No one ever told legendary volleyball player Kerri Walsh that she could only play one position on the court. If that had happened, the two-time Olympic gold medalist might not have become one of the best beach volleyball players in history.
Walsh, however, says many young players aren’t receiving the same opportunities that she did to learn the game. Too many coaches are pigeonholing players these days, she and other volleyball experts say. They’re specializing them as liberos, setters, or hitters when they’re eleven or twelve years old.
“I absolutely see this trend,” said Walsh, who ran nationwide clinics for young players before she started training for this summer’s Olympic Games in London. “I love the libero position in one respect because it does give shorter players more opportunities. But for the sport as a whole, [specializing young players] is really negative.”
The best players in the game are the ones who are well-rounded, Walsh said. They are the players who can pass, set, dig, spike, block, and serve.
“The higher the level you play, the more you need all these tools in your toolbox,” the former Stanford University All-American said. Walsh is the first Pac-10 player to record 1,500 kills (1,553), 1,200 digs (1,285), and 500 clocks (502).
Players who only learn one skill, she said, are set to fail.
“You’re never just one thing,” Walsh said. “I believe that to be the best, you need to be the best well-rounded player you can be. And it’s a coach’s job to educate kids and teach them how to play all-around.”
Other legends of the game share Walsh’s concerns about this “specialization” movement. One of the most outspoken critics is retired professional volleyball player John Kessel.
“To pigeonhole someone as a libero when they’re 12-years-old is ludicrous,” said Kessel, managing director of region services for USA Volleyball (USAV). “It’s totally wrong to specialize a kid.”
This coaching philosophy limits young players and doesn’t make good volleyball sense, Kessel said. It sends the false message that short players can only be liberos or setters and tall players can only be hitters or blockers.
There’s no way to predict a player’s height or ability when they are in grade school or junior high, Kessel said.
“The research says we don’t know what possibilities exist in an athlete [when they’re young],” he said. “And too many late bloomers are often cut.”
A volleyball coach once told Kessel’s daughter that she wasn’t tall enough to play on his team. She was 14 at the time.
“She stood there with size 11 feet and was told she was too short,” Kessel recalled. “She’s now the second tallest player on her team.”
She is also one of the most versatile players. “When she hit high school, she played middle and outside. During her junior and senior years, she was a libero at 5’10”. She could do everything.”
Walsh and her teammates at Stanford—who won the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship in 1996 and 1997—also played every position on the court.
“It was an amazing experience,” Walsh said. “We had such a tall team; our average height was 6’1”. And we played all-around. It made us strong and gave consistency to our line-up.
“But we are a rarity in today’s game,” she added. “I don’t understand how things have shifted so dramatically.”
Kessel said coaches now specialize their young players for one simple reason: they want to win.
“My [young] team runs a 6-3, and when we play a team that runs a 5-1, all things being equal, they’re going to win more games,” he said. “But I’m not about winning. I focus on mastering the skills…. [and] player development.”
Three-time Olympian Caren Kemner isn’t a fan of this “specialization” trend, either. She said it’s wrong for coaches to pigeonhole players when they are young and just learning the game.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Kemner, head volleyball coach at Culver-Stockton College. “I don’t think you should restrict somebody, especially at a young age.”
Kemner said all players—regardless of their height or age—need to learn the fundamentals and become what she calls “complete” players.
“Just because a player is the height they are now doesn’t mean they couldn’t end up being 6’2” or 6’3”,” she said. “But what if that player never learned how to hit? Wouldn’t that be a shame?”
Kemner, however, said some collegiate athletes mistakenly believe they can only play one position.
“I took my libero and made her a left-side hitter,” she said. “When I did she said, ‘Coach, I’m a libero.’ And I’m like, ‘You need to swing…I’m giving you free rein to hit the ball.’”
Some parents also want their children to become what critics call “one-dimensional” players. The coach of a 15s club team, for example, recently asked Kessel what she should tell parents who don’t want their children to play a variety of positions. They want their children to play the same positions as they (the kids) do on their high school teams.
“You need to know how to play volleyball, not a position,” Kessel told the coach. He also pointed out that players get sick or injured and teams need back-ups to fill those positions.
“My daughter’s team lost its 5-1 starting setter to a concussion for two weeks,” Kessel said. “And [they] remained undefeated with an outside hitter stepping in to set those two weeks.”
Is there anything young athletes can do to buck this trend and become complete, well-rounded players?
Play street volleyball, Kessel recommended. Play two-on-two with friends. “Players learn by contacting the ball. They learn by playing.”
Walsh echoes that advice, but with a touch of her famous inspirational charm.
“Don’t allow someone to put limitation on you,” she said. “Be your own advocate and tell your coach that you want to be the best player possible and learn to play every single spot.”
Originally published in May 2012