For the Kids’ Development, not the Parents…

By John Kessel | April 20, 2013, 10:59 a.m. (ET)

In the past generation, I have seen how sport has gone from parents playing, with their children learning by watching to kids playing and the parents all are watching. This shift has meant that kids are now much more limited in their chances just to play, without it being observed and critiqued by parents, and these athletes do not get to be mentored by older players. The importance of free play, without being coached but by learning as the game teaches the game, is seen in many studies.

Equally important is to not specialize in the sports until they are in their teens, combined with the chance to experience multiple sports. Wisely, Brazil requires all teams competing in their National Championships at the 14 and under levels, must play a 6-6, where everyone sets and hits and no one is really specialized. Western Europe nations like Holland and Denmark have their kids compete using “circulation” volleyball, where the team which sends the ball over the net then rotates, after every net crossing of the ball in the rally. More about this is seen in my blog “Specialization is for Insects, available HERE.

A recent study done about English soccer academies athletes found that there was really no difference in the training their students received over their years, other than one thing. It was not their nutrition, sports psychology, conditioning or weight training, skill or competition training as provided by the academy. What they found that was significant was that those who went on at the age of 16 to sign pro contracts, versus those academy members who did not, averaged several hours a week of “street soccer.” This is where there is no coach, not a perfect playing surface or environment, but simply the chance to play small sided games competitively. Those not signing contracts averaged less than an hour a week of this time to just PLAY.

Play aside, for thousands of years and in thousands of species, the younger generation has learned from their elders. They “competed” against and acquired life lessons from those years and even decades older than themselves. Learning and respecting their elders who taught them their culture, language, and ways to live. Outside the USA, where sport development is not done through the school system but in clubs, this same mentoring continues to happen. The club has a top team, and a range of feeder teams, which compete in skill level, not age level competition. If a player is good, he/she is moved up to this higher, and older team.

Olympic examples come to mind in volleyball. Keba Phipps was a member of our 1988 Women’s Olympic team at 19, as was Logan Tom in the Sydney 2000 team, with both training with our national senior team at younger ages. The best examples are Mercedes Gonzales from Peru who was on the 1968 Olympic Women’s team at the age of 14 and Regla Torres Herrera, who won gold medal starting for Cuba in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics at the age of 17. Volleyball aside, look at other Olympic individual sports where the athletes are all in their teens. A much more recent example is Samantha Bricio, who joined the Mexican Women’s National team at 15. In 2012, starting at the NCAA Division I level she was also selected as Volleyball Magazine’s 2012 Freshman of the Year. Playing up may not mean you start or win as much, but you gain a level of mastery that is far more important than the outcome.

Meanwhile in the last 25 years, age group competition has become an ever increasing option to learning sports. In the beginning, USA Volleyball offered age groups of 19, 17 and 15 and under. Then as the sport grew, single age group competition expanded so we now have 18,17,16,15,14,13,12, and 11 and under Nationals. By USAV board mandate, no nationals are allowed at the 10 and under level, so those younger than 11 play up if they desire to attend the USAV National Championships.

Yet some parents actually think age group competition that sometimes means their child must play up a year is putting kids at risk. They somehow do not understand the safety of the sport of volleyball, starting with the non-contact aspect of the game. They do not know the history of age group competition which when it was 17, 15 and 13s, would see a team do well at the 13 or 15 age level, then vanish from nationals the next year as they could not beat the 14 or 16 year old team in their age division.

This also was a time when USAV combined age AND grade, resulting in players a year older than most their teammates, playing in that age group. In volleyball areas with larger populations, clubs would form entire teams of players a year older than the age group but permitted by the grade exemption to play down. After several years of study of both the volleyball database, but also over 30 other sports National Governing Bodies, USAV moved to a September 1 cut off date with no grade exception at the National Championship level. Regions can make exceptions in their RVA to have older players play down to stay with their grade group (it has always been fine to play up a grade level or more) but that team cannot take that player to Nationals or a National Qualifier.

This date, matching many other NGBs who the most common date for starting school, allows for the vast majority of athletes to compete with their classmates. This however is a North American phenomenon, and with 220 nations in the FIVB (Federation International de VolleyBall), all other nations use the January 1 date so that athletes are group by calendar year, not by school year. The USA does the same for all our High Performance programs, as the athletes selected there must comply with the international federation age definition. It is clear by the numbers that the age cut off that least impacts America is September 1 for keeping kids together by grade group, with only about half a dozen states not using the common September 1 cut off date.

