Archive for Volleyball Coaching Careers

The end of a transformative experience

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. 🙂

KiltDinner

2013-14 Exeter Univeristy Volleyball Club year-end dinner, with women’s team captain Mathilde and assistant coach Steve sporting our BUCS 3rd place medals.

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.

 

Would you prefer great players or a great situation?

When I lived in England I had a conversation with one of my housemates (Maria) on the subject of the next step in my volleyball coaching journey. Maria asked a question along the lines of “Wouldn’t you just want to coach the best players possible?” It’s an interesting philosophical consideration that sometimes is a factor in the decisions we make regarding the teams we coach. My response to Maria was from two perspectives.

Coaches coach

I’ve related before a conversation I had with the captain of the first men’s team I coached in England. We were watching some high level NCAA women’s volleyball (Top 25 caliber teams). He asked how I could coach at the UK level after coaching Division I volleyball. My initial joking response was that while I’d coached against teams of the caliber we were watching, I hadn’t actually coached that level of team. Admittedly, that’s a difference without much distinction when making a comparison to the level of play in the UK.

My more serious response was to say “Coaches coach.” On the one hand what I meant by that was if you have the passion and drive to coach it probably doesn’t matter too much what level of player your working with. Admittedly, though, coaches do tend to specialize in some fashion. On the other hand, I was also trying to communicate the idea that the coaching process is largely the same for all levels. You identify the player’s and/or team’s developmental needs and work to help them get better. That’s the same whether you’re working with U12 beginners or the Brazilian national team.

It’s not just about on-court

It isn’t just your day-to-day work which determines your level of job satisfaction. Anyone who’s been part of an organization knows that. It is also your working conditions, your relationship with your peers, the support you get from those above you, etc. In fact, sometimes the work itself is only a minor factor in your happiness. This is something inexperienced coaches (and those in any other career) don’t fully understand. Those who have been around the block a few times know what a difference it can make, though.

A conversation I had with Ruben Wolochin, head coach at German Bundesliga side TV Bühl, relates to this subject. Long coaching tenures tend not to be the norm in professional sports. Ruben, though, told me that he could easily see himself remaining in his current position for long term. Why? Because he was happy with the lifestyle, his family situation, his relationship with the club, and those sorts of things.

Priorities and measuring success

Your own priorities and how you define success are major factors in how you think about things when it comes to whether you favor coaching great players or being in a great situation. Do you prioritize winning and measure success in terms of win/loss record and championships? Then you will be biased toward wanting to coach the best players possible. We all know that the team with the best players doesn’t always win. Having the best players does tend to help in that regard, though. From that perspective, you will want to be at the university where you can recruit the best athletes, the highest profile club volleyball program in the area, or the high school with the biggest population from which to draw.

If, however, you can be satisfied without winning loads of championships then you can look for a great situation for your personality, lifestyle, etc. While Ruben would love to win a championship one time, he realizes he’s at a smaller club without the financial resources to compete with the big clubs. That means championships will be hard, but there are still lower level objectives which can be aimed for, such as making the playoffs, earning a spot in CEV competition, and things like that.

As for me…

While I’m competitive in certain ways, I tend not to get overly caught up in winning and losing. Yes, I would rather be in upper half of the standings than the lower half. For me, however, coaching is more about forward progress. Are the players getting better? Is the team getting better? Is the club/program overall getting stronger?

I can get by without winning championships as long as things are moving in the right direction. My situation in Exeter reflected that. Volleyball was not a priority sport. We didn’t get the same level of support as many of the schools we competed against (up to and including scholarships in some cases). That meant we generally had to set our sights lower. We didn’t win any titles. We were able to do things Exeter volleyball hasn’t done in a long time, if ever, though. I’m quite satisfied with that.

If I go after a head coaching job in the States it likely will mean that I would be taking over a struggling program. The thing I would need to try to gauge in that kind of situation is what kind of influence I think I could have on making the program better within the context of the level of support and expectations there would be from the administration. Some programs are perpetual weak performers because they just don’t have the resources to compete and never will, while others perhaps just need a change in approach to start moving up the ladder.

The youth club volleyball model

A while back, Oliver from @volleyblogger asked me a question about club volleyball. I gave him a response of my own. I told him I would also post it here to the blog to see if I could get the thoughts, experience, and opinions of others. Here’s Oliver’s question:

Here in Germany [club volleyball] is financed by a monthly fee by the members which is normally between 10 and 20 Euro/month. Which means that a normal club can not pay it’s coaches adequately. Do you know how English and American clubs finance themselves and if they do by monthly fees asked from the kids/their parents how much it is?

