Friday, December 30, 2016


For a coach, it’s the equivalent of the Titanic sliding into the icy North Atlantic. It’s the car that won’t start on the morning of your most important job interview. It’s the unexpected thunderstorm the afternoon of your outdoor wedding. It’s the dread, the Charlie Watts drum solo pounding inside your chest, the inconceivable coming alive.

The Arizona Western Lady Matadors were playing at home in early November with a berth to the NJCAA Div. I National Tournament on the line. They were across the net from the Gila Monsters of Eastern Arizona who just two weeks before had beaten the Lady Matadors at home, 15-13 in the 5th set.

Now Western lost the first set but came back and won the second handily 25-16 and was up 24-16 in the third with all the momentum pointing to a fourth set win and the booking of tickets to Caspar, Wyoming for Nationals.

24-17….24-18: palms got clammy, heads starting to fill with doubt. 24-19…24-20….24-21…. Two timeouts by Western but the bleeding persisted. 24-22…24-23…24-24. Finally a service error gave the Lady Mats a set point, only to see Eastern dig in and score the next three points and take a 2-1 set lead.

Every coach’s nightmare.

But this is a different coach, at least from last season.

Lorayne Chandler was ending just her second year at the helm of the Az. Western College volleyball program and she couldn’t let it end like this. The year before, her first year as a college head coach, she saw her team go a substandard 11-12. The year before, as an assistant coach to the program while simultaneously coaching the local high school varsity team at Gila Ridge, (talk about grinding!), Western had gone 21-7 and earned a place at Nationals.

Now, a year removed from her first season, and staring a huge disappointment in the eye, she settled the troops. Under her guidance, Western had won their first 23 matches of the season, running through most of the Az. Community College Athletic Conference like they were late for prom. But this night, this match was a crossroads for this young coach who self described, was learning on the fly.

AWC Libero Sofia Lopez waited to hear what her coach would say. “During games, she was the same. She trusted us and in every rough time we had, she knew exactly what to say to make us react and start playing our game.”

That they did. They responded to their coach by taking the next two sets 25-20 and 15-6 and booking their trip to Caspar.

How much can change in a year? For Chandler, it was more above the shoulders for her and her team.

“My philosophy throughout my first season was ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken,’” Chandler recalls. “I tried to keep everything from class selection to practice regimes almost identical to the previous season. Biggest change I made was implementing mental training sessions with the team. I am a firm believer that female athletes play better when they feel confident and comfortable in their own skin.”

With a losing record her first season, the first one in 8 years, Chandler regrouped. “I spent a lot of my off-season contemplating what kind of coach I wanted to be. My first season, I mirrored Jason (Smith, the former AWC coach) and other coaches in the conference, by sitting on the bench during the majority of the matches. This season I decided I am way too competitive of a person to sit along the wayside. I felt more in-tuned with the matches and the athletes by making this change.”

Following the volleyball coaches mantra of there are no small things, Chandler saw this as a key. “My first year we lacked the leadership necessary to win matches. I believe my ‘bench sitting coaching tactic”’ would have only worked if I had the leadership on the court. But with me on the bench and no one on the court to step up—the writing was on the wall.”

“This year I spent more time developing leadership skills with my team captains both on and off the court. I also tried to make adjustments in my own leadership. Recruiting plays a huge role in how well each season will unfold. Our returning sophomores played at an extremely high level for us, which encouraged our freshman to also level up.”

She also made a change in the practices. “I realized running identical practices year to year did not allow me to help my players grow. I hit a learning curve once I started customizing my practices to my players versus my ‘practice book.’”

With a Masters degree in sports psychology, Lorayne used those lessons to directly affect her team. “This season I tried to stress the ‘family’ aspect of team sports.” Many of AZW’s athletes are from other countries and she felt the team played better when everyone got along. “I spent a majority of each week having individual player meetings so I could learn as much about my players as possible.”

“We stressed the need to ‘fake it ‘till you make it’. Obviously, teams have their share of conflicts. We encouraged the girls to develop a certain level of respect for each other on and off the court that allowed them to work together, regardless of outside ‘drama’, during practice and matches. We made sure the girls understood, just like their real families, conflict happens—address it and move on.”

After a stellar high school career at Pettus High School in Texas, she took her defensive skills to Richland College in Dallas where she played for two years before transferring to Texas A&M and graduating in 2009. She spent a year with the TCU volleyball program in 2010 before her move to Yuma.

With all of her comeback success, including being named the Conference Co Coach of the Year, she relied on her coaching staff…all one of him: Roberto Madrigal who’s English is a second language. “Roberto attended each practice, weight training session, and match throughout the season. In practices we utilized his volleyball skills to challenge the team. Roberto played men’s volleyball for his university in Mexico. I especially utilized Roberto’s bilingual skills. In situations where I needed my Spanish-speakers to get the message quick and efficiently Roberto would step in and assist.”

“Roberto and I seemed to have a lot of the same ideas. Typically when I asked for his help he would say what I had already been thinking. This gave me the reassurance that my thoughts were at least in the ballpark. We occasionally had hiccups with our language barrier. But with so many Spanish speakers I’ve learned to coach and talk in a way that includes more visuals than speaking cues.”

Chandler’s Lady Matadors are restocking this season after she’ll graduate six. She’ll help them with their school work and assist them if they want to play on into a four year school. But Lorayne’s biggest advantage is from the ears up. With her degree, she utilized her athlete’s biggest muscles to reinvent a program that disappointed all last season. “Understanding the ‘why’ has always been of interest to me.”

AZW Libero Lopez agrees. “It was undoubtedly better and I guess it is all about experience. This year, most of us knew how the season was going to be and she knew the problems we could face. All this together made us a great team and the Region Champs.”

Chandler’s ability to push the right buttons has given this collegiate coaching fledgling some confidence and street cred going into her third season. “Allowing my athletes an opportunity to discuss their fears and successes in a nonthreatening environment gives me the opportunity to learn what makes them tick." 

"This in turn, allows me know what buttons to press.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Lost Meaning of the Tryout...

This is a guest blog by the Glendale Community College head coach and longtime club coach Lisa Stuck. 

I have been involved with AZ Region Junior Volleyball many years and over that period of time, have witnessed a gradual and disturbing evolving trend. Each new season this trend seems to worsen and this year was no exception. Tryouts are no longer tryouts.

The Region has decided to allow “open gym dates” prior to tryouts as an opportunity for players to shop other clubs and make a more informed decision about which club they like best. In theory, I understand why the Region decided to allow the open gyms. These open gyms, however, seem to have turned into something unintended.

Players and parents attend open gyms in an effort to negotiate positions on teams prior to tryouts. They want assurances and promises, and sometimes leverage clubs against each other to get the best result. Coaches are on the phone, texting and calling until the wee hours of the night trying to secure players prior to tryouts. Coaches sometimes talk poorly about other Clubs and Coaches in an effort to sway players.

Players want to know, “Who is coming to the tryout”, “Who else is already on the team”, and “How many players do you already have”. Players will also tell coaches what positions they will and will not play. Parents want to know if their kid is “Your #1 setter, or “Your #1 outside” etc., and what type of playing time they will get. Players want assurances if they show up on tryout Saturday, they will make the team. They want a commitment from Club Coaches ahead of time, but aren’t willing to make one themselves.

This year, open gyms felt like I was at a car dealership trying to negotiate a sale, or at a giant swap meet watching people bicker and barter over who could provide the best deal. In the week leading up to tryout Saturday, there was so much leveraging and deal making going on, it felt like I should’ve been working on Wall Street.

The day of the tryout was unlike any tryout I have ever been part of as an athlete or a coach. Players that said they were coming, no showed without any explanation. Players that were at the tryout, knew they were already on the team, and the 2 hours blocked for tryouts would only be about 45 minutes. Tryouts are a formality now; a courtesy so the Region can say we had an official tryout. In reality, the tryouts now take place at the open gyms. The integrity of the tryout has been lost.

I miss the days when players had to show up and demonstrate their ability, work ethic, and worthiness at a tryout. Coaches could then see a player’s best effort. Everyone at the tryouts had the same opportunity to prove themselves. There were no negotiations, no promises, no bartering. Some kids made the team, and some kids didn’t. There were no guarantees.

