September 29, 2008

Volleyball Clothing and Equipment

Taking a break from recruiting and team training, how about some thoughts about volleyball clothing and equipment? My team/school does not have a contract with any manufacturer of shoes or clothing (i.e. Nike, Adidas, etc.), but we do have a ball contract. Because of the contract we enjoy, I am not going to review/put forth my opinion about volleyballs, for simple conflict of interest reasons. As for clothes, shoes and bags, we are paying for the merchandise and my schools have always paid for the merchandise, so I feel comfortable sharing my opinion.

Arguable the most recognizable volleyball product line is Mizuno. Every volleyball player knows them, as they are worn by some of the top flight college teams along with sponsoring our Olympic teams. I like the Mizuno uniforms and the company does a good job of presenting new styles that are fit to a woman's build. I am slightly less impressed with the game sweat suit options, as the quality of the material has broken down easily. The most negative item of Mizuno is the shoes - We purchased the most expensive court shoe they offered this season and we have had a number of players comment on how little cushion there is for the foot. To remedy this situation, we had to purchase cushioned inserts. One major drawback of Mizuno has always been price, they are usually the most expensive volleyball supplier in the industry.

A few teams in our conference wear Nike product. I like the minimalist cut of the uniforms and think they fit well. The Nike brand tends to be a mix with regards to women's volleyball. I believe the uniforms are good, but I have been less impressed with the shoes and sweats. For many years, Nike farmed out their volleyball product to Nike Robinson (I don't know if this is still the case), which put together the volleyball line. This association was frustrating, because the discounted prices available for college teams were only for the Nike Robinson items; you could not jump into another part of Nike to obtain desired clothes or shoes. The sweats tended to be unisex, which may work for other female athletes or sports, but they looked rather sloppy on the volleyball players - to get the length right, the sweats where huge or to get the fit right, they were short on length. Like Mizuno, I have not been impressed the Nike volleyball shoes, which is rather ironic knowing that Nike is a top flight shoe company. I find the volleyball court shoes bland and very stiff, and a number of other coaches must feel the same way because most of the teams that I see in Nike clothes are wearing Nike running shoes, not court shoes.

For a number of years, Asics and Mizuno were the volleyball companies. My teams have not had the opportunity to wear Asics, which is a result of the Asics representative(s) never returning my call. I know it sounds selfish, but while I may not be at at top 10 school, my program's budget spends just the same as another. I know a few coaches that outfit thier teams consistently in Asics product and have done so for many years. I like the look and options of the match sweats, and the shoes seem to be good, but the uniforms look a bit boring to me (I may only see what others can afford to purchase). I would like to explore Asics in the future, so if anyone knows a company representative, encourage them to return calls!

Adidas is a world wide company, but its volleyball line was emphasized in the USA not too long ago. For many years, they have supplied just about every European volleyball team and finally jumped the Atlantic to make a big American push. The great thing about Adidas was the price - you could get solid product at a discount compared to Mizuno or Nike. The styling tended, and still tends, to be a bit bland and the fabric used not high quality, but for a one and done season using it, it was hard to beat. The volleyball shoes have acceptable support and offer a few different options, plus you could always explore other shoes in the various sports - they let you cross over sports to obtain product at the same price structure. Unfortunately, this great price structure ended - recent price quotes have been similar to Mizuno and Nike. I was told by a sporting goods wholesaler that when Adidas sponsored MLS professional soccer, they had to raise prices on all product to cover their investment. Unfortunately, the quality of the product did not also rise like the prices.

UnderArmour is a new player in the sports clothing industry and has taken an aggressive slant with its product and advertising. The company was selling so much clothing to volleyball teams, which where just screening the shirts and using the tights, that they decided to start a volleyball specific line. I actually like the training apparel screened to make a jersey better than I like the volleyball specific apparel. The volleyball specific product is a bit spendy for what I feel you are getting, while using training product is a better deal. They don't have shoes at this time, which makes it tough to deal with two separate manufactures to outfit your team. The tough thing about UnderArmour is as the name suggests - it is a base level product made to be worn tight to the skin. Yes, they do have a number of looser fit cuts, but because of the material used, they can look flimsy and cheap. Putting players in ultra snug fitting product on game day (or practice) brings a whole self esteem and body image situation that can be very negative.

Some trends that I am noticing with the product being used -

1. More and more teams/players are using running shoes with a solid heel area for volleyball, as my team's have done in the past and will do next year. These shoes tend to have superior heel impact cushioning and even have more cushion in the ball of the foot (which I don't understand), but feel lighter than a basketball shoe. Volleyball has limited lateral movement (even middle blockers moving along the net are taught to point their toe and go), so catching the sharper edge of a running shoe is not applicable.

2. Baggy uniforms are not coming back, but the snug/sleeveless uniform is not catching on. It seems like the players like the cap sleeve best and something form fitting, but comfortable. This goes for the game sweats - feminine cut and quality. Practice sweats will always be baggy until the end of sports.

3. Because gyms are trying to bring on a second ice age, many college teams are providing a match day warm-up top to use during pre-game and if you are not on the court. It is just too easy to catch a chill, but lugging a giant sweat top around is not too cool!

4. Tall volleyball carts are awesome and expensive, and more teams need to buy them; especially the programs that we go on the road to play at!

Just some random thoughts on volleyball product. Each season, this selection, bidding and ordering of product can take up a bunch of time. Because programs can easily spend upwards of 20 thousand dollars on their teams, it is interesting to see what they are ordering and also, what they are not ordering (i.e. Nike volleyball court shoes).

As a coach, my most important product decision is shoes. My focus is to provide cushion for my players simple to reduce the occurrence of repetitive stress related injuries - shin splints, stress fractures, sore backs, etc. I have learned the hard way to do whatever it takes to make sure the athletes have maximum support in their shoes. After shoes, it is uniforms because this is the image that we present to our fans and school. I like to allow the upperclassmen input with this selection, but price also plays a large part!