England

In England the situation seemed quite similar to the one described for Germany. Volleyball is largely a participation sport rather than something with an aspirational aspect to it. By that I mean people play it to play it. It’s not to try to earn a scholarship or with the thought of one day playing pro. That’s not to suggest no players have those higher level motivations. There are certainly those in the national system and at the various academies who definitely have higher aspirations. It’s just that volleyball is very much a developmental sport in England. There is no real pro league and university scholarships are limited in number, though on the rise (see Volleyball England influencing university volleyball).

The point is that there isn’t a great motive to “invest” in juniors volleyball from the perspective of families looking at there being some kind of financial pay-off down the road (scholarship, pro contract). That tends to limit how much they will pay in club fees and related expenses (travel, etc.). At the same time, the lack of professional clubs means little in the way of money coming down from the top to work on developing players. Clubs can and do get grant funding. Volleyball England has its own programs aimed both at participation and youth national team development. It’s not like there’s a ton of money flowing through the system, though.

I honestly don’t know the fee structure for clubs in England. Many of them operate as combined youth/adult operations (with mixed teams). I only worked in that system at the adult level, and only briefly. I think they paid about £250 for a season – September to April. That basically covered facilities and admin expenses (travel was extra). As you can imagine, that doesn’t provide much in the way of funds to pay coaches (I was a volunteer). Hopefully someone better informed will contribute to the conversation.

U.S. structure and fees

It’s a bit different in the States. While there isn’t the professional aspect, there is a strong university system. That level features lots of scholarship money, improved financial aid packages, and admissions considerations (for more information about US college volleyball see Inside College Volleyball). This gives players and families something to aspire to and a reason to spend money on junior volleyball. At the top level of club volleyball where teams are competing for championships and players are scouted by Division I college teams the annual fees are in the $1000s.

Granted, many kids who play high school volleyball won’t go beyond that. For them the “investment” incentives are low. As a result, there are plenty of clubs operating at a low cost and commitment. When I was involved in junior volleyball in the Northeast there were teams for which the kids paid as low as $250 for the season (January to early May). They trained once a week and played in five day-long tournaments. There were also teams where the cost was around $1000. They incorporated 2-day inter-regional events into their schedule and might get a second day of training each week (December to late May or maybe early July). Generally, that fee was inclusive of hotel costs, and potentially travel as well, depending on the method used. These days there are club teams with costs $5000+.

U.S. club coach pay

The result of this is that funds available to pay coaches can vary considerably. When I coached in the Northeast, the pay structure seemed to be that the coach got roughly the equivalent of one player’s annual fee. In running my own club I introduced an hourly pay scheme. We did that to ensure a minimum level of pay. Coaches got a higher hourly rate based on experience and accreditation level.

After emailing with Oliver I reached out to a friend of mine who used to coach in Northern California. The status of volleyball there is much higher than it is in the Northeast. That is reflected in how much club coaches can make. He told me a base rate was $800/mo when he coached, and coaches on the top level teams could make $2000/mo. This obviously implies higher player fees. There may be other sources of funding to clubs, such as sponsorships or camps/clinic earnings. My understanding is that the lion’s share of revenue for most clubs is player tuition, though.

Incentivizing “investment”

After I shared my observations with him, Oliver responded with the following:

In other words: Club volleyball can only succeed on the financial side if it has some extra funding/sponsoring or can serve some special needs beyond the pure sport itself. A university scholarship is one example. I will sit down and collect other possible reasons (applicable at least in Germany) why club volleyball could be worth an extra investment.

I’m not sure what he meant by “succeed on the financial side.” I don’t know if that means bringing in enough to cover expenses or whether profit is the objective. In the US a lot of clubs operate as not-for-profits. No doubt, there are a number which actually are intended to make money for their owners. I think the not-for-profit model is one that can be fairly easy sustainable. That’s even where the “investment” incentive among players/families is low. Developing something that produces a meaningful income in that context is a significantly larger challenge.

What will they pay for?

