Volleyball does a terrible job of promoting itself and its history. Most other sports have legendary heroes and characters about whom we can read and hear. Volleyball does not. There is no volleyball literature. and virtually no written histories or biographies. Incredibly important figures such as Matsudaira and Platonov and Beal are virtually unknown in the wider volleyball community and even those who know of them, do not know their influence, their philosophies, their visions, their successes.
Another of those figures is Julio Velasco. An Argentinian, he moved to Italy where he had enormous success at club level, with Panini Modena, and the Italian national team. In terms of training methodology and development and success he is one of the most influential coaches of the last thirty years. And through his successes he helped drive the volleyball boom in Italy that I think we can call the Golden Age Of Volleyball (roughly 1990 to 2005). But there exists virtually nothing of his philosophies, theories or work in English. I find this quite appalling and an enormous loss for the volleyball world.
This is my first attempt at addressing that failing. The interview below appeared almost a year ago now, in the Argentinian journal LA NACION on the occasion of his returning to Argentina after thirty years as national coach. It was translated into English by fellow Argentinian coach Ruben Wolochin. I hope it adds something to the conversation.
The Thinker Of The Game
By Valeria Shapira | LA NACION
“Julio Velasco wanted to be a philosopher, but he revolutionized world volleyball with his way of leading teams. A serial winner, he has returned to the country to inspire the Argentine and off the court”
In the country of Emilio Salgari (Italy), everyone respects the man born in La Plata, who in his childhood read Sandokan. “To lead teams, sometimes you learn more from novels than from theory books,” says the reader of The Tiger of Malaysia. The same happened to him in Tehran. At the website of the news agency Tasnim, a picture of his last press conference as a coach of the Iranian volleyball team shows him strongly blowing out the candles on his 62nd birthday, surrounded by people who exude affection.
Once, the great Pep Guardiola mentioned: “There is a coach, an Argentine, named Julio Velasco who revolutionized volleyball in Italy because he won absolutely everything. I wanted to meet and learn from him.”
Sixty-two years old, daughters in Italy and so many trophies in tow but with his ego always in the same place; Julio Velasco is back just to take care of our men’s National volleyball team.
Fresh memories of youthfulness, with old friends, he is happy like the times in La Plata when had decided to study philosophy. In that city where he was born he was active in the Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR). worked cleaning windows in a bank at 8th Street and was a tutor at the National School until one day he was almost thrown out for political reasons.
He began studying Physical Education at 26. The dictatorship pushed him to move to Buenos Aires. “My mom used to came to visit me when I lived in Caballito (Buenos Aires Quartet) , on Avenida Rivadavia and La Plata street” he recalls.
Velasco always trained with his friends. On the wooden court they won every game. But once, when they were 17, they went to Mar del Plata to play a beach volleyball tournament and things did not work out because in the sand, they lost badly. On the beachfront he realised he had to eradicate what is now called the Theory of Alibis:
“We lost and my teammates blamed it on the sand because it was not like the wooden floor. I said: If you play in the sand, you have two options: you adapt yourself (and jump as you jump in the sand, where the approach is shorter) or you can not play. Things you should not do is play in the sand like indoor.”
Velasco’s philosophy it is a mix of trial and books. High wisdom, experience and low profile.
A feeling which comes into the body from the beginning of the talk: everything you say about the sport will be useful or related to a life experience.
Fatto in casa (Made in Home)
The Italian picture was like this: Volleyball teams were traveling through Europe with excess baggage. Heavy crates were rarely filled with training material or material but the spaghetti was weighed. At destinations, the physio was cooking and the players were happy eating the menu fatto in casa (also in the bags were ham, tomatoes and other things that put them safe from the customs of other tastes). To Julio Velasco had happened what many times happens to good coaches: they are called to train teams that did not win. When he arrived in Italy, he told the players that “On Tour NO Spagetti anymore” but we eat what is given to us in each country.
Did he succeed?
At first many people used to say to me, “You do not understand the Italian mentality”. I explained that you had to eat to have energy to train. To make the effort to understand local customs, to adapt to the challenge and to beat them, is one of the victories to be achieved. When a player says he can not play a good reception because the light of the stadium hit into his eyes, what do we do? Should we call the electrician, who is responsible for the current situation? Do we blame the manager of the gym because our defeat?
