December 23, 2011

Male Practice Players in Women's Collegiate Volleyball

My daughter is on her preferred D1 college volleyball team.  She is very happy with classes, teammates, campus, study tables, dorm, even likes the coaches.

Here's the question:  how does a player (yes, on scholarship) get the chance to improve during practice when they stand along the sideline watching the starters get all the touches while those starters are playing against the giant BOYS brought in to play as the scout team?  The non-starters do not even get to scrimmage the starters to prove themselves because the coaches have brought in some strong 6'4" boys who play volleyball.  During drills, about 5 of the players are told to stay out of line.  How can they improve and develop throughout the season to get more playing time?

I did some personal interviewing of parents from college players in other D1 programs and learned the same thing  ( that we didn't know during the recruiting process) - but now know first hand:  No matter your class year (frosh, soph, jr. etc.) if you are not a starter, you most likely will not get equal opportunity to participate in practice, which can last about 2 hours a day, then lifting/conditioning. 

As a remote parent, it becomes a challenge to keep the daughter's mind focused and committed to the sport / team when they feel rather helpless to help themselves.  

From the stands watching warm-ups, the entire team performs at a top-notch powerful level and those starters certainly do not standout as the best performing volleyball athletes (composure, mental game, athleticism).  

Naturally, this would seem to be a question to ask the Head Coach, but I'm seeing too many timid players who are afraid of those 'running events' i.e., punishments, to ask.  And the obvious answer is 'GET BETTER' to take a starter's position - but when those standing/watching do not get the touches, how do they improve?    We are learning this is rather typical and wonder if there is a solution.  Our family (player and parents) plan after the season concludes is to meet with the Head Coach to ask if she is a practice player for life, or what are his performance /  playing stats expectations of her (those little playing time girls have tiny weeny stats).

Would I be imaging that coaches have 'favorites' and are not really playing the best players?  
Shouldn't he be preparing the other players to replace those that graduate?

Your thoughts and guidance, please - again?  K.

This is a tough situation and was actually put forward to the NCAA membership for a vote; using male practice players in female sports (most notably in Volleyball and Basketball).  I voted against, but it passed anyways.

I voted against for two reasons; 1) Why are men participating with a female NCAA team, even in practice, 2) Not every school has the luxury of having competent male practice players; this is a huge advantage for those schools which are geographically located in a region which supports male volleyball.  Women's Basketball can scrounge up 5 male practice players just about at any NCAA school, but that is not the case for Volleyball.

In terms of your concerns, they are valid.  How can players improve if they are sitting out important parts of practice?  This forces these non-starting players to try to gain their skill improvements during the early drill segments of training.

But, the reality for the college coaches is that the starters playing against a male practice team will get better than playing against the second unit.  For many schools, because of injury or youth, the second unit is not very strong and will not challenge the starters to improve during scrimmage situations.  When the starters are going against tall, athletic, strong male players, they will improve. 

I speak from experience because a school which I was an assistant at, used male practice players and it made a huge difference in the speed of the game, and the reaction times of the starters. 

What can be done by your VolleySA?  During the season she needs to work very hard to maximize the early part of practice to keep her skills sharp and to work on improving her skills.  This is usually the reverse of the common mentality for practice where players move through the repetition drills rather mindlessly, waiting for the scrimmage part of practice to really shine.  She needs to flip her mental approach to shine early, because there may be no later.

Out of season, or Non-Traditional Season, she will have more opportunity because most programs will not use a male team as much as in the Traditional Season.  This is her window of opportunity to rapidly improve skill sets while demonstrating her ability to try and garner a starting role.  The Non-Traditional season has two components; the group and/or individual segment which focuses on skill development and begins when the Spring Semester starts; and the Team Training segment which runs approximately 6 weeks and closes out the Spring season with a few Saturdays of competition.

You asked about when the coach would develop talent for next year; two ways.  The Spring season is where he/she/it will begin the process for next year's team with training and group development.  The other way the coach will develop talent is to recruit and employ the ever more popular One and Done (read about it on the site by Searching "One and Done") - Easiest/quickest way to make a team better is to cut players and bring in more talented replacement.

I would NOT go see the coach, no matter how many parents rally to the flag.  This is the recipe for disaster and potential bias against your daughter.  The reality is the coach is the dictator and he/she/it is going to do what he/she/it feels is best to win and to keep their job.  As the coach controls the roster/scholarships, parents will have zero influence over the process.

Much better for your daughter to approach the coach (which she may well have done on many occasions) to ask what she needs to do to become a starter because she wants to be active in practice.  This is a big change from Club to College Volleyball; the parental voice carries zero weight in college volleyball.  Players must step up and ask how they can improve, ask what they need to achieve to gain court time, to ask for feedback.

College coaches are human and as so, will let personality of players come into play when making playing time decisions; not so much an either or decision, but allowing a struggling player to play their way back into positive stats.  Playing a "favorite" and not a better player, may well happen, but I don't think it is that common. The competitive level and demands of college volleyball are such that coaches cannot afford to have better players not in the game; that is career suicide.

Ultimately, if your daughter is not happy with the situation, she can transfer; she only gets one chance at being a college athlete and it is tough enough sitting the bench during matches and to do this for practices would be even tougher. 

I wish I could give you the magic answer because this is a tough situation.  Basic advice is for your VolleySA to keep working hard, to ask questions of the coach, and then she must make a decision to stay in or move out.


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