Professional volleyball in the U.S. – possible?

Recently, someone asked the question in a Facebook group whether there will ever be professional volleyball in the U.S. Of course there have been attempts at it over the years. None have lasted long, though. Most recently there is a new version developed through the USA Volleyball regions. It’s not a proper league yet, though.

An argument can be made that in many ways college volleyball is a type of professional league. Scholarship athletes are, after all, compensated for playing for their schools. It’s not a salary, but it’s definitely an exchange of participation and representation for something of value.

College vs. Professional

I wrote a series of posts comparing US college volleyball with professional volleyball in Europe. Here is the first one. The biggest difference between the two is the length of the season.

Actually, in a lot of ways US college teams – especially those in the upper levels – are bigger operations. Consider the amount of travel there is for teams in the Big 10 or the PAC-12. Think about how much money those coaches are paid. There aren’t many in the professional ranks who make that much. There also aren’t many clubs with staffs that large or comparable facilities.

The bottom line is that right now college volleyball in the US is a bigger deal than professional volleyball is in many other places.

Extending beyond college

The big question for US professional volleyball is being able to extend the sport beyond college without a major drop off. Who is going to want to go to a professional match if they can get a higher quality product watching the local college team?

Yes, you expect the level of play to be better. What about the facilities? What about the match-day environment?

In some places (Nebraska, Hawaii) college volleyball is a really big deal. Competing with it would be very challenging, especially for a fledgling league.

Use the soccer model?

One way a new professional volleyball league could go is to follow the Major League Soccer (MLS) route. That model is one where you get a bunch of billionaires who like the sport and have each start a team to operate a league at the national level. These folks can absorb years of losses to take the long view. It’s worked out pretty well as that league is now in its 21st season.

In the MLS case many of the early investors were NFL owners. For them it made a lot of sense because most of the soccer schedule was outside the football season. That gave them the opportunity to use their stadium more rather than having it sit empty. Most teams have now moved to soccer-specific stadiums. They realized the huge ones for football had serious match-day experience drawbacks.

So would something comparable for volleyball be getting NBA owners involved? You’re basically talking about the same sort of facility, after all. I think the problem there is that basketball has a much longer season than does football. Also, many of the arenas used for basketball also have hockey tenants. Volleyball would have a hard time getting on the schedule.

Using a regional-to-national model

A national level league like the one MLS developed would be expensive due to travel. And I’m not just talking about airfare, etc. I’m also talking about time. If you’re making lots of long trips you take players and staff away from home – and importantly, jobs.

Look at the leagues in Europe. The geographic regions they cover are basically the size of US states. Consider what could be done if we took a state or region approach to professional volleyball. We could run regional leagues and have those champions progress to a national level championship. It could even be something like the CEV Champions League.

I think taking this kind of regional approach makes sense from a few perspectives. Reducing travel expense is obviously one of them. There’s also the fact that a regional structure is basically already in place through USA Volleyball.

I also think this allows for the development of a semi-professional model. Players could have day jobs and/or attend school. At the lower levels in Europe, this is how it works – especially with domestic players. And if you look back at the history of US sports, most of them (if not all) began as semi-pro operations.

Implications for men’s volleyball

I think the biggest potential here might be for men’s volleyball in the US. There’s only something like 1/10th as many men’s college teams as women’s team. A professional league structure would provide more opportunity for male players.

Stuff to think about.

Ideas for volleyball tryouts planning

I’ve been through my share of volleyball tryouts. I’ve done them for high school teams. I’ve done them for Juniors teams. I did them for the teams I coached at the University of Exeter in England. I’ve also worked youth national program tryouts for both England and the U.S.

Based on that experience, here are a few ideas for volleyball tryouts to help you with yours.

Make sure you can track the players

It’s really hard to do good evaluations if you don’t know who’s who. USA Volleyball gives trialists numbered t-shirts. Some coaches pin numbers on the players. Some try name tags, but in my experience they tend to fall off once the kids get sweaty. Also, they can be hard to read from a distance.

When I was at Exeter I personally found that having photos with names worked best. One year we had printed sheets. Another year we used an iPad where we used an app to add names to player photos. That let us just flip through. This helped me a ton because I struggle to remember names without seeing them in print.

