Growing the Game After an Earthquake

By John Kessel | Feb. 25, 2013, 4:36 p.m. (ET)

So while most Americans are enjoying their President’s Day holiday weekend, and many USA volleyball families are found in a convention center or gym – or even the Arizona Cardinals football stadium (well done Eppersons!) with kids playing over the days off, I find myself spending my week in Haiti, growing the game on the last stage of our State Department Sports United Grant. I am so glad I came….

This is the Phase 3 stage where the 10 coaches from Haiti, who Bill Hamiter, Sue Gozansky and I first met and coached at the FIVB Development Center in 2011 during Phase 1 and then brought the same coaches to the USA to participate in the Volleyball Festival as Phase 2, are now following the principle of “That Which You Teach, You Learn.” They are giving back to their nation by teaching their nation’s coaches, and over 30 new teacher and coaches have turned out to learn from the ten who we taught.

My luggage did not make it to start, but in the end I was able to give away a four nets on a rope, and a 45 meter 7.5cm white ribbon, some Molten 240g kids balls, copies of the USAV coloring book (and crayons) and MiniVolley book to leave behind. I could kick myself though as I forgot my sidewalk chalk back at home, for marking courts on all the concrete surfaces they play on, but I’ll send some down when I get back. From Child in Hand, I have brought along shoes, uniforms, socks and more, to give to the Haitian Volleyball Federation. The federation president, Margaret Graham, is a solid leader, passionate about growing the game better in her nation, especially as a solution to the problems which have come from the earthquake impact. This clearly includes adding the sitting game to their options, part of my role as World Volleyball for the Disabled Director of Development.

Nearly every court you see is not just outside, with the best having Sport Court installed, but they play with no roof. Thanks to former USA national team members Bob Stafford and Byron Shewman, assisted by PSA/Lily Fernandez and NORCECA/Cristobal Marte - a fabric tent version is going up near the city, to be the headquarters of the Haitian indoor and sitting teams program. It will be a good thing to anchor and restore the program in this nation still needing so much.

I am coming in on the heels of Carnival which they all celebrated with abandon and which is a week off of school for the kids. Still with these holidays, the traffic is amazing, and gridlocks happen often for no apparent reason, other than one time there was a palm tree downed in the street and we negotiated around it by driving on the sidewalk in a game of chicken with the constant flow of foot traffic moving along that same space. This city of some 3 million starts at the sea and quickly climbs into the hillsides, meaning most the time you are either strolling downhill or struggling up hill. When I played volleyball in Italy I lived near Cinque Terra, but this place is more like 555 Terraces, not five. All the while “ TapTaps,” or camionettes filled with 10-15 people meander the roads. These are colorfully painted small pickup trucks with a raised camper shell and bench seats extended past the truck bed added to turn them into high volume taxis. How do you know which one to get on? I am told you just learn….but then again, there are limited street and stop signs, as people drive fast, but not too fast, and all seem to know the width of their car or truck down to the a single centimeter. Luckily I grew up riding Mr. Toads Wild Ride, a C ticket at Disneyland, and I am enjoying each intersection. What adds to the fun are the thousands of motorcyclists weaving thru every small gap to save time. Fredrick never wore his seatbelt, but after my daughter McKenzie’s two serious car crashes as a passenger, now I do. Amidst the chaos of traffic, a swarm of horn beeping motorcycles, usually with a passenger, can always be seen weaving across, through, along and even sideways, like water rivulets up and downhill. The Tap Taps cost about 12-25 cents while a getting on the back of a motorcycle, since they can move thru gridlock faster, costs twice that. Why are they called Tap Taps? Before the drivers installed bells to signal stopping, you had to of course tap loudly when you wanted to hop out.

Port au Prince is a city of walls, narrow sidewalks made smaller by street vendors and mini-stores, and wary street wise dogs and children in instinct to avoid all traffic. Either things are shorn up or rebuilding every wall and building, where bougainvillea in white and magenta pours over the security top of broken glass or barbed wire of a hundred variations. I think my favorite street was “Tire street” where no shops exist, just used tires piled 20 high narrow the street and deals are struck. There are also loads of white UN vehicles as there is no army here and only a slowly growing police force. One night we passed a tent city being dismantled after its inhabitants had lived there for over three years post-quake, refugees in their own nation carrying all they could/owned with them. For pics of life outside the gyms we visited, click here.

If you got this far, it is time for a shared secret/new thing I have learned recently, in this case it is two quotes/concepts from my three days speaking at the National Pole Vaulting Summit in Reno last month. Principles are principles, and in this case, that was what the director of the event, who listened to me speak to the Aussies in Arizona last fall, asked me to cover. I came away with these:

Your job as a player is to come to the gym with a smile on your face; my job as coach is to make sure you leave with one.

Never let the pressure of competition get in the way of the pleasure of competition.


