Hanging out at this year's NCAA Volleyball Championships in chilly Omaha, Neb., one cannot help but be warmed by the wonderful hospitality of the Cornhusker Nation and Great Plains members. Wednesday night, thanks to Sue Mailhot, commissioner of this region - which leads all 40 RVAs in growth/membership per capita - USAV staff spent time with the Great Plains Board of directors.

I got a chance to catch up to Alli Aldrich, USA Sitting National team Paralympian, and see her silver medal from Beijing. I also got to meet new and old friends who grow the game so well in this volleyball passionate state- including former commissioner Dave Spencer and USA National Men's Sitting Team member Brent Rassmussen.

One of the topics that came up was the AVCA Pre-Convention Seminar that ended on Wednesday. To a packed house, Hugh McCutcheon took the attendees on the Men's National Team's gold-medal journey in Bejing. Later Sue Woodstra, Diane French and Joanie Powell did the same thing for the Women's Team.

At the dinner Wednesday night, I spoke more about the USOC seminar on maintaining expert performance that I have previously mentioned here. The presentation by Mark Williams on talent development was on my mind, and I wanted to share one of the most important things I learned here.

In England, at the age of eight, thousands of kids are accepted into Soccer Academies. They go to school and learn one sport - football, the number-one sport in the world, which we call soccer. That we have to call the world's most popular sport something else in our nation says something all by itself, but I digress. These young athletes then train for nearly a decade, year-round and at the ripe, old age of 16, their "graduation" as it were take place. They find out if 1). They are signed to pro contracts or 2). "Released" and sent off to just play recreationally.

So Mark set out to see if he could determine what might separate the players signed vs. those let go. After a long look, they found really only one key thing that they could measurably say was different. The kids who were released, played an average of a couple of hours of "street soccer" a week. This would be like sandlot games for us, games played without a coach; rules set by the players; scoring options determined by the players; field of play determined by those playing.

Those who were signed to pro contracts? They averaged just under 10 hours a week of street soccer. Wow.

For those of you knowing my connections to the Institute for Play and getting those great articles on the value of play in a developing child's life, you might not be surprised. The way the game teaches the game, and the value of random and creative play, comes out important once again.

Mark made an important side note, that when the great players did just hang out and perhaps partner up while having a ball with them - they did not just partner pass - they would see if they could deliver the ball in a wild assortment of ways, off different body parts, bank shots, varying spins or bounces. Again they were creative in doing something, not static.

Nike took that observation and put it into some popular commercials.

On another related note, Hugh McCutcheon's change over to the women's National Team side is a great Christmas present to our sport in America. I will mull that over more in a later blog.

So for now, hope your holidays are going great and the finals' week for many of the kids in your lives went well. Back to the Convention Center.