Make evaluation recording quick

Regardless of which way you go, make sure it’s easy for you to take your visual evaluation of a player and put it down in print. In other words, you need to be able to quickly, and easily find the kid on your evaluation sheet. If you can’t you’ll spend too much time looking. That means less time evaluating.

A good way to make that quick and easy is to group players so they are all close together on your evaluation sheet. For example, when USA Volleyball runs High Performance tryouts the coaches put players into groups by T-shirt number. That way they only have to focus on a small part of their evaluation form rather than trying to find players scattered over four different sheets.

Think about this as you plan, especially if you expect a large group.

Consider using video

If you have the capability, think about taking video of your tryout. If you can’t get the whole thing, then maybe you can at least focus on some key areas and/or activities.

I’ll admit, this isn’t something I’ve done yet myself. The next time I run a tryout, though, I will definitely look at doing so. I think there are some real advantages. You may be able to see some things you did see in-person, which could be very useful if you’re short on evaluators. It’s kind of like watching match video after the fact.

Also, the video could come in handy in the case of a player/parent selection dispute. Having video evidence to back up your decision would be nice.

Have contingency plans

Unexpected things can happen during tryouts. I once found myself in a situation at Exeter with twice the number of trialists (or more) I expected. Talk about having to do some quick adjustments!

You need to be ready for things to not go exactly as expected. What if one of your coaches is sick? What if you have to few (or too many) of a certain position? What if you can’t get internet access? What if the printer fails?

Over the course of your career all of these things – and probably more – will happen. If you’re ready for the unexpected, you’ll still be able to run a good volleyball tryout.

There’s a lot that goes in to running a really good session. There are just a few ideas for volleyball tryouts planning on the more administrative side of things. For thoughts and ideas in terms of what to do on-court, check out the volleyball tryout games & drills guide I put together.

Teaching center-line passing vs. platform angle

My partner on the Inside College Volleyball book, Matt, answered a question on his blog about passing technique. The question came from a mother and is as follows:

For years, my 13 year old has been taught to “get around the ball” to pass, rather than reaching left or right for it. So today, she went to a high-powered libero training clinic where the teacher told her essentially the opposite.   It really blew her mind because the instructor just kept on her about it. Is there an absolute correct way to receive a dig or serve, or is this a disputable matter?

Matt’s response I found very appropriate:

My belief is correct passing technique is a combination of footwork and platform.  In a perfect volleyworld, the passer wants to move his/her feet so the ball is centered into the stomach.  But, because of the geometry of volleyball, the platform must be angled to redirect the ball to the setting area (depending upon where the serve was received).

In general, I wanted my passers to move their feet to get behind the ball, and then keep their arms no wider than their hips to redirect the ball to the setter. Depending on how tough the serve was and how much they were able to move their feet, this would impact how much right or left (from the centerline of the belly button) they moved their arms.

I think Matt’s second sentence hits the mark – in a perfect world. In other words, if the player has time to move and get into a stable passing posture, then you’d probably like to see them pass center-line. It reduces variability, which should improve consistency.

But, the world is rarely perfect

A center-line passing technique, though, goes out the window once serves get tougher. Obviously, that means serves with more pace. They simply give the passer less time to move.What top level men’s volleyball. There is just about zero time to move to take the ball center-line against a jump serve.

Importantly, we have to also consider late-moving float serves. It’s all well and good to have the ball centered on your bellybutton. If the ball drops and/or curves away as it’s approaching, there’s little you can do to get your body there.

There is also the question of seam responsibility considerations.

Should we teach center-line?

If players eventually have to be able pass away from center-line, does it make sense to spend a lot of time training it? Personally, I think we need to focus much more on platform angle. I see so many issues with that among players at levels where they should be more aware.

I can understand the value of teaching center-line passing to young players, though. The biggest issue you usually get at that level is players not moving. They tend to want to just stand in one place and wait for the ball to come to them. Training them to pass center-line encourages movement – especially at a time when serves tend not to be overly challenging. It also encourages them to not be lazy.

That said, once you have players moving to the ball unconsciously, I think a shift has to be made to focus on platform angle as the key (I won’t get too far into the weed with the specifics there).

