Court of Dreams

By John Kessel | July 05, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

An almost four hour flight from Miami over the Caribbean Sea brings you to the island trident nation of Barbados, home to some 280,000 perpetually smiling people.  I love the story of their flag, with blue bands for the sea and sky, and a yellow band for their golden sands - as they have some 60 miles of coastline.  Just 133 square miles, about 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. means the smell of the sea is always present.  Palm trees galore along with coconuts and people at the roundabouts selling fresh coconut water.  Neptune's trident is also on their flag, broken to signify their breakaway as a former British Colony, and the fact that I keep going to the "passenger" side only to be asked if I would like to drive.

I am here to finish Phase 3 of our SportsUnited grant helping six NORCECA nations.  They all joined Bill Hamiter, Sue Gozansky and me at the FIVB Development Center last year for a week of training, then spent another week in Phoenix at the Volleyball Festival to experience the USA and get more training – including playing with Arizona Special Olympians and playing sitting volleyball with 2 time Paralympic medalist Lora Webster.  This final third phase has all the phase 1 and 2 coaches teaching what they were taught to their own nation’s coaches and players, while I provide updates on research and immediate feedback on their presentations. 

I delayed my flight by a day to ensure things for family and friends were safe from the Waldo Canyon fire. While friends lost their homes, and others had their homes standing right next door to neighbors who lost theirs, only one friend lost most everything, not getting ALL of his 5 P's (passport, papers, pets, pictures, people) taken care of in time.  This meant I hit the ground running in Bridgetown, landing at around 3pm and starting my first session Friday at 5pm at the Garfield Sobers Gymnasium. There the first curveball -- or perhaps I should say in this Commonwealth land of cricket and netball, the first spin bowler - had us totally adapting the schedule due to the passing of Sherlock Clement Yarde, a prominent football leader and member of the Barbados Labour Party.  Thus the gym slowly shrank from 2 courts to one, then none, as a stage was constructed and the chairs for the congregation to come grew row by row and the Notre Dame Sports Club footballer's practiced their choreographed soccer ball passing drills as part of the next day's service. Nonetheless, the night’s session was a big success,  and lasted almost two hours over the scheduled ending time, as everyone wanted to know more and ask questions about the topics. There were 20 total coaches in the clinic, with lots of player activity planned through Tuesday, after the course ends.

Saturday we moved to the Barbados Olympic Committee center, for classroom topics then journeyed to the beach to train everyone in those disciplines.  They discovered the competitive fun of speedball on the beach, and the national beach teams learned they had been training on 9 meter courts, not the correct beach doubles court size of 8 meters a side.  There were other sports coaches and high school teachers in our mix, and the volleyball leaders were amazed to see how those “non-volleyball” participants were the ones who played on long after the clinic officially ended.  A good lesson for all in the way the game teaches the game, especially when you add some form of scoring to the mix.

Sunday we got our gym back, and spent the day with more presentations on skills, drills and leadership development. I had brought a 4 nets on a rope for their youth volleyball development, and after they saw how it added four more courts to their training site where just 2 nets were being used, a long discussion ensued on how to grow the game. The gym they use has a wood floor, covered by Sport Court tiles. Apparently some time ago they brought the ice follies to the facility, only to discover their wood floor was permanently damaged by the melting water at the end of the event. Thus Sport Court was the surface now.  We played sitting volleyball as well, to much delight of the players, and covered Special Olympic options as well, and the goal was set to get 4 of the coaches to find, or be the players to take a Unified volleyball team to the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in 2015. The sport has fallen off a bit lately, but these two years of clinics have energized the coaches in attendance. Their passion is powerful, stronger than their frustrations. Netball for the women is the #1 sport by far, a Commonwealth Games sport – I think some 24 nations from the past British Empire compete in those quadrennial games. The parallel worlds to basketball coaches not allowing players to play any other sport was fascinating. So I told the story of a netball player from Australia which I will share with you here (remember that important proverb – What is truer than truth? – The answer is the story…”

I attended a MiniVolley course in Japan in 1985, and met Jon Dunstan, who was working for volleyball in Australia but from England. He made me aware of a 6’1” lefty netball player from Perth, who also dabbled in volleyball.  In the end, Pauline Manser came to the Univ of New Mexico to play volleyball on scholarship. She was amazed that there were crowds, and that she did not have pay to play, starting with her uniform and shoes. In her freshman year we took the team over Labor Day weekend up to Aspen to play in the Motherlode. There, Pauline and her Division 1 university level partner warmed up crushing balls, then played two, under 5’4”, wide bodied shall I say, about 40 year old opponents. Pauline lost 15-0, 15-2 as I recall. These varsity players were more than perplexed and frustrated, after such a stellar warm up, and their journey to having better volleyball IQ had really begun.  Making a long story short, I spent time with Pauline in Sydney in 2000 at the Olympics, where I was the USA beach team leader and Pauline? She was simply battling to a 7th place finish in the world in the Olympic Games hosted by her home nation…and now? She is the Australian women’s national team coach – and it started with netball over 25 years ago… So these Barbados coaches found hope.

