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Volleyball Clubs Embrace Virtual Programming to Engage Players

Emily Hawthorne, Academy Volleyball Club

Organized team sports are for the most part shut down nationwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean athletes can’t continue training on their own or with some virtual assistance. 

With little financial investment or commitment in virtual platforms and services that are widely available, it’s become manageable for volleyball clubs and their members to keep working in some capacity in spite of the day-to-day challenges they now face.

The Academy charts course for a new normal

At the Academy Volleyball Club in Indiana, organizers, coaches, players and their parents are finding ways to continue participating in volleyball and club-related activities during the shutdown, which started for them in mid-March. While the club’s 114 teams are social distancing and abiding by the state’s executive stay-at-home order, the Academy remains committed to staying engaged with its athletes and continuing to develop their skills.

For Emily Hawthorne, executive director and one of the owners of the Academy Volleyball Club, the work is done through communication, content creation and crafting virtual programming to keep the club linked with coaches, players and their parents.

“Our goal is to really connect with the kids emotionally but also make sure we’re providing content,” said Hawthorne, who is also on the board of directors for the Junior Volleyball Association (JVA), of which the Academy is a member. 

Emily Hawthorne is the executive director and one of the owners of Academy Volleyball Club in Indiana.
Emily Hawthorne is the executive director and one of the owners of the Academy Volleyball Club in Indiana.

Crafting content and programming for teams and players in such a short period of time has required an influx of virtual tools, from Instagram and Zoom to GoToMeeting software and YouTube, the club now has a virtual calendar packed with content that rivals some cable TV networks.

“We really started with just different ways to keep our kids engaged,” Hawthorne said. 

When the shutdown began, no one knew how long it would last, so initial outreach was done through social media. Soon, there were TikTok challenges, virtual scavenger hunts and team challenges posted to help everyone stay connected, Hawthorne said.

Once it became clear the pandemic would keep organized sports shuttered for an indefinite period, the Academy delved further into virtual programming.

There is now a whole slate of programming participants from the Academy can follow. An email containing the full schedule for that week goes out on Sundays. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, there’s workouts held at 9 a.m. on Zoom.

“Any kid from any team can log in and just go through the workouts with us, just to make sure we’re getting up, moving our bodies and staying strong so that we can play at fairly high levels as soon as we’re able to get back in the gym,” Hawthorne said.

Webinars are held Wednesday nights, with speakers brought online to discuss topics ranging from creating a championship culture to alleviating stress. There’s also a virtual training series done through GoToMeetings throughout the week, and film sessions that last up to 45 minutes are held between coaches and athletes on Film Friday for targeted development in advanced players.

Virtual calendar
An example of the Academy Volleyball Club's virtual calendar.

Refining virtual programming

More than a month into the shutdown, lessons are still being learned and tweaks are being made to best serve the club, its teams and member community.

“We have some kids that are going to go play college ball in about three months, so what they need versus what some of our youth players need are very different,” Hawthorne said “We’re really trying to be aware of that.”

Hawthorne cited hurdles the club has overcome, such as early challenges with Zoom that included needing to password-protect programming done through the platform so that sessions won’t be crashed by unwanted visitors.

“The initial challenge was just getting to know the different options of the different platforms,” she said.

The club recently solicited feedback from its teams and families, asking what days and times work best for programming, as athletes study from home with different eLearning schedules and requirements, and many coaches have modified scheduling needs as well.

One thing that’s worked well for the Academy is if participants can’t make a live session, all of its virtual content is archived on the club’s YouTube channel for later viewing. The archived content includes the thrice-weekly workouts, so if a player misses a yoga session that interests them, they can watch the video to complete the workout at a later time.

While the Academy utilizes virtual platforms, Hawthorne thinks the club is in a good position to continue on this path for as long as necessary. She also said she expects virtual programming will continue in some form once quarantine rules are lifted.

Kokoro’s new look

Kokoro Volleyball, based in Minnesota, is also a member of the JVA and is making programming adjustments of its own during the state’s mandatory shelter-in-place order, which began in late March. Kokoro, run by husband-wife duo R.T. Luczak and Jennifer Brathol, who are co-directors, formed in 2010 and has about 50 teams.

The shutdown for Kokoro likely looks a little different from some other clubs, as Kokoro emphasizes developing social skills in-person, taking measures such as banning cellphone use at practices and competitions.

Kokoro Volleyball owners R.T. Luczak and Jennifer Brathol
Kokoro Volleyball owners R.T. Luczak and Jennifer Brathol. Kokoro is based in Minnesota.

“I think much like everybody, it took us some time to figure out what this meant for us and how we were going to proceed because of it,” Brathol said of the shutdown.

Once Minnesota’s stay-at-home executive order went into effect, Luczak and Brathol thought it prudent to communicate regularly with their athletes and parents. Club coaches reach out to their players twice a week — calling, no texting or emailing — and they also have regular Zoom calls to keep in touch and sometimes even play games.

“One of the things that we’ve really stressed in the past few weeks is engagement,” Luczak said. “We have to be engaging our athletes right now. They are at home, they don’t know what to do.”

Since players can’t get to the gym, Kokoro sends out three new workouts for the week each Monday. The club also organizes challenges meant to be completed from home involving competition and skill activities. In addition to the phone and Zoom calls, Instagram is a platform popular with the athletes for submitting their workouts.

Brathol, who has a background in nutritional science, has even developed a wellness program that players and parents are welcome to follow.

“We want to do as much as we can to give back to all of the people that are supporting us right now,” Luczak said. “We spend all of our day talking about it, thinking about it — trying to work on new things and add more services.”

Takeaways for continued improvement

Committed to developing their athletes in all facets, Brathol and Luczak continue to tinker and incorporate virtual methods to keep up interaction with their athletes and parents. They also plan to keep some of the newfound virtual methods to buoy the club’s communications once the quarantine period ends.

“I think it’s a great way to engage in different ways and create a culture of community outside of just your 11 families or athletes on a team, so we’ve really created more strength because of this,” Brathol said.

Luczak elaborated on how Kokoro can continue to help its members beyond keeping them connected virtually.

“Lessons that we teach aren’t always easy, but that’s what life is — life is challenging. We want to walk beside all our athletes while they’re facing all of these challenges,” Luczak said.