‘…But Truth Is Dearer’

The following article originally appeared in an old Soviet era sports magazine (I think ‘Olympic Panorama’) sometime around late 1983, early 1984. The subject is Vyacheslav Platonov, one of the great volleyball coaches of all time, then in the midst of an eight year period in which he won every international tournament the Soviet Union entered; a period of success unique in volleyball history.  I think this article gives some insight into why and how this success came to be.

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by Alexei SAMOILOV

Platonov is a man of many moods.

Generally this is not the case with good coaches.  You never know what side of the bed a moody person gets up on. If he gets up on the right side of the bed, he’s cheery and friendly; but if he gets up on the wrong side of the bed, he scowls and looks at you as if he’s just been doused with a tub of ice cold water and doesn’t even acknowledge you even when you’re right in front of him.

Those who have met Platonov, when he’s relaxing, at the table with friends at home, or in the wings at the sports centre would be surprised to hear this author’s claims. Is this Vyacheslav the surly, unsociable one who won’t acknowledge his comrades even up close? What kind of nonsense is this? He loves companionship, he’s cheerful, sociable, has a way with words. He’s artistic and elegant, charming and friendly.

In summing up the world and European championships, journalists write that the eternally sullen Platonov really does know how to smile and joke. This is explained not by the fact that Platonov could allow himself to relax and smile at the last press conference held with the senior coach of the championship team. He just knows how to shine. This is a rare talent, probably inherited, although it’s impossible to deny some conscious work on oneself, too.

Who is the real Platonov? Is he gloomy or cheerful?  Is this the fellow who shines and makes himself beloved or is he the severe, irritable man whose values change from time to time? The human heart is a mystery and to such an extent, that until you look into its inner world you won’t be able to find or determine a person’s driving idea. So what drives this coach, Platonov, forward, what determines his life and his relations with other people?

Honour and integrity: these are two words which must be mentioned before any others They’re ancient concepts, perhaps old-fashioned to some But if one doesn’t stick to them in one’s sports career (and not only in sports!), the most important idea, the most genuine, is lost forever the human factor.

Platonov doesn’t lose this. He remains a man in the full sense of the word in all circumstances and demands that his players the the same. He guards the severity of his inner world against uninvited intrusions and is frozen solid against all that which offends personal integrity, both his own and his players’.

PLATONOV was appointed the senior coach of the men’s national volleyball team after the Montreal Olympics when the squad, which had been favoured, was defeated in the final round by the Poles. Two years before this, the Soviet team lost the world championship. Then, in Mexico, the Poles took this championship too.

He was 37 years old when he took the team over. For the coach of a national team he was rather young but as a coach he had already accumulated quite a bit of experience, with 17 years in the business. He had worked with children’s, teenagers’ and students’ teams, with the Automobilist Leningrad team in the highest league, and with the Soviet junior team. Almost all of the men who played volleyball on the national squad at the Montreal Olympics had passed through Platonov’s hands. He believed in them and was convinced that these favourites who had been denied the championship before were capable of regenerating the glory of Soviet volleyball. They only had to relearn to trust in themselves, to emancipate themselves, to rid themselves of fear and blind obedience to the coach, and to become convinced of the need to change their entire playing style, to make their game faster-paced and more dynamic.

“We’ll change the game, not the players.” Platonov proclaimed when he first accepted the team as his charge: and he’s kept to this principle. Very quickly all the team members were convinced that the volleyball world was not divided in two parts for this new coach, my team’s players, and all the rest. The members of the Moscow Central Army Club team were especially surprised at this, since the coach was the former leader of Leningrad’s Automobilist team, the Central Army Club’s archrival. They were afraid that Platonov, himself from Leningrad, would favour his home-town players. They remembered that this is the way things used to be. But Platonov asked all his players to forget who came from which team to play on the national squad and. most importantly, he forgot about it himself.

He used to repeat: “We have no Central Army Club players, no Automobilist players, and no Radiotekhnik team players. Our team is the national team.”

Some time later Platonov’s team won the European championship in Finland and the World Cup in Japan; in fact yesteryear’s second string won against the Poles in Helsinki. The old, established adhesion of the team into first and second string, which reinforced some players’ sense of confidence arid indispensability, while convincing others of their inferiority, was done away with, not by a directive from the coach, but by the introduction of a new relationship between the coach and the players and the players themselves, relations based on trust and fairness.

