Volleyball Canada’s Centre of Excellence is a winner in Mississauga

By DAVID WINER

“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s a proverb that’s nagged every boy and girl since they were old enough to attend school, take piano lessons, mow the lawn, or make the bed.

Whether it be a father, mother, teacher, preacher, husband, or wife, the saying has become the most repeated piece of advice known to mankind.

Coined as long ago as 1550, the expression “use makes perfect,” has been used to inspire, encourage, trick and manipulate anyone and everyone into painting another room, running another mile, or spending 10 more minutes on piano scales.

Yet, if you practice the same chore or skill incorrectly over and over again, it’s likely to lead to streaky walls, shin splints, or carpal tunnel. For without proper instruction, one is likely to bang his or her head against that freshly painted wall.

Volleyball Canada began making strides to better link practice with perfect in 2011 with the introduction of the Volleyball Canada Centre of Excellence (VCCE). Introduced at the Richmond Olympic Oval in B.C., the initiative expanded to 24 centres in 2013-14 including Mississauga’s Pakmen Volleyball Club.

Simply put, the program is intended to achieve what competition and game planning can’t — improving players’ individual skill levels.

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“Our young developing athletes spend more time in competition (playing games) than in training and development (practice). To add to this, practice time is typically spent on developing team systems in preparation for games,” explained VCCE program manager Dawna Sales. “While this produces short-term success on the court, the technical skills of our athletes are being left behind. The VCCE aims to improve the training to competition ratio by offering additional training without the need to compete as a team.

“Our Mission is to recruit and develop athletes in world-class training environments across the country through excellent coaching and invested support staff. We work alongside high schools, clubs and provincial sport organizations to support athlete development at each level with the best eventually representing Canada.”

And three of the best coaches in Canada have been enlisted by Pakmen to head up its VCCE program, former Canadian national team member Dustin Reid, along with Matthew Harris and Michael Amoroso.

“Our lead coaches are second to none,” Pakmen president and founder Kelly Smith proudly declared. “And without question, Dustin Reid is one of the top coaches in the game. I am extremely proud of the VCCE Mississauga program.”

And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, as last year’s three participating teams — U15 and U17 boys and U16 girls — reached unprecedented heights.

“Our U15 boys won Nationals, while our U16 girls and U17 boys each had historic seasons, winning both the Provincial Championship in their own age group and the age group up.

“A major reason for this success,” insisted Smith, “was the curriculum of the VCCE and the incredible ball control skills acquired.”

“This is certainly the main goal and one of the reasons we do not focus on team outcomes or system outcomes,” said Sales. “Our coaching ratios are no more than 1:10 to ensure feedback and quality reps are taking place. It is critical that our best blockers become excellent passers, and that each athlete can set a high ball outside (for example).

“One of the benefits to the VCCE program is it is an opportunity for athletes to step outside their traditional role on a team and really expand their skill set,” continued Sales. “If athletes in a centre are training for four hours a week over the course of eight months, the development can certainly be position specific, but also very diversified.”

Along with representing Canada in more than 120 international matches including two World Cups, the 1994 World Championship and two Olympic qualification attempts, Reid is entering his eighth year as head coach of the successful Ryerson Rams women’s volleyball program.

Playing professionally in Europe for four years, Reid backs up his talents with coaching smarts as an NCCP certified Level 3 volleyball coach.

Harris assists Reid at Ryerson University and brings 19 years of coaching experience to the program. Also an NCCP Level 3 coach, Harris has taught at the university, high school and club levels, headed up Ontario Volleyball

Association programs, the Volleyball Canada Centre of Excellence Toronto, as well as several Athlete Development Programs.

Pakmen U18 Gold teammates Sharone Vernon-Evans and Jordan Figueira are true believers in the program and what those extra skills can mean down the road.

“They focus hard on the technical parts of a skill,” said 6-foot-9 left side Vernon-Evans. “VCCE has improved my game by helping me work on my serve receive and defensive skills.”

“I would love to keep improving on my defense, serve, receiving and blocking, and I feel like they will take me to the next level.”

Graduating from Scarborough’s Agincourt Collegiate in the spring, the perennial Ontario Volleyball Association all-star plans to continue his career at a Canadian university next fall.

Figueira also intends to study in Canada next year. The 6-foot setter, out of Oakville’s Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, hopes to major in Commerce, while continuing his volleyball career on a varsity court.

