Thursday, March 13, 2014

California Adventures IV- "It starts with today..."

The American Sports Center is chilly…okay, downright cold. Players walk in from the warm sunshine and put their jackets ON as they enter and head to the training room to get taped.

Week seven of an eight week training block with mostly new faces is what head women’s National Team Coach Karch Kiraly is staring down. Players at this level are early, and ready. With the lights still off, Karch goes to his white board and writes down the day’s practice plan.

As the team filters into the three courts set aside for the National Team, the players make their way to the back of the white boards and grab a pen. At the top of the white board is written, “2 Things I Control completely.” The players have initialed and written the two things they want to control in today’s practice. KR wrote “Hold angles- Flean.” NH jotted down, “See the line early, form angle early, good hold.” SG put in blue, “Square up, quick release.” Every player is now invested in what they want to work on in practice as they jog out to the court.

At 8:10 sharp, tutoring begins. Servers are hammering “flean” serves into the liberos and passers while video cameras tape each pass and are delayed so after a pass, the player can see how her platform was, where she took the ball, etc. Feedback is instantaneous and incontrovertible.

On a side court, Karch is giving instruction to Bailey Webster, a 6-3 opposite from the University of Texas. She is uncomfortable in the back row and Karch is working her passing angles. He gives her help with her arms and keeping her movements efficient and, as he calls it, “quiet,” all the while repeating passing cues to help confirm in her mind what her body is doing. He tosses balls at her from across the net, only commenting on her platform being early: good or bad pass doesn’t matter although he continually points out the good ones and continues to give positive feedback on the bad. He moves Bailey from one side of the court to the other and then places the balls higher over her shoulder in the next round, working on her platform and footwork. It’s a matter of minutes before seemingly Bailey is a better passer. Karch blows the whistle and everyone grabs a drink and heads to the board.

It’s here every practice that Kiraly has a story or a message for the girls. Today, he relates something his assistant coach, Tom Black has sent him from an Australian educator in the field of Growth Mindsets, Lorraine Davies. She and Tom trade e mails regularly and he asked her how to define success. Karch brought this up the group and as is his way, first asked questions. What did the group define success as? He didn’t give the group a chance to be quiet, he called on players individually. After a few answers that he wrote on the board, he read out loud Davies’ list defining success:

  1. When you embrace a challenge in spite of fear.
  2. When you persist when your mind silently screams for you to give up.
  3. When you ask for help when previously it was impossible to do so.
  4. When you make a mistake and recognize because of the mistake you learned how to make a better choice or a more effective strategy when once you would have covered it up
  5. When you ask a successful other how they achieved a particular personal or professional success where once their success felt like a threat.
  6. When you experience failure you recognize failure as a necessary tool for learning what needs to be changed

The team took this in and then Karch said, “Since none of us have ever been able to get this program where we want it, where we think it should be, we all have to work harder. That starts with today and next week and next month.” The players put hands in the middle, yell USA and head to their spots in practice. Even though this group is in week seven of eight, it starts with today…

The warm-up begins with some pepper and works into servers hitting zones to a libero and then attackers off a pass and hitting into a defender. Every drill and contact in the practice is of multiple elements: hitters have to transition AND hit AND block AND then dig a ball. Setters set a ball AND block AND play defense on the same ball.  There is no time to waste and in this gym, contacts are king.

The group works on blocking and hitting against the block in a game like scenario after a quick water break. In between the drill written out on the white board, Karch has written in black, “Focus: find the edge/ outside hand.” His drills have a focus that he articulates before every drill. They go from this more technical drill that is still laden with contacts from several players into a hitting drill that is meant to make the blockers read and think. The focus on the drill is blockers footwork, “Blockers recognize- normal or load?”

Throughout the entire practice, no one yells. In fact the only ones raising their voices are the athletes themselves. Six foot six middle Katie Slay from Penn State in on a bike rehabbing a leg injury. After a good play she will randomly shout out, “I see you Plummy!” speaking to Lauren Plum of the University of Oregon. The coaches will pull aside a player who seems to be struggling with something and on occasion the drill will be stopped for a very short consult with a player.

The feedback from coaches is direct, short and usually starts with a question. At one point, Missouri setter Molly Kreklow comes up to Asst. Coach Black and asks him, “How was that one?” Blacks answer? “How did it feel?” She replies it felt good and he smiles. They both know it was a good set. Questions are the way the staff knows these special athletes aren’t just going through the motions. They are engaged in the process; it is demanded of them.

