Brace yourself. This is going to be a long one. 😀

As you may have seen or heard, I spent nearly two months in Europe during August and September. It’s a trip that comprised 12 flights, 13 inter-city train trips, and numerous taxis, buses, and trains. It covered seven countries, four of which I’d never visited before. Regular updates – including some more touristy stuff – went up on social media.

I saw pretty much the full spectrum of competitive levels from U10 beginners up to a full national team on the trip. I saw men and women, boys and girls. Some facilities were very nice. Others were mediocre. The coaches I got to observe and talk with were from Argentina, Brazil, Cyprus, England, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland. And the US, which I’ll explain later.

Here’s how the trip broke down.

Part 1: Cobham, England

During the first part of the trip I attended the Elite Camp put on by Volleyball Development Camps. I basically went straight from Heathrow to the camp, which was interesting. This is a camp for upper level Juniors players up to early stage college athletes. The campers were from several different countries, and both male and female. Probably the most notable was an English guy who was coming off his freshman year at Penn State.

A big part of this visit had to do with the business and development side of the sport.

Yes, I watched the court sessions, and sat in on the camper discussions off-court. The primary coaches were a former England U16 boys’ coach and a current assistant in the Polish first division who previously worked in England. Had I the correct paperwork (background check, etc.) I might have been able to help out. As all of what I had in England from my time coaching over there had expired, though, I was relegated to observer status only.

That stuff was somewhat secondary to my other conversations, however. The VbDC folks do a lot of different things, some of which was relevant to my club back home. So I was there to meet them, learn about what they’re doing, and perhaps lay the groundwork for future collaboration.

Part 2: Kaposvar, Hungary

I went from England to Hungary, flying in to Budapest. First time in that country. I was headed for the city of Kaposvar, where my friend Ruben Wolochin had just taken over at FINO Kaposvar. That’s a men’s team in the Hungarian pro league – one with a long history of success, though not much recently. Ruben moved there after several years coaching in the top league in Germany. I got to know him when I spent time with him there in 2014 and 2015.

I didn’t go directly to Kaposvar, though. First, I went to Szombathely, close to the Austrian border. Quick history lesson. Szombathely was originally founded by the Romans in 45 AD. They called is Savaria. You can see references to that past in place names.

Anyway, I went to Szombathely to meet Ruben and the sporting director for Kaposvar so we could watch women’s volleyball. The Hungarian team was getting set to host one of the first round pools of European Championships. They hosted Greece, France, Spain and one other team in a series of friendly matches in Szombathely over a few days. We watched a pair of them, and I got to meet Jan De Brandt, coach of the Hungarian team. Jan is also someone we interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards.

After the matches we drove to Kaposvar, starting my about 2.5 weeks there.

I was a pretty active participant at Kaposvar. Often I contributed ideas in the practice planning phase, shared my thoughts and observations on what I saw, and generally was a sounding board for Ruben. I also pitched in during practices doing whatever was needed.

I got pretty beat up physically, though. Ruben’s club car wasn’t available yet, so we did A LOT of walking around the city. That took a major toll on my feet (I still had blister scabs when I got home) and Achilles tendon, which I felt the rest of the trip.

By the way, Kaposvar also has a women’s team. They aren’t the same club, but they use the same facility. I didn’t get a lot of exposure to them, though. Just the occasional look at what they were doing if we came in after or finished before them.

It was a major contrast.

Ruben does the majority of his work in game structures. I’m not sure I saw the women’s team doing anything like 6 v 6 my whole time there. Of course I could simply have missed it, but I didn’t really even see them jump and hit very much. What I did see at times were lengthy exercises of highly dubious value. Yet, they are a strong team in the Hungarian league, which is part of what motivated me to write the series of posts about coaching success drivers.

Part 3: Kettering, England

After I left Ruben, and spent a little time in Budapest playing tourist, I went back to England. I had been invited to observe Youth (Cadet) and Junior National Team training camp by, Gillian Harrison, the woman who oversees the national teams for Volleyball England.

