24. Marcello Abbondanza:"Even after being successful, what we do will change. And it will change again."
Marcello Abbondanza is an Italian coach with a boatload of experience coaching high level club teams in Italy, Azerbaijan, Poland, Turkey, both the Canadian and the Bulgarian national teams. Being known as one of the most successful coaches in female volleyball of the last decade.
Every year, between 2009 til 2018 Marcello reached the respective national championship finals with the teams that we has coaching. All this while coaching in 4 different countries, Italy, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Poland.
Currently Marcello is the head coach of THY Spor Kulübü in Turkey, THY just started their first European Champions League tournament and should be able to get a solid result.
Most of our European readers will know THY as the Turkish Airlines team, our US based and other readers will probably better know some of the players on Marcello' team, like Lauren Carlini, Madi (Kingdon) Rishel and Tetori Dixon.
In this Masterclass Marcello goes deeper into how he thinks about team composition, the lessons he learned along his coaching journey, how an apparent failure actually defined his entire coaching and family life and so much more.
This article is nearly 4000 words long and features 9 video clips with English subtitles. Enjoy.
Marcelo, why did you decide to commit to being a professional volleyball coach? What pushed you towards that decision?
Well that's a rather funny story. I came 'late' into volleyball, I didn't even know about it til I was 23 years old.
I was born in an Italian town called Cesenatico, which is located by the sea and I loved playing beach volleyball. I wanted to become better so at 23 years old I tried to join a local indoor volleyball team to craft my skill.
But of course, nobody would take a 23 years old guy without any previous indoor experience on his team.
At that time I was studying at the university in my 4th year of 'agraria' (environmental studies) and I found a lower level team that would let me train and play.
But being the person that I am, I decided to follow the 'national volleyball coaches course', I'm not the person that would believe anything that this coach would tell me, I wanted to know if all of it was true. 😀
A bit later I decided to leave my 'agrarian studies' and enter the 'Instituto dello Sport' and become a coach.
So my story really is that I wanted to become a good player and wanted to train in the best way possible.
Having these questions, this healthy curiosity, about my coaches' methodology I became a coach myself.
What advice would you give yourself as a starting coach? An advice that is so clear and logic for you now, but that you had to develop over the years.
That sometimes it's NOT important to know everything about volleyball. I probably had to be a little better at communicating to people.
Volleybrains: People? Players, your team, coaches?
Management, coaches, staff, with all of them. I should have been a little more open to dialogue in general, I only held on to my own opinions, my own beliefs.
Probably at that time, thinking back now, I was lucky to be able to get ahigh level coaching job at a relatively young age.
I started when I was 23 years old, but at 26 I was already the assistant coach at Ravenna, at 28 I won the first Italian championship as an assistant coach, at 31 I was already a head coach in the Serie A1.
So let's say I managed to grow very quickly through the minor league's.
Not being very communicative was also a form of protection, because I was so young, I had players of my own age on my team so that is probably why I did that.
But over the years I've realized that 'the dialogue' would help me in a lot of situations.
Another thing is that I thought the best medicine as a coach was to win and to train well.
But actually in the female world, I don't know about the male volleyball world, but in the female world it's not like that.
Sometimes it doesn't matter how great you are as a coach, but how well you sell yourself. That is something that stays a disillusion to me.
I believe that 'meritocracy' should be more recognized both at the level of the players, at the coaching level and at the executive level.
Instead I think there are still some dynamics whereby sometimes 'merit' takes the back seat. And that's a pity.
What are some personal goals where you aim for. Can be personal, on a team or club level, or all of those.
Honestly I still have many goals I want to reach.
The European Champions League trophy is one that til today I couldn't raise above my head.
With 3 different teams I had the chance to go to the last 4 in the Champions League and we arrived 2nd, 3th and 4th in the end...it looks like my destiny that the number 1 spot is around the corner. 😊
Like with many things in sports it's not only about having a great team, sometimes luck also plays a role there. We'll see.
That would be my first objective.
Another one would be to finally win the Italian Championship(the scudetto) as a head coach. We had lost 3 championship finals in a row with Villa Cortese...2 of them because of injury issues. But also that is part of our world.
Both goals aren't easily obtainable, but that's why they are goals, right.
I see myself doing the first one, the second one will probably never happen.
Do you have fixed team rules that you take with you to every club that you go? These can be technical/volleyball related or just organisational.
No the rules, in my opinion, the rules are the strength of the group. But the group must have the intelligence to interpret or understand them.
Most of the time, I don't even set rules. It depends on the group.
It's a matter of education in my opinion and of respect to your conditions to work and live in. So if I don't need to set rules, I don't. In the sense that we try to live together as best as we can.
But unfortunately, working with a large group can create issues, so every now and then rules need to be set.
Otherwise the independence of one person goes to compromise the freedom of another. So these things sometimes need to be discussed. We talk about it and then very often the solution is found.
When I still coached in Italy I did always set fixed rules. Now I talk and listen before setting rules, it's best to wait and see if things work out or not.