Thirteen different colleges and one high school are represented in the 19 girl training block. For most of the girls, they know it is a long shot for them to be playing in August in Brazil in two years, but they work hard, pushing themselves because just the thought that they might be invited back is enough. They will all be better players after this training block and one can only hope they realize along the way what an amazing opportunity they are a part of at the moment.

The last 80 minutes of practice involves 6 on 6 waves in which bonus points are awarded for hitters tooling the block and for a defense that covers a block and converts it into a point. Also written on the board under the drill description is, “Flean is on.” Karch has been working hard to get his girls to serve tough. Serving and passing IS the game and every drill, every warm-up has had an element of serving and passing in it. “Flean is Karch’s word for how he wants his jump float serves: Fast and clean = “Flean.”  The waves go on for almost 50 minutes, every player going hard, hoping to stay on and earn points. Karch calls out the serves that aren’t “flean” and the other team receives a point.

The practice ends with serving to the liberos and finally a servers v. passers drill. In this drill, players are expected to get 9 out of 10 serves in for their side. If during the drill 2 serves are missed, they goal is missed and the serving team drops to the ground for two crunches and two push ups, a reminder of mindfulness in what they do.

Exhausted, the team warms down. Surprisingly, the gym is as cold 4 hours later as when everyone arrived. Several of the players haven’t taken their jackets off for the last four hours and some have taken them off and put them back on. Yet no one complains. Most will go to lift and get treatment. The day isn’t over yet for these athletes.

Karch and his coaches gather and talk about the day. They are happy. Both Black and the other Assistant Coach Jamie Morrison told the team it was the best they had seen of this group. No dropped balls, better communication, more of a flow. The whole process will start again tomorrow at 8:10, but for today, smiles abound.

It starts with today, and next week, and next month.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

California Adventures III- The Pier

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain.


My friend Don has had some health issues the last few months. When I went to see him in the hospital our conversations usually turned, at some point, to volleyball; beach was and still is his preference. He likes to talk about the former beach players who he knew and watched as he grew up in California. He talked about the better players he has seen in Phoenix and his partners on his adult teams.


When you talk to people like Don, you get a sense of what we are missing in our game and people like Don are the antidote.


Ask your team, your daughter, your son who Karch Kiraly is and you might get a response like, “He played a long time ago… I think.” Ask them to name a player on the national team and usually Kerri and/ or Misty’s name will be offered. Maybe a Todd or a Phil…last names not that important.  After that, the results are pretty slim.


Ask your daughter or son if they know who Babe Ruth is, or Michael Jordan or Joe Montana? All of these athletes are well out of their generational wheel house but these sports do a much better job with the history of their game then we do.


We need to do better. We owe it to Don.


The Manhattan Beach Open was and still is the most prestigious beach tournament in the United States. Since the 1960’s it has given our best beach players a chance to show their wares and talents in a perfect setting of sea and sky. Legend has it that the names of all the winners are on the pier but in looking, it’s not easy to find. The hot dog stand at the end of the pier had heard of them but didn’t know where they were. Local merchants said the same thing. Even a post man and a police officer had no idea. The search finally took on a political air as the glass double doors of City Hall were entered and the staircase was climbed and the receptionist in the Parks and Rec department was asked.


Turns out history is under our feet!


The plaques are embedded in the actual pier with the winners ascending by year toward the ocean.

The names are what would make Don smile. He may not have seen some of the players from the 1960’s but those that know the history of our game, like Don, know the names; Mike Bright and Mike O’Hara who won the first five Manhattan Beach Open’s starting in 1960. Ron Van Hagen was a 5 time winner, names from Olympics past like Chris Marlowe. Six time champions Sinjin Smith and Mike Dodd.  How about Karch who won the Manhattan Beach Open 7 times with 4 different partners over a 16 year period and not to be outdone by Kathy Gregory and Nina Matthies who won the Open Women’s title 7 times each with each other AND different partners from 1972 through 1986.


This generation will recognize Todd and Phil’s names on the pier 3 times and Kerri and Misty who are emblazoned with 5 plaques but volleyball historians, or those old enough to remember when the Brady Bunch wasn’t a rerun, know these names from the past, as several are successful coaches now in the college and pro ranks and many are still involved in the sport one way or another.


