If there was ever any doubt about the impact that volleyball has on a city’s tourism economy, you need look no further than the Tulsa International Airport on an early Sunday morning where I found myself surrounded by volleyball players, coaches, parents, volunteers and staff filling the TSA lines and literally draining the coffee and snacks from the shelves at 4:45 a.m. I’d argue to say that volleyball teams are among the most experienced travelers given all the tournaments scattered around the country from January through July.
The USA Volleyball High Performance Championships touched down in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this year and welcomed teams from around the country, from around the world really. It is an entry point for what we call the “Path to the Podium” for the USA Volleyball High Performance training program. For an intense two-week period, players from around the U.S. are put through the paces of USAV HP team training courtesy of a long-roster of coaches from club, high school and college programs who come together for the purpose of teaching the next generation the “USA system.” At that same time, teams from 23 USA Volleyball Regional Volleyball Associations are back from Junior National Championships and training with their own region high performance teams. Boys and girls, some as young as 10 years old. We welcomed teams from Australia, Canada, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The tournament format is different, with teams playing best 3-out-of-5 set matches using international rules, including limited substitutions. That alone makes a huge difference in a coaches’ strategy.
For the USAV HP teams, this experience is about learning some of the training techniques, systems and preparation that our senior national teams employ on a daily basis. It’s a small taste of what the U.S. National Teams do to prepare behind the scenes before stepping out on that Sport Court to compete among the best teams in the world. It is an important step on what our CEO likes to call, the “Path to the Podium.”
For the region HP teams, I’ve learned that there are many focal points for the HP experience. Some see it as an “all-star” opportunity, to bring advanced players together from various clubs in their region and give them a chance to play on the same team instead of across the net from each other. Some say it’s a chance to take a core group from one club and add a few position players to round out a new-look roster. Some agree that for most of the players who compete on a region HP team, it may be the only time they know the name of their region.
Whether USAV HP or region HP, these players must tryout for their team. These tryouts take place nearly year-round in anticipation of this event, and various training camps that take place around the country. Talent identification is one aspect of the HP program, but when it comes right down to it, teaching is the focus.
As I was entering the Cox Business Center in Tulsa, which by the way has the MOST IMPRESSIVE air conditioning system on the planet (contributing to record adidas sweatshirt sales), I walked right up to a court where five-time Olympian Danielle Scott was coaching a USAV HP team. Danielle has frequently given her time and expertise to the national teams, and to the HP program, over the years. Her passion hasn’t diminished one bit from her days on the court, representing the USA and winning medals, to standing on the sidelines helping teach new players what it means to be part of “Team USA.” Watching Danielle present medals to the youngest group of athletes at the HP Championships made me think there might be among them the next Danielle Scott! It also made me appreciate even more her genuine desire to teach these young athletes all the skills and share all the experience a lifetime of Olympic competition has shown her. What a gift to these future volleyball stars.
A quick right to another court and I saw Aldis Berzins, one of the true masters of the game, and a member of USA Volleyball’s first Olympic Games gold-medal team in 1984. Aldis has been involved with the HP team longer than most people can remember. And, he’s had every job along the way from what I’m told. He’s been the airport greeter, the hotel concierge, the team chaperone, and has on several occasions been a mentor to those around him. At this year’s HP Championships, along with master coaches like USA Volleyball Board Member Cecile Reynaud, Aldis played the role of a Mentor Coach assigned to a handful of teams to lend a hand and be another voice to help the coaches as well as the players. During a moment in the back office, I overheard him say “I’m just happy to be here, I’ll be glad to help in any way.” And that he did.
One of the great things about the HP Championships is the chance to see Olympic and national team alumni in new roles. Of course, there is a bit of nostalgia involved which is part of the fun. I watched Dexter Rogers from Team Florida on the bench of a few teams that won gold medals and reminisced that when he was a member of the national team in the 1990s, he was one of the few who had mastered the jump serve consistently. My how things have changed. Gary Sato, now an assistant coach at USC, was an assistant on the men’s Olympic teams in 1988 (gold) and 1992 (bronze) and filled in as head coach for the 1985 men’s national team that won the World Cup. Some of the young kids on his USAV HP team were pretty surprised to learn that he had once coached the U.S. Women’s National Team head coach, Karch Kiraly (Mostly they were surprised to learn that Karch had played? Kids these days!). David Hunt, an assistant coach for Karch on the women’s Olympic team that won bronze in Rio 2016, contributed his expertise to a boys’ region team from Southern California. Tom Sorensen, a member of the 1996 Olympic Team, has worked with the HP program for a few years but this year was on hand recruiting for his men’s and women’s teams at Ottawa University in Kansas. Alan Knipe, head coach of the 2012 men's Olympic team, was proud to say he was just there as a parent, watching son Aiden play for a region team and not knowing what to do with all his spare time. Jeff Nygaard, a three-time Olympian and one of the only to represent the USA in both indoor and beach volleyball, took a break from his day job as the head coach of USC men’s volleyball to lead one of the USAV HP teams that played as the youngest team in the oldest age division. Teaching moments took on a whole new meaning as his team was challenged by players twice their size and several years older. But they learned a lot during the week and emerged with a few new tricks to take back to their club teams next season.