Thinking about the player’s future

Here’s a major issue for us coaches. There is a strong tendency to coach our players based on what works best at our level. In other words, coaching to win matches. After all, our status is closely tied to how our teams perform at our current level (see Coaching youngsters like college players for a discussion this in terms of specialization).

The problem with that, however, is it doesn’t necessarily prepare players for the next level. Are we doing kids any favors if we require them to pass center-line beyond a certain level of introduction? What happens when they reach the level where they face tougher serves?

Something to think about.

It needs to be more about people and stories

On the Volleyball Coaching Wizards blog I published a post a while back that shared how little presence volleyball has on Amazon. In it I talked about how Volleyball doesn’t even have it’s own entry under the Sports & Outdoors category. Instead, it’s listed under the sub-category of Other Team Sports.

At that writing Amazon showed 272,756 books in Sports & Outdoors. Of those, 9370 were in the Other Team Sports category. Drill down and it turns out there were 526 books in the Volleyball sub-sub-category. That’s better than twice what Rodeos had (257), but somehow that sport gets a listing under the main category!

By the way, the other Other Team Sports along with volleyball were Cricket, Lacrosse, Rugby, and Track & Field. Aside from Lacrosse (only 236), the other sports all had several times as many books in Amazon as did volleyball.

Best seller isn’t even volleyball!

The fact that it couldn’t get its own individual listing under Sports & Outdoors suggests volleyball book sales weren’t very strong. Further evidence for this came from the fact that the top two best selling books under Volleyball weren’t even volleyball books!

As I looked at the top 20 I saw:

  • 4 mental training books (2 of which aren’t volleyball-linked at all)
  • 2 titles related to high school rules for 2016-17
  • A drill book
  • A work of fiction (looks like a romance)
  • An NCAA volleyball history (described as a coffee table book)
  • A how-to-play book
  • A book on understanding rotations and overlap
  • Misty May’s biography
  • A skill book

The rest, except one, were broadly in the category of “how to coach”. That remaining one was Thinking Volleyball, by Mike Hebert. So we have a category full of what can basically be described as technical books.

Compare that to basketball, where there’s a bunch of biography and story type titles. Aside from a handful of mental/psychological books, which really aren’t basketball-specific, you have next to nothing in the way of technical offerings. No drill books or how-to-coach titles there. No skill books and no how-to-play offerings. The focus instead is on personalities and their stories.

The same is true for baseball, football, hockey, and soccer. Lots of people and stories, but not much in the way of technical type titles.

We need people and stories

The only volleyball coach biography type books I can think of are the ones Mike Hebert wrote, and the first couple aren’t in print anymore. Sinjin Smith wrote Kings of the Beach, which is an interesting history of beach volleyball, but that’s going back many years. There are Karch Kiraly books, but they are dated too.

Volleyball has interesting people, and it has great stories. We just need to share them with the world. This will help people connect more deeply with the game as something other than participants.

Think about coverage of the Olympics. We are bombarded with personal interest stories about the athletes, and sometimes the coaches too. Why? Because the broadcasters know we are more likely to watch if we care about the people involved.

The FIVB posted an article which looks back on the 1996 Olympics, specifically the first beach volleyball competition. It focuses a lot, with quotes from Mark Lebedew, on the rivalry between beach legends Sinjin and Karch. Although their head-to-head match during those Games wasn’t for a medal, it garnered a ton of interest because of the protagonists. Two big names in the sport were on opposite sides of a philosophical divide. It was a great story, which created huge drama.

Volleyball needs to market its people if it wants spectators to engage with the sport and keep coming back for more.

Don’t give me reason to want to bury you

The other day was the anniversary of my initial arrival in Sweden. Facebook told me so. I was only there initially for a couple of weeks to get to know the Svedala area a bit after leaving England. I went to Germany for about three weeks before I actually began work with the team at the start of preseason.

At that point I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. I knew I was coaching my first professional team. That’s about it. For the first time in a while I didn’t have concerns about my next step in life.

Seven months later it was a very different situation. I’d just been cut loose by the club out of the blue. It was definitely a shock, and it stung. At that point, though, my main focus was on getting out of Sweden and finding a new job. Then I had to move and start a new position. It was a whirlwind that probably didn’t give me as much time to process things emotionally as might have been the case otherwise.

