The greatest volleyball show on earth

“The greatest volleyball show in the world” is a bold claim to make, but with over 100 exhibitors and 70 different seminars on subjects as diverse as “How to Prepare a Championship Winning Team” and “Running a Mini Volleyball Program for 3- to 5-Year-Olds” the annual American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) convention certainly lives up to its billing.

I was fortunate to be able to join more than 2,000 other volleyball professionals in Kansas City, Missouri for this volleyball extravaganza. It can be difficult to appreciate the sheer extent of volleyball coaching as a profession in the USA, most of which is based around the university sports programmes and the schools and clubs that feed into it, especially where the woman’s game is concerned.

The reason for the dominance of the women’s game is too complex to address in depth here, but it has its roots in the law called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which was passed to give gender equality in educational opportunities. The result is that there are now volleyball scholarships to US universities worth an estimated US$112 million (£70 million), the third highest amount in woman’s sport, behind basketball and soccer. This, and the rapidly growing popularity of the sport, explains why there are so many people in the USA who can earn a living as a volleyball coach, trainer, official or supplier, and why once a year for a week just before Christmas the AVCA takes over several hotels and a large conference centre for its convention, meetings, tournaments, product displays, award dinners and all sorts of receptions and events.

Held alongside the convention are the National College Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I women’s semi-final and final matches, the grand finale of the top amateur league’s five-month season. Aside from USA home matches in the FIVB World League these are probably the biggest Stateside volleyball games of the year. If the truth be told, this year the semi-final games were both one-sided disappointments, but more than 13,000 spectators saw The Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions beat the University of California Berkley Golden Bears to secure the national title for the fourth consecutive year. The standard of play was very high with complex attack patterns a necessity against tall blockers and lightning defense. Many of these players will find their way onto their respective national teams or secure contracts in professional leagues throughout the world after they graduate.

A few surprises for someone brought up on CEV/FIVB competitions were the unlimited (and very quick) substitutions, liberos at the serving line, 10-minute breaks between the second and third sets, no shared net warm-ups and all the usual American razzmatazz, with cheerleaders and marching bands from each of the participating four teams.

The educational programme at the convention was vast and far-ranging, with sessions delivered by former and the present USA national team coaches. In addition to traditional classroom lectures there was also a setup of two indoor and one beach courts for practical sessions in the convention centre – two floors above street level! Many of the lectures and practicals counted towards the USA Volleyball (USAV) coaches accreditation programme (CAP), and all these sessions had a sign language interpreter alongside the main presenters. Sitting in on some of these sessions was two-time Olympic champion and “Dancing with the Stars” (the USA equivalent to “Strictly Come Dancing”) competitor Misty May Trenor, who was taking her beach coaching qualifications.

The educational sessions ran over four days with 12 different time slots, and as there were five or six sessions running at the same time, attendees needed to plan their day carefully. Some of the presentations were very technical, such as one that presented the findings from sports biomechanics departments based at the universities, where the lateral movement times along the net were compared to the force exerted by using measuring plates located on the court. Others were tactical, some dealt with injury prevention and screening, and there was a strand of lectures dealing with management issues such as player recruitment and marketing. There really was something for everybody.

Often there were two sessions at the same time that I would like to have attended in person, but even though I couldn’t manage that, I was not condemned to miss out; almost all the sessions were audio recorded and the hand-outs and recordings are available to AVCA members. DVDs of the on-court sessions are also available at an additional cost.

There were some very interesting and innovative products on display and one of the sessions was dedicated to an exhibitor showcase. The session I attended was by a company called Noah Volleyball, which has created a video analysis system for setters. Once set up, the system gives instant audio feedback of each set (in a controlled drill) by plotting the trajectory of the ball, specifically providing the angle at which the ball enters the (user definable) target hitting zone. It has been adapted for volleyball from a system that measured the arc of shots in basketball.

There were many opportunities to socialise with fellow coaches either at formal awards dinners, parties supported by event sponsors or evenings where coaches’ competitive instincts came to the fore such as a coaches’ tournament. I did feel sorry for the people playing in the beach tournament when Misty May Trenor turned up to play.

The week was a real eye opener for me for the opportunities that exist in American universities, both for coaches to develop a lifetime career in the sport and for players to obtain a university degree through a sports scholarship – but it was not all one-way traffic.

Everyone I met was so friendly and genuinely interested to hear about volleyball in England, and our preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games. Volleyball England very kindly supplied me with some copies of 3-Touch to give to people I met, and people were impressed with the magazine. In fact, I know that at least one subscription to the magazine had started going to the U.S.

I have already exchanged emails with several of the coaches I met and will certainly keep in touch with them with the latest news of the preparations for the Olympics, how our Volleyball Development Camps programme is growing and tell them of any athletes we know who maybe looking for scholarship opportunities in USA.

John Biddiscombe
Feb 2011