A Return Down Under

By John Kessel | Nov. 24, 2013, 4:40 p.m. (ET)

The Australian Director of Development has come over twice in the last two years with a bunch of Aussie coaches, to watch our USA National team programs in training in Anaheim, see Southern California pro sports teams in training, and spend time at Arizona State University with former youth national team setter, and now ASU head coach, Jason Watson. Jason was one of the Aussie players I helped bring over to the USA about two decades ago, along with Pauline Manser from Perth, who was a great netball player. Jason starred at BYU, fell in love and stayed in the USA. Pauline became an All-American and returned home to play after a decade of training, doubles in the Sydney Olympics, and now she head coaches their national women’s team program. Australia’s volleyball program has been important to me for so long, in part because I served over a year as the Technical Director of Australian Volleyball Federation, before returning stateside to start full time work at USA Volleyball.

One of the people I mentored, and even stayed with for 3 months years ago, Dave Eldridge, was keen on the ideas and research I was sharing  more than most. We would talk for hours about changing traditions that were happening in Aussie volleyball, based on it being part of the Asian Volleyball Confederation. He even started making volleyball equipment based on the ideas, to sell throughout Australia. His company is still thriving – Elson Volleyball – but  it is his scholastic record over the years that is most impressive. He has brought home to Adelaide, South Australia, 61 National School Volleyball Titles in age group play as the head coach of the Heathfield High volleyball program.  Another was Peter Bundy, who has been doing great things in the great city of Melbourne, and also Tony Naar, who first brought me over to do clinics, and now is a Director of Australian  Paralympics.

So when the AVF asked me to speak at their National Coaching Symposium, at the Australian Institute of Sport – I said yes, only if they would fly me down early so I could spend time with other Aussie state volleyball federations.  It was approved, and then I reached out to my old coaching friends from down under. Each stop along the visit I learned, and now want to share those ideas and observations with all reading this blog…

The flight down put me through Los Angeles International Airport during the TSA agent shooting.  What was to have been an 8 hour layover chance to see my mom, turned into a waiting game, both in airports and on the runways of Denver and LA – and we made our connection at the international terminal with very little time to spare. Tony Naar and his wife Susan picked us up, and, thru the haze of the smoke from all the bush fires hanging in the air, I saw something I think we need to do in the USA – green and red sensor/lights on rails in the parking structure. Each parking spot has one and when you look down a row, you can see if there are any green lights, indicating an empty parking space. No need to drive up and down row after row to find an open spot, you just look.

We then went to the beach, to take the long walk from Bronte to Bondi Beach and view the creativity of the Sculptures by the Sea. . I was team leader in 2000 for the USA Beach Volleyball teams, proud to say we took three 5ths and a gold medal with Eric Fonoiomoana and Dain Blanton.  Being back on Bondi sand brought back a ton of good memories, including building a temporary court daily beside the stadium, so Misty May and all the other USA players could get much desired extra training time. The nets we put up?...a donation from Elson volleyball, and we let other nations use them – like Bulgaria, who were being coached by former USA national team player Karolyn Kirby, only she did not have accreditation to access to the Bondi stadium where the official practice courts were located.  It was the right thing to do, to help others in the volleyball family.

Tony’s sons play basketball for Australia – one is playing collegiately in the USA at St. Marys, and another is headed this way but right now is playing in a boys only high school in Sydney. After a day revisiting downtown Sydney, we headed by train back to the Olympic Park – where Tony’s office is, and spent time working with the silver and gold  Paralympic medal winning head coach of the AUS men’s wheelchair basketball team, as well as visiting some ParaVolley leaders  When Tammie sneezed repeatedly, Tony asked “Do you have high fever?”   No she replied only to sneeze again… until we realized with his accent he was asking if she had HAY fever….The Olympic park has an interactive area where the final 100 meters of Gold Medalist Kathy Freeman’s race is marked by underground lights marking where each of her strides landed.  The distance between each step is mind boggling. It reminded me of an idea I gave to our own Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, to put a carpet down the length of Bob Beamon’s world record long jump set in Mexico City in 1968 when he was in town to be honored on the 40th anniversary of the jump. That 29 foot distance when seen from the starting point to landing point is equally mind boggling still.  We are working at USAV on getting a low cost jump measurement device into the gyms of all our programs, which also shows how high our Olympic medalists can jump and touch.  Look for something next year if all goes well.

