facebook_pixel

Tag Archive for US collegiate volleyball

My 2014 volleyball coaching year in review

It’s that time of year again – time to look back on the 12 months which have gone by. In this post I want to take a more personal view of things. I’ll follow up with a report on how the blog has done for the year.

Team Coaching
This is going to be a year I always look back fondly upon from a coaching perspective because of the run the Exeter University women made to the BUCS national semifinals. I’ve coached league and tournament championship teams, but this one was really special. More than being something no one ever expected, it was also the culmination of a season in which a group of young women committed themselves to a common goal at the start and remained steadfast to it throughout.

More than that, the whole experience of Final 8s in Edinburgh was amazing. The men and women supported each other fantastically. The guys may not have had the best year, or even their best tournament overall, but they pulled off the upset in their final match of the season to make it all worthwhile. It was a very happy bus full of volleyball players for the long ride back to Exeter! The women later went on to have a very respectable South West Championships tournament to round out their season.

The 2014-15 BUCS season has been much more of a struggle. Part of that is a function of playing in a stronger league now that both teams are in the new Premier division. Part of it was my need to concentrate much more on my PhD work to the detriment of volleyball. Part of it on the women’s side was the lack of an experienced setter in the squad. These things happen in sports. Not every season is a good one and it was always going to be hard to follow up on 2013-14.

Coaching Development
A definite on-going theme for me in 2014 was my continued education and development as a volleyball coach. I completed the requirements for my Volleyball England Level 3 coaching certification (in record time, I was told). I also got my USA Volleyball CAP II re-certified. Part of the process for both was attending some general coaching seminars, as well as attending Volleyball England’s annual coaching conference.

Perhaps most significantly, though, I gained quite a bit of exposure to professional volleyball. It started with a visit to Berlin in April to watch BR Volleys, coached by Mark Lebedew of At Home on the Court, train ahead of the German championships (which they went on to win). Then, with Mark’s help, I was able to spend about 10 days each with a pair of teams during their preseason training in August. As I wrote, it was a great experience and really expanded my knowledge of the sport.

Other Stuff
During the summer I helped out at trials for the English girls cadet and juniors national teams. That gave me the opportunity to further develop my contacts at that level and to see how some of the talent pathway designs I’ve heard about were being put into practice. I also consulted with the Volleyball England Technical and Talent Director, Audrey Cooper, on the subject of US collegiate volleyball recruiting for up and coming English players.

In terms of something with more of a forward-looking focus, the latter part of the year saw me start applying for coaching jobs back in the States. No doubt this is something I’ll document more in the weeks ahead as I work my way through the process. At this point it’s still relatively early days.

Beyond volleyball
The main focus of my life aside from volleyball the last year has been, of course, my PhD. It was a pretty productive year from that perspective. I got a lot accomplished, especially in the latter Spring and over the summer, that set me up to be able to (hopefully) be able to submit my thesis in the next few weeks or so. By the end of 2015 you’ll have to call me Dr. Forman. 🙂

Stoked for the next round of NCAA matches

The NCAA Championships continue this weekend with the Round of 16 on Friday and the Elite 8 on Saturday. ESPN has all the coverage, which means for online viewing it will be WatchESPN for those in the States and ESPNPlayer for those of us abroad.

Here are the match-ups for Friday:

05:00 PM ET #2 Texas #15 vs. Colorado State
05:00 PM ET #4 Wisconsin vs. Ohio State
06:00 PM ET #1 Stanford vs. Oregon State
07:00 PM ET #5 Penn State vs. #12 UCLA
07:00 PM ET #7 North Carolina vs. #10 Oregon
07:00 PM ET #6 Florida State vs. BYU
08:00 PM ET #8 Florida vs. #9 Illinois
09:30 PM ET #3 Washington vs. #14 Nebraska

I think the Washington-Nebraska and Penn State-UCLA will probably get a lot of attention seeing as they’re match-ups of former champions. I will be interested to see how North Carolina does against Oregon. The Oregon offense is quite fun to watch – very fast!

You can see the full bracket here.

Prowling the volleyball coaching job market

I mentioned on social media last week that I started the process of seeking a full-time volleyball coaching after an eight year hiatus.

