With your feet, you can save plays.
With your hands, you can make plays.
I’d like to say that this is my last word on the topic. Somehow I doubt it 😀 😀
In every field of human endeavour there are those who stand out among their peers. In my profession an exceptional body of work is normally related to winning. Among volleyball coaches one of the most exceptional bodies of work belongs to Rumanian born German coach Stelian Moculescu. Over a 40 year coaching career in the German Bundesliga he won 18 championships, 19 cups and the CEV Champions League. For a large part of his career he was also coach of the German National Team, who he led to Olympic Qualification for the first time in history in 2008.
He was a controversial figure for his entire career, up to and including his last match. Every story of the Bundesliga in his time was about him in some way. He was a ferocious competitor, putting him at odds with many along the way. He was a great coach. The teams he had in Friedrichshafen in 2009 and 2010 were a perfect blend of control and aggression. I have tried to adapt that philosophy in every team I have had since then. I stood on the other side of the net from him nearly 40 times in my career. I came out of it a bit worse than even. I did better than most.
On sunday in Berlin was his last match on the sidelines. His team lost, but Berlin (club and fans) represented volleyball. For these three minutes, volleyball celebrated one of its greatest figures.
Coaching volleyball, or indeed any sport, for a living is tough. It is not only the work that is difficult but it can become all consuming to the extent that it affects your personal and family life, and even your personality. It can change your perspective (a loss is a disaster and a win is merely the postponement of the next disaster). It can change your sense of humour* (if you have sensitive players who take everything personally). It can change your sense of reality (an officiating error against you is proof of cheating, while one your favour is proof of your quality). And it can absolutely affect your sense of irony. As you can imagine, with no perspective, humour or sense of reality, there can be no irony.
Which brings us to the above video. Although I certainly have my lapses, I think that I have done a reasonable job of avoiding the pitfalls described above. The point in the video is from the bronze medal match from the 2015 CEV Champions League. It shows my team (Berlin Recycling Volleys) create a great opportunity to win the match, and then make a ‘simple’, ‘unforced’ error. My reaction is a rueful smile and a silent expletive. The reason for the smile is at that exact moment of time I remembered a moment at training about a week before in which I implored my team (again) to always force the high ball set close to the net and further emphasised my point by saying ‘I would rather make one direct error and nine perfect sets than ten ‘okay’ sets’. I never thought those words would come back to bite us at quite that moment**. Luckily my sense of irony has not yet been destroyed by my lack of perspective.
During the recent World League Finals tournament it became something of a bugbear of the commentator when teams made similar errors in setting high balls. His mantra was that in those situations the player should always set the ball on the 10 feet from the net to be safe. Fair enough, although it could have been the players were trying to set 10 feet from the net but didn’t know where that was. But I digress. My problem was that he did comment that the dozens and dozens of great sets were still not the safe option, just ‘luckily’ not errors. On those occasions he always praised the attacker who made the point and simply didn’t mention the set or setter who made it possible.
There are two important points here.
Firstly, you must be absolutely consistent in your demands of the players. If you demand aggression, you cannot fault errors that result from what you demand. Conversely if you demand conservatism, you should fault aggression, even if it results in a successful action.
Secondly, the key concept that led to the errors that so annoyed the commentator was that the current generation of players / teams / coaches is playing to win. Previous generations’ first instinct was conservative, to play not to lose. Playing to win means searching for solutions that lead directly to points which in turn means that errors can occur. Playing not to lose means searching for solutions that give your opponent the chance to make errors. This leads to what I saw in the 2012 Olympics which was teams who often seemed to be playing ‘with’ each other in a kind of choreographed dance. It can certainly be annoying at times to see a service error at set point or spike aimed at the top joint of the middle blockers finger land untouched in a spectators lap but those errors arise from exactly the kind of thinking that also leads to the countless successful actions that make modern volleyball such an astonishingly spectacular sport. You can’t have one without the other.