Taking a closer look behind the scenes, there was a lot of teaching going on by Pati Rolf in her new role as USA Volleyball's director of officials development, and relying on her many years of international and Olympic experience. The HP Championships provides us with a rare opportunity to simulate the international rules of the game for our up-and-coming referees and scorers who aspire to reach higher levels of officiating. The increased use of technology at the international level means our officials need to practice, too. The good news is that volleyball is at a height of popularity and competition in the U.S., the downside of that is there are about 3-4 sets of rules being used in the United States. Unlike the other 221 nations of the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), the USA is the only one to use more than one set of rules, and not the international ones. Since the USA will increase its hosting of major international events, at all levels, real-life experience at events like the High Performance Championships will enable our officials to practice their craft in order to be ready.
Having real-life examples like these Olympians and national team alumni, and top collegiate and club coaches is a very aspirational component of high performance training. In the Iowa Region, they have been running their high performance program and sending teams to the championships each year since it began. In a region where boys’ volleyball is thin, they still find a way to field teams. Look to the example set last year by the “Texoma” boys’ team comprised of the North Texas, Oklahoma and Lone Star Region banding together to make their team. Puget Sound followed their lead and this year teamed up with the Evergreen Region and Columbia Empire to form their first combined boys’ team. The dedication of the regions to give their teams this experience can be an inspiration to players who are just starting their journey, and an encouragement to keep it going. During an emotional moment in the boys' international medal ceremony, my friend Cindy Flynn from the Aloha Region mentioned that they weren't even sure the region could field one team this year and here they were receiving their fourth medal of the tournament. The Aloha Region came to play big, they fought for every point, and went home with medals and respect all around.
There is a lot of inspiration to be gained by the next generation of players as well. The season is long and can be very expensive. At this time of the year, it’s as easy to celebrate championships as it is to lose interest or succumb to frustration. A young man I watched in Tulsa stands as an example of why it’s important to keep the faith. As the tournament was winding down and I was walking with Sam Hubbard from our USA Volleyball high performance staff, he stopped to chat briefly with a young player from Texoma. I didn’t catch his name at the time, but myself and many others had noticed this young man throughout the week. He was the embodiment of “team player” and on several occasions I noticed other coaches and even USA Volleyball staff tap him on the shoulder or give him a high-five for this sportsmanship and ‘never-say-die’ attitude. He chased down a lot of balls, he ran for errant balls during warm ups to prevent any interruption on adjacent courts, he picked up trash around his bench. And what caught my eye was that he stayed after his team was done playing and watched others. Cheered for them, slapped hands with kids I’m pretty sure he didn’t know congratulating them on a “good game,” and the look in his eye told me he was studying others to learn more. It then dawned on me that I had noticed this same young player at the Boys’ Junior National Championships in Phoenix, and for the same reasons. His composure on and off the court was pretty impressive for such a young player. I learned that this inspirational young man is Jason McKamie, from the Kaizen Volleyball Club in the Oklahoma Region, and a member of the Texoma boys’ combined region team. I will look forward to meeting him in person one day, so I can shake his hand. Keep his name in mind. Jason has a lot to teach us about being a volleyball player, and a kind person.
Before the clock runs out on my time with USA Volleyball, I want to be sure and thank all of the region high performance directors and their regions who continue to support high performance programs. Sitting in a meeting of many region HP directors, it's clear to see the passion and commitment involved. I hear occasionally that a region plans to drop HP, and I'm sure they have their reasons. But it makes me think about all these kids who get a closer look from college coaches at an event like the USA Volleyball High Performance Championships, and who get a chance to learn from a new coach, or play with different kids at their same skill level. I hope that there will be continued discussion on how to encourage more regions to get involved and help those who want to continue. And, a huge thank you to Heath Hoke, Sam Hubbard, Kristy Cox from the national championship events department, and the entire USA Volleyball High Performance Department as well as the hundreds of youth and junior national team coaches, high performance coaches & mentors and evaluators who participate throughout the year. I'm looking forward to sharing next from the Beach HP Championships in Manhattan Beach, California.