Everyone knows that students like to give their teachers well-aimed nicknames, but who knows what nicknames athletes give their coaches. Vyacheslav Platonov will forgive me, since we’re old friends, but I’ll share a little secret with you. Behind his back, the players call him “Uncle”.

Why? In olden times people used to call a person who looked after or supervised a child “Uncle”. “Uncles” also looked after the recruits in every regiment.

This uncle, as everybody knows, is a growler who teaches incessantly, making his wards fed up with his constant capricious corrections, but he’s near, and dear and special. He is not merciful to his own needs when his wards are concerned.

The boys also call their coach “Plato”, of course, only among themselves. I don’t know if they gave any thought to the ancient Greek philosopher when they started using this name. Probably not.  They just abbreviated their coach’s last name, that’s all. If they remember the ancients’ maxim: “Plato is my friend. But truth is dearer to me?” (Plato himself attributed a similar thought to Socrates: “Following me, think less about Socrates, and more about truth”.)

What does Platonov follow?

Not attempting to correct or refute wisdom enlightened by the ages, I’ll say, returning to my hero, that for him. a student, colleague and friend are dearer than truth. I want to be understood correctly: for this coach, a man of hardened ethical standards and exceptional psychological flexibility, there simply does not exist an abstract, inanimate truth, a truth not kept warm with human breath. For him man is dear, man with his pain, his grief, his hurts, his high thoughts, his passions, and his problems. Once he told me something very important, perhaps even decisive:

“There are no evil people on our team. Unless just me, myself.. but, after all, there’s got to be a grey wolf in the forest, right?”

Later, when he and the team struggled against Vladimir Chernyshev, against the excessive ambitions of a capricious leader, for the talented player dedicated to the game, later, when the team, at his insistence, removed Vladimir Shkurikhin from its ranks for a violation of the team’s regimen on the eve of the Moscow Olympics and then welcomed him back into their ranks after the Games, I tried to catch Platonov contradicting himself-is this the way he appraised himself and his team? He answered:

“Neither the team nor I can ever manage with mean-spirited or undisciplined players Such players ruin our energy level by their bad character and ethics. But they are not hopeless… Right after Chernyshev was disqualified, after serious scolding, he understood that he was alone, not just against the coach, but against the whole team. This brought him to his senses.  When we were preparing for the Moscow Olympic Games, Chernyshev, not allowing himself to get lazy during practice, was always one of the most dedicated. Shkurikhin is another story, but the story ends the same way. The team is making a man out of him, sparing no moral expense. Having become a mature person, having learned to be responsible for his actions, he experienced abrupt growth as an athlete. Now he is a seasoned player. In Argentina, at the World Championship, we had three pivotal players: Zaitsev, Savin and Shkurikhin.”

“Fairness is my trade” is not an expression used to describe a coach, but doesn’t a coach have to be a master of fairness?

I know how much the stunts of one famous player, a man with a really twisted character cost Platonov in patience and health.  But when this player was taken along with the team to the World Championship in Italy in 1978 (where he played excellently) and the question arose as to who deserved the title “Merited Master of Sports”, the coach answered that all of the team’s players did. People were stunned: “How is that possible? What about that one?”

“Definitely.” insisted Platonov “Once we’ve trusted him. having taken him onto the team, we saw him try his best for glory and that means that, in all fairness, he deserves the same that everyone else deserves…”

“But still.” people insisted.

“It doesn’t matter who doesn’t like him; that must not be taken into account.” Platonov’s arguments were eventually considered reasonable and correct.

In a player, Platonov values, first and foremost, selflessness and enthusiasm as well as the ability to enthuse others. He considered Vladimir Kondra to be exemplary in this respect. The sense of duty is in Kondra’s character as well as his teammates Vyacheslav Zaitsev, Pavel Selivanov, Viliar Loor, Alexander Savin and Vladimir Dorokhov. The sense of responsibility and selflessness. Selflessness is the main idea of a team sport such as volleyball.

“Forgetting oneself for the sake of others, a man becomes stronger spiritually and physically.” Platonov has incorporated this element of Tolstoyan philosophy into his “reminder”, a notebook where he jots down expressions which he admires from the various works he has read. He looks through his “reminder” before setting up for a game, while relaxing, and when he can afford to distract himself from his pressing concerns and think about how to live.

