A long talk last week with a writer from Volleyball Magazine, got me contemplating some principles that are important on the topic of “specialization” The first thought that came to mind, is the title of this blog – taken from this quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." -- Lazarus Long (Robert Heinlein)

This is not to say that specificity, a cornerstone in motor learning is not important, for specificity is perhaps the most important thing to learning the sport you are practicing. It means that “People are Awesome” (see my Christmas present blog https://images.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Features/2011/December/14/Videos-and-Principles-Worth-Many-Thousands-of-Words.aspx which links with those titles if you missed seeing those compilations of amazing things the human species can do athletically) and can and should experience a wide variety of activities – in life and in sport. The key thing is specificity does not require specialization – especially in our sport where we rotate, have front and back row rule limitations, and where our playing space, once the ball is contacted on the serve, potentially is half of the planet.

Initial Ability and Final Ability are not Highly Correlated

I have been one of the lucky ones to have time to share ideas and be mentored by the great Carl McGown, as have names you might recognize, Doug Beal, Marv Dunphy, Fred Sturm and Hugh McCutcheon – each Olympic medal winning volleyball coaches. Carl keeps reminding us all that the research is very clear – early success/specialization does not necessarily result in later talent. Carl and our two time Olympic men’s coach Fred Sturm cover this in detail in their paper “Basic Concepts in Long Term Talent Development.” If you want a copy, email me at john.kessel@usav.org This fact is perhaps best exemplified in the recent “overnight” success of Harvard graduate and the NBA’s newest basketball star Jeremy Lin. A great article, “Just Lin Baby!” is found on Forbes at this link - http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2012/02/11/9-lessons-jeremy-lin-can-teach-us-before-we-go-to-work-monday-morning/ I have also put together a “test“ you can take – Match Quiz on Talent Development that you can take in a past blog that references some examples of late developing athletes.

Find a Sport to Love – There are over 100 options!

I was going through pictures of my kids recently, and was struck by how many sports they had experienced. Sure they love volleyball, but they had also competed, in leagues and formal training, in football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, skiing, tennis, judo, gymnastics, team handball, swimming and skating. Last week a staff member of American Sports Data came to town at the Olympic Training Center to share facts gathered in about sports with USA Volleyball and a dozen other NGBs (National Governing Bodies).

NOTE: I am often accused of saying initials rather than names, in an interest to condense what I might be speaking about. So know that each Olympic sport has a National Governing Body, or “NGB,” which are the groups which guide each Olympic, and often Paralympic, sport in partnership with the US Olympic Committee. Thus we share joint logos and the term “Olympic Journeys Begin Here” and if you have not gotten the cool free bumper sticker that looks like this:

Well then, send a stamped self-addressed long (8in, no 6 inch) envelop to USAV Region Services and we will send you one!

This gentleman said his company has data on 119 sports that he can analyze in many different ways. Interestingly, this did not have several Olympic sports – like fencing or martial arts of Taekwondo, Judo or Karate – nor was any form of video game included. So let your kids discover a sport they love – and if it is chess – the thinking man’s sport to reference the Saturday Night Live Classic skit on the unsung hero of chess, the high school chess coach featuring Jim Belushi – enjoy it – and make sure to rent/watch the movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher” in the process.

We Need Generalized Specialists

Hugh McCutcheon, who be our first coach to lead both a men and women’s Olympic team when he coaches this summer in London – shares the importance of this in our USAV High Performance Clinics, but it really is for ALL levels. Hugh seeks players who are good at ALL six skills, and great at one or two… So does every Junior and high school volleyball coach in America. One of the ways this can be developed is by playing doubles whenever the situation allows – for there you get to work on your weaknesses in the six major skillsets. For instance, if you are your duo’s best hitter, you will likely get to set a lot, as your partner will be served or if you are a weaker passer, you will get a lot of serves – and become better skilled at all techniques, not just one or two. As a later developing sport – what Hugh also notes in this great clip on “The Journey” to London 2012 – is that at this final level, he needs volleyball players, not just volleyball athletes.sa

It’s not How Tall you are – It’s How GOOD you are..

That principle is highlighted in the link...blue...because it is a stand-alone article I wrote many years ago. It remains true to this day, and thus we must not tell the short kids, you are a libero, or a setter, or the tall ones, you are a hitter, actually you are so tall you are a middle hitter… Especially when they are under 15. Brazil knows this, and their national rule at these younger age groups is that ALL teams must play a 6-6. My best outside hitter on the one high school team I coached was Claudia Garay, all of 5’1” - we set her off the net, she learned all the shots from hard to tip, and all the angles from cross body to wrist away and…she was the best hitter! Last year you may remember I ran a 6-3, and in part of every practice we would have every player hit, then set.

Why Do they Love Monarch of the Court and Speedball?

