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.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

One comment

  1. markleb says:

    The comment about pre season / non conference games was meant facetiously 😉
    In Berlin, we played 40 competitive matches last season, plus 8 friendlies before and during the season. In Italy and Russia it is not uncommon to play over 50 competitive matches in the September to May timeframe.

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