In today’s youth sport climate, no one wants to:

· Have to try out for a team

· Worry about not making a team

· Not be on the BEST team

· Have to compete for playing time

· Have to play a position they don’t want to play

There is something to be said for having to ‘bring your best’ under pressure and perform. That’s why we have tryouts. Although, I know we no longer live in that climate, I wish there was a way to get back to the integrity of the tryout process. With so many different Clubs, I don’t know if it’s possible, but I do know…. I miss it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

ito ay lamang ng isang laro...

It’s just a game.

We use this phrase to soothe overwrought athletes who just missed their serve on match point. We tell it to Parents when they get too frisky in the stands. We tell it to officials who throw their yellow cards around like cut lumber in a forest. And we say it to ourselves when coaching the better team and we come out on the short end of the scoreboard.

It’s just a game……

Last year, USA Volleyball sent a couple of coaches over to the Philippine Islands for one week to work with some organizations looking to expand volleyball and its life lessons into their athletes, schools and communities. For both coaches, it was a life changing experience.
So USAV went back, this year for TWO weeks. The focus for this excursion was to be more coach’s education, work with the deaf and hard of hearing and with persons with disabilities. Much of the trip was assembled by an amazing woman named Geraldine (Dina) Bernardo. You will learn more about her in an upcoming blog but the catalyst behind the team’s success and most of the opportunities rests with her. 

(Dina Bernardo on the right)

The schedule, put together by the U.S. Embassy in Manila through the Sports Envoy program and their partners: SWEEP (Sport for Women’s Empowerment and Employment Program), Sport 4 Community, PADS (Philippine Accessible Disability Services Inc.) and USA Volleyball, was ambitious to say the least: sixteen different clinics in 14 straight days. The U.S. Embassy suggested in their press release of the two weeks that over 1000 athletes and 300 coaches were connected with in three cities: Manila, Cebu and Baguio.

You hear great coaches talk about the journey. In this particular coaching pilgrimage, they would be 100% right. Much was to be overcome. Language barriers were leveled, discomfort replaced with peace. The barriers of a developing nation opening its arms to clinics with only outdoor venues, dictated daily by traffic in a city of 20 million people, the relationships of local administrations to the cause and weather: from the tropical heat and humidity to typhoon like rain and wind. In addition, a population of coaches who had scant previous training in coaching let alone volleyball and those traditions that had to be unwound and untied.

And so the journey began.

An orphanage the first day under a sweltering sun and 90%+ humidity took some skill training of the 20+ into a rousing game of 9-man volleyball so more kids could play. As was the case with every clinic session that the team does, the athletes were fed lunch or a snack after the clinic. These young people ranging in age of middle school to high school brought back memories of the previous year with a thank you song for the staff and then an impromptu dance party.

The staff worked with coaches in a township called Paranaque the next day. We talked about the science of motor programming and the use of cell phone video to help athletes find their form. The coaches tried their hand at organizing a practice and presenting it to their peers and they learned sitting volleyball as well. The appreciation of the coaches is palatable in everything they say and do. We forget sometimes all that we take for granted in our sport: proper equipment, volleyball balls and coaching options and education. These folks are limited in them all.

Day three took us to the Philippine School for the Deaf for a coaching clinic that began with a country wide earthquake emergency drill. The coaches bought into the ideas of using more science to teach the game and they responded with school administrators by trying both standing and sitting volleyball, enjoying the chance to compete against and with each other. After lunch, the kids came, lower and upper grades for two hours each and the coaches helped the team train their skills and hone their opportunities to play. In the end, these deaf and hard of hearing athletes put on a hip hop dancing presentation that had everyone cheering.

Early the next morning, the team crowded into a 7 person van loaded with t shirts and volleyballs and headed 5 hours north to Baguio in torrential rain. The four women in the van; Jen, Jaemie, Mildred (but she prefers Dred) and Bunny told of how they met as we drove. They had all been on the same college volleyball team and Jen and Jaemie had been on the same high school team too. Dina had been in touch with Jen to work for her and Jen brought them all along. It has been a good partnership for the past 4 years or so and they are affectionately known as the “Sweepers.” They take care of the organization, the translating, the registration and help run courts, keeping the humor and enthusiasm to pitched levels. They are unsung and just another example of young people to which this is NOT just a game! They relish the fact they change lives with each clinic they do.

(The Sweepers: Jen, Bunny, Dred and Jaemie)

Baguio is a city built for 30,000 that supports over 100,000. The city is built through the hills and with the different colors and architecture looks from a distance like legos. In 1990, over 1,600 people were killed when an earthquake leveled much of the city. Today, with the buildings on top of each other crawling up the mountain sides, it’s both beautiful but somewhat frightening to think about. 

The team spent the morning setting up and the afternoon holding a coaching clinic. What started in the classroom finished on the court. These same coaches came back the next day to finish the clinic at a different Baguio school in the morning. At one point, the coaches were asked, after hearing the basics of the science of motor learning, to come up with a practice plan for their team. In every case, the coaches spent 20 minutes or more running and stretching. Again, this outdated concept was a tough sell to these coaches who have traditionally done this with every practice and every sport.

So we tried math; in their three month season, they had 6 hours of practice a week for a total of 72 hours of practice. If they ran and stretched for the 20 minutes, they were giving up 12 hours of their practice time WITHOUT touching a ball. The question to the coaches was simple: would you want to play a team that had 12 more hours of volleyball than you did in the same practice schedule? Slow nods and then grins told us we’d at least gotten them to think about this tradition more closely in the future.

At the end of the clinic that afternoon, a coach came up and asked us if we had any drills for 12 to 14 girls with just one ball. It’s all his school had. We worked on some ideas but in the end, slipped the coach a few pesos the next morning to buy some more balls. Such is life in Baguio.

It was this night that we met a most amazing woman. Her name is Adeline Dumapong. She is the first person to win a Paralympic medal in the history of the Philippines, in power lifting. She is an incredible woman, an even more amazing story and like Dina, will be a blog coming soon.

(Jaemie and Adeline)

As was the case with all of the athlete clinics the team ran over the two weeks, the expectation of 36 athletes climbed to well over 80 by the start, all on one cement court. With ropes in hand, the team put together more “nets” and had the boys and girls be “nets” as well, which they loved as did the coaches. While we might find that ‘cute’ here in the US, there is often no place to practice or put up a net in the places worked and this simple idea of making the kids the nets went over resoundingly well.

The next morning, Adeline had gathered several coaches, teachers and administrators who themselves were persons with disabilities and who taught, coached and worked in schools and facilities for kids with disabilities. Adeline was nervous as these leaders didn’t know there was a game called sitting volleyball and didn’t know how they would respond. The team helped several onto the court, out of their wheelchairs, and definitely out of their comfort zones. They learned sitting volleyball from the ground up, playing at first and getting a true love of the game right away. Soon, as we were wrapping up, they wanted to play more. For most, it was a chance to play, to compete at something; opportunities that they seemingly got very little of in Baguio. One coach drove two and a half hours on a motor bike in the pouring rain on a prosthetic leg just to attend this morning clinic. For these coaches, for this one morning, it wasn’t just a game.

As the team packed up, some of the girls from the clinic yesterday strolled in as they had a game a bit later. They began to play 3 on 3 with 3 girls as the net, something they had learned less than 24 hours before. The Sweepers piled into the van and the team headed the 5 hours back to Manila: tired but confidant of their fresh footprint in Baguio.

On the mid Sunday of the two weeks came a visit to Bahay Mapagmahal, an orphanage in Manila for children with disabilities. There was a small room and 20 or so children awaiting the team along with Adeline who had set up the visit. She was giving back as this was the orphanage she was raised in for 10 years growing up and where she found power lifting.

