There’s an article from the soccer world on the Changing the Game Project website listed as originally posted in 2013 that I think is highly relevant for volleyball today. The main focus is the difficulty of talent identification at early ages. Beyond that, though, it also takes a critical look at youth development structures.

Talent collection vs talent development

One of the big issues with youth sports structures, including volleyball, is too much focus on now and not enough on the future.

Clubs put players together based on perceptions of current ability. This is fine for older kids, in particular those who have already gone through puberty and their major growth spurts. At younger ages, though, what generally happens is the kids who are further ahead in their physical maturity tend to end up on the better teams in a given age group. They then are generally assigned to better coaches, which creates a pattern.

Have a look at this research posted by the NCAA. It shows how birth month relates to college level participation. In brief, the kids born closer to the start of the annual youth calendar for their sport (e.g. September for juniors volleyball in the US) are better represented than those born later in the cycle. This means the effects of the current talent focus at the early youth levels persist into college, and beyond.

As a result of this imbalance, there are efforts to look at grouping athletes by biological rather than chronological age. It’s sometimes referred to as bio-banding. Here’s a short article that talks a bit about it. This is still an idea that hasn’t taken much root broadly, however.


The article offers up six recommendations to improve youth development. Here’s my volleyball-based interpretation of each.

  1. Focus on technical development: Get as many younger players (e.g. 12U) in the gym (or on the sand) as you can and teach them volleyball skills. This ties in with a comment from my interview with the late Carl McGown for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. With respect to challenges of talent projection, Carl said we basically just have to get as many kids in the gym as we can and see how they develop.
  2. More coaching for technically weaker players: Look to see which kids are struggling with their skills, then give them more attention to help them catch up. Realize that different kids are likely to struggle in different areas. The overall idea is to expand the pool of talented players, not just to progress those who are already there.
  3. No championships: Through 12s the kids shouldn’t be playing for the sake of winning. They should be playing for fun and so they can get better.
  4. Play small-sided games: Don’t force small bodies to play on full-sized courts (and with full-height nets and/or full-weight balls). Reduce the court dimensions to something more appropriate. Also, reduce the number of players so they get more ball contacts – and a tactically simpler game.
  5. Educate the coaches: Train our youth coaches to focus on development rather than winning. Also, educate them on the best available teaching and training methods.
  6. Educate the parents: Teach parents to support the fun and learning aspects of their child’s sports participation and to not focus on wins and losses.

In a prior post, I shared some other related ideas that are also worth thinking about.

Educating parents

I want to revisit the parent thing here.

When I was at the 2019 AVCA Convention I attended an international coaches session led by Doug Beal. Youth development was a feature of part of the discussion. At one point I asked Doug, who used to run USA Volleyball, when that organization would get away from 6v6 for the 12s age group. Folks like John Kessel (since retired from USAV) have a long history of advocating for small-sided play in that age group, so why no change? After all, people in a lot of the rest of the world have small-sided structures, often called Mini-Volley.

Doug’s response, backed up by a Canadian representative, is that parents don’t see anything other than 6 v 6 as “real volleyball”. The fear was that if USAV went toward a small-sided structure for the younger ages they would lose membership to other organizations (AAU, JVA).

First, I hate fear-based decision-making. It tends not to lead to growth and development. Instead, you get stagnation and eventual decay.

Second, then do a good job educating the parents (and the clubs, if need be) on the value of going small-sided. Let them see that it will be more fun for their kids, and that it will help them get better faster. It will probably be a lot more interesting for them to watch as well!

Thinking about a better structure

One of the things that seems to be getting more and more attention is the negative effects of “travel” teams in youth sports. The Atlantic published an article on the subject with respect to income disparities and how it links with overall participation rates.

Even putting aside participation rates, one can legitimately ask the question whether there’s any real value in a group of 12s (or younger) players traveling around the country to compete. It seems to me that you can give them all they need in a more regional, or even local structure.

This is something I wrote about in a previous post about how you could create a progression featuring 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4 levels. They could save a lot of money and travel time.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comment section below.

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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.

    3 replies to "Thoughts on youth volleyball structures"

    • Average joe

      Clubs exist to make money and as such the clubs main concern is furthering their brand. They do it by winning tournaments. Their motivation is winning not developing players. They leverage the lack of clubs to create demand for their product and their customer pays for them to further their brand not develope their child.
      I thought that karch erred when he won the world championship and gold medal and didn’t leverage it into reducing the number of substitutions in tiers ie a couple every couple years until international rules level was attained. An agreement with the ncaa would have had to have been negotiated to incorporate the same transition. Easier said than done between two entities that are used to dictating policy(see name, image and likeness and international beach volleyball)

      This would have forced the clubs to develope complete players. While this could have been done within the usvba ,JVA and other organizations would have had to be brought into the fold.
      I am a great believer in mini volley.
      It is difficult to educate coaches when clubs evaluate them on their win loss records.
      I always question the agenda of whoever is doing the educating.
      I had the privilege of having attended a carl McGowan camp as a youngster and was coached by Bill Neville and others who were pioneers in developing what our game has become.
      I’m a an old geezer and as such disagree with much that has changed in the game.
      I wish I could say I thought the future of the game was in good hands

    • Chris Larner

      The idea of avoiding distant travel sites for younger teams is something I hear in travel baseball as well. However, I think what we forget is that these far away tournaments are not just about traveling to play other teams, (Believe me, we traveled 3 hours away to play a team in our area 20 minutes away, twice.) but also the experience, family time/ vacation, team building opportunities, etc… Traveling to out of area tournaments has great value and we really enjoy it.

      • John Forman

        Chris – I definitely don’t disagree with the additional value of events.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.