Special Edition, John Kessel's Top Five Priorities for American Volleyball

I could fill an entire blog with the reasons I love volleyball people.
Oh wait, that's kind of what I have been doing.
Every player or coach I have quizzed in our "Five Questions" segments has answered with great detail, and their passion for volleyball comes through with each response.
So why should I be terribly surprised when the Director of Sport Development for USA Volleyball comes through in the same manner.  John Kessel has been all over the planet in a quest to better not just American Volleyball, but to grow the game, worldwide.  My simple question was "What are the top five priorities for USA Volleyball?"
I'll let John take it from there...


A bit of facts, not opinions, about our great sport first…


USA Volleyball is the National Governing Body of the sport, and in that role, most people don’t realize we must partner with three core groups.  As a National Federation, we must adhere to the rules and regulations of the International Federation – in our case the FIVB (Federatione International de VolleyBall). Then there is Congress who, through the Amateur Sports Act, has the USOC in control of Olympic Sports. We then are governed by the USOC as the National Governing Body, and partner to send the best Olympic teams every four years – if we qualify.  We also serve our 40 “branch offices” called our Regional Volleyball Associations – that is where I started and still where I grow the game the most. I have been to over 50 nations,  and all 50 states more than once in my roles with USAV, now as Director of Sport Development.

USA Volleyball Regional Map

USA Volleyball Regional Map


Players/coaches for the last 30 years assume the USA will be in the Olympics, but for almost 20 years we were not even in the Games, from 1969-1983. See this 16 year gap photo attached, which happened for both the men, pictured, and the USA women too. The women had qualified for Moscow 1980, the men had not, but the boycott took that achievement away from the women, who were ranked about #2 in the world that year…Sad but we moved on to silver for the women in 1984 and gold for the men.



All the info above is for the Olympics, yet there is also the Paralympics which USA Volleyball serves as the NGB for. We see it as another discipline for those wanting to play this sport for a lifetime. Indeed, the NF for Nederland, NEVOBO, has over 3,000 members in their sitting volleyball area, but only 500 are disabled. The others just want to play the game sitting…  I serve on the World ParaVolley Board of Directors and as their Development Director, growing the disabled versions of the game. We have a WPV SportKit DVD as a resource to help programs start all over the world.  Our women are ranked #2 in the world and have won Bronze, Silver and Silver at the past three Paralympics. The men took 8th in 2004 and have not qualified since. These are the gaps we seek to replace with qualification. I will be serving as head of the Jury for the 2015 ParaPanAms in Toronto, which serve as the qualifier for the USA men – with Canada as our main opponent to defeat, as Brazil is already in due to being the host nation.


I think this is one of the things people simply don’t understand…that by supporting/being a member of USA Volleyball, they are not only being part of one of the finest National Federations in the world, they are helping us grow the game for little kids (did you know 8 and under membership in USA Volleyball, insurance included, is FREE?), for the disabled, and for the diversity of our sport.  For example we work and help fund Starlings USA for the economically disadvantaged, and on boys and men’s volleyball programming (for there is a 10:1 ratio of females to males in our sport scholastically and in USAV itself).  Annually we give over 100K in grants to boys, diversity, starting college men’s programs, and other underserved areas.   The attached flyer we give out often and has a lot of information about what USAV is about…and the way we seek to direct the sport.


So on to the top 5…USA Volleyball has a Board of Directors, which just met last month for a few days to determine those actually. For the past 8 years we have been following these three…1. Sustained Competitive Excellence 2. Growing the Game 3. Commercialize the Sport. So while still in draft form for the subtopics, we now have four that are once finalized, to be our new focus 1. SUSTAINED COMPETITIVE International, Olympic & Paralympic SUCCESS. 2. Participation, Program & Membership GROWTH. 3. RESOURCE Optimization. 4. Marketing & BRAND AFFINITY.


These top 4 as set by our board and thus the top four priorities for all USAV staff, means that I get to add one to round out your top five question  – and that is to use and understand the science of motor skill learning. Given the limited amount of time for training for most programs, it is time to stop teaching the way we were taught and teach more efficiently.  The game teaches the game (as beach players without any coaches knew for over half a century of playing, sans “coaches”), and we need to develop volleyball players, not athletes.  Coaches are great mentors, but too many coaches practice for practice, and not performance, doing drills to look good on the weekdays, and not empowering players to perform in the competitions.  IMPACT has been teaching this since I wrote the first edition in 1988. It is now in its 28th edition, always adding new research and other findings to update what is being taught. Coaches ask their players to change for the better every day – what is it in learning to be better that coaches are doing the same as they ask for of their players?  The “secrets” first start in being a better teacher of motor skill (aka volleyball in our case), and knowing how to best help the players be better learners.


There will be new rule changes always – my son is doing his Princeton thesis on the history of volleyball from inception to 1964 primarily. This compilation on rule changes shows the main ones over the last 125 years, starting with the first set of printed rules.   For 2015, it will be consistent at all level of rules, that you simply cannot touch the net again at all. That is the one likely change. I find it interesting in that of the 220 nations in the FIVB (which my son’s research notes is more than any other sport – soccer and basketball included), when the rules change at the FIVB level, about 218 nations change to those – for all ages, including all scholastic programming at the elementary to college level. It seems only the USA and Canada have other rule making groups who make their own versions of the rules for their group to follow.


I think you will see the FIVB work to have more high level volleyball in the USA, and possibly even a pro league. It is a high I think as we are both a very low injury rate and minimal concussion risk sport, plus a lifetime one (most kids are stunned to find out the US Open has a 79 and over men’s division), that growth will continue. I think we need to develop more officials, as it is a challenging sport to referee, with so much judgment and fast speed going on, so the website for online training is helping, we just need more officials. There are so many ways to be a part of volleyball, see the poster for one way we share that information.


So much information that is part of our work in growing the game – my core area of “direction” is simply “hiding” in plain sight at the grassroots section of our USAV website – a new coach should start here -  http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Grassroots/Coaches/I-am-a-New-Coach but parents and players have their own sections, all found under grassroots here>> http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Grassroots 

John Kessel

Imagine me asking Gary Bettman or Roger Goodell a question...  

...is there any chance they'd get back to me?  Probably not.  That is what sets the people in charge of our sport apart.  John Kessel is the volleyball equivalent to an evangelist.  He loves doing things just like this!  I encourage everyone to take some time to check in at his blog from time to time.   http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Volleyball/Grassroots/Grow-The-Game-Blog

Follow him on Twitter (@JohnKesselUSAV) for more coaching tips, volleyball news and clinic updates.  I am so glad I have had the chance to connect with John, but I get the feeling that everyone who encounters him feels the same way.  He closed his email to me this way...

"OK back to the gym here. Thanks for all you do to grow our game too."  John

Thank you John, for the passion you bring to your job, and for always being available to the volleyball community.  

Grassroots indeed.  

For more great "Five Question" interviews with American Volleyball stars please check out