A rope was strung across the middle of the room, no bigger than an American kitchen, and the children split up on sides and began to play sitting volleyball. The smiles and laughter was almost immediate and more than infectious. The children played, figuring out how to move, how to reach and to be active with their maladies, enjoying every second they could on the court. For these few hours, the game wasn’t a game at all, it was pure freedom. After, the children grabbed instruments and played songs for the team, almost all very proficient in stringed instruments. When Katy Perry’s “Firework” was played the smiles got brighter, knowing Americans would appreciate their offering. What was not lost were the lyrics of the song that somehow added to the freedom they just had playing volleyball:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag Drifting through the wind Wanting to start again

Do you ever feel so paper thin Like a house of cards One blow from caving in

Do you ever feel already buried deep Six feet under screams But no one seems to hear a thing

Do you know that there's still a chance for you 'Cause there's a spark in you 
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine Just own the night Like the fourth of July

'Cause baby you're a firework Come on show 'em what your worth
Make 'em go "oh, oh, oh!" As you shoot across the sky-y-y

Everyone shook hands and hugged and as the team headed to the car, the entire school gathered in front of the SUV saying goodbye again, making faces and smiling brightly for a few more pictures. For a few hours, the team had made a difference. Tears indistinguishable with sweat ran down faces into smiles as the night closed in and the new week was upon us.

The clinic starting week two was for the Pasay School District and it encompassed roughly 20-25 teachers and coaches. The Director of the district was there to say a few words and introduce the team. He told us he had 65,000 children in his district- 65,000!!! His schools ran double shifts, his coaches made pennies or volunteered but still this day, they sat and learned and became engaged and then went out into the humid heat and played for much of the afternoon. The next day, at the same school many of the coach’s kids came to a clinic for the younger grades and then the older. The coaches used some games and techniques learned the day before and the kids stayed engaged and busy for the entire day. There was supposed to be 50-60 but as stated, earlier, it grew closer to 100 in each session. No matter, the team ran a rope, had games going almost from the start and helped the athletes with technique, feedback and kept everything positive. The Director asked if the team was coming back next year as he wanted to bring more coaches and kids.

The team headed back to Paranaque the next morning to work with the kids from the coaches we had worked with a week before. The kids were as young as 5 and 6 and as old as High School Seniors but there were, as per normal, way more than anticipated. Skills were gone over and we used the older players to mentor the younger ones which they embraced wholeheartedly. They worked on skills with the younger players from attacking and passing to setting and defense. We taught them all sitting and then let them play over a rope in small court games to accelerate touch counts. The coaches from the week before were there and helped, using some of the coaching thoughts they had gathered 7 days earlier.

The team hustled to the airport right after the Paranaque clinic to grab a flight to Cebu, 90 minutes to an island of 6 million. Upon arrival, we met another amazing person who would once again challenge the idea that this is “just a game.” His name was J.P. Maunes and he was the founder and the action behind a group called PADS, (Philippine Accessible Disability/Deaf Services). In just his four months there, JP had gotten the nightly news to add a sign language translator and in the Philippine’s Presidential election, he helped polling places to be more accessible for persons with disabilities to vote, some for the very first time. J.P. was a mover and shaker in this community and yes, he is an upcoming blog as well. He wore a white shirt that said simple, ‘Able Bodied Nation.’ 

(J.P. on the right)

We headed to a local arena in Mandaue City in Cebu the next morning. There we addressed over 70 coaches of Special Education and PWD classes and schools and after some basic coaching thoughts, taught them sitting volleyball to take back to their students. There were several PWD in the gym who had come with some of the teachers or were teachers themselves. What happened for the next few hours was simply magic. These teachers and PWD, mostly men, got on a rope we had set up and with some basic training and rules, let loose. It was obvious that for most if not all, they had not had a physical outlet of fun in a very long time. They served tough, blocked serves, talked smack across the nets and became raucous and totally enthralled. The laughter at one point made J.P. emotional because he hadn’t heard that sound coming from these folks in forever. 

The afternoon hosted a clinic for deaf and hard of hearing athletes. Again, skills and play were the norm and then they tried sitting as well, enjoying mixing in with the PWD men who had refused to relinquish their court because they were having so much fun. One of the deaf boys asked to take a picture with Jen and then started crying. We thought he was hurt but he said he was just happy. It’s not just a game…

The next day J.P. got us to a Cebu suburb called Pajo. There we trained more coaches and PWD and deaf and hard of hearing students. The team used the model from the day before putting up ropes to handle the large amount of coaches and athletes. The day we arrived in Cebu, J.P. had brought a couple of his favorite athletes with him and both showed up this day to learn sitting volleyball.

Dexter is in his early 20’s and has an affliction which doesn’t let him use his legs below the knees. He had a wheelchair most of his young life but in the Philippines, there is very little access for PWD. There are rarely ramps into buildings, the sidewalks and roads are uneven and often unpaved. After going through this for so many years, Dexter made an incredible decision. He gave up the wheel chair and began walking on his knees to get around. He has thick rubber pads on his knees, like long volleyball knee pads, and he walks on his knees where ever he goes. He is stared at, he is slow and deliberate but he says he can go where he wants to now and he’s not at the mercy of wheels. 

(Dexter and Daisy)

Daisy is also early 20’s with Phocomelia which is an abnormal growth of limbs or a limb, in her case it’s her right leg which is half the size of her normal left and is supported with a crutch. Daisy is beautiful, charming, loves to dance and tried sitting volleyball for the first time this day, helping the littler kids and working through her own learning curve. She never got frustrated; she never gave up and just enjoyed her time on the court. She would shank a serve and smile and ask how she could get better. She is the youngest of 10 kids in her family and despite her life on a crutch, she is a vocal and effective leader in her local community for women with disabilities and works with J.P. to offer more programming and help make their daily lives better. She was an incredible ambassador for the PWD community and hopefully for sitting volleyball for years to come.

One man in a wheel chair who had been at the clinic from early in the morning stayed off to the side and the back of the proceedings, maybe just taking it all in. Toward the afternoon, when the play got louder, he ventured closer to a court. Finally a ball came toward his chair and he scooped it up. He tossed the ball up and served it over the rope to start a rally. He moved a little closer and served again, and again, and again. At one point, a ball came back to him and he stuck his arms out to pass it. He was now into the court and smiling as his team wanted him to serve every ball.

Just a game?

As the day wound down, the deaf students executed a flawless hip hop dance routine and soon everyone, including the team, was involved: dancing, shouting, singing and extolling the virtues of persons with disabilities everywhere and celebrating life. It got to a fevered pitch with everyone in a circle yelling and singing and dancing. Finally, as the song ended, J.P. got in the middle and yelled, “Let’s hear it for PWD!” and the loudest roar in Cebu echoed over the bay.

The final day in Cebu was spent with many of the same folks from the past two days, including Dexter, in Dragon boating, which is a form of rowing in a specific style of boat more common in Southeast Asia than in America. The team grabbed oars alongside PWD’s and we raced into the bay, taking turns at 10 stokes, 20, 30 50 and even 60 at a clip under the barking rhythm of the boat’s leader. Arms burned, the sun was torrid and the water a cool respite, but the men and women on the boat didn’t notice any of it. They were on the water; someplace many of them, as they climbed from their chairs and crutches, probably never imagined they could be. Working together as a unit, the ultimate team, they powered this 20+ seat hopped up canoe over the water, gliding at times through the small breakers and the wakes of the water taxis.
As soon as the team came back to shore, another group, including Ms. Daisy, went out and trained as well. They came back and the team and the rowers all talked and took pictures under a big shade tree by the dock. The group of PWD struggled at times getting in and out of the boat but J.P. built a transitional seat that made it easier. One thing this team member has learned in the past two years is there is nothing the Filipino people can’t do and being around the deaf, hearing impaired and PWD these two weeks, that idea has become concrete. The team gathered together for one last good bye and as we headed toward the van and our flight back to Manila, we saw Daisy, floating in the bay, effortless and peaceful, finding a place where her crutch wasn’t needed, her disability not in play. It was the perfect ending to our Cebu excursion.
Our final day was in the suburb of Tondo. On the outskirts of Manila near the docks, the town and its inhabitants scrounge for survival. They pore over bags of garbage for food, clothing, shoes and anything they can clean up and sell. Poverty is the norm and human trafficking is routine. In the middle of this ‘war zone’ is a purple building called, appropriately, the Purple House which is home to 411 students of Tondo who have to earn their way in with behavior and a commitment to education. They are schooled and fed daily from private donors and corporations. The clinic was only a half day and only for 30 or so of the students. It was played on a slab of green cement that was the size of a basketball 3 point line with a stage behind it, 3 feet higher. Again, the kids managed to figure out how to navigate the skills games we offered and they had a wonderful 4 hour respite from their daily lives. A few times in the past two weeks, the team introduced ‘Queen of the Court’ to the athletes and having never played it before, they devoured it. Tondo was no exception as they continued to play as the team packed up to leave.