Let me put aside the idea of sponsorship revenue or some other kind of external income for now. It’s better left to a separate discussion. Instead, I will focus on what would motivate players and their families to pay higher club tuition. What it comes down to is the potential pay-off. Both professional contracts and university scholarships fall into that category. The former is likely the higher prospect for those outside the US. The professional game has developed and university athletics are not particularly strong. The reverse is the case in the US where there’s no indoor professional volleyball of consequence, but the university system is very strong. That said, there are a number of foreign players on scholarship at US universities. So for the right type of individual it’s something that a club could put forth as an aspirational objective for it’s players.

Of course there are always those players and families who aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of investment in the future. They simply want the best experience. That could mean training under the best coaches, playing with the best players, competing in high profile events, winning championships, etc. These things need to be considered as well when pondering the marketing for a club.

Even if you have the perfect sales pitch, though, two major factors will likely determine a club’s success and sustainability. One is population density. It’s much easier to attract a good collection of players if you’re trying to do so where there are lots of people. It’s a lot harder having to try to bring them together across a large geographic region. If nothing else, the added cost of travel for the families is a factor. The other is the income level of the community. It’s a lot easier to get higher tuition from a wealthy community.

Why so few women coaching volleyball?

For as long as I’ve been involved in US collegiate coaching there have been discussions and articles and commentary on the subject of attracting and retaining female coaches. This is particularly the case at the college level. A December 2013 article from Volleyball Magazine is an example of the debate/dialog. There was a related session at the 2013 AVCA Convention I attended as well, and no doubt others.

While I visited German professional volleyball teams in 2014 the subject came to mind. I thought about the composition of the coaching staff of the women’s teams I saw. There were no female coaches on any of the staffs. In fact, when I was with the SC Potsdam women there was a day when it was something like eight men in the gym between coaches, trainer, manager, etc. standing opposite 12 players. That struck me as borderline comical. I think one player made a similar observation to one of her teammates.

With that in mind, I asked a coach if he knew of any female professional coaches in Europe. He could think of no more than a handful across all the men’s and women’s teams. When I asked him what he thought the reason for that was he replied with something to the effect of, “Women are smarter than men”.

That’s obviously a fairly tongue-in-cheek response. It’s the start of a reasonable thought process, though. The main thrust is coaching can be all-consuming. I can attest to this myself. I might have finished my PhD quicker if it not for coaching volleyball.

OK, maybe not. You get my point, though.

As my supervisor could attest, coaching became a major distraction. I find that volleyball always worms its way to the forefront of my mind. This is especially true during the season. And I was not even coaching professionally or in an everyday coaching situation. Certainly it was not like coaching pro volleyball or in the US college game.

This all-encompassing aspect of coaching at the higher levels is something I know gives prospective female volleyball coaches pause. I have a friend from my youth who played NCAA Division I. She earned All-American honors and later played on the beach tour. She coached at our high school for a couple of seasons. That was as far as she would take it, however. She told me that after seeing the amount of time and travel and all that her own college coach put in she wanted nothing to do with it.

Then there’s the family element.

The head coach who hired me as assistant at Midwestern State resigned after my second season there (her third). She’d had a baby 9-10 month earlier. The father had been at another school in Texas as a basketball coach, but moved on to a school in California near the start of our season. She decided over the holiday break that she didn’t want to wait any longer to have the family together (she was thinking to give it one more season). She was not going into a new coaching job, though thought she might look for a high school or junior college position eventually. This is an example of how quickly one’s priorities can change.

As a upper level coach, volleyball can easily become your life. If someone doesn’t want that, they either have to coach at a less intensive level or not coach at all. This is what the coach I asked above about why women don’t, because they are smarter than men.

What do you think?

Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part III

In the two prior posts in this sequence (first, second) I compared professional volleyball to NCAA Division I volleyball on the basis of seasons and resources. In this post I look a bit more narrowly at the coaching aspect of things. This based on what I saw during at total of six weeks hanging out with teams in Germany and my own coaching Sweden. Again, I don’t really claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of things. I’d love for those with more exposure to share their views.

Schedule

As I noted in my first post in this series, the competitive season for professional volleyball is longer than the one for NCAA teams. Preseason starts at roughly the same time in August, but play can carry on into May. There may be a break over the holidays, but that’s it. College players train during Spring term as well, but have Winter break, Spring Break, and May exams (generally speaking). So while the coaches in both categories have a similar length overall coaching period, the professionals almost certainly spend more time in the gym during that span.