Actually, technically I wasn’t full-time in my last NCAA coaching position as it was a 2/3 equivalency. That fact was contributory to my absence from coaching for almost six years. I was broke and had to go back into my former profession in the financial markets where I could make a lot more money to get my finances cleaned up.

It took me about five years to finally pay off all my personal debts (and then a couple more for my credit rating to be fully restored). During that time I literally forced myself to stay away from volleyball aside from watching the occasional match on TV. I was afraid it would suck me back in and upset my financial reclamation efforts. Given how quickly the coaching bug got hold of me again in England, that fear was justified!

Why now?

I timed my plunge back into the full-time coaching market for now based on a couple of factors.

First, my PhD funding runs out in August. I need to be done with my doctoral work by then. That actually means submitting my dissertation at latest in February because there’s up to 3 months from then to my defense (Viva) and potentially up to another 3 months to make corrections before final submission. I personally targeted December/January for initial submission, which now looks to be January.

Second, this time of year is when a lot of coaching jobs in the States open up because it’s the end of the women’s collegiate season (the Division I championships will conclude next weekend). Now is when contracts are not renewed, coaches resign or retire, etc. Schools are particularly eager to fill head coach vacancies relatively quickly. They want to have someone in place to recruit and work with the team through the Spring semester.

The options

As I mentioned above, I’m funded through the Summer. As a result, there’s no actual need for me to rush into things. I can be patient from that perspective. In fact, there are really three potential career paths at this point.

With a PhD I can obviously go the academic route. I could also return to the financial industry. Either one of those choices would be quite lucrative, and I have not entirely ruled either out. The reason coaching volleyball tops my list, though, is the lifestyle suits me better. I’m physically fitter and healthier as a coach. And of course I find it very rewarding. I probably won’t make as much money in coaching, but I think my overall situation will be better.

Within coaching there are a couple of ways I can go. The most obvious is a return to the States and rejoin the collegiate coaching ranks. The other is to enter into the professional volleyball arena. I gained some nice exposure to back in August (see Three weeks in professional volleyball). I am considering both options. Unfortunately, the European professional season runs until March/April. That makes it less than ideal from the perspective of parallel job searches.

Head vs Assistant Coach

At this point I think a head coaching job is probably the best option. Given my experience, how my coaching has matured, and where I’m at in my life generally it seems to make the most sense. To the latter point, I’m no Spring chicken. My long-term finances must be on my mind at this stage. I can’t afford a lengthy period of low pay. My lifestyle isn’t particularly lavish. I don’t require a large salary from that perspective. I do need to be able to save toward retirement, though.

In the US it would be no problem to take over a program as head coach. I spent 7 years in Division I. During my time at Brown I was involved in all aspects of running the program (which is what happens with a small coaching staff). Every position is different, of course. I am confident, however, that even after the time away I’ll be able to work effectively in that system once again.

My expectations in that regard are realistic, though, I think. I can’t imagine I’m a strong candidate for a head coach position in one of the big conference schools. I wasn’t an assistant at that level and don’t have NCAA head coaching experience. Not that the postings for those jobs list those credentials. The candidate pool will certainly reflect it, though. My prospects are better in the more middling and lower ranks of Division I, or in Division II.

I won’t rule out the assistant coach route, though. In the States it would be all about the situation. I have no problem being a long-term assistant in a good location with an enjoyable working environment. In terms of something that was meant to improve my credentials as a potential head coach, however, I would have to confine myself to looking at only upper level positions. A middling or lower level one wouldn’t do much for me, either in terms of my resume or my own development as a coach. Been there, done that. Professionally, being an assistant would definitely be developmental with regards to that system.

What am I looking for?

On a certain level beggars can’t be choosers. That’s my volleyball coaching candidacy at this stage. From a professional perspective, I’m largely an unknown quantity, though my US coaching helps. From an NCAA job perspective, being away from that system for a while now doesn’t help. I have head coach experience in England, with a good bit of success to boot. Alas, I don’t know how that will be judged. I also have potentially useful international contacts, but that is something which might only matter to a relative few.

From my own perspective, I’d like to end up at a place where I can build something – or help build it if in an assistant role. That means I am somewhere the opportunity to work toward success exists. It doesn’t bother me to start at a low point and work up from there. I just need to see how thing can growing and improve over time. A place where management was happy with the status quo and unsupportive of my trying to elevate things is not what I am after.

