If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been a 16-year-old girl, parented one, coached one, or somehow been associated with one in volleyball.
So you’ll know where I was coming from when I looked at the spring schedule for my volleyball club, Volleyball Baton Rouge, and saw that after our last tournament in early June, we had three weeks before nationals.
I thought about our coaches, hammering home the same message practice after practice, tournament after tournament, and realized that after six months, the girls might have heard those voices enough. So I came to the idea that it would be a great time to bring in someone else.
Enter Riley Salmon.
To cut right to the point, the 2008 gold-medal-winning Olympian did a great job for us, hosting a three day, intensive clinic. We had a fantastic weekend after which our girls were fired up and energized, which was exactly the attitude I had hoped a new voice would inspire.
But what were the chances that our time would be spent with this former men’s national team outside hitter who turned into a libero later in his pro career? The chances were pretty good. Lucky for us, Salmon now coaches girls.
Salmon, 37, is a 6-foot-3 leaper (despite being listed as 6'6" on USA Volleyball’s website, Salmon states his real height is 6'3½") who started playing volleyball at 16.
“I hit my first ball, and it was awesome. I played every day for six years after that,” Salmon said. “I didn’t miss one day playing for six years.”
Those six years included two junior-college seasons at Pierce College in Los Angeles. In 1999, after finishing his time at Pierce, Salmon became a warehouse supervisor at General Electric back in Texas. He worked from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then headed to volleyball, training from 3:30 to 5:30, and then worked at that volleyball facility from 5:30 to midnight. “And I did that four days a week. It was brutal, but I did that for eight months.”
The hope was to compete on the AVP that summer, but out of the blue came a call from international agent Tim Kelly, who offered Salmon a spot on an indoor tour in Europe. His wife Millie, who was his fiancée at the time, gave her blessing.
“I gave my one-day notice,” he cracked.
That tour led to a pro job for a team in Livorno, Italy, and the start of a lengthy career. He joined the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2001 and was a member of the 2004 Olympic team in Athens and the 2008 team in Beijing. Salmon had other pro stops in Greece, Kuwait, and Russia.
Late last summer he learned that he didn’t make the cut for the 2012 Olympic team and took four months off to hang out with Millie and their children, Lincoln and Isabel, in their League City, Texas, home.
“I did a lot of golfing, playing with the kids, and catching up on my rest,” he said.
He also had lunch with Hugh McCutcheon, who was Salmon’s Olympic coach in 2008, because Salmon was curious about getting into coaching. McCutcheon, of course, was also the women’s Olympic coach in 2012 and is now the women’s volleyball head coach at the University of Minnesota.
“I picked his brain for about an hour, and he gave me all the differences and all the adjustments to coaching girls, but basically said I wouldn’t get it until I started doing it,” Salmon said. “The personalities for men and women are so different. Women want to be shown skills, shown exactly what to do, while guys will rely more on the athleticism of jumping and hitting … I find myself being a lot more polite than I would toward men or boys. But there are times when girls need to be pushed pretty forcefully.”
Last winter, Salmon started a company called RS10 Consulting with the idea of doing private lessons, clinics, and camps. He even found himself coaching a girls’ 16s team for Houston Stellar. He was surprised to find that coaching girls was far more gratifying than he ever imagined.
“I thought [coaching] was just something that ex-athletes try to do,” he said. “But now that I’m doing it and I look at their faces and tell them something, and it really registers and they get it, it’s special. Like when [my Stellar team] qualified for nationals, the looks on the kids’ faces, it was something I didn’t know I would feel. I feel so connected to them. It’s like a father-daughter deal. It’s a neat experience.”
So how did Riley Salmon end up leading a clinic for us? Interestingly enough, it was my phone call to McCutcheon that got Salmon to come to Baton Rouge. I originally called the University of Minnesota coach to see if he would come do a clinic for my girls, knowing full well it wasn’t likely. He politely declined, but I told him what I needed: a high-energy coach who would teach, be really positive, not overwork the girls as we went through a session on Friday night, two on Saturday, and another on Sunday.
“Riley Salmon,” he said without hesitation.
A couple of phone calls and a few emails later, Salmon and I had worked it out.
My coaches and I understood that in essence Salmon would be telling our girls just what they had heard hundreds of times before, but not from a gold medalist. He brought his hardware, by the way, and our girls all enjoyed seeing it.
And, as with any clinic for a team in any sport, his sessions focused on fundamentals.
“That’s a tribute to Hugh and Doug,” said Salmon, speaking of Doug Beal, now head of USA Volleyball but also his former coach. “They instilled in me, because I wasn’t the most athletic volleyball guy, that my fundamentals had to be stern and absolutely concrete.
“And I watched them coach for eight years and it was very high level, but it was all about fundamentals. Surrounding the ball, angles. Fundamentals are key to sports in general. The ones with the best fundamentals, in all sports, are the ones who are most successful.”
Much of Salmon’s time these days is spent trying to learn fundamentals on the golf course, where he’s a 9 handicap. What’s more, his 4-year-old son, Lincoln, simply loves the game and wants to get his dad on the course whenever possible.
“I’m really enjoying being a dad a lot more now than when I was playing,” he said. “I can really concentrate on being the father figure that I should be.”
Not that Salmon is retired as a volleyball player. He’s still competing on the EVP Beach Tour and will still play on the AVP.
“I’ll try to play as many [beach tournaments] as I can depending on how much time my company starts taking up,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully my company takes up more time than my playing does.”
Based on his excellence in the clinic with Volleyball Baton Rouge, that’s exactly what will happen.
Originally published in August 2013