One small step for the Coach…one giant Challenge for the Senior Women!
While the Scottish Volleyball community descended upon Wishaw Sports Centre for Finals Weekend on 14 and 15 May I found myself some 600 miles away in the middle of Europe.
The impressive Centre National Sportif et Culturel in Luxembourg City was the venue for the 2011 CEV Small Countries Division (SCD) Women’s Final. It would have been a real plus point if I had been there in an active coaching role but, unfortunately, I was there in an observational capacity.
But, then again, it was something more than simply an opportunity to watch some good level international Volleyball.
Since taking on the role of Head Coach of the Senior Women’s National Team Programme in March of this year I have identified a top 2 finish in the 2013 CEV Small Countries Division Final as our main target. Ambitious? Certainly. Realistic? Well, that depends on the path that we take over the next 6 months. The trip to Luxembourg represented one of the small steps that we have already made to ensure we are on the correct path.
John French and his coaching staff must be given much credit for taking the Programme to the point it had reached when I picked up the reigns. The Programme clearly had a solid foundation and the challenge that lay ahead was to take it to the next level where it could demonstrate success on a consistent basis.
In order to be able to assess the extent of the challenge you first of all need to measure where you currently are against where you want to be. The SCD Final was the perfect opportunity to evaluate the standard and specific areas of play that the Women’s Programme will need to reach and surpass if the 2013 target is to be achieved.
Cyprus, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the hosts, Luxembourg, were the four countries looking to land the SCD crown. Cyprus, as holders, came into the Final as favourites but Luxembourg were looking to use home court advantage to upset the odds. There was a distinct split in the make up of the four teams with Cyprus and San Marino relying quite heavily on older, experienced players plus a smattering of youth, while Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, in particular, were clearly banking on less experienced but athletic players.
So I took my place in the area above the court reserved for video analysis staff from each team, dug out my stats sheets and pressed the record button.
The opening game was between Cyprus and San Marino and as expected the favourites showed that they had too much hitting weight, especially through the middle, for their opponents from the Principality. Cyprus eased through 25-17, 25-23, 25-16.
Next up on Day 1 were Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. This was primed to be a close tussle but for some reason Liechtenstein froze, consistently broke down under the Luxembourg serve and failed to provide any real challenge to the hosts. The Luxembourg side impressed as they crushed their opponents 25-18, 25-11, 25-15.
Even as early as the end of Day 1 it was very apparent that the weight and tactics of the serving of all four teams was considerably more potent than what Scottish players are capable of demonstrating.
The level of errors was very small which meant that each team was constantly under pressure in sideout situations. Clearly, this is a feature of play in which we will require to make significant progress in the months ahead.
Day 2 opened up with Liechtenstein having to face Cyprus off the back of the battering from Luxembourg. It didn’t bode well for them but after a shaky start they showed signs that they had overcome their Day 1 nerves and began to cause the Cypriots problems. Although they lost the first set 25-17 their serving tactics were beginning to create cracks in the normally fluent Cyprus passing unit. Set 2 was even closer and it looked at one stage as though Liechtenstein might do the unthinkable and take a set from Cyprus. However, at 21-21 the experience of the reigning champions came to the fore and they closed the set off without further loss. The same pattern emerged in the third set to the extent that Liechtenstein led 23-21. But, they were unable to completely snuff out the Cypriot middle attack both in sideout and transition and eventually capitulated once more to go down 25-23.
Up next were the impressive young guns of Luxembourg against San Marino. On paper it looked quite straightforward for the home side but San Marino had a different agenda in mind. Whether it was complacency on the part of Luxembourg, or, that San Marino played a much better game than they had against Cyprus the fact is that Luxembourg quite simply struggled.
The passing unit broke far too often, both setters that were used failed to establish any real linkages with the middle hitters and the outside hitters made too many mistakes against a solid and effective block. There was an eerie silence in the hall after the final point of the match was played and the electronic scoreboard read 3-0 to Liechtenstein (25-18, 25-11, 25-15). How would Luxembourg recover to face Cyprus on what had been set up as the final match of the Final itself?