“I have learned many different skills and tactics throughout these sessions, such as different ways to pass, or dig a ball when put into troubled situations, how to assist block on the middle and many other things.

“I’m not known as being a strong blocker,” Figueira offered as an example, “but through many reps at VCCE Mississauga, I have strengthened my knowledge of blocking allowing me to put up the strongest block I possibly can to help my team. Ultimately, volleyball is a sport which needs thousands of reps at every skill to become good at them. At VCCE Mississauga, every different drill is organized and designed to give each player as many reps as possibly in the short hour and a half given, to help ensure every player attending, gets the most out of the practices.”

Along with what’s listed above, the VCCE program also claims to include leadership training, strength and conditioning and integrity.

“We work to build versatile, powerful and injury-free athletes capable of a long career,” says Sales. “Through regular assessment and monitoring we provide our athletes with the individualized physical, mental and nutritional tools and education necessary to reach their potential. We expose athletes to the training and competition load of a professional, and empower them to take ownership of their development.”

Figueira looks forward to what lies ahead this year with further exposure to the VCCE program.

“Last year, prior to practice, we would spend an hour and a half on strengthening different ligaments and different muscles that we may not use as much, to help prevent injuries,” offered Figueira as an example. “Lastly, the program is worth going to. Although it doesn’t necessarily aid in the process of getting scholarships, it gets your name into Volleyball Canada, also it is coached by some of the best coaches in the province with special guest coaches who are also very well known, and it helps take your volleyball skills to the next level, which could help in getting scholarships.”

Among those special coaches Figueira was referring to is Amoroso, who is now a full-time contributor.

A five-year star as a middle blocker for Queen’s Golden Gaels, Amoroso graduated with  a Bachelor’s Degree in Gender Studies before playing professionally in Europe with stops in Sweden, Greece and Germany.

He also represented Ontario at the Canada Games and played on Canada’s Junior National Team.

Along with the tangible contributions, Amoroso hopes to ingrain values and strengths in his young charges.

“I learned from an early age what it meant to play every day to win,” said Amoroso. “For young athletes, it’s extremely important to understand the difference between playing and competing. Internationally, athletes make a clear distinction between playing for fun and working to get better, and this is something I hope to help instill in young athletes.”

Asked to expound on what Amoroso meant in playing, “every day to win,” he reflected on his upbringing.

“My father was a very talented soccer player growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, competing at the highest level the country had to offer at the time (early to mid-50’s) and always pushed me hard to be the best I could be, while my (Irish) mom worked hard to make sure I kept my priorities in order to get to the level I needed to get to. When I found volleyball however, my first club coach Michael Chumbley instilled levels of excellence in me and all of my teammates that most of us carry on and live by for the rest of our playing careers and into our lives after the sport.”

Currently an employee of eLTee Consultancy, which works exclusively with male and female volleyball athletes, Amoroso jumped at the opportunity to join Mississauga’s VCCE program full-time.

“When Kelly offered me the position, it was an easy choice,” added Amoroso. “I had filled in on a few occasions when Matt Harris and Dustin Reid were not available, both of whom have been mentors of mine, as an athlete and more recently on the journey into coaching. I saw an opportunity to work with some of the most committed athletes in the region, and to help push them to whatever levels they hope to achieve.”

Ultimately, Amoroso hopes some, or perhaps many of the program’s graduates, enjoy the successes and memories he experienced.

“I wanted to have the opportunity every season to outperform my contract and move to different levels,” explained Amoroso of his many travels. “It is common for volleyball players to only sign one-year contracts, especially as foreigners outside their own countries. This gives them the opportunity to move up in level and in compensation until they find somewhere they would like to stay for multiple seasons. If a club likes you, they will sign players for consecutive seasons as well under different terms.

“With all of this in mind, I loved being able to experience entirely new cultures, climates and societies every season. Living in Europe forces you to expand your mind and broaden your horizons to many different world views and ways of thinking.”

And, as a “talent scout and manager of the athletes,” for eLTee Consultancy, “helping guide them through the process, advocating for them on every level and advising them from a position of recent experience in their shoes,” Amoroso can prove to be a good sounding board for late teens considering their futures after graduating from university.

“Whether young athletes work with me and eLTee Consultancy, or another agency, I’m always available for advice and guidance in this field — my interest remains in the growth of the sport, and helping players achieve their dreams above all else.”

If nothing else, the VCCE program is certain to teach players the proper way to practice in order to strive for perfection.

As the immortal football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi once said as if to modernize that old proverb, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”