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Business, Olympic Edition Rio Qualification Strategy: A new approach

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By: Steve Tutton •  4 years ago •  

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AS A KID, I GOT BLOWN OUT OF DARWIN. MY FAMILY LOST OUR HOUSE TO CYCLONE TRACY IN 1974, SO WE MOVED TO ADELAIDE. AT MY FIRST HIGH SCHOOL, MY PE TEACHER WAS A VOLLEYBALL NUT, SO I STARTED PLAYING, THEN MADE THE U20S STATE TEAM AT AGE 16. IF I HAD STAYED IN DARWIN, THERE WAS NO DOUBT IN MY MIND THAT I WOULD HAVE PLAYED FOOTBALL INSTEAD.

I

progressed to the national volleyball team with the confidence of my state coach, Harley Simpson, and was able to play nationally and internationally, so I caught the bug as a player. We would play indoor volleyball in winter and beach volleyball in summer. I played in two national championships in my first year, playing both U17s and U20s, then made the senior state team within two years.

We went to Hawaii in 1978 for the Pacific Rim Championships, which opened my eyes to how global the sport was. The most significant thing was the USA team who won the event. That team ended up being the nucleus of a team that won a gold medal in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, and a bronze medal in 1992, so it was a significant bunch of guys that we’d played against. They were world class and we got smashed, but it just showed you the professionalism of these guys who’d come out of playing college volleyball. We were just a bunch of rebels who came from different states and went to a camp one week before we went away.

When we returned, my brothers got involved in playing and we dominated the national scene for the next 10 years. Then, at 30, I had the opportunity of becoming a coach with the South Australian Sports Institute. I was involved in the family business in the building industry, so it was a bit of heartache for the family at the time, but I’ve now been coaching since 1990 in some shape or form.

THE CURRENT STATE OF VOLLEYBALL COACHING

In the early days of full-time coaches and sporting programs in Australia, I ran a men’s volleyball program, dealing with part-time athletes. I felt we needed to have our athletes better prepared, based on my experiences and the trends in the world. It was quite challenging to create a part-time program to contribute toward our national teams who were moving into a full-time, centralised environment. I was identifying athletes, giving them a balance of training and competition experience but there weren’t enough competitions, so a few coaches got together and started to host an event in each of the 5 major states of volleyball. This made it more attractive to the athletes to train, prepare, compete and prepare again rather than just competing once a year at the National Championships.

I ran the whole show solo – booking flights, keeping the books, driving the bus, organising medical and physios. It was kind of fun at the time! Now it’s about creating a team behind the team. With our current team of Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy, we’re bringing in psychologists, physiologists, strength and conditioning guys. There are routines and processes in place for managing and developing the athletes short term and long term. You become more of a manager, planning for the team and the individuals in the team, then implementing and delivering support services based on common goals.

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In Australia, there are now opportunities for professional full-time coaches in Indoor as well as Beach Volleyball however many of the coaches are in positions coaching National Teams for multiple cycles. There are many honorary coaching positions with the pathways structure for roles with National Junior Teams in Indoor and Beach Volleyball at U17, U19 and U21 levels, however our challenge is to bridge the gap from this honorary level of coaching to a full-time professional level. Coaches currently in the system may not get the experience to develop their skills and grow into a position as I did. For Volleyball, there hasn’t been much upward pressure as there haven’t been many athletes transitioning to coaching positions until the end of the Beijing cycle. Now there are opportunities with roles in the national junior team and the junior pathways programs to learn from the leaders within the sport. The only full-time positions, however, are either with state-based institute programs or with the national senior team programs for Indoor and Beach Volleyball – Men’s and Women’s Programs.

One difficulty, or lack of incentive, is that we don’t have a professional league in volleyball, or an extensive, domestic national tour for Beach Volleyball as they do in Brazil or Germany. With basketball, players have the ability to become pro and derive a level of income either domestically or in foreign leagues, which allows them to give it their full-time commitment. This is not possible in volleyball or beach volleyball in Australia. Our best players in volleyball have to go overseas to play in foreign leagues as professionals to earn as much as the basketballers do.

Our best players in volleyball have to go overseas to play in foreign leagues as professionals to earn as much as the basketballers do.

