On Sunday afternoon, in the sports hall at Calderhead High School, I looked on as fourteen players created a ‘volleyball picture’. As I drove home at the end of the session I reflected on what that ‘picture’ had meant to me. A whole range of thoughts ran through my mind as I replayed clips of play that I’d witnessed earlier on. But one thought stood out more than all the others.
It hit home to me that a National Team Coach exists in quite a surreal coaching environment. A Club Coach will have a short period of pre-season work before beginning the seven month season in earnest. A National Team Coach has almost the complete reverse. Our season is about to be condensed into four games in three days and that was the ‘picture’ that unfolded in front of me that afternoon in Shotts. Over the course of the past nine months we have probed and pushed, challenged and changed, all with the sole intention of making sure the players are ‘picture perfect’ when they need to be. It looked as if things were on track.
As a National Team Coach it is only when you reach this point in the preparation phase that you begin to get a true sense of where things are. During the ‘pre-season’ phase you are only seeing the players once every four weeks on average. It is often difficult to gauge just how much progress is being made when you operate in this snapshot coaching environment. Yes, you do have a gut feel if things are heading in the right direction or not, but you lack the opportunity to test the systems and processes under ‘live’ conditions as a Club Coach is able to do from week to week. In an ideal world we would be able to measure our progress through regular international competition but to do so requires considerable finance. As a ‘minority’ sport we are not afforded that luxury and so we have to be creative in squeezing all that we can from the limited resources we have to hand. And by that I just don’t mean money.
The key artists in painting the picture have without doubt been the players. This season, above all, they have succeeded in breaking through a ceiling of performance because they decided that they were ready to take that step. The players’ understanding of the game has consistently been challenged in every session they took part in. They have been pushed into seeing the game differently and to appreciate the complex relationships that exist on court. They were presented with the materials they needed to create the picture and bit by bit they started to give it shape.
During the whole of last weekend the players created and solved problems. In everything that they did, no matter how simple or complex the drill or exercise, they played with strategy and precision. That’s not to say they didn’t make mistakes. They did, but they took it upon themselves to correct them and to solve the problem that created the error in the first place. The level of discussion and dialogue on the court was something that I have not seen in my two stints as Women’s National Team Coach. As play flowed the exchange of information was impressive. It demonstrated a level of responsibility that this group of players have never shown before. Even the newest players to the squad who have graduated from the Junior Women’s programme shouldered that responsibility. Admittedly, they didn’t have the capacity to vocalise their thoughts as some of their more experienced teammates but they most certainly did understand that they couldn’t hide behind the mask of “I’m just a Junior”!
The final session on Sunday afternoon was a bounce match between the squad. That’s when I began to realise that the picture was nearing completion. There are times, as a Coach, that you know there is no need to intervene. On a bad day it might be when the flow of the game is quite clearly against you and there is nothing that you or the players can do to change it. I’m sure every Coach has experienced that moment. But this wasn’t a bad day. It was one of those moments that you strive to aim for when the players demonstrate that they have fully grasped how to play the game and to deal with and control the chaos that can emerge from within.
But, just in case I am giving the impression that we are the completed article and that qualification to the CEV 2015 European Championship (Small Countries Division) Final is guaranteed then let me correct that. Not one single player, or, one member of the Coaching Staff thinks for a minute that we simply have to turn up in Perth to achieve qualification. We haven’t been tested for real on an international court since June 2013. As the current squad we haven’t played in front of an expectant home crowd before and the additional pressures this will bring. So, we know that there are no guarantees. What we do know is that we are ready to put ourselves to the test and to find out just how complete is our picture.
There are three practice sessions remaining (Wednesday evening, Saturday and Sunday) in which we will put together the final touches to our preparation. We have one last competitive practice match against a visiting American Collegiate Select on the international court at Bells Sports Centre on Wednesdsay 4 June (FBS 19:30). After that we head into the tournament for real beginning with formal practice on Thursday morning followed by a series of individual player and squad meetings. Our focus will be on Game 1 against Malta on Friday at 19:00. That’s when we will find out if we are ‘picture perfect’ or not.
We have already received a considerable amount of support and encouragement from a great number of people within the Scottish Volleyball community and we know that there will be a large support behind us over the course of the three days. We are exceptionally grateful and appreciative of this support and we recognise just how special this occasion will be. We want to be able to make the occasion even more special by playing to the level we know we are capable of, a level that will demonstrate just how strong the women’s game is in Scotland.
As I think back to last Sunday afternoon my reflections are only positive ones. Our picture is most definitely taking shape and the players will ensure the final touches are added to it in the remaining sessions before the first ball is served on Friday 6 June.
That will be the time to unveil it.
Scotland Senior Women’s Programme
26 May 2014