An Englishman at the AVCA Spring Conference

My friend Alex Porter, who heads up the volleyball program at the University of Essex (I visited him there in 2017) in England attended the 2018 AVCA Spring Conference that took place in conjunction with the NCAA men’s championship at UCLA. I thought a non-American’s perspective on the experience would be interesting, so I asked him if he’d be willing to write about it. He did, and here it is!

To my knowledge I’m only the second English man to visit an AVCA event – the first to visit their Spring Conference.

I’ve heard many things about the AVCA Annual Convention, over 2000 coaches and 400 plus exhibitors, “the world’s largest volleyball coaching gathering”. The Conference is a very different event with a little under 100 attendees and offers a more personal touch.

I’ve attended the Volleyball England Coaches Conference a handful of times and always felt there was a lot left on the table. This is not to put down their efforts, but until you go outside your comfort zone you don’t always know what is possible. I went into the AVCA Spring Conference with an open mind, ready to learn on and off the court, to learn what data they use to improve their athletes/programs, how they market the sport and how to get more bums on seats.

Prior to the conference I contacted AVCA Executive Director Katy DeBoer and at the Friday night networking event she was keen to hear about the university and coaching structure in the England. She was very open about the development of coaching and volleyball in the USA and how the AVCA mission statement helps facilitates both.

I arrived at the Marriott on the opening day and was expecting to see a fan fair of banners, product stools and the hustle and bustle of lots of coaches. I needed to remind myself that this was the Spring Conference and not the Convention. The welcome I received from the staff was very friendly but it felt a little underwhelming due to the size of the room and the number of attendees.

The order of service for the day was a The State of the Sport keynote from Kathy followed by two 90 minutes sessions. Each session had three options Training Technique, Fan Engagement and Tracking Performance. I was interested in all three and thankfully they were being recorded and are accessible via the AVCA website. After this there was a networking event by the pool.

I found Kathy’s speech very eye opening. The AVCA has collated a lot of numbers on the growth of the sport, on how and where this growth has occurred and more importantly how traditional marketing companies/departments target sport and why it’s different in volleyball, especially women’s volleyball. She went on to explain how in recent years incoming university recruits are now arriving with chronic injuries and this is something the sport needs to look at seriously. This was followed by some of the opportunities and successes that the sport is receiving. Over the last 7 year men’s volleyball has added 88 men’s college varsity programmes mainly based in tuition focused institutions and beach volleyball is flourishing.

Focus
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 1 “Making a Good Setter Better” – Mick Haley “You are the Media!” – Katie Gwinn Hewitt, University of Michigan “No Numbers? No Clue!” – Guiseppe Vinci
No skill has more theories and methods, and no player gets more attention from coaches. What works, how do we train it, and what cues resonate with skilled setters? Social media has allowed programs the ability to reach the community directly without solely relying on traditional media to cover them. What are we training to? What numbers? What standards? What pacing? Without these metrics, we are guessing at the training regiment to prepare for elite performance. See what we know.
Session 2 “Serving: The Only Solo Skill” – Brian Gimmillaro “Not Your Parents’ Recaps” – Aaron Sagraves, Cornerstone University “Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions” – Kyle Norris, MS, ATC, LAT, avcaVPI™ Biomechanics Consultant
Elite serving is a combination of physical and mental execution. Getting both right scores points. Reworking the standard press release to encourage more interaction Individual player mechanics impact injury risk. Strategies to protect the most vulnerable areas.

I stayed for the “You are the Media!” with Katie Gwinn Hewitt. In England we need some serious help with marketing our sport. Katie’s message was very simple- stories. People like stories, sponsors like stories and fan’s like stories they can relate to. Look at who is on your team, the ethos of the team and tell a story to create some traction. If you have an athlete studying social media let them have a Snap Chat take over. Do you have a budding journalist on your roster, let them create a number of pieces on their team mates that you can drip feed over the season. Every programme has a different approach to social media and fan engagement. I’ll be scanning the NCAA teams to see if there is something that will work for us. Once our reach increases, the traditional media should start to take notice.

The University of Essex is a research based institution and our HPU (Human Performance Unit) conducts numerous research projects each year, our staff share research papers with each other hence my reason for attending the Integrating Volleyball Injury Data into Performance Training Decisions with Kyle Norris.

Kyle covered a number of subject areas including sleep deprivation, postural and scapular control, glut med activation and “normal” biomechanics. Most of this I have read before in research papers but it’s great to revisit it and to be able to ask questions around these areas. I plan to contact Kyle to discuss our programme and the avcaVPI™ database which I never knew existed. To quote Guiseppe Vinci of Volley Metrics “No Numbers? No Clue!”

Most of the attendees and staff attended the networking event for some hor d’oeuvres and beverages by the Marriot poolside. Having an English accent meant I stuck out and people were very inquisitive.  I spoke with Kathy, club coaches and owners, teachers and the AVCA Hall of Famer, Mick Haley. I knew of Mick from watching the Sydney Olympics but I hadn’t put two and two together, Mick and his wife were great fun, his stories were as relevant today as they were when they happened the first time.

I spent the evening in the hotel bar with other university and college coaches. It was nice to hear they faced similar challenges to a greater or lesser extent.

