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Lessons from the greatest: Vital Heynen on why volleyball matters

Published: 2021-02-21
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“Volleyball makes you a better person!”

This is how my interview with Vital Heynen, the head coach of the reigning Men’s world volleyball champions of Poland, finished. Not only do I totally agree with him, but I also cannot think of a clearer message to share with the SportsEdTV followers who are getting acquainted with the sport, or might be searching for new inspiration.

Yes, your life could be greatly enriched by volleyball in terms of posing challenges to you every day, helping you become a better player and teaching you how to collaborate effectively. Moreover, as Heynen says, “Learning to work together is vital in our today’s highly technologized society where we run the risk of losing real contact with each other”.

Heynen (51) has been one of the most famous coaches not only in Europe, but around the globe in the last 15 years. Currently, at the helm of Italian powerhouse Sir Safety Monini PERUGIA, Vital makes history wherever he goes. A former setter of the Belgian Noliko Maaseik, Heynen has been known for his character and impressive attitude on-and outside of the court. Always sincere, always leading the people around him towards new heights.

I won’t lie – I felt nervous about talking sports with one of the greatest. At the end of the interview, however, I was elated by the interaction with him. In an interesting conversation, Vital made me realize again the significant role of constantly changing and challenging yourself.

I hope that you, too, will take your lessons from this much anticipated interview. Indulge in reading about the development of the sport, the new concept of winning-losing, the importance of mental health etc. from the one and only – Vital Heynen

SportsEdTV: Thank you for accepting the invitation to talk to SportsEdTV and to share the knowledge. How are you?

Vital Heynen: Oh, this is a very special question. Most people will just tell you “I am OK”, and I never tell that because it is not true. 

As a coach, you always have so many things on your mind. Of course, everybody has, but people, who have to lead something, people who are busy with guiding others – oh, you have so many things going on! I have players here in Perugia, I have the Poland team. So, “How are you?” is an impossible question. However, today, I had a nice day. Only one training and one fitness session, and then I was busy preparing the games of next week.

SportsEdTV: Next week, the quarterfinals of the CEV Champions League take place. In the fourth round of the competition, the teams played robin-round tournaments in “bubble” format. How was this experience for you?

Vital Heynen: I think that we are already used to be separated from the normal society. I mean, we play every match like this; we train every day like this. You have to learn how to handle the situation and players need to accept that and adjust. I like the “bubble” system because travelling is limited.

SportsEdTV: We have been talking about Covid and sports for quite some time now. How did you adjust the training sessions during the first lockdown? What are the differences between March 2020, and the second lockdown, for example?

Vital Heynen: There is a huge difference between training during the first lockdown and during the second one. In the first lockdown, the competitions were shut down. I haven’t had online training sessions with my players, but of course, we stayed in contact. Now, during the second lockdown, the situation is different. We are allowed to train together, which is the biggest positive point. Yes, we have the red Covid zones in Italy; Perugia is in the “dark” red zone, and we are not allowed to go out except of going shopping or training. The normal life of a player or a coach is, anyway, more or less the same. You go to the training, you go back home, you rest, you go shopping, then - next training etc. From this perspective, Covid has the influence on the format we play the matches, but not on how we prepare and train.

SportsEdTV: Bringing you back to the beginning of your career, both as a player and as a coach, how did you start?

Vital Heynen: I come from a very small village in Belgium where there were only two sports to train – soccer or volleyball. As many other boys, I also started with soccer. I am not an easy coach, and I wasn’t an easy kid either. At the age of 12, I fought with the coach of the soccer team. I had a choice back then, I could give in. However, I never do that, so there was only one option left for me, and I switched to volleyball. When I started playing it, I never stopped until I was 35. I wasn’t planning to become a volleyball coach. In the last month of my player´s career, I was like “Ok, maybe I can do it for one year”. This is how it all started. Situations around you decide a lot about your life.

SportsEdTV: Was it an easy start for you in the coaching field?

