One night in December 2015 it was the Christmas dinner for the Exeter University Volleyball Club. It marked the end of my formal involvement with the program. That began in September 2012 when I arrived on campus to commence work on my PhD. Even before I started at the university I had begun to develop connections in the volleyball community there. The idea was it could provide a social outlet beyond the academics. I had no idea where that would end up taking me, though.
My time with the university teams started as a “You interested in helping out?” kind of invitation from another American (Kyle). He was in the mix with the club for several years prior. I went along to the BUCS teams try-out session to start the new year. I then met with Kyle and the club captains, Anja and Mathilde, afterwards to talk about me being a part of things. My one condition for helping out on the coaching front was that there would be no more jog & stretch. Little did I know what I was getting myself into! 🙂
The way Kyle and I planned things out was I would lead coach the women with him helping out. He would lead coach the men with me helping. Very quickly, though, I found myself doing the vast majority of the coaching.
Kyle could only attend one evening per week (we trained two) and didn’t go to matches. I couldn’t envision myself coaching without seeing the teams play competitively. As a result, so not only did I run the second night of training myself, but I was at all the matches for both teams (though when they played at the same time I prioritized the men as the club felt they were better positioned for a good season). Then, on top of it all, Kyle ended up missing most of the nights he normally would have coached because of academic travel and such. So basically for long stretches I was doing all the coaching. I did have a bit of help from former club members Carolina and Steve when they were available.
I didn’t end up minding, though. The coaching bug got me again and I was really into it – probably to the detriment of my PhD work.
It was a good year. The men had barely avoided relegation to Division 2 the prior season. The women had just been promoted up to Division 1. As a result, expectations weren’t super high for either group. As it turns out, we were able to get both teams into Championships by finishing top three in the league (men 2nd, women 3rd). The men advanced on to Final 8s for the first time in many years.
That Final 8s experience was extremely useful for me. It gave me a clear view of what the top level of volleyball looked like for both genders. I was able to incorporate that into my work with the teams the following season, most especially for the women. The men had some rebuilding to do after losing all but three players. They still had enough to repeat their 2nd place league finish, though. The women ended in a tie for 1st, losing out on the title by a tiebreak. Both teams advanced to Final 8s. The men were able to improve on the prior year’s finish by playing their best volleyball in their last match of the season. Meanwhile, the women stunned everyone (including ourselves!) by advancing to the semifinals. This is how I celebrated at the club’s year-end dinner. 🙂
We also added second teams for both men and women that season, which competed in Division 2. They weren’t separate teams. Rather, we handled as a split squad situation out of a larger group of players. Both had solid seasons, with the women finishing second in their league and the men making the Conference Cup semifinals. The combination of results for all four teams saw the club finish 3rd overall in BUCS volleyball points for the year.
On top of that, both genders entered teams in South West regional club play for the first time. I coached the women in almost all their matches. They finished 3rd in the league. It would have been second if not for a facilities issue on the last date which caused a pair of forfeits. I even coached the women in the South West Championships in May of that year. I figure I was on the bench for over 50 matches for the club in 2013-14 in locations ranging from Cornwall to Edinburgh.
The third season was more of a struggle from several perspectives. The teams were in a tougher league to start. Both were promoted to the newly formed Southern Premier League, meaning more competition. We also had our share of bad luck. This was especially on the women’s side, which already had lost most of the prior year’s squad.
Personally, I had to cut back my involvement to turn more attention to my PhD work in order to be able to submit my thesis on the timeline I set for myself. I only coached one away match, and just 8 out of 18 played by the teams overall. I don’t like not being able to be fully committed the way I was before, but it simply couldn’t be helped as I needed to prioritize bigger picture stuff. The teams continued to train and play in the second term, but it was without me as my attention had to be fully on academics, finding myself a job, and some other projects that were awaiting my attention.
If I’ve done the math right, I coached the university teams 107 times over those three seasons in all competitions. By all accounts, they were some of the best they’d had, so I ended my tenure with them feeling a considerable sense of accomplishment.
At least as importantly, my coaching developed in many ways as well. I have no doubt I came out of the experience a much better and more well-rounded coach than I was before. I worked with something like 70 players from over 20 different countries (only three members of the club in 2012-13 were still there in my final year), which is definitely an experience I would not have been able to have coaching in the States.