Archive for Volleyball Coaching News & Info

Is volleyball business or entertainment?

This post is motivated on an article on the WorldofVolleyball site.

That article’s title is Volleyball – Entertainment or Business? My immediate response to seeing it was, “Yes.” The two are intertwined. Volleyball is an entertainment business. It’s just as the NFL is an entertainment business and the English Premier League is an entertainment business.

Obviously, I’m talking primarily about the professional and international level of the sport here. That is the main focus of the WoV article. That isn’t to say, though, that lower levels of the sport aren’t about entertainment either. The waters just get a bit muddied when talking about something like high school or Juniors. You could also add marketing into the mix when it comes to colleges and universities. Clearly, sports impact applications and attendance at schools.

Professional teams

The primary focus of the WoV article is on teams, specifically teams from Poland, excluding themselves from competing in next season’s CEV club competitions – Champions League, Cup, etc. The reporting goes that the clubs are doing so because they don’t feel like they will be strong enough to legitimately challenge to win. As a result, they would rather save themselves the expense. This is a similar sort of discussion to the one I brought up in Properly professional or just participating?

When I coached in Sweden, this sort of decision-making was very much going on for the clubs there. No doubt it will continue to be the case. For the most part they did not see enough value being derived from taking part in CEV competition (or NEVZA) to justify the expense involved.

Non-Professional organizations

And it’s not like professional clubs are the only one making these sorts of choices.

Clubs and teams at all levels make decisions all the time about whether certain competitions or matches makes sense. When I coached at Brown we made choices about pre-conference tournaments. They were based on likely recruiting potential (which is why were frequently went to California). College coaches regularly pick out-of-conference competition with an eye toward the level of competition and how it will help them achieve their season objective (e.g. helping their RPI for NCAA tournament inclusion/seeding). Juniors clubs evaluate tournaments to play in with regards to the level of recruiting exposure they will provide, among other factors.

It all comes down to a cost vs. benefit (at least perceived) analysis.

Make it make sense to stay in

My view with regards to CEV and the like is that they should be doing everything they can to bring the clubs from the lower level countries into their competitions. You want to make the sport more relevant and financially stronger? Then you need to expand its popularity in places where it doesn’t get the exposure you’d like.

Find ways to incentivize clubs to take part in your competition. The NCAA pays travel expenses for teams playing in its tournament. It also does things to try to minimize those costs and travel times through how it structures it’s tournaments. The CEV needs to look at the reality of the sport at the lower levels and find ways to make their competitions more inclusive.

And this obviously isn’t something for just the less competitive countries and leagues, as the Polish clubs seem to be demonstrating.

I’ll return to the point I made above. Volleyball is an entertainment business. A major part of any business is ensuring that is will be able to continue operating – which means this applies to non-profit organizations as well as for-profit ones. This is something every confederation, league, and club needs to understand.

Sweden Coaching Log – Apr 29, 2016

Now that the Swedish season has ended, I wanted to provide something of a footnote to my coaching with Svedala.

Elitserie
Svedala managed to finish 3rd in the table at the end of the regular season. As you can see on the final table below, Engelholm was the clear top finisher. Only three points separated 2nd through 4th, and it was only three more points to 5th. Örebro was definitely helped in having the softer northern group schedule, as it put them in position to have home court through the semifinals.

ElitSerie-Table-Final

Svedala’s 3rd place saw them matched up against Gislaved in the playoff quarterfinals, which they won 3-0. They then faced Örebro in the semifinals. That series went five, which each team taking a 3-2 victory on the road the second time around. As the higher seed, Örebro hosted the deciding match, which they won 3-0. The first two sets were tight, but the third not so much.

Engelholm won the other semifinal 3-0, putting them in the final vs Örebro. Svedala played for 3rd against Hylte/Halmstad. Engelholm went on to win the final 3-0. Svedala lost to Hylte to end up in 4th.

While it represents an improvement over last year, I think there is probably at least some disappointment in the club that the team didn’t finish higher than 4th. I’m sure they really thought making the final was a good prospect. No doubt it was tough to play in the 3rd place play-off after having lost in 3-2 in the semifinal series.

Oresund Liga
Svedala ended up finishing 2nd in the Danish/Swedish cross-boarder league. Here are the final standings:

OresundLiga-Final

Brøndby had already sealed up 1st place by the time I left Sweden and we were looking good for a top-3 spot. At that stage Engelholm was the other likely contender, but they obviously fell off the pace.

