From Orphans to Club Olympic

Aug. 24, 2010, 4:22 p.m. (ET)

A US State Department Sports United program has me taking a week of my vacation time, to head to Bolivia – to work with Club Olympic, Paralympic and Special Olympic coaches, hundreds of teachers and even more players from all over the nation. Basing out of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz – my co-coach in this program was Barbara Chillcoat from the Richmond Volleyball Club’s boy’s program.

The training began when my connection in Houston to Panama was a whopping 23 minutes, and my sprint through that airport changing from Terminal B to C in the process (of course the gate would not be nearby, as this is a domestic to international flight adventure), but I made it. My briefcase bag, on the other hand, took a beating bouncing along loaded with computer, laptop, camera, lenses, headphones and an Optoma projector. Those projectors are small, but not that small. I landed in Santa Cruz just after 3 a.m., and was glad to see my control officer Ben Hess sleepily waiting for me.

Day one included another flight across the mountains so prevalent here, to the town of Cochabamba, nestled in a large valley above 8,000 feet. They housed us at the quirkiest hotel, the Aranjuez, next door to the tin baron’s Simon Somebodyorother’s mansion, which is now a Cultural Museum. There is a huge statue of Christ, very much like the one overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, on a hill above the center of the city. The Bolivians take pride that their statue is taller than the one in Brazil – both at 33 meters, a meter for each year of his life, but the one here is a bit taller than 33 meters as Christ lived a little bit more than 33 years. Clever, and an insight into the people. The rest of the day was with the kids, mostly orphans, and staff at the Villa Amistad.

There, I brought out the yellow rope, strung it at an angle across the gym, and let lose some balls and balloons and watched the chaos of play unfold. We left behind half a dozen balls, including a Molten First Touch 140 gram, which was the most popular of course, after the balloons which over a dozen kids successfully coaxed out of my briefcase and into the air. A lot of great soccer kicks and head shots were seen keeping the ball in the air, but there was a group of kids who were playing right, and Barb wants to return to start coaching them into a team. Some pretty darn cute kids to say the least, and I left behind a CD with the videos and copy of my Minivolley translated into Spanish too, so hopefully the team Barb felt she seeded the start of, will germinate.

There were a LOT of fires making the skies a bit hazy and the air smoky. One fire was just a few miles from the gym, and when we left at night, you could see the big flames easily. The tradition, as it has been for centuries, is to burn the fields in advance of spring planting. This year, however, the fires have gotten out of control, and they declared a national emergency while we were there. Basically all the airports in the nation were closed but a couple, and the reports said 25,000 fires burning 3.7 million acres…that is a lot of smoke.

Each day was a whirlwind of “charlas” – motivational and healthy lifestyle/leadership development talks, coaching clinics and player clinics. The Club Olympic group was the most developed of all I would see in Bolivia, with 6 volleyball only training courts – and four more outdoor beach courts. We based there one long day, and they are doing some very good work in outreach, as they are working right now with 33 different schools to develop volleyball. They bought 8,000 club balls from China and have grown the sport greatly around Cochabamba. Bernado, who runs the club, and his family are all volleyball players at a high level, and are giving back to the sport in very profound ways. Our clinics were in no small part about helping guide these coaches to the principals they do not know, and letting them understand the whys of the changes that can make training and the game better. They simply do too much six on six with the younger players, and not enough 2/3/4 person training groups.

The State Department staff was great, they handed out biography autograph cards on both of us, so when the clinic started, the crowd had read something about us, in Spanish of course, and the introductions, which usually take too long, were not even needed. On top of that, besides just giving away volleyballs at each stop, they gave away bullhorns at the outdoor training sites. Tuesday we were at a covered concrete court – like most the school courts are – and a small one court/three school coed tournament was going on at which, during the break, we taught spiking and serving. We then went to a school under construction, where the bull horn was a big hit with the teaching staff, not just the PE teacher.

One afternoon we also trained a group of some 24 Special Olympians and their coaches. They all got the sidearm torque serve down well and were pretty pleased to finally have all their players serve over the net. They were good athletes, and loved to play, and the challenge of creating a unified team was thrown down. I spent $100 Bolivian Dollars and bought a 25 meter roll of 2 inch wide elastic. My yellow rope that has traveled with me to many nations is good, but I like the width of the elastic, same size as the top of the net band. The cost by current exchange rate was $7, so I am liking this new option – you can’t make it nearly as tight, but it is a great option for having a wider “net.”  After each training session, I would take down the rope and have the players sign the band with sharpies, something both the players and coaches enjoyed.

