Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Cup of Hindsight...

A day after the country celebrated our day of independence, the United States Women’s World Cup Team and their coach, Jill Ellis, earned theirs. The team defeated Japan 5-2 in the Finals and put to rest the three weeks of online and print haranguing that follows coaches into big series and events. But along the way, Ellis’ ability to look past the noise and focus on the signal (Thank you Nate Silver for your great book) helped keep the team leveled and working hard.

How would you feel if this was written about you along your last Club or High School season?

On March 9th, a full 3 months before the World Cup began, Iceland Head Coach Freyr Alesandersson said after his 20th ranked team held the second ranked United States to a 0-0 draw he’d be “very unhappy” with his team had it played the same way. “We forced them to play the long ball since after watching their first two games; we saw that when they get under pressure they tend to resort to the long ball. I don’t understand it because they can play the ball on the grass. I would expect a team 20 seeds (ahead of us in the world rankings) would trash us.’’

World Cup begins on June 6th.

Soccer blogger Sarah Gehrke wrote for Slate on June 8th before the USA’s first match, “Ellis has focused her experimentation primarily on tactical formations…. Ellis’ tinkering has yet to yield any measurable progress, and the team finished 2014 and began 2015 on uneven notes, losing 3–2 to Brazil and 2–0 to France before eking out a 1–0 win over England. Performances, however, have yet to bear out any of those talking points. It’s never a good idea to read too much into friendlies during the buildup to a major tournament… but the U.S. has looked like a team with plenty of work to do if it is going to capture the trophy the program has been doggedly pursuing for the past 16 years."

June 8th, the USA 3, Australia 1.

On June 9th, Nate Scott of USA Today wrote, “This style of play will work against a team like Australia, who were missing two starters and couldn’t compete physically all over the field with the Americans. But it won’t work against the world’s best, and if this is the way the United States is going to play this World Cup, they will not win. It doesn’t matter how good Hope Solo is–the United States can’t win if they play like this….There is a ton of talent on this American team, and some creative and exciting players who aren’t afraid to try things on the offensive end. Ellis has to have the confidence to let her players play the game.”
Kevin McCauley of SB Nation also wrote after the Australia match, “But this team is not good enough to win the World Cup right now, and the problems are patently obvious. They're the same problems everyone who watches their games has been screaming about since Ellis took over, and she hasn't done anything about them yet. More likely than not, she'll persist with this team or some slightly altered variation of it; her substitutes suggested that she doesn't recognize the problems.”

June 12th, the USA 0, Sweden 0.

June 16th, USA 1, Nigeria 0

On June 17th, McCauley of SB Nation wrote, “It was just the latest in a series of events where Ellis' comments and in-game actions do not match up. The words that she speaks almost never align with what happens on the pitch, or what players she selects for her team.”

June 22nd, USA 2, Colombia 0

On June 22nd, former USA Men’s National Team player Eric Wynalda suggested that Ellis’s tactics were too conservative in a post game interview. “The performance was pathetic, and it’s not the players’ fault. We have plenty of players who can go at teams, plenty of players who can score goals, but the reins have been pulled on them.”

Michelle Akers, who helped the United States win World Cup titles in 1991 and ’99, questioned Ellis’s personnel decisions and lineups after the match.“Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. When I say, 'Hey man, I'll take an ugly World Cup win,’ I'm dealing with the now. And the now is, we don't have all our pieces together, we aren't performing at our best, some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. If [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team, you know what I'm saying?"

June 23, Jeff Kassouf of the Equalizer Soccer blog wrote, “In the end, as Ellis said, a win’s a win. But the Americans haven’t yet put together a fully convincing 90 minutes at this World Cup, often coming alive in the second halves of games. And against Germany and France, especially Germany and France which finally showed up in the Round of 16- flat starts just aren’t going to cut it.”

On June 24th, Andrew Keh of the New York Times wrote, “To some critics, the direction from Coach Jill Ellis has been precisely the problem. There has been little passing flow and apparently little effort to correct that.Concerned voices emerged strongly during and after the game Monday, in which Colombia, a much less accomplished team, seemed to control the pace of play for long stretches despite playing almost half the game with one fewer player.”