In the meantime, however, something needs to be said.
Then there are occasional situations not to name names...but if the game is over and people get drunk on the bus while driving home from an away game. Well, of course you'll need a rule about that. That's clear.
But it's not even supposed to get there. Things like that are considered to be part of normal intelligent behaviour.
But if they don't get it, I need to fix it and I'll become, as always, the one that's too strict, but that's part of the coaching life. 🙂
When preparing a new game (next weekend), how does your general approach look like and did you ever change your approach? Why did you change and was the outcome beneficial?
It changed, it changed. Everything has changed and everything will change again.
There is a continuous evolution that's part of our job as coaches.
What I was doing 5, 6 years ago, 8 years ago even though I won, it makes me sick to remember how I used to do and say some things. 🙂
So in my opinion everything changes because people change, the game changes, the needs change, everything changes.
You realize that some things have to be maybe seen in a different way.
Perhaps the basis, the attention to my job is more or less the same, in the sense of controlling and checking what's happening but what I communicate to my players, that has changed.
Also the people that work with me and the staff that I had have taught me a lot of things. Seeing things in a different way, you accept them, you enrich yourself and then you change accordingly.
I really enjoy preparing the games, to go really deep into the weeds of my data and video.
I used to be very maniacal, analyzing all the rotations, preparing every possible adaptation, what happens in this situation, if the ball comes at us from an angle, if the ball comes from another side.
But then you realize that all the requests or info you hand over to your players are not executed.
So you might want to explain maybe 2,3,4 main points keep 2, 3 for yourself and pull 1 or 2 of them out as a wild card at a certain situation in the game.
Like that you create a situation where everybody can execute the information that you have collected.
The future of volleyball, from a technical point of view, how will the game evolve according to your opinion?
Women's volleyball, in my opinion, is 10-12 years behind of men's volleyball,
we are now seeing in women's volleyball what we saw, let's say in 2002-2007 in men's volleyball.
I'm talking both about the technical and physical aspects of our game.
I think women's volleyball has always been like this.
And unfortunately, what I see is an impoverishment from a technical point of view in recent years. A quite heavy one actually.
To find technically well prepared players is getting harder and harder. Good receivers and great setters are hard to find. I hope there's a chance in the future to develop these great players once again.
We were talking about great players before and while mentioning all these names, well we weren't talking about any position 4 player. We're only talking about players that are very talented but extremely physical, not at all the most technical gifted players.
The last great technical player level that just hung up her shoes was 'la Picci' (Francesca Piccinini) and finding players of that type and level now is very, very hard to do.
How do you raise them?
As long as our clubs insist on paying 'due lire'(two cents) to our coaches that train our youth teams. It's going to be hard. They are actually the ones that are supposed to develop talent and there is no one who recognizes the 'profession' of these youth coaches.
Fortunately our federations still find some players. Fortunately some federations created decent programs.
Club Italia, for example is one, there are more than one. But the pool to choose players from became smaller.
All of these schools and clubs that we used to have, there are way less of them these days. So it's difficult from that point of view.
Furthermore we have to recognize the global crisis and the pandemic. In our current situation it's obvious that the funds for youth coaches won't be deployed very easily.
Best game you were ever part of. Very simple, what recent or game from the volleyball vaults did validate once more that volleyball is the greatest sport on the globe for you.
The last title that I won at Fenerbahce.
At mid season we were having a hard time. Eczacıbaşı had eliminated us from the European Champions League.
We played the semi final of the Turkish league against Eczacıbaşı in a best of 2 series with the golden set system.
(Volleybrains: As this isn't a global thing, the Golden set = you play a best of 2 series but the sets don't count, only the game W or L counts. If it's 1-1 in games, you play one set til 15 in the normal rally point system...winner takes all)
We had lost 3-0 and were 1-0 down in the first set of the second match. We end up winning the match 1-3. So we had to play the golden set.
In the golden set we were down 7-13 and won 16-14 in the end. It was 5 minutes of PERFECT volleyball while having the best players in the world on court.
After winning in that manner we played the final of the league and won 3 consecutive games with a 3-0 result.
I know that that entire situation will stay very special to everybody that was part of it.
Next clip starts at Fenerbahce being down 10-14 against Eczacıbaşı.
Talking about these games with world class players. What kind of characteristics does a player on your team need to have?
For me first of all the character.
Especially in the female volleyball world sometimes it's better to contract a player that's a little less brilliant, but somebody that is way more ready for the team or stronger mentally.
The character is the first thing that I look at.
Logically, I like the players that give balance to the team, so I'm a fan of great receivers and great offensive players.
But when it comes down to it, I prefer to have balance, a great position 4 gives me balance.
I like the concept of balance.
Having said that and talking about team composition. What are important traits that you look for there?
The setter, in my opinion, is the player who, as we all know, is the one that completely determines your team and your game.
The most important trait of a setter is to enable your team to have the best performance possible.