The kids, as always, were spirited and having a blast. Barb asked some of them as they were training if they were learning and enjoying and they were no less than ecstatic in every reply. Many of them did not know monarch of the court or speed ball, so that of course was a huge hit. Amazingly, just the concept of lowering and dividing the net for youth into two courts was new, then when we brought out my yellow rope, they were stunned at how much learning and ball contacting is going on in the same space. They best news was that they were “getting it,” though the players heads often nod in agreement with the learning volleyball through games ideas, more than the coaches. I would expect to see quite a few hits to the website from Bolivia to the video we made 11 years ago in Puerto Rico, as that is still the core of what we are teaching now to the school teachers at least.

The second city we flew to, Santa Cruz, is the second largest city, after La Paz, but not as strong in volleyball. The Asociacion Departmental de Voleibol for this city was founded on Aug 27th, 1960, so their 50th anniversary was going on this month.  They have won recent championships in youth and juniors, in no small part thanks to the leadership of Lydia, who is the vice president of the whole Bolivian Federation. She and her husband Auturo, who is CEO of the Centro Boliviano Americano (CBA)– teaching English and culture all throughout the nation, make an important power couple for sure.  One night we got stuck leaving as the Festival procession of Urkupina, done on Monday in Cochabamba, took place in the street outside our gym. That was quite a traffic jam. We shared a group lunch at Casa de Campo in Urubo, with the State Director of Sport, many CBA staffers and more. We shared a mixed group meal from land, sea and air, including alligator and duck. Some training sessions were with the university teams in “smaller” groups of 36 players/3 teams. They were not used to the player empowered, game like training, but they caught on super fast and loved it.

Dang they know how to eat meat here – one day I had llama, being told it is a meat with no cholesterol. Beyond delicious as the Swiss Chalet. I got a kick out of their payphone booths here, which are 10 foot tall fiberglass birds – herons, parrots, etc -  sheltering the phone. You seem like you are being hatched or protected by the mother hen, very interesting. Another car ride brought up the fact that 2 years ago the national government stopped cars which are over four years old, from being imported. Prices have gone up about 100 percent, and even 15 year old cars sell for $6,000. The trips to the training sites allowed us to see the homes of one city dweller who simply loves castles, as all family members have a home that is not too much different than Disney’s Magic Castle, just a bit smaller. Unlike Egypt, there are lane markers, but a normal two lane road is somehow converted into three or even four cars abreast. Nonetheless, I did not see a single accident or car. The pedestrians are fair game, and play their own form of “chicken” with the passing cars. The most amazing vehicle related thing I repeatedly saw was the bus “stop” which is really a rolling drop off or jump on, often at about 10 mph or more.

Our evening of Paralympic sitting volleyball was a big hit with the coaches and teachers, but only a handful of athletes showed up as, in a strange bit of timing, USA Tennis was doing some sort of Paralympic wheelchair tennis training the same evening. Still had 20 coaches and teacher laughing and smiling after learning the simple rule differences and how to set things up. The biggest smiles came while they played double balloon ball, working hard to not let both balloons fall on their side at the same time.  The training of the university level players went great each day – the eternal question remains as to whether they will be able to change to these ideas which are new to them, or revert back to their traditional ways of training.

The last day was very humbling, as we journeyed for almost an hour to a poorer part of the city where the “New Men” Foundation has taken on the challenge to improve life in the Cuidad de la Alegria – the city of happiness.  Three of the area school teams showed up, along with a passel of teachers and coaches. In the classroom session, one of the coaches stood up to explain how they only have an hour of training a week they can do, and so their skill level was therefore quite low. Little did he know he had opened the door to learn a bit about deliberate practice and the value of MiniVolley….

“Senor, I have heard some wonderful musicians here in Bolivia – they likely only had an hour of school training a week, so how did they get so good? I have also seen some wonderful dancers here in your country, but they only get an hour or two a week in school to train, so how did they get so good? Then if you want your volleyball players to get good too, you need to do a couple of things.

1. Give them “homework” to do, just like musicians, dancers and any student, to increase your deliberate practice time. Things they can do alone, in pairs, or with two to three other friends who want to learn the game. No more than three others are needed, plus a ball and a rope.