The more I learned about the volleyball players on the team, the closer they became to me-Kondra. Vyacheslav Zaitsev, who is so deceitfully phlegmatic, crafty and ironic. Pavel Selivanov who likes to bare his soul one minute and hide his face behind the mask of the jester the next. When I’m among them for a long time it begins to seem to me that they voluntarily united to set up a shop, voted for their elder, the most reliable, and just live and work together, taking care of their common job. You know very well that things are quite different, that they did not gather together, but that they were chosen from various other teams, and not for their good looks. Their coach, was not elected, but, appointed. But they have become great friends, adapting to one another, so much so that the feeling that they are people who have voluntarily joined one another because they share a passion and a faith does not leave the observer who is lucky enough to be with them for any length of time.

One more citation from Platonov’s “reminder”, this one from Montaigne, “There can be no friendship where there is cruelty, where there is treachery, where there is injustice.” It is true 99 times out of 100 that friendship and cruelty are incompatible, but what about Platonov, the only wolf on the team? Or was this said in jest?

No, this is just one more contradiction in the personality of this fascinating coach. On the one hand, he bravely declares: “I can take anyone of them to be my friend”, and the players treat him accordingly. On the other hand, they are living people and the most conscientious among them get sick of lugging a loaded cart up to the top of the mountain every year. They themselves taught us that they just cannot lose. Carrying this weight, heavier and heavier all the time, up hills which get steeper and sleeper, the years pass and the lightness passes with them, the injuries come: one has shanks, the other’s back hurts, a third’s knee joint doesn’t sit right. In their youth they had no mercy on themselves and now they are paying the price.  Then Platonov raises his voice: “It’s too early to start crying yourselves out, champions! When it’s necessary, we’ll go easy on you.”

No matter what you think about the coach, everyone knows that even the fairest and kindest of coaches isn’t worth a plug nickel if he doesn’t keep his team in shape. A coach that doesn’t -keep his team in shape can’t stick around long, either. And to keep the team in shape it’s not enough to exhort and convince; a coach has to be able to use some authority and the sense to know whom to punish and how. Wolf or not, Platonov is severe and strict, but never cruel. A cruel coach who enjoys using his authority over his wards is one whose eyes light up when he punishes them; this is the coach who literally gets intoxicated from his own omnipotence. The Soviet educator V. A. Sukfiomlinsky wrote about this, comparing such a teacher with the old fisherman-Grandfather Klim, who, choosing carp from his fishing basket, admired the fish for a long time, literally deciding whether to take them out of the water or not, although he had already decided the matter long ago and was now only enjoying the thought: “Here you are, you red-scaled ones, in my hands…”

Platonov, while he punishes his players for violations of team rules, does not become inebriated by his own power. He suffers more than the person he punishes and suffers along with that player.

For the coach there is no procedure more torturous than the one several days before the departure for a scheduled championship tournament when he must announce the final line-up, naming the 12 chosen players, and the 3-4 to stay behind. It would seem as though everything should go according to the sports principle of choosing the best, and that principle is indeed strictly observed, the best are really chosen, but there still remains that moment of pain for those who are left behind. The coach is not guilty, but is the player who doesn’t get to go guilty? He didn’t spare himself during practice, but was beaten by others more capable or was it simply that the coach had to choose another player who was more necessary to the team? Platonov himself once played on a team and knows what it feels like to be left on the bench, how those players left behind at port suffer.

This process is repeated before every important contest. And every time Platonov tortures himself, announcing the line-up, naming some and not others. He has no power to change the system. But those who have no luck today, even though they will become new champions at later competitions, are not indifferent to the way the coach feels when he makes this decision.

Insufficient knowledge, energy, enthusiasm and spunk all get in the way of a professional coach, but the worst problem for a coach is a lack of love for his players. Once Platonov admitted to me: ” I guess I love them all, too…”

We were drinking tea in Platonov’s small kitchen and were talking about the new head coach of a popular football team who said at his first press conference that he loves his players. The journalists, we remembered, looked at each other in surprise: the coach’s predecessor spoke willingly about the demands, the models, total football, the amount of work on the field, but never descended to lyricism. “He’s right,” Platonov supported his younger colleague, and thinking about his own players, admitted: “I guess I love them all, too”.

