We can divide the development of volleyball athletes and the role of the volleyball coach into four distinct parts. The coach is ultimately responsible for the team and must have an understanding of all four pieces of the pie and how they work together. If the objective is to enhance any one of these areas, the coach or club pursues support staff. For example, the strength and conditioning coach is an important part of this process. However, increasing staff can present challenges. Support coaches must realize they are not in charge of the entire pie; they support it. Misunderstanding one’s role or trying to do too much is a pie without sugar: no one wants to eat that pie or wants to support it. Supporting staff’s role is just that: to support the program. To do this, the support coach adheres to the knowledge level of the head coach. This varies based on the athletes’ level of play. Each level is unique unto itself and presents very different challenges from the others.
The Collegiate Level: The Power Five Conferences
At this level, programs and campuses have everything an athlete needs to be successful. There’s a head coach with an associate head coach, multiple assistant coaches, and on down to volunteer coaches. This is a great staff able to handle all the on-court activities and issues. In addition, these programs have a nutritionist to help guide and track eating habits with a profile of what foods to eat to achieve specific goals. A sports psychologist is also available in most cases. Finally, a full athletic training/sports medicine staff and a strength and conditioning staff are devoted to that specific team. Teams work to organize their activities, conditioning, and training on a year-round basis, with the goal of having it all work together. One great example is Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook. In his program, the others are all the head coach’s support staff. John is familiar with the responsibilities of each member to the point that he knows how each member will affect the rest of pie. Ultimately, John is in control. That is the most important aspect: control. In order to function properly, the support staff needs to acknowledge and abide by this control. When they do, all runs well.
The Collegiate Level: Division II and Below
Programs in Division II and below have a head coach and support staff that includes an assistant coach and athletic trainer. But if there isn’t a football program at the school, strength and conditioning may not be included in this support. In this environment again, the head coach is in control.
Regardless of the collegiate level, the head coach has the control necessary to develop athletes in a progressive way.
The Club and High School Level
This is the level at which things change, specifically control over progressive training. The high school coach manages his team from the start of school in August through December. During this time, kids are playing in-season high school ball, and the school coach is in control – one would think. This coach is in control while his athletes are in school but come Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday when those kids go to their club program, we see the loss of control. Now, the club coach wants to have full control of her team, and we see athletes who have multiple people vying for control over the athlete’s development and commitment. Then, to further dilute control, young athletes may want to see a performance trainer, who most likely thinks the other two coaches (high school and club) don’t know what their doing when it comes to strength and conditioning. The performance trainer may not be concerned that an athlete is in-season – this trainer will push the athlete to train harder and become stronger. Already, there are three coaches who want to be in control. This is a mess.
The Annual Plan: A Possible Solution?
In theory, an athlete (and their parent) can institute an annual plan that all coaches have to sign off on. This will help all the coaches be on the same page, and with parental approval. One obstacle getting in the way is that somebody has to actually produce this annual plan that both parents and coaches are comfortable with. At the collegiate level, coaches have control, but are bound by the NCAA regulations as far as the contact they can and cannot have with the athlete. If a coach doesn’t adhere to the NCAA rule, there are consequences. These penalties encourage the coach adhere to the rules. Within the bounds of these rules, an annual plan can be created and implemented.
If we go down to the high school or club level, these rules don’t exist. A particular club may be run by entrepreneurs who don’t have a good idea of the technical aspects of the sport and how it is run. Maybe they had a daughter playing volleyball and saw the profit potential, and became investors in a local club. This type of environment doesn’t have the governing factors we see in college to encourage or implement an annual plan. The club player is on auto burn and going full speed ahead. Now let’s look at the calendar: a young athlete starts playing high school ball in August. In December she reports to play club ball and is in-season again through July. The reality here is that she will only have two weeks in late July when she isn’t in-season. I have trouble finding a period where she could afford an off-season.
One possibility is building in an off-season of athletic development by emphasizing strength and conditioning and de-emphasizing volleyball. There would most likely be an additional fee for a program like this. But the question then becomes, what is meant by de-emphasizing volleyball? What does this mean to parents? One example scenario would have athletes taking a six-week period to lift weights Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with volleyball-specific movement development being done in tandem with the weight training. This additional movement skill training could be done with some resistance like tubing, medicine balls, etc.
The key is an element of volleyball skill work. Ideally, this could be done twice a week with recovery days built in. It would also allow for natural transition into strength maintenance as the competitive season draws near. My example is an idea only, one that would be met with some skepticism. In my opinion, most volleyball coaches aren’t knowledgeable enough to have a complete handle on the entire annual plan process. Introducing it and using it effectively would take education. The main goal would be educating coaches on how to combine volleyball technical tactical with the conditioning process under the direction of, and with the cooperation of a strength and conditioning professional. All of this sounds good to begin with, but often we see what I consider a shift in a coach’s priority to stay with the proposed annual plan. Most coaches go into a season with specific priorities. But then they have certain on-court performances that shift their priorities and start to contradict the annual plan in some ways. These shifts end up detracting from the annual plan. Once a shift in priorities happens, it is hard to get the annual plan back on track. A priority shift may seem feasible a month and a half into the season; then the team is in the qualifying season so a shift back just isn’t realistic. Seasonal adjustments lead to shifting priorities which leads to a diminished annual plan.
Out of Control
The way this system works now doesn’t allow a clear path of success for the kids. The will to win can cause people to forget what is best for these young athletes. It’s the nature of the beast and the volleyball culture we live in. It is out of control.
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