Julio Velasco is one of the most successful coaches in the world. In Italy, the Argentinian born coach is an icon, since he formed the Italian National Team into the ‘Generazione di Fenomeni’ in the early 90s, a team which went on to win three world championships. Since 2019 the just turned 70 year old has been working with the Italian Volleyball Federation as Technical Director for the Junior Men. Conny Kurth talked with Velasco about his methods and philosophy. The original article appeared in German in the January 2022 edition of Volleyball Magazin.
The Italian juniors are currently going through a successful period. Since Julio Velasco took his post, the junior mean have an impressive record: one gold at the U19 World Championships, silver and gold at the U21 World Championships together with gold at the U18 European Championships and silver at the U20 European Championships. And the successful partnership between the federation and coach continues with the contract being recently extended for another three years.
Mr Velasco, what is the secret of the current success of the Italian teams? There is no secret. There are many countries with good junior development systems. That includes not only Italy, but also Brazil, Argentina, Poland and Russia. Other countries such as Germany are close behind. The difference is the number of the clubs who work with juniors and the quality of the coaches. The investment of the federation includes Club Italia with the women (a combined junior team that plays together in the professional league), a program that for example also exists in Germany and France. This is important but not enough. To reduce yourself only to such a program without bringing the clubs on board, develops just a few players.
There is only a Talent Team Club Italia for women? The Federation decided not to continue with the project on the men’s side. I think that was a good decision. If you take 15 women out of their clubs, it is no problem, there are so many players. If you do it with 15 guys, that is too many. We are working to improve the situation in the clubs, especially the small clubs. The professional clubs work at a good level. They have coaches, training clothes, basically everything. The small clubs don’t have that. We have to help them. In place of Club Italia (for men), the young talents from every region will come during the season for a week to Rome and work with our coaches. That way we will develop more players.
What else do you and the Italian Federation do? We work directly with the clubs and their coaches. For example, during the lockdowns of last year, I held two online courses. One for all coaches who have players in one of the three junior national teams, even in the larger squads. Another for all the coaches who have responsibility in their own regions. There were eight three hour lectures in each.
What exactly did you explain to the coaches? For example, one important point is how to find players in the first place. For women, volleyball is like football for the men. All women want to play this sport. There is no competition. On the men’s side this is a big problem throughout the world. We must actively search for players and not just wait for those who perhaps want to play volleyball. And it is not only about big players, but all players. We need quantity. Another point is how practice is organised. There is a tradition in volleyball to waste a lot of time. We do long warmups or even drills that don’t make players better. Everyone has the problem of limited practice time. For a one and a half hour practice, half an hour is warmup.
If you compare in Italy and Germany, it is clear that in the recent past Italy has won many medals and Germany hardly any. Why is that? Germany is a big surprise for me. It is a leading country in nearly every area. There is a high cultural level. In addition people understand how to work and to organise. Yet despite that, there are few coaches. For example I ask myself why for a long time there have only been foreign National Team coaches. Especially for young players, the coach is decisive.
In the junior ranks in Germany there are a lot of coaches who in the end prefer to work as teachers. You can do both. The fathers of volleyball in Italy, Franco Anderlini in Modena, Renzo de Chicca in Parma and Angelo Costa in Ravenna did exactly that. They worked in the mornings in the school as teachers and were in the gym in the afternoons as coaches. Okay, that was after the war. But why is that no longer possible? The teachers now have different hobbies. We need more people whose hobby it is to be a coach. To the same extent that we search for players, we have to also search for coaches. We can’t afford to wait. Perhaps it is also useful to look harder at ex players.
What influence does the level and importance of the professional leagues have on juniors? The Italian League has been strong for generations. That is not so important. For example Argentina has always been in the top four or five in the world in recent years although the league isn’t especially good, because all the players move abroad. There are more than 40 Argentinian players who play abroad. That means young players play in the top league.
Are you satisfied with the development of the men’s programs since you came to the position in 2019? I am happy with it, but we can improve a lot. It is not useful to only win junior competitions, or finish in the top four. That is not enough. We have to have a volleyball movement. It is necessary the raise the level in all clubs. And we have to find more players with potential. I don’t care if a player is the best at 16. It is important to me how he is at 20 or 22.
When and how do you recognise potential in players? The younger the players, obviously the more difficult it is. For me there are five decisive points. The first two are objective criteria. I look at the reach height and not the body height. There a player who is 1.90m with long arms can be higher than a player who is 2m. In addition, I pay attention to the jumping ability. I also notice the speed. Who can jump, is also fast. The remaining three points are subjective. What is his basic technical level? How is his game play? The two are not necessarily the same. There are players without good technique, who have understood how the game functions. And lastly there is learning ability. Some players have already reached their top level by the time they are 16, 17 or 18. We are looking for players who are continually improving. From my experience, this characteristic has nothing to do with intelligence or will. There are players who are very intelligent but come to a point where they don’t improve any more. And there are others who can take instruction for their whole lives.
With Alessandro Michieletto Italy has a 20 year old Superstar. Is he such a player? All top players fulfil all points. Everybody is talking about Michieletto at the moment. His reach is unbelievable, he can jump and he is very intelligent. And he is 2.05m and not many are. We have to pay attention that we don’t always talk about players such as these with outstanding physical characteristics. These are not normally reachable goals for the kids that play volleyball. Players who are 1.90m are closer to them. And Giba, Michal Kubiak or Samuel Papi show what is possible with this height. That creates enthusiasm.
What do you still want to achieve with Italy’s volleyballers? My goal is for the Italian junior Development Program to be the best in the world. We want to develop players for the Superlega and for the National Team. From the current U21 team we have ten players in the Superlega. Five are starters. That is not so bad.
Do you miss working as a coach yourself? I work with the junior teams in practice. Generally, I prefer practice than matches. I like teaching and working with players. At that moment it feels a little like having given up smoking. Sometimes you just miss the cigarette. Honestly, I don’t know yet if I will extend my contract here. I will follow my feelings. If I have a good option as a coach, maybe I will do that again. But I don’t plan too far ahead. I have never done that.