What Can Be Learned from The Howling Bear?

“Be curious, not judgemental” -Walt Whitman

Nikolay Karpol, former coach of the Russian (Soviet Union) women’s volleyball team won five medals (two gold, three silver) at the Olympic Games, along with multiple gold medals at the World Championships. Despite this success on the court, Karpol created more notoriety for his demeanor in timeouts. Karpol earned the nickname of the “Howling Bear.” A moniker well deserved. However, what the public witnesses is not always an accurate picture. Karpol is a Hall of Fame coach that changed the way the game was played in the Soviet Union

Recently, I re-read his biography written by Tomislav Birtic titled Karpol: Lunatics-That’s What I Need. It is a book penned in Russian translated into English. At times the translation is rough, but there is no problem with following the ideas.

As coaches, we can always learn from other coaches. It is a mistake to assume that Karpol was merely a screaming crazy guy on the sidelines. I thought there would be value to transcribe Karpol’s approach to the game and player development. Then extrapolate to the approach taken to the sport in our country. (I’ve taken the liberty to paraphrase some of the sentences).

“It is difficult to make a good team by taking players from different clubs. They arrive with a variety of conceptions of how to play volleyball. I play my form of volleyball. I organize and train the game in my way.” 

Karpol was somewhat a rebel inside the Soviet system. He had strong beliefs about how to train his players and the best style to play. His approach ran contrary to the Soviet model that was in place. Karpol’s approach was to take tall players at a young age and develop their skills and athleticism. The players would stay with him during the teenage years so there was a consistency of methods and instruction.

It would be refreshing for club coaches in our country to take pride in developing players inside their systems from a young age. It might reduce the desire to recruit players from other clubs and throw them together in a random fashion. This would mandate a coach with a vision of how to develop players best. In my eyes, there are coaches; then, there are collectors of talent. Players and parents must understand they will advance faster if they stay with a quality program as opposed to bouncing from program to program on an annual basis looking for magic.

Lunatics-That is what I need. I need self-confident women who will not admit to any higher authority than themselves.

Karpol does not use the term “lunatics” in the pejorative. He wants confident, goal-oriented players that love the game.

Get young players working with older players as soon as possible. At age 13, a child playing with adults will learn in two weeks what would take a year playing with her peers.

This concept is discouraged in our country. There is a focus on winning medals and being the best player in a small world. With increased age divisions there are more medals to be won. I heard once a great quote by the University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. He told a prospect, “if you’re the best player in the gym, you’re in the wrong gym.” To have players face constant challenges by an older opponent, will only expedite the learning process. For clubs to train in groups based on ability and potential and not age would help the young players immensely.

“The most important criterion for identifying players is height. Followed by mental stability, then speed, and coordination. We can assist players in growing taller by changing climates.” 

I’m not sure if there is a scientific study that will back up his claim to be able to have young players grow taller by changing climates. However, I’ve seen some pretty tall players coming out of Minnesota!! Karpol felt that training in cold weather climates was positive for physical development.

Understand that he would not take a player at an older age merely because they were tall. He would identify these players at ages 8-10, then work with them to develop the speed and coordination components. He wanted all the physical components (running, jumping, agility, etc.) for younger players developed in a game atmosphere: not volleyball games, but movement games and activities.

Karpol focused his physical training program on running hills, calisthenics, acrobatics, and dance. Karpol was a fan of bodyweight exercises, as opposed to heavy lifting of barbells. Lots of gymnastics and running. He especially liked the movements of fencers. He developed his practice routine from ballet dancers. He noticed the ballet dancers would work on technique in the morning when they were fresh. Then they would practice their entire program in the afternoon. He replicated this with his volleyball team. He would work on skill development in the morning, then teamwork in the afternoons.  

Former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino did the same thing with his players during the season. He would work with players individually for 60 minutes in the morning, then a shorter team practice (90 minutes) in the afternoon.

“When you build habits, how do you break a stone? Do you use dynamite to blow up the stone and have the pieces go everywhere, or do you change the habit, very slowly, drop by drop?”

Changing how a player performs a skill is a long, slow process. Be patient and trust the method. Often, the gradual, systematic improvement is a challenge for players and parents to understand.  This mandates an increased level of communication. Some coaches will not put in the time to develop a player; they will just run out to recruit another player.

“I begin matches not intending to substitute any of the players. I only substitute if the match is not going well. Maybe someone will say that it is too ambitious to want to play every match with only six players. But who can substitute for a marathon runner? Who can take over from a tennis player? I expect my girls to keep going.” 

Implementing this concept is a challenge. Nowadays, the pressure is on the coach for everyone to play despite circumstances. It is too easy for players to leave the club or university.  There is a benefit for the player to work their way out of challenging situations. So, the coach must balance what is best for the top players with playing time for those on the bench—a challenge.

The biography of Nikolay Karpol was thought-provoking. The player development systems between the USA and the Soviet Union were and are different. However, Karpol’s thoughts on player development were intriguing. Could Karpol’s style of coaching work in this day and age? Who can say? You cannot argue with his success at the highest level.