Georgia on my mind
17th August 2017
As great coaching stories go, Richard Osborne's takes some beating. Invited along to the sitting volleyball pre-competition training venue to provide coaching support to any teams that required it ahead of the 2014 Invictus Games in London, Richard found himself working with the Georgian team. The squad comprised seven Georgian servicemen, none of whom had played competitively before and only one of whom spoke a little English.
In a two hour session, Richard did what he could to help. When the qualifying competition began, they approached him again; first to lead their warm-up and then to be their match coach. Incredibly, victories over Denmark and Germany saw them qualify for the semi-finals and they went on to finish fourth.
Over the course of the next three years, Richard stayed in touch with the squad, occasionally travelling to Georgia but also supporting them remotely, providing training drills, coaching advice and tactical support.
A gold at the Warrior Games in 2015 was followed by bronze at the 2016 Invictus Games in Florida. The squad – which has now become the de facto Georgian national sitting volleyball team – hopes to do better than bronze at this year’s Invictus Games in Toronto.
An unusual start
Such a surprising and unconventional story is in keeping with Richard’s own sitting volleyball back-story. Few people launch themselves straight into coaching sitting volleyball but that’s exactly what Richard did in 2010.
“A friend of mine had lost both her legs through illness,” he explained, “and had recently started playing sitting volleyball at what is now South Hants SVC. I thought I’d give it a go and really enjoyed it. Just months later however, our coach passed away and I volunteered to help on a short-term basis. Seven years later, I’m still going!”
In pursuing his coaching qualifications, Richard came up against his first major challenge: “I did my Level 1 and 2 qualifications but in both instances, everything was geared around standing volleyball. It provided a great insight into volleyball skills which could be adapted for sitting volleyball but that still left me with plenty that I had to subsequently figure out for myself. It’s still something of a problem now. There aren’t many clubs, which means there aren’t many coaches, which means there aren’t many people to bounce ideas off.”
“I wish that there was a bigger pool of sitting volleyball coaches who could help each other out in this way – but I suspect there may be something of a fear factor which discourages more coaches from getting involved. I get that; as disability can be a sensitive issue. Novice coaches may feel awkward having conversations to understand things like range of movement, whether certain movements may be harmful, what medications players might be on, what to do if they’re injured etc.”
“From experience, I can tell them that this isn’t a problem. The players I’ve worked with have all been very forthcoming about their disability or injury and they understand that I’m only asking so I can help maximise their ability and their enjoyment of the sport. The only trap a novice coach has to avoid falling into is forgetting that these are volleyballers who just happen to have a disability. They should always focus on the player, not the disability.”
Ask Richard about his proudest moments as a sitting volleyball coach and he’ll mention his Georgian Invictus exploits and seeing his South Hants team claim third in last season’s Sitting Grand Prix. However, it is his story from the other end of the playing spectrum which makes you really aware of the very different challenges that sitting volleyball coaches can face.
“We were running a taster session for disabled kids from across London. I’ve coached players before who were missing multiple limbs but that day, a young man called Isaac came along who had no arms or legs. We quickly fashioned a warm-up drill where all the kids played a beach ball off their head or shoulders. The entire session then followed the same pattern, all centred on what Isaac was able to do, to keep him involved. Of all the sports on offer to the kids that day, sitting volleyball was the only one that he was able to participate in. It’s such a brilliantly inclusive sport.”
However, as with everyone involved in sitting volleyball, Richard is keen to dispel the common misconception that the sport is entirely about disability. In fact, tapping into the non-disabled volleyball community increasingly looks like the single best tactic for continuing to grow the sport in this country.
“I think that’s where we have to focus our efforts in the short-term,” he said, “both from a coaching and playing perspective. Demonstrate to existing volleyballers the benefits of sitting volleyball – in terms of developing core strength, improving communication skills and judging ball flight. But also reassure coaches that the two disciplines are not that different.”
“Sure, some things take a bit of getting used to. Recently, I started coaching some standing volleyball and, unsurprisingly, the hitting footwork was alien to me – just as some of sitting volleyball’s movement techniques will be for standing volleyball coaches. After that though, it’s just coaching; adapting to the different learning preferences of different players and looking for that light bulb moment when something finally clicks into place for them.”
Just one wish...
Given the power to do whatever he could to improve the state of sitting volleyball in the UK, Richard would dearly love to see sitting volleyball sections in place at all clubs throughout the country. However, he’d also like to see more support being given to the coaches needed to drive that activity.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to see more specific sitting volleyball coach education – clinics and masterclasses for example. Creating mentoring arrangements between new and experienced coaches, online discussion forums for the exchange of ideas, hosting drills and videos online – all these things would help breed more confidence in coaches who might then be inspired to go and deliver sitting volleyball.”
“What we can’t expect is for the game to grow organically, with clubs or coaches laying on sitting volleyball sessions simply in the hope that players will turn up. Few things can be more disheartening than putting something on that no-one shows up for. We need to evidence the demand; to find the potential players – or coaches – who want to get involved and then connect them with the clubs who can assist.”
Anyone wanting to do exactly that can register their interest - as a player, coach, club administrator or volunteer – by emailing email@example.com.
And if you want to see a little bit more about Richard's story, check out this video on how he coached the Georgian team remotely, courtesy of the Invictus Games organisers.