Both sets of coaches have lengthy periods during the year out of the gym – generally April/May to August. NCAA coaches continue to recruit in that time frame (as noted in the next section), and of course there are always administrative duties for both groups.

Recruitment

Both professional and college coaches are required to scout and evaluate potential additions to their teams (and to decide which players to attempt to retain). To do so, both watch a lot of video. They are also in touch with any number of contacts to help identify prospects and gather player information.

NCAA coaches spend a fair amount of time between January and July on the road at Juniors tournaments. Because of their season timing and limited budgets, professional coaches don’t have the same sort of opportunity. They are better able to bring players in for trials, though. NCAA rules prohibit that in Division I.

Administration

Naturally, there are differences between working for a professional sports organization and working for a university. I suspect, however, they are not as great as one might think. Much of managing a team – scheduling, equipment, travel, etc. – is pretty constant, no matter the context. Yes, there will be some differences in how things operate, but not major ones. Coaches in both cases have to deal with management above them, deal with players transitioning in and out of the team, interact with fans and sponsors/donors, and all of that.

The one thing I would say is that professional coaches are probably as a whole less directly involved in administration of their team than are college coaches. The pros have team managers handling that. The are not the sort of managers or DOVOs previously mentioned as part of many college programs, however. Those report to the head coach. In the pros the manager works alongside the coach, or might even be their boss.

Communication

Language is generally not an issue for NCAA coaches. They may occasionally have a player who struggles with English. A certain level of fluency is usually required for college admission, though, so it’s not really a problem. Communication issues come from other areas, such as differences in where the players are from, background, etc.

Professional coaches have to deal with the latter, but also have language considerations. It seems like English is the common tongue for most professional teams. It’s far from the case, however, that every player speaks it or speaks it well. The result is a multitude of languages spoken between players, between coaches, and between players and coaches – and even club management.

For example, when I was at SC Potsdam the coaching staff spoke Italian amongst themselves. The primary on-court language in group situations was English, but both Italian and German were frequently used in 1-on-1s and smaller group situations. I was told club management speaks very little English, so business at that level is done in German. At TV Bühl the coaches speak Spanish together, and there was a bit of Spanish and Portuguese spoken in 1-on-1 player situations. Otherwise, English dominated, even among club management. Most players didn’t know much German (but were taking lessons). One player, however, spoke little English, instead requiring translation to French by one of his teammates.

So basically, decent English is generally necessary for professional coaches to work with their teams. The extent to which they need to speak the local language varies, but I think generally it does behoove a coach to learn it. The same could actually be said of NCAA coaches who work in strongly ethnic communities.

Salary & Income – Professionals

I was told that German head coach annual salaries are generally in the €30s. Call that about $39k-$50k or £24k-£32k based on exchange rates at that time. Assistants are in the €15k-€20k range (about $20k-$26k, £12-£16). This may not sound like all that much. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that coaches are generally provided with housing and transportation by the club. That’s worth quite a bit. It’s commonly suggested that people pay roughly 1/3 of their take-home pay on housing alone. It’s pretty easy to imagine a car being another 10%.

Let’s say a coach takes home 70% of their salary after taxes, etc. Someone making €35k would take home €24.5k. Housing would be worth about €8k, with the car another €2.5k, so that coach in Germany would have an effective take-home pay of just over €35k, which would be about €50k pre-tax. This equates to about $65k (£40k).

Given that the German professional leagues rank in about the middle of the pack among, the implication is that coach pay is probably a bit lower on average in lesser leagues and higher in the bigger ones. I think I worked out that my annualized salary equivalent in Sweden was about $40,000. I was only contracted for 8 months, though, so knock 33% off that.

Salary & Income – College

How does this compare to NCAA salaries? In 2010 the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) conducted a salary survey. The results were published in the February/March 2012 edition of Coaching Volleyball magazine. The graph below shows the distribution of Division I volleyball coach base salaries.

AVCA-DI-Coaching-Salary

The article reports that the average salary is $73,426, with a median of $69,079, so not far off the numbers from above on an equivalency basis. The lowest was about $37k, with a high in the $140s.

What these numbers don’t account for is performance bonuses, camps, sponsorships, and other income which can significantly increase a coach’s total compensation. A number of threads on VolleyTalk (here, here, here) address the subject. The suggestion is that coaches in the upper echelons of the sport can do quite well for themselves. Numbers from this FloVolleball article back that up.