They stop specializing and become volleyball PLAYERS…

They get to hustle and grovel all over the court –not just in some specialized floor area

They stop doing drills and get to PLAY the GAME

They learn the lesson of Winners Stay On – just like every school or junior championship comes down to – losers don’t run lines, they have to wait and watch for their turn and winners get to KEEP PLAYING…

They get to touch the ball just about every rally, rather than watch someone else touch it half the time (3 players/3 contacts vs. 6 player/3 contacts)

They get to start things with the SERVE, just like they will have to in a game, unlike the vast majority of most coaches “drills”

Oh, and did I mention that they get to stop specializing and become all around better volleyball players?

Team Roles and Specialization

At some point along the long term development continuum of volleyball players, at about 16 and over, training to win becomes important – and specialization does also. Here, team systems have more specializing, but are best based on players who are well rounded in their skills. I believe you will be a better hitter if you have spent time setting, and suggest more teams follow in the Cuba women’s team three time Gold Medal path of running variations of a 6-2 over a 5-1 for programs at the high school level, again for player development focus towards higher levels. Still, there is a need to have players who can play multiple positions, when injury or family/academic situations happen. This just happened to my son Cody this past weekend when both situations took place and he went from opposite to middle, and to the winning college team I watched while up doing the Alberta Volleyball Association clinic in Edmonton, Canada the weekend before, when they lost their starting setter. Specialization happens, but it is the player who can do all six skills well, even if they are only great at one or two of those skills, who is valuable at all levels of volleyball.

The Importance of the Coach….

I will close with a must read, the material in the blog “The Expert Advantage” about the Path to Excellence. – a USOC study of Olympian development from 1984 to 1998…


The author writes that “The Path to Excellence was a study undertaken by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in an attempt to describe and understand the factors that contributed to the development of U.S. Olympians (1). This study presents a number of practical findings relevant to athlete development and talent identification that are along similar lines to those being investigated in the Pathways to the Podium Research Project.”

Thanks for your support of USA Volleyball by leadership, membership and partnership. We know our USA teams – indoor, beach and sitting -- will do their best and represent us marvelously, and hopefully all reach the Olympic and Paralympic podium again, thanks to people like you who care enough to be better teachers of this sport for a lifetime. Check out the other LTAD blogs and more here over the last 3 years of blogging and leave a comment if you have something you would like to add!

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On February 16, 2012 John Kessel wrote

Bill Hamilton from Great Plains RVA just shared this related link... http://www.theindependent.com/opinion/another_opinion/g-i-s-youth-sports-are-missing-the-point/article_00441838-5763-11e1-8b20-0019bb2963f4.html

On February 17, 2012 David wrote

I call it positional tunnel vision. When a player's perspective narrows to the point where they can only see themselves fulfilling one role on a team. Getting a player, her parents and sometimes even her other coaches to recognize the value of a player that can play many roles is surprisingly much harder than it should be. Getting them to abandon the restricted thinking of classical volleyball offense and try some new things is even tougher. Try getting a couple players who think of themselves as only outside and middle hitters that you want them to hit all three positions in the front row. Try telling your team that you are going to run a 6-2 with three outside hitters, two middles and an opposite hitter who is not one of the setters, and the opposite is the only player who does not hit more than one position in the front row. If you really want to be labeled a heretic - try convincing your libero that in two rotations she is going to replace the outside so that one of your middles can play defense...

On February 17, 2012 Melissa Hopwood wrote

Hi John, My name is Melissa Hopwood and I am the lead researcher on the Pathways to the Podium Research Project and main contributor to the Expert Advantage blog that you mentioned in your post. Thanks for some great insights into specialisation. As coaches and practitioners we tend to discuss specialisation in relation to reducing sport participation to a single sport, but positional specialisation / diversification / versatility is an issue that certainly deserves more attention. I love the talent development math quiz too! Thanks for sharing and supporting our blog. I am looking forward to returning the favour and sharing some of your great posts. Melissa Hopwood http://www.yorku.ca/podium @pathways2podium http://expertadvantage.wordpress.com

On February 20, 2012 BJ LeRoy wrote

Specialization works as a building block, not as a final solution. Your team can go from absolute beginner to novice fairly quickly with a little specialization. The idea being, you only have one "spot" to learn. Going from novice to good takes greater understanding of each position and skill. As we learn in IMPACT, understanding only comes from doing. To take the next leap as a team, every player must have played every position. You've got to understand how hard it is for your teammates to make you look good. And vice-versa. Going from good to great certainly requires specialization. Sykora at middle seems laughable at her level. Along the way, a 5'10" girl played some middle, and the expereince helped her become great. Maybe specialization is better termed, "Putting players in positions to take full advantage of their strengths." It certainly does not mean, "Play only one position."

On February 27, 2012 John Kessel wrote

USAV is where Olympic journeys begin with our partner the USOC - but the Olympic Committee also partners with us in developing coaches and programming. Peter Vint, director of Sports Performance at the USOC, has been a long time partner in helping bring the science to our sport - and today shared this link on Talent ID that is timely for this topic, and others discussed in growing the game together. Thanks PV. http://harvardsportsanalysis.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/does-the-nfl-combine-matter-offense/

We very much welcome additional new comments, to be contributed below: