In June, I spent some time in Pago Pago teaching coaches and players in one of the farthest regions that USA Volleyball supports, American Samoa. Since 1878, the United States has had a naval station there. During World War II, it had a 2,500-foot long runway, airbase and mobile hospital. Many stateside do not realize that there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, many who have fought and died for our nation in war and in peace, living in territories like Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. This area is extra special for me because my grandfather and father both worked in the South Pacific. My dad was a Navy captain in World War II. Thanks to them, I can go to Samoa and share secrets to growing volleyball.

This specific event was the result of the Fa’a Samoa Initiative, sponsored by former NFL great Troy Polamalu and his wife Theodora. It began in 2011, with Troy giving back to his homeland by doing football programming. In 2013, former University of Hawaii and U.S. national team member Allen Allen worked with him to add volleyball. Logan Tom, four-time U.S. Olympian, was in Samoa with me. She is one of my favorite players. I have been lucky to know her since she was about 15 years old. She worked with the kids in such a genuinely caring and playful way, it was a joy to see.

Both Troy and Allen are American Samoans who left their island home to find excellence in the states. On this trip, Troy’s brother recounted how he had recently found a goal list inside the panel of an electrical box where Troy had listed about 10 goals for his final year of high school. To get a 4.0, make defensive and offensive player of the year and win the title were some of them. He did not make any of those goals. He got a 3.9 and was injured. But not reaching them does not stop the growth mindset from grinding and outworking everyone. When I think of Troy, I think of the volleyball player challenge to practice as if you are the 13th player on a 12-person roster.

We taught for hours every day at various high schools and “DWYA,” and the only “problem” was some kids got sore feet. We dined with the governor with Samoan music, dance and food; listened and sang along to the ukulele and guitar in the home of the man who brought the flaming sword/fire knife dance to America; participated in a traditional Kava ceremony and had a real Samoan three-roasted-pig luau at a breathtaking place on the ocean. My drive to one gathering was in the back of a pickup truck and one of the coaches filmed our discussion as we drove together to our destination.

After days and evenings of coaching clinics that wove around working directly with high school players, we ended with a tournament on June 27 to do our part in the world-record attempt by the FIVB of #VolleyballYourWay. This was an 11-team JV and varsity event televised by no less than six cameras and two announcers. 

The gift of the Polamalus and their sponsors was remarkable. Kids got both breakfast and lunch delivered to the training site, free shoes and gear and great training. A group of medical doctors screened and helped the athletes. It was about the kids, from the opening to the closing ceremonies.

One of the Department of Education staffers who loves volleyball pulled me aside on the last day to share how the biggest takeaway for him was how we created so much net space to get the kids playing. I brought one four-nets-on-a-rope system (donated to the national team coach Tumua Matuu at the end of all training); 50 meters of wired ribbon which was cut up and used to help, along with swim noodles; 11 small courts for Allen’s 12U groups where only two nets existed, and five Proctor and Gamble 100’ long net bands for each of the high schools to take them. I swung by Ace Hardware and bought 100 feet of 5/8th inch rope for the sixth school to have for extending training.

I challenged the coaches to create more places for the game to be played. There are single courts at most churches, and even in vacant lots or flat spots in every village. They never thought of using the often empty tennis courts to be a training and playing spot by tying rope as the standards at the end of each court, from the top to the bottom of the fence. Then they can string up the rope/net/ribbon using the truckers knot to tighten, and draw the court lines with colored sidewalk chalk. It opens up dual use of the fenced in “gyms” to pack in 25-30 kids on to one tennis court with no need to take the tennis net down.

I also gave away beach balls and balloons to all the little kids watching their older siblings, so they can go home and play together. The game finds a way with these low-cost, slower options. Some of the most intense volleyball “matches” I have ever seen have been 1 vs. 1 games with balloons at homes, hotel rooms or airport gates. This trip reminded me of how important it is to get kids playing, not 6 vs. 6, but 1 vs. 1 and 2 vs. 2. They need to have fun, learn to read and focus on their OWN play/partner and not worry about others. 

We went from two lines of 12 kids waiting to hit on day one, to pairs working together over the various “nets” we created; teaching them to not just hit, but to be skillful. The volleyball traditions of standing in lines, throwing (instead of passing a live ball) and running under the net are less likely to waste the time of the kids in America Samoa. For that, we have the great group of volleyball coaches who journeyed here, led by Allen Allen, and the Polamalus to thank, so Fa’a fatei.

As a closing side note, I think it fitting that James Michener, prize-winning author of best sellers like South Pacific, wrote in the epilogue of his tome Sports in America – “I had learned volleyball in the navy, where all the captains and admirals wanted to be spikers, and I found then that a man who can subdue his own desires and master the art of serving others can make himself invaluable. In choosing sides, the team captain always chose the good spikers on the first and second choice, but then the spikers would grab his arm and whisper, ‘Take Michener.’  I was never chosen lower than third, because I was needed. I wasn’t good, but I was faithful.”