Just about monthly the four teams (one each male and female) get together for a Saturday/Sunday camp. It’s structured in waves. There are four courts in the national training center. They do one age group at a time for 2.5-3 hours, with the boys and girls each taking two courts. That means four total waves on Saturday, and two on Sunday, giving each team three total sessions.

This was a selection camp. They were narrowing down the rosters ahead of the final preparation camp a few weeks later before the October NEVZA championships.

I spent the most of time observing the Cadet girls. Call that U16 or U17. I saw all three of their sessions pretty much start to finish. I did watch a fair bit of the Junior women (U18 or U19) on Saturday, but I only occasionally popped over to the guys’ side of the gym to see what they were doing (other side of a curtain).

As you might expect for a selection camp, the Juniors did a lot of 6 v 6 type play. The Cadets, though, not nearly as much. They ran somewhat more of what you might think of as a training camp – a variety of drills and such with some game play at the end.

I had some major issues with what I saw. This isn’t something I’m just voicing here. I did it in more or less real time with the staff.

I actually got to know one of the Cadet assistants as the camp I mentioned above. And it turns out the other assistant is someone I coached against when I was at Exeter back in the day. I didn’t know the head coach, however. Just met him briefly at the end of the day on Saturday, right before he had to leave.

I had a lengthy talk about what I saw with the two assistants over dinner at the hotel Saturday night, with Gillian being not far away. I didn’t really pull any punches. And I had a long continuation of that talk with Gillian Sunday morning while we watched training together.

To put it simply, I felt like both the overall approach to training the Cadets and the methods employed were poor.

Update: The England Cadet Girls actually finished 2nd in the 2019 NEVZA U17 tournament. That’s the best they’d ever done. Just goes to show that success can sometimes come in spite of poor training methods.

Part 4: Conegliano, Italy

From England I went to Italy, first spending a day in Venice, then moving on to Conegliano to Team Spes. They are a club with a top women’s team that plays in Serie C of the Italian structure. I think that works out to the 5th division overall. The rest of the club is juniors, starting with U10s.

I connected with Team Spes thanks to Ruben. He is good friends with the lead coach there – Mario Martinez, a fellow Argentine. Mario coached for the club in a prior stint, taking their top team in to Serie A before the money ran dry. After a few years away where he did something similar with another club, he was back in Conegliano. I got to meet Mario initially in Kaposvar when he visited his son, who is the second setter for Ruben.

To be honest, this was probably the most challenging part of the trip for me mentally. Part of it was because this was the place I struggled most in terms of communication. Much of the staff I spent time with was also Argentine. Their English wasn’t so great, and I can say the same about my Spanish (and my Italian is virtually non-existent) . We were able to share relatively simple concepts, but trying to have deeper conversations was a major challenge – even with Google Translate.

The bigger issue, though, was the things I saw. While Mario operated a lot like Ruben in terms of doing most of his work (with the women’s team and the club’s top U16s) in a game structure (4 v 4, 5 v 5, 6 v 6) most of what I saw from the other coaches was far from game-like. More than that, it was incredibly simple, and often a highly inefficient use of time.

It was a major disappointment. One thinks of the history of volleyball in Italy and expects a high standard. That’s definitely not what I saw, aside from watching Mario’s sessions.

Part 5: Loughborough, England.

Quick trip back to the UK for Volleyball England’s annual coaching conference. In August I was in negotiations with Gillian (who also leads coaching education for VE) and the two guys putting together the program. I’d offered to present a session and let them suggest the topic based on whatever theme they were going for. They suggested middle hitter transition offense. I was fine with that.

Then Gillian sent me a note saying they wanted to expand my session into a 3-hour workshop. And to expand from transition to developing the middle offense more broadly.

Over the couple weeks before the conference there were some adjustments to the schedule in different ways. The end result was that I had about 15 minutes of initial presentation in a meeting room type situation. Then we shifted to the gym for the rest. I’d go about 90 minutes or so there, we’d have lunch, then I’d have another 60 minutes.

It worked out quite well. I used the initial time to get a sense of the audience from a knowledge, focus, and experience perspective. I also used it to lay out my working principles – the biggest of which was trying to make the middle hitter available as much as possible.

