Karpol – Lunatics And Talent Development

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Reading this interview with famous Russian women’s coach (and dual Olympic gold medallist) Nikolai Karpol inspired me to head for the bookshelf and pick up my copy of his book to give it a quick reread.  Every volleyball coach and player should have a copy of this book.  Not because it’s a great book, but because it is one of only a handful of volleyball books / biographies written in English.  Probably because he was interviewed in Russian, the book was written in Croatian and it was translated into English it isn’t a really easy read.  But it is a decent insight into one the great coaches and it does have quite a few really interesting points.  For example…

“Young girl players, and the same is true for men, need to get involved in training with older players as soon as possible, for they will then be able to put together the little stones of the understanding of the game into a mosaic.  It reminds of the many little pictures that make up a film.  Even by just watching the best players, those they admire, young players can learn a great deal.  Not to mention training with them.

At the age of thirteen a talented child, by training with adults can learn in two weeks what she would need a year to learn by working with her peers.  This is no exaggeration.  it is therefore necessary periodically to organise combined training sessions for seniors and juniors.  In this way the players, apart from technique, learn stability.”

Every (ex-)player I have ever spoken to on the topic agrees wholeheartedly with this experience supported, entirely logical* and scientifically supported**, notion.  And yet much talent development continues to ignore this basic principle.  Of the countless reasons why holding (Australian) National Junior Championships for all age groups simultaneously is a bad idea, one of the biggest is the negative impact on individual player development.  Previously players were able to play with, or at least try out for, older age groups thus accelerating their development.  Under the current system I have even experienced talented players being forbidden from playing with players older.

In Germany it better, but only a bit.  Talented juniors are concentrated into development groups of the same age group.  They remain in these age groups until they graduate from junior ranks having never, or hardly ever, trained with anyone older than them.  To compound the situation, while they participate in adult competitions their results don’t count; they can’t play playoffs, they can’t be relegated.  So when they reach the ‘professional’ level they have played only a few actual competitive matches and have rarely even had to compete for a position.

Karpol would be shaking his head.


* Practicing with older players provides a more challenging environment (i.e. one required for deliberate practice) and older players are able to share invaluable experience, particularly in the area of game understanding.

** Bruce Abernethy of The University of Queensland has researched this very topic, here, among other places.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2


  1. I’ve heard Kevin Barnett talk about this area on The Net Live. He feels that European youth are advantaged by playing within a club system – where they can see the stars train and play, and potentially train and play with them.

    Surely within Australia it is the role of the State League clubs to provide this experience, rather than playing up an age within a National championship. Within a club team a “promising” junior can train twice a week and play a full season with experienced players of a high standard compared with training at best once a week and then only at one tournament within a state representative team.

    I see the nationals as an opportunity for young athletes to put together all the club team learning and test them selves against their peers.

    Whilst it would be advantageous if clubs/association/administrative bodies played an active role in this, it seems to me that If we take ‘The 3 Levels of Effective Practice’ to a season/career wide view then the athlete (& parent/supporter?) must identify were/how they can improve and attach themselves to this environment.


    1. For the development of the athlete the best scenario is to have the opportunity to play at higher levels AS WELL AS their own. It should be EVERYONE’S goal to provide those opportunities. The current Australian system doesn’t allow it. The fact that state junior teams only train once a week for three months and then only play one week long tournament is another limiting factor to player development. Staggered age level tournaments allow(ed) talented players to have more higher level training over the course of a longer period as well as more competitive opportunities.
      As I said there are countless reasons why a single NJC is a bad idea.


      1. Plus the tournament is hard on the officials. You start with the daily meeting at 7:30 and the nature of the time slots for the games means that you could be assigned a 19;30 game which starts after 21:00. The Technical Delegates then have to stay up after midnight while they assess how the referee corps are going and work out their appointments for the next day. There must be a better way.


  2. Concerning Germany: In the state of Schleswig-Holstein, many junior teams need to integrate younger players into their group because there is not enough talent to clearly separate an U18 from an U16 team for example. Therefore the state championships of U16 are held on the same wekkend as those for the U20 teams well as those for the U14 and U18 teams. Which gives them the freedom to use U18 players on their U20 team, U16 players on the U18 team and U14 players on the U16 team. That gives at least some room for a development.


    1. For Germany I was thinking more of the situation where players in Internats play against adults, but never with them because they are outside clubs. And that all of the matches they play in competition are ‘ausser konkurrenz’. They never play for anything.


  3. I have also read this book and remember it for another reason: Karpol alleged that he can (unlike others) influence the player´s growth. I have never heard that from any other coach.


    1. It was a great comment by him. Although if you think about what he actually wrote it was that diet and training can influence growth, which is completely true.
      The bigger one for me was what he wrote about having understood something unique about the human spirit (or something similar) that enabled him to coach in a unique way. That is intriguing.


      1. I agree. There are many aspects in this book why I should read it once again. Especially the gentle way he speaks about his players suprised me since I only knew his behaviour during time outs before.

        As regards the player’s growth: If we assume that there is no connection to the doping system of the soviet union and it was only nutrition and climatic conditions which influenced the player’s growth. Why do other nations (as far as I know) forgo using this advantage? Too expensive?


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