Doug Beal, The Man Who Reinvented Volleyball

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The following interview was conducted by Sidronio Henrique, a Brazilian journalist who covers volleyball in Brazilian and Canadian publications. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the recent World Championships and he was gracious enough to allow me to reproduce this interview with Doug Beal. The original article appeared on the Brazilian website

Doug Beal is a reference when it comes to volleyball. His interventions in the American team in the second half of the Olympic cycle towards Los Angeles 1984 resulted in a new passing system, something that also brought changes for attacking and blocking. Team USA grabbed the gold at those Olympic Games and also won every major for the next four years. Since those days, volleyball has never been the same.

He is currently the president of the American Volleyball Federation (USAV) and tries to popularize the sport in a market that loves baseball, American football and basketball. He has not advanced that much, but still believes it is possible to get a generous slice of the attention of the American public. “We need a very strong sponsor”, says Beal.

The man who created the modern volleyball is 67 years-old. He complains that volleyball is very physical now, that every team plays almost the same, and says the sport needs some changes. He talked about the 1984 squad, the development of the sport and about his plans to make it big in the USA.


Reporter – How could a team that had been placed 13th at the 1982 World Championship become Olympic champion in 1984? What happened in a span of just two years?

Doug Beal – Sometimes the outcome of a tournament does not reflect reality. The worlds in 1982 had 24 teams divided into six groups of four, only two moved on to play for the first to the 12th place, while others vied for the consolation tournament, from the 13th to the 24th place. Our team had played together for the first time in the previous year, we were just beginning to make some adjustments and our pool at that tournament in Argentina was very strong. (Editor’s note: In pool play Team USA finished third in a pool where they beat Chile 3-0, losing 2-3 to a strong Bulgaria, with 14-16 in the fifth set, and 0-3 for then the best team in the world, Soviet Union, but with very tight scores in every set)

However, our squad was already a good team, we had practically the same players that would eventually participate at the Los Angeles Olympics, so the 13th place in the 1982 worlds definitely did not reflect our status back then. The USSR was certainly the best team that year. Who was the runner up at that World Championship?


Reporter – Brazil.

Doug Beal – Brazil was not the second best team in that tournament, though strong, but in a long tournament like that some things may happen and favor, even unintentionally, to a certain team and affect some others.


Reporter – How was the preparation of the team that would become Olympic champion in Los Angeles 1984? When those innovations started?

Doug Beal – Our training program for the 1984 Olympics began in 1981, but it was in the summer of 1983, about a year before the Olympic Games, that we had a huge improvement. Until 1983 we played as the other teams in the world, you know, with that system with five players passing. Everyone used to copy the Eastern European squads, with some adaptations here and there, like the quick plays from the Japanese, but volleyball was still not very popular in the western countries. My staff and I implemented the passing system with two players, who at the time were Karch Kiraly and Aldis Berzins, which allowed us a lot of variations in the attack, a different kind of game. We also made some changes in the blocking system, switching positions. We did make a lot of changes and in 1984 our team was very well adjusted. We had a goal, the gold at the Olympics in 1984, and when the competition started we were fine-tuned.


Reporter – Beyond all tactical innovations, surely the human material enabled a great leap in such a short time.

Doug Beal – Ah, we had great players, some were still very young, but they quickly evolved. Guys like Steve Timmons, Karch Kiraly, Craig Buck, among others. It was amazing how they responded to training.


Reporter – A recurrent discussion among volleyball fans involves Los Angeles 1984. Some say that if it were not for the USSR boycott to those Olympics, in retaliation for the American’s absence in the Moscow Games in 1980, the USSR would have won the gold in men’s volleyball. We all remember that Team USA proved they were superior to the USSR from 1985 to 1988, winning all the major competitions, but there are those who argue that in 1984 the USSR would still be superior. What do you say about it?

Doug Beal – This story always resurfaces… You know the Soviets did not lose even in friendlies, (coach Vyacheslav) Platonov did not like to lose at all. Two months before the Los Angeles Olympics, our team was in the USSR and played four times against them in the city of Kharkiv, which is now part of Ukraine, and we won all four matches. I have no doubt that we already had the best team in 1984.


Reporter – The game system created by USA was a major innovation at the time, soon became standard, but how much has changed over the past 30 years? What do you think of volleyball today? It is more interesting than 30 years ago?

