This is a guest post by my friend and former teammate Paul Swift, currently of the Oxford University Volleyball Club. Paul has seen a lot of international volleyball players come through the program, and recently offered these thoughts on volleyball after college:
English volleyball at high school is pretty poor. Where kids learn volleyball at all, they generally learn that if one player is bossy, takes all the balls, and bumps it straight back over the net, their team tends to win. As a result, at Oxford University (England) we have to rely on foreign players who have been trained since they were kids by top-notch coaches. Without a doubt, the country that produces the most consistently excellent college players is the USA.
You get the first hint before the very first training session. The American is the one who turned up thirty minutes before the sessions starts. They look confused when everyone else rocks up at five minutes past. Sure it’s a generalisation, but the American players tend to be great team players, cheerful, disciplined and technically immaculate. They cheer from the bench, they try and obey the coach’s directions (even when the coach is talking nonsense) and if they’re subbed off, they just keep cheering. They’re a pleasure to coach and great to have as team-mates.
What’s weird, though, is when you talk to these guys about what they’ll do in a few years, after they leave college. It seems like most of them will just quit volleyball. Those that don’t will play at tournaments and in open gyms.
Don’t get me wrong, both are a lot of fun. It’s not the same, though, as playing on a team that trains regularly. A team is made up of specialists, trained in their speciality, who have been forged into a single unit. On a team, there’s a coach doing their darndest to make sure that everyone on the team keeps improving. Open gyms and tournament teams are fun, but they’re not the same.
In Europe, nobody trains as many kids as intensively as American high-schools do, and no country that I know of has a college league as big and as consistently good as the NCAA. On the other hand, across pretty much all of Europe, a player of any age or ability can join a club in his town, train with a coach and play matches in a league.
That league is part of a structure that extends from village teams (where forty-somethings with dodgy knees tip every second ball with terrifying accuracy, and gawky fourteen year-olds hit into the net a lot) through to teams at the very top where guys in their twenties or thirties play professionally or semi-professionally. I honestly feel that the structured inclusivity at the bottom, where everyone gets coached no matter how good they are, leads directly to the professionalism at the top.
Why are there few or no club teams for adults in the US? I’ve heard different explanations.
First, that there aren’t enough people who play volleyball. This just can’t be true, because in England volleyball is about as popular as tiddlywinks (actually, there are probably more people who play competitive tiddlywinks), and we have national leagues.
Second, that adults just don’t have the time. I guess this could be true, but it seems incredible. You can’t spare two hours once a week to train, and a Saturday afternoon once every couple of weeks to play a match? Whoa.
Third is that, in the US, you’re either playing sport – and that means full-on, 100%, life and soul, five training sessions a week with extra gym sessions before breakfast, or you’re enjoying a pastime, which means turning up to open gyms as and when you can.
I suspect the third explanation is the right one, and if so, that’s fair enough. I can’t help but regret it, though. I remember those Americans I played with. They were like sharp blades, who sharpened themselves, and were sharpened by their coaches, until they were lethal, lethal at serving, spiking, blocking. Sure they’ll have fun at open gyms, but it still seems a shame that they couldn’t keep playing high-level league volleyball.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.