A couple weeks ago I chatted with one of the Svedala players. I asked her how things went after I left. As much as I wanted to know during the season what changes were implemented – if any – I didn’t want to ask. It could have been a distraction, which would not have been fair to the team.

Anyway, major changes were highly unlikely. The squad was too small and the player positions and roles were well-established. She confirmed that and told me the big issue the rest of the season was player confidence in certain areas. Sadly, that was a reversal of a major focus from the first part of the season.

Surprisingly to me, some emotion about that whole Svedala situation bubbled up recently. The timing is interesting given the anniversary. I found myself thinking about going back to Sweden some day with the intent to dominate the Elitserie with another club. It’s definitely an “I’ll show you!” type attitude.

And thus do you learn that telling me I can’t or I’m not good enough is a great way to motivate me to show you just want I am capable of – at your expense. 🙂

Technical timeouts and family entertainment

The other day the FIVB announced that technical timeouts will not be used during Olympic competition. For those who aren’t aware, Article 15.4 of the official FIVB rules state:

“In sets 1-4, two 60-second Technical Time-outs take place after the leading team reaches the 8th and 16th point.”

This is a rule that is used for all FIVB competitions (World League, Grand Prix, World Championships, etc.). Many leagues, however, don’t use technical timeouts. They aren’t used in Sweden or Denmark. The are used in England’s National League, but aren’t used in BUCS, the university competition.

I think the rule was probably put in place for TV to have a couple of fixed break points for advertising. With the introduction of video challenges, though, there are more stoppages in play now.

It will be interesting to see how matches flow in the Olympics and how coaches make timeout decisions (regardless of whether they are actually effective). I know from experience that when you think about timeout timing you do consider the timing of the next technical timeout.

Another “for TV” adjustment

Some of the reporting about eliminating the technical timeouts is to shorten set length, again for TV purposes. I wrote about the idea of trying to adapt the sport for television. To summarize, I’m not a huge fan of that idea. You don’t see other sports do that, do you?

Yes, many sports change the rules to make the game more exciting and entertaining. They do not, however, change the basic structure of the sport.This latter thing is what the FIVB seems to want to do in periodically looking at what I talked about here.

Interestingly, in the FIVB press release about dropping the technical timeouts there is a quote. It’s part of the standard “about” verbiage at the bottom.

The FIVB is committed to making volleyball the number one family sport entertainment in the world

I find this “commitment” very interesting. I’d be interested in knowing how they judge “family sport entertainment”. Is it from a participation perspective? Is it from a spectator perspective?

I hope they have a clear definition.

Looking at volleyball’s progression

One day we took a break in the office and watched some old volleyball. After weeks of being able to watch World League and Gran Prix matches, we were feeling some volleyball withdrawal symptoms. We started with some footage from the 1964 Olympics FIVB has up on its YouTube channel.

In case you aren’t aware, ’64 is when volleyball made its first appearance in the Olympics. Japan hosted.

Here’s the first video we watched: the Soviet Union vs. Czechoslovakia on the men’s side.

Among the things you’ll notice:

  • The ball is white
  • Scoring is sideout
  • Block counts as a touch
  • W serve receive
  • VERY high sets
  • Serving only from behind Zone 1
  • No antennae
  • No libero
  • Players mostly playing all the way around
  • Roundhouse float serves by the Japanese players
  • Fast subs

We also watched Japan vs. the Soviet Union on the women’s side.

Even back then the rallies on the women’s side were longer than on the men’s side. 🙂

The last thing we watched was the official volleyball technical film from 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

You can see how much the sport evolved in just 12 years. The offensive schemes are much more sophisticated, thanks in large part to the innovations in developing the quick attack by the Japanese in the ’60s. You also see more sophisticated blocking and defensive schemes. Generally speaking, serve reception is more precise, which is a demand of the faster offenses.

There are still a number of differences between how the game was played in 1976 and the way it’s played today, but you can see a lot of the main concepts had developed by that point. Actually, in some ways the offenses then were more complex than offenses are today. They used crossing patterns in ways we don’t see much anymore. The back row attack did not feature yet, however, and the sets to the pin were not as fast as in modern volleyball.

Now have a look at this match between Cuba and the Netherlands from the World League in 1991.

