Medals Are Overrated

by Orest Stanko
Head Coach, Pakmen Volleyball Club

What is more noteworthy, the experience or the end result?  Perhaps not a relevant question at the highest, professional levels of sport.  However, it is a critical question at the developmental or formative stages, and to which the answer will serve as a guiding principle and enable the establishment of a corresponding, athlete development pathway. How one answers the question will have a profound impact on the “measures of success.”

At the conclusion of a volleyball season, is the number of medals the primary determinant of success for a team/club – and at what cost – or is it something less tangible and quantifiable but possibly more important?  I acknowledge that regardless of the opinion expressed herein it will not alter a far too prevalent outlook amongst coaches and parents alike that the number of medals defines a successful volleyball campaign, and regardless of the age group. Coaches puff-out their chests; and parents assume bragging rights, unless of course their child has seen limited court time…another blog.

The quality of the experience should trump the end result.  Don’t get me wrong, I encourage coaches and athletes to cultivate a winning attitude.  However, and more importantly, I urge clubs and coaches to create and nurture an environment where the journey, the process and the content, beyond simply sport –specific training, are emphasized and valued. In all respects a far more difficult task.

Mine is not a unique viewpoint.  However, by all accounts, and based primarily on my club/rep team experiences, it does appear to be a minority position.  The vast majority of participants including athletes, coaches and parents adhere to the viewpoint that podium finishes are the primary, unassailable indicators of success.  The foremost metric is medal count.  Add playing-time and starting to this measure.

“I accept and support the basic premise that every parent wants what is best for his/her child.  However, that doesn’t mean that his/her child is the best.”

Lost in this discussion are the more important considerations of an all-inclusive approach to athlete development on levels beyond just sport-specific technical training including: team-first philosophy; empathy; courtesy; respect; time management; academic priorities, etc.

Anecdotally, when I was employed as an Executive Director by a prominent provincial volleyball organization I remember receiving a call from a parent who was concerned about her daughter’s seeding in an upcoming beach volleyball tournament.  The parent had previously called the beach program coordinator but was dissatisfied with the explanation and decided to escalate.  The parent was concerned that the alleged incorrect seeding might disadvantage her daughter and teammate, and as a result they might have to meet a stronger opponent in the earlier round of the playoffs.  It turned-out that the young athlete was participating in the 12U division of the competition.  Are you kidding me??!!  My lord, she’s 12 years old!  Slap on some sun screen, enjoy the weather and have fun playing beach volleyball.  What’s the better attitude to express by a 12 year-old, aspiring beach volleyball athlete:  “Mom, I had a lot of fun.”  “Mom, I’m depressed, if we had been seeded correctly we could have competed for a medal.”

We – clubs, parents, coaches, athletes, sport governing bodies – need to be more aware and sensitive to the notions that: the experience of being part of a team is more important than winning medals; that “contribution” represents so much more than simply starting/playing time; that the measure of success is not a simple equation, i.e., medal(s) = success; that we need to promote and celebrate other achievements and successes which in the long run are more important.  And we need to identify and implement programs that support this approach.

Most athlete development takes place at the club level. Clubs are in a position to assume a greater responsibility and leadership role in promoting and establishing standards and expectations that are not restricted to simply achieving podium results. Standards and expectations that help to create a more holistic environment that promotes and supports the development of a more complete athlete and person. For example, how many clubs pay attention to the academic standing of their athletes? Is there a policy that states if you are failing in school then you cannot participate in training or matches?

It should not be just about winning medals or the provincial championship.