VALUES, BEHAVIOURS, RELATIONSHIPS

I have been coaching volleyball teams – indoor and beach – for nearly 20 years. There is a difference in coaching beach volleyball because the team has only two players, compared to managing a team of 12 indoor players. You can have more intensive relationships with only a two player team, when you’re away for up to 300 days a year, competing as frequently as we do. It’s really important to invest and support those two players, so you become the travelling psychologist, the counsellor, a whole range of support mechanisms and the custodian of team values. A large part of what I do is demonstrating and living the values of the team.

We now have psychologist who works with the coaches on how to drive values and behaviours, and teaches us how to best support the athletes and be better at our jobs. We address emotional-based decision-making – the feelings and thoughts that are a large part of driving values and behaviours, so that the team values can become the basis of decisions rather than the player’s emotions or the environment. In all cases, the team comes first, as in any team sport.

QUALIFYING FOR RIO – A NEW APPROACH

In the Rio qualification period, we finished 7th in the rankings – a little higher than our original goal. To qualify, your best 12 results in the 18-month qualification period are counted. We played 14 events and qualified, whereas many of our opponents have played 23 events and haven’t yet qualified. We knew we were going to have fewer opportunities, so we had to be well prepared at the begging of the qualification season to go out and deliver a performance from the start that would be consistent enough to beat those who are financially and geographically able to play in more competitions. To do this, we had to use our values and team culture to drive us through the tough times. It’s the first time I’ve really pushed this approach.

We have a centralised program based in Adelaide, but most other countries operate with a decentralised program where the athletes can decide to play together and may not have a specific coach. In Australia, we have a more strategic approach to investing in individual athletes, putting them together as a team, then surrounding them with support and resources. It’s not the norm, internationally. With a small population base and depth of talent, we know that with a good coach and resources, we can punch above our weight.

Although I’ve been the Head Coach of teams at 4 Olympic Games before, this is the first where I’m actually coaching a team. As Head Coach, you work with a team of coaches who then coach their teams. This time, I’m the one who has guided a team through all the challenges in pursuing their goal. I’ll be on the edge of my seat in Rio, but at the same time confident that we’ve done everything we possibly can to prepare. We’ve challenged the best teams in the world, we’ve got the vision and now we want to play our way with our game style.

Being in this different role has been very rewarding in that I’ve been able to challenge myself. I’ve really enjoyed how, when you’re prepared to invest yourself, it comes back to you in a range of different, unexpected ways. For example, the girls take care of me when we travel and make sure I’m ok, because that’s the relationship we have. They take me as a person, an individual, and as a team member because I’m vital to their experiences on and off the court.

WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED IN RIO

The goal is to win a medal. We want to win a quarter final, to put us into the semis, which then determines whether you’re playing for gold or silver, or the bronze. Our men haven’t qualified a spot yet, but they have two more chances coming up, as do our second women’s team. It’s hard work and while we’re asking tour players and teams to be uncompromising, we have to be conscious that their humans as well and accumulate emotional and physical fatigue. Last year, we flew around the world 10 times. The total accumulated flying time equated to nearly 2 weeks of sitting in a seat on a plane. We recognise that it’s not normal to live the life that we do in the volleyball world.

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Currently we tend to survive from one Olympic Cycle to the next, and our Federation structure is aligned to that, so it makes it difficult to be consistent with the principles and philosophies of long-term athlete development as teams changes as well as support staff and coaches. We need to drive more unity and find more funding to hone our coaching talent and to get our hands on the talented players and coaches earlier. We need to embrace more opportunities for young Australians.

MY SteveTutton3TOP TIP

Be clear about who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are. As a coach, you have a lot of types of relationships with the players to maintain: teacher, a father figure, a mentor, a dictator. When you commit to a goal and a dream, it’s important that you understand what it’s going to take and be really consistent in how you play your role to achieve it.

ONES TO WATCH

Both the Chinese and Vanuatu women’s teams are always competitive with us given the vast difference in their cultures and volleyball depth compared with ours. Vanuatu have recently had very consistently good form, so I expect them to be a real threat to our goal of qualifying a second Australian women’s team for Rio.

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