Like in Beach Volleyball.
Yes. Playing well is not intuition, it is about opening the correct file, processing it, finding a solution for the moment and performing it well technically. If you’re good, you’re going to correct your mistakes and you will overcome this difficulty. The situations we would face are never like what we do expect them to be. They are what they are and that’s it. The difficulties are not obstacles. They are that which you used to develop antibodies. One must always overcome the limits. Remove the driving record at age 45, going to the center by car and return happy because you did not break any mirror, but do instead of thinking big. Be willing to learn. And to improve your weaknesses.
How is a situation reversed in a team that always loses?
When I arrived in Italy I heard many theories. Some said they lost because in Italian primary schools you are not giving importance to physical education. Others had the idea that the Italians are not concentrated like the Russians, for example, you are good at chess and not so good in football.
And what was your diagnosis?
I simply asked: “Boys, could it be that we lose because we play badly?”
Impossible not to take over (take the ownership)
We are all champions at the bar. But on the court we must solve situations. We don’t have time to drink coffee.
Does it happen only to Latin Americans?
You got it coaching anywhere. Sometimes it bothers me that people are so surprise about it. In Iran we were discussing the same things. You will always meet with people who can not try or people who think that it is too difficult.
Velasco says that he always worked “to persuade people.” He hates computers because he can not persuade them. At first, when a computer got blocked, he used to call one of his daughters. She told him what normally a daughter says: “Dad, it’s easy”. Move apart and let me fix it for you. From that Velasco drew conclusions to manage on the court with the players. “There is no easy or difficult, but things someone can or can not do it. Is no good to run alongside a player to tell him that you will do the things on his behalf. It doesn’t add anything and it makes the other person feel like an idiot.”
Cleaning windows at a bank of La Plata was not unpleasant. The fight came when clients pushed the door with fingers instead of using the knob. What bothers Velasco the most was that people do not put themselves in the place of the other. “Leadership it is partly learning something new, to be on the side of those who clean,” he says now.
It also requires a great deal of humility. Do we apply the Argentines?
Argentinians are not presumptuous. What happens is that we do not realize that the good things that we do, others do as well. Here there is talent but also outside Argentina. That puts us on equal footing in the competition. It is not enough to do things well. The other team can do them better, and then we lose. Things have to be done better than others. The winning mentality is achieved by winning. And when you win, the problem is how to remain a winner. Usually we see brief cycles of winning teams, and then the picture changes. It is not, that people do not want to keep winning, but when you think that you are good, there’s another side that lost and is striving to move forward.
It happens in all areas, not only in sport. In fact, you give lectures in business leadership and teamwork.
Yes. Before, a businessman did everything well and was quiet. Today, the competition is so big that if you do it not better, the future will not ensure anyone.
So against whom should we play?
Against the best. That helps you to see what differences you have with them, and how you can overcome yourself. Then analyse the victories as if they were defeats to work hard and see how to move forward.
In the short list of anecdotes, Velasco noted his encounters with Pep Guardiola. The Catalan called while playing for Brescia and repeated when he was named coach of Barcelona. They talked about everything. Velasco said that “every player has a right key to be push” and had to leave the idea that everyone deserves the same treatment, because some people need long and deep conversations, while others like to talk only in the training and there are some who can not talk without having a coffee. Coaches rely on players, not vice versa, and therefore we must be careful in dealing in the drive way to where you want to go. After the second meeting, Pep asked him an opinion on how to continue when a team wins. “We had a good talk, I said what I believed then Thierry Henry a few days later left.”
You have said that teamwork is not a matter of ideology or romanticism.
Teamwork is not an ethical issue.
It is all about a method and how to implement it. In a team there are roles, and you will not find things left to goodwill. There are the best, they are best for this particular team. The more established the method the lower the chance of conflict.
How is it in practice?
In practice, that’s why you go to that ball, and do it!!!. The next guy is doing something else. And simultaneously, we all play together.
What does a leader do in front of a new team?
First you have to make a diagnosis, to look at what you have. And set priorities. To change ten things at once will generate little enthusiasm and results won’t be seen. A leader has to produce quality leaps, not mere improvements. When you promote real excitement a player is transformed into another level of player.
