Vyacheslav Platonov is by any measure one the greatest coaches of all time. In addition to his achievements on the court he also found the time to write several books. These were mostly classical autobiographical works. However, his final book was intended to be a coaching handbook. This book, entitled ‘My Profession: The Game’ has now been translated into English. It is available at lulu.com in ebook format and also as a hardcover and on iTunes as an ebook. These are my thoughts on the book…
They say that children are frontrunners. So it was only natural that as soon as I started to take interest in volleyball I would be attracted to the best, and at that time the very best team was indisputably the national team of the Soviet Union. Given that my father is Russian, and had personal contact with the coach, it was hardly surprising that when my classmates were writing the names of their favourite footballers or rock bands on their schoolbags, I had written on my Asics (not coincidently the same brand as that worn by the team) sports bag the names of Savin and Zaitsev, with their playing numbers in the script that was used on their shirts. None of my school friends had any clue what those names meant and truth be known, neither did I. After all, I was merely a frontrunner.
For whatever reasons, the achievements of that group, under the leadership of their coach Platonov, no longer seem to resonate as strongly as the victories of their predecessors and successors. The fact is that between 1977 and 1985, the Soviet Union national team won every major international event in which they participated. In that period they won one Olympic gold medal, two World Championships, two World Cups and five European Championships. No other team or coach, in any era, has approached that level of success. Not the Japanese under Matsudaira, the Americans under Beal / Dunphy, the Italians under Velasco / Bebeto, nor the Brazilians under Bernardinho. All were indisputably great, but none sustained the highest level of excellence for as long as Platonov’s Soviets.
Despite those successes, Platonov was forced to leave the National Team for health reasons after losing the 1985 World Cup, and was not allowed to return due to various political reasons. From the point of his departure the fortunes of the Soviet team plummeted. Silver medals at the 1986 World Championships and 1988 Olympics were barely acceptable and the down slide culminated in a humiliating loss to Sweden at the 1989 European Championships. That era saw the rise of western European volleyball, with Italy, France, Holland and Sweden emerging as world powers. None of this could have been pleasant for a Soviet hierarchy, added to their own problems at home, as their Empire slowly disintegrated.
Against this backdrop, Platonov was recalled to the National Team in 1990. What followed may have been the greatest of his coaching achievements. Led by exciting new talents like Fomin and Olikvher a new dawn lit the horizon for Platonov’s team and in 1991 they won the European Championships, beating World Champion Italy in the final, and the World Cup. I recently re-watched the final of the European Championships after many years and was astounded by what I saw. In 1991, the era of specialisation was well and truly established. Even Platonov’s last Soviet team had played a highly specialised system, and yet this team harked back to volleyball from 1980 or earlier. Somehow against all prevailing wisdom he fashioned a non-specialised system, with multiple receivers, blockers changing positions and spikers attacking from all six positions on the court. This must surely be the only time when a team was successful by going back in time, something only a true master coach could have achieved.
During his life he wrote several books, none of which have been translated from their original Russian. His last book, not quite completed before his death in 2005, was intended to be a handbook for coaches, and is exactly that. It is a beautifully simple and elegant description of the coach’s work, full of sage advice and warnings for the various pitfalls that all coaches must go through. It also contains surprises, the greatest of which is the tone of his writing. Given that it is written by a coach who did much of his work in the 1970’s and 1980’s and lived in the greatest autocratic system of the twentieth century, it is surprisingly not the book of an autocrat. Rewritten with a more florid prose and a few Zen quotations it could easily be taken for a lost Phil Jackson book, proving perhaps that, in coaching at least, truth is universal.
Platonov was not a mystic, nor a moralist. His sport is not the Olympian sport and he is not the deliverer of life’s lessons. He never speaks of sport or coaching in any way other than what it is: an endeavour pursued by humans with excellence as its goal. Perhaps he is best described as a craftsman; a master craftsman.
Later as I became, in order, a fan, a player, a student of the game and a professional coach, the shadow of what to me is clearly the greatest volleyball team in history has loomed ever larger. That so little information or video exists of that era in English somehow only increases their legendary status in my eyes. I am reminded of a story told to me by one of the few Australians, who was able to see the Soviets at their absolute peak. For years they had heard how great Savin was and had such high expectations of what he would actually be like that they never imagined he could reach them. To their surprise, he not only met those expectations, but surpassed them. I feel the same way about this book.