Assistant coach salaries parallel head coach pay in terms of variation based on conference differences. Obviously, they an order of magnitude lower and without the same kind of upside.

I would imagine professional coaches also have additional income opportunities. I’m not sure to what degree, though.

Tenure

I get the impression coaches in the professional ranks don’t tend to spend a great deal of time with any one team. I certainly didn’t! There are a few who do, but that is the exception. It’s like any other professional sport in that regard. NCAA coaches probably don’t move around quite so much, but it isn’t like long tenures at a single school are the norm there either. Most coaches in the AVCA survey mentioned above were in their current positions less than 10 years.

Coaching

I’ve already talked about how similar coaching at the professional level is to coaching at other levels in the Being reminded of the coaching similarities post. Going beyond that, I think the biggest thing for me was the relative youth of the players. Certainly, there are mature, experienced one as well. Because, however, players are being developed out of youth club programs rather than coming out of a collegiate structure, there are also a number of younger athletes (even down to 16). The result is that in some cases there’s not a lot of difference in terms of age, maturity, experience, technical ability, etc. between professional players and those competing in the NCAA.

And in terms of the actual coaching on the court, just as you’d expect going from gym to gym watching NCAA coaches, there are any number of different styles and philosophies among professional coaches. Given that they come from a more diverse set of backgrounds, the professionals are probably a bit less homogenized in style than those in the NCAA. In neither case, though, will you see the same sort of coaching approach in every gym.

Coach-Player Interaction

Here’s a major area of difference between professional and NCAA coaches. In the US it is essentially forbidden to fraternize or even socialize with players. A big factor is the drinking age of 21. That means only a minority of members of a team will be old enough to drink. This is certainly not the case in Europe. Further, many schools have strict no-alcohol policies where school-related activities are concerned. Generally speaking coaches are expected to maintain a professional relationship with their players at all times. Needless to say, romantic/sexual relationships between players and coaches are an absolute no-no. They are usually viewed from a sexual harassment perspective.

While European coaches are also expected to be professionals, the player-coach relationship is somewhat more relaxed. At least it can be, depending on personalities involved. That isn’t to say coaches are often out partying with their players, but they will have a drink with them. Personally, this was something I struggled with when I first went to England. The idea of socializing with my players was really uncomfortable, though over time I was able to relax a bit. You will also find the occasional romantic relationship between player and coach, though I can’t imagine it’s something very common.

Player Turnover

As a last point, I should note that professional team rosters seem to turnover quite a bit. At an NCAA school you’d expect roughly a quarter of the players each year to leave and be replaced. At TV Bühl in 2014-15 there was only one player back from the prior season. It was similar the year before (though they were moving to reduce that level of change moving forward). I think the year-over-year change for SC Potsdam was something close to half the team. It was about half at Svedala when I coached there.

Obviously, when you have that kind of squad change from year-to-year it can impact how you coach.

It should be noted that American players seem to be among the least likely to stay in one place for any length of time. One coach suggested a desire to see new things and have new experiences is part of the motivation. That said, non-American players move around a lot too. For the most part, players salaries are not particularly high, which tends to increase the motivation to make a move for better pay.

OK, so those are my impressions. Like I said at the beginning, I’d love to hear from those with more exposure, a different perspective, etc.

Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part II

In the first post of this series I started to look at the similarities and differences between NCAA Division I volleyball and the professional game in Europe based on the time I spent with some pro teams in Germany and my own experience coaching in Sweden. The focus there was on the time element. In this post I want to extend that comparison into the area of resources.

Facilities

I think this is actually an area of considerable commonality. There are some professional clubs who host home matches in large arenas. BR Volleys plays its matches in Max Schmeling Halle, which holds over 8000.

That’s one of the bigger, better arenas, though. Most clubs play in more modest gyms. The folks at SC Potsdam and TV Bühl both can seat around 2000. When I coached in Sweden, our gym at Svedala maxed out at about 800, and that was straining the fire codes. I saw a hall in Denmark that I don’t think held even that many.

Honestly, I think most colleges have bigger gyms than do the majority of professional clubs. I doubt you’ll find many schools with a capacity of less than 1000 and many have arenas the can match or beat Max Schmeling Halle.

In both the pros and the college game there can be scheduling conflicts with other sports and other demands on the facility. In some cases the training and playing gyms are not the same. Alternative gyms need to be used for training periodically. None of the pro teams I’ve visited have full control over their training/playing site. Similarly, most college programs have to coordinate with other sports and school demands in scheduling gym time.