While the plaques are a historical record of Beach Volleyball’s Grand daddy event, the stories that fans like Don can tell you are what brings the color to the page. Last year, for example, saw one of the most unexpected finishes in the Open’s celebrated history when 38 year old Casey Jennings and 39 year old Matt Fuerbringer, who hadn’t played together since 2009 and with Fuerbringer coming out of retirement upset the #1 seed in three sets and will soon have their names emblazoned on the pier. This is the stuff that volleyball legends are made of and fans like Don tell their friends, kids and grandchildren.


As coaches and Parents, we need to celebrate the history of our game. More and more footage is available on YouTube of old matches, both indoor and beach. As a coach, with 3 hours to kill in an airport, come up with 12 names in volleyball history and have the team pull up info on their iPhones and give impromptu research papers to the group. Parents who fall for the sport will appreciate the history and share these great people and stories with other parents in between matches.


For players and coaches and fans like Don, these are moments that make him smile and fondly remember and share the stories and players of an era gone by, but never forgotten.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

California Adventures II- Marv

The walls of the Firestone Field house on the campus of Pepperdine University are cream colored, unassuming, humble. The staircase that leads to the coach’s office is the same color and his office is fronted by a large desk and two staffers. He is already working. He made good on his promise from years ago and welcomes any coach to come watch him practice. He is congenial but in a most genuine way but the first thing you notice, or remember, is the voice. It is a peace time weapon; the potentiality of booming but relaxed and assured, as if there is nothing it can’t handle. The depth is at once friendly and commanding of respect.

It’s Marv’s voice, THE coach’s voice.

Marv Dunphy is in his 31st year as the Men’s volleyball coach at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. His accomplishments include four national championships, a gold medal as the head coach of the USA Men’s Olympic team, a member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame and he continues to help both the Men’s and Women’s Olympic programs train and compete in the Olympics. His litany of players he has influenced and coached is a Hall of Fame unto itself and one of his prized pupils, Karch Kiraly now coaches the Women’s National team.

Yet all that is wiped away when you step into the 15x15 office with Pepperdine blue blinds on a large window that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Marv is at work, breaking down by rotation what his opponent tomorrow, UCLA is doing lately. Pepperdine has already swept them early in the season but an injury to one of his better players has seen the team scramble a bit. “With this guy, we can play big-boy volleyball,” he says smiling. Rotation by rotation and Marv’s comments are much like the feedback he gives his athletes: concise and spot on. “Look at this guy,” he says of UCLA’s Argentinean Gonzolo Quiroga. “He’s not big but he sees really well.” Sure enough, the video shows Gonzolo coming in the middle or a bic and then hitting it wrist away around the block and past the libero for a kill. “Whew,” Marv says, half nervous but half in awe. Someone who is as much a part of the history of his sport as Marv is can play on both sides of that fence.

After watching film and breaking down rotations, it’s time for the coaches meeting to discuss practice. Usually practice is done the day before but with a short schedule this week, (Pepperdine lost to Stanford 3-1 on Friday and swept UOP on Saturday) and a short serve and pass yesterday, the week has caught up with them. Assistant coaches David Hunt, Jonathan Winder and Rich Barraza crowd into Marv’s office. It’s a very subdued meeting; one that is at the end of a long emotional weekend or maybe they all just agree. Serve receive is going to need to be worked as is blocking, but there are other considerations bantered around; namely that the guys are tired and some players, because of injury or how much they are going to be worked on Tuesday, need to be dialed down a bit today. Ideas are thrown out and Winder writes down the drills in order, and the player’s numbers which he will soon transfer to the white board in the gym. Within a half an hour, practice is set.

The Waves of Pepperdine are 2/3 through their season and if you don’t know much about men’s college volleyball, here’s what you need to know. The MPSF is perhaps (Marv’s opinion) the most competitive league in all of NCAA sports. “You have 24 conference matches and they all mean something.” He laments how in the NBA or other sports, there are throw away games and players don’t always go hard. You don’t get that luxury in the MPSF. In this week’s poll, 9 of the top 11 teams are from the MPSF. Marv doesn’t know what Pepperdine is ranked (fifth) nor does he seem to care. He says later, “We just have to look to the next serve, the next match.” He doesn’t look ahead.