The Equalizer’s Kassouf wrote again before the June 26th China match, “Should it all come together, the US is capable of beating any team in the world. That much has never been in doubt even before the tournament. The talent is there but the execution needs to match it. Thus far, it hasn’t. Friday is another opportunity to change that.”

June 26th, USA 1, China 0

June 30th, USA 2, Germany 0

After the win against China and the big upset win over Germany, the tide most expectedly turned into Ellis’ favor. 

Kassouf wrote, almost reluctantly, “The United States women were spectacular on Tuesday, putting in a convincing 90-minute performance that most outside of their bubble wouldn’t have thought possible the way they played early in this tournament. But Tuesday was vintage United States, back to the days when the Americans took the initiative, pressed teams and shoved the result down their throats. The United States is finally playing its best soccer, peaking at the time when they told everyone they would, even though the evidence was slow to materialize. Ellis, for all the criticism she takes – even if she is truly oblivious to it – deserves credit for making the necessary moves to get this team going over the past five days, even if it did take a while to do.”

USA Today’s Scott, who stated unequivocally three weeks before that the USA “would not win” if they played the way they had been playing, added his two cents with, “It took a World Cup semifinal against the No. 1 team in the world, but USWNT head coach Jill Ellis finally got her starting lineup right.”

Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times wrote the day before the World Cup Final under the headline, ‘Early criticism of Jill Ellis turns to awe as U.S. reaches World Cup final’, “Two weeks ago, Jill Ellis was anything but a genius. As her U.S. team struggled through group play at the Women's World Cup, the coach was being called unprepared, uncreative and unresponsive. And those were the compliments…. But now, with the unbeaten U.S. in Sunday's World Cup final, the criticism has turned into praise, and Ellis is being hailed as a genius. Yet all of it, both the struggles and the successes, were part of the same blueprint.”
The USA Today’s headline simply read, ‘USA, coach Jill Ellis silence doubters with trip to World Cup final.’

July 5th, USA 5, Japan 2, World Cup Champions.

Thomas Floyd of the Goal soccer blog wrote, “The U.S. National Team looked like it was in a fog for the first four games of this Women's World Cup. But when it mattered most, Ellis delivered three straight master classes of coaching.”

The Wall Street Journal’s headline simply said, ‘U.S. Women’s Team Gels around Jill Ellis.’ and Baxter of the L.A. Times wrote, “But the victory might have been most satisfying for coach Jill Ellis, who believed in her game plan even as the U.S. stumbled through group play. It’s a confidence she learned from her father, John, a former national team coach who sent her daughter the same text message every day during this tournament. It says: ‘Three deep breaths and keep going,’ Jill Ellis said. ‘I know he’s there with me in spirit.’”
With the accolades flooding in, Ellis shied away from the completely justified, ‘I told you so' rhetoric with a gracious post match interview saying, "It’s not how I operate. It really is about what’s in front of me, and I said from day one, the day I took this job, I’m off Twitter, I’m off, because I know, I knew where my focus had to be, and I needed no distractions. I said to the players we have to continue to believe in our process. It's not vindication, validation," She added. "It just feels really, really good. And I couldn't be more proud of this group of players and this staff. I knew they had it in them, they knew they had it in them, and I'm just so happy the world gets to see it."

Critics always have the advantage: they have the benefit of the outcome but most aren’t usually in the room when coaching decisions are made, they aren’t in the huddles and they sure aren’t on the field. They sit back and judge, as they are paid to do so we will read and watch and listen to what they have to say, as experts, so WE can sound better informed and start conversations with.

Parents, other coaches, officials and even players will look at your substitutions, your lineups, your schemes and will always want to Monday morning quarterback your choices with the inevitable, “SEE!” But sight is so much clearer from behind the decision. Rear view mirrors can make anyone look like a coaching genius.

So put your hands together for Jill Ellis: who kept her cool, didn’t engage in any extra virtual sparring with critics and coaches and did her job, and in this case, to perfection.

The United States Women are Champions again. Let’s all toast with a Cup of hindsight please…..

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Your Purpose, Your Passion....

