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Must-win for USA Men’s Volleyball; 1-on-1 with Coach John Speraw

Jul 31, 2021
Toru Hanai/Getty Images

TOKYO – The U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team is at a critical juncture. It is one game away from the quarterfinals. It must beat Argentina on Sunday to advance directly without a tiebreaker. Eight of the 12 U.S. players are Olympic veterans. Five competed for Pac-12 institutions. Yet Tokyo isn’t Rio, and the Olympics aren’t the NCAA.

Head coach John Speraw sees the contrasts clearly. He’s been the head coach at UCLA since 2012, and the head coach of the U.S. national team since 2013.

On Friday, after the U.S. lost a close match to the defending Olympic champion, Brazil, Speraw elaborated in a one-on-one interview.

Aside from daily COVID testing in Tokyo and all the peculiarities of competing during a pandemic, how would you say these Olympics are different than Rio when it comes to style of play?

The style of play is pretty consistent, but there have been significant evolutions in the game during the last five years. Offenses continue to evolve. You’re seeing differences in spacing and middle blockers’ routes – guys drifting from one side to another so it's [harder to predict] where they're going to attack the ball. We've made those adaptations well. Our offense has a lot more variety than it did five years ago.  

Has the U.S. team dynamic changed?

For our team, it's significantly a different experience. Last time, we took the youngest U.S. team that had ever been sent to the Olympics. We play every other day so there are significant breaks, and most people don't realize that this is the smallest tournament that we play. Twelve teams. There's such little room for error. Every match is like a playoff game. And it's REALLY emotional. This time, we are down a [key] guy, Aaron Russell, one of the best outside hitters in the world. He played in Rio. He was forced to have surgery and take himself out of the Olympic mix, so we're relying on a young player, TJ DeFalco, who's in his first Olympics and playing great. We're healthy and playing well but a couple significant injuries over the last few years have probably affected our ability to go where we originally intended.

What are the biggest challenges of coaching a college team versus the national team?

The national team is unique in that we really don't get that much time to train. We're together during the summers, but they're overseas [playing professionally] for seven, eight months. This time, the guys finished their pro seasons in early May and by end of May, we're already competing. So when you make changes systematically, or if you really want to work on somebody's game in a certain way, it takes take several years to get them to grow in a particular way. In the collegiate space, you get more time but maybe some guy’s come out of high school who’s never touched a weight in his life and is maybe super athletic, but there's a broader range of development and strength that you need to manage when you're coaching collegiate team. Everybody here [in Tokyo] for the most part, is in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s so their games are pretty developed and they're all real strong in the weight room so you can really push some weight.

Honestly, which is more fun: collegiate or international coaching? What do you like best?

It's really hard to say – and I’m not just saying that. I've got the two best jobs in the world right now. I'm coaching my alma mater, UCLA, and I'm coaching the national team – are you kidding me?  It's the greatest thing ever. So I'm in a bit of a dream space, you know?  I'm grateful every day. And I benefit from doing both. We talk about players get better when they get more reps. Coaches also get better when they get reps – and I don't stop getting reps. I move right from one season into another. And I'm constantly tinkering with the way we train.  When I'm coaching the national team, I'm really at the edge of innovation. The margins [of error] in international men’s volleyball are REALLY slim. I don't think people really understand that. Eight teams in this Olympic tournament can medal. People at home may not realize how good or Iran is. Or France. Those are ELITE teams. So every single time you step on the court, you're really pushing your abilities, pushing your creative thought, constantly trying to solve the problem of how to be the best team in the world. I take that back to UCLA where I'm constantly tinkering with drill design, practice design, organizational structures, and strategic planning. And then I bring it back to the national team. So I'm constantly engaged.

If you could improve upon your ‘dream’ in either arena, what would you like to see in the future?

I think we're really, really close to being great. Both programs continue to innovate, continue to push, continue to get better at how we do things on a daily basis. [The environment] is REALLY changing. We talk about it a lot at the collegiate level. Even in the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of changes with NIL [name, image and likeness], conference realignment, the type of athletes we're training. Then, at the Olympics, you're hearing about the impact of social media and how it places pressure on athletes. You go back into the collegiate space, and now they're gonna bring that [additional pressure] upon themselves with NIL. The collegiate athletes that I coach now will be the national team players of the future, so I think there’s a lot of space for us to continue to understand the athletes and figure out how we best go about impacting this generation to help them to reach their full potential at UCLA and on the national team. So if I could make both things better? They're pretty symbiotic.