Monday, March 25, 2013

PLAY! Developing an Olympian

In the final entry into our blog series on specialization, USA Women's National Team Trainer Jill Wosmek offered up her own blog to touch on the subject. Thank You Jill.

Hello Athletes, Parents and Coaches!

If you are not checking out the USA Volleyball Facebook page regularly…I urge you to!  Recently, one of our sponsors did a great piece titled “Stay in Love with Sports; Play OtherSports”.   

The objective of the article was to demonstrate that as athletes we may develop a strong passion for one sport, but we should not specialize at such a young age.  Many of the GREAT athletes from the London Olympics were multi-sport athletes growing up.  This got me thinking…earlier in February I presented at the USAV HP Coaches Clinic and one of the topics was concerning injury prevention with young athletes all the way to the elder Olympians I get the pleasure to work with. 

Did you know…starting middle hitter Foluke Akinradewo didn’t start playing volleyball until her sophomore year in high school?!  During her high school career she was an All-American in basketball and track as well as volleyball.  Working with Foluke the past 4-years in preparation to the London Olympics…I watched an athlete in her 20's continue to LEARN the great sport of volleyball as well as tap into athleticism and movement efficiencies she has been excelling at for years! 

I have great respect for Foluke as both an athlete and a person.  I think Foluke’s successes as one of the top middle blockers in the WORLD is great props to her movement patterns learned and mastered in other sports.  For example…as a middle blocker you need to be fast laterally – both for blocking and running the slide.  Foluke’s speed and mechanics is something she learned in the track world.  Her speed seems effortless at times.  I think this ingrained pattern allows her brain to process the game a bit…heck she usually is up in the air long enoughJ  

Oh yeah…the faster you move…the greater force you can create into your VERTICAL!  Also another great athletic move we see in both track and basketball athletes.  OK – I think you get it.  Foluke is an awesome athlete!  Last comment…Foluke is only 25 years old.  Hopefully there are quite a few more years of playing ahead of her.  It is my job to make sure she stays healthy and continues to enhance her overall performance. 

In the USA gym we “train” the athlete as a WHOLE with respect to all movements.  If all we did was play volleyball for endless hours…we would see a lot of overuse injuries!  There needs to be a detailed training plan to both enhance her performance and continue to fine-tune movement patterns and to address as deficiencies or compensations that we see on and off the court.

I want to be clear…VOLLEYBALL is a great sport and I am an advocate for GROWING THE GAME!   As a sports medicine professional [and an athlete myself] I have great respect for the sport…and many others!  I think the youth will become even better volleyball ATHLETES by exposing themselves to many different sports.  I think this creates a DIVERSE athleticism as well as “PROTECT” are young athletes from overuse injuries, stressors of specialization, burn-out, etc.

A couple GREAT references to check out:
·         Responsible Sports:
·         STOP Sports Injuries:

Have FUN…play SAFE…and strive to be your BEST!!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Risks of Specialization.

In this second blog on specialization, we will touch on some of the outside opinions shaping the argument against it. Watch in the coming days for the final blog from the USA Women’s National Team trainer Jill Wosmek about specialization.

            The question is a simple one. Should your son or daughter focus on just one sport during their elementary, middle and high school years?

            More and more, the research is pointing to no.

            Specialization in youth sports has become the norm instead of the rare instance. Volleyball players are asked to play club from November till May or even into June and July if playing in summer tournaments and qualifiers. July is spent at summer camps and clinics and lo and behold, August rolls around and the high school/ middle school seasons are upon us and the whole thing fires up for another year.

            Is this such a bad thing?

            What’s even more amazing is in recent years, even those in positions of importance with their sports are urging athletes to play other sports and get out of the specialization spiral. Brent Sutter, former NHL great and coach of Canadian youth hockey lends his voice to the argument in this article that playing hockey year round doesn't create better hockey players, it causes burnout.

