Success and lessons: England Women on their 2020 debut
10th January 2020
“It was great to be back in international competition!” is the overriding sentiment from England Women’s Head Coach Maria Bertelli after the team secured second place at the recent Novotel Cup in Luxembourg.
“This is the first step, our first opportunity as a squad to be in the pressure environment of competition where performances matter,” began Maria, who was appointed as Head Coach in January last year. “Our goal was to test where we are, give us a benchmark; find out our strengths and what we can improve on. We’re delighted with the time we spent together, it’s given us lots of intelligence and information about the players for us to build on - a really good foundation.
“We’re a new group, we’re building something, so getting the foundations right was our objective - the way we work, starting to establish the way we as the England senior women want to play, the players getting to know each other and overall creating an good and enjoyable environment for the players. We focused on delivering the processes to give us good performance outcomes.”
But with many of the England players making their international debut against the 2019 CEV Small Countries Association champions Luxembourg, the first day of the competition was set to be a challenge.
“There were lots of nerves flying about against Luxembourg, first match in front of a big home crowd,” said Maria, in the match which ended in a 3-0 (27-25, 25-14, 25-18) win for the tournament hosts. “They were well organised but we had chances in the first set and were unable to convert them but that’s part of the learning curve, small things really matter at international level. What was great was the team bounced back the next day against Iceland, played with confidence and belief and were able to execute.”
This was shown by the team’s dominant 3-0 (25-13, 25-17, 25-20) win against the Nordics. “That is a real indication of their character. You can’t substitute competitions for what they teach athletes about themselves and how it helps them grow,” she added. The team went on to achieve back to back wins defeating Scotland 3-1 (25-22, 25-21, 12-25, 25-18) to gain the silver medal.
Gratified by the squad’s resilience, Maria reflected: “Of course, it was a proud moment for me as it was my first time coaching as Head Coach at a senior international competition and it was great to be part of a fantastic staff team.
“We had a lot of support from back home,” said an appreciative Maria, who is mindful of the additional benefits of the noise and fanfare. “Not only was it great for the team to get the encouragement but it also let the players know people at home are following the results.”
A young team
With an average age of only 19, most of the squad have recently transitioned from the juniors, showing the success of the National Talent Pathway feeding into the senior squads.
“We had a very young but very talented group of players at the tournament with 11 of the 12 playing for the seniors for the first time,” said Maria. “Captain Megan Viggars was by a long way the most experienced player and added a lot to the team.” Megan continues her professional playing career in the 2019-20 season with French top division side St Raphaël.
“There were times throughout the tournament when different players did an excellent job and there were some real positive surprises. There was a real feeling from the players that they were all in it together. The whole squad are really keen to learn and make themselves better and as coach you can’t ask for more than that.”
England outside Anna Keefe added: “It was an incredible experience; the highlight was the way we played against Iceland after losing. We all came together and played brave and aggressive and the atmosphere on court was amazing. Winning silver at our first international competition is fantastic and I’m looking forward to building on this experience and getting ready to face tougher competition.”
On the youth of the squad, Maria said: “as a coaching team we made a conscious decision to bring in some talented and committed junior athletes to give them extra exposure and experience which we hope will both help them and the junior squad in upcoming competitions. For us it’s also important as in 18 months’ time, when we are hopefully competing at an event such as a senior NEVZA, that age group will be part of the senior team – and we are preparing for that now.”
One player brought up from the junior ranks was setter Katie Keefe, who saw a healthy amount of playing time: “I really enjoyed the opportunity to play with senior level players in competition. It was a faster paced game, and this is something that will definitely benefit me going back into the juniors. It’s also an experience that will help me be a role model in the juniors.”
Outlining the next steps, Maria continued: “Our objectives are higher than second place at the Novotel Cup. To do so, we’re aiming to have regular monthly training and two to three competition outlets per year. It’s important that we get out there and compete as much as possible as there really is no substitute for competition.”
The trajectory of that momentum is firmly aimed at a senior NEVZA or equivalent competition in 2021, “in the short term that’s the level for us to aim to be really competitive and deliver results, with our game against Iceland in the Novotel Cup showing potential.”
“Our challenge, the challenge for all the women’s national teams, is how we can get more training time and competitive opportunities. It’s exciting and there is a lot of work to do and we are up for the challenge.”
Inspiring women in volleyball
Maria has an appeal to everyone in volleyball, “we, as the England senior women, are really keen to connect with the volleyball community. As an example, your club hosting a training camp and in return we can help with masterclasses and inviting coaches to come to our training. If anyone has any ideas then please get in touch with me or Nikki Mead, our Team Manager.”
“We want to provide senior athletes for the cadets and juniors to look up to,” and having been part of the National Talent Pathway coaching staff for over 6 years, Maria has first-hand experience and familiarity with athletes at these levels, “we want young girls and women to be inspired.”
Connecting with clubs will support getting the senior players out into the community and raise the profile of women’s volleyball, creating role models for women and girls.