The course has gone well, though I have had to press them for less talking and more on the court time. They have had the most passionate discussions of cue words I have ever seen, and then when they play, even just 2 v 2, the arguments resound as if it is a full 12 on 12 brawlette. Power remains limited, but the gym has opened louvered sidewalls and we have plenty of light. At the outside courts I have seen, each are powered by generators, not the city power system. The first practice I worked with the team, they ALL arrived, all 12, in the back of a single pickup.

Other observations shared with the coaches are how well the people carry huge loads on their heads without even holding onto it. The women walk with wonderful posture, grace and dignity and I asked the coaches…did anyone send you to class to do that? Do drills to do it? Hire a coach to teach you how to do it? They laughed and got the point even better that the game teaches the game.

I think the biggest surprise is how hard it is for everyone to change from 1 court to many…it’s as if they just don’t think it is allowed even for younger kids. So inside the main gym, using the 1.5 inch wide white ribbon from Costco (also easy to buy online, 50 yards for about $12), we strung up 4 courts in half their main gym, and a 4-nets-on-a-rope on the other side and had all 40 coaches playing doubles….and speedball….and fast queens….and wash games…and they started competing. My favorite had to be a variation of “steal the coconuts” scoring (see the minivolley book for that), using just 12 M&Ms, which did not melt on the hot outdoor court, no matter how many times they were swapped from side to side in the battle to win all the chocolate…

The last day was a full one, as always starting with food, then outside we went for several hours, working on the rules, strategies and techniques of both beach volleyball and mini volleyball. Once again, speedball wove its way into their being so active, with not just four, but 16 players playing doubles. It is nice that an international basketball court is 16 meters wide, as you can then put two regulation courts on one, while playing on concrete and not sand. While this is a land where no small part of life revolves around finding and keeping shade, the coaches forgot that it was hot and sunny and played and learned very intensely. Another media interview, lunch, and some time showing USAID workers the gym and training, and before you knew it, it was time for closing ceremonies. Click here to see the Sports United Clinic and training shots I took… (click here) So here is our list of action items from this clinic, has some parallels to many programs around the world and USA

1. Serve and Serve Receive more – over the net, not in front of it

2. Put up 2-4 nets on each full basketball court, and get 100 percent more training. International courts are 16 meters wide, so either a meter short or include the sideline space.

3. Remember the best serve reception drill is receive, set, spike…the best setting drill is receive , set, spike, the best hitting drill is receive, set spike…and the best digging drills are dig, set spike (with thanks as always to Marv Dunphy and Carl McGown)

4. Train positive to perfection, eliminating negative habits

5. More Balls – Can Molten make a more concrete/dirt durable ball, without it being rubber?

6. More leaders – not just coaches

7. More competition – consider going more to 2/3 matches, wave formats, pools of 3 evening completion, players refereeing

While one of my main reasons for being here is to set in motion a program to get a Haitian women’s team to the Toronto Para Pan Ams in 2015. After the quake there were thousands of crushed limb injuries. So at my NORCECA Technical/Coaches Commission meetings later this month, we will push for more sitting volleyball in the region. My last morning in Haiti however, I visited an orphanage that a volleyball friend supports. As pictures speak a thousand words, I will let my photos speak to that experience, other than to add that two great friends of volleyball, Lily Richardson with Child in Hand and Bryron Shewman with Starlings USA, are both making a difference with their work in Haiti, both through orphanage and school support. They are making a difference there on the ground every day. Click here for pics of the kids in school (click here).

This also brings back a grassroots idea I created when I did a clinic in El Salvador for the State Department back during that nation’s civil war in mid-1980s. The embassy asked me to bring a set of antennas, as the men’s national team had a set of antennas but not the women’s team, or any other team in the country. They gave me about $75 and I found a donated set of real antennas, then went to Wal Mart and bought 40 bike safety flags. I removed the metal attachment and the orange flag on each. I also asked for bike inner tube discards from the city bike shops, cut them in half, removing the valve in the process, and used the big “bands” from the inner tubes to attach each six foot long antenna to any net. With red permanent markers on the white fiberglass shaft, marking each to alternate red and white on each shaft, I packed the 21 pairs of antennas in a fishing rod transporter tube and was able to give every court/program I worked with, their own antenna set. Now for fast kid friendly antenna solutions, I just spent $2 and get a pair of foam swim noodles from the dollar store and weave them into the net mesh…they may not be perfectly straight but they sure show up that meter above the net to determine in or out as the ball flies! We just filed a state department Sports United grant to return to help 40 coaches from El Salvador and Belize in 2014. It will be interesting to see if any of my antenna creations have lasted the decades…If you are at Jr Nationals in 2014 in Minneapolis, stop any of these coaches and give them a tip or two…they will appreciate it just like these 40 coaches in Haiti…as we grow the game together…