Volleyball: The State of the Game

Ed Chan
The sport has changed immensely over the last 35 years

There is no doubt about it—during the last 35 years a lot of things have changed in the game of volleyball. From altered rules to new positions and even improved modes of travel, not everyone is in agreement that these changes have made the sport better or moved it in a positive direction.

M
ost people have likely heard a “When I was a little kid, I used to walk five miles in the snow to school” story at some point in their lives.

Those types of stories are plentiful in volleyball.

Four-time Olympian and 2008 Olympic gold-medalist setter Lloy Ball recalls when he first started playing with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

“Even though I was a starter back in 1994, because I was a rookie, I had to carry all the luggage, do the laundry and get the bags on and off the bus,” Ball said. “Once in Japan, I had ice bucket duties. All I could find was a block of ice. So I put it in the cooler and carried it 10 blocks to the arena. Thankfully, [teammate and former standout at the University of Hawaii] Allen Allen was kind enough to help me the last few blocks. After the game, I had to break up the ice with a pick in small enough pieces so the older guys could get it into their ice bags. Those first few years with the National Team were brutal, but they taught me to respect those who had worked hard before me and respect the tradition of the game. A lot of that is gone now.”

Legendary UCLA men’s coach Al Scates—who will retire after the 2012 season after a likely never-to-be approached again 50 years at the helm (he has over 1,200 career victories heading into the upcoming season)—remembers a day when transportation to and fro was a bit more rudimentary.

“When I came to UCLA in the fall of 1959 there was already a varsity volleyball team, however it had no budget,” Scates said. “We never had a vehicle to transport us to Saturday tournaments. We took our own cars. We had no meal money and we bought our own shoes and socks. During my years playing as a graduate student we did make one plane trip to Oakland. It was my first plane trip.”

Practice time for the Bruin men back then was, shall we say, limited.

“We only practiced Wednesday nights at 7 p.m.,” said Scates, whose poignant way of telling historical volleyball stories once again shines brightly here. “The varsity basketball team practiced from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and the freshman basketball team practiced from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. And we only got a third of the gym. The wrestlers were also in there and so was gymnastics. There was a blue curtain on either side of the court. Not too many of our balls went to the wrestling side. They didn’t like that too much. A lot of them wound up on the women’s gymnastics side though. When a ball would hit that curtain by them, clouds of chalk dust would come off.”

These tales from the past demonstrate how the sport was back in the day and how far it has come. It’s doubtful U.S. national team players were carrying blocks of ice in Beijing in 2008. Many teams now practice in state-of-the-art facilities and traverse the United States, and the world for that matter, in airplanes multiple times during the season.

Over the last four decades (this story is part of Volleyball’s 35th anniversary celebration), the sport has seen a lot of change—most for the good—and, according to some of the most recognizable names in it, is positioned to make even greater strides moving forward.

THE OBVIOUS

On the court, much has changed in recent years. For one, the rules are different. That’s usually the first observation that rolls off peoples’ tongues.

“I think the rule changes have had the biggest impact on our sport both indoors and on the beach,” U.S. Women’s National Team coach and future University of Minnesota women’s coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “We now have different scoring systems, different rules and/or interpretations of them. The court is different on the sand. There’s the libero, a new ball, coaches standing on the sidelines, you can serve from anywhere across the baseline, quick substitution. Have they made the game better or worse? I honestly don’t waste any time or energy on speculating. We try to do the best we can with the rules we have today.”

Aurora, Ill.-based Sports Performance club director Rick Butler, whose club program has set a standard of excellence for decades and has produced a plethora of Division I college talent, is not a huge fan of several of the rules evolutions.

“The let serve and allowing the touching of the net are bad for the game,” he said. “The let serve is just a matter of luck and cannot be defended or trained in the practice environment, so it should not be allowed in competition. Touching the net leads to very sloppy play, especially for players at the younger level.”

Two-time Olympic gold-medalist Misty May-Treanor puts the let serve rule on the beach in the “tough” category.

“The net rule on the serve is a big change,” she said. “Especially when only two players are covering the court. It is very challenging and one more opponent to think about during crunch time.”

Ball, whose candor is on par with that of his father, Arnie (IPFW men’s coach), is not fond of a majority of the rule changes.

“In my opinion, most of the changes have ‘dumbed down’ the game,” Ball said.

He does, however, like the evolution of the jump serve. “Only the jump serve has made the game more powerful and exciting,” he said.

But he’s no fan of the libero position.

“The libero was created to give short players a chance to play,” he said. “It has made middle blockers terrible ball handlers. Back in the day, you would see 7-footers such as Bas van de Goor (The Netherlands), Bryan Ivie, Craig Buck and others be able to play back-row defense, set balls in transition and hit from the back row. Now, we are lucky if middle blockers don’t hurt themselves on off plays. Karch (Kiraly), (Aldis) Berzins, (Reid) Priddy, (Steve) Salmons and Bobby C (Bob Ctvrtlik) weren’t giants, yet they were still considered some of the best to play. I also don’t like rally scoring. In the old scoring, the better team always won. Now, if some lesser team gets luck or one guy goes on a roll serving, they can win against a superior team.”

Two-time Olympic gold-medalist Kerri Walsh has a slightly different take on the addition of the libero position.

“The indoor game has become a lot more specialized with the introduction of the libero,” the former Stanford star said. “I love the addition, but I truly dislike how it takes away the need for all players to be able to do every skill (serve, receive and defense).”

OK, so rules touched a nerve.

