Can Volleyball Coaches Learn From a Soccer Coach?

“If I were to place my finger on what’s going wrong in America (soccer), it’s still that kind of stereotype of very physical, very strong, fast girls who lack that technical ability while the rest of the world has been catching up.” ~Tom Byer

Who’s Tom Byer? Coach Byer is one of the world’s most influential and impactful soccer coaches. A native New Yorker, Tom has lived in Toyko for the last 30+ years and has laid the transformational framework for youth soccer in Japan. His efforts have resulted in Japan’s national team program going from uncompetitive to one of the best teams in the world. How did this transformation take place? Tom focused on youth development, parental involvement, and changing the soccer culture in Japan. In a recent HBO interview, Tom details teaching younger children to be comfortable with ball manipulation and control.

Can the volleyball coaching community in this country learn from a soccer coach that resides half a world away? I am hopeful. There is a sufficient crossover between the sports to merit consideration for how we approach youth volleyball and develop more skilled players at the older levels.

I’m not a soccer enthusiast. I discovered Tom in a “Soccer America” article forwarded to me by former USA women’s coach Terry Liskevych, who’s definitely a soccer enthusiast. In the article, which focused on the early World Cup elimination of the USA Women’s Team, Tom presented the framework of his “secret sauce.” I also purchased a copy of Tom’s book, “Soccer Starts at Home.” Between reading the book and the article, my curiosity was sufficiently sparked to follow up with a conversation with Tom to fill in some details. 

“What we’ve done here in Japan is to ensure that we get the entry level of the sport right,” says Byer, who’s become famous for his “Soccer Starts at Home” philosophy. “I would point to Japan as the gold bar standard. This is not a soccer culture, but we have focused primarily on ensuring that kids who play the sport here get the technical component. If you get the technical component correct, regardless of whether that kid is paired with an inexperienced volunteer parent coach, those kids develop.” 

After a 90-minute Zoom conversation, I realized how Tom’s approach to youth soccer in Japan might apply to how we develop youth volleyball in the USA. We certainly have the participation numbers, but so does USA Soccer. Can we improve the technical component?

The first question might be, is there a technical problem with volleyball in the USA? Collegiate coaches would answer in the affirmative. Why do you think collegiate coaches incorporate so many substitutions into their games? We have tall, athletic players. However, how many of these talented athletes possess the technical skills to stay on the court for all six rotations? Given the number of youth volleyball athletes playing, we do not have the number of technically skilled players we should have in this country.

There are many similarities between USA Soccer and Volleyball relative to the infrastructure for youth programs. They both have an entrenched pay-to-play model in the club system, focusing on team success over individual skill development. At the developmental level, both sports tend to emphasize the philosophy of “let the game teach the game.” Consequently, in practice sessions, unfocused play supersedes skill instruction and technical development.

According to Byer, letting the “game teach the game” approach to player development can work, but only after the player has the technical skills to allow success in the game. Placing unskilled players in a game environment fosters frustration for the young player, which can be costly to future development and participation. We’ve all seen inexperienced volleyball players who lack the movement and ball control abilities necessary to maximize the activity’s enjoyment. Developing technical skills makes playing the game more enjoyable.

“It’s the same as when I watched any of the games over the years,” he says. “With the U.S. you’ve got players that have vastly different abilities. Some players are pretty good technically, but overall you can tell that — at least for me because I’m an American living in Japan for nearly four decades and I’m a technical coach, too — there’s no doubt about it: the American players aren’t as good technically compared to the Japanese.”

Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with Tom.

Learning to be comfortable with the ball at a young age is essential for future development. How often do we see volleyball players that are tall, strong, and “made of steel” hesitant to pass or set the ball due to a lack of confidence in their skill set? Tom’s “Soccer Starts at Home” program encourages children to develop a “comfort” with manipulating the ball with their feet. I underscore manipulating or massaging the ball, not kicking the ball.

Would the “comfort with the ball” philosophy carry over to volleyball? Should volleyball coaches budget a portion of practice to focus on various ball control activities that allow repetition and technical improvement? Should every player have a ball and forearm pass or set the ball against the wall (caution, not very game-like) with one arm, two arms, high ball, low ball, etc., to develop their comfort with the ball? Is this a teaching option that will assist our tall, athletic players in developing their comfort with the ball? Simple ball control drills similar to the activities in the video might be worth considering for younger players to develop their own “comfort” with the ball.

The value and importance of parent involvement is essential to child development. It is not unusual for parental involvement with USA club volleyball programs to be outrightly or overtly discouraged. With developing children, the parent is more important than the coach. Much of a player’s success in Tom’s program depends on the in-home activities to develop technical skills. Tom encourages homework where the players take home ball control assignments that involve the parents. Many times, these assignments are recorded and returned to the coach.

It is easier to build technique correctly than it is to break a bad technical habit. So often, coaches focusing exclusively on playing activities at a younger age allow players to build poor technical habits. These habits are challenging to correct as the player gets older. At a younger age, the players are sponges for new information and the desire to improve and please the coaches and parents. If we can build correct habits at this age, team activities and player development will blossom later.

The “rising tide raises all ships” approach to player development. The focus should not be solely on the top players. The goal is to develop more top players. Tom’s approach is to elevate the mid to bottom-tier players, not just focus on the top-tier players. A coach never knows which players will grow tall or assimilate the skills rapidly. More players with higher technical skills will present positive challenges for all the players, making the training sessions more fun and challenging. The more success children have because of elevated technical skills, there will be a correlated elevation in self-esteem, enthusiasm to play, and a positive approach to many challenges.

With improved technical skills, team activities will be played at an elevated level. There is a tendency for coaches to focus on their offensive and defensive team systems. In reality, any system is dependent upon the players’ technical abilities. The more advanced a player’s skill set, the more successful any system will be.

There is a correlation between learning sports skills and intellectual development. Harvard Professor of Psychiatry and author of the book Spark, Dr. John Ratey endorsed Tom’s approach to teaching soccer with the following comments:

“Tom’s method of teaching soccer fits the bill perfectly. Children move with the ball, which provides them with physical exercise, but they also have to control the ball, which provides the mental exercise. Tom emphasizes movement, stopping, starting, changing direction and using both feet while controlling the ball. These elements are fantastic nourishment for the brain.”

Dr. John Ratey

The USA has fantastic athletes in both soccer and volleyball. However, since both developmental systems are similar, you can make the case that the systems foster similar flaws—great athletes with technical liabilities.

There is no question that game-like activities are essential for skill development. You don’t want players spending the entire training session passing against the wall. However, volleyball coaches should rely on something other than lots of unfocused play as the sole teaching mechanism for the technical aspects of the game. One of the immediate and simple changes that can be implemented is to incorporate smaller courts for the younger players. To have an 11-year-old young volleyball player playing on the same size court as a men’s Olympian does not make sense. A smaller court with perhaps fewer players would increase the number of contacts for each player. The increased contacts would equal more skill development.

What impressed me about Tom’s program was the inclusion of a technical component to the activity. The children were focusing on specific aspects of the ball control tasks. So, even at a young age, the players were challenged with focused repetition which is the building block for skill improvement. Volleyball can do the same with the goal of producing more players that have the skill components to produce maximum enjoyment of participating in the sport.

Sources: Soccer America, HBO, Soccer Starts at Home