By Coach Chris Holder for Breaking Muscle: the fitness world’s preeminent destination for timely, high-quality information on exercise, fitness, health, and nutrition.
Club volleyball. If you aren’t involved in the volleyball world, you have no understanding of what comes along with those two words. Evenings in the gym, weekends travelling to tournaments, private coaching sessions, rides here and there, eating in the car, changing in the car, hustling to the next event, and the one glaring thing every volleyball family is all too familiar with: the expense of it all. Sure, we drop a couple thousand dollars at sign up, but that is just the beginning. I know families who, after it is all said and done, will spend over $10,000 on a volleyball club season, once all of the above expenses are paid. It’s an enormous investment so our daughters and sons can get enough touches on a ball to help them make their varsity team in high school, and for a dedicated few, a scholarship to play in college.
I can remember my first real exposure to the club volleyball world. It was 2007, and my wife (then girlfriend) and her 16s were headed to the big Reno tournament in the springtime. It’s a huge tournament held in an enormous building with court after court packed with girls. You could easily park several passenger jets next to one another without issue in this facility. It was ponytails and kneepads for as far as the eye could see. I was speechless the first day, because to that point, I hadn’t realized how big of a deal all of this was.
Fast forward to today. My wife and I have three little ones (8, 6, and 4). She’s still coaching, and club volleyball is a fixture in our family. She’s also the head varsity coach at the private high school in town, and has been producing winning teams for as long as I have known her. My two youngest are girls, and I’ll never forget the day when she looked at me and said, “I’m going to turn Laney (our middle child) into the sickest setter anyone has ever seen.” And, ladies and gentlemen, I believe her.
For those of you who don’t know me, I am a college strength and conditioning coach. Because of my natural association with the volleyball community, I can’t help but be fond of my volleyball team and those athletes. I run a very tight ship, have gigantic expectations of those kids, and push them like they’ve never been pushed before. See, college athletics is a business. The days of playing for the fun of it or for the opportunity of being on a team end the second your daughters or sons step on campus. The pressure to win is like nothing any of them could fathom.
This pressure is a function of the amount of money that is poured into a Division I team. If you were to look at the bottom line for one year in an athletics department at any middle-of-the-road Division I school, those numbers get big quickly. If you take into account the cost of scholarships, salaries for all those involved in the program (including strength, sports medicine, academics, and media), travel, meals, and gear, those numbers easily soar to well over $500k annually, for the volleyball program alone. If you are talking about some of the elite institutions, those numbers are in the millions to facilitate a thriving program. As I stated, it’s a business.
This business aspect is why you are noticing that the volleyball season is no longer a “season.” Volleyball is played year-round now. The days of playing volleyball for a few months, then moving to softball or baseball, then to basketball, perhaps football, are all but over. Our kids are now specializing very early, and if you are like many of the families that I know, their kids (the girls in particular) are committing to full-time volleyball before they are in their teens. If you are up to speed with how the college recruiting process is conducted, many of these kids are taking trips and verbally committing to teams as early as their sophomore year in high school. From a total third party in all of this, it’s completely nuts.
Besides the holidays, when do our daughters and sons get a break? In my town, club starts in December, and goes (if we make J.O.’s) into early July. High school practices overlap, starting in June and that season runs until November. The second the high school season ends, tryouts for club begin, and we start all over. Throw camps into the mix in the summer, and what these kids are getting is a non-stop deluge of volleyball, from club to high school, which consumes the entire calendar year.
How Many Swings Does That Shoulder Have?
This is not a rhetorical question, by the way. How many? Tens of thousands? We would like to think that our kids are bulletproof, but the reality of it is, they are far from it. The problem of early specialization is an increasing concern, because of the repetitive stress that is unrelenting due to the lack of a traditional season.
From someone who inherits these kids at the college level, what we are seeing is really scary. Back in the old days, when a new kid would come into the program, we would have a few asymmetries to address, perhaps a kid here and there who had a surgery at some point in their childhood for some random reason. But for the most part, those athletes would walk into the door and all I would need to do is devise a plan to get them strong.
The past 5-10 years have seen a major swing in a troublesome direction. My kids, in all sports but volleyball especially, are entering my program with a medical rap sheet that looks like something you would see from a soldier coming back from a combat tour. Bodies beat to hell, and at the ripe old age of 18. Head-to-toe injuries that we just didn’t see in the late 90s or early 2000s. Shoulder injuries of all kinds, including total reconstructions, upper back issues, a complete lack of scapular control, low back injuries you should only see in retirees, hip problems including serious labrum injuries, and knee and ankle issues of all varieties. When we interview many of them upon stepping on campus, many of these kids have had these problems since they were in middle school or early in their high school careers. We end up spending several months conducting rehab-type strength programs just to get everyone in a level place to begin laying the foundation.
Another silent contributor to the downfall of our kids is the degree to which they (and we) are committed to our phones, televisions, and computers. Moms and Dads, listen up: we are killing our kids with technology. Ask any physical therapist, general practitioner, orthopedic surgeon, or chiropractor. They will all tell you that the posture that we hold and maintain to text, play games, Facebook, tweet, snapchat, YouTube, and take selfies is slowly creating physical issues in our kids.
The body is a wonder of adaptation. Whatever you present to it, it will find ways to make that task easier for the next time. It’s how bodybuilders get so big. It’s called the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands). The bodybuilder goes in the gym day after day and does the same routines over and over to get the muscles to grow. What most of us don’t know is that all of the sitting and holding less than optimal posture is setting us up for a painful future.
Because our kids are so committed to their phones, and spend a hideous amount of time on them, their bodies begin to adapt to that posture. Hour after hour creates a body that is not suited for athletics. If you don’t believe me, go see your local physical therapist and ask them. They love technology, because this singular phenomenon will keep them flush with business until the world ends.