"If you can't figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose." T.D. Jakes

Peter van der Ven is an unassuming chap if you were to see him at a volleyball match or a coaches meeting. He is a handful under six feet tall and his brown mop of hair perpetually disheveled on his head is starting to turn gray. But what is catching about Peter is his eyes: they are dark and always looking past what he sees, as if he is a step ahead of you constantly.

Peter van der Ven is a coach (referred to as a “trainer” in most of Europe) from Zeeland in the Netherlands. He is a level 4 volleyball trainer which allows him to coach up to Professional teams and National Youth teams in his native country. He used to play but realized as his body started to buck, his newest contribution would be on the coaching side of things.

When Peter’s daughter Iris started to show an interest in volleyball in 2009, he says he “dove” back into it. The Netherlands has their youth start with sports at a young age and swimming is the first sport taught, but a TEAM sport is next and that tends to grab a hold of the Dutch youth. There are very few individual sports to which the Dutch have made an impact. But in team sports, they are threats in soccer, volleyball, hockey, basketball, etc. The young are taught at the youngest of ages the value of team and it shows.

As Peter saw the Dutch volleyball clubs around him, he noticed that very few boys were playing; it was mostly girls that were taking up the sport. He asked maybe one of the most important questions of his life at that point: “Why?” He talked with other coaches and officials from the NeVobo, the Netherlands Volleyball Federation and even players to try to find an answer. And he did.

The Dutch volleyball model was predominantly technical training and development and Peter saw this as a deterrent to boys who want to PLAY! He wanted to develop a game that got boys playing right away with less emphasis on technique and more on what will bring more boys into our sport: the attack. “Boys want to learn by game play.” He says.

Smashball was born.

Peter, working together with NeVobo, developed the rules, a playing field and put the skills into four levels. He saw this as a way for boys to play each other, even with different skill levels. He designed a ball special for the sport that is lighter but with a hard cover and extreme graphics that catch the eye of a boy from across a gym floor. Part of the genius of Smashball is the speed to which boys are playing. In a recent clinic he did at a local athletic club in Eindhoven, his court was playing Smashball in 11 minutes…ELEVEN minutes! He refers to stage one of Smashball as the “At once” stage. Get them playing and they get hooked. “By using a training model that entails drive, movement and competitions, boys will thrive and find affiliations with the sport.” Peter says confidently.

The net is lowered to the wrist height of the smallest player on the court. The ball is played initially with a bounce. Skills are added as the players progress up the levels, all moving up as they succeed in a set of skills. In a fairly short time, boys AND girls are passing, setting and attacking on the lower net. As they progress and grow, so does the net height.

At a recent Smashball rollout in South Dakota, the kids were so taken with the new discipline that they asked for days after when the next Smashball clinic was.

Peter oozes passion as he speaks of Smashball. Spending a few hours with him is an infusion of energy and expertise. He is the supreme trainer of a sport he played an important role in inventing but the ease of which it’s able to be played and advanced through makes it a viable training tool for both boys and girls and is starting to spread into the United States where the boy’s game continues to be a source of frustration for USA Volleyball and the Region’s alike. It’s time to look at other avenues and Peter van der Ven has posted a street sign.

The numbers are proof enough. Since the inception of Smashbal in 2010, boys volleyball in the city where Peter worked in the Netherlands has grown over 500% That kind of growth makes it a volleyball variant to “dive into.” There are 1100 volleyball clubs in Holland and over 150 offer Smashball. Over 13,000 kids in the Netherlands are playing Smashball in PE classes and NeVobo now points to over 4000 boys playing volleyball in Holland with 400 new members just this past season. The Az. Region has less than 400 boys playing club all TOTAL!

The passion to which Peter speaks of his new life’s mission is the kind of stuff we all wish we had in our lives. Our kids, families, sport, and occupation: Peter has melded them all together into Smashball. His garage is full of boxes of shirts and Smashballs, his kids participate and model the sport and his wife is a beam of support. His office is replete with books he has written in several languages (that you can order here) and he continues to grow Smashball through clinics, seminars and training sessions at clubs throughout Europe.

Passion in our sport is sometimes misplaced with winning and ego. And then there are people like Peter who use their passion for growing the sport in places it needs it. He is to be applauded and admired.

Smashball- it’s coming to the Arizona Region and a gym near you SOON!