By the way, #4 for Cuba in that match is Joel Despaigne. He was seen by many at the time as heir to Karch Kiraly as the world’s best indoor player. He was all of 6’3″ (191cm), but had a jump reach of 11’5″ (350cm).

On the women’s side, here’s Cuba v. Brazil in the 1991 World Cup.

At this point, there are fewer players in reception in the men’s game, largely influenced by the USA men in the 80s, though it doesn’t seem to be cut down as much for the women. There is some jump serving (Brazilian influence), but mostly it’s still standing float serves. The back row attack out of Zone 1 has developed by this point in the men’s game, but it really hasn’t taken hold on the women’s side because of the prevalence of the slide. Blocking is more sophisticated.

The ball is still white. It’s still sideout scoring. You still must serve from behind Zone 1. There’s no libero yet. Serve still can’t touch the net. Women are wearing briefs. Those things won’t change for a few more years.

Tracking the changes

I think you can make a pretty good case that the game didn’t change a ton between 1976 and 1991. There were changes, to be sure, but they were more like an evolution rather than a major jump like between 1964 and 1976.

We saw some serious developments in the 2000s, though. This followed a handful of changes which came together to create a shift. Those were rally scoring, the libero, the serving rule adjustments to allow net touches and service from anywhere behind the end line.

The latter two – at least the net touch one, anyway – let servers get more aggressive. This helped complete the progression from standing to jump serves (spin, then eventually also float) at the top level.

I think the libero probably accelerated the process of volleyball players getting bigger. That began in the 80s with teams growing more specialized in passing. The OPPs and MBs no longer needed to receive serve (though they still had to play defense). That let you bring in bigger players who were less skilled in ball-handling without being seriously exposed. With the libero, now the tall players don’t need to play defense anymore, for the most part.

That didn’t just impact the OPPs and MBs, however. Now, if you’re a tall player with ball-handling skills you can be an OH, instead of getting stuck in the middle because you’re tall. Thus, OHs get bigger.

Better skills?

Many old timers are heard grumbling about how the skill has come out of the game – especially with respect to how players can double on first contact these days. I think a case can be made, though, that modern players are actually more skillful.

I point specifically to two elements of play. First is serve reception. There can be no doubt that modern serving is far more aggressive than it used to be. That implies a higher level of skill required to pass serve well – unless you believe serve reception is less accurate today than in the past.

The other is setting. You can certainly make the case that setting has required considerable skill going back to the introduction of the quick attack in the 60s, and through the development of combination plays. Clearly, good setters were accurate and consistent. The case for modern setters than can be made is that they operate their offenses at a higher tempo than their predecessors.

I’ll leave you to debate that amongst yourselves, though. 🙂

Why coaches and teams part ways

Volleyball Coach

There’s an interesting post on the German coaching blog Volleyball Freak. It takes on a subject which you don’t often hear discussed – when a team and a coach should part ways. There is a bit more to the article in terms of how to handle things, but I’ll focus on the Why? side of things.

Let’s have a look at the list.

Poor Training

This comes at things from two perspectives. One is the preparation of the coach in developing a good practice plan – one which addresses identify developmental needs. The other is whether the players are satisfied with the sessions. You may think the two are linked, and to a degree they are. You can, however, have a situation where the players agree with the direction, but not with the execution.

For example, the team and the coach agree that work needs to be done on serve reception. They disagree, however, on how exactly what to do. This issue came up when I coached at Svedala. Some of the players wanted to just do reps, while I wanted to try to make things as game-like as possible.

Poor coaching during the match

Did the coach use an appropriate line-up? Were substitutions logical? Did timeouts get called at reasonable times, and were the coach’s comments useful? How was the coach’s demeanor on the sideline? Persistent problems in any of these areas can lead to a coach losing their position.


This one should be pretty clear. The team needs to know what to expect of the coach. This applies to all facets of the player-coach relationship and interaction.

Interpersonal Problems

This can be a tough one. The coach has to work with several different personalities, and sometimes one or more of those don’t mesh well with their own. As coach you ideally work well with all the players, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

This becomes a major issue when the conflict is with a team leader. If the coach can’t find a way to resolve the personal differences they can easily lose the team. That’s a bad situation all around.