Staff – College

NCAA Division I schools are allowed to have three paid volleyball coaches (a head and two assistants). They may also have a volunteer and/or graduate/student assistant. At the top end the staffs are full. In the lower rankings, though, oftentimes schools only have a head coach and assistant. Maybe they can get a low-paid 2nd Assistant during the season.

Schools generally also have a trainer (physio) and a strength coach. These are usually shared with other teams and are not always available to be assigned to be with the volleyball team during all training sessions and competitions. Many schools also have a Director of Volleyball Operations. They do a lot of administrative work for the program, but are not really management. They report to the head coach.

When I was at USC in 2013 all those people were in the gym during preseason training sessions. Most schools have just a handful of staff in the gym to work in practice, though.

Staff – Professional

From what I’ve seen, professional teams tend to have maybe three coaches – oftentimes it’s just a head coach and an assistant. You might also see what is called a Scoutman, which is basically a stats person. In some cases an assistant coach fills that role. When I was in Sweden my assistant was also the team’s manager. Because he had a day job, he couldn’t always make practice.

Pro clubs generally have strength coaches and trainers, though how often they are specifically on-hand varies. At one club the strength coach was actually involved full-time and also coached the club’s second team. In another case the strength coach was more of a consultant who spent spells with the team throughout season. One club had a trainer at the gym sessions while the other didn’t.

At Svedala I had to be the strength coach and we didn’t have a trainer. That serves to highlight how different things can be.

Professional clubs have team managers who work on the administrative side of things. They get players signed and deal with much of the off-court stuff around the team. How often they turn up for and/or help out with training no doubt varies. My impression is that they are largely considered administrators rather than having much of a role in practice.

Equipment & Technology

Here, budget is a large factor. I saw clubs in Germany with lots of equipment of all kinds – or at least access to it. I saw more use of stuff like training aides than technology, though. One club used video replay in training, but the others didn’t at that stage (though one was moving in that direction). No doubt at least some of that reflected the attitudes of the coaches.

At Svedala, where there was a lot less money, we didn’t have a lot to work with. We had some basic equipment that belonged to the hall. I had to bring in video stuff of my own to use in practice, though.

By contrast, I’ve seen NCAA volleyball teams use video and stats extensively in training. USC has video replay systems on all three of its training courts, which is definitely a high-end example. Even much smaller programs have that kind of technology, though. I was given the impression by a couple coaches that in Europe they kind of look to the US for the latest technology developments.

Budgets

I was told in 2014 that the average budget among women’s teams in the German top flight (the Bundesliga) is about €500,000. That was roughly $650,000 based on exchange rates at that time. I think on the men’s side it might be more like €700k ($910k). I know there are teams with 7-figure budgets, though, implying that there are also teams with markedly lower ones.The result is a disparity in resources among teams competing in the same league. It’s the sort of thing which can also notably be seen in professional soccer.

I don’t have budget figures for NCAA schools. It would be a bit tricky to compare them directly with the pros in any case (and perhaps even with each other in some cases) depending on how scholarships were valued and such. On a conference basis there is probably less disparity in funding between schools than we see in the professional ranks. The same, however, can’t be said when we look at all of Division I as a whole. There are clearly some schools with massive financial support and many with relatively little. That’s hardly unexpected when considering 300+ teams.

Overall, my impression is that NCAA Division I schools and European professional volleyball teams are not dissimilar in terms of available resources. There’s is considerable disparity on both sides of the equation, and one side may be stronger than the other in some aspects, vice versa in others.

As I said in my previous post, my perspective is a limited one at this point. I’d love to hear from readers with better/different knowledge than myself. Just leave a comment below.

I wrap up the comparison in the next post by talking about things from a coaching perspective.

Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part I

I won’t ever claim the three weeks I spent with professional clubs in Germany in August 2014, again in 2015, and coaching in Sweden gives me a complete understanding of what pro volleyball is all about. I do think, however, it allows me to make a basic comparison to volleyball in the U.S. This is particularly true for the NCAA Division I collegiate game, where I spent a fair amount of time. Over the next couple of posts I’ll document what I observed in terms of similarities and differences. Here I start with a look at the time commitment.

