The club volleyball question

In 20+ years of coaching, I’ve been asked many questions about volleyball. Some technical, some position-specific, and some really challenging. But the most common ones asked are about joining a Club Volleyball program.

“What is club volleyball?”

“When should my athlete start?”

“Who is the best coach?”

“Which is the best club?”

I feel I never give a good answer to these questions. Not because there are no good answers, but because the answers are so dependent upon situation, Usually, there is just not enough information to give the best advice. In short, I don’t know enough about you. Being well into my third decade of coaching, you would think there is a standard “good recommendation”. There isn’t. Even though each question has been asked and answered a thousand times, I still am challenged each time. It bothers me, because as a coach my job is to provide answers and guidance.

So today I set out to arm you with some background information on why club questions are so hard, and why more information is needed to answer them well.

A Quick Note: Please don’t think I am tired of answering the question. I’m not. Rather, I am frustrated by my own inability to answer both quickly and well. I think asking questions is the biggest and most important thing in the world. It is literally how we move forward as individuals, as a culture, and as a community. So please don’t stop asking!

The most asked question

There are really dozens of variations on club volleyball questions, but they really all boil down to this main idea:

“Should my athlete play club, and is it worth it?”

And the easy, but unsatisfying, answer is….

It depends on your goals.

A bit of a letdown isn’t it? But black and white answers only work for easy questions. Determining whether club volleyball is right for your athlete, family, and financial situation is not an easy question. So, let’s start at the beginning and work up from there.


Most athletes first experience volleyball in the middle school years, usually between 8 and 12 years old. Typically, they discover it though PE, sign up for a recreational program, or discover a facility like Delta Athletics, and end up falling in love with the game. So the parents start looking for their athlete’s next opportunity, and they run into the local club programs. The club seems like the logical next step, but wow! Does the cost and commitment go way up!

Now if you were to ask a club coach if the price and commitment increase was worth it, what do you think they would tell you?

Well, contrary to popular belief, most of the club coaches I have met would not try to automatically sell you on a club team. They know the demand it can place on a family, and they will usually make sure you know what kind of commitment it will be before you write a check. (It turns out most coaches really do have the best interests of the athletes in mind!)

Why? because under 12 years old, club is typically not the most cost-effective way to play. It requires a high level of practice commitment, usually involves travel, and the teams your athlete will end up playing aren’t much better than the local recreational league. In fact, while most clubs will let kids younger than 12 join, they rarely have more than a single team in the under 12 age group.

But what may be left out of the conversation is this: “are you looking to join a club to play more, or to win more?” Because that is were people first encounter problems.

The mindset of clubs is typically focused upon “putting the best players on the court” and not necessarily “give everyone equal play time”. So when parents sign their kids up for club and see them on the bench at game time, it can be upsetting. Especially when the parents bought uniforms, the athlete attended a dozen practices, and everyone (including grandma!) traveled overnight to come see the game.

So, if your under-12 athlete can understand that winning may mean they have to sit the bench come game time, then go for it. If they just want to play, then rec ball or well-coached local training like Delta Athletics may be better.

Are you planning on playing in school?

In my local area, schools don’t really have formal teams until 7th grade. Because the transition from 6th to 7th grade is typically full of new experiences, many young athletes get excited about the idea of being on the school team. Then they head to tryouts expecting to make it, only to find there is way more people trying out than there are spots available. They get cut, and are too disappointed to try out the next year.

Another Note: Sadly, 70% of young female athletes drop out of their sport by age 13, often because they couldn’t secure a spot on their school team, their only avenue for play. Witnessing this firsthand with my children drove me to create Delta Athletics, to ensure a perpetual space for both learning and playing.

Well, what should an athlete or family do?

As a rule of thumb, I suggest if you want to have a good shot at making the team, for every grade level above 6th grade, you should have 6 months of outside volleyball experiences to be prepared for tryouts. That means minimum of 6 months of play before 7th grade tryouts, 18 months of play for Freshman tryouts, and 3 ½ years of play to make senior varsity.

How to gain 6 months of experience? There are few ways. You could attend three seasons of an 8-12 week recreation program, you could train with Delta over a season, you could join a club program, or you could do a hybrid of all of these options.

But here is where club ball starts to make sense. Because school volleyball is intense and competitive, club volleyball athletes and Delta athletes have an advantage when it comes to making the team. They are already are comfortable in competitive environments and will usually do better than athletes who have only played recreationally. They have usually been trained better, and it shows.

Are you planning on playing in college?

The only time I can unequivocally recommend playing club volleyball is when you can honestly say your athlete plans on playing in college. If you think your athlete has a shot at being the 1% of high school athletes that make it into the NCAA, then I would say you should begin playing club volleyball no later than 13 years old. Why? because you need to have the skills and experience necessary to attract a college recruiting coach by the time you are 16. Sadly, the first time many parents come to me to ask about recruiting is when their athlete is a senior in high school. By then, it’s usually too late (unless your daughter is 6’2” and can jump and grab the basketball rim).

Recruiting for volleyball is not like football. No one is coming to your high school game.

Instead, volleyball recruiters travel to the large national qualifier tournaments to see all the potential recruits in one place. Recruiters usually will spend a little time looking at the 14s for early standouts, spend more time watching the 15s to see if anyone has developed, and begin to make offers to the 16s as they learn what positions their team will be recruiting for in the next year. (yes, you should be having recruiting conversations at least 18 months before you graduate).

So, is club volleyball really that important?

Tough to answer. What is easy to answer is that good, well coached volleyball in a supportive environment is important. Most good clubs can provide that, but it will come with a price and a heavy time commitment. If you just want to use the game to learn something new, get some exercise, and have fun, look elsewhere. Club volleyball will seem expensive, demanding, and altogether too time consuming for you and your athlete.

However, if you are looking to develop your game into a varsity letter, a college scholarship, or beyond, then club can be a wonderfully rewarding experience.

Ultimately, I always like to remind parents what the true end goal is: building a better person. Developing a skill, overcoming obstacles, learning discipline, navigating competition and conflict are all life lessons we take away from sports.

So, my answer to the most common question I am asked, is asking a question in return:

“You know your athlete best, in what environment will they succeed?”

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