You were Head of the Lazio and Inter. But Silvio Berlusconi proposed you to join the coaching staff at Milan, but you said no. Did he call you directly?
No. In a press conference during his political campaign he was asked if Velasco was interesting to Milan, and he said yes, he wanted me to be there along with two other former players to be part of the staff with me on the bench.
Why did you not accept it?
I have another concept of things. He thinks that someone who is capable and charismatic, under certain conditions,will work. I believe in specialization: if you do not know the subject, charisma is diluted.
Beyond the sport, how was the experience in Iran?
Interesting! They are very good people. They are educated, have great respect for the family and have something strong with investitures. In the dining room of the club they would not let me get in line to receive food because I was the coach and I always have to be first. It’s another culture. They are very good at the art of agreeing. Contrary to what is sometimes seen in its foreign policy, Iranian negotiate for a long time before a conflict. Then there are the customs, everything is different. Women dominate in college, but at the same time do not want the girls to go to court because that say bad words. Religion is very strong. For Catholics, the woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, which cares for the family. In Islam she is the sister of Muhammad, whom you have to care for and protect. There is much respect for the Koran. The difference is that in the West the Kings beat the Popes.
Anyway, I think that to train young people is the same anywhere in the world.
Yes. You have to adapt to the cultures, you must have a discipline, be consistent (and look like so too). I give more holidays to the players than other coaches, but I also train longer. I understand some particular situations such as having a girlfriend somewhere else and need a few days to go to visit her for example.
Are you interested in politics as in your youth?
Of course. Although I do not think it’s time to talk about my ideas. I have an institutional position, I coach the national team.
All right. But how do you see the country?
The ones who comes always sees the things better than the ones who are living here everyday. That’s my feeling
What about your childhood friends?
When I was young, all my friends were anti-military. Now, first I have to watch out who may I sit down on the same table. Are you pro or against!!!!.
The idea of changing the world, Is still there?
I used to think you could. Now, at least, we must have the duty to resist, not to lose. And not to lose the desire to create cultural microcosmos.
Something that scares you?
Retirement. I do not want to stop doing things.
Where you focus when you are not at work?
I spend time with friends (especially Argentinians), and family. I read. I read a lot and buy books in bulk to give away. I give to the players (though I never ask them if they read), especially of Latin American writers.
I like everything. When I see volleyball games, I removed the audio and put in a disc. Now I’m listening to De André (Fabrizio).
Do you listen to the music and sing too?
Once I had to sing in a radio. It was when I was in Lazio. There was an interview where they told me that Eriksson (Sven-Göran, the coach of the Lazio) was humming a song in Swedish that had promised to sing if he lost a bet, which effectively he lost. I was asked if I would able to sing if Lazio wins seven straight games, sing a tango. And it happened. I bought a CD of Julio Sosa because I found my voice worked well in his tone. I put it in the car every day to learn it well. I sang and I kept the promise.
How many times have you returned to Argentina since you left country?
Many. My autonomy last maximum a year out of Argentina.
When you live in Italy, do you save a little nostalgia?
The culinary nostalgia and your friends are inevitable.
Yes. I remember a funny anecdote. I once said that Argentina pizza was unmatched. At the end of a game, instead of asking for the result, a journalist rebuked me: “Is it true that you said that your country’s pizza is better than Italian?” And he argued that I said that because we were in the north, he would like to see if I dared to say the same in Naples.
Why have you returned?
I can now give myself the pleasure of coaching here, even earn less money, Travelling to the world with the National Team. And I oay back, especially, the free education I received in Argentina.
Almost two hours of starting the interview, Velasco speaks of Borges, of the three times he read “Hopscotch” of Cortazar; Norberto Bobbio and the difficulties that politicians have to govern in a world where the economy is in crisis. He is a particular idol, with a tight schedule but low anxiety to finish the interview, no problems to skip the lunch and eat standing a piece of cake, to pose for pictures. He had warned me earlier that “the brain betrays” and is useless to prevent him that some Italian comes in a statement. In that language, deliberately, he asks what is written about him keeps a “”perfil bajo, ti raccomando”. Tonight, as always, the wise nature will return him to the origins: when you are tired and fall asleep, the teacher Velasco will just think in Spanish.
(photo from original article)