What Do Ya’ Bench?
That’s a joke, but the question about strength training comes out of my mouth to my new freshmen on day one. And what’s not a joke is that many of these athletes have never been in a formal lifting program. They’ve made it all the way to earning a scholarship, and one of the first times they will ever lift will be with me. There’s also those kids who come from a high school program where some well-intended assistant coach put together a strength routine that involves exercises that have nothing to do with volleyball. They basically slap all the exercises they think they know down on a sheet without the grace of science behind their decisions, and have these poor athletes occasionally go through the motions. The only thing it does facilitate is repetitive episodes of soreness, and another potential avenue of injury.
What we are seeing is that most of the parents of these kids don’t understand that a sound, well thought-out strength program for our kids (even the little ones) can save these athletes a young adulthood riddled with pain, injuries, and trips under the knife. For the parents who do get it, and get their athlete hooked up with a strength coach or a smart training program, their kids stick out like a sore thumb. They come in with a visible level of preparedness, and typically assimilate the physical aspect of college without much effort. And, what might be the most significant point in this article, they also tend to have a fairly clean injury history.
Tough Decision Time
From the time most of these kids are nine years old, until they stop playing upon graduation from high school or college, they have spent more than half their life in a volleyball gym. Couple that with the innate laziness that all of our sacred technology creates, and we have a major problem on our hands. If you have a young volleyballer in your house who is nursing a chronic injury or is meeting with an ortho because there is no other option than to have surgery, you need to make some tough decisions.
The first one would be to have them stop playing entirely. We are beating these bodies to the point where they have no option but to break. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
The second decision is to go out and hire a capable strength professional to design and oversee a smart program to fortify your young athlete. This is a very good idea for a lot of reasons. Smart programming for this sport includes mobilizing joints, strengthening the hips, upper back, shoulders, and the midsection. Thoughtful progressions taught by someone who understands technique and can break movements down into logical, digestible chunks, are a great way to reverse the damage of both the overexposure to hitting, and the chronic bad positions these kids maintain to text and Facebook.
Finding the right coach for a problem this specific is next to impossible. And when you do find them, there’s a good chance they’re somewhere else. The average trainer at the local gym is typically not educated in how to develop and care for athletes. At best, their expertise has more to do with losing weight and aesthetics, not athletic performance—and the difference between the two could not be bigger.
You could hire me to do it, but that’s going to cost you a lot of money. You’re going to need 3-4 times a week to get some of the corrections started, and we will probably require several months to make real headway in both injury-proofing your child, and enhancing performance in strength, speed, and power. The cost of hiring somebody like me can run into the thousands of dollars, and that is not doable for the vast majority of parents.
Putting Armor on Our Athletes
About a year ago, the father of one of our club players reached out to me for some advice. His daughter is making enormous strides in her game, and he had been conducting workouts in his back yard for her and a couple of her teammates. Admittedly, he was finding workouts on YouTube, and scouring the internet for ideas that were focused on his daughter’s age group and sport. What he found out was that this demographic (volleyball-specific programs for teens) was nearly absent from his search.
We spent three afternoons together, and I took him through a myriad of exercises, showed him the nuances of each, and told him what to look for. But those few hours only partially solved the problem, and for only one athlete.
That father, our club director, my wife and I got together and began discussing how we could create a training system for our club. Could we build a program that would help all of the club athletes, without considerable additional expense? We wanted our kids to win, but the consensus throughout the club was that the athletes lacked physical strength and explosiveness to make us truly competitive.
I went to work, and over two weeks, we taught nearly 200 kids the fundamental basics in bodyweight movements and the principles needed for safe, effective strength work. Over the course of three months, under the supervision of the head coaches, the entire club went through a massive transformation. We quickly came to realize that this is something that all club programs could find tremendous value in.
With a program in hand that had proven itself, we got back together as a group and thought about how we could provide the same transformation not only for clubs around the world, but for those families who want this type of service for their young athlete. We put our team together, and got to work building our online platform.
VolleyStrength Is Born
The end product turned out better than I could have hoped. It includes four major phases, two different categories (bodyweight-only and kettlebell), and two “lift off” sections to prep the athlete physically for what’s coming in our featured areas. We put together a video library to provide visual direction on how to execute the programming effectively. Each exercise has easy-to-digest cuing that any ten-year-old can understand.
Our template allows the athlete to train for success anywhere, any time. The back yard, their bedroom, the living room, a hotel room on vacation… anywhere. The first half of the program is strictly bodyweight exercise. This is great for younger athletes, because we don’t want to load poor movement. We simplified the programming by building out a very specific approach that repeats week after week until the athlete feels ready to graduate to the next level. This allows them to achieve a level of mastery instead of introducing new things over and over. Realistically, a newbie could stay focused in one area for three months before feeling ready to move to the next level.
Once your child has mastered the bodyweight section, you enter into the second major phase: our kettlebell program. With minimal cost to a family for a few kettlebells, the athlete has a brand-new training program that can be carried out for as long as they stay motivated. Our Kettlebell Level II program is nearly verbatim what we do with my college volleyball team.
The online platform is designed to work with kids’ already engrained technology habits. It can be accessed through any computer or phone, and the athlete has all they need at their fingertips. Because kids are becoming more and more tech savvy, this approach will resonate more with them than one might expect. We are seeing this already with our club team.
VolleyStrength has helped me and my colleagues apply our coaching expertise and make it more relatable. We want to help athletes and their parents by giving them a cost-effective alternative to one-on-one training that still delivers high-value personalized coaching. It will help your athlete and your club become stronger, faster, and more resilient for the never-ending seasons to come.