Vital Heynen: I started as an assistant coach. It was terrible for me. I am not the assistant coach. I cannot shut up. I tried for 4 months doing that, tried to behave, but eventually I went to the club and asked them to fire me. This request resulted in me becoming the head coach.

SportsEdTV: But this must have implied a higher degree of responsibility, too?

Vital Heynen: I have always been the person who takes the responsibility. This is something that comes naturally to me, part of my character.

SportsEdTV: Can we conclude then that you were born with these leadership skills? In general, can we educate these leadership skills on the court?

Vital Heynen: Yes, you are born with it, but you can also learn a lot when developing.

SportsEdTV: Back in the time when you were a player, you were a setter. How and why did you choose this position? To kids, who start in volleyball now, being an outside hitter is much more appealing…

Vital Heynen: The same happened to me, too. From the age of 12 until 16, I was a spiker. One of the best in my age group. But then I went to play with adults and I saw that I cannot compete on that level. So, I decided to become a setter. That was my chance. It was more of an opportunistic behaviour.

SportsEdTV: So, there is no deadline for young volleyball players to choose their position?

Vital Heynen: I am now with Perugia, and here, I change the position of my players constantly. Changing roles on the court is something that you can always consider. Wilfredo León, for example, almost every second day starts with a 20-minutes setting training.

I don’t believe in fixing a player’s position too early. You need to give them the chance to see where they do their best. In my opinion, players have to be complete in terms of being able to do every aspect of the volleyball. Moreover, it is very interesting to change roles, to see what you can do. At the age of 16, you can think, “Ok, I am better in the middle”, and at 19, you can actually see that it fits you better in the outside. During your life, this is the only way to find knowledge. The only way to know is to try.

SportsEdTV: How do you prepare your trainings? Do you have some exercises that you know your players should mandatory do even if they don’t like them?

Vital Heynen: I never do the same exercise during the training. I try to never repeat exercises. In my first year of coaching, I was writing my trainings on a paper, and after the training, I was putting the paper in the garbage. Now, I work on IPad, and in theory, I could go back to the old trainings, but I never do that. Every day, 2 hours before the training itself, I start to prepare the practice session. I have a general concept of a training, I compose the exercises.But I don’t look back, I always look forward. I write what my goal for the day is, what I want to achieve during that exact training. From what I write down, I start making the exercises.

SportsEdTV: How important is it to keep the fun element in the trainings?

Vital Heynen: One thing I have learned is that you have to coach the way you are. Please coaches, don’t copy me! Find a system that works for you and your team. In my case, it is clear that I get my players to have a lot of fun. I never do warming up; we only do games in the beginning of the training. Sometimes it seems strange for the professional players but most of them like it.

SportsEdTV: The gamification factor in the beginning of the training is maybe a way to keep the fighting spirit alive.

Vital Heynen: 15 years ago, I pushed hard on gamification in trainings. I see many coaches are doing it now, too. Yes, my players are having fun, but at the same time, they are also running things. We learn by playing. Games are much more challenging than just repetitions. My players do not do repetitions, they do challenges.

SportsEdTV: What about your coaching system?

Vital Heynen: Sometimes, I try to analyze it but I don’t do it too much. It is very hard to always ask yourself, “What am I doing good?”; “What is the key element?”. I don’t know, but my starting position is that I like to change things all the time. Make things better, make myself better all the time. I have been doing this for 15 years; until now, not so bad. Maybe one day I will fail, but at least I would have tried doing it the way I am. I am the guy who changes every day.

SportsEdTV: How do you find the inspiration? It surely is not an easy task to come up with new ideas every day…

Vital Heynen: Creativity, also in volleyball, is not something that just happens out of nowhere. Creativity is work. I am all the time busy in my head with “How can I find new ways to do my job?”. I have a high level of curiosity. I love to read books, articles, what is going on. Eventually, all these things come together. The day you stop to learn, is the day you stop to live. Challenging yourself in life and in volleyball, in my case, is what makes the life beautiful. It is also very important not to forget that “The more I know, the less I know”. Years ago, I was convinced that this and this was working fine, now I doubt even that; and this is so nice because it opens many opportunities to discover new things and to develop.