*Doing anything in the absence of humour is, not surprisingly, an incredible painful experience.
**To keep perspective, we might have made five such errors over the course of the season and I am almost certain the player in question made only that one, including nine months worth of training and dozens of more difficult ones.
I am on the record as saying that the European Champions League Final Four is the best event on the volleyball calendar. I am also on record as saying that my career goal is to participant in the Champions League Final Four. Having achieved my goal, I can confirm to you that my belief is correct. And having achieved my goal, and confirmed my belief, there is no conceivable way that I can write about the event with any kind of objectivity. Plus I hardly saw any of it. However, I do have two observations that might be worth sharing.
The best organised and structured team I have ever seen was the Trentino Volley team from about 2010 to 2012 with Raphael, Kaziyski and Juantorena. They were so perfectly structured that you could predict what they would do at any time and their block / defence structure seemed suffocate their opponents. I once made that comment to a colleague who worked in Italy and saw them play a lot. He replied, “You’re observations are correct, but if you watch them a lot you will be surprised to find that as good as they are, they actually win a lot of their matches because Juantorena gets a service series at a key moment.” In other words, as good as they were as a team, their team play was not enough. And Juantorena was so good that even in a champion team he stood out and was decisive. Which brings me to Wilfredo Leon. The Zenit Kazan team has arguably the world’s best setter, the world’s best opposite and one of the world’s best outside hitters, plus the starting outside hitters from the last European Champion team sitting on the bench**. But Leon is another level completely. At the biggest event in Europe, among probably ten of the best twenty players in the world he was the dominant player and difference maker. Choosing him as MVP was probably the most obvious award in volleyball history.
The second observation is about volleyball itself. In a setting like the one in the photo, volleyball is the most spectacular sport in the world. And frankly, it is not even close.
** Respectively… Marouf, Mikhaylov, Anderson, Sivozhelez, Spiridonov. I said arguably.
The ‘HALLE luja’ in the post title is a play on words. The German cup final in held in the city of Halle. Reaching the cup final has been a major club goal for at least the time I have spent there and so when we reached the cup final for the first time since it has been held there, we were so excited we shouted (figuratively) ‘Hallelujah!!’. I think you can figure out the rest.
The ‘Devastation’ in the post title refers to the feeling after losing the match in five sets to great rivals VfB Friedrichsafen. I’ve been lucky enough to take part in plenty of big matches but I don’t remember ever in my career having suffered such a devastating loss. Perhaps the positive side of that is that I must have won most of those big matches to feel this loss so deeply.
When we reached the cup final, the club hired a film team to made a behind the scenes look at the lead up to the big match. It has come out fantastically well. I have watched many of these kinds of things before and this ranks with the best. If you love sport, watch this.
Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.
Just for the hell of it, I thought I’d write about some of the things I thought about in 2012. Lots of stuff actually happened in the volleyball world in 2012 but I know nothing about nearly all of it because it happened in beach volleyball or women’s volleyball. That’s not to say I never thought about beach volleyball or women’s volleyball, I just didn’t follow them. So everything that follows will be male and indoor centric. I think I’ll split them up into two or three posts. This one is about TEAMS…
Number in any discussion of the teams of 2012 must be Russia. Everyone knows that after years and years (20, actually) of tears and disappointments, Russia finally won another major tournament final and managed to do it in the most dramatic way possible. For a long time Russia has been recognised as having the most talented team, but one that never gets the job done. That changed in those couple of hours in London in August. With players like Muserskiy, Mikhaylov and Volkov not even having reached their (theoretical) peaks, and Alekno having proved himself a master coach (although he just resigned), the question now is how long can they dominate world volleyball.
On a related note Zenit Kazan showed their quality by winning the Russian league and Champions League in 2012. At this point the Russian league might be the most difficult league to win and Champions League is the best club competition in the world. In the Final Four in Lodz, they beat holders Trento and then hosts Belchatow, after being down match point in a performance so good that Olympic gold medallist Reid Priddy spent most of the time watching it from the bench. With Mikhaylov, Volkov, Berezhko and Apalikov and Priddy already there, Italian setter Valerio Vermiglio was always going to be icing on the cake. And it turns out the icing was delicious and decisive. They also have an interesting youtube channel.
