Great Teams Tap the Unique Talent of Each Individual
"Only the Japanese can play like the Japanese."
If Gold Is Our Destiny, my book about the 1984 U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball team and their quest for a gold medal, launches on July 13th. The following is an excerpt about the origins of the “American Style,” an innovative approach to volleyball pioneered by the 1984 team that is still widely practiced by the best teams in the world today. Although these events played out in the world of volleyball, what this team did is essential for all organizations that seek excellence – they figured out how to bring together the unique talents and gifts of each individual, and develop a strategy that allowed the team to reach its full potential.
In the years leading up to the 1984 Olympics, volleyball coaches all over the world had been playing “follow the leader,” adopting the style of play of whichever team was successful at the time. In the 1960s, Japan had been the dominant volleyball team, deploying a strategy that was uniquely Japanese and played to the strengths of that culture. Yasutaka Matsudaira, the coach of Japan’s gold-medal- winning 1972 team, designed an offense that used precise ball control and quickness to defeat teams with more height and power. The Japanese coaches made no effort to conceal their philosophy or training techniques. They even made beautifully produced films that explained their approach and strategy, which other teams studied religiously. But importing the Japanese system into America wasn’t going to be easy.
Head coach Doug Beal talking with Steve Timmons, left, and Craig Buck, right, during a break in the action at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Paul Sunderland is on the far right. © PHOTO BY BRUCE HAZELTON
“When you look at Japan, the players all do everything the same way,” said Bill Neville, the assistant coach to the U.S men’s national team at that time. “But our team, everyone had their own approach and there were different techniques.”
The Japanese system was also predicated on the players’ individual deference and behavior. “The players would bow to their coaches,” said Neville. Dusty Dvorak, the highly talented yet head-strong setter for the Americans wasn’t going to bow to head coach Doug Beal, and many of the other players weren’t either. Neville knew it wouldn’t work.
Later, when the Soviet style of play became dominant in the 1970s and early 1980s, it became popular to copy their philosophy and approach. After one series of matches between the Americans and the Soviets in the 1970s, Doug Beal and another coach from that era, Carl McGown, met with the Soviet coach to pick his brain.
“Yuri Chesnekov, the Soviet coach, was a father figure to us,” Beal wrote in his memoir. “McGown and I went to his room after the matches, and he acted like he was teaching his son how to drive. He scattered diagrams and charts all over the room for us.”
Chesnekov, in his broken English, told them they were doing it all wrong. “The guy felt sorry for us,” said Beal.
As the American coaches studied the Soviets, they realized the Soviet scheme was predicated on the fact that the Russians were all big, tall, and powerful. As Beal and Neville looked around the gym at the talented young generation of American players, they didn’t see many overpowering Russian-type athletes, and neither did they see a squad of smaller, quicker players adept at the kind of precision play favored by the Japanese. They saw gifted, nimble athletes, most of whom had fallen in love with the game on the beach without the benefit of formal coaching. There was no consistent approach shared by all the American players; each had developed their own unique style. The Soviet system wasn’t going to work either.
The answer they were looking for came from a conversation Neville had with Japanese coach Matsudaira. Asked why he freely shared the secrets of their success, Matsudaira, like a Zen master, smiled and laughed.
“Only the Japanese can play like the Japanese,” he said.
His message was clear. If you tried to copy the Japanese at their game, it would be just that—a copy. So, too, with the Russian style. Matsudaira even provided an analogy to further enlighten Neville. “He compared it to making a copy on a Xerox machine,” said Neville, “where the outcome degrades with each new generation.”
The solution was obvious. The Americans would need to discover their own style of play, one that took advantage of the diversity of backgrounds of all members of the team, because no single style of play was common among all the American players. Every college program was different, and the players had come to the game from both YMCA gyms and the beaches of California. Somehow, they needed to develop a style that allowed the mostly Southern California players to leverage their beach volleyball roots and play to their strengths but still took advantage of the discipline of players without beach backgrounds.
That, of course, was easier said than done.
You are invited to the virtual launch party on Wednesday July 13th from 10 AM - 11AM PT (1PM - 2PM ET). Joining me from the 1984 gold medal winning USA volleyball team will be assistant coach Bill Neville and player Aldis Berzins.
Sean Murray is the founder of RealTime Performance, a leadership development firm based in Seattle, WA, and the author of If Gold Is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory.
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