The after-lunch session I had pegged for working on middle transition concepts and exercises. That left me to put all of the foundational ideas of timing and tempo and offensive development in the morning gym session. They were all built out of serve reception and free ball situations.

The workshop went quite well. I came in not knowing what I’d have for demonstrators and potential drill/game participants, but it worked out OK. The group was quite engaged and asked lots of questions, which I like. Helps me customize a presentation to the audience. And Gillian was very pleased, which was good.

Part 6: Guadalajara, Spain.

From England it was off to Spain. The initial plan was for me to fly into Madrid, then head to Guadalajara to see the Spanish men’s national team play Egypt in a friendly match as part of their European Championship preparations. That was on Sunday. They had Monday off, then I was going to a double training session on Tuesday – their last before leaving for the tournament.

Well, the Tuesday part worked out, but not Sunday. It turned out that the match was scheduled too early for me to get there, so I missed it. Oh, well.

The person who helped me arrange this was Miguel Rivera. He is an assistant for Spain and head coach of the men’s SuperLiga team at Teruel. I connected with Miguel because he was one of the first people to review the Spanish edition of the second Volleyball Coaching Wizards book. We spent basically the whole of that Tuesday together, and he also introduced me to the head coach.

Part 7: Alcobendas, Spain

After I did my time with the national team, I spent a couple of days observing the Alcobendas club. Alcobendas is a suburb of Madrid. The club features a SuperLiga women’s team at the top, with a bunch of girls’ juniors teams below it. I’d heard from a contact that they were one of the strongest developmental clubs for girls in Spain.

Miguel actually helped me connect with Alcobendas through a friend on the coaching staff. Turns out she’s Argentinian. They’re everywhere!

It also turned out, though, that she doesn’t speak any English. That was OK when we communicated via text. In person it was more of a challenge. Mostly, she just got others to talk to me on her behalf. 😀

Actually, that created one of the more interesting engagements of the trip. The club’s SuperLiga coach, Guillermo Gallardo, was until recently involved in the Swedish national program. That includes leading the women’s team. So we had a bit in common given my time there. He’s got a lengthy resume, with some interesting bits and pieces. I watched one of his training sessions, then had coffee with him the following afternoon for a really good 1-on-1 chat.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet the two American players who will play for Alcobendas this season. They arrived a couple days after I was there.

Part 8 – Barcelona, Spain

After Alcobendas I shifted to Barcelona to visit CV Barcelona, and see the regional youth training center there (Blume). This wasn’t part of my original plan, but Ruben really pushed me to add it to the trip. Basically, his argument was that the Catalan region produces more good volleyball players than any other in Spain. And, of course, his good friend Adrian Fiorenza (sounds Italian, but is Argentine) was technical director for the club. So Barcelona was added.

I should clarify something off the top. While CV Barcelona is affiliated with FC Barcelona, the world famous soccer club, the relationship doesn’t go a whole lot further than that. There are four professional teams tied in with the FC – men’s and women’s soccer, men’s basketball, and men’s handball (I believe). All the other sports are in the amateur category, including volleyball. That means they get help with stuff like facilities, but not much in the way of funding support.

Adrian works with the women’s program, so that’s where I was. Like Alcobendas, Barca has a SuperLiga team at the top of a juniors-based pyramid. In this case it’s a pyramid of 20 teams. Ten of them are U12s, of which seven play 4 v 4 and three (featuring the more advanced players) play 6 v 6. There are then multiple U14 and U16 teams, progressing up to a single U20 squad.

In 2018-19 Barca was SuperLiga runners-up, but most of that group left. That includes the coach. For the new season there were only three carryovers. And because they were squeezing the budget, most of the team was U20 players.

Here’s where the US coaching connection I mentioned at the top comes in.

The new SuperLiga coach is Gylton Da Matta. Gylton is Brazilian, but has lived in the US for some time. He’s the club director for YOSA, based in Fort Collins, CO. Like me, he’s also a PhD. Though unlike me, his doctorate is actually directly related to sports. 😀

If I understand correctly, Gylton was in Barcelona late last season doing some teaching at a local university. He helped out with the Barca U20s on a volunteer basis while there. That led to him being offered the SuperLiga team head coach position.

