Leaders at top clubs say it’s a challenge to serve players of all skill levels, from beginners to experts.
Matt Linebarger only needs a moment to answer a question about his club’s culture.
Club Savannah Volleyball in Georgia doesn’t have the luxury to turn any passionate player away, he says.
“Savannah is very small,” says Linebarger, the club’s director. “In some cities, there are so many people, and you could be more cutthroat. But here you can’t can’t burn bridges. Everybody knows everybody.”
Besides, Savannah’s nickname is “Hostess City of the South.”
Linebarger took over the club in 2011, but he’d coached Savannah College of Art and Design, and he’d seen a half-dozen competitors come and go.
In Ohio, Academy Volleyball Cleveland started as a small, regional club. As they pondered the future, leaders debated whether to rent space for soccer or other sports.
“We didn’t want to be the Academy for Volleyball on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and indoor soccer a few other days,” says Paul Schiffer, the club director. “We wanted to be known as the premier volleyball program in Cleveland.”
Academy Volleyball Cleveland (AVC) operates a 64,000-square foot facility with five courts for athletes ages 8 to 18 years old.
Both Linebarger and Schiffer say it’s a challenge to serve players of all skill levels, from beginners to experts.
Here are three keys in how they’ve built up successful programs that serve a broad group of young players who love the game:
Linebarger says many of the clubs that have folded failed to last because of their founders.
"They were started by parents who have one thing in mind: to cater to their daughter,” Linebarger says. “So after two years, they blow up.”
Or the founders work full-time and run the volleyball club part-time.
“We try to get the best of the best coaches that we can get,” Linebarger says. “However, with that said, we want coaches who are willing to buy into what we do philosophically. Sometimes that means we’re going to take a club perspective over the me perspective. We’re not a fit for every coach."
At AVC, Schiffer runs the day-to-day business, while another co-founder, Brian Highfield, is in charge of the club’s administration and finances. Lastly, co-founder Brian Scipione oversees the 14-and-under regional and national teams.
Linebarger also develops all of the practice plans for Club Savannah’s coaches.
He believes Club Savannah has thrived in serving all athletes, including the elite ones, because of its commitment to provide excellent training to all.
“We think initial ability has no correlation with final ability,” he says. “Just because they can’t walk and chew gum now doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to figure that out months from now.”
Schiffer is proud that parents who watch their children at AVC will see continuity in the equipment, drills and coaching.
“A lot of the things we do at the national level is the same with all of our athletes,” Schiffer says. “It’s about consistency, just at a different level. But the coaching quality is the same.”
Linebarger says Club Savannah does not prejudge its athletes and tries to take emotions out of the equation.
“I want (parents) to know I care for their kids,” he says. “But, at the same time, sometimes what I say is not what they want to hear.”
Club Savannah emphasizes well-rounded play, so the tall elementary player isn’t pigeonholed into specific positions all the way through high school.
“We don’t know, long-term, if they’re tall in seventh grade if they’ll be tall in ninth grade,” Linebarger says. “If others catch up to them, they have to be comfortable to move and change positions.”
Schiffer says coaches who join AVC must buy into the system.
“We have some coaches who have done great things, but we can’t see eye-to-eye, because they don’t want to train the way we do,” Schiffer says. “That’s fine.”
As in, those coaches won’t last long at AVC.
Schiffer says AVC is always looking to evolve but also wants to maintain uniformity in how it teaches technique.
“If we’re going to practice one dig move, we’ll train that dig move from 18 down to 10,” he says. “That also trickles down to the eight-year-olds.”
Linebarger also says it’s important to recognize that players develop at different times.
He points to the young teams that win national titles at age 13.
"Everybody is like, ‘Wow, they’re so good!’ Yes they are,” Linebarger says. “But because they started playing when they were 10 doesn’t correlate to whether they’ll be playing at a power five, Division I school.
“We think initial ability has no correlation with final ability,” he adds. “Just because you start out young doesn’t necessarily mean you have this overwhelming advantage over that kid who started when they were 13.”
Linebarger likens some of the players to “baby giraffes.”
“They’re not coordinated,” he says, “but over time, they will get it.”
Schiffer says the key is is quality training to ensure the athlete’s foundation is strong.
AVC regularly has players who go from the regional — their version of local — level to the national one. Schiffer notes that some of his area’s public schools don’t even start the players in volleyball until seventh grade.
“There are always late bloomers,” he says.