Honors
My young Swedish MB at Svedala was selected as the season’s Break Through Player. I think the fact that she had the opportunity to work with arguably the best middle in the league (the team’s American) was a real plus for her growth and development. The team’s American setter was nominated for Player of the Year, but not surprisingly was beaten out by the OPP from Engelholm.

The American MB was in the statistical Best Team for the regular season as the #1 in her position. The young Swedish middle ranked #4, so was in the second team. The American OH was #3 in her position. Officially, the setter ended up #2, but the player in the #1 spot wasn’t actually the starting setter for her team, so shouldn’t really count.

I held all year the Svedala had arguably the three strongest foreign players. That was borne out by the All-Star team selections in which they all were chosen. Interestingly, Hylte took three of the other four spots, with Engelholm’s OPP getting the remaining one.

Busy weekend ahead!

Today starts what looks to be a pretty intense four day sequence.

This evening I’m working my second High Performance try-out in Dallas. Before that, though, I ‘m meeting up with a Volleyball Coaching Wizard for lunch (she’s also working the try-out). That’s supposed to be about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive. Last week, though, it was more like 3 hours – each way.

After the try-out, which will end around 8pm, I have to drive back to campus as I have to be there for Friday practice (6:30am). I will be running it because the head coach will be in Dallas with her club team playing in the Lone Star qualifier.

After practice I’ll be headed back to Big D once more, and staying until Sunday. I’ll be making my first appearance on the recruiting circuit in Midwestern State University colors at Lone Star. I’ve been to other qualifiers in the past, but this will be my first time at this particular one.

I’ll try to get some decent pictures and/or video to give those of you who haven’t seen anything like this an idea of how truly big these events are. There’s over 100 courts, mostly running 4-team pools in two waves.

Heading to HP try-outs

I’ll be having a new volleyball experience today. I’m working the USA Volleyball High Performance try-outs in Dallas this afternoon.

For those who don’t know, the High Performance program is USA Volleyball’s talent identification program. It’s been in place for more than a decade. Basically, during the course of each juniors season there are try-outs for the program run in conjunction with the national qualifier tournaments. They are used to select players for the HP program camps and programs which run during the Summer.

I actually helped out with a Volleyball England try-out one time. That was for their girls’ Cadet and Junior national teams, which is something like U16 and U18. That try-out was also meant to identify a group of players to bring in to future camps, but obviously on a much smaller scale than what we’re talking about here in the US.

Today’s try-outs are for U14s. Next week on Thursday there’s a second try-out for the older girls. I’ll likely be working that one as well. I’ll provide a report on the experience in a future post.

Properly professional or just participating?

Yesterday on his Facebook page, Mark Lebedew made the comment that, “Professional sport is not for clubs who want, but for clubs who can.” Mark told me that observation was made based on something a mutual friends of ours had to say combined with a bankruptcy issue in the top German league.

I was recently told there are four bankrupt teams in Bundesliga 1 on the women’s side. That is pretty amazing, especially when supposedly the women’s side of the game in Germany is stronger than the men’s (it was suggested to me that was because the women’s side is more cooperative). Might be even more amazing when you consider that you don’t tend to have spendthrift operations there.

Competition vs. Participation
Mark extended his comment by bringing up the idea that you’d be better off with fewer teams who are stronger than more teams just for the sake of having some defined number in the league. Basically, competition vs. participation. It’s something fledgling sports leagues definitely deal with.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is an example of this. In it’s early years the talent was spread very thin. Things have gotten better, obviously, but it took a while to get there. And the league has been expanding fairly steadily over the years, which tends to dilute the talent if players of a high enough caliber cannot be brought in to fill those squads.

Here’s the thing, though. MLS has a salary cap structure. It’s a bit fluid these days, but in the early-going it was very rigid. That served to keep teams on an even playing field, at least with respect to the player talent. This is something you don’t generally see in professional sports leagues around the world. In German volleyball, for example, two clubs dominate the men’s league as they have far more in the way of financial resources. Everyone else is playing for the scraps. I talk about this gulf in competitive level some in my Professional volleyball country league rankings post.

Mark may not have been specifically taking on that particular issue in professional volleyball (or other sports for that matter), but there is definitely the question of whether teams are legitimately there to try to compete or just there for the sake of being able to say they are.

I’d say in some respects it was the latter case for Svedala, where I coached in Sweden. Part of the club wanted to be legitimately competitive in the Elitserie, but part of it saw the focus of the club as being the youth teams with the pro team as just being a sort of marketing tool. Certainly, putting national youth academy teams in the first division – as happens in both Sweden and Germany – strikes me as being more about participation.

