• Gold Medal Squared

GMS in Finland

Lauri Hakala was kind enough to put together some thoughts about his volleyball experiences over the past few years. His story follows.

How GMS is Helping to Make Finland Great by Lauri Hakala

As you know, sometimes things, that you think could never happen, happen. I will now do my best with telling a true story of how the philosophy of Gold Medal Squared has managed to spread out to Finland and do great things.

It is also a story of where I played, got coached, started coaching, started a coaching blog, and somehow made it to the board of the Finnish volleyball federation… All within 2 years of time. I am very aware that just a little of all this is my credit, and that a big thank you belongs to you, my American friends… Let us begin:

I have always loved volleyball. I come from a small Finnish town, Pieksämäki. Volleyball is the biggest, and the only successful sport there. In the 1970’s and 80’s Pieksämäki won multiple Finnish championships, and also did well in the European cups. Many of the best Finnish volleyball players came from this town… And of course I wanted to play also.

Talking about ignition and talent hotbeds… It was an ideal place to grow up- volleyball omnipresent in everyday life, and some decent coaches and players around too. Ok, later on in life I would find out, that the coaches weren’t the best after all, but at least the environment was tons better than elsewhere in my country. Although I started playing volleyball at the age of 6, I was never very good. I never made it to the junior national teams, and barely made it to the highest league competition that Finland has to offer.

Besides volleyball I also had another passion: languages. After high school and after performing my military service I applied to the University of Hawai’i. Why UH? Well, not because I thought it was a good school, and not because I thought they had good coaches in the USA.

Nope, I just liked the idea of been in Hawaii, and of course the fact that I could play while getting a degree… Which degree, and which school, I didn’t care. United States was the best place to combine these two, and I would go there, preferably to Hawaii… I had met players who played there before and their stories were amazing.

The time on the islands changed my view on volleyball and life itself so much, that it first felt like being in a different world. I had played volleyball for 16 years, and was 22 when I realized I had never really thought about the true nature of the sport- At all.

Former BYU head coach Dr. Carl McGown was hired as a coaching consultant by UH during my 2nd year at UH, and I remember thinking that during the first 3 weeks with him I got better than I had become in the 3 years before that. The season started, Hawaii was playing GMS style volleyball, and we had a wonderful season… With the second best record in the program history.

Those were wonderful times, and even after Carl left Hawaii, we stayed in touch weekly. I would ask endless questions about volleyball, and would get just as many well-founded answers.

Already before college I had decided to play professionally when I was done with school… However, I had no idea where to go… But luckily before I had to make choices, I received an interesting email. It was from Carl, a bit surprisingly saying that he was going to coach a professional team in Switzerland the following season. Carl asked me if I wanted to play on his team…Well, I said YES, of course, and before I knew it, I was again getting better every day.

The year turned out to be fantastic, as we became national champions in Switzerland after an exciting final series. I watched a lot of video and started asking Carl about coaching more and more… Soon I was reading books on deliberate practice, motor learning, gamelike environment and the like. Although things had been going well, the year had taken its toll on my body… And I had to undergo both a shoulder and a knee surgery. I was out for almost a year, and many other players left the club too as Carl returned back home to Utah.

Although I couldn’t play for several months in fall 2008, it was unimaginable for me to leave volleyball… Luckily- or I should rather say unluckily, volleyball in Finland was not in a good state. In the pas we had had a pretty ok national team, and we had always had good players, but since we never had good coaching, we were only as good as one could expect… Beating an opponent here and there, but we could not teach players new techniques and could not keep our level up for very long. The situation with the national team had changed after the arrival of an Italian head coach, and they started beating some of the best vb teams out there, including Bulgaria, Poland, and even Brazil last summer.

Although I was very happy about the surprising success that my country was experiencing in volleyball, I was sad to see, that since the flagship was doing so well, no one realized the huge problems we were facing in coaching our young, developing clubs, and just simply getting kids to play the sport.

Our data showed that the numbers of active players, professional and recreational, were in a steep decline, and after traveling around the country I realized that it wasn’t all about playstation and fast food, that made people do less sports. It was the fact that hardly anyone actually GOT TO PLAY volleyball, no matter how much they wanted to.

