A Look Back at the US Sports Envoy Program (Part 1)

Manila – Baguio – Manila 

by Eric Hodgson


Last year, USA Volleyball sent a couple of coaches over to the Philippine Islands for one week to work with some organizations looking to expand volleyball and its life lessons into their athletes, schools, and communities. For both coaches, it was a life changing experience.

So USAV went back, this year for TWO weeks. The focus for this excursion was to be more coach’s education, work with the deaf and hard of hearing and with persons with disabilities. Much of the trip was assembled by an amazing woman named Geraldine (Dina) Bernardo. You will learn more about her in an upcoming blog but the catalyst behind the team’s success and most of the opportunities rests with her.

picture1
Dina Bernardo on the right

The schedule, put together by the U.S. Embassy in Manila through the Sports Envoy program and their partners: SWEEP (Sport for Women’s Empowerment and Employment Program), Sport 4 Community, PADS (Philippine Accessible Disability Services Inc.) and USA Volleyball, was ambitious to say the least: sixteen different clinics in 14 straight days. The U.S. Embassy suggested in their press release of the two weeks that over 1000 athletes and 300 coaches were connected within three cities: Manila, Cebu and Baguio.

You hear great coaches talk about the journey. In this particular coaching pilgrimage, they would be 100% right. Much was to be overcome. Language barriers were leveled, discomfort replaced with peace. The barriers of a developing nation opening its arms to clinics with only outdoor venues, dictated daily by traffic in a city of 20 million people, the relationships of local administrations to the cause and weather: from the tropical heat and humidity to typhoon like rain and wind. In addition, a population of coaches who had scant previous training in coaching let alone volleyball and those traditions that had to be unwound and untied.

And so the journey began.

An orphanage the first day under a sweltering sun and 90%+ humidity took some skill training of the 20+ into a rousing game of 9-man volleyball so more kids could play. As was the case with every clinic session that the team does, the athletes were fed lunch or a snack after the clinic. These young people ranging in age of middle school to high school brought back memories of the previous year with a thank you song for the staff and then an impromptu dance party.

The staff worked with coaches in a township called Paranaque the next day. We talked about the science of motor programming and the use of cell phone video to help athletes find their form. The coaches tried their hand at organizing a practice and presenting it to their peers and they learned sitting volleyball as well. The appreciation of the coaches is palatable in everything they say and do. We forget sometimes all that we take for granted in our sport: proper equipment, volleyball balls and coaching options and education. These folks are limited in them all.

picture2
Day three took us to the Philippine School for the Deaf for a coaching clinic that began with a country wide earthquake emergency drill. The coaches bought into the ideas of using more science to teach the game and they responded with school administrators by trying both standing and sitting volleyball, enjoying the chance to compete against and with each other. After lunch, the kids came, lower and upper grades for two hours each and the coaches helped the team train their skills and hone their opportunities to play. In the end, these deaf and hard of hearing athletes put on a hip hop dancing presentation that had everyone cheering.

Early the next morning, the team crowded into a 7 person van loaded with t shirts and volleyballs and headed 5 hours north to Baguio in torrential rain. The four women in the van; Jen, Jaemie, Mildred (but she prefers Dred) and Bunny told of how they met as we drove. They had all been on the same college volleyball team and Jen and Jaemie had been on the same high school team too. Dina had been in touch with Jen to work for her and Jen brought them all along. It has been a good partnership for the past 4 years or so and they are affectionately known as the “Sweepers.” They take care of the organization, the translating, the registration and help run courts, keeping the humor and enthusiasm to pitched levels. They are unsung and just another example of young people to which this is NOT just a game! They relish the fact they change lives with each clinic they do.

picture3
The Sweepers: Jen, Bunny, Dred and Jaemie

Baguio is a city built for 30,000 that supports over 100,000. The city is built through the hills and with the different colors and architecture looks from a distance like legos. In 1990, over 1,600 people were killed when an earthquake leveled much of the city. Today, with the buildings on top of each other crawling up the mountain sides, it’s both beautiful but somewhat frightening to think about.

picture4
The team spent the morning setting up and the afternoon holding a coaching clinic. What started in the classroom finished on the court. These same coaches came back the next day to finish the clinic at a different Baguio school in the morning. At one point, the coaches were asked, after hearing the basics of the science of motor learning, to come up with a practice plan for their team. In every case, the coaches spent 20 minutes or more running and stretching. Again, this outdated concept was a tough sell to these coaches who have traditionally done this with every practice and every sport.

So we tried math; in their three month season, they had 6 hours of practice a week for a total of 72 hours of practice. If they ran and stretched for the 20 minutes, they were giving up 12 hours of their practice time WITHOUT touching a ball. The question to the coaches was simple: would you want to play a team that had 12 more hours of volleyball than you did in the same practice schedule? Slow nods and then grins told us we’d at least gotten them to think about this tradition more closely in the future.

At the end of the clinic that afternoon, a coach came up and asked us if we had any drills for 12 to 14 girls with just one ball. It’s all his school had. We worked on some ideas but in the end, slipped the coach a few pesos the next morning to buy some more balls. Such is life in Baguio.

It was this night that we met a most amazing woman. Her name is Adeline Dumapong. She is the first person to win a Paralympic medal in the history of the Philippines, in power lifting. She is an incredible woman, an even more amazing story and like Dina, will be a blog coming soon.

picture5
Jaemie and Adeline

As was the case with all of the athlete clinics the team ran over the two weeks, the expectation of 36 athletes climbed to well over 80 by the start, all on one cement court. With ropes in hand, the team put together more “nets” and had the boys and girls be “nets” as well, which they loved as did the coaches. While we might find that ‘cute’ here in the US, there is often no place to practice or put up a net in the places worked and this simple idea of making the kids the nets went over resoundingly well.

The next morning, Adeline had gathered several coaches, teachers and administrators who themselves were persons with disabilities and who taught, coached and worked in schools and facilities for kids with disabilities. Adeline was nervous as these leaders didn’t know there was a game called sitting volleyball and didn’t know how they would respond. The team helped several onto the court, out of their wheelchairs, and definitely out of their comfort zones. They learned sitting volleyball from the ground up, playing at first and getting a true love of the game right away. Soon, as we were wrapping up, they wanted to play more. For most, it was a chance to play, to compete at something; opportunities that they seemingly got very little of in Baguio. One coach drove two and a half hours on a motor bike in the pouring rain on a prosthetic leg just to attend this morning clinic. For these coaches, for this one morning, it wasn’t just a game.

As the team packed up, some of the girls from the clinic yesterday strolled in as they had a game a bit later. They began to play 3 on 3 with 3 girls as the net, something they had learned less than 24 hours before. The Sweepers piled into the van and the team headed the 5 hours back to Manila: tired but confidant of their fresh footprint in Baguio.

Watch the USAV in the Philippines video here:

(Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!)

Eric Hodgson has coached volleyball for the last 18 years and been working with the Arizona Region for the last 13. He was named the Director of Outreach in 2012. Eric is also the Coaching Education Director for the Region and started and ran the Region’s High Performance Program from 2001-2011. He is a CAP Cadre for USA Volleyball and the Grassroots Chairman of USAV.  From 1999-2004 he coached Club and High School volleyball and worked with Arizona State University. Eric works summers with Gold Medal Squared Volleyball clinics and has worked clinics in Canada, Sweden, and Germany the past two summers. He is currently a CAP III level instructor for USA Volleyball.