Giving Back to Those Who Serve

By John Kessel | Nov. 11, 2012, 1:08 p.m. (ET)

Readers of my blog know the many different ways USA Volleyball doesn’t just support juniors, but everyone involved in our sport.  Those who know the history of our game, know that wars, especially World Wars I & II, were instrumental in bringing volleyball first to Europe, and then Asia.  Our military members of USA Volleyball – US Navy, US Army, US Air Force and US Marines -- compete for the USA in the CISM World Games, and of course in the Wounded Warrior Games and some members even at the ParaPanAms and Paralympics, events I have blogged about in the past.

Well this past summer, thanks to the help of Brian Swenty, Christine Vega,  Erin Markus  and others, we were able to help many of the volleyball passionate kids of our military service members based in Europe.  The idea is simple, these  American kids who are living in Europe – deserve a great American style volleyball camp, without having to spend over a thousand dollars in airfare just to get to the USA for that experience, let alone the costs of many US camps that include room and board.  Brian and Christine, the engines behind the idea, put forth this idea while we were working together in Ramstein, Germany, last November, on a Wounded Warrior Training project of training the athletes and the trainers. Maybe it was because I got the overall commander of Europe’s forces, a three star general, to get on the floor and play sitting volleyball for almost an hour, even practicing over some olive green army issue 550 cord.  I think it is more because Brian is a passionate, talented and creative coach who also loves to grow the game together with USA Volleyball.

Having done many hundreds of volleyball camps over the years, the chance to bring a great experience to the kids of those who serve was a no-brainer – and with Cody and McKenzie both being college players by then who have been also coaching kids for many years already, I had some staffers I knew would contribute well. Brian knew some of the talented coaches in both the Armed Forces side who played for the USA in CISM games, and others who coach high school or club ball in Europe. We opened the staff training coaching course in advance to others from Germany and beyond, and for the first two days before camp, gave the core ideas and principles to making the camp one that would teach the kids to teach themselves, since after six days of mostly 3-a-days, we would be leaving.  We wanted to make sure that the camp was both solid technically, but one heck of a lot of fun, with tons of game-like contacts per hour. What a surprise eh, if you read my blog and science based writings…

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Hosting it in Vilseck, where Brian has been steadily changing the culture of volleyball at the school level as a teacher there and the team head coach, was not only logical, it was simply the right place as each month there are still service members based there, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 172nd Infantry Brigade, who are losing their lives in the current war. During camp staff swung by the memorial of the fallen, while just a few feet away, units of troops would be marching by in unison, and full voice, returning from the live fire range back to chow. Indeed the coaching staff and many athletes ate in the troop dining halls together.  Brian also made sure we learned even more important history, as we Kesselateers spent a day at Dachau and my kids also visited Nuremberg.

Perhaps the most important thing about working and helping the camp was the commitment by all to be paid by learning, not in dollars. This allowed 175 kids, from eight different nations where their parents were based and thus they went to school, to be able to drive or train in affordably. So, what was the cost of these six days with room and board, and 3-a-day training in not just volleyball, but in doubles on grass, minivolley on tennis courts, sitting volleyball and wallyball in two racquetball courts, and a full day of beach volleyball and swimming/diving pool training and competition?  The kids camped out at nite in the Vilseck HS classrooms, we coaches stayed on base as well …and the cost charged to each athlete attending was…$175.  That’s it, as these kids and their families deserve such a low cost but quality training.  We watched the USA teams live online every evening, and I even got some “Kessel Chips” to eat one day, as they are “NEU!” in Germany.  Growing the game together we went on the Armed Forces radio broadcast and had the The Stars and Stripes Europe newspaper report on the training, as did other papers there. Read  the article and learn more about the camp.   

Many camps have a staff match mid-camp one evening, and so did we. Ours just happened to be a USA vs. Germany match, as two coaches who attended the pre-camp coach IMPACT course, brought their high level men and women to play the USA coaches.  Memories of my first camps back in the mid-1970s flooded me as I watched both my kids play with almost 200 campers cheering and laughing at the competition, starting of course with the warm up. 

This upcoming summer marks my 40th year doing summer volleyball camps, after working my first one in 1973 at Cate school in Carpenteria, CA for the Southern California Volleyball Association. I must take time to also thank Stew McDole, still at Graceland College-now-University, and Chris McLaughlin from Punahou HS in Hawaii, for starting me down the path of doing each camp better than the last.  This summer marks Stew’s 41st year of doing the USA National Development camps, the precursor to the current High Performance program. Stew trusted me and my fellow camp coaches starting in 1976 to make camp fun yet gamelike and skill based in the four states we ran camps each summer, based out of Lamoni, Iowa.

I loved the intensity, and give this example of our “day off/24 hour break” McDole style.  You do the camp tourney in the am, and camp awards luncheon (along with such “famous” skits and Ball Identification, the History of Volleyball and Stripes) and finish saying goodbye to the campers/meeting their parents about 2pm.  You sleep, do laundry, dash to the big city and watch a movie in air conditioning (for our gyms and dorms were never air conditioned), do laundry that morning if not done before then…are back in the gym the next day at 2pm to do skill testing and group sorting then a talk and finally three hours of training with your new group, which ends at 10pm.  See, you got 24 hours off.That most of it was spent brainstorming how to change the next camp to even be better still was time off…and I loved it.  Camp in Germany in summer 2012 was no less a chance to help the kids and the coaches and I still love it.

Plans are to do another camp next summer in Italy for even more kids. If you want to know more about the camp programming and design, start by downloading the new edition of the Minivolley book, 2012 version, in either Spanish or English. That is where dozens of pages of my camp scoring, games, warm up and cool down fun ideas are shared. Then email me to get my master summer camp checklist and schedule, and drop a thank you note and request to Brian, at

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