One of the best parts of the whole trip was when another Brazilian coach took Gylton and I up the the coast on our free Sunday. It was very similar to the Southern California coast. We went to a little place in one of the towns and spent the afternoon drinking sangria, eating tapas, and talking volleyball!

At the end of the trip, Adrian asked me to do a report for him about what I saw.

Part 9: Näfels, Switzerland

Here’s where things started to happen more quickly.

From Barcelona I flew to Zurich. There I was picked up at the airport by Oskar Kaczmarczyk, head coach of the men’s team from the Näfels club, which is one of the best established in the country. Oskar actually invited me to come visit with him when he heard about my trip, and he hosted me at the apartment the club gave him. We’d never met before, nor did we have any direct mutual contacts. This gives you an idea of how open the volleyball community is.

This is Oskar’s first season with Näfels. He spent a lot of years as a scout in Poland, both with the national team and top professional clubs there, before moving into coaching himself. We had some really good coaching conversations while I was there.

And just to throw in yet another Argentinean coach connection, Oskar was supposed to have one as an assistant. He was going to come from Spain. Things fell apart at the last minute, so he ended up getting one of his Polish countrymen to come join him.

Part 10: Lucerne, Switzerland

From Näfels I took the train to Lucerne. It’s definitely one of the most scenic trips you’ll come across given the landscape of lakes and mountains.

I was in the area to visit with Volleya Obwalden. This was something I arranged with Oliver Wagner, a German who some might remember blogged under the name Volleyblogger. Oliver and I have been contacts since the early days of this blog. I visited him in Husum, Germany on my 2017 trip when he was coaching for a club there an exploring creating a new professional club. A short while later he made the move to Switzerland.

Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t great in terms of their schedule, or mine. As a result, I only got to attend one of their training sessions. It was for their top team (women), which plays in the 2nd Swiss division. From what I saw, their head coach, Nik Buser, is a Gold Medal Squared advocate.

After that training session I went out for a drink in Lucerne with Oliver, Nik, and Liam Sketcher.

Liam is an Aussie who is an assistant for his national team. I met him on the same 2017 trip as when I visited Oliver. He is also the head coach for Volley Luzern. He didn’t really have anything interesting going on with his team during my visit (they were getting ready to go play in Germany), so I didn’t go see him at the club.

Not surprisingly, we four had some interesting and entertaining coaching and volleyball conversation. But only one drink each. Really!

Part 11: Tilburg, Holland.

From Lucerne I took three trains to eventually get to Amsterdam. I went to Holland to attended training for the BeBetter Volleybalschool program in Tilburg.

Basically, what they are is a supplemental program for juniors players. Kids do their normal club practices during the week, and play for their club team on Saturday. On Sunday, though, they can do this program. It runs about 3 hours in the afternoon. Along with doing a bit more individual skill training, they also do some add-on stuff that the kids don’t get from their clubs.

For example, the session I attended had defense as it’s skill focus. At the same time, though, each kid was evaluated for their “action type” by Michiel de Ruyter. He’s a very experienced coach in the Dutch system, including with sitting teams. I spent much of my time during the visit observing his work and hearing what he had to say on the subject. He also gave me a ride back to Amsterdam, so we got to talk on broader topics as well.

The reason this visit was part of the trip is similar to why I went to the VbDC camp at the beginning. They are doing some similar things in terms of working across borders, and my club back home had some communication. Ronald Lacroes, their lead guy (or at least one of them), gave me a ride to Tilburg from Amsterdam, so I got to hear about things from him.

Here’s one of the funniest parts of the trip.

At the end of the day Ronald called me up in front of all the parents and kids and had a couple of players (one of whose sister plays college ball in the US) give me a gift basket. It featured a plastic set of wooden shoes, plus cheese, cocktail peanuts, and stroopwaffles.

Part 12: Berlin, Germany.