One smaller girl who looked to be 9 or 10 was wearing canvas shoes that had such thin soles, you couldn’t help but think her feet must be getting bruised. She jumped around with everyone, played every drill and never complained once, something that is the norm with these amazing kids. You couldn’t help wonder where she had gotten them.

The team, at least the American part, was headed home. It was hard not to realize, while long days and short nights were the norm, just how much work had been done in these two weeks and the ‘Sweepers’ had been the nucleus of the atom. There aren’t enough Thank You’s for these folks that for the second time in two years, have allowed USA Volleyball to come in and change lives, make friends, grow our sport and do something that coaches long to do every day: make a difference. Dina, J.P., Adeline, Jen, Jaemie, Dred, Bunny, Alvin: these are the heroes without capes. The ones that walk past you on the street: everyday heroes.

It’s just a game. When you hear that phrase uttered the next time, stop the person saying it and tell them it’s not. It can be transformational, it can be uplifting and inspiring and educational. It can redirect lives and give confidence to those in need, and reaffirm the honor and dignity of others.

Sadly, some coaches do make it 'just a game.' But if you are reading this, you are probably in it for more. It doesn't ever have to be 'just a game' unless you want it to be. You have the ability to transform lives, help facilitate great experiences and raise confidence and self awareness. You, coach, have that power!

It’s not just a game. It can save people.

I know. It's saved me.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

'Beautiful Chaos...'

There is a Greek word, Meraki. Translated, it means the soul, creativity or love put into something. The essence of yourself that is put into your work; leaving a piece of yourself in your work.

For Sara Ramirez, she doesn’t know another way.

If you’ve coached in the Arizona Region the past few years, you have probably seen her at tournaments, or maybe heard her. She is almost always smiling, has dark beautiful eyes that can look through you and her calling card: a laugh that is a hybrid between Woody Woodpecker and the sputter of a diesel engine. She is engaging and brings a heightened sense of how charmed she finds her life and how much more you should appreciate yours.

This morning, as you read this, she is waking up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been there since July and she spends 6 days a week trying to make the lives of Syrian refugees a bit more tolerable.

There are 28,000 refugees in Greece which is also in the worst economic crisis in its history. We sit at the breakfast table and read our papers or watch the news on TV. Maybe we’ll see the crawl at the bottom of our phones and iPads. The refugee crisis: we shake our heads and mumble something about it being too bad and how sorry we feel for those people.

Those people are who Sara has given the next year of her life to.

She was a high school volleyball player in El Paso, played at Mesa and South Mountain Community Colleges and has done some coaching with club, school and some church camps and groups. She spent some time in the Middle East on mission trips but this mission is a year, her 28th on the planet. She is donating it to people she doesn’t know half way around the globe. To people she may never see again and are in an impossible situation of frustration, depression and living out the fear of prison, violence and even death.

She decided a few months before she left to combine her love of helping people and volleyball. She envisioned a clinic in one of the camps long before she even arrived. “I just think sports are an international language.” She’s experienced. “I’ve been overseas several times before doing volleyball clinics, with refugees in Palestine. From there, I came away with the idea that you don’t need to know the language in order to play a sport if you’re trying to relate to people, if you’re trying to connect to them, if you’re trying to get to a place of trust. You put a ball on the court and everyone will understand what’s going on to some degree.”

“It just builds friendships in a foreign country. In this case, refugees who happen to be in the biggest crisis since World War II.” She says solemnly.

She took the steps to make her vision happen and enlisted the help of USA Volleyball. A call was made to get some balls and nets to Thessaloniki. Brian Swenty, an American  teacher and volleyball coach for a High School in an army base in Germany answered the call and sent down volleyballs, nets and even some knee pads and uniforms.

Next, Sara needed a place to set up a net. In one of the four camps she works during the week, a space was freed up when a school inside the camp was closed. It was a cemented warehouse corner with a door, metal side panels and steel girders surrounding it.

In a two day window in mid August, having just been there a month, Sara’s vision started to become a reality. Her aid team got together and first looked at the space. They decided that instead of one net, they would combine the nets, make a longer thinner space and engage more players. They fixed one side of the net to the hinges of the door and the other side to one of the steel girders that rose up from the floor. The middle of the net sagged but a piece of rope was tied around a water bottle, which was tossed up and over the steel rafters in the ceiling and the net was now held up in the middle. 

The third net was put to the side of the newly designated court and a smaller “kids” court was built with a net strung lower between two of the steel girders.

The next step proved a learning experience. Of the balls that were donated by Swenty’s high school program, half were brought out to begin play. Within minutes, all but two were gone. With little to nothing of their own, a volleyball was a birthday morning kind of event. The kids took them and ran leaving just two balls for the rest of the three courts.

Undeterred, Sara and her team pressed on. They got a few of the men in the camp to come out and play over the net. Soon more joined in. Younger boys played and even a few of the girls came out to the court. “Within the Islamic culture there is the norm where it’s male dominated but in a well educated Islamic culture there are people that do fight for female rights so they are not belittled.” Sara stated. “The stereotype is a male dominated Islamic culture but I’ve seen where a woman can be uplifted.”

Part of Sara’s vision was to be able to bring a sense of value to the women of the camps and yet another part was just to offer these refugees a distraction, if even for just a few hours, from a life without purpose, of uncertainty and a chance to forget.

“Ultimately, male or female, I long to bring dignity and to use my gifts and talents to restore and heal hearts.” She says smiling brightly. “To bring back to life what has been stolen. In this case, family members have been killed, Dads have been lost, Mothers have been lost. I just talked to a guy my age who’s Mom was killed a year and a half ago in Syria. Here he is, by himself, trying to figure out how to get to Germany or somewhere up north. Today, he got to play volleyball and have fun and enjoy himself. I thought he would be there for just a few minutes but he stayed for an hour and a half. I was so surprised. He speaks amazing English and told me yesterday, ‘I’m tired of translating for everybody.’ So today I told him I’m not going to bug him. I’m just going to let him enjoy himself and be a kid at heart and play. He wasn’t the best but it didn’t matter. He enjoyed himself.”

After 4 hours on the first day, the nets were taken down and the team began to throw other ideas around for the next day. Only two balls were brought out, the kids were given the court first followed by the men later. Sara played the entire time with the men on their court. In Syria, this would be taboo but she is trying to tackle some of these cultural biases. Not by knocking walls down, but by making holes in them to see what’s on the other side.

“The sport here is futbol, or what we call soccer, so volleyball is a new and not a known sport but it’s an understandable sport; they know the concept of it. That allows me to come in and me being a female playing against all these men allows me to earn their respect in a future conversation or a future decision. It allows me to share my faith and encourage them to be more receptive because we are using a sport as a platform.”

Sara saw the men on her court embrace her play and even seek her out when new teams were picked. The men in camp played for two hours. “I thought that was great but I saw that as more of a long term development today and yesterday.” She said after the second day. “My original idea of camp was to speak to a people group that I can’t speak with by using the sport of volleyball, which I absolutely love. I don’t know their language so I am using volleyball as a vehicle to love on, to give dignity, to humanize these people because they are so dehumanized and so depressed and so sad.”

“They’re in their tent, all day every day for the last 6 months. These last two days, we were able to go into a little area and play volleyball for four hours and sweat and compete and laugh , and get kids playing. Mainly it was boys which was somewhat unfortunate.” She says. “It’s a man driven culture and so automatically girls aren’t allowed to play because the boy’s took the courts over. I took so much excitement when one or two girls would show up. I want all these boys to know that this girl is important, she is amazing and no matter what she does in this moment, she is going to be praised. They were screaming and yelling at this little girl. I was telling them in Arabic to stop it and this little girl, Fatima, got to hit a ball three times. She saw me at the end of the day and ran up into my arms, ‘Sara! Sara!’ She’s a Kurdish little girl who’s probably about 6 years old and the Kurds in Syria are looked down upon and depreciated and super devalued and here she is in this camp, pushed away by these kids and in that moment I get to praise her and love on her and who knows what she’s been through but she’s the most excited happy little girl.”