So with any cutoff/deadline, there are athletes who just miss this cut off, and USAV often hears from parents wanting their son or daughter to be allowed to be older than nearly every other teammate who is in the same grade. As noted before, waivers exist for all but the National Championship events. Still some parents want an exception that still allows their child to play at Nationals. Including the reasoning that USAV needs to honor the “expected birthdate” not their child’s actual birthdate as the child was born “premature” for various reasons. It is very important to understand that this is a 365 day window as things currently stand (except for 12th graders and 8th grade boys). No matter where the date is set, the intent is to have kids who are together in that 365 day window.

So how did we survive before age group competition? I know, as I had to play with men, for there was no age group competition available. My favorite memory was playing for a Men’s AA team when I was 17, against a great Men’s AA team from Ft Dodge, Iowa.

A sidebar here is that my Region then, Eight, was Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa – so travel to a regional event was a 12 hour overnight drive arriving in time to take a nap sleeping diagonally in the back of my 1970 VW Squareback (which I still own, 535,000 miles later), before jumping on the court to play all day...and sometimes we would start at 8am and play until 1 am the next day due to sideout scoring….a qualifier type trip for a one day event.

Ft Dodge had a back row player named Rod Wilde, 10 year old son of Bruce and Jackie Wilde. Rod’s parents served in many Iowa volleyball leadership roles over the years. No libero back then of course, but Rod played and learned from his far older teammates – and went on to be the back up setter for the 1984 Olympic team until a Russian player three months before the Games, came under the net in a USA USSR match in Russia and broke Rod’s leg. Rod is still playing and winning MVP titles in the 50 and over USAV Masters National Championships.

So with so much age group competition, the chances to learn from those far better than you – developing mastery and superior reading skills and a higher volleyball IQ, has several paths. Playing up one or more age groups is one. Playing coed adult league volleyball with friends and family is another, especially 4 vs 4 rather than sixes.. The fastest way is to play doubles against adults. This is the path that both Karch Kiraly and Misty May took in their development. Karch played only doubles when he was young, with his father mostly in the Santa Barbara area. Misty did the same with her father Butch May also in southern California. The experience of an older partner both speeds the learning and reduces the point gap and losses that usually takes place when two young players play against adults. If they start young playing with and against adults in doubles, they get better much faster than in the six person game, even against adults. Olympians Mike Dodd and Karch are known for getting their AAA beach rating, the highest adult level, by age 16, and recently a young gal reached her AAA rating at age 13 in the South Bay area of California.

So to all parents, please take these methods, based on the principles of motor learning, into mind as your amazing child masters the sport of volleyball. 1. Let them play all positions, not specialize. Set the offense, hit back and front row, pass, and dig. Let them block if they are tall enough otherwise let them learn to read and dig. 2. Play more small sided games, 2 v 2 and 3 vs 3. There is a club in Hawaii I have mentioned before. Take a look at this picture from Outrigger Canoe Club, where a single club with about 200 volleyballers has sent NINE Olympians to play for the USA. Their “secret” is seen in the far court, a 6x6 meter “baby doubles court” where the kids play next to the adults. The kids watch, learn, imitate and sometimes, when an adult needs a partner, they even get “called up” to play with the adults. 3. Play up, and stop worrying if your child is playing a single age level above their peers. Help your child take advantage of it, and learn from those older than they are – for once they go to high school and college, freshman want to make the varsity team usually comprised of juniors and seniors. Then, once they get into the real world, the leadership, social skills and confidence lets them “compete” against adults decades older than they are…and that, like it has been for thousands of years, is a good thing…

Postscript – For those wondering, all these USA National Governing Bodies (NGBs) have Dec 31 or Jan 1 cutoff dates, these are the facts from a recent survey.

USA Badminton
USA Cycling
USA Hockey
US Lacrosse
USA Rollersports
USA Shooting
US Soccer
USA Track & Field
USA Triathlon
USA Weightlifting
USA Wrestling
USA Curling
USA Fencing
USA Field Hockey
USA Taekwondo
USA Rowing
USA Ski and Snowboard
USA Softball

Those with Sept 1?
USA Basketball
US Figure Skating
USA Team Handball
USA Volleyball

And....for all those August babies... USA Bowling is...August 1, the only sport, not an Olympic sport, with that cut off date. Several other individual sports do "date of competition" .... USA Boxing, USA Diving, USA Swimming and USA Judo.