Comfortable cushioning
- Designed for hard courts
- Lightweight material
- Great arch support
- Excellent traction
Knee pads are an essential piece of equipment for the defensive specialist. They often go to the floor to quickly save a ball, so having knee pads that protect them and provide comfort is important. Below is our top choice for defensive specialist knee pads.
The Mizuno LR6 knee pads give the defensive specialist great coverage while providing freedom of movement. Theses knee pads are not bulky and provide incredible support to the knees by putting padding in high impact areas. They provide full patella, lateral, and medial protection. The intercool ventilation system provides premium breathability and air circulation.
Mizuno is a company that specializes in volleyball equipment, so it’s not wonder they are at the top for comfortable and durable knee pads. They have done a lot of research and testing to provide high quality knee pads. Some people that have worn these knee pads say it feels like they are not even wearing any.
- High impact padding
- Protects from injuries
- Intercool ventilation system
- Provides freedom of movement
- Premium breathability and air circulation
Famous Defensive Specialists
The defensive specialist is a very important position on the court that must be quick to get to the ball and have great ball control. At the national, international, and Olympic levels of volleyball, the defensive specialists are often back up liberos playing next to them on the court.
To view some famous liberos check out our article Libero Position In Volleyball (Complete Guide).
Defensive Specialist FAQ
Is the defensive specialist the same as the libero?
The defensive specialist is not the same as the libero. The libero can only play in the back row. A defensive specialist can play both the front and back rows. When the DS comes to the front row, they often become a hitter. The libero also wears a different color jersey than the rest of the team.
Why do teams have defensive specialists?
Teams use defensive specialists to replace front row players that are weaker in the back row. They come in through a substitution with the referee, unlike the libero who can come in and out without a substitution.
Does the defensive specialist serve?
The DS can serve when they substitute in for a player that was going to rotate into that position. This often happens because after the serve defense needs to play.
Can the defensive specialist attack the ball in the back row?
The defensive specialist can attack the ball in the back row if it’s behind the 10-foot line. They can do this because they are allowed to play both the front and back row. The libero is not allowed to attack the ball because they are restricted to the back row.
The defensive specialist or DS is a great defensive player that digs and saves the ball while on the court in the back row. They also have the job of backing up the front row when they are blocking or hitting. The next time you’re watching a volleyball game, find the DS and notice all the roles they take on.
If you are working towards becoming a defensive specialist, be sure to practice passing and digging the volleyball for accuracy. It is also a good idea to watch others play this position and practice some of the drills listed above.