DAY 2

Session 1 “General Session: Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being” – Aaron Brock,  USAVolleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director
Training Technique Fan Engagement Tracking Performance
Session 2 “No One can Pass!” – Brian Gimmillaro “Media is Friend, Not Foe” – Tom Feuer, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” – Jimmy Stitz, USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist
From basics to subtleties of higher level technique – why are so few players great at passing? What exactly should you be doing to ensure the media has everything it needs to best cover your program? Learn how to be more proactive than reactive. Managing repetitions in an efficient way is critical to preparation, rehab, and injury prevention.
Session 3 The Mechanics of Attacking” – Mick Haley “Story-telling: Going Beyond the Box Score” – Katie Morgan, The University of San Francisco “Training Jumpers” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Footwork, load, swing – we all think we know it -yet even elite players have flaws Your team is more than stats, so you’ll learn the best methods to tell the story of your student-athletes and coaches Techniques for training jumpers can be counter intuitive. See how the senior teams physically prepare their jumpers
Session 4 “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback” – Mick Haley and Brian Gimmillaro  “Putting Butts in the Seats” – Aaron Villalobos, Grand Canyon University “Injury Prevention – Keeping Them in the Gym” – Tim Pelot, United States Olympic Committee Senior Sports Physiologist
Engaging players in game-like training is the fastest way for them to become proficient in matches, yet simply running drills just reinforces bad habits. Where is the balance, when do we switch, how do we provide feedback? How do we engage our community to increase attendance? What kind of in-game promotions are run to ensure the audience stays “into” the match? These questions and more will be answered. We will not turn back the clock on specialization or earlier training; our task is to counteract the negatives of overuse. Teaching athletes to take control of their health and showing them ways to strengthen their weak sides is critical to keeping them in the gym.

The next morning we all met for breakfast. If I had to pick the worst part of the conference it was the breakfast, this coming from an Englishman, I know. Let’s get this right. It wasn’t bad, but after spending a week in the US and staying at a Marriott let’s just say you would expect more.

We headed over to UCLA’s campus for the rest of the day.

The first session of the day was with Aaron Brock, USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Director on “Promoting Volleyball Player Well Being”. This was the slickest of all the presentation and to be honest this should be at the forefront of any programme. Athlete and coaches well-being are super important, not just for the few years they are involved in a programme but also the rest of their lives. I enjoyed this session, it was thought provoking and I will adjust my programme after considering how best to use what I learnt.

I then headed over to the “How We Track Performance in the USA Volleyball Gym” with Jimmy Stitz who is the USA Volleyball Women’s Sports Physiologist. I love my data and this was an insight into what, how and why the USA Volleyball do what they do. There are lots of gadgets out there, Jimmy went through different tools they have used including different ways they’ve used them and the results that have and haven’t worked. For example basic assumptions on power and power/weight rations related to jump height and how/why you use video feedback and the flaws with it. Jimmy knows what his talking about and his insights are again thought provoking.

I keep saying it’s thought provoking and that’s because they were. These aren’t session where you’re going to find the exact solution for your situation. They make you think about how your programme is structured, why it’s like that and how things can be modified for the better etc.

I then attended two court based sessions with Mick Haley about “The Mechanics of Attacking” and with Mick and Brian Gimmilaro for “It’s not the Drill, It’s the Feedback”.  These confirmed a lot of my thoughts…every athlete will execute a skill differently but you must do the basics well. The last session of the day with Brain and Mick went a bit off topic but that’s what the group wanted so we got more out of it. It became more of a Q&A and attendees were about to pick their brains. Afterwards some of the attendees, including myself, continued the conversation with Mick and Brain.

When the Conference finished everyone went to the D1 Championship match. I watched the game for enjoyment sake, trying not to analysis it too much. I was a commentator for the BBC at the London 2012 final and this year’s D1 finals were up there with it. The game was fast paced and exciting. The 7,000+ fans supporting two local team were active, vocal and supported their teams in the right way.

But there was something special about this game (sorry Ryan it wasn’t the fact we had our first English athlete in a D1 final). It was the entertainment factor. The crowd hadn’t gone to watch a volleyball game, they had gone to support their teams AND be entertained. The compere got the crowd involved, the YELL squads livened up not only the student section, but got the rest of the crowd going. UCLA were giving out free tickets to their students 30 minutes before the game started and they were climbing over each other to get them. This was an event that had a lot of hype around it and the buzz and wow factor made it special.

After the final everyone went their separate ways which was a shame as there would have been value in reviewing the final as a group. I also think the Conference could have been over the weekend instead of Fri/Sat so there could have been additional sessions.

Would I recommend it? Yes! Was it worth the investment of time, money, etc for a international coach? That’s a bit trickier. A $1,000 airfare, plus $300 fee and $250 hotel, and suddenly it gets pricey for a two day event. I was already in America and only staying at the hotel for two nights, so it became more manageable. If I was in the same scenario I would, without doubt, attend again – even if it was just to spend more time with Mick Haley.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Kathy DeBeor and Mick Haley. They both took time out to speak with me. They were genuinely interested in my opinions and my reasons for attending. Actually, everyone I met was very welcoming and that’s another reason to attend, as the groups were small there were opportunities to speak with the same people if you wanted to carry on those conversations.

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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.

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