            In this article 82% of the top players from all the major sports leagues are seen as NON specialized in their youth sports years. This is hardly a coincidence according to Elisabeth Vaino, the author.
            Even USA Volleyball is on board with not having their athletes specialize. CEO Doug Beal has commented in the past that we should encourage out athletes to play other sports because, “We want athletes!” John Kessel, Director of Sports Development wrote a terrific blog on the subject titled, Specialization if for Insects

            In the end, the phrase “what’s best for the kids,” is often a hollow gesture or a recruiting poster slogan. Do we, as Parents and Club Directors and Coaches really do what’s best for our kids?  If specialization is part of that, the answer seems obvious.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"What's best for who?"

The coming weeks will feature both the Coaching and the Parent blogs mirroring the same subject and material: specialization. It’s become such an important topic that we feel both Parents and Coaches should have a chance to give us feedback.

            For the purposes of this blog, she calls herself by her tongue-in-cheek track pseudonym, “Jaxon Flash” but she is a good runner:  her long legs covering much ground with every stride. As a freshman she impressed the track coaches at her high school so much that she was asked to run Varsity.
            “Jaxon” tired quickly of the boring practices but hung with it. She ran despite sore knees and shin splints. She ran in the rain and the cold. She didn't want to let her team or her coaches down. At her first official meet, she took a first and a second. She then went up to Coach V. and asked if she could leave a little early. Her events were done and she wanted to get to her volleyball team’s practice, knowing she was already late.
            Coach V. told her in no uncertain terms if she left, she was off the team.
            His threat went unheeded and “Jaxon Flash” went to volleyball practice.
            She went back to track practice the next day but was ignored by her coaches. She knew then that her track career was over at her high school.
            Coach V. lost a potential rock star for his track team, “Jaxon” lost an opportunity to become a more rounded athlete, and for what?

            Take two: a successful high school basketball program saw two of its players venture over to play sand volleyball for their high school. The duo quickly established themselves as a force and moved up the rankings pretty quickly. After two weeks of practice, their basketball coach pulled them into a quick meeting before their sand practice. When they came out, they informed the sand coach that they had to leave the team; they didn’t have time to play sand anymore and club basketball was more important.
            Two basketball players had a chance to become more rounded and better athletes and a sand coach lost two players that could have helped her team immensely, and for what?

            Coaching egos, the Us v. Them mentality, the thinking that the ONLY sport that matters is the one they coach: these prima donna attitudes are an impediment to the phrase so often tossed around but rarely lived up to: “it’s all about the kids.”

            Although the two examples above saw volleyball taking a hit, volleyball can be just as irresponsible.

            Coach L. was a prized 6-2 middle going into her senior year of high school. She picks up the story from here.

            I remember exactly when I was being recruited by my first big club.  We were at the Greenway tourney and we were outside on the grass and my mom and I told the coach that I am a big part of the basketball program at my high school and that I wanted to do both. He said that it would not be any problem if I did both he actually said that he encouraged me to play basketball to help keep me in shape.
            During season when I was late to volleyball practice because of my high school basketball practices I would have to run extra and then jump into practice. When we would play matches I would ALWAYS sit the bench. Whenever there was an opportunity to call me out or to make me look stupid the coaches seemed to take special pleasure in doing it. I expect that the coach did not say very positive things about me when I was there because the team did not seem to respect me. They would always call me out and intentionally make me look stupid.

            One time I had a college come out to see me at practice and our setter intentionally set me bad so that I didn't look good to the coach. The coach left the gym because I started crying in the middle of our hitting lines and I never heard back from him again... one of the worst days of my life. I came to find out my coach was telling all these college coaches that I was not dedicated to volleyball because I played basketball as well as volleyball. So instead of the D1 school’s offers from those that I visited I ended up at a local Community College which was the best path for me in the end.

            Before that season I was really excited to be able to play both sports. I really enjoyed both and really was successful at both as well. During season I would have to take heat from both coaches. I would have to lie and make things up to leave a practice or to be late to the other. One time I had to tell my basketball coach that my great grandma had a heart attack and I had to go visit her so I could go to a club practice with the hopes to play that weekend. To no avail... I didn't play again... 

