[ Robert Silverman ]
[ English Texts ]
[ Cybernetically, Bicycle Bob Xe-Dda.p ]
Love on the Court
Volleyball for All: A modest proposal

It was at the beginning of a 5-day workshop called "Meditation, yoga, and creation" held in the summer of 1992 in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, that I first discovered I was a volleyball master. Rick Jarow, the animator of the personal growth sessions, after having read an article on volleyball previously published in the Montreal bicyclist's rights quarterly tabloid, Le Monde à Bicyclette, co-authored by Genny Snider and myself, called me a volleyball master and asked the 18 workshop participants there to play that evening. Everyone was over 40. Most were women, some in their fifties and sixties. However, that evening, they all hit the ball and had pleasure.

I had always believed that volleyball, because of its special characteristics, was a recreational activity that could be enjoyed by everyone regardless of their age, skill, or physical condition. Canadian John Morgan, looking for a game for middle-aged members unable to easily play basketball - which he had invented earlier - invented volleyball at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA in 1895. He declared: "This sport is for the unfit and the fit ".; I was never fully able to test that hypothesis in practice, as the unfit often are afraid to begin or are quickly discouraged. That evening, seeing all these unathletic women enjoying batting the volleyball around at the workshop, convinced me that, given encouragement, everyone, at varying levels, could enjoy playing volleyball. That unforgettable experience that evening at that outdoor court in the Laurentians, after having participated in volleyball for over 20 years, showed me that the optimum approach to volleyball was - not sporting - but political, ideological, and emotional.

Volleyball: a Divine Activity

Above all, it's volleyball's universal accessibility that makes it such a magnificent group recreation. All that is needed is a net, a ball, and a little space.

On the subjective level, it shines: there is no body contact; women and men can play together easily; and it is an easy game to play and to understand. Of the five manoeuvres - serving, passing, bumping, and hitting the ball over the net - only bumping is a little difficult. The only weakness is that, at the net, taller people have an advantage. Volleyball is very democratic and, when played for fun, and not for competition, is non-specialized. Unique among team recreational-sporting activities, in volleyball, players constantly rotate both position and function. No player touches the ball more than another, regardless of skill. All 12 players on the court have equal opportunities to serve, receive the service, bumb, set, spike, and block, the plays of the game. Contrast this sharing of the active and less active plays among the 12 participants - six per side - with the unequaled activity of the pitcher in baseball and the underactivity of the goalie in hockey.

Like every human activity, volleyball can be played in different ways. Participants could conform to the dominant patterns in sport of elitism and competition. Elitism means here that only the best have a right to play. Competition is the idea that the chief goal of any activity is to win - in the case of volleyball, to get 15 point before the other side does. For me, these two elements comprise the 'ideology of sports coaches'.

I try to describe this reality in a poem...

Let's put the ball in the air
and while it whirls
regard it with love and care,
not the creed of personal gain
nor competition's ceaseless pain,
but the ideology of the other,
where every player
is sister and brother.

I conceived this poem while riding my bicycle and, later, distributed it to volleyball players with whom I regularly play. I started to recruit new players on the basis of their empathy for the ideology of the poem. Every week, our Thursday-night volleyball group plays more and more in the spirit of the 'ideology of the other'.

In concrete terms, what does this ideology mean? Stronger players would win a lot of consecutive points simply by using their powerful overhand serves. The teammates of stronger players can pretty much sit down and have a rest. The game, in such cases, devolves to a single player playing - not 12. Serving to win a point on the serve is clearly absurd; it negates the social, collective, and cooperative nature of the game. Most of the stronger players now understand this absurd and unjust situation and now serve underhand. The quality of the game has in no way deteriorated, for these players still smash hard at the net, but the efforts of the other eleven players contribute to the scoring of points. More attention is now given to serving as a means of beginning a rally rather than in an effort to quickly decide a point. Players are now more regularly getting the service in the court thus showing more respect for the other 11 players.

Volleyball: most enjoyable outdoors

In April 1974, on the advice of Patrick Hary, at that time technical director of the Quebec Volleyball Federation, I phoned a Montreal civil servant by the name of Verschelden in the Service des sports. I wanted him to help install volleyball courts in downtown Montreal.

Although 1974 was during the reign of Montreal's autocratic Mayor Jean Drapeau, Verschelden was very positive on the phone. He asked me one question: "Was the volleyball for adolescents or adults?" "For adults", I immediately replied. I was thinking of the volleyball affinity group I had been playing with over the previous two winters at a local community gym... "Good idea", Verschelden said. "Can we meet later today?" At 3 pm we met and he drove me around Jeanne Mance Park. At the southern extremity of the park was flat and barren unused space. "Let's install the courts here", he said. "I'll call you when everything is ready".

In May of that year, city workers began installing posts on the grounds. In late June, Verschelden phoned and asked me to pick up the nets and balls at his office. We started on the St. Jean-Baptiste weekend and have played volleyball there each summer since. We played that whole summer. We started out on Thursday evenings - moving our indoor game outdoors - and gradually expanded to seven days. Responsible players, like Terrence Regan and myself, would put up and take down the net each time. Everything is done on a voluntary basis; no one is paid.

Now we have four courts. The City permits us to store the nets and balls at an adjacent depot - to which many players have the keys - and so it is easier to install the nets. Women and men play together and the players vary in age from 18 to 70. We have had participants from over 110 countries. On some summer Sundays up to l00 people have come to play and people have to wait their turn to play as all four courts are in use. Everyone, regardless of whether their side wins or loses, must vacate the court after playing two successive games, for one turn, so that everyone has equal time on the courts.

Of course, there are problems. For a while we had the regular visit of Libyan airmen studying English at Montreal's Concordia University. They were very macho. They would only play with those who they thought were good players and they never passed the ball to women. I reacted with a poem, which I circulated. The Libyan airmen continued to play but the ambience on the courts subtly changed for the better.

I'm not a particularly good volleyball player. Although I virtually always get my serve in, and pass quite well, my relative shortness prevents me from spiking and blocking very well at the net. But good, cooperative volleyball cures my deepest depression and I return from the court high. My mind floats on air for several hours after the last ball has been passed.

Sometimes in a game, truly 6 or even 12 hearts beat as one. When the spirit is good and the convivial ideology mentioned above is in play, volleyball is a wonderful, even magical, thing. Long rallies concentrate and coordinate the spirit of cooperation. Good volleyball is like tantric sex: positioning, love, mutual respect, and cooperation fuse in a sacred interplay as the ball criss-crosses the net, is touched by all participants in an ever-changing graceful rhythmic harmony of souls.

Volleyball For All

Volleyball is particularly appropriate for people after retirement. This is particularly the case outdoors as the natural atmosphere of grass and trees contribute to a more relaxed and laid back ambiance. But it is best conceived as a social contract; an experiment and experience in human cooperation. We will have the time and leisure to partake in it. I assure you it is easy and seductive and volleyball, so conceived, grows on you as you explore its infinite possibilities the more you play. Volleyball can become a new metaphor for cooperation. All that you need is the will to begin and the effort to obtain the outdoor court(s). May cooperative volleyball grow in the parks, minds, and hearts of Canada.

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