There was a rather intense debate at Volley Talk on the subject of the volleyball development system in the US. Criticism of the US soccer youth system triggered it. That was by one of the UK newspapers with respect to the system’s ability to produce world class talent. 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. US national team players come almost exclusively out of the ranks of former (and sometimes current) upper level Division I schools. At this level, players are virtually professionals. They exchange 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 that 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 six weeks where they can do daily team training. They also are allowed a small number of competition dates. Otherwise, the focus is often heavily on strength & conditioning work. A few hours a week of individual or small group training is mixed in.
Below that is a combination of club and high school volleyball (and 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 generally don’t train more than three times a week (often less), and their play is mainly in tournaments. The top teams compete in national level events like Junior National qualifiers and championships. Recruitment to the upper Division I college ranks comes from the top club teams, not surprisingly.
There is no fully developed pro league in the US at this point. Players who want to go that route have to catch on with a team abroad. The result is that we don’t have youth academies of the sort that have developed in soccer as the teams in MLS establish feeder systems. This makes them increasingly less reliant on the college 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 does that. 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. 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, with the exception of performance programs. It’s not a varsity situation. Rather, clubs affiliate with the school. Even that isn’t common in Europe. Athletes play for clubs. They don’t play for their school.
The first big question which seemed to come out of the debate on Volley Talk was 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 you address them?
Of course there is one big overarching question. Should the US volleyball system aim to produce elite international caliber players? Or should participation be the goal? The latter doesn’t preclude the former, but the former can preclude the latter. It’s an ongoing tension.
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