Speaking of Trento, since Radostin Stoychev became coach in 2007, Trento have been the best club team in the world. In those five seasons they have won two leagues (and been runners up three times, once in five matches, twice in one off V-Day), two cups, three Champions Leagues and four World Club Championships. During that time have changed virtually all of the team at least once, except for Matey Kaziyski, and yet their level of excellence over that time has been incredible. They can be beaten, although not often, in a single match (see two V-Day losses and Champions League semi final) but only by another great team having their best day. On every other day, they win. To watch Trento play is to watch clockwork. I don’t recall ever having seen a team so well drilled and well prepared. As I write this, they are top of the league and getting ready to play (win) in another Cup final.
Although I just wrote that I know nothing about beach or women’s volleyball, I know enough to know what three Olympic Gold Medals in a row is an incredible achievement and therefore Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh deserve every recognition they get. For the first two golds they were clearly the most dominant team in the world, at one stage winning over 100 matches in a row. The third though, they had to do the hard way. After a variety of injuries, (half hearted-)retirements and childbirth they were not favourites in London. They even lost a set (their first in Olympic competition) during the tournament, but at the end dominated the final and won that third gold. I doubt we will see anything like it again.
From 2002 to 2010 Brazil were the dominant men’s team in the world. Except for a hiccup in Beijing (where they only won silver), they won everything they could possibly win. Bernardinho created such a strong ‘family’ that he went through two generations of players in those eight years without losing a beat. But for the last two years, it was clear that the era was coming to a close. Their performances have been less than convincing. Where once noone could beat them in a big match, they lost in World League and then World Cup and then in World League again. And not just lost, fought amongst themselves while doing it. And yet they brought it all back together for one last hurrah and were one point away from winning an Olympic Gold Medal and becoming indisputably the greatest team of all time. As it is they lost that point and are just probably the greatest team of all time. Those are the margins, but you can’t deny what they have achieved over time.
Two other teams jump into my mind, for losing. Skra Belchatow and VfB Friedrichshafen lost their respective championships in Poland and Germany after having won of (seven!!!) championships in a row. Sadly it is probably the case that only by losing do people really reflect on that amazing achievement. To win one or a couple of titles can be due to a bit of luck or a few key components coming together at the right time. But to win seven titles in a row requires a commitment to excellence throughout a whole club that is extremely rare. Chapeau!
But my Team Of The Year can only be one… Berlin Recycling Volleys. And yes, I am contractually obligated to write that 🙂
Michael Jordan was a great basketballer. That is hardly a revelation. He was also a great scorer. Over his NBA career he averaged over 30 points per game and was known as being virtually unguardable. In fact it was often said that the only person who could keep Jordan under 20 points was his college coach Dean Smith. The reasoning was that he created a team structure that kept Jordan from using his individual skills only for scoring. His defensive prowess aside, Smith was an enormously successful college coach and rated as one of the greatest of all time. Like all great, and many, many mediocre, American coaches he has written a book.
In it he addressed the topic of innovation.
Innovation is a funny thing. Often it’s not as much a matter of sweeping change or a bolt of enlightenment as it is of small increments and contributions from a variety of people. Often it grows out of desperation or tough circumstances.
He went on to describe the situation of a player when he was assistant coach who in a particular situation had a peculiar habit. This habit was outside the coach’s system and he was criticised for it. At a later date after Smith had moved to another team he recalled that particular player and his habit. This time under another coach they used that player’s inspiration to develop a valuable new tactic. One player’s inspiration was considered an error by one coach but lead another to innovate.
And yes, I know that putting ‘The Dark Knight’ in the title of this post is even more of a stretch than the last one, but it does seem to continue the general theme of the first two posts and that is where we started.