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USA Volleyball

The Cumulative Effect

Feb. 17, 2010, 6:45 a.m. (ET)

I have been watching the Winter Olympics as much as my travel and work schedule allows, and have been struck by some of concepts I would like to share. How much everything matters and how important it is to hustle to the very end, and how nations support their national teams and programs.

It should be known in advance that I am much more attracted to the events where competition is simply NOT judged, but won in head to head battles. While every contact is judged in our sport- and the referee thus calls illegal contacts for each time we touch the ball, making technique important - in the end it remains real competition which is decided by the team who puts up more points on the scoreboard, not by a judge who award you those points.

Hustling to the end can be seen as Apollo Ohno jousts and whirls around the track, and in the final turn, is in fourth place, putting in his full effort - when the randomness of sport strikes, and two competitors crash, and 5 seconds from the end, he flies into winning his 6th Olympic medal.  Bode Miller flies at over 90 miles an hour in the men's Downhill ski race - and takes the bronze after a race of over a mile - behind the gold medal winner by .09 seconds in the closest event in Alpine history. The snowcross racers leap and turn down the course, starting with 32 racers in qualifying heats until their own version of a final four. Sean Wentworth finds himself in 4th place, but continues to give full effort, and a mistake by another American, and his own skills at being Citius, Altius, Fortius - gets him past the other two opponents and he crosses the line ahead of them for his second gold medal.

Everything matters, even if a statistician might state that something is statistically insignificant. Tell that to Picabo Street who won her gold a couple Olympics ago by .01 second in a downhill race that went on 1.3 miles - the difference of less than a foot over that course. To the Olympic and Paralympic cross country ski racers who cover 50 kilometers in over two hours, know that out of those over some 8,000 seconds, each one counts. In Torino, the host nation celebrated as Giorgio di Centa won the 5OK in 2:06:11.8  - only 0.8 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Yevgeny Dementiev of Russia, and 0.9 seconds ahead of the bronze medalist, Mikhail Botvinov of Austria. That may be statistically insignificant, but to those medal winners, it is incredibly significant.

In our sport every point matters too, which is why we teach to train one point at a time, that single important present time event you have control over, not the past or future ones. In 1988, the USA women were playing Peru for the chance to advance to the medal round. As a tie with Peru would be broken by total points scored over the entire tournament - a system known in advance which basically eliminates the need for a playoff game, the USA ladies knew they could only give up 31 points and had to win in three sets. Game one, they won, giving up about 10 points, game two, about the same, so in game three, when Peru scored that crucial 32nd point, even though the match was not done, Peru knew they were headed to the medal round.

It is not easy to qualify for the Olympics in volleyball, let alone win a medal. With 220 nations as part of the FIVB (our international federation) only 12 teams get to go each quadrennium to the Olympics. Twelve go and 208 nation's national teams stay home. The importance of working together in our sport, funding the full time training seen in our National Training Centers, so that we are good enough to qualify and be in the Olympics is beyond measure - but it can be seen in our past. Most playing do not remember there was a long stretch of time that America was one of those teams watching. There was no USA team to cheer for and that impacted the growth of our sport in a variety of ways.

From 1969 thru 1983 there was a drought where no USA teams were seen playing in the Olympics. This lack of being on TV at a time when there was no video tapes to watch, no DVR recorders to capture play, no YouTube to see amazing moments, meant you had to watch it live, or basically not at all.  The only way we learned was in the photos from Volleyball Magazine, bringing those still photos to life when we took to the court. Karch Kiraly last month continued his giveback to the sport by doing a kids and parent clinic here in town. You can see pictures of the event by CLICKING HERE. On the way over in the car, he spoke of his passion growing for the sport when he was 15, and how he watched every hour of the 1976 Montreal Olympics in order to see any volleyball. Since the USA had been beaten by Cuba in the 1975 NORCECA Zonal, American TV was not showing any volleyball. When the five minutes of amazing Poland upset over Russia in the gold medal match took place, Karch almost missed it by going to the bathroom. Inspired by those few minutes, and the love of the game from just playing with friends and his father, he then went on with his future teammates to help make sure that the USA team was in the Olympics, as it continues to be. Equally important, he continues this effort on behalf of all in the USA Volleyball family to make sure the USA program is at the top of the world, by assistant coaching the Natioanl Women's team.  

In 2004, many may not realize the USA men won their coveted slot by winning our NORCECA Zone, in an epic battle over Cuba. The final score of set five was 15-13. A two point swing the other way, and you don't see the USA men in the medal round in Athens, and likely, four years later, would not have seen many of those same players win the gold. In 2007 the USA Sitting men's team, in front of 7,000 screaming Brazilian fans, lost 13-15 in the fifth set and did not get to go to the Paralympics.