I told friends I wish the opportunity existed for me to stay with the Exeter University volleyball program. We’ve already had considerable success. This is especially true compared to the relative difference in support received by our competition. There’s plenty more to do. I can see so many ways to make it stronger – to make it potentially one of the truly elite programs in the U.K. That is the sort of situation I want to find moving forward. Unfortunately, the opportunity for me to stay in Exeter doesn’t exist, so I have to try to find something similar elsewhere.

A defacto U.S. professional volleyball league?

A while back via Facebook and Twitter I shared a link to a brief article from Coaching Volleyball magazine. That’s published by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). Actually, it was less an article and more a letter to the membership from AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. In it she shares her thoughts on the potential future of NCAA volleyball. In particular, Kathy is concerned about the move toward a collegiate structure where five conferences stand apart from everyone else in terms of money and resources. I won’t go into the back story behind all this. I’ll just say it’s mainly driven by football and men’s basketball, but has the potential to influence all sports.

My general feeling on these sorts of things is change is inevitable. We simply have to adapt to the new conditions. NCAA women’s volleyball has the advantage of being in quite a strong situation at the moment. Even men’s volleyball is making some gains. Volleyball at the high school level is the top girls’ sport in most states, with participation on the rise. As a result, I don’t think there’s a big risk of changes at the top of the collegiate hierarchy putting the sport in jeopardy. In fact, the reality of the current state of affairs is we already have a major divide.

The split is already there

As of this writing, the last time a school from outside the so-called Power 5 conferences (Pac-12, Big-10, Big-12, ACC, SEC) won the national championship was 1998. That’s when Long Beach did it. In fact, since then only once has a team from outside the Pac-12 and Big-10 won. That’s Texas. Taking it a step further, Long Beach in 2001 is the only lesser conference school to have even made the finals in that time. A couple of others have managed to reach the Final 4, though – (Hawai’i, Pacific, Santa Clara).

To put a finer point on it, among the Power 5, three conferences are hardly represented at even the Final 4 stage. Since 1998 the SEC has only had three entries (Florida x 2, Tennessee), and the ACC just one (Florida State). Nebraska and Texas have done fairly well for the Big-12, but the Huskers are now in the Big-10, leaving the Longhorns as the only current Big-12 team ever to have made the Final 4.

In other words, we have a fairly narrow collection of teams contending for the national championship in any given year. That leaves a whole lot of teams playing for much smaller stakes. For the vast majority of the 320 or so Division I teams, a conference title is about as high as they are likely to ever reach. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. The same is true in other sports. Actually, it could be said that we currently have a better situation these days. Back in the 80s and 90s only a relatively small group of West Coast teams dominated.

Is college volleyball already professional?

What struck me reading Kathy’s thoughts, though, was that at the top level of the sport we are moving toward what could be viewed as a defacto professional league. We may really already be there! A case can already be made that individuals being given scholarships to play volleyball are essentially professionals. They are being compensated in some fashion for being athletes. This is particularly so given the price tag of modern education. Paying players above and beyond that, though, would put things into a different category. That is especially true when considering the other perks players at the top schools get in terms of support.

There are many similarities between NCAA collegiate volleyball and the experience of pro players at clubs in Europe and elsewhere. I wrote about it after spending time with a pair of professional clubs in Germany, That is only furthered if the top conferences continue to channel more resources into their programs.

Note: Business Insider posted a list of the top 20 university sports programs. It is based on athletics revenue, NCAA championship results, home football and men’s basketball attendance, and student survey responses. Interestingly, only two of those 20 schools has ever won a volleyball championship. Just seven have reached the Final 4.

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.

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 hosts 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. 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 that 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 just. 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 lowly 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 management. They report to the head coach.

When I was at USC last year 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.

Is the US producing enough quality volleyball players?

There’s a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. It was triggered by criticism of the US soccer youth system in terms of its ability to produce world class talent by one of the UK newspapers. Naturally, someone wondered about the effectiveness of the US system for producing world class volleyball players.

For those not familiar with it, the US system essentially has three primary facets. At the top is collegiate volleyball, with US national team players coming almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools. At this level, players are virtually professionals in that they are exchanging their athletic services for a potentially very costly education (but that’s a separate debate!). College players generally have a 3-4 month regular season during which time they train 3-4 days per week and compete two others (single matches during the conference season, 1-2 matches during pre-conference play). During the off-season there is about a month where they are permitted daily team training and two competition dates, but otherwise the focus is primarily on strength & conditioning work, with a couple hours a week of individual or small group training mixed in.

Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball – with there also being middle school volleyball in some regions. The high school season tends to be similar to the collegiate one in terms of length and gym time commitment. Club volleyball takes place in the school off-season. Teams will generally not train more than three times a week and the play is tournament focused, with the top teams competing in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I collegiate ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.

There is no proper professional league in the US at this point. Players looking to go that route have to catch on with a team overseas. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that are now starting to develop in soccer as the teams in MLS work to establish feeder systems. Over time this will make them less reliant on the collegiate system for players. That’s often been seen as a weak point in the chain, since college soccer is not at the level of training and competition players developing in the professional systems in other parts of the world get.

Actually, even where top level professional leagues exist in the US there isn’t an underlying youth academy system. Yes, MLS is going in that direction as it looks to the overseas model. Baseball and hockey both have minor league affiliates through which they can develop younger players, but many of them still come through the college ranks, and generally speaking a player won’t enter these systems until after high school. The NFL and NBA don’t really have the same kind of minor league structure. Football is essentially entirely reliant on college for players. In basketball you’ll occasionally get players like LeBron and Kobe who skip straight to the pros, but most will spend at least some time in college.

The US model therefore sees sports very much linked to education. Here in England, there’s an element of that in term of BUCS at the university level. The structure is different, though. The school doesn’t sponsor the teams. It’s not a varsity situation, but rather clubs which are affiliated with the school. As I understand it, even that isn’t something commonly seen in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.

The first big question which seems to be coming out of the debate on Volley Talk is whether in fact there’s a problem with the US developmental structure. Then, assuming one thinks that at least there is the potential for improvement, where are the problems and how can they be addressed.

Of course there is one big overarching question: should the US volleyball system be geared toward producing elite international caliber players, or should it be geared toward participation? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter.

Volleyball Academy: Indoor or Beach?

I recently had an exchange with a volleyball dad. He was looking for some advice regarding his daughter, who at 16 is an England international at the U19 level and has aspirations to play collegiately in the States. She’d been accepted to attend one of the academies next school year, but was then invited to become part of the England sand volleyball training program run by a former beach pro in a similar academy sort of situation. My advice was sought on the decision with regards to the impact on recruitment prospects. Below are the thoughts I shared with this father, but I’d be interested to hear other views.

So the question is to attend the indoor academy and train with other members of the England youth national team mix or go the beach route to train under a former professional and with other England beach internationals. The player in question is an outside hitter, though capable of hitting anywhere on the net. She’s approximately 5’10”, with a good jump and long reach (slender build). She both hits and blocks well and generally has good ball skills. This past season she had some back issues, but otherwise I’m not aware of any injuries. If she goes the beach academy route, part of the deal would be that she’d continue playing indoor ball in the National Volleyball League.

Now generally speaking I almost always encourage my indoor players to get out and play beach or grass doubles. It’s a great way for them to improve their abilities and have a different kind of volleyball experience. That’s not the same as making a choice between training full-time as a beach player vs. as an indoor player, though.

If this girl played another position, like middle blocker or perhaps setter, I may feel differently, but in this case I think going the beach academy route makes a lot of sense. As a prospective college OH she’s going to be expected to have solid skills all around – not highly specialized ones as would be the case in other positions. Beach volleyball will help her continue developing those skills. I also think training in the sand will cut down on some of the pounding her body would take as a full-time indoor player, which could have long-term benefits.

From the recruiting perspective, the math is fairly simple. There are WAY more indoor programs and scholarship opportunities, and that won’t be changing any time soon (if ever). As such, focusing on the indoor side in the recruitment process offers more opportunities, especially given the way the NCAA counts volleyball scholarships (an indoor scholarship athlete can play sand without issue, but a sand scholarship athlete cannot play indoors unless being counted toward the indoor scholarship limits). That said, being a dual-surface player would make one quite attractive to schools where players are part of both the indoor and sand teams (rather than the teams being run separately).

All things taken together – working on her all-around game, the opportunity to train under a former beach pro, still getting to play indoor competitively – I think going the beach academy route in this case makes a lot of sense. That’s what I told the father.

Agree? Disagree?