Doug Beal – The game now has some problems, I particularly think the matches are too short, even though I know it is best for television. I really like the rally scoring system, without having to sideout before scoring as we had before. The current system imposes more responsibility to the teams, more pressure, you have to be careful because every mistake results in a point for the opponent. But only 25 points to close a set is a bit short, especially for men’s volleyball.

The annoying thing is that everyone plays the same, same speed, same game system, especially in men’s volleyball. Back then there were different schools: USA played different from Brazil, which played different from the USSR, which played different from Japan… Today the game is very much based on the physical condition of the players, who are very strong and too tall. Also, as the teams use their athleticism for attacking and serving, we see a lot of mistakes. I have seen matches where 30% of the serves resulted in errors – that is a lot.

But there are good things too, like the point system that I have mentioned. I liked the introduction of the libero, who helped to balance defense when the attack was becoming too strong. It is good that there is some concern about extending the rallies. I think it is great that now we have the video challenge, an adaptation of something done in tennis. We really have to take advantage of technology and bring it to volleyball. It was a very good measure taken by FIVB.

Something that bothers me a lot is not on the court, but has to do with the organization of the schedule.


Reporter – Do you think there are too many games with little time to rest?

Doug Beal – Exactly. There are too many games today. Back in the 1980s we trained more, the schedule was not a problem for teams and clubs. Currently, in most cases, the athletes barely have time to recover, which generates a lot of trouble, some injuries are aggravated because of that. There are more tournaments between national teams and the club leagues are longer.


Reporter – Karch Kiraly has made some suggestions to change the rule about receiving, asking the referees to become stricter, he wants to ban the double touch when the receiver volleys, yet allowing it for defense. Do you agree with that? Would you say the sport became uglier because some rules were loosened up, such as the one for receiving?

Doug Beal – I really do not know how becoming stricter with the rules again will help the game, after all we are talking about a subjective interpretation. A referee may think that it was a double touch, some other maybe not. Whenever you leave something open to interpretation there will be some doubt on someone’s part. The current way is fine, yet it is not always beautiful. Generally I agree with Karch proposals, but this is not the case. You know something that really bothers me?


Reporter – What?

Doug Beal – Tipping. It is not good for the game, is something poor. In my point of view, we should make it as difficult as possible to the attack, so defense should have some advantage, making the rallies longer. The tip kills it.


Reporter – Some changes can be good, but don’t you think that interfering too much could mischaracterize the sport?

Doug Beal – I wish FIVB created a committee bringing together coaches, players, referees, delegates, people from marketing and television, so that they could discuss possible changes every year. Look, American football and basketball make small adjustments whenever possible, sometimes minimal things, but with the goal of making the game more attractive and it has worked well. Why not try it with volleyball? An important aspect is that no one is closer to the sport than the coaches, so it is essential that they have a voice, and that players are heard too.


Reporter – Since 2012 you have been trying to establish a professional volleyball league in the United States. How is this project going so far?

Doug Beal – Volleyball is popular here in the United States among women, not so much among men, but with no doubt it is growing in many areas of the country, besides those where it already have been played, such as California and Hawaii. Our professional league is still embryonic, we need a very strong sponsor, someone who is willing to invest a lot in the beginning to reap the rewards later, but I believe we will succeed. It is complicated, we have a country of continental dimensions, seven time zones if you count from the east coast to Hawaii, we have to tackle tough logistics issues. A positive aspect is that it is quite seen on TV during the Olympics. Here in the USA volleyball has good audience ratings during the Olympic Games, and I speak not only about beach volleyball, but also indoor.


Reporter – Why this visibility that the sport has there during the Olympics does not reflect in the following years?

Doug Beal – We have no space on TV schedule, it is very expensive for us. That’s why the World League and the World Grand Prix are so important to USAV because the participating countries have to broadcast the matches, so the American audience has some volleyball on TV outside of the Olympics. Moreover, in the case of the World League, some matches are played at home and it helps a lot to promote the sport.


Reporter – When will we see the United States hosting a major tournament like the World Championship? (Editor’s note: This interview was made in early July)

Doug Beal – Next year, for the first time in history, we will host the finals of the World Grand Prix. Games will be held in the city of Omaha, Nebraska. Incidentally, this is another American state where volleyball has good popularity. We are convinced it will be a great event, a huge opportunity to promote the sport here in the USA. We want to go ahead and we are negotiating with FIVB to host the finals of the World League in 2016. FIVB has been working hard to help us to promote the sport in our country.


