DOC VOLLEYBALL: Dilemma on Loop 2.0?
AJ Pareja on Mar 12, 2019 05:29 PM
AJ Pareja suggests developing a database of statistics and a solid grassroots program instead of merely conducting tryouts in selecting members of the National Pool for volleyball.
Around a year ago, I had the privilege of sharing my thoughts regarding the players selected for the women’s national volleyball team that competed in last year’s Asian Games and Asian Women’s Volleyball Cup.
Back then, there was so much buzz and fanfare upon announcement of the lineups. The roster proved to be polarizing – as it does each and every year a new list is announced. With such a large pool of local talents, the roster had only too many blanks to fill and not all fan expectations were met. While the lineup, in theory, proved to be a selection capable of jumpstarting a solid program as it goes each and every year, the outcome of the performance outside the country and the subsequent lack of continuity proved otherwise.
Once again, here we are, with a newly announced talent pool - as it has been year in and year out since as early as 2014.
I remember too well the same excitement way back 2015 when finally, after a long hiatus, the Philippines was sending both a men’s and women’s team to compete internationally in the 2015 Singapore Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. I had the pleasure of serving as the captain for the men’s team, then composed of young, promising, athletes such as Marck Espejo, Ish Polvorosa, and Johnvic De Guzman to name a few.
Back then, the roster proved to be as polarizing the same as today. Was it the best possible team formed at that time? That was subject for debate. Did we do our part to inspire a sense of hope that a solid National Team program can be in full effect? I’d like to believe so.
However, four years after we ignited a spark of hope through the 2015 SEA Games, has anything changed, really?
Dream Team Material
Let’s get the relatively easier discussion out of the way first, which is about the Men’s Team Pool.
Undeniably, the roster announced could be considered as the best and strongest men’s pool in recent history. Save for Spiker’s Turf MVP Greg Dolor surprisingly not included in the pool, majority of the athletes selected are highly worthy of their spots as backed by their individual stats, achievements, and performance both in the collegiate and professional scene. With a pool comprised of multi-awarded standouts, it is fairly easy to formulate a strong starting lineup that would undeniably go as far as a podium finish in the upcoming Southeast Asian Games.
Marck Espejo, undeniably the greatest of all time in Philippine men’s volleyball, is a shoo-in for the first open position given his efficiency in both passing and scoring from the left wing. Provided both can match or even surpass the passing efficiency of Espejo, Ranran Abdilla and Bryan Bagunas are frontrunners for the second open position; although, the latter can make a compelling case as an opposite given his height, power, and vertical reach. With a quick first middle in either Rex Intal or Peter Torres, the so-called “Triangle of Attack” for the men’s team can prove competitive enough to outplay even a consistent podium finisher like Indonesia. Coupled with the experience provided by Jessie Lopez and intelligent playmaking of Ish Polvorosa, the men’s pool is shaping up to be the best roster selected in recent history.
Provided the team starts regular training at the moment with half a year of preparation, albeit still a rushed one at that, it would be enough to compete well in the SEA Games owing to the fact that the pool is abundant with raw talent alone.
For the men’s team at this point, the better question is actually how the team will move forward once the SEA Games is done. With such a potential dream team such as this lineup, it would be a total shame if we don’t see the same names coupled with a few young additions in 2021, 2023, and so on competing for the SEA Games Gold alongside Thailand.
Talking about the individual composition of the Women’s National Team year in and year out for the past decade is like walking on thin ice every time. With a massive pool of prominent athletes, each with their own dedicated fan base, yearly announcements of the National Team lineup have been a topic of hot debate and widespread fanfare. In line with that, with a training pool that is night and day in difference in terms of balance with regards to the men’s pool, it is not surprising how the community will always debate about the composition of the pool.
Sad to say, while most of us put the spotlight on the individual composition of the roster, we fail to recognize the bigger issue which is the system and the selection process itself. While the logical and ideal approach of selection, as employed by developed volleyball countries, is usually that of handpicked talents backed by statistics and credentials, the country still treats the selection as having tryouts that are more of a process of elimination on an unnecessarily wide-scale basis.
At this point, debating about who should or shouldn’t have been included in the women’s training pool has been nothing but a yearly spectacle that serves no purpose in the long-term development of the women’s National Team. Needless to say, the inclusion of Fil-Am standouts Kalei Mau and Alohi Robins-Hardy will provide the much needed height, bulk, power, and experience to have a fighting chance in the SEA Games. Coupled with a hopefully more agile and biomechanically sound Jaja Santiago with her professional experience in Japan, the team would only require a strong, imposing opposite to complete the so-called triangle of attack. The challenge now however is to complete the roster with players who have specialized in each position at the same time keeping in mind how many positions should fill up each slot in a balanced manner. With regards to the women’s team, a repeat of the disastrous Asian Games in which players were shuffled in positions each match (even sets) should no longer be witnessed.