The kids are in an impossible situation. Most crave school but don’t have many options. Most will grab a soccer ball and go out into the asphalt parking lot to play between trash cans. It’s all they have and Sara was adamant that volleyball be a vehicle for them in particular.

“You don’t want these kids to lose that sense of joy and excitement. I feel like they are losing their childhood minute by minute so having a volleyball camp, or in this case, ‘beautiful chaos,’ created a 3 to 4 hour window of just being a kid. What do kids do? They play. These kids got to play. Yes, they play soccer all the time in the camps but that’s just one sport and not everyone can participate in. You’ve got your top 15 guys that play every single day and no one else can play so this created a new avenue for whoever to come by. I even saw some of the soccer players come by and they didn’t know how to play and they were too shy to get on the court and show off because they weren’t capable of it. So that’s just a couple of things I noticed over the past 48 hours.”

“In talking with a lot of the guys they asked me, ‘Are you coming back tomorrow?’ I said no, I’d be back next week. I had to go to another camp and work on clothing distribution but I’d be back. And they said, ‘Okay, you call me when you come back.’ So just to see these men have so much fun and they said, ‘you’re a good volleyball player. Am I good?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, you are a good volleyball player too.’ I just see it happening. I have to put a net up. I have to find a way to keep doing this, even if it’s as simple as passing a volleyball around, with the girls or at the other camps.

Sara made a few contacts in her two days at the camp. The next week, she took the nets back. “I feel like this experience is about risk and stepping out and not expecting perfection but expecting something to happen. It’s so hard to talk to people in the camp because I’ll say, ‘How are you, what did you do today?’ They did the same thing they did yesterday, they sat in their tents again all day long. So that’s the extreme that I want volleyball to be; a gift, even if it’s just for an hour or 30 minutes.”

“My heart and my hope is that through everything I do, usher the presence of God through his joy in the most accessible way. It’s loving the person in front of me, it’s stopping for the one. Today I got to stop for many in a court, with a volleyball over a net; ‘beautiful chaos.’ I got to hold so many kids and got to play with so many girls, got to converse with men and give them respect. I got to congratulate people when they did something amazing. Congratulate people even when they messed up, you know? Do it again, don’t give up. When my heart enters a court, my heart comes alive. When I hold a volleyball or see a net, my heart comes alive. I don’t want to ever, ever keep that to myself. That’s a gift that God is giving me and it’s just been a saving grace for my own life.”

And so for two incredible days under the hot August sun in Thessaloniki, Greece, one woman’s vision came together. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen but I knew it was going to happen. It was very unique; nothing like it in the world. We were in a warehouse. That area that we played in was a school and it had gotten taken down. So last week that area became free. It was awesome. We used steel as a knife to cut the rope and we tied a rope to a water bottle to toss it over a high beam to hold the net up in the middle. Together, we made a court. We had a court and it was amazing. You can’t play volleyball without a net.”

Every day in the lives of the refugee camps, curve balls are the only norm. Friends that are made are shipped out. Sara is bracing for 1000 more families to come into the four camps she services in the next month. Her team is working with the Greek government to overcome visa issues. With all this over her head, Sara continues to do her work: meraki.

A life changing experience like this can only make a coach better, no matter the athlete. “My philosophy doesn’t change. I want to coach the heart. The heart is the least coached muscle in the body and I am determined no matter which athlete is in front of me, they are going to leave my hour with them, my 15 minutes with them, my minute with them knowing that I loved their heart well and they’re going to love themselves more. It adds onto my tool belt as far as experiences. Here you have people who have absolutely nothing; they have the clothes on their back, they have no money, everything has been taken away, they’re stuck and depressed. Here I have an opportunity to laugh with these kids, to laugh with these guys and these ladies and to enjoy this game and see their hearts come alive day after day and when I go back it just continues on. Every human has a heart, every human has dreams and passions and I want to help bring those back to life in whatever way it looks like.”

There is fittingly an ancient Muslim saying that translated is: ‘Do good, then throw it into the sea.’ The idea being your good deeds may be counted by your better angels but they are not recorded, not spoken of or bragged about. They are done and then quietly you move onto your next.

Sara Ramirez stares out over a hillside and sighs. It hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but there were well over 100 men, women and children who played volleyball those two days in August because of her. She smiles again, brightly. “It’s just awesome. I just love this world and I love people and I want to do whatever I can to give of myself freely and today and yesterday was volleyball.”

Listen closely and you can hear the splash in the Aegean Sea…

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In the lab...

First year Arizona State University Head Volleyball coach Stevie Mussie was there.

In the lab…

It sits almost in the middle of Pennsylvania, on the corner of Burrowes and Curtin streets in State College in the town known as Happy Valley. The Rec Hall: a 6800+ seat arena and practice facility where the experiments unfold daily from August to December and where those findings are unleashed onto the rest of women’s collegiate volleyball.

The head scientist in this lab is Russell David Rose, a few months from his 63rd birthday, a professor at Penn State and a published author. He’s also the Coach of the most successful women’s volleyball program in NCAA Division I history.

Rose’s Nittany Lions have won 7 National Championships, including 5 in the last 9 years, the last one being Mussie’s first year as an assistant coach with the program, 2014. He has lead Penn State to 35 straight NCAA tournament appearances and before this season began, had compiled a gaudy 1189-186 over his 37 years at the helm. He is tough, forward thinking and unrelenting when it comes to accountability; with his players, his staff and himself.

Stevie Mussie jumped at the chance to coach with Rose in 2014 and 2015 and will bring a lot of the lab from Rec Hall with her as she starts her tenure at ASU.

“It was only two years but it felt like 10 because of how much I was able to soak up and learn in that time frame.” Stevie says smiling. “It wasn’t a negative thing that it felt like 10 years, it was a great thing. Russ gives you so much responsibility and he doesn’t micromanage you. He gives you tasks or an end goal and you have to figure out how to get to that end goal. He’s not going to tell you how to do it.”

In 2005, Rose was asked to be the guest speaker at the USA Volleyball High Performance Coaches Clinic held in Colorado Springs, Co. He was funny, he was engaging but more than that, he was a prophet. He spoke about how the recent rule changes a few years earlier, with rally scoring and the libero added, would change the landscape of college volleyball. He referred to it as a sprint now, no longer a marathon and how coaches needed to adjust or they were going to be left in the dust. He chided that points were going to need to be finished quicker and that size and speed were going to be the direction the game was heading. He went deep into the laboratory.
Two years later, Rose’s Nittany Lions won their first of four straight NCAA National Championships.

While Mussie wasn’t there for that run, she has heard stories about the inner toughness and grit those athletes and teams had. “They said the Penn State groups were like that when they won 4 in a row. But those guys did it differently. They played against dudes everyday!” she says. “The practices were against male players and the stories are the girls never won a drill. So they were in there and it was hard, it was really, really hard to win and grab kills, anything like that.”

Rose’s lab is forever trying to find the edge: for his players in training, for his coaching staff looking at stat sheets and video and for a program that has aligned itself with the Mt. Olympus of our sport at the collegiate level.

The biggest lesson Mussie learned from her Penn State years? “I think the biggest thing is to coach to the player versus just having a system in place.” She says. “I think every player is going to be a little bit different and every player is going to have a switch you have to learn how to turn on and off. For me, that’s the most important thing to take away from that group and Russ specifically.”

Some years ago, Penn State was in Tempe scrimmaging ASU during a spring tournament. Rose was sitting court side but attending to his infamous book of stats he uses and pores over and letting his assistants coach. At one point, his outside hitter came to the coaches and asked, “What rotation are we in?” Rose, without turning his head to look up and see who it was simply said in a stern voice, “If you don’t know what rotation you’re in, get off the court.” The player hustled back and figured it out quickly. Rose’s eyes never lifted off the page.

Several of USAV’s National team players in the Olympic mix this past quad were from Rose’s lab. His athletes are admired for their ability to work hard, to overcome adversity and to know what it takes to get to the highest levels. Mussie saw that in her two seasons as well.

