by Jeff Smith
At an age when most kids begin playing organized soccer, basketball or t-ball, Laszlo Kiraly first introduced his son to volleyball shortly after his son's sixth birthday. A couple of years later, he began taking his son to sand volleyball courts to learn the outdoor game as well. His son quickly developed a deep love for volleyball, playing it with his friends for hours on end both indoors and outdoors.
Today, Karch Kiraly is universally known as the greatest men's volleyball player in the history of the sport. At age 55, he continues pouring himself into the sport he loves as head coach of the U.S. women's national team.
“I’ve been involved in this game since I was 6 years old,” Kiraly said. “I’ve had a very long love affair with volleyball thanks to the start my father gave me."
Of course, it's unlikely that any of our kids will end up accomplishing the kinds of decorated volleyball careers of Karch Kiraly. But many of us would like to see our children grow to love this game and get as much out of the sport as they can, not only in terms of skill development and understanding of the game but also the life lessons, values and friendships this tremendous team sport offers.
Here are four ways that our kids can learn to love volleyball and develop the intrinsic motivation to passionately pursue the sport.
1. Play the game often.
If time together is the glue that holds relationships together, the same is true for volleyball. The more time spend playing the game, generally the more your child will develop an affection for the sport.
Just as time is necessary for getting to know our spouse or friend better, time playing the game is essential for getting to know and understand volleyball more intimately. The more we play the game, the more we understand how to execute the skills of the sport and how to perform the myriad of different intricacies of the sport, including how to read the opponent's actions on the other side of the net and then plan and react to those actions.
Playing the game also helps us appreciate the sport more. Most importantly, just like learning a musical instrument, the more we play the better we get at it and, in turn, the more we enjoy it.
Playing volleyball means being involved on school and club teams and taking part in camps and classes, where our kids will receive professional instruction and training as well as critical game experience. But that's just one part of the equation ...
2. Play the game outside of highly structured environments.
I played basketball competitively from second grade through high school. I participated in instructional leagues and park district leagues and competed for my school while also attending camps, clinics and private lessons.
But that's not where I developed my love for the sport. My fondest memories of basketball are the countless hours spent playing pick-up games with friends on my parents' driveway and the local park's basketball court and shooting hoops with my brother year round, even in the dead of winter, when we'd be working on our jump shots and free throws while dressed in winter coats, stocking hats and one glove (leaving our shooting hand cold but able to grip the ball).
Encourage your child to take that same approach to volleyball. Participating in camps, clinics, lessons and club and school teams is vital to your son or daughter's development. But they should be spending at least the same amount of time playing volleyball with family members and friends outside of those structured environments.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Games of 1v1 (basically volleyball singles) over a net, ribbon or clothesline in the backyard. (Use up to three contacts just like in the indoor and sand game.)
- Games of 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 with family or friends at a park, in someone's backyard or even indoors in the basement sitting volleyball style.
- Play Loser Becomes the Net with family or friends.
- Participate in open gym at the local park district or a church, school or club.
- Hit the local sand court for games of 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 or up to 6v6.
- Even by yourself, you can work on your skills for short increments of time: setting to yourself in your bedroom while lying on your bed or off a wall (with parents' permission) or hitting or serving the ball off a wall at a nearby school.
Karch Kiraly says his skills developed most of all by simply playing the game with friends. If it worked for him, it'll work for our kids, too.
3. Play multiple versions of volleyball.
The indoor game is fantastic, complex and ever challenging. Like golf, it's a sport you'll never completely conquer as a player.
But indoor athletes will grow a deeper love, appreciation and fascination with volleyball when they play the game in other venues as well.
Sampling the sand or grass versions of volleyball has other benefits, too. Playing sand or grass volleyball will keep the sport fresh for your child. Both sports, particularly sand volleyball, are significantly different from the indoor version, with different skills, strategies and rules to learn, and the outdoor venue makes volleyball more fun to play as well. It's hard not to love our sport with blue skies, sunshine, summer attire and soft sand thrown in the mix. Plus, playing sand or grass volleyball typically use smaller teams, such as beach doubles, which gives our kids more touches on the ball, more game reps and more opportunities to develop all-around skills. Learning the all-around game instead of merely specializing at one position will deepen their love for the sport as much as anything.
4. Watch the game played at higher levels.
I still remember the first time my two daughters saw a high school volleyball match. They were in fourth grade and accompanied my middle school team to a varsity match at Wheaton Academy to see one of my former players, Molly McCoy, who was WA's star outside hitter at the time. Molly made the DuPage County all-area team that season thanks to her powerful hitting and strong all-around game. My girls were in awe of the speed of the game and the skills that the WA players displayed, particularly Molly. Our seats were near the net, too, so they could fully enjoy Molly's hitting prowess.
We continued this habit throughout junior high and up till today. Even now, we still watch Big Ten women's matches each fall on BTN, which is a treat considering the Big Ten is one of the top volleyball conferences in the country.
Taking in higher-level volleyball matches in person or on TV or online will help your kids see and appreciate the game more than ever. It'll also hopefully expand their vision of the sport and how it should be played and inspire them to work on their own skills with that bigger picture in mind. It may even teach them new skills, tactics and strategies they can try or modify at their own age level, such as jump serving, jump setting, back-row jump hitting or specific digging or blocking techniques.
Just be careful, though. Once they start watching these matches, your TV may get monopolized on certain nights of the week during the fall. That's what's happened in my household!
Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.