SportsEdTV: You also challenge yourself a lot when you coach in different countries across Europe. You are currently coaching Poland, have been coach of team Germany and team Belgium; on a club level you have been also in Turkey. What is the role of adaptation in your profession?

Vital Heynen: I like to adapt. When I go somewhere, I like to learn about the culture of the place. If I go to Turkey, I read books about Turkey, I visit the Atatürk museum to understand how people where I will be coaching, think. In every country, people are reacting differently. I have no fixed system. When I start coaching in a new club, I never go with a whole staff. I always go alone; members of the staff are always local people. They teach me a lot on how volleyball in that exact country is working.

SportsEdTV: In your opinion, how has volleyball developed in the past years?

Vital Heynen:  It is hard for me to evaluate this because I never look back. However, I realised in the last years, that players are hitting harder, jumping higher, have better physical preparation and are overall stronger athletes. Physically, they are much better than 15 years ago. Before, 190 cm was considered tall enough, and then it was 197-198, now under 2 metres is too small. We do jumping tests, and I see guys jumping higher. We do hitting tests, I see guys hitting harder, faster. But we are all still busy with this physical evolution. Players from certain countries, like Cuba, for example, they have better genetics for volleyball and are better physically prepared. I think that in 20 years, we might have many more players in volleyball who have the same physical shape as NBA players, for example.

SportsEdTV: How have technologies helped in the volleyball training processes?

Vital Heynen: Technologies have changed our workflow in the halls. However, they did not make it easier. The problem that we have in our society – too much information, we have the same one in volleyball. 20 years ago, the challenge was to find the information. The challenge now is to select the best information from all the sources, and to bring it to the players. I don’t want to overload them with information. My task, as their coach, is to try making things easier. Technology can help you but the risk of it is that sometimes is too much.

SportsEdTV: From a more philosophical point of view, what do you believe is the role of losing and winning when aiming at becoming better?

Vital Heynen: Winning is not helping you to become better. Only losing is pushing players to think harder on how they can be better. If you are winning, it is hard to believe that you need to change. The challenge here is to always lose on the right moment. Everybody is losing, but you need to find the right moment to lose and to learn the lesson.

SportsEdTV: On the other hand, how do you motivate then a team that is always winning?

Vital Heynen: I never motivate players. I am busy with making them better. By making them better, the results come afterwards. Of course, the risk of winning a lot, is that you get more relaxed. It’s never a matter of motivation, they all want to win. Always.

SportsEdTV: How important is changing then?

Vital Heynen: If you only change when you are losing, it’s too late. I believe in changing a winning team, so you can try to be ahead. Winning is not enough. You have to be good; to perform good, winning is a consequence. Also when losing, if you play good, you keep going on. So, that’s what makes the difference and gives a new perspective in the concept of losing-winning.

SportsEdTV: How important is the balance between physical and mental health in volleyball, and what is the role of the coach from this aspect?

Vital Heynen: The mental health is the key point. I have never seen players that are physically strong, without being mentally strong. Interesting example is the one with an injured player. When they are injured, often they have some down moments. In other cases, you need to look at the general situation. If a player has an exam on Friday and misses training because of this, I am supportive of this, because it’s about their development. Children, wives, they are always invited to trainings and matches. This way players feel comfortable.

SporstEdTV: If I was just starting today with sports, why would you advise me to take up volleyball?

Vital Heynen: I strongly believe that for women in particular, volleyball will be the top sport in the future. I also believe in team sports and volleyball has it all. It’s the perfect way to get together – it’s not too much physical, there is not so much contact, and there is the satisfaction.

I always promote team sports because they help us to learn working together and be better. And this is something that we all have to do. In our society that is so technological, there is the real risk of losing real contact. So, basically, if you start with volleyball, volleyball will help you to become a better person, too.


Photo credit: CEV, legavolley.it, worldofvolley.com