“When you’re playing with a lot of intensity and a lot of passion, good things happen and things that you wouldn’t expect to happen actually happen.” She’s observed. “Being in the gym at Penn State and seeing the passion and the fire and the laughs after someone stuffs a ball- just pure joy being out there and competing just says a lot for it. Also just being mechanically sound at all times and being able to cut loose a little bit.”

Rose is up early every morning. There is no rest in the lab. Just a week after being uncharacteristically swept out of the NCAA tournament in the third round by Hawaii last December, Rose signed a five year contract extension, one that many think will be his last. His commitment to Penn State, to his athletes and his staff demand his hard work and their success is a product of that work.

Mussie has seen it up close and personal. “People think it’s such an easy job. People think it’s so easy to recruit to Penn State, like you should get every one of the best players.” She says but she’s quick to warn, “It’s not for everyone. Coach wants people in the gym that want to be there, whether it’s staff or athletes or trainers. We have people in our gym that just wanted to come there to say they were there and coach wants people in there that want to be there. You’re bringing something every day you show up. You don’t realize how special that program is till you realize people will come in just to watch them practice. It was awesome.”

For Mussie, her Sun Devils head into her first head coaching campaign having lost their best player, having to play their first 14 matches on the road and with a team of 11 underclassmen. That might unnerve many a first year coach, but Stevie spent two years with a man who she just refers to as ‘Coach’ and has learned better how to deal with adversity.

She’s in her own lab now…

Thursday, August 25, 2016


They are 7300 kilometers, (4,536 miles to us Americans), and one week apart. They both train just under 250 athletes in a one week span. They both help those less fortunate and allow Parents to help to offset their child’s fees. Both camps are incredibly cheap considering it is a week long full day camp.

The other thing Leo and Brian have in common is “yes.” They say it often, they use it as a means of making things better and they entertain every question with that answer in mind.

It is the secret of their success.

Leo Van Dam almost died at last year’s Diggit camp. He houses his camp in the Saskatoon Soccer Center where the four indoor soccer fields transform into 16 volleyball courts with a day and a half’s worth of labor. But last year, wildfires forced many to evacuate from their outlying homes and the Soccer Center was used as housing for those evacuees. Leo scrambled and found another site with half the size. He brainstormed with his staff and came up with a way to train in waves at the new site. The staff moved everything over and Leo set up camp but the morning of the second day, he had a heart attack and was minutes from dying. His staff filled in for his looming absence and they got through the week with minimal issues.

This year, Leo’s health having returned, they camp was moved back a week into August and he saw the camp grow by 20% to almost 240 athletes. Back in the soccer center, the athletes were given instruction, played, fed two squares a day and the 100+ that stayed overnight in the upstairs offices and locker rooms on cots and padding got breakfast as well. Morning meetings were held and changes in the schedule were handled without argument or angst. The mood of the coach’s room was simple: We’re all in this together.

Leo helps out Canada’s First Nation population: many of the Native Canadians who can’t afford camp will get a deal from Leo, or a group discount. There are also other campers that have multiple kids in the family that play. He is a shrewd business man and he knows down to the penny what each camper costs per day in food and lodging and he loses money on many of the campers, but he sees the bigger picture.

Once the camp is up and running, Leo is a shadow. He is hoisting water bottles atop coolers so the kids can refill water bottles. He is pumping up balls, picking up restrooms, solving the 1000 small problems that come up daily for a camp his size and yet he is stealth in movement and presence.

He is given a problem and his first comment is usually, “Sure, sure. Let’s figure it out.” He has learned that nothing gets done when ‘no’ leads an answer. His camp grows, improves and flourishes with each passing year because he listens to everyone and solves problems leading with yes.

On a 10 hour trans Atlantic flight lies the Vilseck army base. It’s here where Brian Swenty teaches high school at Vilseck High. He also spends most of his summer putting together the ACE Volleyball camp for the children of American servicemen all over Europe.

His reputation allows him to take over his high school for a week. Campers sleep in classrooms and he secures every available court within a 30 km. radius. He has high schools from all over Europe attend in this, his 7th year doing the camp.

His capable staff evaluate campers and put them in their appropriate groups to get the best out of them for the week. They are long days for the coaches but he treats them well. The coaches are housed on base and this year, with the added military exercises on base the week of his camp, problems could have arisen. But they didn’t. And even if they had, Brian would have managed them.

He walks in one morning to the following: A box needs to be mailed out to Greece ASAP, a girl ordered lactose free milk but it never showed up and she didn’t have any for breakfast, some minor problems with kids roaming halls late at night, a schedule change, and all of this before 8 am. Swenty takes everything in stride, as a self proclaimed “army brat” himself, he knows what’s important, how to solve minor problems and how to reach these campers.

One of his Parents thought it would be a great idea to have the individual high schools that were attending run around the track, taking turns at holding a paper Olympic torch and then taking pictures under an Olympic rings made from metal and colored. He made it work, despite the extra time involved. He loved the idea in fact.

Later on in camp, he had been connecting with USAV's Denise Sheldon who was in Rio with the Women’s Olympic team and Brian thought about sending a Go USA message to the team from his camp, He enlisted a couple of coaches and the idea was fleshed out and executed within hours. The team saw the videos, from each high school group and loved them.

Things like this don’t happen when “no," “we can’t” or “I don’t have time for that” leads an answer.

Both Leo and Brian run successful camps and successful programs with that mantra. There are over 500 athletes in the world who are better volleyball players because of the attitude these two men have.

Next time you want to say no, stop yourself and just say yes. See where it takes you. Better yet, see where it’ll take your athletes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moving the needle...

Part two of our conversation with Brandon Rosenthal touches on the youth sports culture, advice for beginning coaches, the media in our sport and the explanation of the sign hanging in his office.

A Difficult Youth Sports Culture

The parent thing is big with helicopter parents and what not. We’re very up front with them and send them a letter and tell them what to expect and also to ask them to help us. I got this from Mike Heber and I think it’s beautiful; they’re part of trying to win a championship too. Their roles are different but they’re going to get phone calls and we ask the parents to tell their daughter that this is exactly what this is about and you need to trust and keep going instead of them trying to fix it. I think that’s probably the biggest thing, that instant gratification of this process to figure it out and get better. Even now, as I’ve got an 11 year old and a 7 year old and my son is all into sports, I say there’s two different kinds of teams in youth sports. There’s a t shirt team and a trophy team. The trophy team is we want ONLY the best kids and we’re out there to win and if we can’t win then we’re doing something wrong. A t shirt team is we want the kids to enjoy it. If they win great and if they lose they learn something. So I want my son on t shirt teams. There’s plenty of time for the other.

It’s going in the wrong direction. If you look at what’s happening with travel basketball for example, different factors come into play with that but ultimately it just comes down to money. I think education of coaches is probably the biggest thing. Right now we’re in a tough spot at a rate where we don’t have enough quality coaches. When I say that, in basketball, everybody played basketball, everybody learned at some level. Now all of a sudden you’ve got Parents coaching and we’re just coming into the age where parents played volleyball growing up. So it’s great because they’re teaching their kids and teaching kids the proper ways but we don’t have that long history like basketball.

Youth sports are scary right now. It’s different from when you were a kid and when I was a kid. Parents are at every practice. They’re dissecting everything. They have video now. When we look at a recruit, we ask questions about Mom and Dad, we talk to Mom and Dad. We try in the recruiting process to vet out a lot of that stuff and it’s tough. We’re in a culture right now where we have to keep up with the Jones’. We often times find ourselves asking is this what’s best for us or is this what’s best for everybody else. So we slow down and pump the brakes and find this is not what’s best for us so let’s not go in this direction.

Volleyball NOT Being about Volleyball

I’m very lucky with the culture of the University here. One of my favorite things is that the University really promotes these mission trips. Quite honestly I had never done one but I’d heard of people doing them. So four years ago we took our first mission trip to Rio de Janeiro. I was able to travel abroad through Pepperdine and post Pepperdine and boy, the learning process. I think it’s interesting now, with kids having MORE resources, they actually travel less abroad. It’s crazy to me. So it was great to make a trip happen in college. Travelling to me is important and if I can provide an opportunity for the girls to do that, I really wanted them to be blown away. So when we talked about where could we go, I don’t know how Rio came about but there was some people in the University that were from Brazil and they have contacts so it was welcomed. It wasn’t like how are we going to make this happen, it was alright, we’re going! And then here are the steps to make this happen.