Reporter – Former player Lloy Ball once said that volleyball is a second-class citizen in the world of sports. Do you agree with this statement?

Doug Beal – There are places where volleyball is extremely popular. If we take a closer look, only football (soccer) would be considered a first-class sport, as it is played and watched worldwide. Baseball is very strong here and in some countries, but who watches baseball in Brazil or in Europe? I do not mean that we have reached the recognition we could. Undoubtedly, volleyball could enlarge its economic and commercial status, and could also gain more respect, but this is something that FIVB and the national federations are working on.


Reporter – When Ary Graça was elected for the presidency of the FIVB in 2012 you were one of the candidates. Do you consider running for president once again?

Doug Beal – Depends on Ary Graça.


Reporter – What do you mean?

Doug Beal – I’m happy to help, to cooperate with FIVB. I plan to keep working only for a few more years. I am aware that a number of things need to be done, something must change in the international federation.


Reporter – Could you be more specific?

Doug Beal – The national federations and continental confederations need to be more professional, we should increase the use of technology, and the quality of the events around the world should be improved. There are too many volleyball tournaments, this situation creates some dispersion. Just observe football, even though they have some tournaments, FIFA World Cup is what really matters, everyone knows that it is the main championship of that sport.

For sure we have positive aspects, too. The two World Championships, in Poland (men’s) and Italy (women’s) are being well promoted. (Editor’s note: This interview was made in early July 2014) FIVB and the national federations of these two countries are working hard and I believe the outcome will be great. The people in charge of the Polish federation are creative, we need more people like them in the volleyball scenario. The fact that the opening game of the men’s worlds will be held in a football stadium is a very strong statement and I believe it will help to promote volleyball internationally.


Reporter – All right, let’s say those two tournaments are being well promoted, but is it not bad for volleyball that the competitions are almost always in the same countries? Almost every year we have competitions in Japan. How many tournaments we have had in Poland and in Italy in recent years? Quite a lot. Don’t you think we should have more options for hosting?

Doug Beal – You have to go where the audience enjoys volleyball, buy tickets and go to the halls.


Reporter – OK, but what is being done to expand the number of countries where volleyball would be popular?

Doug Beal – The work is being done, but it takes time. We have just talked about the fact that in 2015, for the first time, the United States will host the World Grand Prix finals. It is also the first time our women’s team will compete in one phase of the WGP at home. I am convinced the arena will be packed in Omaha.


Reporter – When you won the gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984 you wrote a book (“Spike”). After the 2006 World Championship, Bernardo Rezende also released a book (“Turning Sweat into Gold”, in a loose translation). This year, finally, the book on coaching techniques written by Vyacheslav Platonov (coach of the USSR from 1977 to 1985, among other teams) was translated into English (“My Profession – The Game”). The literature devoted to volleyball seems rather poor. Have you thought about updating “Spike” or even on writing a new book?

Doug Beal – I never thought about writing a book again, it is a hard work. Why don’t you write one?


Reporter – As you said, it takes a lot of work. (Laughs) Also, I am sure you have much more to say than I would. Don’t you think these books are important for volleyball?

Doug Beal – Some teams with great achievements, such as Brazil in the past decade, perhaps gain a lot of attention, but in general these books do well only in the first weeks after being released. I am not saying they are bad or unimportant, but writing and releasing a book requires a lot of planning. I agree that volleyball needs literature, but it is a complicated task. Recently Misty May-Treanor (beach volleyball player, three-time Olympic champion) released a biography. We also have several varsity coaches here in USA that wrote some books. I want to make clear that I knew Platonov very well, he was a great coach, so is Bernardinho. Any contribution from people like Platonov or Rezende will always be important. I did not even consider updating “Spike”. It was kind of surprising you mentioned it, I still have a few copies in my garage in California.


Reporter – I read a quote attributed to you, that a coach cannot become friends with his athletes, as it would affect their work. You actually said that?

Doug Beal – Yes, I said it.


Reporter – What did you mean by that statement?

Doug Beal – A coach should take the athletes to their limits, should go beyond the comfort zone. A coach needs to be respected, to have authority. Maybe the assistant could be that friend, they could be pals, but the coach cannot be. If you are concerned about being friends with the players, so you are not going anywhere.

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