Our coaching culture, as in many other countries too I m sure, was driven by tradition. And traditionally we played pepper and soccer forever, and hit balls off tables, and hardly ever actually played the game. The same went for kids, adults, pros, we were all doing ineffective things in the gym, and I couldn’t stand just watching that from the side.

The worst thing of all was this: Both of my younger brothers were poorly coached also. They were both pretty good athletes, but never got to play volleyball in practice, and both of them felt like they were starting to lose the love for the sport.

The younger of my two brothers, Juhani (18yrs at the time) still played on a junior team, so I took over their practice whenever I was at home… The coach didn’t mind, since he was a busy man, and I enjoyed getting to teach my brother new things. His team started getting better and better and in the spring they finished 3rd in the national championships.

I spent the fall 2008 between my home and coaching the junior team, and travelling further up north to see my middle brother Anssi (24 yrs at the time.) He played on a professional team, and although I couldn’t play with my arm yet, I attended one of their practices. What I saw was a typical display of mats, cones, and tables, and absolutely no volleyball going on. I went to talk to some people in the club and they looked at the opportunity of hiring another assistant coach. So when the opportunity came, I started coaching Anssi’s team too, and although I wasn’t the head coach, I got to run the practice like Carl did in Hawaii and Switzerland.

After playing half a season with a another Finnish team, in fall 2009 my shoulder felt tons better. Unfortunately my knee was still hurting and after yet another scope I found myself not playing again, doing rehab again, and hoping for the best. Although nothing interesting was happening with my playing career, the little bit of coaching I had done a year earlier had sparked up a storm. Anssi’s team had kept practicing like USA, and were ranked #1 in the Finnish league, with one of the shortest lineups and least expensive players. As for today, they have won the regular season championship, the cup, and are starting to play best of 7 series of the league championship also. They don’t have more money or better players, but they play GMS volleyball now. The improvement has been tremendous, and people can hardly believe that those guys got so much better in their mid 20s.

As I couldn’t play, I had time to work on another project that I had planned for almost a year. I had played abroad for several years, and every year I had written a volleyball journal about my experiences on the biggest Finnish volleyball website. I knew the head journalist of the sports section and I asked him: Could I write a blog on coaching instead of the journal? He is a good guy, and although he knew that the blog would probably get us both into some trouble, he agreed to publish whatever I wrote about volleyball. And I wrote about the same things that made USA men so great.

The fact that I started to question the facts behind our current coaching structures quickly made me the most hated player in the country. Although being hated by coaches, I was pretty popular among players.

After publishing the blog posts once a week for two months I received an interesting email. There was a guy who sat at the council of the national federation, and he asked me if I wanted to be nominated for the upcoming election for the board of directors. THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS?! I asked this gentleman if he was serious or just messing with me, and if he knew who he was asking to do what.

I told him upfront that I knew little of politics or economics. I just knew what it was like to be a player and what kind of principles we should have in place at practice. He answered, that for a decade no one in Finnish VB has had the guts to say what he thinks in public, and that my blog was the only thing that had attempted to change anything in the status quo.

Finally I thought: If I say no now, I’ll regret it later. I consoled in the fact that the worst thing that could happen wasn’t so bad at all. And sure enough, the council voted me in, half as a protest (since some of the other candidates had been on the board for years and done little) and half as a distant wish that maybe this young man would at least try.

I got one year, and in fall 2010 there would be another vote.

So, as of 1.1.2010 I am sitting on the board of directors in my national federation, and since 18.1.2010 I am the board representative in a committee that is in charge of coaching development. In March 2010 Hugh McCutcheon also gave a clinic in Finland, and we currently have some coaches who share an interest of making things better!

I am writing this in Belgium, where I played professionally this spring… Where my playing career takes me, I don’t know. But I do know, that I have a wonderful opportunity to help Finland produce better coaches and players in years to come.

A great Thanks goes to all of you at GMS and to Carl McGown in particular- for without him, absolutely none of this would be possible.