Interview with Marco Solustri – Part I

Marco Solustri is one of the most experienced Coaches of the World Tour. After playing in Italy and on the AVP he was among the first coaches to work on a professional level. In the meantime he has almost 30 years of experience under his belt. Read the interview, in which he talks about the evolution of the game and his view of Beachvolleyball.

Marco, you are one of the most renowned coaches on the World Tour and probably the most experienced one. We would like to talk with you about the evolution of the game -including coaching- at top level over the last 25-30 years… Let’s have a look at the general development first…The game has changed a lot over these years…

Many people say so but I’ll be a bit provocative and go against it: I don’t think the changes are that big. Kiraly/Steffes and Jacky/Sandra – the Gold medal winners of the first Olympic Games in Beachvolleyball in Atlanta 1996 – would still be competitive today…

Changes were not so big, maybe also because the sport didn’t grow so much, didn’t catch up with the “big” sports. It’s still not Tennis.

What are the biggest differences between World Tour Beachvolleyball in the Mid 1990s and today?

Beachvolleyball has always been about three main areas and this has not changed: ball control, physical ability (height, power and speed) and mindset.

Looking at ball control, I am sure that very good ball control players will always find their place and can be successful. This has not changed.

Physically, a very obvious development has taken place: in the 90s there were not many blockers over 2 meters, while now every team has one. But not only this: when they were young, Phil (Dalhausser) and Kerrie (Walsh) were the only very tall players with very good ball control. Now the big guys all have good ball control.

There is also a big change in defense players. A very big change! Many teams now have tall players as defenders. In Atlanta 1996 the defenders were Kiraly, Heese, Maia (all in the Olympic semifinal) – short players. But even now: Bruno, Horst and others are under 190cm. The shorter players are still there: Good ball control, fast, good mindset – the short player can still play on high level!

The physical aspect is an issue and there were changes but it’s not so relevant – it’s not that short players can’t play anymore at top level!

Which role played rule changes (including changes of game ball…)?

The big change came in 2001: the court got smaller – from 9×9 to 8×8 – and the ralley point system was established. Everyone said: there will be no more shots, everyone will only hit the ball hard. But players who see the court well can still play with shots (Horst, Carambula, Bruno, many women players). Maybe it took time but after a while, the players adapted. So the change because of smaller court was finally not that big.

About the ralley point system: How to count points, in the end it does not really matter – what is changing the course of the game is the mind approach, maybe the technique and ball control – not the scoring system! In the end it didn’t change the game too much. What definitely changed is the possibility to come back in a game: this became very difficult, almost impossible with the new system while before a big point deficit could be caught up by keeping the sideout and scoring a break once in a while.

That’s why I like the AVP Freeze rule! A “real” point has to be scored for match point – the game becomes more exciting – like it used to be!

About the change of the World Tour Mikasa game ball in 2009/10: in the beginning everyone said “it’s floating more, the reception and the ball control is more difficult”. Of course, other balls are easier to dig and pass (Wilson, Spalding, also the “old” Mikasa). But in the long term they don’t change the game too much – players adapt: A ball is a ball!!! The danger for players is to talk and think too much about this – wrong focus!

How would you describe the development in terms of dominance/competitiveness of countries/continents, looking especially at USA, BRA and Europe?

What really changed a lot was the number of countries and teams who are competitive. Before basically only USA and Brazil were winning. Only once in a while a European team stepped in but USA and Brazil were dominating. Now, so many countries can win medals, especially in men’s! In Europe for example almost every country can win the gold medal in European championships.

So, this is a big change the sport managed to achieve! More countries on a high level! The game didn’t change so much but the competition got a lot fiercer and the number of competitive countries increased a lot.

Are there specific reasons for this? Why did the other countries catch up so much, especially in men’s? And why in women’s – although there are much more teams competitive these days – it is still Brazil and USA (and Canada in the last 5 years) who are usually winning (with the exception of Ludwig Walkenhorst 2016-17)?