Marv comes out and begins to set up for practice. No doubt  there are plenty of people to help but Marv, who wrote a dissertation on John Wooden while in college at UCLA has taken a note from (Who he fondly calls) “Coach’s” book where Wooden never felt it beneath himself to sweep his own court before practice. Marv gathers the balls into carts, pulls out the scoreboards and helps unhook and push back a collapsed backboard used by the basketball team.

The team trickles in 30 minutes before practice. Marv makes it a point to shake hands with each player, asking them how they are doing, getting personal with some with regard to family and school.  A game of off hand, half court basketball shooting with volleyballs erupts on the far side of the gym and Marv smiles. He seems at home with his family at the moment.

At 10 sharp, the team is herded into a tiny office where the UCLA servers are shown one at a time. Winder goes over their tendencies and what to look for. Marv, when the players have seen enough of a particular server, will just say, “Okay” and the next server is shown. There is no time to waste. Both Hunt and Winder talk to the team about the blocking it will take to stop the UCLA attack tomorrow night. The hitters are shown in a match v. Stanford and players are instructed to ‘start inside’ or ‘front him.’ The players, each with a notebook of tendencies of league teams, pay rapt attention.

“Any questions?” Marv asks after the 20 minute film session. “Okay, let’s go.” The team hustles out the court.

They warm up with some pepper, moving each other around the court. There are 18 rostered players and two others in the gym so three courts are swarmed fast. The other thing you need to know about Men’s collegiate volleyball is there are 4 scholarships per team. That is not a typo, FOUR! Pepperdine is roughly $62,000 per year to attend which makes Marv’s first question in the recruiting process, “What do your Parents do for a living?’ he says. Doing the math, 80% of the men in this gym are here for the love of the game, to be a part of something special or to be coached by Marv, OR all three.

One of the things Marv is known for is his penchant for details, (like Wooden) and his belief in what is to be done in practice transfers to the game. Because of that, music is played while the players warm up, just like in a match. He also carries around a hand held whistle which he presses for each server to serve. Game like isn’t an option in Marv’s gym.

Serve receive is worked on first. A machine is pulled across the court to missile balls at the libero in between the players serving and after spraying a few, he begins to get a rhythm. Reps are key in Marv’s practices and this machine which spits balls out at 70+ MPH can serve three balls in between two players’ serves.

Then the three courts condense to two. On one court, servers v. passers play a drill called USA 50. The servers get 50 serves to try and make the passers pass below a 3.0 on a 4 point scale but all the while, keeping their error rate at 16% or below. Marv only stops the drill a couple of times and his feedback is words, not sentences. He doesn’t give speeches, he just fixes. In the end, the passers notch a 3.1 which they celebrate with high fives all around. The servers came in at 18% error rate. They will live to serve another day.

On the other court, the antennas are affixed to recreate a hitting window for UCLA’s favorite hitting positions on the pins. The 2 ½ foot window is further complicated by a string tied to the antennas two feet or so above the net. The players reach into this rabbit hole and push into the coach’s attack, sliding from one end of the court to the other. It goes quick and it is intense.  If a player overruns the box or doesn’t press through, they go again. In the end, the players seem to be reaching and stuffing the swing.

Finally, a drill of serve and bounce where a team will get a bonus point for a quick or bic attack that is successful. The drill starts at 5-5 and off they go. After the first point of the drill, Marv stops it and addresses one side about their lack of transition. “You can’t just stand there.” He says. “You have to go.” Everyone has eyes on the Coach when he speaks. Gold medals make for legit street cred. The drill is rough and ragged in the first game and both Hunt and Winder talk about maybe sitting a player out but Marv just moves him to the other side of the net. The player had his girl friend and family in the whole weekend. When the Assistant coaches wonder if he’ll be ready for UCLA, Marv just nods. “He’ll be ready.”

After two games in which the two teams split, the equipment is put away. It should be noted that anyone that comes into Marv’s gym is greeted by every member of his program throughout the practice. It’s not just a quick handshake, it’s a genuine, and “Where are you from? What do you do there? Do you know…?” They have learned something from Marv just in this regard.

On the white board in Coach Dunphy’s office, at the very top in blue, is the phrase, “If it’s important, do it every day.” It’s the only thing written on the board at the moment. This would explain why the practice the day before UCLA there was much serve receive work done, and a focus on blocking reps and moves. It would explain why, within almost every drill Marv does there is an element of serving and serve receiving. It would also explain why he is so meticulous in the transfer from practice to game including music and whistles for serves. “If it’s important, do it every day.”