At Lipscomb, every year there are 55 mission trips worldwide. The mission opportunities are a huge piece and you’re talking everywhere, from Honduras to Ethiopia to Charlotte and downtown Atlanta and inner city New York. It’s crazy to think about what these kids are getting to see. For me, it just went hand in hand with what we were trying to do. There’s so much to learn from a book but there’s so much more to learn when you’re out there making it happen. We’re lucky; we’re just about to embark this next May to Malawi, Africa. Lipscomb already has a connection with this orphanage we’re going to be working with. We’re so blessed and often times we complain about what we don’t have and what we need and then all of a sudden we go see what the rest of the world is doing and for us, it was life changing for the girls that went on the trip. It was life changing for me! I was very nervous and rightfully so. You’re in charge of 12 to 15 different people and you’re travelling abroad and it’s nerve racking but it taught me a lot.

This University has a lot of connections. The legendary men’s basketball coach Don Meyer, he believed in a lot of the same things I did. One of his big rules was pick up trash and leave the place better than you left it. It’s so simple. So to be at a school where that is celebrated is nice. I tell our girls I want our locker room to look nice and that was before I knew about Don Meyer. I feel like I’m in the perfect spot.

When I say it’s not about volleyball it’s not because kids have to learn about life. One of our seniors who just graduated in May justwrote a blog about her next step and the struggle that she’s going through right now especially being an athlete and she was given all these things and told what time to be somewhere and now real life is happening. There are some really interesting things that our girls are doing. She writes about the time she had here was the time of her life and now she’s being challenged with that next stage. I sent her a quick message just yesterday after I read her blog and just said, “Trust your training and trust your heart.” There’s this big fear and I get it. I went through it, you went through it but all of the stuff we did through college is applicable to what we should be doing in life. I’m hoping that they can take those lessons. I truly believe that all that stuff helps us win Championships.

I say all the time when we deserve to win we will win and when we don’t deserve it, more than likely it’s not going to happen. Since 2007 when we got into our first championship, we’ve been in the Championship match 8 of the last 9 years. We haven’t won all of them and there’s been some heart breakers but looking back on it I think they were all for a reason. As we’ve had a ton of success, we’re still fighting and in the NCAA tournament, we haven’t won a first round match and our girls are anxious so I am anxious for that to happen. We can’t just rely on the fact that we get to the tournament, we have to do something and we know it. One of the questions people ask is hey, it’s great you’ve gotten this program to this point, and it is but I want more and they want more. The University and the administration have done an unbelievable job of supporting that and seeing the vision.

On the NCAA Tournament

I’ll say this; I think it’s moving in the right direction. Kristin Fasbender who is the Director of Championships and Alliances for the NCAA, and I have been on a couple of committees and I’ve been able to talk to her and they’re hearing us. Is it happening fast enough, no. But that’s the world that coaches live in; we want it to happen now. I think we have to take a look at what’s happening. My issue is we really bust our butts for 4 and a half or five months to get to the tournament is totally fair. But it comes down to are we 380 miles from somebody versus 450 miles. If we’re 450 miles away from somebody we have to fly and if we’re 380 miles we have to drive. It has nothing to do with what we’ve done for the season. It has to do with the regionalization of the tournament. I get that part; we don’t want teams flying coast to coast. That’s hard on everybody. But at the same time, what’s fair to make the best tournament? We’re a mid major team that is really knocking on the door so we’re not just interested in being in the tournament. Last year was a tough year because both us and Belmont who is literally two miles down the same road were in the tournament. We had beaten Belmont twice during the regular season. Louisville is hosting and UCLA is hosting. We’re 50 in the RPI and Belmont is 165 in the RPI. UCLA is 15 in the RPI and Louisville is 16. In theory, just by numbers alone, you would think Lipscomb goes to Louisville because they’re higher ranked and Belmont goes to UCLA. And it happened vice versa and it was a tough trip for us. Looking back on it I don’t know if I did a great job because I was trying to manage all of that and manage our team. It was a great experience but we weren’t there for the experience. We’d really busted our butts to have that first round match against Louisville and I say Louisville but I don’t know what the difference would have been and that’s not a knock on Louisville but that was hard on me. I’ll say this, the NCAA was gracious enough to listen to me and we talked on a conference call after and I do think changes are coming. I think there was an anomaly with two schools that were two miles apart that kind of opened their eyes and maybe made them think we have to look at this just a little bit deeper. I say that but really what’s on the horizon is the NIT. I talked with Sean Hardy of Triple Crown Sports and I think the NIT is going to happen for Women’s volleyball in 2017 and a full 64 team tournament, so it’s exciting.

Women’s basketball has had this for quite some time because of Men’s basketball having it, I think women’s volleyball is starting to earn it a little bit more because of the sport, the sheer numbers of it you can’t deny. I was shocked looking at participation numbers in high school and I knew women’s basketball would be number one but women’s volleyball was only 3000 athletes behind. To me, that was validation of what I’d been saying before. Women’s basketball, the game, is not what it used to be and it’s changing and they’re in this tough transition period. It’s not just me saying it, Geno (U. Conn Women's Coach Auriemma) is saying it, the Big 12 coach who was saying they needed to practice more; she’s saying it. There are a lot of people saying it and women’s volleyball is doing nothing but continuing to climb. I think it’s our responsibility to take advantage of that.

Volleyball and the Media- Selling Our Sport

The community continues to grow. There continues to be more checks and balances and that’s probably what it needs. You talk about the ranking system: it’s nice we have a coach’s poll. We’ve already explained that the coach’s poll is skewed. And then you have the RPI and people hate that. What I’ve said is we need to do a media poll. Who’s going to do it? Well, you need four or five media people and that will continue to grow and it’s not for anything other than checks and balances, competition. Then it becomes one of those things where, why is this team #5 in this poll and #25 in this poll. What is going on? And there is some transparency. I think the AVCA is doing a good job with the coach’s poll: hey, here’s what everybody voted. So every week you can see who voted for what. So if you have the balls to call somebody out then do it. People talk about volley talk. Volley talk is great for volleyball. They’re silly if they think otherwise. All these others sports, football- do you know how many blogs there are about football? We have one! Maybe there are two but Volley talk is great because I think people are asking questions and it’s about what people are thinking and it gets us talking.

I think we have a ton of room to grow. The national teams are a big portion of that. This is a tough year because of Rio and it’s an Olympic year but I don’t think we do enough to put our National teams at the spots where everybody is. I’ve been to the last 14, 15 Junior Nationals and we do barely enough. We might send an Olympian there to sign some autographs but if we really want it, the team is there and they’re playing and the girls are exposed to the next level. I would venture to say that less than 5% of the girls playing club know our Olympians. I also think it’s a great opportunity and we have to stop saying how sad it is and let’s do something about it.

I think the NCAA and the AVCA are doing some great stuff. Kathy DeBoer really built sand volleyball championship and now look at it. I went to it this year and it’s not stopping, it’s a runaway train. It’s here to stay and there’s plenty to bitch and complain about but it’s more opportunities for our girls to play and different girls, so what’s wrong with that? Ultimately it’s a different sport which I’m not going to say it’s the same sport but it’s volleyball. You can be a lover of the beach game and a hater of the indoor game and vice versa, it continues to grow and as it continues to grow, more money is being put into it, more advertising. So I do think there are certain things that are wrong with it.