The plan to fly to do a clinic in Melbourne fell apart when Peter realized the day of the clinic was also the day of the running of the Melbourne Cup – a virtual holiday in all of Australia complete with everyone getting dressed up – especially the ladies who wear some sort of fancy hat – like my favorite one called a Hybrid fascinator.  We instead came early to Adelaide, and had a day out of the gym to go sailing on the Eldridge’s tri-maran.  At Heathfield , Dave has 3 beach volleyball courts built, with lights, right outside their new volleyball dedicated gym.  He took me back to the gym we first worked in, a single court place that still is used, and another flood of memories. The one that shows the power of modeling, happened when I was teaching a head coach and coed volleyball player who was embarrassed that she only could successfully serve underhanded.  Her name was Susie and she was the varsity coach AND played Coed adult volleyball with her husband. So I stood there, showed her three times the torque serve – Stand sideways to the net….Hold the ball above your head…Figure out your own rigid consistent contact point…swing and torque fast to send the ball well over the net…  and off she went….About 5 min later she was pounding me on the back saying, 11 of 12 in, this is great! Why has nobody taught this….watch!...and she served another one over the net  12 of 13!!!! Yes!!!!....  To which I replied…that is great Susie, but AREN’T YOU RIGHT HANDED?  Yep, she watched me model, and I am a lefty, and she went out and did all her serves lefthanded successfully, even though she had never done a lefthanded serve in her life before. The power of modeling is strong.

Eldo is a great coach, and has decided to start blogging himself after my visit, to give back to his own country and to grow the game down under. You can get in on the start of what he is sharing here in his “Tips and Traps” section - www.elson.com.au  I love that each year he asks for an end of season report card from his players, asking them to tell him three things he did right, and three he needs to improve on. I was also pleased to hear that their government as part of their economic stimulus package, built a new gym for every primary school if there was not one, and for those who already had a gym, they got huge upgrades to their sports equipment, especially volleyball. So the future is bright for kids in Adelaide."

The last leg was in Canberra, and the adventure started with me getting to rent a car for the time I was there to go from the hotel to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) I forgot how hard you must concentrate to drive on the other side of the road, especially through roundabouts, and how funny it is when you try to use the turn signals and the wipers go on and vice versa. The AIS as it is known is a beautiful sprawling campus.  http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais  I spent 3 days involved and presenting to their National Coaches Symposium.  They all learned in Kesselville – thanks again to Brian Swetney who made a duplicate sign for me to carry, while using his copy in the DDOS Player Camp in Vilseck Germany this summer. We had coaches from every state in Australia attending, so I know the impact on growing the game there will be wide spread. It was especially great to see Andrew Simos again, who is still doing solid volleyball work with both his club and his own pre-teen kids.  Alas, I did not get to see the Richards home in Canberra, whose 500,000 holiday lights set a new Guinness world record – google for that one, it’s quite remarkable. I will be sharing some of the documents and ideas learned at the AIS in 2014, so look for that! A short primer might be to 1. Don’t say shag – see the comedy The Spy Who Shagged Me for more on this one.  2. Don’t say dink, say tip. 3. Don’t root for your team, cheer for them and 4. Relax if a clinic attendee asks to borrow your rubber, for all they want is your eraser…

Pics from the AIS leg of the adventure are HERE, where you can read some of the other presenter’s slides and see some AVL, the top league of AUS volleyball league action.