You will never hear anyone speak badly of Marv. He is always extending a hand, opening his doors, sharing ideas and thoughts about his favorite hobby…coaching. (Although he admits gardening is a close second) The way he treats his athletes reflects on the way they treat people that come into the gym. The world of social media would be turned on its ear with this hands-on, look you in the eye, real person to real person contact. There is nothing about Marv that is hidden and the way he treats everyone around him is an extension of that openness. He shares of himself with his staff, his athletes, his family and friends and even visiting coaches and admirers.

“If it’s important, do it every day.”

Epilogue: Pepperdine 3, UCLA 1

Saturday, March 8, 2014

California Adventures- Riding the Wave

It’s a tent, a big tent, big enough to hold three volleyball courts under its vinyl walls and pipe masts. It’s a white ship off the distance from the I-805 tucked inside tall trees and tennis courts. It’s the kind of structure that Revival meetings would be envious of.

Tonight, it is the home to the USA Women’s National Training team. The Wave Volleyball club, wanting to show it’s younger athletes a few of their alma mater with white names on the back of navy and red USA jerseys, set up this scrimmage and what started out as a trickle became a packed tent within the hour. They love their volleyball in Southern California.

Head USA Coach Karch Kiraly held a mini coach’s clinic before the festivities began. He was deliberate in his speech and presentation and thoughtful in making sure he answered everyone’s questions, which ranged from how to address confidence issues on the National Team to what to do when your 14-4’s team is having a rough serving day. He spun a small white board around and at once he started to coach. Written at the top, numbered 1 was:

Job One- Growth Mindset
     Athletes and Coaches
          Be Examples
          Foster in Gym

He started here. He referenced Carol Dweck’s amazing book “Mindset” and told the coaches and now several parents about the difference of a growth and fixed mindset. He said he was careful of making sure the girl’s coming into the USA gym knew and understood this. “If a player isn't a lot better in 8 weeks they won't be coming back.” He said matter of factly. He tells the players, “What got you here isn’t going to keep you here.” And he talked about how he and his coaching staff have to embrace and be the best examples of this growth mindset as they are setting up practices to make sure the players are constantly growing.

Assistant Coach Jamie Morrison took the reins for a minute. “We design our practices to look ugly and make them less ugly. Our mentality is make a mistake and fix it.” The word ugly was sprayed around a lot for the next few minutes, much to the discomfort of many a coach in the room. “Many of us think this ugly is a reflection of us as coaches, but it’s okay to train ugly.” Morrison said smiling.

He then continued into the second item on the white board:

Science of Motor Learning
     Transfer- maximize

Morrison talked about the three things they focus on in their practices: Quality contacts, a learning environment and a transfer of skill. He used the phrase “the efficiency of learning” which he described as getting the coach out of the drill. “We have to stop stealing contacts from our athletes” he pleaded, telling coaches to stop serving to start drills, let the athletes serve, or pass or enter a ball with a first contact.

Karch came back and spoke of the third item on the board:

Reading- Most important skill
     Teaching- promoting

Karch is the best example of this in the history of our game. This is not hyperbole, this is a fact. From playing on sand courts as a pre teen he learned and watched and recognized and has said many times he knew what was going to happen before it happened. He lamented how college players, who are in need of more reps and get limited training time due to NCAA rules constraints and so how as coaches do they get those athletes to read better? Karch smiled and said, his rule for reading was simple, “Don’t guess.” He used the phrase “Assess and act” and talked about teaching our players to get their eyes on the next action. This isn’t done by tossing one ball on the side of the net to one athlete at a time…play!

Well Rounded players
     All Skills
     We owe it to them, they deserve it

After finishing up a tryout a few weeks ago at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Karch and staff invited a few athletes from this tryout to come train for this 8 week block. He talked though how some of these athletes had never stepped foot in the back row. “As coaches, we owe it to them. They deserve it.” He said more than once. Six rotation players are what’s needed in his USA gym these days.

His last entry on the board was simple if not cryptic:

Just Good, not great
     What does that look like?

Athletes and coaches alike, Karch has set standards. It’s not necessary to be the greatest setter in the world, but you have to be good, really good to get invited back into the Coach’s gym harkening back to the phrase, “growth mindset” yet again.

