June 8, 2008

Summer off-season Volleyball

In today's world of volleyball, the summer "off-season" is not really off anymore. It used to be given that the summer months were a time to let the body rest, recharge the competitive juices, get a job and enjoy the lazy days of summer. Back in the good old days, coaches would hope/expect that the players would stay in shape and not do anything unintelligent that could cause an injury.

Expectations and demands, for many different levels of volleyball, have certainly changed. High school volleyball, maybe because of the start time of the season, has come to expect attendance of multiple individual camps, along with a team camp. With the addition of summer physical conditioning, it makes for a very busy off-season.

Club Volleyball has grown to such a degree, that the players will not really have an off-season. Examine the calendar for most high school age Club Volleyball players - High School Volleyball starts in early August and continues until just before Thanksgiving (if you are in a state the values the sport). Before the high school season has finished, club tryouts have occurred (and I am now hearing of club tryouts in late July!), then multi-week training begins immediately upon the completion of the high school season. Club Volleyball will run from November to the last week of June/first week of July - an eight to nine month season!!! Amazing. This means the "off-season" is July - but, with the High School Volleyball routine; it is time for camps.

College Volleyball can have more of an off-season because of NCAA rules, but this down time is quickly disappearing for many players. When I was coaching professionally, I had a conversation with one of my players, who had just graduated from a top 5 NCAA program. I was curious to see what their 'off-season' program entailed and according to the player, there was no off-season. Since this program was in a power conference, they had the funding to provide full summer school scholarships for all their athletes and demanded that each player stay on campus for all summer school sessions. According to her information, the team worked out 6 days a week and played 2 days a week all summer. With the gap between the end of the last summer school session and the beginning of pre-season training, they had 5 days of an "off-season".

This is an unique example simply because not every NCAA program has the resources to provide full summer school scholarships for each player and not every coach has the philosophy of constant training. But, this is a current trend in college volleyball - micromanaging the summer months. I believe this is an influence which college basketball has had upon college volleyball. For many, many years, men's and women's basketball have fully funded the summer scholarship to ensure and demand that the players remain on campus and play basketball. To my disappointment, too many Athletic Directors have turned a blind eye to NCAA violations that occur within this segment of time - mandatory training attendance, observed pick-up games, individual trainings, attendance taken, reservation of athletic facilities, etc. When I had casually asked one of my previous administrators about such situations, I was told that this was just basketball's summer training; i.e., it is basketball and they can do it if they want.

I guess my bigger disappointment is hearing of college volleyball coaches following this trend - demanding that players stay on campus for summer school, requiring attendance at all work out sessions and reprimanding those athletes that miss a work out and mandatory open gym attendance. Ultimately I believe that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic and trying to recruit and develop this self determination is a better philosophy. For me, the incremental gains in physical strength and even smaller incremental gains in ability are not worth the risk of individual player burn-out and kids just getting tired of each other. What volleyball coaches don't see with basketball players is their all too common loss of love for the game.

Over the years, I have moved away from the desire to focus on lifting for the summer and more into a combination of healthy workouts and/or playing volleyball. It is no secret in college volleyball that coastal California players tend to be at the upper levels of ability in our sport. Sure, there are elite level players that have never spent a day in Redondo Beach (just look at our current national team), but coastal California produces so many quality volleyball players. This is one reason that you find so many "no-name" colleges and universities (by no-name, I reference how these schools would be viewed by non-volleyball people outside of the west coast) that produce very good volleyball programs. Santa Clara, Cal Poly, Sacramento State, San Diego, UCSB, UC Irvine and many more, all are talented and accomplished volleyball programs that routinely beat the "name-brand" schools of the mid-west and east coast of the United States.

Why? Is it the sunshine, the avocados, the smog? I believe it is as simple as volleyball being a part of the community. By being part of the community, young and old players have the opportunity to play volleyball at many places and all year long. In Laguna Beach, young female players have the chance to play beach volleyball against old male players that are a wealth of experience, professional female players that don't mind having a warm-up game against some younger kids and against their peers for pure competition. In El Cajon, the players can go to open gyms at the high schools and recreations centers to play against any and all comers of abilities. And both of these examples happen all year long - not just during the summer. It is an unique experience in volleyball that any person, of any gender, of any age can realistically find a place to just play volleyball.

To a similar degree, we see this type of opportunity and community support in international volleyball. Again, this is probably why there are so many good international players. I understand that some college volleyball folks are not supportive of international players, but the ones that are coming over to the USA to play are the C level players. The A level players are in the respective national team programs and the the B level players are playing professionally. By international standards, only the average players are coming to the USA to play. Like California, countries such as Germany, France, Brazil, Serbia, etc. all support volleyball (men's and women's) and because of this support there are many varied opportunities for anyone to just play volleyball. Of course, Brazil has the beaches that we all know about, but you would be surprised to know that in Europe, as soon as the weather gets warm enough, the different cities immediately build multiple sand volleyball courts that stay up all summer for people to just play volleyball.

The other thing that I have observed, when examining the volleyball culture in California and internationally, is the importance of fitness over strength. I think too many college programs are unduly influenced by the Football lifting mentality. I have come to believe that speed is more important than strength and that playing is more important than training. In a broad statement, the California players are playing volleyball more and exercising more than non-California players. It is not uncommon to hear kids asking when they are meeting at the beach or the gym to play, and what they are doing to work out - running, cycling, stairs, etc. The strength coaches put an emphasis on explosion and reload, versus static weight pushing.

The weight training facilities of international teams and non-football sponsoring California schools are a shadow of what the NCAA Division I football schools have in place. Having played overseas and recruited internationally, the lifting routines are almost comical when compared to the USA - but what is not funny, is how much better the international players are when placed against USA players. Like the California kids, the international players play more volleyball because they have the opportunities to play. Playing and staying in good physical condition through a proper diet and exercise are the priority, not gaining enough strength to power clean a Volkswagen.

In my world, the best thing we can do as coaches to provide playing opportunities and positively encourage physical fitness - not demand lifting and mandating play. College coaches would do better to allocate funds towards the building of a couple of quality sand volleyball courts than mandate lifting. For me, I would trade a daily 1 hour lifting session for a daily 1 hour beach volleyball session. The volleyball play will burn calories, strengthen the volleyball muscles and improve the volleyball abilities of players. The same thing can be applied to high school programs - instead of arranging for summer lifting sessions, arrange for summer playing sessions.

Along the same avenue, I would rather have my players run, cycle, stair climb, etc. for one hour rather than lift for one hour during the summer. Most of the time, the summer lifting sessions are not monitored as closely as during the school year and the corresponding the gains will not be as big; this is more pronounced when the player is lifting away from campus. When players report for pre-season, they can be very strong but also out of shape. Many kids can squat or bench press personal bests, but will become seriously fatigued during an explode and reload training session. Small injuries happen (sprains, strains, pulls) from conditioning being poor rather than strength being poor. The mind is saying "go", but the cardiovascular system is saying "no".

In a perfect summer work out environment, my players would be able to have a quick lifting session that focuses on core strength and large muscle groups, a conditioning time that developes speed and endurance and many opportunities to just play volleyball. But having this trifecta available is tough and too many coaches have tended to overdo the lifting segment. Lifting is great, but if a team can't pass, then nothing they did in the weight room will matter come November.

Encourage your players to be like Cali kids - play volleyball and work out. Encourage this by reminding them that they don't need anything to go for a run, they can always find some place to climb stairs, push-ups and sit-ups still work, they can return to their club teams to play volleyball or find a grass volleyball tournament or man made beach court somewhere. The International kids play volleyball year round, but is a low key, year round existence that keeps things positive and fresh.