A Tale of Two Houses
The state of the country’s volleyball program can be best described by the wooden house in the popular tale of Three Little Pigs.
A decade ago, back when volleyball was not yet of prime time status, forming the National Team was merely for show and a project on display. Tryouts were held, teams were formed, trainings conducted for a couple of months, but teams never see the light of day in major international competitions outside the country. In the rare instances that the country hosted an international tournament, a National Team was haphazardly formed then it participated and eventually got disbanded after. Back then, the team composition was as easily blown away as a straw house.
Fast forward to current time, with volleyball enjoying much support and spotlight, has the National Team Program undergone progression that can mirror the sport’s growing popularity?
Undeniably, the understanding of the technicalities of the sport has taken a huge leap from before and we now have a bigger pool of quality athletes to provide the necessary material.
The foundation however, remains shaky at best given the perennial occurrence of forming and disbanding the National Team each and every year or when a major international tournament comes up.
In recent years, we have witnessed how even a team with good materials (the country’s best at that), still succumbs to regional powerhouses. The National Team, as it stands in recent history, has deployed some of the best athletes failing due to a program with a foundation that can be likened to a house made of sticks.
Building with Bricks
A decade has passed, players have come and gone through their careers, leaderships have changed, the fan base has grown, much support and resources have been poured yet the country is still looking to break through for a share of dominance in the region. Participation in different tournaments inside and outside the country has produced the same unfortunate results. Instead of working on the system however, it’s the players that prove dispensable and get easily replaced hoping for a different result - to no avail. Conducting frequent tryouts, especially when a tournament looms over, serves nothing more than just fanfare for the press especially when the selection list is full of talents that have numbers to back their performance be it in the collegiate or professional leagues. Numbers and statistics alone are more than enough to come up with a solid National Team roster that is less prone to objections compared to a tryout process where not all viable options can even attend to in the first place.
Selection based on statistics however goes with the premise that there is an actual database of player performance readily accessible. Fortunately, with volleyball being televised sport, the stats are present and easily obtainable. It is just a matter of consolidating these statistics as unfortunately, the presence of multiple leagues proves a hindrance in pitting the country’s best against each other – another issue save for a different time. In line with that, the stats that we have now are of players participating in the local leagues. While more encompassing in selection scope than a mere tryout event, the database does not cover the entire pool of volleyball players across the country. For all we know, there could a youngster down south with muscle fibers like that of Sisi Rondina and frame of Maddie Madayag hidden from the volleyball spotlight.
Even in developed volleyball countries, selection based on statistics is observed at the grass roots level. Across regional tournaments, data is collated of every player which serves as basis in determining the best athletes in each constituency. From here, the identified individuals are invited to be part of the training program early on which would then serve as the selection pool based on age group. Coupled with adequate financial, academic, health, and technical support, the selected athletes carry on as the core pool from which the National Team is formed. The process ensures that merit is an importance determining factor in choosing the best athletes as well as providing a program conducive for long term development.
The lack of a solid grassroots program, alongside slow technical progress and unbridled politics, is a major limiting factor for the country to maximize its potential in the sport. Until much focus and importance is given in developing a crop of future stars on a long-term basis, the country will continue to dream of a podium finish. Building a solid grassroots program for the National Team is an undeniably daunting task. With no marketable stars to pull in the sponsors, developing young athletes yet to have a share of the spotlight proves less of an immediate return on investment than banking on the current stars. But it has to be done. Perhaps something as easily achievable as statisticians being provided in the Palarong Pambansa could be a start. It is a behemoth of a mission, financially and logistically, requiring leadership with genuine intent of developing the state of the sport in the country. Not to take anything away from the current generation of hardworking athletes, the dream of regional dominance lies in the formation of a core pool comprised of the country’s best youngsters. So long as we all, from top management to the fans, continue to neglect the importance of developing a solid pool of young talent, the National Team would continue to be a yearly fanfare proving to be a dilemma on loop.
Achieving our maximum potential as an emerging volleyball-centric country, despite decades of struggles, can be done. It starts with cultivating a solid core of young talents backed by leadership with genuine care and competence to face the unpopular task of building one. The future of Philippine Volleyball lies on the untapped talents nationwide and it is all up to us to ensure that the potential is not wasted. It will be difficult, challenging, slow, and not as rewarding early on but until we recognize this one limitation in the system, we can all just settle debating about the National Team roster and without any medals at hand either way.