He talked about how he wants all of his athletes jump serving. “A good jump float has two characteristics; flat and no spin or clean. We call it a ‘fleen’ serve.” The Crowd giggled. Passing should be a quiet activity with the least amount of movement, simple. So I want passing to be ‘quimple.’ He talked about how hard it is for athletes to change. “Risk is scary, but in our gym it’s okay to risk it. We want them to risk it.”

He added that for him, skills need to be mechanically efficient and with as little stress on the joints as possible. He demonstrated this by showing a baseball pitching motion in which the pitchers arm comes all the way through the pitch and one where he stops it after the balls release, putting the point across that the latter is an injury waiting to happen.

In wrapping up, Karch said, “We embrace adversity.” He talked about how it might be smart to duck the Brazilians until the 2016 games but he has scheduled a 5 match competition with the defending two time gold medalists in July. “We’ll see what we’re made of.” He said smiling.

An hour later, he was watching a “rough” scrimmage of new players, some playing out of position, some only playing back row, and at times…ugly.

Karch never wavered in his demeanor the entire 6 sets, each to 15. He coached, never yelling, instructed without demeaning, and smiled.

It’s okay to train ugly.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Little Things.....

It’s the ceremonial half way point of the season. Many teams are getting ready to travel to Colorado or Southern California in the coming weeks and it’s a good time to run through a quick check list.

[   ]      Seems like a silly one, but are your volleyballs properly inflated? They have been in and out of cold trunks and gym closets and they are apt to lose air along the way. Complacency kicks in and we forget our pumps and will “worry about it next time, use the other ones.” But serving a ball not inflated properly can disrupt service motions and patterns, setting, attacking, etc. Take a few minutes before practice today and pump ‘em up!

[   ]      No doubt that the roles on your team have changed since those first weeks in practice. Have you communicated this to those players? Have you talked to them about what their new roles might be, what is expected of them, how you can help them? Again, often times we are forced into changes because of injuries or players quitting but don’t convey our reasoning to those directly involved. Take a few minutes and make sure your athletes know their roles on the team.

[   ]      When was the last time you looked at your Coaching Philosophy? That document a coach should jot down before the season that is a set of guiding principles for the season(s) ahead. If you have written one, are the decisions you are making through this season in union with your philosophy or are you turning your back on your self stated values at the expense of winning? Take a look at your philosophy and remember why you wrote this in the beginning.

[   ]      Is your first aid kit restocked?

[   ]      If your ball cart missing a wheel or do those rollers need to be tightened or oiled up?

[   ]      Is your practice environment still safe? Complacency can cause us to overlook things. Are the pads at your practice site going up every practice? Are the tables and chairs in your gym or cafeteria where you are practicing at a safe distance away?

[   ]      Do you have your medical release forms with you whenever and where ever your athletes are with you?

Every club has different set of details to follow up on but these things are some things to look at as your season goes into its second half. Stay mindful of the details because as former Women’s National Team Coach Hugh McCutcheon is fond of saying, “The thing about little things is there are no little things.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Henri and Pierre

The disappointment in Sochi was mounting. Anchorman and reporter talked about the failures. How America had failed, athletes had failed. We didn’t win the medal count. The Winter Olympics were a disaster…

Yet when you read this story, I hope you agree that these thoughts are, in a word, ridiculous. It is sport and on any given day, anyone can win. The Olympics are the greatest collection of athletes in the world and yet coverage in Sochi showed that winning is everything, and it matters not to be able to utter the phrase, “I am an Olympian.”

What should matter is Citius, Altius, Fortius…..

Henri Didon was born in southeast France on March 17, 1840. The French Dominican completed his theological studies in Rome where he was quite the athlete. Attending school in Grenoble, his superiors organized “Olympic Games” every two years for the students which included sports of the day and introduced pole vault, fencing, discus and chariot races through his years there. Henri won multiple medals competing in these games and his early love for athletics blossomed from these contests and training.  The disciplined Didon became an ordained Priest in 1862.  

A year later on New Year’s Day in 1863, Pierre de Coubertin was born into an aristocratic family in Paris, France; a family tree of nobles, artists, military leaders and associates of Royalty. Pierre, like Henri, grew up an avid sportsman with boxing, fencing, horseback riding, tennis and rowing his favorite sports. He was a leader at his boarding school and finished in the top three of his class. He had several careers to choose from but became an intellectual, writing on subjects like education, literature and sociology.

