Comparing NCAA and professional volleyball – Part III

In the last two posts 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.

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.

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.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.