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Return to Train/Play: Volleyball

For folks in the volleyball community, coaches like Sheldon Root and so many others that are truly passionate about the sport, there is a "missing link" to the Return to Play guidelines that the Northern Chill Volleyball Club and their entire provincial brethren must follow.

Yes, there is an element of physical distancing that is fundamental to the sport itself.

"Technically, we are a non-contact sport," Root explained recently. "The only deliberate contact that we might have would be through the ball that we use." In that sense, practice sessions look only mildly different from pre-COVID sessions.

"The practice plans themselves haven't necessarily changed, but when you layer the COVID protocols on top of that, which the OVA (Ontario Volleyball Association) has done a very good job of putting together to give us guidance on how to move forward, there are some key differences," Root continued.

"The most material one for the coaches, based on conversations that I've had, is the lack of interaction between the coach and the equipment and the athletes. In my first three practices, I had not touched the ball at all, and that's a little uncomfortable for some individuals. I'm fine with it at an older age group, but at younger age groups, I can see where that would become more difficult."

Beyond that, player adjustments are relatively minimal, although with the changes to wear masks at all times, there is a degree of discomfort for the athletes.

"There can be no more than six kids on either side of the court, at any given time, and they are not to cross the net or change groups, throughout the practice," noted Root. "As of about two weeks ago, all participants must wear masks at all times. This seems to be a movement that is in line with other sports."

And much like other sports, pre-practice protocols remain in place, including the competion of a standard health questionnaire.

"Obviously, our hygiene habits are much more closely monitored than ever before - hand sanitization and ball sanitization and such. But overall, the drills themselves can be modified without too much difficulty. Because the sport of volleyball already has an inherent lack of contact, drills do not require substantial changes."

"The exception might be drills that used to involve heavy coach interaction; so coaches have to think outside of the box, finding ways to teach the same skills through drills where you don't necessarily initiate the ball," outlined Root. "But the impact to the kids should be more touches, which is good."

And while some sports might have to shelve the introduction of systems in favour of more skill-oriented workouts, Root is confident that both can still be accomplished safely with a well thought-out volleyball practice plan.

"We are still able to run our offensive and defensive systems," he said. "All of the fundamental skills of volleyball can still be effectively trained in a drill scenario, as well as in a modified game scenario."

So what of this "missing link"?

Unlike other sports, the concept of amended games involving teams in the same bubble does not translate quite as well with volleyball, at least not in terms of club volleyball in the north (though it should be noted that Sudbury might be the only high-school district in the province which hosted a fall boys volleyball season in 2020).

For the Chill squads, however, the OVA option of friendlies would require typically extensive travel south with a guarantee of only two games. Perhaps even more challenging is the fact that the bulk of Ontario Volleyball Association tournaments, events that number in the hundreds in a normal year, rely heavily on school gymnasiums serving as host facilities.

Given that almost all school venues across Ontario are closed to community usage, teams are left to practice - and practice, and practice some more.

"The lack of competition affects the cue reading, and a skill like learning to track a ball through the air is definitely impacted," said Root. "You just can't duplicate this as easily with modified drills, picking up the same cues off the same athletes."