2. I see a couple of soccer goals here, and some baskets up, but no net. For the kids during recess and lunch hour to get even better, you need to give them the same chance as those who love football and basketball. Just a rope and a ball, and a space to play is all they need.

I then told the story of the fourth grader who lived outside the “Diciembre 7” gym in Guatemala, as her mom owned the guacamole and tortilla stand right in front. This little gal was a gym rat and one evening we took on the Jr. National team 2 vs 6, and won. She was so thrilled, and we kept in touch…she has been the national team setter now for many years. A great example of starting young and playing games to learn the game.

The journey ended with one last talk to over 400 kids, this time in English, who attend the CBA in Santa Cruz. They are building a city block sized center, called the "Big Apple" as in manzana, which means both apple and block. We spoke of families, choosing work that you love, Citius, Altius, Fortius; making good choices, leadership and volleyball. The CBA team was founded 17 years ago and has won their regional tournament 15 years in a row - it is a special part of their center, as they do not do any other sports, and has their own gym on complex. It was a good way to close the teaching sessions. We then dashed to a visit to the city's center plaza, shopping at the local craft zone to get gifts for the gang back home, and a closing dinner with the staff, before heading to the airport at 12:45am to catch the 4:30am flight to Panama. I just love the time it takes for clearing immigration and all needed to fly overseas....not.

The best practices I have shared with Ben and the US State Department group. In addition to the bullhorn/volleyball gifts, my list would include – for those of you who might reach out to grow our game beyond our national borders - the following:

1. Bring lots of balloons  - younger kids love having such “balls” for themselves and you can give them three or so unused ones, so they can replace them.

2. The gym is a coaches “classroom” and needs a whiteboard at every session, so “your practice objectives are not a secret” and, so you can show and explain things better in a list or diagram for all. This is not the norm currently for most gyms, so you may need to get an easel and flip chart paper – and get this bought in advance of course.  Every teacher agreed that their classroom of course would have a chalk/white board, and thus they should have one handy for their PE classes and team practices.

3. If you come to a country to help, and don’t have a business card, make some in advance with the information you are willing to give out to all meeting you. The Avery biz card printing paper is affordable and you can save a lot of time and inaccuracies by creating your own card just for the trip. 

4. Having the main idea book in Spanish allows you to get through more, letting them know the games and ideas they are getting, are all in the book.

5. Having the videos, posters, articles, disciplines of vball – beach, indoor, mini, Paralympic etc. all on an easy to copy CD, gets even more ideas to them. In the last two cases, the pipeline of information is just not getting to these grassroots levels, in the USA and in Bolivia, but these coaches and teachers will be sharing the information well.

6. Gifts for each player – no matter how small are a huge hit. – You can buy temporary tattoos with a logo very cheap, or decals etc. I brought peanut M&Ms for the “steal the coconut” scoring game, while Barb brought about 500 peppermints for low cost. 

7. Bring half a dozen sharpies and dry erase board markers, as you will use them.

8. Bring sidewalk chalk to welcome them in ways likely not done. Write on the sidewalk entering the gym, draw court lines on cement courts, etc.

9. You can’t bring too many of your cleanest but little-used sport t-shirts and polos to give away.

So there you have it, a long week in Bolivia, but it is good to be home. My daughter made varsity on her team which has won the last two state titles. My son is now volunteer interning here at USAV, after a great experience with the Junior National Team at the training camp in Ohio. Ahead are the Parents As Partner’s Initiative in Washington, DC, the Motherlode in Aspen, LTAD symposium in Toronto Canada, and a lot of HS volleyball, as my son is coaching the C team at my daughter’s school. Soonki, my intern from the Korean Volleyball Federation is also coaching high school, and each day comes in with a list of words in Korean which he then describes what he is wanting to explain, and we make it into English. I hope your summer ends well, on and off the court!


The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On August 27, 2010 Alan Chew wrote

Dear John, Great to see you've enjoyed and inspired from the trip. Cody is interning with USAV? Gosh, i wish i could do that too! Probably will send my application in few weeks time. The tips you gave are good. Handy and useful. Thanks for sharing. Regards, Alan

On September 08, 2010 Scott Buss wrote

Excellent article! The sport needs more evangelists like you. Cheers

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