            I learned a lot from that experience, what to do, what not to do. Being a high school and club coach I know NOT to EVER put my athletes in the position that I was in. If they want to play another sport, I WANT to share because in the end it will make them a better player. Every sport needs athletes. Being active helps develop those athletes and in turn will make them better. I think some times coaches forget that their team should be made up of athletes who want to be there and to get better. We should not force or belittle or demean a CHILD to be or stay on a team for more checks in the win column.”

            “What’s best for the kids.” It shouldn't be the closer of a club sales pitch and it shouldn't be the wavering mantra until choices have to be made. It should BE what youth sports are about.

            We will talk more about specialization in the coming weeks in the Az. Region blogs. Please share your experiences or comments with us at

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Mirror Looking Back....

           As coaches we spend our time giving our athletes feedback, skills and tools to improve and grow as players, people and athletes. We help them with communication and put them in uncomfortable positions to teach them more about grit and perseverance and competitiveness.

            So what if we turn the tables a bit?

            Tis the middle of the season and with a few tournaments under your belt and a few more to go, maybe it’s a good time to  take YOUR coaching temperature and survey your parents and athletes about the job you are doing.

            Before you click away from here, take this into account; how did you get better at your job? Most of you have reviews or evaluations you have to go through to earn upward movement in your company. If you can last 60 days with a good review, you might get a raise. Do extremely well and maybe they’ll make you a manager.

If you are a student, what are grades? They are an evaluation of your knowledge of that subject. A low grade and you will probably have to put in some more work and studying on that subject. We’ve all been in these situations that measure you with reviews and evaluations. Why should we hold our profession to any less of a standard?

            College coaches are given reviews of their performances. Some don’t last that review and are cut loose. Some gain more insight on what the job needs are and work harder to make gains on what is needed to become a better coach and administrator of their program.

            Are you ready to have the mirror look back at you?

            There are very few coaching assessments on the web to choose from. Sit down with your club director and invent what you want to know. Some things to think about might include:

  • Should athletes be the only ones given these surveys or should parents be included?
  • Should the surveys be anonymous or should you know who they are from?
  • Should they include character based questions or just volleyball based questions?
            Athletes should be the focus of your surveys as that is who you are targeting but it’s  safe to say you won’t get much feedback from a 12 or 14 year old without some parental influence so it’s probably okay to include the parents OR put together a survey just for the parents.

            Making the survey anonymous is a hold ‘em and fold ‘em proposition. It’s good not to tie someone to a survey if it is not very complimentary of your coaching as that could spill over into a different demeanor from the coach to that player; despite the consensus, coaches ARE human! However if there IS some specific issues to be addressed by a certain player, it’s good to know who’s issues they are.

            Finally, as coaches, we are judged on several criteria: winning or losing, educating, being a positive role model, communication, character, etc. Why as a coach wouldn’t you want to know if you were perceived to be excelling in these areas, considered average or needing improvement?

            There is, of course, a risk to an athlete or parent survey. You may, and most probably will hear things you don’t want to hear. As we expect from our athletes, you need to take the good feedback with the constructive. Reading feedback you don’t want to might make you angry, defensive and change your tenor at practices. You must resist that urge and remember you are trying to become a better coach. Criticism and feedback are part of that process. If you don’t think you can look at a survey in that light, you may think again about giving them out. 

            As coaches, we are expected to know all the answers; we don’t. We have to work at our craft to get better at it, the same thing we tell our athletes. We need feedback from those we train with, just like our athletes and we should know how we are perceived from those that observe us, just like our athletes.     

            Embrace the opportunity to work on your shortcomings but more importantly shore up your strengths going forward. Athletes and parents will appreciate a voice in their season and you, as their coach, will learn from them, as they have learned from you, and continue the growth process.