I think volleyball was on the forefront of web streaming. They saw an opportunity for us being worried about wanting to be on National television, they really put their hooks into Big 12 TV and PAC 12 TV and they saw that opportunity there. So now, for us, a mid major team, we have ESPN 3 and we’re very fortunate but in 30 matches, I would say 24 of those matches are going to be on some sort of media outlet. So I think we have an obligation to continue to grow this. Media has completely changed, and I think for the better for us. People will watch games on iPads just as much as they’ll watch games on TV’s. Where as you had the semi finals and the finals on ESPN, that was it. Now all of a sudden, kids are almost going their whole career where every one of their matches is on some sort of media platform. I can remember just 4 or 5 years ago if we were on TV once, that was special. TV is different, it’s not the same. Kids don’t even watch TV, they’re watching Netflix. I think volleyball by some chance and forethought just said run with it. A lot of that was because we were up against basketball, up against football where as softball is in this sweet spot where there’s not a lot of programming and they’re able to get that. The tournament is growing. I think you’re starting to see teams growing and make moves. Kansas, even though they were a big school; that was a great story. Creighton and all these other teams, I think the competition is evening out. And that’s what makes the men’s basketball tournament so special is this Cinderella idea. Is it the best team at the end of the year? I don’t know; you could sit here and argue about that all day. Here’s what’s crazy, do you know how many teams have won an NCAA championship in Women’s volleyball, how many individual programs? It’s 10! In 30 plus years, that’s crazy to me; only 10. So I think there’s some of that on the horizon and I think that’s pretty cool. We’re able to recruit against bigger name teams because we’re on ESPN3 and it’s a cool thing.

Advice for Beginning Coaches

I listen to books when I run which people think is crazy but I blow through books. I try to run 4 to 5 miles a day so if a book is 6 hours, it’s basically a week and it’s done. I’ve really gotten into that in the last three years. I’ve always wanted to read but I never had time. I fall asleep reading. But I wanted to run and workout more and I stumbled on to So right now, I’ve got three books going. There’s so much out there I can learn.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s not enough of that; asking questions, e mailing, calling, can I come by, can I come watch practice. I think in volleyball it’s just people are afraid, nervous when in reality I had to the do the same thing. I had to call Marv Dunphy. Now granted I knew Marv but these other coaches call and I really have tried to ask him poignant questions throughout my career: why do you do this, how do you do this? So I would say ask questions. If you call a coach and they don’t have time for whatever reason, don’t get jaded about it. Move to the next one. There are so many great coaches out there and I’ll take it a step further, just don’t stop at volleyball. (Holds up the book Legacy) This is a perfect example. This has nothing to do with volleyball and it has everything to do with volleyball. They’re like, do I need to know anything about rugby, how to play rugby and I was like no! I love sports so I’m drawn to any story that can move me so I’m scouring You Tube on a daily basis to be motivated and to find one more piece. I’ve got a thirst or a hunger for knowledge. I think a lot of people do but they’re nervous to venture outside their box.

I think one of our biggest challenges, and I don’t know that I know the answer to this, but when I went to go watch some men’s programs it was so great for Craig (Skinner, head coach at Kentucky) and we had a blast because we are driving all through Southern California. And it wasn’t just going to the practices as you can imagine, and driving in Southern California, there’s plenty of time to sit and talk in the car with nothing else going on. We’re bouncing ideas off of each other. So we’re leaving Irvine and saying, I can’t believe this happened. What did you think about that? I would love for us to do it a little bit more within women’s volleyball. I think probably the answer is spring and getting out. I’ve tried to. Joe Segula is a guy I’ve talked to many times and I say that I really want to get to see him do his thing. That’s what Joe’s all about. I think we’ve got to do that more. There’s going to be some coaches, but I think fewer, that don’t want to be a part of it. So be it but I think we’ve got to get out more. And it’s the same thing; we’ve got to get out more in the high schools and clubs. Our excuse all the time is we’re busy, and we are. But I think more often than not, you learn just as much as you do when you are teaching. That’s what I like.

On the Club System and USA Volleyball

Money is the root of some of the wrong direction of what we have in the clubs. The ironic part of club volleyball is everybody thinks it’s about scholarships at the collegiate level and everything shows that’s it’s 1%. Every year, 1% get collegiate scholarships to division I, 1% get scholarships to division II. It’s just mind boggling because we’re talking about 1%. I mean that’s nothing. I think all of us need to step back and look at it

So the education of coaches is a big issue in our sport. I don’t know how we do it. I think soccer does some really good stuff with their CAP stuff. Now, there is no incentive to be CAP I, CAP II, CAP III. I think it’s nice, they do a great job. Soccer has their licenses; I think it’s like AB. Those mean something. The coaches that have those licenses get paid more and that’s it. You aren’t getting paid the highest level without the highest licenses. We probably need to look at that. I don’t know if it’s too far gone but it’s something I’ve always been intrigued by, the education part of it. I think that there’s a responsibility of college coaches to do more clinics, but again the time factor. And maybe more than the time factor is the production.

I think USA Volleyball has a responsibility and they’re in an interesting spot too with what’s going to happen after Doug (USAV CEO Beal) retires. USA Volleyball from the youth side has just blown up and everything from the qualifiers to High Performance Programs to High Performance teams. It’ll be interesting because people are understanding the dollars that are going into it. I think the JVA movement was good, and I think it stalled for a second but I think it’s picking back up. It will be interesting to see if JVA can catch on west because I think there’s some opportunity. I’m not saying anything about USA Volleyball, I just think when you have competition, you have to step back and say are we doing things right?

I think there needs to be more transparency within the clubs, within USA Volleyball. Issues like ‘stay to play.’ Stay to play is an initiative where if you’re in the national championship or other qualifiers they have the means to work hotel deals. Well that’s great and I think everybody understands that but the back side of it is those people are also getting kick backs. So there’s some struggle with that because I don’t think that’s completely transparent. I would never want to hold anyone back from earning a living, I just think that it’s getting to the point where when enough is enough without getting ugly. I think the getting ugly part is what travel basketball has gotten to. And you know what, travel baseball is probably the same way, soccer is the same thing. I just think the amount of money in basketball exceeds everyone else. We’re all heading in that direction.

On the Sign Hanging In His Office

Every year we have a mantra if you will. I read a book called Insanely Simple. It’s about the rise of Apple, Steve Jobs and things like that. It talked about the crazy ones. The crazy ones, if you remember the Apple commercials, when you start to read it, for us, it’s exactly who we were. We’re the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the ones that see things differently. I don’t want to be the same, we want to be distinctly different: we say that. I think we do things differently; we train differently, we recruit differently, we put emphasis on different things, the culture and the chemistry.

I love the last line; Because people are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. When I took over we were 315 out of 330 in the RPI and I said to Steve Potts Our Athletic Director (who is now the AD at Pepperdine) in 5 years we’ll win a championship. Steve said, look Brandon, let’s just have a team and compete and then in our fifth year we won a championship. So we said okay, now we need to be the top 150 and we weren’t there yet. So that was the move. Then we said if we really want to make some noise, we have to be in the top 100, come on! We did that and then obviously 75 and then 50 and people said, that’s great but you’re a one big conference. I asked why is that possible. If you’re good enough and by some chance you lose in your conference tournament, isn’t it the same for me as it is for everybody? No, it’s different. It didn’t make sense so I had to learn about the RPI and how important it was. Unfortunately for us in 2014 we lost in the Championship but we were in the 30’s in the RPI and we were given our first at large bit into the tournament. I still think we can make it to the Sweet 16 and people say were crazy, and I’m okay with that. I’m always searching books and videos. Don’t get better, get resilient is from that video from Kelly Sheffield. I’m always looking for something to move my needle and pass it on to them. I think we can expect more from each other and hold each other accountable for more. I think where most people fall short is they reach one goal and they’ve made it and then they stop. For me, I don’t know why I’m wired that way but it’s a blessing and a curse. I don’t want people to think, and I’m sure my players would agree, it’s not easy here. This is not like we’ve won from one year to the next, it’s been a lot of trials and tribulations, pushing myself and the girls. And I think that’s something that young coaches need to understand. I’m way better today than I was 15 years ago and I hope that in however long I do this, I’m better then! You personally have to get better. That thirst for knowledge.

Rosenthal talked for another 20 minutes after the recorder was turned off, bemoaning the negative feedback he's witnessing at the National Qualifiers from so many coaches and wishing they would understand more that we do in fact, learn from our mistakes. That no one is perfect and that half of the teams win, and half do not. He shakes his head while talking about it.

As we left, he was introducing us to a member of the Athletic Staff. As we were saying goodbye, the phrase "Coach Rosenthal" was used in a sentence. He shook his head and closed his eyes smiling...

"It's just Brandon..."