Too high/low demands

The most often observed example of this is the coach’s competitive expectations not mismatched with those of the players. Usually, that’s an overly competitive coach in a situation where the players are more interested in having fun and being social. It can go the other way too, though.

Inadequate communication

This one is huge. It’s probably the biggest cause of player/coach issues because it leads to the problems outlined above. There are a couple of different ways communication is inadequate. One is simple lack of communication – the coach doesn’t talk enough to the players individually or the team collectively. Another is the coach’s communication is ineffective in that they can’t get across what they want the players to take away.

The relationship of trust is disturbed by other reasons

Sometimes things happen external to the player-coach interaction which negatively impact that relationship.

The list above is very much a list of team/player-coach issues that can develop. While in some situations the team decides its coach – which was my case coaching in England – in many circumstances there is an organizational aspect to the hiring (think university, professional club, etc.). In that case there will of course be considerations related to how the coach interacts with the players. There will also, however, be additional considerations based on other relationships and expectations.

In other words, if you want to keep your job as a coach you need to keep multiple constituencies happy. Sometimes you have to realize that attempting to do so conflicts with your own philosophy and beliefs, and you should leave rather than compromise them.

Learning some coaching lessons

A while back I came across a post on the Rivers of Thinking blog. It is about coaching mistakes and the need for reflection. In this case, they come from soccer. I think the ideas are pretty universal in coaching, however.

1) Be aware of how you communicate.

In the post, the author shares a situation where he felt quite pleased about after a training session. He thought it went very well. He was stunned to find out afterwards from one of the kids that his language choice was received negatively.
Not long ago I wrote a post on the subject of unconscious communication, which relates to this from a mainly non-verbal perspective. And of course there’s always the yelling issue. In this particular case, though, the issue was sarcasm.

Being very careful with sarcasm is a lesson I myself learned along the way. It’s something that you need to be cautious about using, especially with younger athletes. In fact, you should probably avoid it all together in youth sports. They will pick up on the tone, which comes off as negative rather than humorous.

2) Challenge the source of the coaching style you develop

In the blog post the author talks about finding himself copying the coaching style of an older coach with whom he was working. He didn’t realize it at the time, and only figured it out later in hindsight. It’s a variation on the “This is how I learned” trap.

Now, if you have an awesome coach at a roll model then copying them might not be the worst thing in the world. Even in that case, though, you will need to do things your own way, not just be a mimic. Ideally, you’d like to be a composite of all the good characteristics you’ve seen in other coaches.

3) You can’t always control what your athletes learn

Have you ever worked on something specific in practice and at the end found out the players learned something unplanned and unexpected? That is the situation the author describes in his post. He was working on offense, but one of his players learned a lesson about defense.

The lesson here is that players are individuals. They bring their own perspective and context to things. That means they aren’t always going to see things the same way as you do. As a result, they won’t always follow along the learning path you’ve devised for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vital Heynen talks about just this sort of thing in the following excerpt from his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview.

4) Remembering to reflect real game situations

This piece of advice has to do with the rules of practice games and drills allowing players to do things that would be the right decision in a match situation. The author uses the example of a rule he used one day that forced him to whistle a play dead even though the player made a good decision – one you’d want to see in a real game.

This is something that comes up when you have the players operating in a constrained way. It came up at times when I was coaching at Svedala. We used a lot of small-court play. Sometimes that lead to really good attacks – particularly quick middle hits – going out when they would have been great in a real match.

And sometimes players find a solution to the problem you’ve posed them that isn’t exactly what you were after.

It’s a balancing act. You have to find that line where you have the players working on the development needs you are focused on without forcing them into an unnatural situation.

5) Match day is about the players, not you

The final idea of the blog post is that coaches need to overcome the desire to control play and the feeling that their ego is tied up in the result. The point made is that match time is for the players to have fun with their teammates, work hard, and maybe learn some stuff along the way – especially when talking about younger athletes.

The idea of letting the players get on with it and not trying to control things as a coach is in part the subject of my post on the desirability of play-calling from the bench. It goes beyond that, though, to address sideline demeanor and emotional reaction to results.

These, of course, are just a small sample of the lessons we coaches can and should learn along the way. What lessons have you learned? Share you story!