So everything matters, as luck favors the prepared. The cumulative effect of taking care of the little things, for there are no little things, can be seen in teams which work hard to get more contacts per hour in training. Teams which don't stand in line at a water fountain to drink, but which all drink from their own bottle, and get back on task fast. When one team sprints in to listen to their coach, then sprints back to start back up, and another team walks in - the team who runs is getting more contacts per hour, more opportunities to respond, more learning by doing. Remember, gamelike matters more than you likely realize, so that real transfer occurs and players learn to read the right cues and make the right decisions. I get a lot of reps in partner passing, but the skill being acquired has little or no value to my actual game play. The cummulative effect is powerful, for everything matters.

How important does training using the science of the sport matter, based on evidence and not beliefs? I believe it is best seen in Olympic results. In case not seen before, those reading this blog should know that the National High School Federation shows we have over 400,000 girls playing high school indoor volleyball. With NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA combined, I estimate there are about 10,000 scholarships for girls. I also am sure the best female athletes in high school generally opt to compete in track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and swimming - and the total participation numbers for HS girls bears this out. How have the USA indoor women done in the Olympic Games? Three very important medals to be proud of - silver 1984, bronze 1992, and silver 2008.

What about for the men? Here the National HS Federation records we have about 40,000 boys playing in the nation. What sports do the best athletes opt for? Football by far, and of course basketball, and baseball and those sports with professional options, with volleyball quite far down the best athlete pipeline list overall. The stunning reality that too many do not know, is how many scholarships there are for boys in America. The current number is 92. Under 100, compared to 10,000, for the nation. How have the men done in the Olympics? Well, thanks to some tall great people who chose volleyball over other options and were given the time to put in deliberate practice of the decades of their development, the men have won three golds (1984, 1988, and 2008) and a bronze (1992).

The challenge to qualify for 2012 has begun again. Alan and Hugh and their capable staffs are doing volleyball like all the USA Volleyball staff does, 24/7. The support and funding for this effort comes in no small part from USA Volleyball members- juniors and adults, who make up the base and pipeline that flows to the ever important Olympic summit. There are 219 other nations doing their best to reach the top of the podium too. We will share ideas with them, and grow the sport together - but they do not fund our pursuit of excellence. That is what Americans do. Our Olympic Committee (the USOC) is funded not by the government, as in most nations, but by Americans and sponsors. Our USA Volleyball team is the same, funded by Americans and sponsors - through the USOC and USA Volleyball Regions.

We need to celebrate and thank those who allow us to play the sport we love, and deliver the final effort that results in the success of taking part. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin said "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.". These Winter Games, with mother nature throwing weather challenges rarely seen at an event needing snow, has seen the volunteers - especially the course preparers, putting in 70 hour non-stop work loads, just so the competitors can perform.  We hear of the years of sacrifice families make so their Olympian can finally compete.

The chair of our grassroots Commission, Eric Hodgson, was noting that in watching the curling, while silly looking to many and seemingly inconsequential, how the sweepers are an unsung rung to that sport's success ladder.  We wonder How much we take for granted the little things LIKE a perfect pass, which leads to a perfect set which leads to a thunderous kill that gets everyone out of their seats! The attacker is a goddess, the libero dusts off and prepares to do it again. How many DS/Liberos have been NCAA Players of the Year, and yet how would all those OH's and Middles have won without them. Add in the way a real volleyball team betters the ball, making errant passes into nice sets, or taking imperfect sets and attacking them with success, and we see how we should really compete, not complaining but improving that which was given us, and being full of the passion of competition. 

Everything matters - and choosing to support USA Volleyball through all levels of regional membership and involvement - including teaching and developing players, coaches and officials, makes a big difference to our National Team success in that same cumulative effect.  So for those who grow the game in all the USA Volleyball Regions, HP pipeline included, we thank you for supporting America's team and look forward to qualifying for London, so every American can again be as proud of our teams as we were in Beijing.  I will close with a final quote from the Baron de Coubertin for you to consider - The day when a sportsman stops thinking above all else of the happiness in his own effort and the intoxication of the power and physical balance he derives from it, the day when he lets considerations of vanity or interest take over, on this day his ideal will die.

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

On March 01, 2010 Michelle Goodall wrote

As I read this NYT article online today...made me think of your blog, John. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/26/sports/olympics/20100226-olysymphony.html In this article, they've shown this same concept in a musical representation of the difference in time between the placewinners at this Olympics. It's amazing...and in some of the events, the times between finishers is hardly perceivable. (winning by .02 seconds!? wow!) Thanks again for all of your blogs; enjoyable and thought provoking. Please keep them coming!

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