Building a Club Culture


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Seng Chiu didn't plan to start his own volleyball club. Though he had a lifelong love for the sport, he was perfectly content spending most of his career career coaching at the high school and college level.

Notable stops for him included George Mason University, the University of Nevada-Reno and the College of William & Mary, where he played club volleyball.

But as volleyball exploded in popularity, Chiu recognized two problems: Young players were being systematically weeded out, as most clubs targeted elite-level athletes, and those who endured oftentimes burned out.

When he coached for the Northern Virginia Volleyball Association, Chiu recalls one class with 1,200 girls in middle school.

"But by their senior year," Chiu recalls, "only 12 were still playing. That drop off was eye-opening for me."

So when he started Dulles Volleyball three years ago, Chiu says he created a culture built around love of the game, not skill in playing it. That culture lays a foundation for the club's values, goals and beliefs about the sport and competition. And that culture impacts all those involved — from players to parents to coaches and even competitors — on how they behave and communicate.

"For the most part, many clubs focus on those top kids who want to play in college. 'Hey, our program gets x number of kids into college,' " Chiu says. "But our culture is, 'We love the sport, and we're going to find opportunities for you to play.' "

Chiu consistently helps players earn college scholarships to play volleyball, but he is proud to provide a competitive outlet for athletes of all ages, including many into their 60s.

But one particular group of players Chiu has provided a home for are the young ones who may not be good enough to play in high school, even though they love the sport. Chiu estimates one-third of players quit the sport simply because they didn't make their high school squad.

When he started Oregon Junior Volleyball Academy about a dozen years ago, Steve Suttich says his emphasis was on training and a club-first mentality.

"We don't get the best athletes," Suttich says, "but we work hard and train better."

"Effective and efficient" are points of emphasis at OJVA, with a focus on maximizing the practice time they have.

And in practice, each athlete is required to wear OJVA practice shirts.

"That means something," he says. "You're learning our way, our work ethic, our terms."

Suttich says OJVA also provides programs based on skill level. There are national, regional and local programs. Naturally, the national program is more expensive, since it requires travel costs.

"Not everyone has parents who can afford travel all over the country, and not everyone wants that," he says. "But each one of those kids is trained at the same level, with the same expectations. What changes is schedule and locations and length of tournaments."

Athletes who do not make the elite teams are always provided options elsewhere so they can continue to play volleyball. And a coach personally delivers that information.

Suttich is mindful of that because of his own experience. As a high school freshman, he was devastated to learn he didn't make the junior varsity baseball team by reading a piece of paper on a board.

"If kids give it their best," he says, "we deserve to give them a look in the eye."

In Cincinnati, Kelly Crowley says Tri-State Elite Volleyball's culture is driven by the athletes. He and his staff are intent on communicating with the athletes and abiding by a key rule.

"We don't promise anybody anything," he says. "We're really open with the kids up front about what their role may or may not look like."

And for the teenagers, particularly older ones, they are counted on to "drive the conversation" if any issues arise.

"We are really, really lucky," Crowley says. "I think we have a really, really positive culture. I can count on one hand any parent interaction."

For related reading on club culture click here. Fore related reading for club directors click here.

Dulles Volleyball, Oregon Juniors Volleyball Academy and Tri-State Elite are all member clubs of the Junior Volleyball Association. To learn more about the value of a JVA membership, click here.

About the Author

This article is written by Sean Jensen from SportsEngine, the official technology partner of the JVA. SportEngine offers special pricing and packages exclusive to JVA member clubs. More than just a website, SportsEngine can help you solve serious challenges you face with tryouts, billing and collections, team communication, tournaments, and more. For more information click here.

Sean was born in South Korea, but he was raised in California, Massachusetts and Virginia, mostly on or near military bases. Given his unique background, he's always been drawn to storytelling, a skill he developed at Northwestern University and crafted for the last 16 years, almost exclusively covering the NFL. He's earned distinctions from the Illinois Associated Press, Minnesota Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists, Pro Football Writers of America and Associated Press Sports Editors. In 2006, he received a special achievement award from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2014, along with BroadStreet Publishing, he created The Middle School Rules children's book series, which tells the inspirational childhood stories of famous athletes such as Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Skylar Diggins and Jamaal Charles. He is a passionate author, speaker and content creator, working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and YMCA. Sean lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife, two children and dog.


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