It was interesting to observe that the teams who were showing the greatest signs of success were the ones where the setter showed an ability to run a multi-point offence and who appeared to understand the concept of timing links. Cyprus and to a certain extent San Marino both had setters who demonstrated that they knew how to run their offence under pressure. While Luxembourg had the most athletic looking players, both in terms of physique and ability to move effectively, their young setter made some poor decisions under pressure and their attack faltered.
So to the final day.
San Marino continued their winning ways from the day before by coming back from being one set down to finish strongly against Liechtenstein and win 3-1 (21-25, 25-20, 25-14, 25-23). It was evident that they were delighted with the last two days work and had a chance of finishing second. It all depended on the outcome of the final match between Cyprus and Luxembourg.
Cyprus, as they tend to do in these events, pulled out all the stops in the final match. In effect they only needed to win one set to retain the title but the way they started they clearly wanted to take all three. Luxembourg just couldn’t cope with the middle attack or weight of serve and in no time they were 2-0 down (14-25, 19-25). The final set appeared to be a formality.
When Luxembourg went 8-2 up at the first technical time out in set three there was a bit of a stir amongst the local support. At 16-8 up at the next technical time out the stir had risen to a noisy clamour. While Cyprus used all their experience to claw themselves back into the latter stages of the set Luxembourg held their cool and took the set 25-23. Surely they couldn’t repeat this in set four?
Not only did they repeat it but they blew Cyprus away. It was as though the youthfulness of the home side was beginning to pay dividends and the physical demands of the three matches was having its toll on the older Cypriot players. Luxembourg won the fourth set 25-18.
While Cyprus had already won the title by virtue of winning the first set they were determined not to finish on a sour note. Unfortunately for them, Luxembourg now had the bit between their teeth and through some smart serving had now nullified the Cypriot middle attack. The Cypriot outside hitters were under severe pressure and the Luxembourg blockers were beginning to score consistently.
The home side opened up a healthy gap which they never relinquished and deservedly took the fifth 15-10 to finish with a memorable victory. Despite the win they were pipped to second spot by San Marino on set difference.
So, Cyprus retained their title, just. San Marino probably were more surprised than anyone that they finished second while Luxembourg will feel that the loss against San Marino should never have happened. Liechtenstein finished in fourth and while they had some very good young players, a small squad of nine proved to be a limitation in sustaining performance over a three day event.
What then were the lessons learned for the Senior Women’s National Team Programme? In one simple, straightforward statement….we have to change! To move forward we can’t continue to do what we do. That might sound very simplistic and obvious but the reality is something quite different. As a squad we will have to demonstrate a higher quality of work along with a greater determination and focus from everyone, players and coaching staff alike.
There is a lot of work lying ahead of us. It will not be easy by any shape or fashion. By 2013 Luxembourg will be even stronger and it is my belief that they will be the team that everyone will need to overcome. But we can’t just do it on our own. There is a role for everyone involved in the Women’s game in Scotland to play in helping us to achieve our 2013 target.
Clearly, some of the changes that need to be made will happen within the National Team practice environment. And they will happen. But the process can be accelerated if the National League Clubs and the National Team Programme begin to work in partnership.
Over the coming months a new initiative aimed at improving the performance level in the Scottish Women’s game will be launched. Its intention will be to move the Senior Women’s National Team Programme further down the path towards success in the Small Countries Division Final in 2013 and to provide support to the domestic Women’s National League. Through this partnership we can all become better and stronger.
Senior Women’s National Team Programme
I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Scottish Volleyball Association and in particular the Coaches Commission for supporting my attendance at the 2011 CEV Small Countries Final. Without this support the trip would not have been possible. I would also like to thank the Luxembourg Volleyball Federation for allowing me to attend the Final and for ensuring that I had access to all that I needed over the course of my stay.