Several years ago the Leningrad Sports Committee formed the Head Coaching Council. Vyacheslav Platonov, Merited Coach of the USSR, was endorsed as its chairman. He accepted this appointment as a great honour; after all, in Leningrad there were so many outstanding world-class instructors, foremost among whom was the great sports pedagogue Victor Alexeyev. Alexeyev named patience and an understanding of the sport as the two most important qualities of a good coach and then added: “Patience is most important”

Patience is not a synonym for tolerance. For Platonov, patience is a spiritual and moral concept. A coach needs tolerance to not tire explaining something which a player does not understand, to calmly listen to the reproaches of incompetent people about problems with the team’s game: not to get upset when the ref makes bad calls. Patience is something else. It’s the courage needed to set high goals and to unswervingly follow the chosen path, the ability to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances of life without betraying one’s ideals or principles, the ability to listen to another person, to befriend him, and to win his trust in mutual affairs arid not to break that trust. For this, one doesn’t need an awful lot. As Platonov likes to say, one needs to see in a person not the means, but the end. All the time and everywhere, only the end, the goal.

What heights of patience one must attain in order never to let the goal drop out of sight!

Platonov is sometimes abrupt with his players, but never humbles them. To lose one’s wealth is to lose nothing, but to lose one’s honour and dignity is to lose everything. Platonov remembers this every minute of his life. He drank it with his mother’s milk. Platonov remembers the horror of his mother s tears when she received a notice of his father’s death. His father was an air force pilot during the war. Platonov and his sister were raised by their mother, a Leningrad school teacher, singlehandedly, in the bloodless city under an enemy blockade. At the age of four Platonov didn’t understand what was going on, why his mother shook as she sobbed, but he was seized with horror and has remembered this horror, and his mother’s weeping, his whole life. At an early age he saw life without rose coloured glasses, his mother worked hard, leaving the children home alone (his sister is three years his senior) and his share of the household work-bringing firewood from the barn to the sixth floor. His mother wept when he came home .with a ripped heel since boots were rationed. She would anxiously inspect her son’s black eye but never ran out into the street to find the bully, to complain to his parents. She only determined why the children fought, tried to determine if her son acted fairly and instructed him to be responsible for his own actions.

Platonov remembers his neighbourhood in Leningrad after the war with tenderness. This is not simply nostalgic childhood memories which linger with us as we mature. His neighbourhood taught him, it taught all of us, the children of the postwar generation, to put our best foot forward, put our shoulder to the wheel if things were tough for a friend; it taught us. as Vladimir

Toropygin, a Leningrad poet, wrote, to think about ourselves only after we have thought about others. Platonov never tires of teaching his players precisely this.

Top knotch volleyball is a fast and athletic game. The best national teams play a lightning-fast game which demands greater concentration on the part of the athletes; the games’ volleys are incredibly swift and there are fewer instants for the athletes to think a situation through and make a decision. Modern volleyball is an extraordinarily emotional game which is very stressful because every mistake is paid tor dearly (no one can correct a volleyball player’s mistake, just as no one can correct a football goalie’s mistake). It’s no accident that volleyball is called “the game with six goalies”. Modern volleyball is a complex game for those who play it and those who watch it. It’s full of withdrawals from a block, false exits, double-time attacks, back line strikes, blocked passes, and various kinds of crossing and strategic combinations. Volleyball is no more comparable to the direct-line, academic volleyball of the recent past than chess is comparable to dominoes.

Platonov is as comfortable with “chess-like volleyball” as a fish in water. He has an engineer’s way of thinking: he’s inclined to solve problems which don’t have a precise resolution (from the standpoint of cybernetics, chess is a mathematical game of the highest order where precisely such problems are solved)

Sometimes people are afraid of “engineers” on the court, these composers of all possible “models” who aspire to describe everything in the language of numbers and formulae.

There’s much profanation, playing science here. but the more serious the game, the more scientific it must become and the more it worries people. Of course, I have in mind not a scientific approach to the players’ training for the game, since who would object to that? Something else saddens them: the game is emasculated, so to speak, losing all its unpredictability, its ambiguity, in the highest cybernetic sense of the word, and all its wonder.