This is enabled because they're great at distribution (setting the right player at the right time) or/ and preferably with a high quality of the set itself.
The setter is the one who needs to raise the level of the team.
There are a lot of players now, that I would prefer to call 'distributors' instead of setters, they have the right amount of physicality, but they lack the quality needed in our game. The setter role is, still, the role that fascinates me the most.
Then logically you must have people who score the points.
It could be the opposite and in the women's game we have a lot of great opposites, but I prefer position 4's who are stronger in attack, while trying not to have a detrimental outcome in reception.
Middles...Of course they're always the 'poor ones' completely sacrificed because they are dependent on everything else. But the first feature for a middle must be the block.
And to this day if I must tell you the two roles that right now will have you make the biggest leap in quality, that's your setter and your libero.
If you can make the strongest 'starting six' in the world. What would your team look like?
My strongest starting 6 in the world, at the setter position it's a difficult choice between Lo Bianco and Kirilova.
The opposite. We have 2 great opposites like Egonu and Boskovic, you won't find others at their level. Let's put Paola (Egonu) because she's Italian.
Position 4, Kim Yeon(-koung). After having trained Kim I strongly belief that she is one of the most strongest outside hitters I've ever seen and I also put up Mireya Luis.
In the middle there have been many players but Gaby Perez del Solar would be my choice there. I had the good fortune to work with her in Bergamo. She really was a great player.
Libero, I worked with Brenda Castillo and Paola Cardullo, so you know I can say that that went flawless. :-)
Different players but I'll probably take Brenda because she's a more creative player, Paola is a controlled machine, Brenda is more chaos and fantasy.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to every athlete on the globe — what would it say and why?
I don't know what I can recommend because the truth is that everything changes all the time, every generation is different the generation we have now if we compare them with the one from 15 years ago, they want completely different things.
But if you wanna become a great player right now...
And this Italian expression works great for this, 'ti devi fare un culo COSI!!'
'You need to work your ass off' and be silent, work, work, work, work and suffer, suffer, suffer. The end.
Then it will come. Everything will happen if you do that.
As a coach do you have some unusual habits, a superstition or an absurd thing that you do a lot?
I did, well I used to have them.
But fortunately I realized that it's all a huge waste of time. You know the socks, the underwear, all of that stuff. 🙂
Right now, the only thing I do and it's part of my 'getting into the game' habit...
What I do is, before every game, I shave my head to 'ZERO'. I think about the game, I prepare mentally and after that I'm 'game ready'. 😉
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
My biggest failure was never winning the Scudetto(national championship) in Italy.
Like with every failure you should be able analyze it and you'll find your own explanations for your own specific situation.
But at the same time, I'm very thankful to have never won the Scudetto in Italy.
I probably never would have found the strength to drop everything and go abroad. These opportunities enriched and changed my life completely, both as a coach and as a human being.
I've been to many countries since I've left Italy. I met my wife and we have two beautiful children, we live in Istanbul.
What I've seen and experienced in Canada, Poland, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Turkey are things that probably if I've had won the 'scudetto' I would have never seen.
It would have limited my career, my world view, my view on life.
Confrontation is the thing that makes you grow.
Another failure was this one. I was without a team after my second year at Jesi.
I was about to sign a contract in Spain at Icaro Palma de Mallorca and because of the crisis of 2007 2008, that opportunity disappeared and I found myself without a team.
I had broke the contract in Jesi because I was close to sign and everything...at the last moment, everything fell apart.
And at that moment there, I asked permission to go to Angelo.
I went a month and a half to see the training sessions of Angelo Lorenzetti at Piacenza and that changed my entire way of looking at things, certain team dynamics, technical stuff, ...
Angelo is a phenomenon that is clear.
So just the fact of wanting to see things and opening yourself up to see other situations. These are the things that make you grow.
(Below you can find the full game video of last month's 3-0 win of THY against Fenerbahce)
What is one of your most worthwhile investment that you’ve ever made?
I created a beach volley club, which a friend of my took over. It's called "Beach Volley University" and it's located in my home town of Cesenatico.
We had a few international level beach volley players coming out of our club. You know that beach volley was my first passion, I'm proud of that.
Over the years we supported 4-500 players at the amateur level, also from a social point of view and developing a good amount of coaches it is and was a great investment of time...not in terms of financials, but that's something else.
For many years I attempted to get a Serie A1 team in my town also. It didn't happen yet, maybe we can make that happen in the future.
In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
A very easy one, since the last couple of years we have our kids. And my work life changed, no more watching game tape during the evening...but crashing in the sofa and watching movies together or doing some other stuff.
I wake up early to do all my work. When I'm with them, I not watching anything, I don't pick up my phone, no volleyball is allowed. 😊
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
I go to the sea, I shut my phone off, listen to the sound of the water and enjoy walking on the sand.
Like that I rejuvenate myself.
One of the advantages of coaching in Istanbul is that we have 5 different sea's over here. So I'll always find a good spot. 😀
Thank you, Marcello.