The College Season

Most NCAA Division I teams report for preseason in early to mid-August. They can official matches starting in late August or early September. The first couple weeks are non-conference competition – often tournament style. In this period teams often play 3-4 matches per week, sometimes more.

Conference play begins in late September or early October, depending on league size. During this phase teams usually play just twice a week on the weekend. Sometimes, however, they mix in a mid-week match against local non-conference competition.

League play usually runs into early or mid-November, after which many conferences have a post-season tournament to determine their champion. Those champions, and teams granted at large bids, begin the NCAA tournament the first weekend of December. There are two rounds per weekend for three weeks, with the National Champion crowned the third Saturday of the month.

Add all this together and you get a season about three months long for those who don’t make it to the post-season, and up to four months for those who do. Teams may play 30 or more matches during the regular season. Those who go far in the NCAA tournament can get up near 40.

From late-January through April the main focus for NCAA teams is on individual training and strength & conditioning work. For most of that period players are limited to just 6 hours per week, 2 of which can be volleyball (20 hours is the limit during the main season). There is a “non-traditional season” of several weeks during which a more normal training regime can be used. With only a couple of available play dates, though, the focus remains on training rather than competition.

Coaches may not work with players when school is out. These days, however, it is not uncommon for players to take Summer classes and workout together.

The Professional Season

In European pro leagues the competitive season runs from October until perhaps April or early May for the top teams. For example, the German (Bundesliga) regular season ends in February, but the playoffs there go on into May. The extent to which a team is still active in one or more cup competitions dictates how many matches they play each week. It’s very much like professional soccer where teams generally play a weekend league fixture, and could have a cup match midweek.

For example, TV Bühl had about 25 matches listed on its schedule to begin the 2014-15 season. That number would grow to the extent that the team advanced in the German and CEV Cup competitions and makes the league playoffs as the end of the season.

This makes it sound like NCAA schools and professional clubs play a comparable number of matches. The college teams just do so in a more compressed time frame. This fails to account for the “friendly” matches teams play during their preseason, which lasts upwards of 2 months. These friendlies are against teams from a variety of different countries and levels of play. It is similar to the way NCAA teams play pre-conference matches, only more so (I actually had one coach express bewilderment over the fact that pre-conference matches count toward a team’s record). TV Bühl had something like 20 friendlies planned before starting the Bundesliga season, from what I heard while visiting them in 2014.

What we end up with in terms of the pros is a season that runs upwards of 9 months from the start of preseason to the end of the playoffs. A competitive team can get easily north of 50 matches in a year, all together.

Travel

Depending on the country, travel for league and domestic cup competitions among professional teams can be either minimal (imagine the likes of Belgium or the Netherlands) or potentially substantial (think Russia). International competition such as CEV and friendlies can add to that required by domestic play considerably. Competitive level and league thus are significant contributors to how much traveling a professional team must do.

The same is true for US college teams. Some conferences are fairly narrowly confined geographically. Also, teams with low budgets don’t travel much beyond that for pre-conference competition. The other end of the spectrum is a conference like the ACC, which spans practically the whole of the US east coast (Boston to Miami) and extends west to Indiana (Notre Dame). That’s a lot of time on the road.

The potential major difference between the college players and the pros is how the travel works out. A professional team could be required to make two long trips in one week (midweek and weekend). A college team, however, usually plays multiple matches each time they go on a long trip. For example, they play Friday/Saturday, and travel from one locale to the other in between. Usually those pairings are selected to be relatively close to minimize travel.

Gym Time

At the collegiate level the NCAA’s 20-hour per week time limits constrain what teams can do in-season. For the most part that means just one training session per day (though 2 gym sessions a day is common during preseason when there are fewer constraints). Teams may add in 1-2 days in the weight room for maintenance and injury prevention. The major S&C work tends to get done outside the regular season, though.

At the professional level, the amount of gym time can vary considerably. At the upper levels players often have two sessions per day. That could be one weight session and one in the gym. Alternatively, it could be weights plus small groups in the morning, then team training in the afternoon. At the lower levels where there are fewer fully professional players, one training per day is generally it. At Svedala we trained four nights per week. We had one team lifting session. Otherwise, though, they were left to lift on their own.

Off Time

Obviously, at the college level much of a player’s time is spent in classes, studying, working on papers, etc. Basically, that’s the “student” part of student-athlete.