Cost is a factor, only one nice indoor gym, cost is $30 a court per hour. Volunteers and kids can’t afford that. They need balls and nets more than anything, to bring the game to the schools.  So we finished on the concept of a Field of Dreams, build it and they will come… even to have the Beach Volleyball National team demonstrate, as volleyball is even considered an elitist sport.  This Sports United program also has resulted in four Trinidad and Tobago teams competing this summer in Phoenix, in the Volleyball Festival, as their coaches came and were stunned by this 70 plus court event for kids all being played under one roof.

So the challenge I have presented to this nation is….can you do the same for at least little kids and/or middle schools for your one big gym. I just measured it, their big place, which we lost for clinic use yesterday due to their beloved football presidents untimely death and funeral, is 35x160 meters. That would allow us to put up 30 mini courts indoors.  You would use the sport court tile seam lines to make most the court, just putting down corners and a part of a side line or two, not the whole line, saving time and tape/money.  They would need 7 rolls of deer netting, which come 7 foot high by 100 feet long, to be woven on top with cord and used at the divider nets to keep balls from rolling endline wise. Chairs would be the side protectors. Then, using the “date nite” league idea of teams of three, you could have that one evening….with music playing like the Lime Music Festival. Even better, a one day Festival with waves – Start in pools of 3, after 2 hours, top move to one side. Second in the pool go to the middle, and losing teams move to the other side.  I have said if they make it happen, I will pay my own way to come celebrate the event the first time they stage it, and help do a coaching clinic for the PE teachers at the same time… I hope I get to return for that very reason…This is the space, with 6 courts up…

It’s too bad I don't like coconuts as there are stands everywhere including lots of coconut water options. They used to be known as British Hondurans so they of course drive on the “other side” of the road and so you walk up to the passenger side only be asked if you were offering to drive….There are many options for deep sea fishing but I have no time to pursue my father’s deep passion, so instead in his honor I had two meals of flying fish…Late one night after the clinic ended we went to a Lime open air music festival…the beat was infectious and the food stands had plenty to fill me up with local fare. The fields near my residence are filled with small soccer goals, and kids playing 2 on 2, reminding me of how valuable playing “chumash” was, 2 or 3 sided teams on 6 foot tall 18 inch wide goals I used when coaching my kids in lacrosse, and of my friend Peter Vint’s postings of his son’s 3v3 soccer tournaments.  Speaking of small, there is a frog a bit larger than a quarter that from dusk to late in the night sounds like a broken screen door being opened while broadcast on a megaphone set to maximum volume. There was a noise outside our training gym that I had to go investigate and I found about 100 people playing in a very competitive domino tournament, with every single person putting their tile choice down by slamming it onto the table… In the car rides to training sites, it seems as every radio announcer’s job is talk over every song with their own comments and even lyrics…Headed one break into old Bridgetown, where their iconic clock tower rises in imitation of London’s Big Ben (which is on the USA Volleyball Olympic Team indoor pin for London too!) and the famous West Indies Cricket Oval sits, like a spaceship landed.  You see, this is the land of 400 and not out.  Indeed, I have a statue of that famous cricketing moment of Brian Lara in my USAV office no less. For more on his great accomplishments in a sport few American’s understand, see this link -  and watch the moment here, starting at about 18:30 in this 21 min clip

By the official end of the course, all the coaches who had attended Phases 1 and 2, had spoken on a topic they felt their nation’s coaches needed to hear. They each created their own powerpoints, and delivered some great information.  All wanted to find more dedicated leaders and to give all they contacted more love for the game.  Coaches felt there is a need for a consistent national language.

Cameron’s talk I loved as he related to how he teaches karate, similar. That helps. Put the fun in fundamentals. The Commonwealth Game sports of netball and football dominate – volleyball is a new sport. So aggressive netball coaches said I keep all my girls in netball.  We addressed ways to get kids to give other sports a shot. Like Bajan Road Tennis, Badminton and of course, Volleyball!

Lauren had since our clinics introduced volleyball to 215 new kids.  Janae had an opportunity to play on scholarship in the USA and spoke of when 10 of 12 players who went to Jamaica, went to study in America, and the face that beach doubles is now a scholarship sport.  There was a great presentation on warm up as their national team has changed “so the players are getting warm, not the coaches.”  Troy did a GREAT job on drug abuse, weaving Long Term Athletic Development into the mix and showing a powerful film on steroids, along with flyers and info on the pills and other things available and how to work against them.

Monday and Tuesday I stayed on to work with a large Sports Camp, and the youth national team players, who were both training and helping coach (that which you teach you learn).  So from 9 am to 3pm we trained kids and their coaches on the ideas now learned. Six nets were up, not just two, and nearly 100 kids trained.  I showed funny and serious videos to the kids and coaches during the lunch break, so the training was pretty much non-stop.  I coached until 1pm, then went outside and had the best snow cone I have ever had,  tangerine green apple, joining a long line of kids from the sport center  (which is named for a famous cricketer by the way), and then I caught my 3pm flight back home to home, in time for celebrating the fourth of July with my kids.  I sure hope they get the schools behind the idea and have a great volleyball festival, for all kids deserve a chance to make volleyball their choice…  Thanks to John Griffin and the Barbados Volleyball Federation for the chance to share ideas, now on to preparing for London excellence and if that happens, medals too!