It was another long day of train action going from Amsterdam to Berlin. There I visited the German national youth volleyball academy (VCO). It’s a residential program based alongside several other sports in a sports facility in old East Berlin (as I understand, there’s another one for a different set of sports in the western part of the city).

The Berlin VCO actually sits atop a whole VCO system. There are several regional VCOs located throughout the country. Manuel Hartmann, who is head coach for the U19 girls’ team explained the system to me. I also attended one of their training sessions.

Manuel’s team plays in the German Bundesliga. They can decide from year to year whether to be in the 1st or 2nd division based on the talent level they expect. The same holds true on the boys’/men’s side, which is under a different coach.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to spend as much time there as I’d have liked.

Part 13: London, England

From Berlin I flew back to London. I got in quite early, but was able to kill some time by visiting my PhD supervisor in the city, and later by getting a much needed haircut. It had been about 2 months, so I was very shaggy by my standards.

That night I attended a training session for IBB Polonia. They are the closest thing to a professional club in the UK, and will be the first English team to play in the CEV Champions League this season.

The Polonia coach is Vangelis Koutouleas. He’s someone I crossed paths with a couple times back when I coached in England. He also was the other main presenter at the Volleyball England Coaches Conference. His topic was blocking.

The Polonia team is a mixture of younger British players and some older foreign ones, in large part. They were missing their starting setter – a Polish guy – that night – so things weren’t as sharp as they might have been.

Part 14: Colchester, England

After Polonia training I went from London to Colchester. I actually made the trip with a guy who is part of the men’s team at the University of Essex volleyball program located there. He’s sort of on loan to Polonia through their participation in the Champions League.

My friend Alex Porter is the head coach at Essex, leading both the men’s and women’s teams (he’s been hoping for years to get me there to help take up some of the load). As a performance program, Essex volleyball is more akin to what you’d see at a US college. They have some scholarship money available, as well as support in terms of strength & conditioning and trainers, among other things.

The university does have a volleyball club that competes as well, but that’s at a lower level. It’s mostly separate from the performance program.

I was with Alex for two days – the last two of his preseason. School was just about to start. The first day we were in their big new arena (very nice), but on the second day they had to shift to the older sports hall because of a basketball event (of course!).

In between sessions I managed to meet up with a couple of the faculty from the Sports, Rehabilitation, and Exercise Science (SRES) department. We talked a lot about coaching, and especially sports psychology, which was a specific research focus for both.

Part 15: Earl’s Court, London, England

After Essex I shifted back to London for the final part of my trip. Mostly that was some R&R, with a tourist trip to Oxford – at place I never got to in England before. I did have one last volleyball-related thing to do. The night before I returned back to the States I met with the lead guy at Polonia. This wasn’t a coaching conversation at all. It was strictly about the business side of the sport. It was had over a good Indian dinner in the Earl’s Court part of London. As you may recall, that’s where volleyball was played during the 2012 Olympics.

What I didn’t do

There were two things I hoped to do at the start of the trip that ended up not happening. One was to spend some time at Dutch women’s national team training. Head coach Jamie Morrison told me he was good with me coming, but their tournament schedule in August and September just proved too difficult to navigate.

The other was going to Warsaw to visit with Andrea Anastasi at his club there. Again, Andrea was open to it. In this instance, though, it was my schedule that didn’t allow it. Adding Barcelona to the trip basically took Warsaw off the table.

Would I do it again?

Yes, in general terms. It was absolutely great visiting a wide variety of teams and situations. I had a lot of good coaching conversations along the way, and got to be an active participant at different points.

What I would do differently, though, is to cut down the number of different stops and spend more time in each place. One issue you have on a trip like this is you only get to see snapshots of things. You might only see one training session for a given team, for example, and that doesn’t really give you a sense of the broader context.

The other thing I’d do differently is have everything planned out in advance. There was a lot of stress on this trip trying to work out where I was going, how I was getting there, and where I was staying. Would have been nice to have that all mapped out in advance. Unfortunately, that wasn’t doable given the time of year with people on vacation, uncertain training schedules, etc.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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