In late 2023, in my role overseeing the English national team systems, I formed a Juniors coaches group in England as part of my efforts to inform and develop the coaches of Juniors players in the country. In April 2024, during one of our monthly online meetings, we had two of our most experienced youth national team coaches as the headliners. Just 3 weeks earlier there was a big national team camp and I wanted the two of them to share with the group their perspective on what we look for in athletes to bring into the national team pathway. In other words, volleyball talent identification.

In consultation beforehand, the two of them came up with the following list, which they shared with the group.

  • Height – height of action (can the player jump?)
  • Athleticism – agility, coordination, physicality and power (produce and control)
  • Game sense – understands space, time and momentum
  • Competitive – mental fortitude
  • Ball awareness/control – a good relationship with the ball
  • Adherence to task – prepared to learn and adapt
  • Resilience – cope with the bumps in the road
  • Team player – can help teammates get better
  • Self-regulation and personal management

The reason I’m sharing this list is that I think it’s a good reference point for coaches and players regarding talent ID. There’s nothing a player can do about their height. Everything else on the list can be developed, however. That includes height of action.

I should speak to the “produce and control” parenthetical reference related to power. Producing power is probably self-explanatory. Control, however, was presented mainly in reference to incoming power. So balls hit hard at the player. That obviously has tie-ins with Ball awareness/control.

We want well-rounded athletes

Note that nowhere among the bullets is there anything to do with position. That’s because volleyball talent identification isn’t about specific positions. Instead, we want players with well-rounded skill sets. It’s something we try to emphasize in the younger age group in how we structure our competitions. We also strongly discourage coaches – and kids and their parents – from pigeon-holing players into positions early.

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Doug Beal that says, “We want players who are good at everything, but excellent at two things,” or something close to that. As our sport becomes increasingly dynamic and athletic, we need players who can do everything.

Yes, by the time you get to about 15 or 16 you’re starting to move in the direction of positional specialization. Our England teams play in U17 international competitions, so we do need to put players in positions. That may be different from what the play for their club, just like a college coach may change a player’s position once they arrive on campus. And as a Senior international they could play a different position from what they play as a U17 or U19. This is why adaptability is so important.

It’s not about where they are. It’s about where they’re going

Overlaying all this is the idea of Potential. I’ve said repeatedly to the coaches group the younger the player, the more we’re looking at potential over current ability. From an England volleyball talent identification perspective, since we’re talking in the context of future senior national team players, and we’re mainly focused on teenagers, that means potential is hugely at play here. The average age of an Olympic volleyball player is 18. We’re bringing kids into the England Pathway at sometimes as young as 13. That’s a long time ahead of their expected peak.

But it’s not just a national team thing to be looking ahead. College coaches do absolutely to this. They’re evaluating players at 16 with an eye toward how they’ll be at 20 or 21. Even high school coaches do it. The windows at both those levels are just different.

In reaction to selection decisions, I have often heard something similar to the following from the coach or parent of a player not selected: But Player X (the one not selected) is better then Player Y (one who was selected).

That could very well be true at that moment in time. But what about in a few years? If we don’t expect either player to grow, develop physically, improve their skills, etc. then Player X is likely the best choice. The rest of it matters, though, and height of action is extremely important in our sport (even for liberos being taller is advantageous). As I wrote previously, it doesn’t take a lot before being able play higher offsets a skill advantage.

The world is full of very skilled volleyball players who just don’t play the game high enough above the net to be effective at the upper levels of the sport. The minority of youth volleyball players go on to play at the college and/or professional level, and even fewer still play for their country. That doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the sport and have long, rewarding careers at a level appropriate to their physical constraints.

What does the player’s path forward look like?

A tricky element in this volleyball talent identification process is assessing likely development. You can probably have some sense of how tall a player will be (there are some metrics to help). You can usually gauge who’s an early developer vs. a normal or late developer with regards to physical maturation. What about other factors, though?

  • What kind of coaching will they receive?
  • How often will they train and/or play?
  • What level of play with they be involved with?
  • Will they be on a regular strength training program?
  • Are they involved in any other athletic activities?

We can make best guesses about a lot of this based on the club they play for, the school they attend, conversations with the athlete, etc. We’re unlikely to get it all right, though. There are also factors in their personal lives that play into things, and it’s hard to anticipate developments around family, school, etc. and how they may play into someone’s physical and mental progression.

In other words, as much as talent ID is important, it’s also a long way from precise. Fortunately, at the national team level we have time on our side. We don’t have to pick future Olympians at 15 years old. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll miss athletes for any number of reasons. Likewise, some of those identified at 15 won’t develop as hoped. That’s why the door has to always remain open for both those who may join later and to let go those who no longer fit the bill.

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