Meanwhile, Didon’s career took off. He was a fiery orator and earned fans and followers with his impassioned sermons but his modernistic views, especially on marriage being unable to be dissolved earned him a rebuke with the church and his superiors sent him to Corsica for a “time of reflection.” There Didon begin to write a book and left his retreat over seven years to further his studies. He finished his book in 1890 which became a best seller and he accepted the position of Rector of the College of Arcueil outside of Paris. Here, he helped establish his idea that sport is a great education tool.

De Coubertin’s own seven year reflection began in 1880 at the age of 17 where he travelled to England and America to study education and the role of sport in it. His journeys led him to agree with Didon, saying, “Competing for a place on an athletic team developed qualities of character.” He brought his theories and findings back to a French educational system that didn’t buy in. He persisted and gathered several organizations and sports together to lay the groundwork for his vision, a revival of the Olympic Games.

Didon and de Coubertin met in 1891 when he asked Didon to help him organize competitions between Catholic and secular schools. The two became friends and shared a passion for the philosophy that athletics are a moral compass for young men in France. On March 7, 1891, de Coubertin attended a lecture by Didon on the virtues of sport. “You who wish to surpass yourself, fashion your body and spirit to discover the best of yourself, strive always to go one step further that you were aiming for.” Didon concluded his rousing address with the words included on his schools’ banners; “Citius, Fortius, Altius.” (Faster, stronger, higher) De Coubertin never forgot the stirring phrase.  

 While de Coubertin continued to rally support and worked tirelessly for reigniting the Olympic Games, perhaps to offset the sorrow that plagued his personal life. He married Marie in 1895 and had two children. His first born, a son Jacques became mentally disabled when his parents left him in the sun too long as a little child. His daughter suffered emotional disturbances throughout her life, never married nor found peace in her life. De Coubertin and his wife blamed each other and tried to console themselves by raising two nephews but tragedy revisited when both nephews were killed fighting in the beginning of World War I. 

In June 1894, de Coubertin arranged a conference at the Sorbonne inviting international delegates to the idea of an Olympic revival. The idea picked up steam and by the end of the conference, the delegates had voted to reestablish the Olympic Games, beginning in 1896 in the original Olympic home, Athens, Greece. Per his suggestion, a Greek would be the head of the newly formed International Olympic Committee. With the 1900 Olympics scheduled for Paris, de Coubertin was elected head of the IOC in 1896 and held the position for 29 years.

Henri Didon, for his passion in the field and his motivating words, enjoyed a seat at the 1896 Athens Olympiad next to the King of Greece as a guest of de Coubertin and he celebrated the first mass in Olympic history to over 4000 people. On July 29, 1897, Didon addressed the Olympic Congress with a speech entitled, ‘Moral Influence of Athletic Sports.’ In it, he says, “I pay my debt of gratitude, bearing witness to this work and from talking here of a teacher’s power and the moral action that physical exercise outdoors has on our youth, on the formation of their character and personal development.” A few months before the 1990 Paris games, de Coubertin read this sadly in a Paris newspaper:

“When you want to jump three meters, we must aim for five. In life, it is not the shanks that betray you but the lack of ambition that drives you sufficiently.” Fr. Henri Didon.

In 1920, de Coubertin adopted Didon’s phrase that had stuck with him for 29 years. Didon had written, “Citius, Fortius, Altius” with fortius, (stronger) in the middle to stress the moral significance of athletes, de Coubertin swapped the last two, citing a ‘freedom of excess.’ "The attempt to impose on the combatant sport a guideline of obligatory moderation is a utopia.” De Coubertin said announcing the new motto. “Its followers need unrestrained liberty. Therefore one has given them the motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. Yield therefore to it, you disciples of unnatural belief in moderation: We will continue to put that motto into practice which Father Didon once gave his pupils on their life way, and which became the motto of the Olympic thought: Citius, Altius, Fortius."

Pierre de Coubertin’s voice was projected over speakers at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but he wasn’t there nor had accepted an invitation. He found those particular Olympics ‘confusing.’ After spending a lifetime working for youth and sport and reviving and preserving the Olympics, he had lost all. De Coubertin died September 2, 1937, alone and destitute in a small apartment in Geneva. Per his final instructions, he was buried in Lausanne but his heart, some seven months later, was laid to rest in a green urn in a stele in Olympia, Greece, marking his passing. True to his wishes, his heart was, and still is, forever with the Olympics.

“...the important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete…not victory but combat…not to have vanquished but to have fought well…not winning but taking part…” 
 Pierre de Coubertin