One important aspect is that many National Federations of smaller countries realized that in Indoor (12 players necessary) they will have no chance to make it to a World Championships or the Olympics while in Beachvolleyball this is possible even for a small country. So National Federations started to invest in Beachvolleyball. Vanuatu is a very extreme example outside of Europe: a very small country which almost qualified for the Olympic Games!

In USA or Brazil, the base of the pyramid is much bigger, so there are a lot more teams on all levels, also on top level. For the National Federations it’s not so necessary to develop players and teams. It happens by itself. The national competition (especially through national tour) is so tough and high that also for international level, they are top.

I don’t agree that in women’s it is a lot different: the last two World Champions were from Germany and Canada, not from US or Brazil! But also Australia, Czech Republic, Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland, China and some others are competitive. Maybe not as many non-US/Brazil teams as in men’s are able to win gold medals in big tournaments but the development is very similar, it’s going in the same direction. This is also my hope!

Looking more specifically at how Beachvolleyball teams are working and training… What was the development there? Which changes took place? Were and are there characteristic differences between countries/continents or does every team and coaching staff – no matter from which country – has its very own, individual style of working and playing ?

I think it is always dangerous to generalize too much. The reality has a lot more shades of grey and not just black and white…but as you asked me to do so:I want to start with a very extreme way of training which is common for Japan: players work only on isolated repetitions, in many cases not even as a team, but individually without their partner. In my opinion this does not reflect the character of the game Beachvolleyball

In Brazil there seems to be the tendency that teams practice a lot by themselves, just with their coaching staff, with a big number of assistants. Within this structure, they work a lot with many repetitions, in many cases with high intensity (above game intensity) and a lot of balls within a short time.

In US, for many years teams were practicing very game-like, a lot of playing games and sideout drills, always with another team. Recently it seems that this is changing a bit and teams have more practice sessions by themselves.

In Europe it is somewhere in between “isolated repetitions” and “game-like”. In the off-season period, teams are working more on isolated things, in an analytical way. The closer it comes to the season, there is more and more game-like training but many times drills with adaptions in the rules, in order to create different, new situations and challenges for the players.

In my opinion Beachvolleyball is a “situation sport”: we have to train our players to find solutions in new, alternative situations. The exception has to be like a rule. We have to be prepared for exceptions. Every ball is different from the other one.

Did this change over the years? Was there more “just playing” in the early years?

Yes definitly. In the eigthies and nineties, in the USA and in Europe, it was a lot about meeting with four guys at the beach and start to play sets. But quite early this started to change: some players realized that it is helpful – as in all other ball/team sports – to break down a bit more the game, analyze it, see what parts and situations you have to work on to improve, work more with repetitions, start to have a system and structure.

So, in the 90s it started with the kind of training we do nowadays. A big factor was for sure when some of the players of the first generation stopped to play and started to help the players, started to be coaches! Then they approached the game in a much more analytical way. And of course the methodology of training is not so different between the different sports, so it was also a normal, natural consequence that in Beachvolleyball – as in other sports – the training became more systematic and less “playing”.

Important to remember: the first generation of Beachvolleyball players didn’t have books or manuals or coaches to learn from! We taught themselves! We were somehow the pioneers of the sport!

How would you describe the evolution of Coaching on the FIVB World Tour over these years?

The most important thing: when I started coaching in the middle of 90s, many teams did not have a coach. Imagine that even in the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996 not every team had a coach. Some teams were without coaches, some had a friend with them, some brought another player not qualified for the tournament, in order to help.

Today, almost no team is without coach and in many cases teams even have a whole coaching staff, with several persons helping the team (assistant coach, physical trainer, physiotherapist, doctor, team manager). Basically at least the same number of staff as the number of players in a team.

Now there are discussions if the role of the coach should change. Should the coach be involved actively in the game? The majority of coaches is in favor of this. This would change the role of the coach a lot, but probably not change the game itself a lot.

TO BE CONTINUED…