There isn’t the same kind of commitment for upper level professional volleyball players. There may be language training going on for those who don’t speak the language of the country in which they’re playing. Mainly, though, as pro athletes they are expected to rest, recover, and take care of themselves. There are things like sponsor commitments and supporter events on their schedules, though. Some also have families in their lives.

It’s a different story for lower level players. They often have jobs and/or are students. My Swedish players at Svedala were all either still students or worked. Only my American players were full professionals.

As I said at the top, my knowledge of this subject matter is not comprehensive. I know there are a couple of professional coaches who check in on the blog from time to time. I’d love to hear their input, and thoughts or experiences from anyone else who can speak with any knowledge of the subject. Just leave a comment.

In the next post I take a look at resources and how they compare between college programs and the pros.

Three weeks in professional volleyball

I am back in England now. I returned the other day from my August sojourn into the realm of professional volleyball in Germany.

First of all, I need to offer thanks to Ruben at TV Bühl and Alberto at SC Potsdam . I appreciate their being so open and hospitable. They let me spend time with them, their coaching staffs, and their teams during pre-season preparations for the 2014-15 campaign. Not only did they house me and allow me to observe, but they included me in the training sessions and evaluation aspects of things. The experience wasn’t just me sitting on the sidelines watching, but rather one of active participation.

I need to additionally thank Mark at BR Volleys, and At Home on the Court. He provided my first exposure to pro volleyball back in April. He also made the contacts that let me spend the last few weeks gaining a deeper perspective. And he brought me along for a day in Poland. I got to take in my first ever major international competition matches at Men’s World Championships.

I had a talk with Ruben near the end of my stay. He expressed the hope that I saw some new stuff during my time with him and his staff. My honest response was that in this sort of situation it isn’t necessarily just about “new”. Sometimes it’s a question of being reminded of stuff you already learned along the way, seeing things from a different perspective, and/or having your own ideas validated. The latter is something I discussed last year when talking about my time with collegiate teams in Southern California and this time around in terms of warm-ups.

Of course, just the chance to work with professional volleyball teams was new for me. The pro game gets very little exposure in the States, so my three weeks in Germany was as much about getting a better understanding of that aspect of the sport as anything else.

I’ve written three posts with my impressions of the difference and similarities between the NCAA Division I collegiate structure in the US and the European professional system on the basis of schedule, resources, and coaching careers. Hopefully you find them useful and/or interesting.

Thinking about coaching off the court

One of the podcasts listen to sometimes is Sports Coach Radio. One episode featured an interview with Daniel Coyle, who you may know as the author of The Talent Code. The interview is an interesting one – well worth a listen. As are most of the podcast episodes, for that matter.

The Belichick interview technique

In this particular episode’s discussion there is talk about what you could call the interview technique of Bill Belichick. For those who don’t know of him, Belichick is the head coach for the New England Patriots football team. He has five championships, with three other appearances in the title game. He generally rates at or very near the top of the list of best American coaches, in all sports. I’m not just saying that because he’s coach for my home team. 🙂

Anyway, the story goes that when Belichick met a prospective draft pick during the NFL combine he would immediately show him video of some of his worst play. The idea behind doing so is to judge the character of the player by seeing how he would react. Would he make excuses? Would he blame his teammates? Did he never really self-evaluate? Or did he take ownership of his mistake, accept responsibility, and work to avoid repeating the error?

This reminds me of a “behavioral” interview question that gets asked these days, which I myself have gotten (and which comes up in the podcast as well) – “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and what did you do about it.” These sorts of questions are meant to focus on personal traits rather than job skills and experience. It got me thinking about the collegiate volleyball recruiting process.

Recruitment as hiring

Recruitment is basically hiring. Coaches of professional teams have to deal with this as well. It’s one of those elements of coaching when you reach a certain level which arguably becomes at least as important as your ability to train players and manage teams during matches. This is why it is often easier to get a job as a head coach at a certain level if you’ve assisted at that level than if you’ve been successful as head coach at a lower level. It means you know what is required – at least in theory – to work at that level.

The podcast also brings up the idea of continuous professional development. It’s pretty easy for volleyball coaches to think about improving their skills when it comes to their sport. For early career coaches this tends to be about collecting drills (see Fancy New Drill Syndrome – A Coaching Affliction). At a certain point, however, it becomes advantageous to start thinking beyond volleyball to other sports, and then beyond sports to things like management. Coaching lessons can be learned from many different sources.