Another obvious change in the game is the physical capabilities of players.

“The level of athleticism has made the game much more dynamic,” Butler said.

Walsh adds: “The game has gotten a lot more physical in both disciplines. There is still room for finesse, but physicality reigns.”

USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal, who coached the 1984 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team that won a gold medal, says the change in physical makeup has been felt with both genders.

“The middle-blocking players or the so-called big giants of several decades ago would probably be liberos today,” Beal said. “The 6’5”, 6’6” male is standard size in today’s men’s game. The 6-foot player is standard size in the women’s game. It’s been much more dramatic on the women’s side.”

Todd Rogers has seen the beach game change from a physical standpoint right before his eyes.

“The average height is quite a bit taller,” the 2008 Olympic gold-medalist said. “I was of average height (6’2”) back in the old court days. Now I am probably in the lowest 10 percent in terms of height.”

Rogers adds the switch from the bigger court to the short court on the beach has brought sweeping change.

“The No. 1 thing is the court size,” he said. “Many people told me they thought Dax (Holdren) and I were going to be the ‘next team’ on the big court. The older generation was retiring or falling from the top and many thought we were poised to take over. The short court came in and Dax and I were breaking up a year later. It allowed bigger/slower players to come out to the beach. You see it today when you look at the tour.”

PARTICIPATION EXPLOSION

One doesn’t have to look farther than the groundbreaking Title IX to find a more significant catalyst in the sport’s development.

“Title IX has been enormous for the sport,” Beal said. “It may be the most significant change in dynamics and demographics in our sport. When I started to play, there really wasn’t junior volleyball at all.”

Now, club volleyball, especially at the girls’ level, continues to explode to new heights.

“Junior clubs are sort of a byproduct of Title IX,” Beal said. “Look at all of the college scholarships that are available. These convention center large events have been a major change. It’s kind of unique to our sport. You don’t see too many youth events in other sports the size of the ones we have under one roof.”

Beal added there also has been growth at the boys and men’s levels of the game.

“We are getting a pretty reasonable amount of growth there,” said Beal, who puts the categories of increased television exposure and cutting-edge technology in the sport’s significant evolution basket.

Growth also has occurred in the coaching ranks—both in numbers and in quality.

“The entire professionalism of coaching has evolved,” Beal said. “When I started playing, you could count the number of serious coaches in the country on one or two hands. We now have a very well developed, growing and well-compensated elite core of coaches in this country. It’s quite impressive and it has been recognized throughout the world.”

THE FUTURE

There is one thing people can agree upon in the sport—continued growth.

“There are a lot of younger kids playing,” May-Treanor said. “That is what we need—the next generation.”

Butler feels growth will continue to show in the quality of play delivered.

“In general, the sport will be played at a higher level of skill across the base of the grassroots and the high school-age competitive pyramid,” he said. “With the founding of the JVA (Junior Volleyball Association) and its continued urging for all clubs to run extensive youth development programs, the number of 8-12 year-olds who have started playing volleyball over the past five years has grown dramatically. Those players will be entering the competitive pipeline over the next few years and will have several years of experience before they ever get to the junior-high level.”

And what’s on many game experts wish lists? Professional indoor leagues in the U.S. and a stabilization of the pro beach game in the country.

“I still hold out hope that the next big thing will be a professional league in the U.S.,” McCutcheon said.

“Our sport (beach) is at a very fragile state at this time domestically,” May-Treanor said.
“I believe it can bounce back. It always does.”

Beal feels the recent shenanigans with the domestic pro beach game (i.e. the demise of the AVP) may very well be a positive for the sport in the long term with the evolution of smaller tours this past year.

“I think it’s a positive overall because of the opportunities that are out there now literally within a year of the demise of the AVP,” Beal says. “It will be a plus for the sport long-term. I think the future for beach is quite bright.”

Beal says the health of the sport in general is excellent.

“The game is extremely healthy,” he said. “There are signs of that at every level and with every part of the game. This is a positive and very exciting time. We’re seeing terrific indicators of a very bright and expanding future for the sport.”

FASHION FADS

Fashions change throughout the years. Some come and go and then some come back again. Volleyball over the years has certainly not been immune to fashion fads.

“I was just thinking about how players that wore their hats/visors—and I was one of them—always flipped them up,” two-time Olympic gold-medalist Misty May-Treanor said with a laugh. “That defeated the purpose of wearing the darned thing, but it was nice for our sponsors at that time. Now it’s sun protection galore and you won’t find any player playing with their brim high in the air.”

Aurora, Ill.-based Sports Performance club director Rick Butler has seen plenty a fashion change in his years in the youth game.

“I guess since volleyball in the U.S. is primarily a female sport, the ‘fashion revolution’ shouldn’t surprise anyone,” he said. “In the 1980s it was OP and Sideout flowered beachwear shorts, ‘bun huggers,’ and tight-fitting ‘half pants’ that came down to just above the knee.

“In the 90s it was spandex almost down to the knees, ankle braces for everyone and white knee socks. In the 2000s, it was short spandex that looked like the ‘bun huggers’ of the 80s, black socks with black shoes and a semi-return to long-sleeve jerseys, which were popular in the 80s.”

So what about the present?

“As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, loud-looking jerseys that often look like abstract art seem to be coming into style,” Butler said. “Ankle braces are slowly becoming an optional item vs. almost everyone having them 10 years ago, and Capri-type warm-up pants that are not that much different than the half pants of the 80s seem to be in style. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Originally published in December/January 2012

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