We are back with another one of our STOP series, in this case a look at a practice that I hope can be changed in creative ways, to allow many more kids the chance to make volleyball their sport. This challenge to create programming that gives everyone wanting a chance to play the game, comes simply from the core of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) – to keep as many athletes playing a sport as long as possible. We must limit the number of kids who are cut, so that more kids can experience the lifetime sport that volleyball is. How can we be cutting kids from programs at age 13 or so, when we have a sport that has a 75 & over age group national championships?

Volleyball is a late specialization sport, as compared to gymnastics for example. Many people think that an athlete needs to specialize in a sport early in life to succeed at that sport in college or professionally. The facts are that only about one percent of high school players get a college scholarship in their sport, so the real reason for participating in any sport, volleyball included, is for the life lessons to be learned. It is fine to specialize early, if the athlete loves a specific sport. It is also fine to experience many sports and come to love a sport later.

Take a look at this “late bloomer” wiki entry to see an amazing list of those who found something they loved later in life.

So what might be some of the solutions?

These are just a few of my ideas I have used over the years, and I look forward to seeing more of yours in the comment section.

Create once a week training SCHOOL teams to train alongside the top school teams which practice daily.

Create once a week training/playing club teams. A pattern interruption here now….These first two are the places that every USA Volleyball coach reading this blog can first make a difference. Did you know that USAV national office has a FREE 8 and under membership option? That 11 and under USAV membership for just RVA play can be just $15?  Ask your region about these and other memberships like league and summer play – so we can better grow the game, and cut fewer players…

Practice or play at earlier or later times like swimmers and ice hockey programs do. – When I coached Doherty HS ice hockey team, as the new program on the block, we would have 11pm ice time one day, and 5 am ice time the next day – so just a five hour break in training. Swimmers often train at dawn. Why can’t we change our culture a bit to be like ice hockey and swimming to have more kids being able to train early in the morning?

Start a before school coed training /play program to let both boys and girls discover the game. Just one adult supervisor, let the kids teach each other from how to warm up to scoring variations.

Have one, two or even three “training only” slots on each team – These are much lower cost practice slots you reserve in a win-win situation – your travel team is only 9-10 for competition, while your practices can have 12 players. This allows for two full teams for grills/scrimmaging, or three 4 person/four 3 person teams for double court training situations, competitions and other learning opportunities. Thanks to BJ Leroy for adding this important idea. 

Create open gym programs any time there is a court open.  I so enjoyed hearing at the last NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships that when Karch was a teen, he would break into gyms late at night, to play games with his friends. At those times, he and his friends were discovered by security guards and they would just say, “sorry, we just found the door open so we wanted to play…” On a more formal and legal front, find gym time at any facility where you can host a simple open gym for an hour or more.

Create open tournaments using the “Mad Hatter.

Create more courts – smaller ones on regular indoor courts; courts in unused racquetball or squash courts;  six courts on a single outdoor tennis court which has chain link fence to create a rope wall anchor and a unique very short “divider net in the middle;  multiple linked courts on grass fields; courts in cafeteria spaces.

Open “gyms” in the summer on grass fields – I love the Nebraska State Champion coach who put up 3-5 nets in his large back yard, put out a big container of lemonade, then went inside to chat with the parents while the kids each evening formed their own teams and tournaments, letting the game teach the game. Do the same at a park and have some doubles with parent/child teams competing.  Some places in larger cities have summer volleyball spots where nets go up after 5pm till dark – like the Washington Mall in DC and Washington Park in Denver. 

Share the gym – by running a 3-4 small net system from side basket to side basket, you can ask to expand your program by just having HALF the gym for use. It is great when the other sports’ players peak around the divider net and see the joy of volleyball play – you often get some converts, in addition to not cutting the kids who first play on the volleyball half of the gym.

 Reach out to other facility sites, what USAV calls our Affiliated Organizations, and partner to have volleyball programs to fill their activity schedule. These range from the Boys & Girls Clubs, to Jewish Community Centers, YMCA/YWCAs, and of course your area Parks and Recreation places and spaces – indoor and outdoor.

Enroll kids into adult leagues, led by a volleyball playing adult mentor/parent, who gets the kids first to serve and serve receive well, thus enabling the kids to hang in there against most adult level park and rec players.

Give volleyball a chance to be a player’s favorite sport.                                                                                                  

While I have your attention, a final plea… to add one other STOP tradition to please change – STOP hitting and flying under the net. This is in both warm ups and any spiking drills – usually those without a blocker. While talking with some coaches at the Penn State vs. Princeton match they spoke of their frustration with their players’ inability to hit and then transition to hit again. A training I attended in Pennsylvania had a coach working just on “transition hitting.”  So what if we simply started here and now attacking, landing and then immediately moving back off the net to hit again…then went and chased the ball?   No more fly towards the net on landing, but landing and flying AWAY from the net.

I am certain two things would quickly happen – 1. Your players would be much more efficient at moving back off the net after landing (rather than so amazingly skilled at flying under the net into the other court) and 2. Your players would know better how to land more off the net and thus fewer lower limb injuries would occur.  It is a powerful tradition right now, one that has some players already ducked and under the net before their spike even hits the floor. It is a tradition that needs to change, so we have better skilled players, not to mention healthier ones…

Now, what are your ideas to help us grow the game together by stopping the cutting of youth players from this sport for a lifetime?