Making it sustainable
Personally, I would really like to see teams in our sport – be they professional or collegiate – reach a level where they can be self-sustained. What does that mean? To my mind in means bringing in revenue which is not heavily dependent on just one or two big sources – like major sponsors. What happens if those sponsors pull out? That’s at least some of the issue with clubs in Germany.

We’re a long way from being there, especially without the big television contracts enjoyed by other sports. It’s something we can work toward, though.

Trying to please television

The FIVB is at it again. They are once more experimenting with changing the set structure to try to get a volleyball match to more predictably fit in to the 2 hour time slot television supposedly favors. Those of us who’ve been around the game for a while will recall something similar attempted early in the rally score era. Obviously, it didn’t go very far as we’re still doing best of 5 matches these days.

A question I have is whether it’s really worth trying to fit into that 2-hour time slot. Will volleyball suddenly be that much more attractive to broadcasters if the matches were of a consistent length?

I don’t know the answer to that, but evidence from other sports suggest it doesn’t matter as much as some might think. Tennis is essentially the same type of scoring structure as volleyball. Baseball certainly can be all over the place in terms of game lengths.

I think if you’re going to confine volleyball to a certain preferred time length for matches you probably need to put it on the clock in some fashion. That said, I don’t think timed games is the way to go. The nice thing about the point goal set-up of the sport is that lopsided games get cut-off fairly quickly. When you’re on the clock things can get out of hand, and as a result become quite boring. I experienced this while in England. A team I coached won a 20-minute timed set by something like 55-10.

Actually, in order to keep underdog teams in those sorts of match-ups fighting to the end they gave credit for not getting totally blown out. A team got 3 points for a win (maybe it was only 2). If the losing team was within 25% of the winning team’s score, they would earn a point. That made for much more interesting play when it came down toward the end of those games as the losing teams were fighting to get/stay above that threshold.

But that’s a side note.

The thought that occurred to me is if we don’t want those kinds of very one-sided situations, but want to retain a time clock we need to think in different terms. I had the idea of teams playing a series of mini sets – say to something like 8 points. The team winning the most sets within the allotted time wins the match.

The reason I say mini sets is because there is more opportunity for upsets, which keeps things interesting. There are a lot of things in terms of line-ups and subs that would have to be worked out, though.

Don’t tell me I can’t or get in my way

This post might seem like an unusual detour from the normal content of the blog. Hopefully it will make some kind of sense, though.

One of the things that has long motivated me is someone telling me I can’t do something. I’m not talking about not being allowed. I’m talking about not being capable. One of the surest ways to motivate me is to say “You can’t…”

This is even more so when people throw obstacles in my way in one form or another.

I recently came across a song that kind of encapsulates my feeling on the subject. It’s Throne by Bring Me The Horizon. It’s an angry song in the hard rock genre that may not suit everyone’s musical tastes. As the lyrics below indicate, though, it’s basically about sticking it to those who put you down by not just succeeding, but coming out on top.

Here are the lyrics (courtesy azlyrics.com)

Remember the moment you left me alone and
Broke every promise you ever made
I was an ocean, lost in the open
Nothing could take the pain away

So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

The sticks and the stones that
You used to throw have
Built me an empire
So don’t even try
To cry me a river
Cause I forgive you
You are the reason I still fight

[x2:]
So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

[x2:]
I’ll leave you choking
On every word you left unspoken
Rebuild all that you’ve broken
And now you know

Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

So you can throw me to the wolves
Tomorrow I will come back
Leader of the whole pack
Beat me black and blue
Every wound will shape me
Every scar will build my throne

Heading for Texas!

I’ve shared this news with some folks already. Here’s the official and full announcement for everyone who reads this blog, though.

On Tuesday I was offered the Volleyball Assistant Coach position at Midwestern State University, which I accepted. Later today I’ll be ending my stay in Long Beach, where I’ve been since early February after my departure from Sweden, and heading to Wichita Falls, TX. That’s a bit under 2 hours drive northwest of Dallas. Oklahoma City is slightly further than that to the north.

Midwestern State Volleyball (MSU) is an NCAA Division II program competing in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). The conference is part of the South Central region. You can see the full set of Div II regions and the top 10 rankings for each here. The full 2015 set of rankings for the region can be found here (PDF). Angelo State, also from the LSC, was top. They ended up reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament (full bracket PDF). Tarleton State and Texas Women’s also both made the field, though both fell in the first round. To get a sense for the level of play, give a watch to the 2015 LSC tournament championship match.

Why Midwestern State?

As you will see in the regional rankings, MSU ended up 25th out of 34. The squad finished 0-16 in the LSC, making it two years in a row ending the season at the bottom of the league standings. In other words, I’m heading into a program that needs a lot of work. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way! As I’ve said before, I want to be in a program building situation, as I was when coaching at Exeter University in England. This is exactly that kind of opportunity.

That said, you can only turn something around and properly build a program if there’s something to build. MSU has only once made the NCAA tournament in its history. That was back in 2007. If you look at the other teams at the school, though, you’ll see a lot of conference titles and tournament appearances. That tells you there is the commitment to athletics and the resources available to be successful. When I sat with the Athletic Director during the interview process he told me he’s pretty much sick of volleyball not performing. He clearly wants a winning team.

Now, a question which might come to mind is whether there’s something about MSU that hinders volleyball’s competitiveness. I haven’t seen anything about the school or the athletics which would seem to be an issue. Volleyball is fully funded (8 scholarships, the max allowed in D2), just like all the other sports. The Dallas area is a fertile recruiting territory and LSC is a strong league, making for good competition. That leads me to believe that with the right coaching, recruiting, and organizational work we should be able to build a competitive program.

I’m not the only one to think that. Ruth Nelson, who I interviewed for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, was the one to point me in the direction of MSU. That was back in January. She told me at the time that she thought within a few years this could be an Elite 8 caliber program.

Why assistant coach?

Given that I’ve been a head coach for the last four years, it’s natural to ask the question as to why I would take an assistant job. It might not be as much of a surprise, perhaps, if I were to take an assistant job in the upper levels of Division I, but I can understand how doing do in Division II might be a surprise. It must seem to many like a step backwards.

I did look at head coach jobs, and applied for ones I thought potentially interesting. At the end of the day, though, it was about the situation and not the title. The priorities I had were 1) to be somewhere I could have an impact on the program’s path forward, 2) to be in a location where volleyball isn’t a minor sport, and 3) being somewhere I would have the opportunity to pursue my other interests and activities.

To the first point, my new boss at MSU only has 3 years as a collegiate head coach (just one season at the school) and has a relatively inexperienced pair of other assistants (GA and volunteer). She was looking for someone with a stronger background that she could bounce ideas off of and problem-solve with at a higher level. She was also looking for someone with strong organizational skills to help carry the off-the-court load. It was this combination of things which saw Ruth encourage the two of us to connect (this is why networking is so important folks!). She felt like we’d make a good team to drive the MSU program forward.

To the second point, Texas loves volleyball. It is a huge sport in the state, with Dallas being one of the big hubs. Obviously, it doesn’t have the history of the West Coast, but it’s still got a pretty good pedigree. In 1988 Mick Haley led the University of Texas team to the first NCAA championship won by a non-West Coast team and that program has been a consistent top contender ever since (another title in 2012 and seven other trips to the Final 4). That’s encouraged a ton of kids to play high school and club ball across the state. Unlike my prior coaching stops, I’m not going to have to go very far to find good volleyball. In fact, Dallas will be hosting one of this year’s World League stops for the US men’s national team.

As for my final point about being able to pursue other activities, a big part of that is just being back in the States where I think there is probably more ability for me to connect and develop opportunities. That’s not so say I won’t continue to do things internationally, though. I definitely will. I’ll leave discussion for all this stuff to future posts, though. 😉

Final thoughts

At the very end of my interview process at MSU the A.D. sat down with me for a few minutes. We’d already met and talked the day before, but he wanted to leave me with something to think about. That was to make sure MSU was a good fit. I can understand why he had that on his mind. Arguably, I’m WAY overqualified for a Division II assistant coaching job. He wants someone who is going to be committed to the program, not someone who will quickly find themselves feeling like they should be somewhere else. I got it.

From my own perspective, there were a few key things I was looking at when evaluating MSU (or anyone else). Did I think there was an opportunity to be successful (support, etc.)? Could I get along with my immediate co-workers (volleyball staff)? How was the overall working environment? Did I like the location?

The first three things were to my mind answered very positively. It was the last one that was the big question. I’ve never lived anywhere like Wichita Falls. I have no point of reference for that, and a couple days visiting doesn’t really tell yo what it’s like to live in a place. After doing my research into things like housing options and stuff, though, I started feeling like I could be reasonably happy there.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee in any of this, but it’s a good starting point. That’s all we can ask for.

Year in Review: 2015

Well, 2015 was certainly an interesting and eventful year!

Job

On the personal front, I went through an often frustrating job hunt process in which I put in for over 100 college coaching jobs in the States and only managed to get a single interview out of the process. That all ended positively enough with me landing my first ever job in professional volleyball, though.

Education

I also went through an often frustrating PhD completion process. Things just seemed to drag out. Part of it was semi-intentional related to my funding, but there were long periods when I just wished certain things could move more quickly forward. Again, though, that all ended positively.

Travel

Aside from traveling around Sweden and the Copenhagen area while coaching Svedala, I got in four volleyball trips in 2015. Most of them were to Germany. The first was to hang out with with Mark Lebedew of At Home on the Court. and his then team Berlin Recycling Volleys (Mark now coaches for Jastrzębski Węgiel in Poland). I got to watch them play their big domestic rivals and a CEV Champions League match.

That was in January. Shortly afterwards, Berlin was selected to host the Champions League Final 4. I went back to watch in late March. Pretty cool experience!

In August I made a return visit to TV Bühl. You may recall I spent about 10 days with them in 2014 as well. This time it was closer to three weeks altogether. They were going through the early stages of their preseason. I used it as a kind of coaching preseason of my own as the trip was right before I had to report to Sweden to start work with Svedala.

The single non-German trip was the one I made back to the States in February to attend the USA Volleyball High Performance Coaches Clinic. That was a really worthwhile experience. I came back with a lot of things to think about – and write about, as you may have noticed. Unfortunately, I can’t go again this year. The Svedala schedule is quite full for January and February. I’d do it in a heartbeat if I could, though!

I did contemplate going to the AVCA convention last month. In the end, though, it would have been a really tight thing to schedule. Plus it would have put a strain on the budget.

New Project

Alongside finishing my degree and starting a new coaching job, I also began the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project with Mark Lebedew. That has been a really cool new adventure. Yes, it’s been a TON of work! It’s also, however, given me the chance to connect and talk with some really great coaches. We’ve done something like 25 interviews so far, with many, many more folks on the list for future conversations. What’s been really interesting is that the coaches we’ve interviewed are some of the biggest supporters of the project. They all thinks it’s a great idea!

The Blog

Coaching Volleyball crushed it in 2015. It’s as simple as that!

The blog had more than twice as many visitors and page views than it had in 2014 – nearly 60,000 and 130,000 respectively. December, which has normally been one of the quieter months in terms of traffic, saw four days of over 1000 pages views thanks largely to the Rules for coaching volleyball from John Kessel post [with a little help from Volleyball calendar girls (and boys) on one of those days]. The “rules” piece seems to have gone viral on Facebook. Before that one went up, the highest single day for pages views was in the 800s, I believe.

Here’s where the visitors came from.

CoachingVB-2015-Geo

The king of page views for 2015 is the Volleyball Try-Out Drill Ideas post, though. That one garnered over 13,000 looks. Not surprisingly, they were clustered mainly around the start of the school season and the Juniors club season. As such, it was responsible for establishing a new monthly high readership of over 21,000 views in August.

It may not come as any surprise that search engine traffic was the largest contributor to page views given all the interest in the try-out post. Facebook was a distant second. Interestingly, nearly five times as much readership came from there than from Twitter. This is despite the blog having basically the same number of followers on both platforms.

Magazine articles

For a while now the folks at the AVCA have pulled selected posts from the blog to include in the Coaching Volleyball 2.0 online magazine. In 2015, though, I finally got into the main flagship Coaching Volleyball magazine with the first in a series of articles about my experience coaching overseas. I’ve already written a second that should be included in the next issue, though they could use it (and the others to follow) on one of their other platforms.

Looking forward

Honestly, I have no idea where 2016 is going to take me!

With any luck, it will involve a bunch of winning with my Svedala team. Our first shot at hardware (at least in the regular season) is coming up next weekend. We’re the top seed for the 4-team Gran Prix tournament. The club won two years ago, so we’re looking to repeat. After that, it will be all about going for Svedala’s first Elitserie championship. You can keep track of our progress via my coaching log.

Of course, work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project will continue. Aside from the interviews themselves, the podcast is something Mark and I have fun doing. It gives us a chance to talk about all the interesting stuff we’re hearing from the Wizards.

The huge number of page views for the try-out drill ideas page makes it pretty clear that there’s a lot of demand for information and ideas on that subject. One of my plans for the new year is to develop something – maybe a mini course – to help folks out there. I’d wanted to do it in 2015, but never seemed to get around to it.

Beyond that, who knows? I’m only on a 1-season contract at Svedala, so at some point I’ll have a decision to make about my future in coaching. At the same time I have a bunch of non-volleyball stuff I’m working on as well. I guess we’ll see where it all takes me! 🙂