The King is Dead….Long Live the King!!!

Question: Why are Greek Volleyball Coaches like the number 57 bus?

Answer: Because you wait and wait and wait, and then two come along at the same time!

Followers of Polonia Volleyball Club, will be aware of the recent successes that the men’s team has rejoiced in: this has been through no small efforts of Vangelis Koutouleas, the most experienced ex-player and coach to find himself in English volleyball. As the story goes, I spent about three hours discussing World and English volleyball with him about two years ago, when I was struggling to get the results that I felt that the men’s team warranted. Immediate success followed, with Polonia reaching the final of the KO cup, ironically once again at Crystal palace, only to be defeated by Malory. The following year, the team went from strength to strength, winning the inaugural Super 8 competition where each one of the top three clubs were defeated at the hands of Vangelis or “Yoda” as he became known to some of us.. Vangelis is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and found it hard to hide his disappointment at the standard of some aspects of volleyball in this country. He was frequently to be found, regardless of the outcome of the match, explaining certain aspects of volleyball rules to the match referees. Usually they listened and sometimes they even took his advice on board.

At the start of the season Vangelis announced he may not be able to complete the 2011-2012 season with Polonia due to his work on the beach. To cut a long story short, and sometimes his stories were VERY long indeed, Vangelis coached his final match recently and following a rather loud party that involved a fair amount of celebrations and a significant amount of plate smashing, departed for his native Greece to meet up with Tom Lord and Robin Miedzybrodzki to compete for a place in the 2012 Olympics in London. According to recent Facebook postings, they are soon to depart for a training camp in Brazil. Polonia VC wish him and his players all the luck in the world and look forward to seeing him as he returns to London over the next few months: he made a huge impact on players, made many friends andwho knew him were lucky to have had the chance.

So what now? How do we follow on from the leadership of a man who had such accolades? Well at the start of the season, he brought along with him somebody he had met in Greece, but someone who didn’t really get to know until they bumped into each other in London: Babis (actually that is the short version of his name: his full name is too long to write here) Mamas. During the first few sessions, Babis stood quietly and watched; nobody really knew who he was as Vangelis introduced him as a “coaching colleague from home”. As the weeks went on, Babis took sections of training and even stepped in when Vangelis was unavailable. Eventually he took over full time and now is the Head Coach of the men’s team. Babis has an incredible insight of the game, quickly able to analyse opposition and to pinpoint strengths, weaknesses and winning strategies. He is a fan of video analysis and enjoys analysing matches statistically. He runs physically demanding sessions and does not suffer fools; players have noticeably stepped up a gear in training since he has taken over as there is a new coach to impress. The set up that existed under Vangelis’s reign was already successful, but he has stamped his own methods and ideas onto the team as a whole.

Having grown up in the sport of Track and Field, Babis represented Cyprus and Greece in Long Jump and Triple Jump at under 18 and under 21, but was dragged along to an under 16 volleyball session by a friend and was instantly bitten by the bug. Within two years, as well as training hard at athletics, he was playing for the under 16 and later for the men’s team in the Athens Premier League: no mean feat for such a young player! His highest playing level was at A2, but unfulfilled ambitions caused him to focus on his Track and Field career. Despite immersing himself totally into track and field, the nagging memories of his successes on the volleyball court were still there and he changed focus once more, about 10 years ago. Back he went to Athens and to the Premier division once again. His talents as a coach started to surface and he was soon offered the position of Head Coach at Panathanaikos Juniors, which he accepted despite only having 6 boys in his roster! Within two years, his infectious personality and knowledge of the game had drawn in a good squad of players and they reached the final of their age group.

His next coaching move was back to his “first love” Panionios Volleyball Club where he accepted the role of Men’s Coach and despite his team having an average age of only 22, made it through to the playoffs and gained promotion to the B National League. In that team, Babis was proud to have coached a former Russian International Vladimir Lapiriof, and so Babis spent the next two seasons with Panionios and Gerakas volleyball teams. Sadly the current financial problems in Greece hit an all time low and he made the decision to seek fame and fortune in London, so he wrapped up his spinach pie and his dominoes into a knotted handkerchief and found Polonia!

He lists Maradona, Messi, Vlad Grbic, Giba and Obradovic ( the top Greek basketball coach) as some of his most admired sporting personalities and when not in a tracksuit inspiring Polonia, enjoys theatre and walking in London taking it all in. His coaching philosophy is along a continuum: to take individuals and to turn them into athletes and then into players and then to integrate everyone into a winning unit. The role of the best coaches is to create a winning mindset where the best aspects of each player are integrated into a team ethos and ultimately victory.

Babis is fully aware of the situations that players face in English volleyball (family and work commitments) and despite these circumstances sees some very good quality among players in this country. He feels that one of the biggest hurdles that English Volleyball faces is funding: once that is overcome, then performance will increase rapidly and teams in England will be able to compete against others from Europe on a level field. If the youth development that is regularly talked about across the country actually materialises, it is only a matter of time before the standard of the sport increases.

Polonia men and women are very lucky to have another Greek coach with such knowledge working with the squads. His aims for the season are to go one step further than last year; winning not only the Super 8 again but also the KO Cup Final.