But my hero, fortunately, is another story entirely. He’s not one of those engineers, who take the game apart down to the screws and, in this way, destroys its wonder. He takes care of the game.

Since I have had to raise such ideas, I’ll take the liberty of recalling that game theory was first discussed more than 24 centuries ago. This was not a discussion of the theory of volleyball, since volleyball was not invented until the last century, although the Olympic Games already existed at that time. The Olympian, Aristocles, worked out a project for the ideal state where people were free of odious daily needs. “One must live, playing” confirmed this philosopher-champion, who entered history not under his own, given name, but under the name Plato, as he was called by his fellow-citizens in honour of the breadth of his chest and forehead.

Today Platonov propounds a similar principle for his Olympic champions: “You have to play the game; work is for the practice sessions.”

In our day this principle is not so self-apparent as it would seem from the first. Too many teams (football, ice hockey, volleyball, basketball and handball) don’t play the game but work until they have sweated themselves through and through. Some of them score points and take nice prizes, but according to Platonov, all this is just Sysyphus’ labour; it’s joyless and thoughtless. A game must be played with joy and inspiration.

Both of the teams Platonov coaches, the national squad and Automobilist Leningrad, stun their opponents and fans with their well-planned strategies, improvisations, fantasies, and creations. They live their game. “One must live, playing”, isn’t that what the ancient philosopher and Olympian said?

Platonov’s teams have, as it were, a numerical advantage over their opponents: they seem to have not six but seven players on the court. The seventh is their coach. One has to understand this metaphorically: Platonov doesn’t go out on the court, but he is. nonetheless, there with his players, in the heat of the struggle.

Far from all specialists approve of such an approach. Many believe that the coach does not have the right to be a player on the bench, that he must direct the flow of the game standing right over it in order not to lose the ability to think clearly.

Platonov believes that the coach must play together with his team. Only then does he feel the game from inside, understand and sense how each of the six players who make the game feels. It’s hard to find coaches who can match Platonov’s ability to direct his team during the game, improvise with replacements, parry the stronger psychological moves of his opponents and execute his own.

Platonov has a manly face, skin stretched tight over his cheeks and an aquiline scarred nose (trace of a blow to the face during a hockey game in his childhood), eyes set close together, all of which gives him an appearance of concentrated decisiveness. But when Platonov is offended, his face reacts as a child’s: the comers of his mouth turn down, his lower lip pouts, and his brow becomes furrowed as the face of a manly knight turns into a mask of sadness.

Platonov is offended by negligence which some of the players allow themselves occasionally during a game in which they show off their enthusiasm and how much they are trying. As a rule, Platonov does not reproach his players for their technical mistakes and does not scold those who have erred in taking too great a risk, those who have improvised or who have tried to win a point using their mental faculties. (“A point won with one’s brains.” Platonov likes to say, “is worth three times Its face value.”) But Platonov does not forgive indifference or attempts to sit things out when the other players are in the heat of the action.

For the eighth season in a row, Vyacheslav Platonov’s team has not lost a single official tournament. It has won all the top volleyball titles, the European, world, Olympic championship, and is the holder of the World Cup.

Such a winning streak on the level of a national team in one of the most widespread games, according to the number of games held in the world (the International Volleyball Federation unites 150 nations), is considered quite a phenomenon abroad and many there are trying to figure out to what the USSR team owes its great success. I am convinced that one has to look for the answer not in the teams tactics, nor in its innovations, but in the sphere of ethics, or “human sciences”. One of Platonov’s students, Vyacheslav Zaitsev, the captain of Automobilist, said it best: “We were stronger than anyone else in our unity “. He pronounced these words during a meeting of the Soviet volleyball team in Moscow’s international airport just after its return from the world championship held in Argentina in October 1982. The final match there, between the USSR and Brazil, lasted only 72 minutes. The world championship tournament had never before witnessed such a fast-paced final. On that night (the game finished past 2:00 a. m. local time) Platonov’s team shined through everything. He admitted to me later that he applauded for his players along with all those in the Luna Park. When, during one of the time-outs called by the Brazilian coach, our players went up to Platonov. he told them: “The Brazilians need a coach, but you don’t. Everything is working, for you! Let me take a breather for once in my life…”

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Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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