I’m confident that most coaches, regardless of sport, would agree that playing multiple sports at a young age is in the best interests of the athlete physically (using different muscle groups and development of different movement skills), mentally (working in a different environment, using different strategies, with a different coach), and socially (developing a more diverse social group). A preponderance of data supports a diversified approach to youth sports.
Despite this evidence, one of the first things many coaches, regardless of sport, ask of their athletes is to drop other activities and focus their time and energy on their sport. Perhaps this is not stated directly, but the message is clear.
Volleyball coaches go an additional step when a player is asked to not only specialize in one sport, we ask for specialization in one position. Furthermore, we tend only to emphasize the skills needed in that position. I have to chuckle now when I see clubs advertising for “a middle hitter for 12-3’s team, and a right-side player for 13-2’s, etc.” I’ve never seen an advertisement for “We have a spot for a 13 year old volleyball player that enjoys to play.”
Implementing positional specialization limits player development and restricts their options as they mature. Coaches need a long-term vision for the young player beyond winning tournaments. Winning tournaments at age 13 while mortgaging long-term future options for a player by positional specialization is ill-advised.
I once had a player trying out for the USA U-18 National Team, possessing unbelievable front-row abilities; however, at age 16, she had never served in a club or high school competition. Instead of focusing on long-term development, her club coaches focused on the competitive component.
The crazy thing is, if we halted specializing the players relative to sport and position, as the athlete matures physically and develops a more diversified skill set, it is likely that the level of play from both an individual and team perspective would be at a higher level than what we see currently.
The Paradigm below is a rough description of the tryout process that currently occurs at the junior level.
There is a brief tryout; the athlete is categorized by height, skill set, and age and then is assigned to a team and position. We look at younger players based on their current skill level and quickly put them into a box relative to position and team. If serve receive is a weakness, they are, by default, steered to the middle blocker or front row specialist court. If they are tall, they are a middle blocker. If they are short, they are a backrow specialist.
Proposed Paradigm I’m Pondering
Level One- The Foundation– Ages 14 +/- or Younger
Let me explain the rationale for flipping the hierarchy. The foundation is based on the interest and enthusiasm of the player. The ability and desire to play multiple sports and learn a myriad of sports skills are prioritized. The physical attributes or current skill level are not a priority at this foundational level. Small players might grow, tall players might develop coordination and learn to pass and play defense, players will learn to compete, etc. The most important trait at this foundational level of the hierarchy is whether the player enjoys playing, whether they are motivated to attend practice, and whether they will improve the practice atmosphere inside your facility. If they have some skill, that’s great. But lack of skill is not necessarily a “deal-breaker.”
At the second level, the focus turns to developing all the skills of the game. Assigning players to a specific position is a secondary priority. The focus is on developing skills allowing players to play front and backrow. Everyone serves, hits, blocks all positions, learns the game’s strategies, and develops a competitive spirit. It is imperative at this level, the player is exposed to the randomness of the game by interleaving the skill instruction. We do the player no favors by restricting the skill development to scripted and highly controlled activities. Coaches should be versed in current learning principles and implement them in practice sessions. In addition, the coaches need to be attuned to the technical aspects of the game in order to provide specific and high-quality feedback to the athletes.
Now, we reach the highest level, where all sorts of opportunities present themselves. The expanded portion of the hierarchy represents these far-reaching and diversified opportunities that are now available to the players and teams. If we have done a first-rate job at the foundational aspects of player development by capturing the enthusiasm of the athlete and then providing instruction in all the skills, the options available to coaches and players will be massive and very exciting.
From a coach’s perspective, think of the offense that can be incorporated with all team members capable of passing with proficiency, attacking a variety of sets from different net locations, and all players capable of blocking at every position along the net. The more skills a player and team possess, the harder they will be to defend. I remember the old Adidas team from the 1970s with past greats Debbie Green, Debbie Brown, Sue Woodstra, and others coached by Hall of Famer Chuck Erbe. It was jaw-dropping watching six players that exhibited proficiency with all the skills. They ran an offense that was fast and exciting, with all players attacking a variety of sets. As a young coach, I couldn’t wait to return to the gym and try to replicate the advanced skill set I witnessed with my team.
From a player’s perspective, with the development of an all-around skill set, the ability to play at the highest level is expanded. There will be comfort in playing a variety of positions. A system or a restricted skill set won’t limit the player. Every team in the country needs players that can effectively play multiple positions. For those desiring to play professionally, where a balanced skill set is a priority, they will be prepared.
The adage “a rising tide raises all ships” might be appropriate with a new paradigm. By not being in such a hurry to specialize our young players, there will be a growth in multi-skilled, multi-positional players that will elevate the game to new and more exciting heights.