by Jeff Smith
Julia Conard is one of the most revered players in West Chicago High School volleyball history. As an outside hitter, she became the school's all-time kills leader and paced the Wildcats to conference and regional championships in 2011.
Less than a month later, she reached the pinnacle of her career when she signed a full scholarship to join the volleyball program at the University of Illinois -- as a defensive specialist. By her senior year, she was even team captain.
At 5 feet 10, Julia was too short to be an effective outside hitter among the 6-1 to 6-4 pin hitting giants at the Big Ten Conference level. But, because she had developed strong back-row skills in high school, the Fighting Illini coaching staff took notice and awarded her a coveted scholarship and an opportunity to shine at one of the premiere Division I schools in the country.
In this age of specialization, where many clubs, schools and coaches like to pigeonhole players at one position for years on end, Julia's story is a breath of fresh air. As Julia experienced, your ability to play a variety of positions and areas of the court and execute a range of different skills will increase your value, not only to your current team but for your volleyball future.
Middle school: where versatility must take root
This is especially true for middle school athletes. Players in fifth to eighth grade should not be narrowly defined into one position. Doing this not only will stunt their growth in the sport but is incredibly short-sighted. It is next to impossible to confidently predict what position an 11- to 14-year-old girl or guy is best suited to play before they reach high school.
Here's just one example. The director of one of the area's largest clubs once confided to me how she wanted a middle school player on one of Serve City's teams to join her club the next year so she could make her a setter on one of her club's national teams. There was just one problem: While she liked setting and played some setter that season, the player in question absolutely loved being an outside hitter. She ended up sticking with Serve City the next year, and two years later she made her high school's varsity team at outside hitter.
If she had been restricted to only being a setter, she wouldn't have realized that she was a great fit for outside hitter and wouldn't have discovered her passion for that position.
Middle school is the time for athletes to experience as much of the sport as possible. This helps them develop into well-rounded players and get a taste of the full range of positions on the court to see where they might best fit in.
Versatility should be part of every club's middle school philosophy
This is Serve City's training philosophy for middle school teams. After I enjoyed a stint coaching 18U and 16U teams with another club, when I joined Serve City I coached three 14U teams. Most of the players on each team were trained at two positions over the course of the season and a handful even learned three or four positions. Regardless of their position in our lineups, all of the athletes were taught how to pass, set, serve receive, dig and hit no matter if they were 5 feet 10 or 4 feet 7, and each of them regularly practiced all of these skills.
That doesn't mean athletes shouldn't learn and play a specific position. The team's tallest player can in fact be trained at middle hitter. But, at the same time, that tall middle hitter should be given numerous opportunities in practice to learn and refine other skills besides blocking and hitting. She should be regularly trained to set, serve, pass, receive serves and play back row defense, too.
If she's trained to be a volleyball player first and a middle hitter second, someday she could find herself as a six-rotation outside hitter, a setter or a middle hitter who also plays back row in high school. Training middle schoolers in a variety of skills opens the door to greater future opportunities.
This was true in my own family. My older daughter played setter in middle school but also frequently played in the back row both in serve receive and defensively as well. When she tried out for the freshman team at West Chicago High School, she made the team as a libero. Three years later, she earned all-conference honors as a libero, which never would have happened if she'd strictly played setter in middle school and never practiced serve receive.
Versatility should continue throughout high school
The need for players to be versatile doesn't end after middle school. Versatility is a valuable trait in high school, too, particularly at the large public high schools in the Chicago area.
Let's say you are one of 12 outside hitters trying out for the freshman A team at your school, and the freshman A coach will only keep four outsides on the roster. Unless you're the clear-cut best outside hitter at tryouts, your odds of making the team will only increase if you display the ability to play other positions. If you have good back-row skills you could stick on the team as a DS or libero, or if you can also hit from the right side of the net, you could win a roster spot as an opposite hitter. Perhaps you're a good blocker who can make the squad as a middle hitter, or you have some experience at setter and can earn a spot as a combination setter and opposite hitter.
The need for versatility continues throughout high school. If your school's varsity team is loaded with outside hitters, you may need to make the team and carve out playing time at another position.
How to make yourself more versatile -- and valuable
Of course, versatility doesn't just appear out of thin air. It's a trait that you have to work hard to nurture. This subject could take up an entire blog post, but here are three steps you can take as a high school player to develop your versatility:
1. Seek out opportunities to round out your game.
I can't speak for all coaches, but when I coached high school club volleyball, if a middle hitter or right-side hitter asked me if she could get regular serve receive reps in practices, I would do everything in my power to make that possible for her. Be bold yet respectful and ask your coaches for instruction and for reps at a certain skill, even if that means staying 15 minutes after practice getting swings as a hitter with a teammate or coach setting you. And play grass doubles, quads and other games outside of practices, too.
2. Play sand volleyball.
Sand doubles is the ultimate tool for developing well-rounded volleyball players. In sand you get to do it all: serve, serve receive, defend, set and hit. There's no better way to diversify your game than to train in the sand and play beach doubles. Just ask Julia Conard, who played sand volleyball to expand her game prior to college. Check out Chicago Sand Volleyball for more details.
3. Play for a club that trains versatility.
I'm obviously biased, but Serve City is one such club, as many of you know who already play with us. Having coached at another Chicago-area club before coming to Serve City, I can attest that our training style promotes versatility more than most other clubs. I've personally seen clubs pigeonhole middle hitters on national teams so narrowly that the middles never received a single serve nor played back-row defense in any practice aside from an occasional scrimmage for the entire season, and setters never were trained to receive serves or to hit.
Such a philosophy might suit that club and its teams just fine, but it does the athletes a total disservice. Even at the high school level, athletes should think of themselves not as outside hitters, setters, liberos and middle hitters but first and foremost as volleyball players. Like Julia Conard, one day they may find themselves needing to switch positions for the good of their careers or their team.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.